Noctilucent Dreams

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Image: Ruslan Merzlyakov August 7, 2016  Road E4, Umeå, Sweden | space weather.com

Those blue critters in the image above are known as noctilucent clouds, and while rare they’re becoming more prevalent. The image below is kind of meaningful, once you understand the significance of these things.

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At any rate, food for thought, and they sure are pretty to look at.

Later

Aa

Old Friends

Most of you are aware I’m into music. Off and on, sometimes seriously so. Music has been the ballast I carry along on the journey, the load kept near the middle of things, that helps keep me centered – during good times, and, well, the not so good times. The past few months have been firmly in the not so good column, so I’ve been plugged in, listening…a lot…as I drive along.

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I had to visit the eye doctor again this week for more fun and games, and made the four hour drive down to Denver in blissful sunshine. It’s been in the 70s here on my mountain for weeks now, and with zero snow that gets a little troublesome for folks living in the Rockies. A lot of people’s livelihoods depend on snow, and places like Phoenix and Southern California depend on our snowpack for next Spring’s water. Our snow deficit is already something like 40 inches, so while it’s pleasant to drive on smooth, dry roads, that comes with a cost.

But life is kind of like that, at times. You know, kind of “be careful what you ask for…”

Making the drive home the day after, things had changed. The photo above was taken on that drive, through the windshield on Interstate 70 just west of the Eisenhower tunnel exit, maybe 60 miles west of Denver. I exited the tunnel in time to brake for these three ’18-wheelers’ and watched them spin off the road.  Once stopped I took this picture, looking out the front – ignoring the 18-wheeler sliding towards the rear of my F150. Still had my seatbelt on, luckily, but the resulting impact felt like Tommy was off playing Pinball Wizard once again, as I got knocked around pretty good.

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Turned out the whole scene was kind of like Fantasia, with those gayly twirling pink hippopotami swinging by in merry dance, except these behemoths were fully loaded, multi-ton trailer loads waltzing by, and soon a caravan of paramedics roared by, to an ancient Oldsmobile laying on its top, crushed, in the ditch just ahead. Three people inside, or so I heard later, were dead. All in the blink of an eye. My four hour drive stretched out to almost eight, and I got home well and truly tired, but well and truly alive. Grateful, yes, but saddened, because such sudden death is always an unwelcome reminder of how fragile life is.

Still, all this isn’t what I wanted to share right now…it’s just context. Actually, it was the night before that proved more meaningful to me, for a little while, anyway.

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Those who’ve been reading along with me over the years know about my boats, all named Awaken. All named after the 1977 song by that name, by the kids who play music together in a group known off and on as Yes. Well, they’re playing again, playing under their own names as Anderson Rabin and Wakeman. That’s Jon Anderson, Yes’ long time songwriter/vocalist,  Trevor Rabin (wrote Owner of a Lonely Heart and who has been scoring movies of late), as well as Rick Wakeman, the immortal keyboard magician. That’s them above, Trevor on the left, Rick on the right, Jon as always front and center, leading the way. They started to tour together a few weeks back, yet I’m not going to write a review (others have done far better than I)  or go on about this song or that.

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The evening was magic, however, and in so many unexpected ways. Some I think are worth passing along, too.

Before the ‘curtain went up’ – while sitting in Denver’s old Paramount Theatre – Erica and I were chatting about all things 1970 and I mentioned my first Yes concert, back in ’71, and where I’d seen them. And then the guy in front of me turned and looked at me: “I was there too…” and we were off to the races, talking about a night now almost 50 years gone, and it came to pass that he, like I, had been to a Yes performance in every decade since. That’s five decades, in case you were wondering. I’ve seen them in Texas, California, Boston, Massachusetts – and London, Amsterdam, and Zurich, Switzerland, yet to me it’s always been about Jon Anderson. His voice, his voice singing Awaken. And it is for a lot of us, too, and by the time I realized that a lot of us were talking about just that, a community of Yes gathering in the night. Sharing memories created by this music.

The concert was raucous, as you might imagine, until we came to Awaken, until Jon took us to the heart of our sunrise, yet it was the subdued energy of the moment that felt more than a little surreal. The lights went down to cobalt and shadows grew deep as Wakeman danced over the keys again, and then there was that voice…High vibration go on…oh to the sun…

The audience grew totally silent, and the impression I had just then was that Anderson was leading us in prayer. His prayer. The prayer he wrote about the timelessness of life among the stars, and how Love shines as the brightest star of all. How it always comes down to Love. Fans old and new sat in total silence, absorbing his words, absorbing Yes, and there was wild magic in that coming together. A kind of transcendent magic. Pure music, Yes music, but something quite beyond all that, too.

Jon’s never been overtly political, not like so many musicians today, and I think that’s because his message is far simpler than what most politicians would care to articulate. Someone up front asked him about Trump, I think asking what it all meant, but Jon was characteristically Jon just then.

He leaned back, I guess talking with the stars, then he looked at the fella and said: “Surround yourself with love.” You have to step back and think about that for a while, let it sink in.

‘Yes. I get that.’

There’s poetry in his music, or music in his poetry, but again, there’s so much more – but perhaps all that’s best left unsaid. His words are better than mine, and they’re worth listening to, worth reading in their own time and space.

Looking back on things as I left Denver, I was thinking about Yes and the aftermath of the 60s. How they led us from Newspaper Taxis and Cellophane Flowers to their own Heart of the Sunrise, and from there to Awaken, and I think, at least for me, anyway, they helped make sense of the wreckage left by the 60s. Left us with the idea that All You Need Is Love wasn’t just a hopeless mess of tangled, war-torn emotion. Love is an Anthem Generator, and they’re still singing that prayer for anyone who cares to drop by and have a listen.

The guys are getting old now, but oh, that magic. They were like old friends up there on stage, friends from so long ago, yet for a few hours we were all together again, back then, alive in the turbulent fallout of the 60s, thinking about our world – about life – with all the limitless possibility of youth surrounding us.

It wasn’t so long ago, was it? Or so far away?

Is Love strong enough, we wondered? For what lies ahead? Waiting for us out there, in the shadow of the valley?

It’s snowing now, the winter of our discontent and all that is upon us once again. But life goes on, doesn’t it?

Yes. That’s the point. Yes. Awaken in your heart. Yes.

Thanks, Jon, Trevor, Rick. For being there again. For telling it like it is, for reminding us how good and true it all was. A lot of people needed to hear that. One more time.

+++++

So, their tour is headed out west now, and to Europe in March. Beyond that?

I’ll be writing, and making some music of my own as the day comes.

Dream on, to the heart of the sunrise.

Because that’s where Yes is, you know…out there in our dreams.

Thanks for coming along.

 

BlackWatch

This story first appeared on LIT in 2009, titled then as The Man From God Only Knows. My very first attempt at constructing a dystopian world within the SciFi genre, I thought it had a few points to make, maybe even a few relevant themes to consider. Well, a few of those points resonate more now than they did a few years back, and I thought it time for another visit.

The basic framework remains but the story goes off on a few new tangents, so I think it’s worth a read again. This is about 63 or so pages, typed out on the screen, anyway. I trimmed a lot of fat from the narrative, about 15 pages overall, so it should read a little “tighter” than before.

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+++++

BlackWatch

Come away, come away, death, 

And in sad cypress let me be laid. 

Fly away, fly away, breath; 

I am slain by a fair cruel maid. 

My shroud of white, stuck all with yew, 

O, prepare it! 

My part of death, no one so true 

Did share it.

 William Shakespeare  Twelfth Night

+++++

Prelude: What has gone before

In the immediate prelude to the First Secession War, politicians from both parties in the United States turned away from long held positions of prosecuting wars against terrorists and their fellow travelers. Collapsing infrastructure led to deteriorating conditions in all major cities, food riots became commonplace after years of crop failures, while ever-accelerating income inequality – coupled with decades of deceit from politicians in both parties – produced an atmosphere of desperation within the American population. Long, contentious experience with overcrowded prisons filled beyond capacity with minorities – and this only a few years after Trump’s tough new drug laws were introduced – coupled with the fractious Islamist ascendency that exploded throughout American cities when further policies extreme policies were introduced – all but doomed America to civil war. The First Secession War began, innocently enough, when cities on the east and west coast effectively seceded from the Union, leaving moderate politicians in both parties helpless and at a loss to halt their precipitous slide in democratic polls. When open hostilities broke out between military forces allied with one faction or another, America appeared on the verge of collapse.

With it’s military divided, conservative factions in America turned to Russia for help, while neoliberal factions on the east coast turned to NATO forces. Western states turned to China, and then Japan for assistance and, sensing the time was right, North Korea struck the Pacific Northwest with nuclear weapons. Over the next day and a half, several more nuclear exchanges occurred, most concentrated in the Middle East, but one huge, sustained exchange occurred between India and Pakistan, rendering life on the sub-continent virtually extinct.

Another more problematic exchange occurred between Russian and Chinese forces, leaving Russia decimated and coastal China a radioactive wasteland. Interestingly, the former United States was hardly affected, save for the destruction around Puget Sound and northwest Oregon, yet all vestiges of the once mighty American political structure had by then been swept away. With air transportation systems in ruins, and without railroads to aid in reconstruction, the cohesive network of American cities and states disintegrated, and the remaining citizenry resettled into small, sustainable agrarian communities. Life began to take on medieval qualities, but life continued.

After the collapse of America, or the so-called First Republic, neoconservative parties made huge gains in the elections of the early 2150s, and the leader of the newly formed Social-Continental Party defeated the liberalist National Frontjust as cities were recovering and beginning to trade once again. On a platform of reuniting the former states, implementing agrarian reform as well as new rounds of ‘get tough’ laws against drug use and immigration, neoconservatives swept aside liberal opposition groups and returned to power with their broadest electoral mandate in nearly thirty years.

Religious blocs within the Social-Continentals began orchestrating severe new policies, first mandating that all citizens attend services, and then by mandating all non-Christian religious practice be state controlled. A second religious undercurrent came to pass during this period: a gender-based differentiation of religious practice, with patriarchal and matriarchal branches splitting from each other, leading to escalating gender based conflict within the remaining small communities. These actions and reactions led, almost immediately, to the Second Secession War – and this time North America did not escape widespread destruction.

One other force became inescapable during the latter half of the twenty-first century. The long denied, oft maligned effects of so-called climate change. After the Paris Accords were gutted in 2018, after drilling for oil and mining for coal resumed on a scale never before seen, global temperature increased at a steady pace – until 2055, that is. Then the climate tipped, and temperatures increased dramatically. Agricultural output fell by 85% with five years and the earth’s population dropped from two billion to just a few hundred million. By 2210 there remained perhaps ten million people in the land formerly known as the United States, and most of these people lived in northern, somewhat cooler mountainous regions, and only four much smaller coastal city-states remained: the New York-Boston ‘mega-plex’, Houston, Saint Franciscus – and of course, Los Angeles, now known as Saint Angeles. Most trade between continents was conducted through these cities – by sailing ship – and regional political power was centered in these cities, as well.

And these city-states became the locus of military power in the Second Republic, and they banded together with city-states in Europe and Japan to create a new world order based – primarily – on a new religious order that fused Christian and Buddhist teachings. This new religious order grew increasingly militaristic over time, and gender segregation became a much more prominent feature of daily life.

With order restored after the Second Secession War, the first round of Social-Continental Reforms, the so-called Neo-Justinian Corupus Iurus Civilis II, delivered great power into the hands of Law Enforcement. By-passing the courts, police officers on the street were given the power to place any person suspected of being in the Northern Tier illegally into one of several rebuilt detention facilities. Little was said at the time, though it was widely understood: those so detained would never be released, and in fact would never be seen or heard from again. The facilities so created soon became known as Manzanars, though the meaning of the name was obscure, and their ranks swelled with tens of thousands from the ‘Southern Tier,’ lands once called Central and South America, people caught fleeing their own famines and drug wars. Rumor had it that most of those incarcerated died from forced labor, but reporting on conditions inside Manzanars was forbidden after the first feeble attempts by frightened reporters were met with calls to disband the media.

The second element of the first round of reforms was more controversial from the start: police officers were given the power to summarily execute any person found in possession of or using any form of illegal narcotics, along with broad new powers to search for these compounds.

Drug use fell precipitously the first few months after the reforms went into effect, after the ‘extra-judicial’ killings began, and the number of people caught trying to sneak into the Northern Tier dropped to a trickle as well. Social-Continental politicians sneered at their liberal brethren, corporate journalists soon lauded the neoconservatives for rescuing the new republic and reestablishing law and order, but soon rumors surfaced that the police were using their broad new powers to intimidate or eliminate anti-reform opposition leaders – and perhaps not coincidentally, more than a few liberal politicians. Still, over time not even a complacent media could ignore these new developments, for people were disappearing at an alarming rate.

Nervous Social-Continental politicians rushed through a third set of reforms; these simply modified existing code to include an element of due process, but a new class of law enforcement officer was created in the process: the Justinian, and though nominally police officers, Justinians had to complete more thorough legal training before their final appointment. The Justinian’s job was to go to the scene of all crimes and verify that any arrests made were valid – before certifying a suspect for summary execution or, in rare instances, internment. And there was one other stipulation attached to the creation of the Justinians: all would be biologically female.

And with this one simple twist of fate, a tale comes to mind…

+++++

BlackWatch

Aurelius Krül-son sat behind an arcing row of tables in the front row of a small classroom; he yawned – wiped a smeary tear from his cheek – while other cadets filed-in and took their assigned seats in the room. A fresh spasm tore through muscles deep in his neck and he rubbed taut cords of tortured tissue until the pain subsided, then shook his head again as another yawn came. He put his hand out and grabbed the edge of the table as he winced through another spasm, this one deep in his back, between his shoulder blades. He felt awful, wanted more than anything in the world to go back to the dormitory and sleep for at least a week, but that was not to be, not with Codex exams less than a week away. He shook his head to clear away the fog, and wished once again the academy’s PT instructors would back-off from the endless spate of late-night runs.

He opened his notebook – Institute issued and graded weekly for neatness – and took out a couple of pencils from the attaché case that lay by his feet on the concrete floor. Other cadets did the same as the clock rolled around to 2000 hours, then a door beside the whiteboard opened and the week’s instructor – one they had never seen before – walked into the classroom.

Krül-son caught his breath when he saw her, for he was quite certain he’d never seen so desirable a woman – and desire was a very tricky thing.

The instructor was very short, not particularly slender but by no means overweight, yet she exuded an obvious self-confidence that was positively attractive; more important and certainly more to the point, he thought she was sexy, conscientiously sexy, like she enjoyed projecting authority through an overt appearance of sexuality – and that made her a very rare bird indeed. She walked to the podium before the class and laid out her materials on an adjoining table – slowly, quietly, her every move exuding authority – then she grabbed a marker, strode over to the whiteboard and began writing:

‘Sinn August-dottir; District Attorney’s Office; Law of Search and Seizure I.’ Her words on the board, like her persona, were carefully structured and precise; the lettering and punctuation left by her fine-boned hand was clipped and neat, and full of purpose. At first all Krül-son noticed was the curve of her hips and legs, but soon the wedding band on the third finger of her left hand caught his attention, yet even so his eyes wandered back over her exciting lines.

She turned to the class and nodded to someone in the rear of the room; Krül-son dared not turn around – and it was in any event quite unnecessary. The Commandant of the Saint Angeles Regional Police Academy would be standing back there in her immaculately starched whites, checking to see how this latest class of rookie police officers responded to their new instructor. The commandant would, as was her custom, leave after the first few minutes of class; meanwhile, the instructor took up a remote and lowered a screen on the wall behind her and began reading off the highlights of what she planned to cover during this first morning’s session.

Krül-son diligently began copying every word she said, ignoring the wedding band he saw on her left hand as best he could, all the while trying to wipe away his impure thoughts by writing down the rigorous rules of procedure that dripped like warm honey from the instructor’s icy lips.

+++++

Lunch was always the same: protoplast steak and soy-carb noodles, a four ounce cup of enhanced water, three supplemental capsules of hormones and an iodine tab. Krül-son sat at his assigned table, in his assigned seat; he looked up from his tray from time to time and squinted at the clock on the far wall, then at radiation probes mounted on the rooms three small windows. Everything in the dining room was white – the harshest white imaginable: the walls were white; the clock on the wall, the tile on the floor; everywhere he looked it was as if all the world was afloat on a sea of endless white – aside from the radiation probes. These were bright yellow, lined with green and red, and everyone, everyone cast a wary eye on these displays at least once during lunch.

Everyone in the room – every cadet, every instructor and administrator, every radiation tech – was dressed in the same blistering white, and all but one person in the dining hall had pure white skin. The sole exception was Misogi Shibata, an exchange cadet from Kyoto, the largest remaining city-state in the Asiana Confederation. Misogi’s skin was perhaps a bit darker than his own – if it was at all – but it was her shocking silver hair that commanded the most attention. Radiation, he’d heard, was the cause, but she was startlingly beautiful, despite the color of her hair – and the radiation burns on her arms. For some reason the latest regeneration sprays had great difficulty repairing neutron-irradiated flesh, but there was nothing anyone could do about that, was there?

Halfway through the meal he looked up and noticed Sinn August-dottir walking into the room with the commandant, and to Krül-son she seemed almost grimly determined to keep a private joke to herself – for as long as possible. The two women walked through the crowded main dining room and on into the private dining room reserved for high ranking staff and important visitors, and his eyes followed her path through the room.

‘Naturally,’ thought Krül-son, though his eyes retained the mesmerizing image of her legs, the soft arcing lifts of her hair, the grim twinkle in her eyes – and so he couldn’t simply ignore the fluttering butterflies in his gut.

“What did you say?” Pol Dänae-son asked.

“I didn’t say anything,” Krül-son said defensively. “Not a word.”

“I beg to differ. You said ‘naturally’ – and I heard it quite distinctly.”

“I’m sorry. I must have been daydreaming again.”

Dänae-son shook his head while he snorted. “Your daydreams are as tired as your eyes, Aurie,” Pol said consolingly.

“I am tired,” Krül-son whispered defensively as he tried to stifle another eye-watering yawn. “I feel like I haven’t slept in days.”

“Perhaps that’s because you haven’t slept in days. If you’ll think about it for a moment, you might recall none of us has.”

“I wonder if they are making us tired for a reason,” Aerrik Aerrik-son asked.

“To what end?” Gregor Tarkus-son replied defensively.

“I don’t know. To see how we handle stress, perhaps.” Aerrik-son shot back, his eyes bloodshot, his food untouched. “I can’t imagine, but why get us up the middle of the day for a run, then to class on an empty stomach?”

They all turned back to their bioplast steaks, sipped at their water, savoring the precious liquid. Moments passed in silence, each afraid to contemplate the possibilities that lay behind Aerrik-son’s question.

“I think Aurie has the hots for our new instructor!” Dänae-son chimed in from out of nowhere.

“What!?” Krül-son jerked away from the insinuation. “No way!”

The other cadets chuckled, smiled at Aurelius for a moment. Tarkus-son looked at the clock, mentioned the time; they rose and took their trays to be recycled and formed-up for prayer, then turned to the flag and saluted as they recited the simple pledge of allegiance:

‘I pledge my life to God, and to the Republic He hath founded;

His Word lighteth the path to Justice, as He guides us to Life Everlasting.’

They broke formation and walked across the blistering concrete to the classroom building.

Krül-son found he could not take his eyes off the instructor all afternoon; her words seemed to hold him and caress him even though plainly there was nothing at all personal about the law of search and seizure. When her legs appeared briefly from behind the table he craned his head and took in the shape of them, fought to control the stiffness that grew from his belly, that threatened to spread through his body like a wildfire.

At one point he flinched when Dänae-son’s elbow slammed into his ribs; he jerked to attention only to find that the instructor – along with everyone else in the classroom – was looking at him. There was understanding in her eyes, but something else was there as well. What was it? Mirth? Sorrow? Pity?

She walked from behind the instructor’s table and stood before him.

“What are you looking at so intently, Cadet?” she said.

Krül-son struggled to contain his embarrassment – the Flames of Hell ready and waiting to engulf him – as he fought to maintain the presence of mind he knew was being measured – by those watching on monitors far from this room.

“I ask your pardon,” Krül-son began, “but I was lost for a moment.”

“Lost?” she replied.

“Yes. So sorry.” He looked down at his notes, dreading what must surely come.

“How so?”

“You said that when a citizen is in the public eye there is no reasonable expectation of privacy. But what about things that may not be visible?”

“Such as?”

“Perhaps something not so readily apparent. Some device inside a coat pocket, say, or inside a backpack? You are saying we have the right to search inside these items as well?”

“Of course! Any container or article of clothing which might reasonably be used to conceal prohibited items may be searched – when in public! Were you not paying attention?”

“Yes, Instructor, I was. But are you saying that probable cause to search is overridden when there is no reasonable expectation of privacy? That when a citizen is in public we may search them at any time, without cause, for any reason? In effect… for no reason at all?”

“Effectively, yes, that is so.” Her eyes bore into his.

“Oh.” He was fascinated by the complex emotions that swirled inside her words.

“Oh?” she said dismissively – as she walked back to her place before the entire class. “Oh? Is this not clear to you?” Hands on hips, she stood now and looked around the room – commanding all eyes on her. “This provision was at the very heart of the First Reforms. If you’ll recall your basic history, the fourth amendment of the original constitution, by mandating a prohibition against all ‘unreasonable search and seizures,’ effectively made it impossible for the police to do their jobs. Lawlessness, terrorism and runaway drug use ensued, society fractured when promiscuity became the public norm, when immorality replaced God as the focus of civic life and duty. God’s punishment was swift and vast, was it not?”

There were murmured assents around the room. No one doubted His wrath – one glance at the nearest radiation monitor was all that was needed.

“Well,” she said, looking directly into Krül-son’s eyes, “I am glad I was able to clear that up for you.” She smiled at him – and for some reason a shiver ran down his spine.

+++++

The weekend’s ‘ride-alongs’ were posted before dinner Frietag evening, and Krül-son moaned inwardly when he saw he had been assigned to ride with the instructor from the DAs office. He had been stunned, as all the cadets in his class had been, when they heard later that morning, at their evening meal, that Sinn August-dottir was not simply an instructor. No, she was a Justinian, and cadets were – almost – never allowed to ride with, let alone talk to, a Justinian one-on-one, and he wondered why he had been singled-out. He ate that morning in silence, while his table-mates regarded him with a wariness that bordered on awe.

They had two hours of free-time after dinner on Frietags, and the cadets from Krül-son’s pod usually gathered under the commons patio dome to gripe and commiserate with one another; they arrived that evening exhausted and with four ounce bottles of water hoarded over the week, ready to talk. They sat in silence for a while, watched the sun rising, and though each longed for bed the need to talk, to vent all the stress that had built during the long week was overwhelming. The nervousness each felt regarding Krül-son’s scheduled ride-along was all too readily apparent, as well, and they worried for him.

The four of them sat side-by-side, their backs resting on the patio wall, each apparently lost in thought as the crimson sun rose above an indistinct, dusty horizon. There was not a tree in sight, for none remained in these latitudes – anywhere. Indeed, the academy had been built on land that had once been verdant parkland, trees and a lake in the center of Los Angeles! Now, in every direction one looked there remained only a landscape of decay, a city that lay in ruins, a majestic city that even now was being consumed by the shifting seas of a vast, inrushing desert. The sun rose into an almost perpetually cloudless sky; only a thin veil of permanent hi-altitude smog remained, a veil of increasing ammonia and sulphuric acid. That poisonous veil, however, kept people from being roasted alive if they remained out in daylight too long, assuming, that is, their radiation filters remained effective.

And though all were in their late-teens and early twenties, none could remember a time when things had been different…

Krül-son looked at the reflective domes being built over the more affluent sections of the city and wondered when the poorer sections would be covered. Far across the valley he could just make out the entrance to one of the new underground cities being carved from the guts of the Santa Monica Mountains north of the city wall, but how many would live there? Would it be habitable in time? In the end, would people really want to move underground?

“You know,” Dänae-son said, “I think I understand the reasoning behind the Reforms as well as any of us, but it makes me uncomfortable to be able to disrupt lives so arbitrarily.”

“I know what you mean,” Aerriksson said, “but there really hasn’t been an effective alternative. Besides, who would advocate a return to the old ways?”

Each of them shuddered; they had been born and come of age with only the memories of their elders to guide them. Memories of endless ‘depression’ that chased scarce resources, then the secession movement and internal revolution that killed-off the First Republic. No one wanted to see a return to the anarchy that swept the land then, as drug cartels pushed deeper into the homeland, as first police officers then National Guard units were swept aside by a drug-crazed tide of rapists and blood-thirsty immigrants. Only full-scale military intervention at home had restored order, and the remaining people had been more than happy to sweep aside the remnants of a wholly ineffectual government, and then the First Secession War began.

Great cities disappeared in that war, as did an estimated seven billion people. A brief ‘nuclear winter’ almost wiped out all life on the planet’s surface, and in time it was discovered that the brief atomic war had thrown giga-tons of irradiated particulate matter into the atmosphere, and three centuries of industrial pollution had somehow been trapped in all strata of atmosphere by an engulfing layer of radiation. With no trees to scrub the air, no oceans to act as a heat sink, new cycles of planetary decay and realignment settled in

“Sometimes I think of quitting,” Tarkus-son said after a long pause.

“But, what would you do?” Krül-son asked, looking – incredulously – at his pod-mate.

“I don’t know. Perhaps go north. I hear there are still trees near the arctic circle, and water in streams. And farms…I have heard there are farms on the pains. Perhaps one could find work there, on a farm?”

“And I have heard we are not welcome,” Dänae-son replied, lost to the irony in his words. “They built a wall some time ago, even taller than our own. Besides, how would you travel so far north?”

“I don’t know. It was only a thought.”

“Some thoughts are best kept to one’s self, Greggor.”

“I know, Pol, I know; but this does not seem like such a good way to live.”

“It is what it is,” Aerikksonn said. “And soon it will be your job to protect this way of life.”

Krül-son felt uncomfortable with the way this conversation was drifting, wanted to change the subject: “The Codex exam next week will be miserable.”

“Why?” Pol said. “We’ve been studying the material for a month now; do you expect it to be so hard?”

“Alright, wise-ass…” Aerrik-son cut in, “… what does section 21.03 describe, and what is the range of punishment?”

“Section 21.03,” Pol said as he turned to his pod-mate. “Theft of Water from Public or Private Land. The actor, with wanton disregard for the public good, intentionally, knowingly or recklessly appropriates water from any source, either man-made or natural, for his or her own use. Punishment: less than one liter, 500 credits and 500 days detention; more than one liter but less than ten liters, forfeiture of all property, twenty years detention; ten liters or more will be adjudicated on site by Justinian, the range of possible sentences imposed may include summary execution if deemed warranted by the Justinian and approved by the Tribonian.”

The other three clapped in unison: “Bravo! Well done!” – yet Aurelius sat quietly, wondered what he might do, really, if he had to report someone for taking water – knowing that person was desperate, facing death, and that the state might put the poor soul to death. It was a no-win situation, wasn’t it?

Yet life these days was, he thought, a no-win situation. Even insurrection seemed futile, then he thought of the instructor’s legs again – and he smiled.

+++++

“See! Watch Tarkus-son’s movements!” the Commandant said as she bent over the screen. Sinn August-dottir leaned too and watched the four cadets as they talked on the patio.

“You doubt his loyalty?” Sinn said.

“I have watched him at First Prayers. His eyes wander, like his thoughts!”

Sinn pursed her lips. “We have seen this before. Many cadets become distracted after so long at the Institute. What makes you think this time is different?”

The Commandant leaned back in her chair. “Did you not hear him speak of fleeing to the North? Is that not enough?”

“What is your recommendation?”

“Public opinion is waning again; respect for the Police is falling too.”

“Yes, we know that.”

“Perhaps if an officer were to die, was to be killed, in the line of duty?”

“I take it you mean a cadet? Perhaps during one of the coming training exercises?”

“While searching a house for drugs? Yes. That would be ideal.”

“I will take this to the Tribonian, perhaps Montag morning. But I feel we should run this by the SenatusConsulta.”

The Commandant reached back and rubbed her neck. “That would be a mistake, a terrible mistake, Sinn. This must be kept away from all eyes, all prying eyes.” She twisted her neck from side to side, rubbed a spot below her right ear.

“Are you alright?” Sinn asked.

“Yes. Yes, but…”

“You would like me to stay with you tonight?”

The Commandant stood. “Would you?”

Sinn stood, turned and began unbuttoning the other woman’s tunic. Soon her hands ranged over taut breasts and firm stomach before sliding her mouth down into the moist warmth that had been waiting, oh-so-patiently, for this coming together all week.

+++++

Thor Bergtor-son, the region’s senior Tribonian, looked at the cadet files once again, then at the new video feed from the Institute. As the regions highest law enforcement officer, no one exceeded his authority – other than the region’s two senators – and they only if acting in concert. He read one of the files, then looked at the commandant on his monitor; she had never been able to keep her lust in check, and that one simple fact more than any other had always hindered her police work – and her administrative judgment. And he had never once suspected August-dottir would be the sort to philander whilst on duty. He knew her eccentricities, knew them only too well, but what he saw now was clearly a dereliction of duty. He watched the two women writhing on the bed, the Commandant’s face buried between Sinn’s legs, yet he felt almost nothing – just the faintest echoes of memory. All the Republic’s Tribonia, all by edict male, accepted ritual castration as a condition of appointment; only male members of the Senate escaped that fate. Now, after listening to the intercepts of their conversation, Bergtor-son wondered if the two really were acting alone, if they really planned to keep him out of the loop. He turned up the volume on the feed and listened to their frenzied passion.

He shook his head as he watched them. “Such hypocrisy,” he sighed, then he picked up Tarkus-son’s file and flipped through the pages once again: the boy had seemed most promising during his interviews but over the past year his faith had waned, his judgment had matured too quickly for the indoctrinations to take hold. The boy’s father had been a teacher, a professor of philosophy, before disappearing when the lad was just six years old, but even that brief exposure to the virus of reason had been enough to pollute the poor boy’s soul. Still, he had tested well, and his psych-profile raised no serious issues. Most cadets accepted their training without reservation; somehow young Greggor had slipped through clutching fingers and was even now drifting from their reach.

Such a pity, he thought, the boy’s life would end this way. Lost to a premature move, a pawn sacrificed in a much greater game.

The dilemma Bergtor-son faced was simple: while he had known for some time the academy’s staff, the commandant especially, would try to subvert his authority, now he had a decision to make. Sit back and watch as events unfolded, to allow the Commandant’s plan to be carried out unfettered, or take this as a serious threat to his authority and intervene now? And should he save the boy, or sacrifice him? The implications of his choice…but, what was this he saw?

“No!” Bergtor-son sat up in his chair, looked at the written transcript of the women’s conversation as it flowed onto an adjacent screen.

“I see you have chosen,” The Commandant said. “It is a nice ring.”

“I am getting old. I can put this off no longer.”

“Why Krül-son? DNA?”

“Yes. We will make good children, and he seems interested in me. I suspect he will mate most enthusiastically.”

“I dare say; perhaps too enthusiastically! Perhaps he will want to remain as the child’s father? Does he know yet?”

“No. I will tell him soon.”

The Commandant smiled. “Ah, brilliant. Yes, that would neutralize the Tribonian completely, wouldn’t it? He – in effect, none of them – would be allowed to testify against you.”

“Yes, that is correct.”

Tribonian Bergtor-son sat back in awe, laughed at the audacity of the plan for a very long time, then opened an encrypted link on his monitor. His fingers danced across the screen as he keyed-in the classified code on the computer, then he waited for the connection to secure.

He did not wait long.

“Active Three.” a mechanical voice, detached and sounding very far-away, answered.

“It is Bergtor-son.”

“Yes, Tribonian. We have seen it.”

“Any projections?

“Yes, Tribonian.”

“Recommendation?”

“No change, Tribonian. Implementation as planned.”

“Very well.” Bergtor-son closed the connection and sat back in his chair, then steepled his fingers just under his chin while he quietly regarded the Commandant and August-dottir. He watched for quite some time, lost in their passion, and he quietly reflected on his own youth, his own such stirrings long ago, before government surgeons had removed his lust so efficiently. He remembered Tarkus-son’s file and flipped through to the boy’s photograph.

“A pity,” he said quietly as he shut the file. “Such a waste.”

+++++

Thorsten Weblen-son sat behind a white duraplast desk in the squad briefing-room reading through yesterday’s incident reports. As usual, all offenses had happened during hours of maximum darkness; it had been too hot for sustained human activity during daylight hours for decades. Evening temperatures rarely fell into the 120s, and daytime highs for the past three “summer” months had averaged f/152 degrees. Now, in mid-December, daytime temperatures hovered in the high-130s.

The greatest problem facing the region now was, oddly enough, water temperature. Currents off the coast were warming much faster than modeled and operating efficiencies at the regions desalinization plants had fallen dramatically as a result. Pipelines from the plants to regional distribution centers were being hacked into, people were stealing water and damaging critical infrastructure. Weblen-son’s precinct was now in charge of all interdiction efforts along the southern California water distribution network; over three hundred thousand liters had been lost in just the past few days, and over ten meters of pipeline seriously damaged.

“Oh, great!” Weblen-son moaned when he read four rookies from the Academy were scheduled for ride-alongs this weekend. Then he read that that two Justinians were taking the cadets in tow, and that a cadet Tarkus-son was to ride the next two weekends. Now he was annoyed.

“Shit! Just what I need!” He read that a Cadet Krül-son would be riding with the Justinian Sinn August-dottir, and he whistled when he read that.

“Hey Sarge, what’s wrong?” a patrolman asked as he walked in and took his seat at one of the briefing tables.

Weblen-son looked up, graded the man’s sparkling uniform in his mind and nodded before speaking. “Rookies tonight. Tomorrow, too.”

“Fuck.”

“Want one?”

“Fuck, uh, no sir.”

“You know, Zimmer-son, we need to work on your language skills.”

“Fuckin’ a, sarge.”

Weblen-son shook his head and groaned, examined the uniform of each officer as they filed into the room – while he continued to flip through the previous watch commander’s notes. He called roll at 1720 hours, then asked for volunteers to handle the two unassigned cadets: Deirdre Gravvis-dottir took Pol Dänae-son and Avi-Shmoll Peres-son put his hand up to take Aerrik Aerrik-son. That settled, he called the dispatch office and summoned the rookies to come listen while he finished the rest of his briefing.

What really gave them away as rookies, Weblen-son thought as he watched them enter, were their pristine attaché cases; old-timer’s cases were scuffed and dinged, corners had long ago been worn smooth by years of abuse. Some were adorned with stickers and cartoon characters, others were clean and orderly; all had been beaten down by exigent crimes and high speed chases. The rookie’s cases, in sharp contrast, gleamed.

“Dänae-son! You’re in C-79 with Gravvis,” Weblen-son called out as the cadets took a seat. “Aerrik-son! In C-82 with Avi. Greggor Tarkus-son? You’ll start with me tonight, then your Justinian will take over when she arrives.” – and when he consciously omitted calling out Krül-son’s assigned partner a few of the old timer’s faces bunched-up, their eyes narrowed to razor-thin slits. Something, they knew, was amiss…

Weblen-son read out the offenses that had occurred the night before – a handful of burglaries, two water mains tapped, the usual crap – before handing out the night’s patrol patterns and call signs…

“Can any of you slime-ball rookies tell me why we shift call signs?”

Greggor Tarkus-son’s hand shot up.

“Go ahead, rook.”

“Frequencies are monitored, patrol patterns are analyzed and exploited.”

“And who are you, rook?”

“Tarkus-son, Greggor, sir.”

“Okay, relax Greggor. Good answer. You feel up to keeping the shift log tonight?”

“Yes, sir!”

Weblen-son laughed this time: “Rook, you need to chill.”

“Sir!”

The old sergeant shook his head while he passed out memory cards with updated codes that would be fed into each officer’s patrol computer; these would in turn be fed into patrol car terminals – and then into each officer’s helmet-radio.

Sinn August-dottir walked into the room without warning; Weblen-son ignored the instant hush that fell over the room and kept on passing out the cards, and he barely made eye-contact with her while she passed by on her way to Krül-son’s seat – yet every other pair of eyes in the room tracked her every movement. She sat next to Aurelius and sighed, tried not to smile – while Weblen-son fumed.

“Alright, mes chères petites larves!” he bellowed, “Let’s hit the road – and keep a close eye on your partner’s back!”

Chairs scraped back in thunderous unison and sixty gray uniformed officers, along with four white-uniformed cadets, stood and rumbled from the room.

The sergeant watched Sinn August-dottir closely as she walked by – rather the way a woodsman might keep an eye on a rattlesnake slithering-by – just out of striking distance; she looked his way just once and they barely made eye contact, but she held him in her eyes in that moment, then just barely smiled as she walked from the room.

Cold fingers of hate and dread ran down Weblen-son’s spine; he tried to shake off the feeling but unseen forces lingered with her passing.

“No good can come of this day,” he sighed. He looked at the temperature and radiation readings, then shook his head. He bent over and picked up his own very battered briefcase and looked at it, wondered how long it would last – before it all came undone.

+++++

She had one of the new patrol cars; the thing ran on pressurized hydrogen and was rumored to be very fast indeed – speeds of thirty five kph on the ground and almost twice that in the air had been reported and Krül-son didn’t doubt that for a moment as he took in the car’s stealthy black lines. Of course that was nothing compared to the hydro-carbon fueled vehicles of the First Republic, but those vehicles lived now only in museums – and in prohibited holos.

“Do you want to drive tonight?” Sinn August-dottir said.

Aurie tried to keep his excitement under control. “May I?”

She tossed him the keys and he dropped into the seat behind the stick. “Of course. You’re flight qualified now, aren’t you?” she asked as she settled-in behind him.

“Yes, Justinian. I passed the final exam three weeks ago.”

She shook her head and sighed. “Imagine that? Let’s head to Westside.”

“Surface streets, Justinian?”

“For now.”

His arm on the center console, he pushed forward on the stick; the patrol car accelerated smoothly away from the station while Sinn slid a memory card into the computer and checked into service. He could see the Westside Dome far away across the valley, the ocean glittering beyond. The sun was just above the western horizon, but even now the car’s deeply polarized canopy and windows were needed for protection, and Aurelius could not yet see one soul stirring on the blistering streets.

No, not yet. But that would change – in an hour.

+++++

A dark room. Hundreds of large glass tables, the surface of each alive with images and data flowing in a non-stop stream of information. Behind each table, a man, each almost identical to the next, each dressed in black spandex, the only visible accoutrement metal sensors grafted to the sides of their bald heads.

These men no longer consider themselves human – not in the strictest sense of the word. These hybrids hold themselves apart from the rest of humanity, as if their origin and purpose is a closely held secret – which, of course, it is. No one outside the room knew when or where, or even how these men were ‘created,’ and few would have dared ask if they could. Indeed, no one outside this facility completely understood what it was these men did – or why they did the things they did.

And these men had no names – or even precious little concept of identity – yet for all intents and purposes they are still human. Even if just barely so, for they understood human emotion as a data construct, as data that streamed into their minds, and they interpreted simple emotions on their own. Complex emotions, on the other hand, became a group exercise, and the complex interactions of crowds could consume their combined abilities for minutes.

More odd still, these men had no practical memory of dealing with other humans. Their understanding of – and reaction to – the interplay of complex human emotion was entirely a heuristic construct. As if they had been cut off from their humanity, their memory, their past.

The men in this room, one of seven such rooms hidden around the planet, monitored all human communication, all the time. Sensors located literally everywhere vacuumed data from the remaining people on earth, and generic computers pre-filtered the data-stream, sending only the most questionable content to them. Their minds were constantly filled with incoming data, and they evaluated the information stream, mapped responses and contemplated contingencies. Data highlighted as suspicious or threatening was instantly seen by a team of senior tacticians, yet even so, all the men were engaged, always, sifting through data for patterns that might reveal a beginning. One certain type of beginning.

These collectives were known, by the few who knew of their existence, as The BlackWatch. Few were known to have left these facilities, yet those few who did never returned. Those so lost are almost instantly replaced by another nearly identical man, yet there was no singular or collective sense of loss when this happened, indeed, there was no awareness at all.

One was intently watching the video feed from inside a police car, listening to the conversation between a young man and an older woman. His grey eyes danced through the data, ‘looking’ for relevant information, his brain processing information a trillion times faster than the most powerful supercomputers of the First Republic, and his brain discarded irrelevant information as quickly as new information appeared. When something particularly noteworthy registered his eyes tended to blink rapidly, but he is unaware of this activity and would not have understood what it meant even had he been aware.

He pulled in another stream and began sifting through new data from a nearby police car, then he tapped into surveillance cameras all over the area these two units were patrolling. Images of a broken city began flashing across the screen until a scene with three well-armed men filled a small sub-screen. He focused on this image and for a moment it enlarged instantly – and all his sensors began picking the images apart. He began by comparing the faces in the image with images of known criminals and and operatives and he identified each within milliseconds. With barely a conscious thought, within seconds this information appeared in a sub-screen on Tribonian Bergtor-son’s desk – and then on the displays of every other Tribonia in the republic.

A new set of images flashed of this Watcher’s screen – he picked up new feeds of the men, the cameras he tapped into closer to the action now, and he noted they were inserting ammunition into automatic weapons common in the First Republic; those weapons had been illegal for more than a hundred years, yet somehow there are still thousands in private hands. The Watcher sensed imminent danger and he displayed a map of the city on a large screen for all to see, then he overlaid the armed men and all police cars in the area. Other watchers stopped what they were doing and paused their own streams and looked at the central display for a moment; several blinked rapidly and returned to their streams. New data streamed into and out of the room at a furious pace now, eyes darting from image to image, from page to page, at surreal speeds.

Many of the Watchers were smiling now, as new information poured out into the hive, though they did not understand why.

Just then one of the Watcher’s streams arced away into the night sky, to the stars in fact, yet this Watcher’s face remained as impassive as any other’s.

Because, for the very first time in any Watcher’s existence, he felt fear, his own fear, perhaps – and for a time, perhaps a second, maybe less – he simply did not understand what real fear meant.

+++++

Deirdre Gravvis-dottir and Pol Dänae-son drove through vacant streets in the city’s westside, their eyes fixed on lengthening shadows left by the setting sun. People would be coming out of the shadows now, leaving their underground shelters and coming out as temperatures fell, the sun no longer considered a lethal predator. The outside temperature was still in the one-twenties, though it would probably fall close to f/110 by midnight, yet already some of the more desperate souls were gathering to begin foraging for food and water. The early worm gets the bird, or so the saying on the street went.

A heavily armed man ran across the street a hundred yards ahead and disappeared in shadow behind an old telecomm building.

People did not run in this heat unless they really had to.

“Son of a bitch!” Gravvis-dottir yelled. “Did you see the size of that gun?”

“Yah!” Pol squirmed in his seat, suddenly feeling very exposed out here on the street. The air cars were only lightly armored, not designed to withstand assault by First Republic-style M60s. “Shouldn’t we call for back-up?”

Gravvis-dottir stopped the car, scanned her display.

“Something’s not right,” she sighed.

Pol looked down the street but some part of his mind was screaming ‘danger’ as he looked to his left – he saw movement in the dissolving shadows, movement, coming his way.

“Oh shit,” he said.

+++++

The Watcher looked down into his glass desktop; permutations of probable outcomes flashed across one screen while an overhead image of the street filled another. He focused on the men in the shadows, analyzed the image to determine the make and caliber weapon each possessed and began sorting records to determine who’s men were moving first, if their actions and motives were a part of this plan.

And that was important. Were they simply criminals? If so he would move on. But if not…

Could it be?

He sent the large infra-red image to The Wall, and several other Watchers were now focused on there, centered on the air car stopped in the middle of Westwood Boulevard; red cross-hairs flashed where armed men were hidden, police were indicated as solid blue stars. Several ‘reds’ were ahead of the police car, but many more were converging in shadows from the rear and along both sides. There were now twenty armed men identified as threats by the first Watcher, and all were slowly taking up positions around the police car.

‘These are not criminals,’ the first Watcher thought, and this impulse burst into the network, interrupted the work of hundreds of other Watchers around the planet; within a moment all Watcher’s attention, everywhere, was focused on the evolving scene.

They watched, eyes blinking rapidly now, as they processed images of hundreds of rounds being fired into the police car.

As if something or someone far away had thrown a switch in his head, the first Watcher broke his connection and stood. He blinked rapidly as the feed pouring into his mind broke off, then stopped.

Then he turned and walked from the room. This new feeling, this thing called fear, was overwhelming, and as he fell to his knees, as his breathing came in ragged gasps now, he knew he could not fail.

“Not this time,” he sighed. “Not again.”

+++++

Krül-son and August-dottir heard only one plaintive cry for help over the radio net, then silence. An emergency transponder activated, indicating an officer was dying, or dead, and automatically sending the location to EMS…

“Go!” Sinn shouted, pointing at the screen when the data began streaming onto her car’s central monitor.

Without thinking Aurie hit the thrusters and the car shot a hundred feet into the air and arced towards what, decades ago, had been called Westwood. He looked down at the data screen and noted at least a dozen other cars en route and he smiled, felt comfort in this communal response, this ‘brothers-in-arms’ feeling that swept through his soul. He saw the old university ahead and cut back power; they were less than a mile out now and were by-far the closet unit to the scene.

“Do you want me to proceed, Justinian?”

“Why wouldn’t you?” she replied caustically.

“It could be a trap, or an ambush, Justinian.”

“Of course it is, you idiot! It is our job nonetheless, regardless of lies in wait. Follow procedure and proceed.”

“Yes, Justinian.”

Airborne, this newest generation air car could travel at speeds approaching a hundred miles per hour; per standard operating procedure Krül-son swept in low over the scene at maximum speed and let the car’s sensors record images, then he banked the car into a hard climbing turn and studied the images that danced across his central display. These images were sent to all other responding units automatically, and simultaneously, so it was no surprise when the shift sergeant came on the patrol circuit and began ordering deployments around the scene.

Krül-son was ordered to orbit the scene at maximum altitude and protect the Justinian, unless or until she was called for. When the car reached its maximum cruising altitude of four thousand feet he flipped on the autopilot and commanded the car to orbit while he studied images that cycled across the display.

He saw the air car on the ground was almost unrecognizable: twisted metal frame, shattered carbon-fiber panels, pock-marked lexan, drifting smoke…the two bodies no longer recognizable as human, and he struggled to read the car number. He thought of Greggor’s face, his expressed desire to leave the academy, then the command circuit burst into life…

“All units, area appears clear at this time. Deploy in Zone 232 and we’ll walk in.”

New images came in as other cars overflew the scene; soon it was confirmed who had been killed and Aurie closed his eyes for a moment, fought back tears when he thought of Pol’s easy laugh and dedication to the state.

“Are you alright, Cadet?” he heard Sinn August-dottir ask.

Did he detect compassion in her voice? Was that mocking sarcasm he heard?

“Yes, Justinian. He was my friend.” He directed his attention to the flight controls and increased the turn angle; as the car banked hard he looked down on the scene as the other responding officers landed and began their walk through the shadows towards the shattered police car. But… something caught his eye…

“Justinian! There, by the large building on the corner…”

“I see it! Hover and illuminate!” She switched her headset to transmit: “All units, hostiles on the ground converging on your position, transmitting coordinates – now!”

Krül-son leveled the air-car and set the search-beam to maximum intensity, then centered it on the moving shadows. The central display revealed several men running, but just then one turned and aimed something seemingly right at his face. The display flared as brilliant light overwhelmed the sensor, and Krül-son’s reaction was instantaneous: he banked hard and dove for the surface as the shoulder launched surface to air missile crossed the distance in less than the time it took his eyes to blink.

+++++

The Watcher rubbed his eyes with thumb and forefinger, then he delicately fingered the plates grafted to the sides of his skull; they hurt some days more than others, especially when he was off the grid, but now they throbbed insistently, like someone or something was trying to kick him – inside his head. He blinked his eyes rapidly again, as if the motion itself might somehow clear the pain; when that failed he checked his flight instruments on the central screen and increased altitude another two thousand feet. His craft, a small transport salvaged from the First Republic, was leaving the airspace of a region that had once been called the Alps, from a country once known as Switzerland; the jet would take him across the deserted remnants of inland Europe and onward across the receding waters of the dying Atlantic.

Looking down, he saw a thin necklace of light delineating the coastline from exposed seabed; most all remaining human population had resettled around the world’s coastlines as evaporative effects sapped the oceans, as sea levels subsided, then receded, and concentrations of light were densest around the desalinization plants that maintained civilization now. Once the planet’s jet-streams drifted north – and remained firmly anchored there, rainfall – and, indeed, almost all variation in weather, was a conspicuous feature of extreme northern and southern latitudes, those regions ‘higher’ than fifty five degrees north and seventy degrees south. What agricultural production remained was centered above those latitudes, which had effectively made the countries once known as Canada and Russia the world’s breadbaskets; of more immediate importance, these two regions had proven inadequate to sustain the estimated one hundred and twenty million people that remained on the planet. Then even those production levels fell as the climate inexorably warmed. Trapped on a dying planet, the population that lay below the Watcher as he arced over the coastline had perhaps another five years before it faced extinction. What other, calamitous choices would they face?

He knew of just one, and he tried not to think about it just now.

+++++

“What are you doing! Stop…this…now…”

Krül-son pulled the car out of the brutal 4g turn and leveled out, then raced between the rooftops of burned-out industrial buildings; the missile had lost lock-on and was searching for them in the dark sky above, trying to find some tell-tale infrared signature to lock-on to. He throttled back and settled onto a deserted street and turned off the car’s systems, then looked up at the blazing exhaust of the missile until it went out – and its self-destruct circuit activated.

“That was good flying, Cadet,” Sinn August-dottir said, her voice just now beginning to shake. ‘As good as I’ve ever seen,’ she said to herself, impressed.

“Thank you, Justinian. I was concerned for your safety.”

“Noted. I think you can reactivate power now.”

Krül-son looked at the threat receiver – it was silent now – then he turned on a single battery and turned on the car’s computer. A query instantly flashed on his screen: “Status?”

“Nominal,” he typed on the tiny keypad. “Resuming flight after restart.”

“10/4” flashed on the screen.

Krül-son began the engine re-start procedure and turned systems on one by one; the fuel-cell was low and they would need hydrogen soon. “We should refuel, Justinian.”

“Noted. Proceed.”

Shadows moved between buildings to his right, but there was not yet enough air pressure to effect a re-start.

“Justinian…?”

“I see them.”

They were both focused on the shadows to their right…so focused they failed to see the men who walked up to the left side of the air-car. One of the men tapped on the window and Krül-son jumped, turned toward the noise.

One man stood there smiling at him, three others had their weapons leveled at Justinian Sinn August-dottir.

The smiling man made a cutting motion across his neck and Krül-son reached for the emergency transponder; the smiling man’s pistol leveled at Aurie’s face, and just then he noticed the smiling man had odd looking metal plates grafted on the side of his bald head.

“Justinian? I…”

“Open the canopy, Cadet.”

Krül-son motioned to the smiling man that he was going to release the canopy; the man nodded and stepped back fractionally while motors lifted the canopy. Hot air, dense with steaming hydrocarbons, flooded the cockpit; soon the smell of unwashed humans washed over him as well.

“Your weapons,” one of the other men said. “Now.”

When they had handed them over Sinn and Aurie were helped from the car; one of the men came forward with a bundle of plastic explosives and began rigging a booby-trap in the cockpit. Another came up behind Krül-son and placed a black sack over his head; he felt his hands being restrained after that, then the crunching of tires on gravel and the high-pitched whirring of an electric motor. He was lifted onto, he assumed, the back of the electric car, then forced down harshly and tied to something cold and hard.

He felt the car lurch and accelerate quietly, and only then did he realize he was alone. The Justinian was not with him, his failure complete, and he wondered if backup would arrive in time to save her.

+++++

The Watcher was high over the Atlantic while he watched these events unfold and it was during this encounter that he first saw one of his brethren, another one of the Watchers that had left years ago, and he knew his intuition had been correct all along.

“Our disappearances are not random,” he said aloud, and these were among the first words he had spoken in more than three decades. “Things are not,” the Watcher said as he got used to the sound of his own voice again, “quite what they seem.”

+++++

He felt the little electric car drop, as if they had suddenly come upon a steeply inclined ramp; his body slid painfully across a metal ridge as the car listed into a sharp left-hand curve, and the pressure did not let up for several minutes. His ears popped once, then again, the air at one point suddenly grew cool and damp and he began to shiver. He felt sure he had dropped several hundred feet on a spiral ramp when he felt the transition to level again, and whatever surface they were on was smooth as glass. The car stopped once and he heard the muffled voices of people several feet away, then the car lurched again and resumed its journey.

After what seemed like hours the car slowed, the whirring electric motor droned to a stop and he was wrapped in sudden, ringing silence. The air was, however, a little warmer now, and he heard the clatter of heavy construction somewhere not too far away.

Hands gently lifted him from the flatbed of the car, he felt someone tugging at the black cloth hood that covered his face and he winced from the sudden brightness that seared his eyes. It was bright here, wherever here was, yet it was so much cooler than the city! His eyes watered and someone gently wiped the tears from his face.

Krül-son blinked, tried to clear his eyes.

He stood within the center of a small group – several men, one woman – and as they regarded him quietly one of the men stepped forward and snipped off the nylon band that secured his hands behind his back. He rubbed his wrists, shook his hands to wake them from their cold sleep.

A man – another with metal plates grafted to the side of his skull – stepped forward and extended his right hand. Krül-son looked at the man, at the extended hand, and took the man’s hand in his. Then the man handed him his sidearm.

Krül-son looked at all the people around him, and they at him; they were unarmed, he noticed, and they regarded him casually as he took the pistol in his hand. What was this? A test? He holstered the weapon and snapped it in place.

The woman stepped closer now, and she regarded him with kind eyes for a moment. It was as if she was deciding not just what to say, but how to say it. At length she held out her hand and took him in tow: “Come with me,” she said, her voice full of quiet authority. In an instant it hit him: he had seen her before, yet it had been a long time ago.

Only then did Aurie Krül-son take note of his surroundings: he was in a smallish space hollowed from living rock, the “ceiling” mere inches from the top of his head, the way beneath his feet was smooth, polished stone. The walls were just roughly finished, yet still looked neat and clean, and the way ahead was lined with OLEDs that filled the space with brilliant white light.

The woman held his hand and they walked briskly down the corridor; he turned his head once and was startled to find they were alone – the other men had remained by the electric car. He could see them talking, gesturing at the road he must have taken, but why had they had left him armed, and alone, with this woman? That made no sense! How could these people consider him friendly when they had just killed two of his comrades? When they had just tried to shoot him down?

They walked for perhaps ten minutes through the rock until the woman stopped beside a heavy metal door set in the rock; she put her thumb to a green scanner and the panel flashed briefly, she entered a code and the door slid quietly into the rock. She led him into another very small room, the door closed abruptly behind him; another door was set in the opposing wall yet this one did not open.

“Your ears may hurt,” the woman said. “Move your mouth like this.” Aurie watched as she opened her mouth wide and moved her jaw from side to side, then she pressed another button and he winced as sudden pain pierced the inside of his head…

“What the…” he managed to get out, then the second door opened and the pain subsided fractionally. A silver railway car of some sort filled the next room, which was itself little more than a simple unadorned platform hollowed from stone. He stepped forward and looked down at the tracks and was surprised to see nothing but smooth stone. “Where are the rails?” he asked.

“Mag-Lev, in the walls.” the woman said as they walked along the platform to the waiting car’s door. As if Mag-Lev meant anything to him, he thought. “Much faster than rails allowed. Let’s go, we have a schedule to keep!”

“What?”

She led him into the single car and again held her thumb to a scanner; doors sealing both platform and car hissed shut simultaneously. She led him to a deeply cushioned seat in the empty car and motioned for him to sit. He stood and, his mouth still working to ease the pressure in his head, observed the empty car could easily hold twenty people in such seats, and could still accommodate a lot of cargo.

“Quickly!” she said. “You will want to be sitting when it starts.”

There was nothing subtle about the cars motion; it accelerated fiercely down the dark tunnel, pushing him back firmly into the seat’s deep padding.

“I don’t suppose you’re going to tell me what this is all about? Or where we’re going?” he said after what seemed like several minutes had passed.

She smiled at him in that moment, held him in her eyes and he saw the love and concern that played across them.

“Not a chance,” she said as she took his hand in hers; she gave it a gentle squeeze before she spoke again: “This is way too much fun.”

+++++

Very few elements of the GPS constellation remained in orbit after the Second Secession War, and precise navigation over long distances was almost impossible by older methods such as celestial as the dense, smog-laden upper atmosphere no longer afforded reliable seeing. Dead reckoning tracks were less than useless for high altitude great circle routes over the pole – such as it now was – and even long range radio aids to navigation such as Loran were no longer reliable enough to present a viable option.

The Watcher’s aircraft, a Dassault Falcon 20 business jet now more than a hundred years old, was one of the few aircraft remaining that had a working inertial navigation system, and as such the Falcon was capable of near pinpoint navigational accuracy – as long as the balky old gyros held out. He looked at the panel, at the old Bendix FGS-70 flight director that had first seen service in the earliest jumbo jets of the 1960s, with something akin to wonder in his eyes: there was not one facility left in the world, not one capable of manufacturing equipment of this complexity, nor with such precision. What had humanity done to itself? he asked.

‘We walked on the moon, and now we hide in the rocks, afraid of the light.’ So much had been lost to the fleeting comforts of fundamentalist extremism, and the schism that had rendered civilization into two camps.

And like so many other things, the Watcher knew he was materially a living remnant of that collapse. He thought that he too was a product of First Republic technology, a vast military experiment into human/machine engineering to develop ever faster arrays of super-computers, and as such he embodied all that was evil to the extremists who ruled the scattered remnants of humanity.

He looked at the curved horizon, at the thriving agricultural settlements in northern Iceland off his left wing, and wondered when the verdant valleys between Greenland’s eastern mountain ranges would appear over the nose of the jet, and found it hard to remember a time when these places had been almost uninhabitable due to extreme cold. The Asiana Federation now farmed most of Greenland, of course, but there were scattered reports they had recently sent fishing boats back to sea in far Arctic regions – and with not one catch reported. He looked at the fuel cells in the cabin, at his remaining flight time while he wondered about the implications of the seas now devoid of life.

The Watcher was slow to take note of the changes coming over him. He had been disconnected from the grid for several hours now, and with each passing minute those neural impulses the Others called feelings – emotions – were gradually coming back to him. Normally his mind was full of the networked responsibilities he had been assigned as an integral part of the grid; now he looked down at his hands and saw them for what they were: flesh and blood, muscle and bone. Human. He was human, not integrated circuitry and binary code. He had no idea where or how he had learned to fly, only that he knew how to – instinctively – and the idea vaguely troubled him. As the looming mass of Greenland approached he suddenly remembered flying was something he’d learned to do years before – indeed, he found he recognized everything – even the shape of the mountain ranges dead ahead…yet nothing made sense absent memory, and now all memory was a huge black gulf, a frozen window locked outside of time – and he was on the outside, trying to get in.

Disconnected from the grid, memory began to flood unchecked, emotions came pouring into his mind without pattern or purpose. He panicked as he struggled with the concept of mortality, with death, and his mind tried to jump back to the safety of the network – but there was no connection out here. His eyes began blinking rapidly now, his breathing became shallow and rapid. The Falcon was on autopilot now, and without that aid – so complete was the Watcher’s disorientation – the jet would have crashed long ago. He fought to control the chaos that threatened to completely overwhelm him, and knew he was losing…

…when a shadow passed over cockpit – and he ducked instinctively. He struggled to hold his fear in check, then turned and looked out beyond the left wingtip. His eyes fluttered, his heart hammered inside his chest…

“This is not possible,” he whispered through gritted teeth. “This cannot be…”

Another aircraft hung off his wingtip, but whatever the thing was it looked like nothing he had ever seen or heard of before. The craft was grayish-black and shaped something like a manta-ray, except of course it wasn’t alive at all. He saw the pilot of the other craft and his mind reeled – it was as if his entire understanding of the universe had suddenly come unhinged…

‘Why don’t I know what this is?’ the voice in his voice said. ‘I’ve seen these things somewhere…but where?’

It was like looking in a distant mirror, only this reflection moved of it’s own volition.

The other pilot was waving his hands, holding up a microphone; still the Watcher looked at this reflection, still he tried to deny the reality that hung motionless off his wingtip.

More motion…

The reflection was holding up a piece of paper.

There was writing on it. “117.5” was scrawled boldly in bright red ink; instinctively the Watcher understood and turned to the radio console under the windshield and adjusted the primary to that frequency. He keyed his microphone: “Unidentified aircraft,” the Watcher said unsteadily, “state your name and purpose.”

The reflection was wiping his eyes! What? Was the man crying? Or laughing?

“I repeat! Unidentified aircraft, state your purpose!”

He saw the man bring the microphone to his mouth, saw him key the microphone, heard the other man struggling to compose himself…

“Dad? Dad, is that you? It’s me! Jamie!”

+++++

Tribonian Thor Bergtor-son drummed his fingers on the duraplast desktop while he listened to Justinian Sinn August-dottir as she finished her preliminary report; he tried to keep his sense of irony in-check while he watched the ring on her left hand glimmer in gauzy light, and wondered who she’d set her sights on next…

“To conclude, Tribonian, the armed force simply disappeared as quickly as it appeared. We were unable to track the tire-prints of their vehicle after a few blocks…”

“Why don’t you state the obvious, Justinian. This new group is well organized, much more so than any other group we have encountered before.”

“Yes, but as you say, the point is obvious, Tribonian. What is less obvious is why they took Aurelius Krül-son, and not me. I would think capturing a Justinian would be a high priority for any resistance group…”

“Resistance?! You think these people are so inclined? That resistance is their purpose?”

“It is a possibility we must consider. They evidenced cohesive small unit tactics and excellent coordination.”

“Military?”

“Hard to say with certainty, Tribonian. I would say that is the most likely possibility, however.”

“I had hoped we eliminated that threat twenty years ago.”

“Yes, I know, but some estimates conclude that many thousands disappeared when the First Republic collapsed. These personnel have never been adequately accounted for, and they could have been training all this time…”

“I understand. Anything to add?”

“A pity we had no warning,” Sinn August-dottir said slowly. She looked directly at her superior while she spoke, and the Tribonian concentrated on meeting her eyes, revealing nothing. He dared not allow her to compromise his connection to either the BlackWatch, or the Galts.

“Yes. As you say, a pity.” He looked at her with cold, detached eyes: “How do you plan on conducting the rest of your investigation?”

She outlined her plan: to search all the buildings in a one mile radius, to question every man, woman and child in the area, to follow all leads they developed until they found the cadet and carried his captors before God’s servants.

“You will keep me informed, I take it, Justinian? As your investigation proceeds?”

“Yes, Tribonian.”

He toggled the screen and severed the holo, leaned back in his chair and laughed for a very long time.

+++++

Aerrik Aerrik-son sat with his head down; he tried not to stare at the two empty chairs beside his table in the dining room, but every so often his eyes drifted to them and that same cold pressure returned to his chest. Pol – dead and buried now – and Aurie gone too, probably dead, if first reports were to be believed. And all within a few minutes.

Was life really so fragile? So meaningless?

Greggor Tarkus-son did not outwardly appear as distressed as Aerrik but his gut burned with virulent intensity as his mind drifted back to the sight Pol’s mutilated, bullet-riddled body. He knew well ahead of time the attack would be bad, knew Pol’s death would by ugly, and deliberately so, but once it had been discovered that Pol was one of the informers planted by a Senatus committee looking to ferret out potential infiltrators within the Institute, the BlackWatch had decided to act. Greggor knew it was only a matter of time until his activities were discovered; he had dropped off the information to his controller and understood it would only be a short time until an operation was mounted to plug the leak. What was a surprise, however, was word of Aurie’s disappearance. He’d had no clue that was in the works, and no idea why that had been deemed necessary.

“How are you two doing tonight?”

Greggor looked up, saw the Commandant, saw the concern in her eyes; he shrugged noncommittally before standing: “I am better, Commandant.”

“Stay seated, please,” she said before Aerrik could push back in his chair. “May I join you?”

“Please,” Greggor said, but she sat in Aurie’s chair and he winced.

“You four were very close. We know that. Is there anything I can do?”

Aerrik looked away – it was as if a vital spark had been snuffed from his life and he had been set adrift.

“Is it possible for us to be assigned to assist in the investigation, Commandant?”

She shrugged. “With over four months before graduation? I think not, but I can see to it that you spend weekends in that division.”

“Thank you, Commandant.”

“Aerrik?” the Commandant said softly while she looked at the boy.

He looked up, his eyes a wasteland of grief. “Commandant?”

“Would you like to speak to a priest?”

He looked away, tried not to meet her eyes.

“Aerrik?”

“I’ll be alright, Commandant.”

“I might believe that if you were eating your food, but this is two days now, Aerrik, and not a bite.”

“I am taking the supplements, Commandant. I cannot hold down my food.”

“I see. Is there blood in your stool?”

“Yes, Commandant.”

She sighed, stood to get up from the chair. “Very well, come with me. We shall go to the clinic.”

They stood and walked from the table; the other cadets in the dining room looked at Aerrik as he followed the Commandant from the room, then all eyes turned on Greggor. There was confusion in many of the eyes he saw, and he wondered if he had been compromised – and then Aerrik’s words entered consciousness.

“Oh, no,” Greggor just barely moaned the words. Of course! No appetite, bloody stool: radiation poisoning. He started to cry, so he didn’t see all the other cadets turn back to their meals and resume eating.

+++++

The Mag-Lev car stopped in a huge natural cavern; the air seemed almost icy when Aurie and the silent woman disembarked. Milky stalactites graced the high ceiling as far as he could see, while tunnels – apparently new ones – disappeared at odd angles everywhere he looked. And there were structures in here! Houses, small to be sure, but houses! He heard a dog barking, a baby crying – and wondered where they were. And the light was dim here, and growing more so by the minute. Were they losing power?

“Come,” the woman said. “We have a long walk and the sun is going down.”

“Excuse me? Did you say the sun?”

“Yes. The light fades. The sun goes down.”

Now Aurie was confused. Was she stupid? Trying to be cute? Could it be that this woman thought he was the ignorant one – but how could the sun set inside a cavern?

‘And why does she seem so familiar?’

They came to another metal door, this one manned by someone in uniform; when they passed this guard they walked down yet another metal tunnel, and to another vehicle of some sort. This one was narrow, was barely tall enough inside for Aurie to remain upright, and almost every seat was taken. The people seated there regarded him curiously, like he was something far removed from the routine of their lives.

“Sit! Quickly now, and put on your seatbelt.”

Almost as soon as he looked-up from his lap he felt movement, slow, deliberate, and far below the clunking of heavy metal on metal. A turbine-like noise, perhaps some kind of engine spooling up, became apparent. A chime, a flashing light:

“Please put your head back, and your arms on the rests by your side,” an unseen voice said.

“What is this?!” Aurelius Krül-son said, his voice quivering now, his every sense filling with total dread, his brain screaming some kind of primeval warning.

The woman put her hand on his for a moment: “Look out the window,” she said, her voice full of expectation.

The noise rose to a thundering roar just before Aurie was pushed back in his seat by an unbelievably powerful force. He just managed to turn his head in time to see the subterranean darkness give way to brilliant sunshine as the rocket left earth. Barren mountains fell away almost instantly and within moments he could see the curvature of the earth, and the pale beige ring of atmosphere still keeping the icy vacuum of space away. The noise stopped, the landscape below grew greener, lakes appeared – and even patches of snow – snow! – remained on the northern slope of some of the taller mountains. Then, after less than ten minutes aloft, the craft was descending.

He felt the woman’s hand searching for his again, and he turned to look at her.

“Where are we going?” he said. “Where are you taking me?”

“Home,” the woman said. “I’m taking you home.”

+++++

The dark manta-shaped aircraft slipped a little ahead and the Watcher tucked into close formation off it’s right wingtip like he had done it a thousand times before – and, he was beginning to think, perhaps he had. The line between memory and reality was very indistinct now – he simply couldn’t understand how or why his body knew what it did. Conscious memory played no role: if some flight parameter needed attention he was on it – without a moment’s pause or the slightest hesitation. He knew. He understood. He had no idea why.

And what of the man in the other aircraft?

‘How could I be his father?’ the Watcher said.

“Repeat that?”

The Watcher shook his head, scanned the instruments. “What makes you think I’m your father?”

“Dad, not to evade the question, but we need to keep radio silence as we close on the coast.”

“Of…Greenland?! Why?”

“It’s not called Greenland anymore, Dad. Just keep on me. Once we leave the west coast we’ll alter course to, uh, a little, uh, to the right.”

“What?”

“You can fall off a little, Dad. We’ve got a long way to go. And don’t worry. It’ll all start coming back soon.”

“What?”

But the frequency was silent now, the sun high overhead as the two aircraft flew over jagged mountains and fertile valleys. Fifteen minutes later they left the safety of land again, sun glittered off Baffin Bay seven miles below and scattered clouds not far above the ocean’s surface cast deep black shadows on the sea. Then the radio came alive for a moment:

“Dad, course change in ten seconds.”

The Watcher flipped off the autopilot with his thumb, cued-on the other aircraft’s aileron movement to begin his turn; they settled on 310 degrees and he set the heading bug and toggled the autopilot on again. Another hour and he could just make out sunlight glittering off Hudson’s Bay a little to the right of their present course. He scanned the instruments, staggered under the onslaught of so much memory coming back so suddenly. Everything now looked familiar! Why the delay?

James Bay? Is he leading me to James Bay? Why?!

“How you doing, Dad?”

“I’ve got about two hours left before I’ll need to find a Texaco station.”

“A what?”

“Fuel.”

“Copy. We’re about six hundred out.”

“Shit. I could use a double Whopper with cheese about now.”

“A what?”

“Uh, Burger King? Ever heard of Burger King?”

“Negative.”

“Fuck.”

“Roger that. Take it that was some kind of hamburger place?”

“Affirmative.”

“Don’t sweat it then, pops. Mom’ll fix you up in no time!”

“Mom?” A swirling kaleidoscope of images filled the Watcher’s mind. “Sarah?”

“Roger that, pops.”

“Fuck.”

“That ain’t the half of it, Dad. Not even close.”

“What? Why?”

“You’ll find out in a little bit.”

“Fuck.”

+++++

The Commandant paced back and forth in her office, hands behind her back, chin almost on her chest, and her crisp white uniform seemed so heavily starched the fabric might crack at any moment. Her lips bunched up from time to time and she wrinkled her nose constantly – as if she’d passed through a particularly vile odor. There had been rumors throughout the night that Justinian Sinn’s investigation had literally uncovered something of significant importance; indeed, the implications were life-altering – if the rumors were true. She had been waiting for a report from the field for over three hours, pacing back forth all the while, and now she was beyond aggravated.

The sun was high in the morning sky, and for some reason it seemed unnaturally bright. Of course temperatures were climbing to unheard of levels, and to make matters worse it was long past her bedtime. The Institute’s cadets had been asleep for hours and she was exhausted, but she knew sleep would never come until these rumors were dealt with. She walked to the window and looked at the sun once again: not yet noon and already151 degrees. If there was a reactor failure, and the power failed?

Without air conditioning, what would they do?

Die, she said to herself. Quickly, and horribly.

She increased the polarization of her office windows and pushed another button, retracted the metal solar-shutters, looked through the slits at the amber-haze and roiling thermals that filtered her view of the city. Two air-cars approached; one broke off for the city while the other slowed, banked into a hard right turn and circled to bleed off speed. It was Sinn’s car, she saw, and the Commandant smiled as it settled into a hanger just a few meters from her window. The canopy opened as the hanger doors wheezed shut and she watched as Sinn August-dottir climbed out of the car and darted into the air conditioning; she frowned once again at the consequences of so much heat, so early.

A moment later Sinn walked into the Commandant’s room.

“I’ve never felt such heat, Nyx,” the Justinian said as she made her way to the chair. “It was 150 degrees in the air over Rampart and the park, and this by 0930!”

The commandant nodded her head but ignored the implications. “Work progresses on schedule, or so I have heard. The mountains will be ready in time, and we will survive.” She turned around and looked at the Justinian. “What have you found? Tell me.”

“A tunnel, of sorts.”

“A tunnel?”

“Perhaps more a passageway.”

“And? What is so interesting about this tunnel?”

“We went down three hundred paces, came to a sealed door, more like a bank’s vault. Very heavy, impossible to open without codes. Sensors watched us all the way down.”

“You think you were being watched?”

“Cameras moved as we moved, Commandant. Yes, we were watched.”

“And codes, you say.”

“There were retina scanners and finger-pads, Commandant.”

“Who knows of this?”

“Myself and Commander Weblen-son, and the three officers with us.”

“No more?”

“No, Commandant.”

“Have you told the Tribonian?”

“No, Commandant; just Weblen-son and the other three know of this.” Sinn looked at Nyx, wondered what the other woman – for years her mentor – was thinking. “Can we not trust him?”

The Commandant shook her head, lost in thought. “No. I think not.”

That revelation shook the Justinian: “Why not?”

“I’m not sure. Just a feeling.”

“Oh.”

“Yes. ‘Oh.’ Call it a woman’s intuition. It may be that simple, but I feel like he knows something, like he’s keeping an important secret from us.”

Sinn nodded. “Yes. I too have felt that.”

“And perhaps for quite some time.” The Commandant looked at Sinn, at the downward cast of her face, the sorrow that had only recently etched deep lines around her eyes. “I see you have taken the ring off. What do you plan to do now?”

“I’m not sure yet.”

“You look sad. I did not think you liked the boy so.”

“Yes. Neither did I. There was something about him, Nyx, something I can’t quite put my finger on. Some deeper purpose in his eyes, and I suspect that was what attracted me most.”

The Commandant watched Sinn August-dottir, watched her soft eyes and her delicate fingers steeple as she talked, as the younger woman became almost entranced — lost perhaps, as if in prayer. She moved to Sinn’s side and stroked her hair — a maternal impulse to be sure, but an impulse as confused as any the Commandant had endured in recent years. She loved Sinn completely but struggled with this most evil of impulses — the Church regarded such union as heresy, as reason for excommunication and even banishment. She shuddered at the thought; images of others so castigated remained with her from her own time on the force. Bodies withered from relentless radiation, some falling to cancers caused by localized radiation from power plants shattered during the resource wars. Most of the basin was a wasteland now, a wasteland of truly biblical proportions.

Yet all biblical prophecy had come to pass, hadn’t it?

Those non-believers who claimed what had happened was little more than self-fulfilling prophecy had been deluded, and ultimately purged from the Body of Christ. What was left had been sanctified, cleansed in the baptismal fount of war and re-birth…

“Was he one of the Taken?” the Commandant heard Sinn ask, and she stopped running her fingers through the girl’s hair – for a brief moment. They rarely spoke of such things even now, rarely acknowledged the truth of what had been done in the aftermath of the Second Secession War, but the Commandant felt she owed Sinn at least this small measure of truth.

“Yes. He was.”

“Oh, dear God, no…” Sinn whispered.

“Perhaps that is the strength you recognized in the boy.”

“Commandant, could it be that was why he was taken, and I was not?”

The thought seemed to hit the Commandant like a blow to the gut; it very nearly took her breath away and she walked to her desk, opened a file on her computer and studied its contents. The consequences of failing to act now might well be catastrophic; the boy had been abducted a week ago, and if his abduction was not an accident there was no telling how deep this went.

Yes, she said as she read the files, the time had come; she had to – they had to act now – there were no more alternatives. Act now, and act with the full fury of God behind their actions.

She looked at the link at the bottom of the page one last time before touching it, before summoning a full emergency plenary of the Senatus and the Church, and she wondered with awe in her heart just what might come from all the force she was summoning, ready to unleash on the Unbelievers one last time.

+++++

The Watcher’s name had once been Thomas Stormgren, and so it was again.

Reunited with his wife and two boys, the nightmare of the past fifteen years was over; the final phase of a plan almost twenty years in the making was beginning to take shape. Surgery to remove the implants had been painful but regeneration sprays had healed the wounds inside of three days; memory still flooded into consciousness causing short periods of anomie – and these bouts were always followed by severe agitation – but slowly elements of his earlier life were drawing into sharper focus.

After the First Resource War, and long before the ascendance of Church Elders to total power, before the creation of the SenatusConsultus and implementation of the Corupus Iurus Civilis II, select members of the military from around the world had been recruited to join a new organization. Membership was limited to those few who had not fallen yet into the radical new evangelicalism, and these military leaders had been summoned by scientists and engineers to discuss a radical idea, a plan to save a last remnant of reason from the coming dark ages. Resources were diverted, the first layers of infrastructure planned and built. Even as resource wars broke out and raged, even as the First Republic and member states of the European Union fell to increasingly radical right wing forces, and even as civilization itself began to fail under the weight of devastating population increases and catastrophic climatic collapse, the self-proclaimed BlackWatch organization funneled more and more resources into the implementation of this daring plan.

The earth was, scientists explained, doomed – at least as far as continued human habitation on the planet’s surface was concerned. Plans to move underground would, they reasoned, fail – due to the same reasons life failed on the surface: population pressure and dwindling resources managed by the superstitious and those consumed by other mysticisms. An underground civilization would become as Hobbes and Malthus predicted; life would become nasty, brutish and short and renewed population pressure in a finite space would ensure final extinction. Life on earth could be extended perhaps fifty years by moving underground, but the end would be the same. There had to be another way to keep humanity alive, and to keep the flame of reason burning.

And this other way had come from a most unexpected place.

NASAs Planet Finder Telescopes, the first series launched in the 2020s, had revealed scores of worlds within 50 light years, and many seemed likely candidates for further research; of these a few dozen had been revealed – by spectroscopic analysis – to possibly be hospitable to carbon-based life. A second, more powerful series of telescopes was launched in the 2030s, and one of these had been successful in resolving three of these planets in extraordinary detail, detail sufficient to conclude that human life might have a chance of surviving on one, or possibly all three. They each had oceans and land masses filled with snow-capped peaks, rivers and forests and grasslands. None showed signs of an advanced, industrialized civilization.

Then came the neoconservative resurgence of the 2050s, and the rise of the so-called American Ayatollahs, then states seceding from the union – all happening as the climate began heating at unprecedented rates and crops began failing globally. Local conflicts between impacted states spilled into regional wars, emerging superpowers were pulled by treaty obligations into protecting failing client states, and then exchanges of nuclear weapons followed. At the same time, civil wars raged within militaries around the world as the forces of evangelism, suddenly emboldened by their resurgence, began to purge non-believers from their ranks. At that point the BlackWatch organization began moving into prepositioned sanctuaries, but many could not move fast enough to protect their families.

Perversely, children of these warriors were seized not as hostages but to seed a new generation of evangelical soldier, and these children had been collected, whenever possible, after their parents were killed. But others were simply abducted and their parent’s killed, and most of these children were raised in monastic orders, indoctrinated in the ways and beliefs of a new world order, raised to protect Christian society until cities could be built under the earth. Perhaps by then, the thinking went, these Christian warriors would be ready to rule the Underworld in His name.

The BlackWatch, of course, tapped into the surveillance organs of these new state organizations, slipped agents into the framework of power around the world. Resistance fighters, most former military, were re-tasked and re-armed, then turned loose to harass local governments, and all these activities were coordinated by hundreds of men, fathers for the most part, who had been surgically augmented to interface with networked super-computers around the world.

In the end there was little said or done by the SenatusConsultus that was not monitored by the BlackWatch; indeed, most human activity on the surface was eventually fed into their sprawling network. In time the BlackWatch realized there was little need to interfere in the affairs of the mystics; they were rapidly imploding, taking with them most of the earth’s remaining population, yet over time their aim became more compassionate. The BlackWatch wanted to help manage civilization’s collapse – to minimize human suffering, and to preserve a nucleus of people, people who would journey to the stars in search of a new home.

And yet Thomas Stormgren, the Watcher, remembered everything he had ever experienced while connected to the network.

Everything.

And he remembered just learning about a project the SenatusConsultus had long been rumored to be working on. Something that had to do with turning the earth into a star, so that humanity could spread out on solar winds – and grow even closer to God.

+++++

Aurelius Krül-son’s birth name was Austin Stormgren, and he was Thomas’ youngest son. His mother, Sarah, escaped with his brother James into the BlackWatch network when the first great purge began; she had almost managed to get to Austin before the military police arrived at the base school, but looked on helplessly as all the children on the base were taken into “protective custody” – no reason given, no reports of their whereabouts attainable. She knew enough about the BlackWatch to trust them when they told her they would be able to monitor her son, to look out for him. Though heartbroken, she had resumed work as an engineer for Lockheed-Martin in their newest facility, located in the cold, hard granite five hundred feet beneath the vast Hydro-Quebec facilities near Chisasibi, Canada. She was able to watch intermittent video feeds of his progress through school, though more often than not these tended to depress her severely for days on end.

As hard as it had been for Sarah Stormgren to lose this vital contact with her son, when Thomas volunteered to move to The Magic Mountain, the so-called Human-Hybrid Super Computer facility located under an old sanitarium outside of Davos, Switzerland, she had been completely devastated. Thomas had the intellect for this work and, quite suddenly, vast amounts of time on his hands. With no pressing need for pilots, he began analyzing tactical and strategic options. What active military was left of the First Republic had been concentrated in the hands of US Navy submariners, and all had effectively made it under the protective aegis of the BlackWatch. New bases were built for the old subs, and while they rarely went on patrol, their missiles were constantly upgraded. And ready for use.

But on what?

One of the SenatusConsultus’ first decrees was to eliminate all military and police who refused to take the new oath of allegiance; this had the unintended consequence of driving the few undecided officers and enlisted men into covert service for the BlackWatch. By further SenatusConsultus decree, those high-ranking officers that remained, and who wished to serve government in a high-ranking capacity, had to either submit to chemical castration or join a monastic order and work under those conditions. Most of the men that chose to submit were, oddly enough, already members of the BlackWatch, and so the series of infiltrations that took place over the coming years were in a way pre-ordained.

The SenatusConsultus, at first composed of fearful old men and ambitious young women, grew increasingly leery of letting these retired military men serve in any capacity unless neutered; the First Reforms enshrined this trend by concentrating power in the hands of people who knew well the Evils of Testosterone. The only men in the SenatusConsultus were, in consequence and predictably, chemically castrated; only later was it required that they possess a degree from the new military-theological seminary in Bethlehem.

Ironically, it was at this time that women in the SenatusConsultus began experimenting with the use of testosterone, and with quite unexpected results. These women soon became territorial and predatory; they fast developed a lust for power that soon grew to heights once seen only in members of the First Republic’s senate, and a fair amount of sexual predation was rumored to have been concealed by Justinians guarding the SenatusConsultus proper in New Jerusalem. Gender identity issues surfaced during this period as well, particularly within the Justinian class, as women were increasingly attracted to one another. As testosterone use soared, predation on underage children, particularly young girls, become more and more prevalent among members of the SenaturConsultus, to the point that these children were put on display as symbols of status. The use of prohibited toys was rumored to be out of control, as well.

It was also during this period that the use of illegal, mostly homemade narcotics skyrocketed. Psychobiologists had long known there was a connection between a propensity to experience religious euphoria and the various addictive disorders associated with narcotics use; academics studying this phenomenon had concluded decades before that areas in the brain that governed religious euphoria were indeed the same regions of the brain stimulated by narcotics, especially hallucinogenics – and not coincidentally this area of the brain mediated chemical dependence and addiction.

With the global environment collapsing, more and more people turned away from this painful new reality and fled inward; people either sought explanation and comfort through religious experience or fell into a landscape of narcotics induced delusion. Human productivity fell precipitously, apathy became the norm until new varieties of religious experience emerged as a practical solution to the problem of narcotics addiction. New cycles of dependence emerged as despairing people lurched from religious to chemically induced states of euphoria, with ever stronger doses of each needed to quell such misery.

With the draconian penalties imposed by the First Reforms, religion finally began replacing narcotics use on a vast scale; some critics implied that, in effect, one addiction had been replaced with another, more socially desirable addiction. But a further benefit emerged, one with more immediate consequences: people addicted to narcotics had for centuries proven to be very hard to control; yet as had been discovered near the end of the First Republic, those subsumed to religious mysticism and irrationalism were much more docile and far easier to manipulate for political gain. The SenatusConsultus was able to consolidate power globally after that effect was taken into consideration, and with only token resistance.

The BlackWatch, not coincidentally, elevated reason to the status of religion and banned traditional religious expression. The practical result of this edict was shocking and almost immediate: depression and suicide rates skyrocketed within months, social cohesiveness declined and apathy increased. Clearly, without some sense of greater Purpose the human animal withered and degenerated into chaos — or Hell, depending on your point of view. The social engineers counseling the BlackWatch were stunned by this finding and had no ready explanation, and no solution to offer.

It was during this transformative period that the last Terrestrial Planet Finder telescope put in orbit made its final and most shocking discovery, and this event bound together members of the BlackWatch as nothing ever had.

For you see, the orbital telescope had found, and this quite by accident as it turned out, a sailing vessel – seemingly adrift – in a sea of stars.

+++++

Thomas Stormgren shook his head, steepled his fingers reflexively while he listened – his two boys Jamie and Austin had a plan for getting all the remaining BlackWatch operatives out of Los Angeles, and while their idea had merit the proposed operation seemed more than risky. Now that the entryway to the Mag-Lev tunnel had been discovered, getting their people out of the region had become a high priority, and it would simply be a matter of days until enemy forces crushed each successive barrier and gained the Mag-Lev platform. The most likely result: the BlackWatch would lose physical contact with the west coast, and all their agents in the region would be lost. There simply wasn’t time to construct a new access-way, or divert the other resources needed to get these people out, but as is usually the case in such instances, the effort had suddenly taken on hues of a moral imperative.

And yet, Stormgren wasn’t so sure there wasn’t a girl behind Austin’s thinking. That Justinian. When he watched his son talk about Sinn, a veil slipped over the boy’s eyes. Attraction? Probably? Political utility? Maybe. But…was the kid simply horny as hell?

Yup. Definitely. So his thinking wasn’t quite clear, was it? More like testosterone addled…but even so, he had to listen…

“That’s why we go in daylight, Dad,” Austin said. “In and out, a fast pick-up. Three transports, four at the most.”

“You say that like three or four transport aircraft will suddenly grow out of this rock! Austin, the SkunkWorks will have to modify existing vehicles, and that could take weeks.” Thomas looked at his son – until a week ago he had been just a fleeting memory – and he hated himself for the pain he saw in his boy’s eyes. “Son, we just don’t have weeks. Hell, we may not even have days. The surveillance cams showed them moving heavy equipment down to the area around the ramp last night. They’ll move on it soon. We just…we’re simply running out of time!”

“Can’t we just blow the access tunnel? Keep them from getting to the platform?”

“And then what, Austin! Come on, think it through! How would you move our people down to the platform – and get them out?”

“That’s not my point, Dad. Simply denying access to the secret is the point. Once the Senatus knows the BlackWatch have developed the infrastructure to move people in and out of one city, they’ll make the next leap, that all their cities have been compromised, and then what? They found this one using fairly primitive sonar equipment; how long before the others are discovered?”

“Believe or not, son, we thought about that once upon a time.”

“And?”

Thomas chimed in now. “Defensive measures were included in their construction.”

“Like?” Jamie asked.

“Chemical weapons, for one.”

“Dad, you’ve got to be kidding! That’s insane!”

Thomas nodded. “I agree, but the option’s there if needed. The second option is only partly in place. We prepositioned arms for a large assault force near each platform, including a couple of tracked vehicles with mini-guns, vehicles designed to operate in the tunnels…”

“But you said…”

“…that they’d breech the platform soon. Yeah, I know. That’s the problem. We’d have to move on that option within hours.” Thomas paused, looked at his fingers again. “There is one final solution. We send a car down to the platform – with an armed warhead.”

“What?!” Cried Austin.

“Dad?” James said, noting that his little brother had started shaking. “What about the old airport, the one by the beach? Do they still use it?”

“The old LAX? Yeah, it’s still there. Maybe three or four shuttle flights in and out every month, but remember, the city’s biggest desalinization plant is about a mile south of it. Heavily fortified airspace, lots of cops and militia, lots of missile batteries.”

“What if we could get all our people to assemble nearby? Couldn’t we take one of the First Republic jets, maybe with a small assault force to secure the runway, make a fast pick-up and get out before they knew we’d been there?”

Stormgren shook his head. “I remember the security in the area. I know where every camera is, how many security people they have, even response times and patrol patterns…”

“How could you possibly know that, Dad?” Austin sighed.

Jamie put his hand on his brother’s shoulder, shook his head when they made eye contact.

“Oh. I forgot, Dad. Sorry.”

“No problem.” Thomas looked away; why was being a part of the so-called Hive so stigmatized? He felt it, though, everywhere he went. Like he was different now, that his in-depth knowledge made him suspect. But his older boy looked excited now, aggressive and excited. “Jamie, you look like you’re about to bust…what are you thinking?”

“A diversion, Dad. Focus their attention elsewhere while we slip into LAX.”

“The tunnel?” Thomas Stormgren said as a grin stretched across his face, or…perhaps something bigger?

“Why not?”

“We’d have to pick up about forty people, Jamie. At least that many. And it’ll probably be a hot pick-up.” A hot L-Z…? Wasn’t that what he used to call it. He looked at his boys, looked at them the way all father’s look at sons about to venture in harm’s way. Pride and fear. Pride and… “Now what, Austin?!”

“Well, if we go that route, I want to get Sinn.”

“I know you do, son. Have you thought of the risks involved?”

He sighed, looked dejected. “Oh, I know it won’t work. She’d be hard to lure in, let alone capture. Then she’d be a nightmare, trying to escape.”

Thomas Stormgren looked at Austin. What was the boy thinking? What was so important about this girl?

“Dad,” Jamie interrupted his thinking again. “About forty, you think?”

“Uh-huh. You have something in mind?”

James Stormgren smiled. It turned out he did – but first, Thomas decided to discuss this – with the BlackWatch, and an old friend.

+++++

While Tribonian Thor Bergtor-son listened to Stormgren, he grew increasingly aware of the predicament he was in – he and all the other BlackWatch secreted in the city. Getting Austin/Aurelius back to Chisasibi in time had been a priority, and a fitting gift for his old friend, but no one had planned on losing the Mag-Lev so soon as a consequence. Now, with the Emissary’s departure only weeks away, all their plans, and most developed carefully over the last five years, would have to be revamped.

Of most immediate importance?

Could new escape routes to the airport be developed – in the time they had left? All their lines of support could be exposed at any minute; security could be compromised at any level, and this meant the end of the line for the BlackWatch on the west coast. And that meant 40 men and women would be sacrificed to poor planning. His poor planning.

No, he had to come up with something. Some sort of diversion, something that would cause confusion from Rome to Jerusalem to Los Angeles. But what…?

The Watchers in Davos, Bergtor-son knew, were collating information, developing a workable plan based on probabilities and expected outcomes, but no plan was ever perfect, and outcomes were almost never what you expected them to be. Still, he had learned the Watchers liked the initial framework developed by James Stormgren and were busily refining the concept, so he had to accept that this plan – or something close to it – would land on his desk within hours, and he’d have to implement it quickly.

It was time, he knew, to activate his escape network. It was time to move the next pawn into place.

And time to take their queen.

+++++

“Who is that?” the Commandant asked. “Is he here in the city?”

She and Sinn were watching the video of an intercept, a private commlink playing on Tribonian Bertorson’s desktop monitor, but the audio was encrypted and could not be hacked, so they had no way to know what was being said.

“There is no exact match on file but the computer has developed probabilities. The most likely match is a man named Thomas Stormgren…”

“What!” the Commandant jumped up so suddenly she almost knocked her chair over. Her voice grew old and sinister: “Stormgren? Here in the city?”

“There’s no way of knowing that, Commandant.” Sinn had learned from hard experience to back-off when the Commandant spoke this way. She looked like a snake, a snake coiled to strike, and anyone in her way could get killed.

“The boy you like. Krül-son.” The Commandant’s eyes were dark now, dark with banked-down flames.

“What of him?”

“That was his birth name. Stormgren. Austin Stormgren.” The Commandant looked at the screen, then at the Justinian. The young girl looked sure of herself, of her facts anyway. But what else did she know?

“Then, Commandant, we know a link exists between this man Stormgren and the Tribonian, and if so, there is a link between the Tribonian and the attack on our officers.”

The Commandant nodded, her eyes narrowed to glowing slits. “If you are correct, our government has been compromised at every level.”

“Why do you say…”

“Think of it, Sinn!” the Commandant said as she slammed her hand down on the desktop. “The highest law enforcement officer in the region is linked to this tunnel! But what is this tunnel? Where does it lead? But then of even more importance, we must assume that these people have been using this facility for quite some time, to move people and supplies in and out of the city. First Republic supplies, I would assume?”

“Yes, Commandant. Autopsy recovered bullets from .223 caliber rifles, common in that era’s weaponry. Probably M-16s, or M4s.”

“Of course. But what of this boy? What if, as you suspect, he was part of this plan from the beginning? What would this mean? What have we missed? And who would be capable of such a plan?” The Commandant bunched her lips, her eyes burned now, burned with hatred. “I must go to the Council of Elders in Jerusalem.”

“What of the Senatus?”

“They may well be compromised,” the commandant said as she called up another screen, typed on her glass desktop and waited for the results to stream onto the main wall-screen. “I will need to leave tonight.”

“What of the Tribonian, Commandant?”

“He must not be alerted. Begin reinforcing our positions around the tunnel, surround the access-way and prepare a major assault on the facility for tomorrow evening. We will move on the Tribonian at the same time. I should return from New Jerusalem by late afternoon, and I want to be here to supervise that bastard’s interrogation.”

A cold chill ran down the Justinian’s spine when she saw the look of cold evil in the woman’s eyes. No, she wouldn’t want to be in his shoes, not then…

+++++

A Watcher processes intercepts streaming in from Los Angeles and passes these latest bits on to the group.

Plans are adjusted, probabilities and outcomes recomputed. A new strategy develops even as they monitor the Senatus’ plans, and the weapon they ready to deploy

Eyes blink rapidly now, and under a mountain in central Switzerland there is understanding that the end is near…and that there is no turning back from the chosen course.

+++++

As ground troops mass around a hastily drawn perimeter in the scorched remains of west-side Los Angeles, an air car hovers above a concealed access-way. It lies within piles of rubble, astride the crumbled façade of an abandoned auto dealership. The pilot concentrates on the scene below; the Justinian behind him is talking to Tribonian Bergtor-son, who nominally presides over such operations from the Judicial Ministry downtown.

“Permission to commence, Tribonian?”

“Permission granted, Justinian Sinn. I wish you success, and please, be careful.”

“Thank you, Tribonian.” She changed frequency, looked at the teams gathered below. “Marmot One, commence operation; Marmot Two, you are ordered to stand-by positions!” Then, on a separate frequency: “Blowback, prepare to go on my signal.”

“Blowback, roger.”

Men in gray move first and they are observed on screens around the world running down the once-secret ramp, this first team races to set their explosive charges around the vault door. A minute later they are seen running back up the ramp, taking cover beside the ruins. The Justinian’s air-car increases altitude and backs away from the site as one of the men below begins the countdown.

Sensors in the car record the explosion, and the blast is felt by people more than fifteen miles away, though the Justinian is first to see the result of this explosion with her eyes.

The earth shudders, then the outlines of a crater, more than a hundred meters wide, forms around the auto dealership – and all the ruins immediately around it. The earth heaves once – then settles with a deep sigh, and fires break out amidst scattered piles of wood and old automobile tires; Sinn sees the twisted remains of the vault door through cascades of falling earth, and rough outlines of the tunnel emerge through roiling smoke and rubble, still falling back into the earth. The pilot drops lower, hits the area with flood-lights and trains the intense beam down the tunnel.

“Goddamn!” Sinn August-dottir shouts on the command circuit. “Goddamn-it all to Hell!”

“Justinian! What is it? What do you see?”

Through the clearing smoke – about a hundred yards further down the tunnel – she can just make-out another vault door, and this one appears larger than the first, and somehow she knows this one will be much stronger, much more difficult to pierce.

“There’s another vault down there! Get another charge ready!”

“Yes, Justinian, but what about the crater walls, and the tunnel? Will we need to shore up the walls first?”

“There isn’t time…move your men, now!”

The Justinian’s air car hovered over the scene while the first group ran back down into the earth – but a moment later these men come tumbling out of the tunnel – coughing and rubbing their eyes. The Justinian looked at her monitor, saw blood coming out of one of the men’s mouth and nose.

“Goddamn-goddamn-goddamn! They are using gas!” the Justinian screamed on the command circuit. “Chemical protection suits, NOW!”

Then there is another explosion.

This one is deep inside the earth, and massive. Alarms inside the air car are howling, the pilot struggling for control. Radiation alarms begin pinging, then screaming for attention, and the Justinian see’s the outlines of a new crater form on her display. It is miles across, impossible to tell from this altitude, but she knows a nuclear warhead has just been detonated under the city.

She turns and looks at the entrance to the caves under the Santa Monica Mountains, where the future city waits for completeion, where her future resides. It is impossible for her eyes to take in, to understand, but the mountain range seems to leap up into the sky a few meters, then settle in on itself.

And then the San Andreas fault let’s go, one last time.

+++++

The Commandant had just re-boarded her jet in New Jerusalem – what was once called Avignon, in a country known for a time as France – and the data-link on her computer went active as the jet taxied to the active runway. She enabled the link, watched video of the operation back home as it streamed onto her monitor, and as she watched she opened a link to monitor the command circuit.

“Justinian!” she hears one voice among many as the chatter dies down, “radiation monitors are off the scale!”

She watches helplessly as Sinn’s air car begins spinning violently, as EMP devastates the cars fly-by-war controls and other systems, and with her heart full of black hatred, she watches as wounded men stagger around during the earthquakes. It will be hours, at least, before medical teams can get to the scene, before all their injured can be evacuated from the debris-field.

Then another circuit comes alive. “Commandant, the council has approved Crimson Eye. We will execute in 24 hours.”

“Understood,” she says, but she is not prepared to believe such a thing could finally really happen. She switches frequency again, to the command circuit in Saint Angeles, hoping to hear Sinn’s voice, but she knows this is a pointless gesture. Indeed, all is lost now, and she thinks that perhaps it’s better to have died in combat, without knowing what comes next.

+++++

The air car settled on the beach, near the point where Sunset Boulevard once joined the Pacific Coast Highway. Her pilot seemed shaken but was otherwise uninjured, and the Justinian helped him restart systems, then changed frequency on her comms panel, linked to her men gathered on the fifth floor of the Judicial Ministry:

“Operation Blowback, you are Case Green, repeat green, go for green,” she said over the encrypted link.

“Blowback is green,” she heard in reply, and a dozen commandos began their assault of Tribonian Bergtor-son’s office – with heavy force. Doors are blown from their hinges, windows shatter and books scatter to the floor. The commandos enter the Tribonian’s inner office, and…

“…Justinian, this is Blowback, negative contact, repeat, negative contact…”

“Affirmative. Proceed to secondary.” Sinn shakes, then screams in frustration: “Goddamn!”

Then she hears the commandant’s voice on the circuit and looks up to see her perplexed face on the screen.

“Justinian! What has happened?”

“He wasn’t there! But he was five minutes ago, and the office was surrounded!”

“We are compromised, Justinian. Assume all communications are monitored!”

“But, how…”

“Do the best you can! Stick to the plan, try to get him into custody. I am en route now.”

Red lights began flashing on Sinn’s central display, new data streamed onto the screen and she began to tremble as the picture began to take shape in her mind.

“Commandant, are you receiving this new data from Rampart?”

“No? What is happening?”

“Commandant, there have been attacks at desalinization plants all over the region, and the Institute reports gunfire within several dorm-pods. Central Division has been bombed and heavy casualties are reported.”

“Bombed? What do you mean, bombed? An aircraft?”

“No Commandant, first reports indicate IEDs of some sort, perhaps car-bombs.”

“I fear the End Times are upon us now, Justinian. We must pray together, soon.”

Perplexed now, the Justinian looked at another screen. The Commandant’s ETA was three hours, and that meant…

“The sun will have been up for an hour,” Sinn sighed, and the pilot came on line.

“Pardon, Justinian, did you say something?”

She changed frequency back to the primary command net.

“Status! Can anyone tell me what progress we are making?!” she yelled.

“Justinian!” It was a man’s voice. He sounded tired, overwhelmed.

“Commander Weblen-son! What is happening there?”

“The men were suiting-up; another charge being prepared when the detonation occurred. There is no longer any need, Justinian. The facility, whatever it was, is gone.”

“Very well; get your men out of the area as quickly as you can.”

“Yes, Justinian.”

+++++

Thorsten Weblen-son smiled. He had positioned their best troops, those most loyal to the Commandant, around the access-way and had totally committed them to this operation. And while the Commandant’s best troops were so occupied, he had quite deliberately left key points around the city unguarded. Would the device be big enough, he wondered?

It was a bold plan. Would it work?

“Snowbird 2, Snowbird 2, this is Streetsweeper.”

Streetsweeper! The Tribonian! He had escaped!

“Streetsweeper,” Weblen-son said into the small transceiver he had placed over his right ear. “Streetsweeper, Snowbird 2, go ahead.”

“I’m proceeding to secondary now. ETA ten. Final ETA is three hours, four minutes.”

“Copy three hours four. Ten mike to Songbird.”

“Roger. Advise after.”

“Roger, out.”

He turned to the Lieutenant by his side. “Is there anyone left?”

“Yes, Commander,” the commando said, still breathing heavily. “The tunnel area is gone, the men nearest too, but there are about twenty men climbing up the debris field, from parts of the area not so heavily affected.”

“The charges are in place?”

“Yessir.”

“Go ahead, then. We might as well get this over with.”

The second detonation wasn’t nearly as large as the first. Anti-personnel fragmentation charges would spray the crater with shrapnel, killing the remaining men climbing through the debris, yet Weblen-son was a mile away from the blast, and the earth shook so violently he was knocked from his feet.

Something wasn’t right. The device shouldn’t have caused this much damage, and he looked towards the west, saw a small mushroom cloud fanning out over the west side of the city. A small, tactical yield warhead, he guessed, but radiation levels would spike all over the basin with this latest blast.

He called the Justinian, but his calls were met with silence, so he turned to his men. “We must leave, quickly.”

+++++

Reports were coming in from all over the city. Car bombs, truck bombs, snipers hitting key facilities – and all within moments of one another! And the Tribonian! Where had he gone? How had he had disappeared – without a trace?! And the Commandant! She looked almost catatonic after the second, low-yield device, but this was not the time to lose your mind! Sinn August-dottir watched silently as she saw the spreading cloud…

“Pilot, move us away from the cloud, head towards the desalinization plant by the airport. There may be an attempt there.”

She looked down at the ruins of the city as the pilot began the turn, then it was as if time stopped for a moment. Her eyes wavered, the ground seemed to turn from a solid to a plasma within the span of one heartbeat, then the earth gave up a violent shudder. Smoke began pouring from cracks that seemed to materialize out of nowhere, then she looked down on lava erupting from within the cracks, lava that appeared without warning, radiating from somewhere deep within the earth – like slow-moving cracks across a window.

Radiation alarms flashed, warning alarms sounded and the air-car slammed into impossible turbulence.

“Climb!” she shouted. “Thermal currents! Climb faster!”

+++++

Thorsten Weblen-son and his men seemed beyond shock – the second detonation had been unexpected, and he didn’t know where it had come from, but the seismic activity was completely unexpected. Then the sound…?

A low rumble, so low he felt it in his bones, so intense he thought it was affecting his heartbeat, then the air pressure changed and it became hard to breathe.

The pavement cracking, parts of the street ahead bending – bending, goddamnit! – then steam pouring out of the fissures. One opened up in front of him and two of his team stumbled, fell inside. They rest ran to the edge and tried to look inside – but it was almost like fire leapt up and licked at them…then a wave of molten earth hissed from the crack and began bubbling down the street, and they had to backtrack, run a few blocks inland to get around the lava, but he saw another flow ahead, and more to the east so they turned and headed towards the beach. They were a mile from the airport when he heard the Justinian on the COMM-link.

“Commander! Situation report!”

“Justinian! You are alive! Where are you?”

“Over the sea. There is volcanic activity near the mountains, but it seems to lessen to the south. Where are you?”

“Moving to higher ground, but I don’t know where we are. The visibility here is impossible, and our NAV systems are unreliable.”

“We lost power, but we’re airborne, heading for the airport. Do you think you can meet me there, before the sun rises?”

“Yes, Justinian, we will make the attempt. If we can get our bearings… If not, we will have to seek shelter.”

“Understood, and good luck.”

He turned and looked seaward, saw her air car about a mile away and closing with their position on the beach.

“Can you get a lock?” he turned and asked one of his men. The man had a shoulder launched surface to air missile launcher and held it up to the sky.

“Positive lock, Commander.”

“Take her out, but disarm the warhead.”

Seconds later the missile leapt from the launcher and streaked towards the Justinian’s air car; it jinked and dove towards the sea but this was a First Republic launcher, and escape was impossible. The disarmed missile hit the Justinian’s air car beneath the exhaust ports, and they watched ejection seats blossom from the tumbling wreckage.

They were too low, he saw, for the chutes to arm and open, and he watched them slam into the water perhaps 500 meters from where they stood.

They’d not have to contend with the Justinian again, and perhaps not the Commandant or her troops! He looked at the sea, then at his watch. ‘So much to do,’ he thought. ‘We might just make it out of here after all!’

“Snowbird 2, Streetsweeper, Songbird is down. Repeat, Songbird is down.”

“Roger. Ascertain if she can still sing.”

“Snowbird 2 understood, out.” Well, that part had gone easily enough, Weblen-son thought. Now it was time for the fun part. He looked to the east, for the first hint of sunrise. They’d come from the east too, he knew, but now he’d have to try and get the Justinian.

His lieutenant looked at him. “Ready, sir? Or would you like to leave her?”

“No, I don’t think so. She may be able to talk.” He turned towards the smoke coming from, presumably, where the Justinian’s air-car had slammed into the water and he sighed. “Well, let’s go see if she made it.”

+++++

Austin Stormgren sat in the jump-seat behind his brother and another pilot in the cockpit of a remarkably old Boeing airliner, a 737-500, as Jamie called it. The poor thing was slower than molasses, capable of about one-tenth the Mach 10 speed the latest SCRAM-jet shuttles could achieve. Both the BlackWatch and high-ranking ConIsmus operatives normally used high speed shuttles to cover long distances, and this thing felt like a trolley car. And the cockpit smelled like nothing Austin had ever run into in his life. Coffee and body-odor stood out, but Jamie said the real stench came from tobacco. Tobacco! That stuff was legendary! But despite its slow speed, this old bird had one special trick up her sleeve that made her unique in all the world – and uniquely suited to this mission.

She had been the sole flying test bed for a next-generation electro-optical camouflage system when the First Secession War broke out. Austin didn’t understand it – basically sensors read light from the relevant angle and realigned molecules in a crystalline substrate applied to the surface features of the aircraft – and like a chameleon, the aircraft – from a distance at least – for all intents and purposes disappeared from view. The illusion broke down rapidly when you got within a quarter mile or so of the aircraft, but with Jamie’s plan that would be enough. Or so they hoped.

He leaned forward and looked out the cockpit window: he could see the wing flexing but it looked weird. They were miles above the desert floor but even in the early dawn light he could see desert features on top of the wing. The image shimmered and adjusted as the aircraft flew over a small mountain range; the wing looked more like a pile of boulders for a moment, then shimmered again into something new. He watched as Jamie looked at a screen full of radar data coming from who-only-knew – probably Davos, for all Austin knew – then spoke into the intercom.

“Target entering atmosphere. We should pick them up on their bleed, say within ten minutes, and expect landing another ten minutes after that.”

“Roger that,” came the metallic reply.

“I got time to pee?” Austin asked.

“Yeah. Fuck, I need to drain the main vein too. Jennie, take the airplane.”

“My airplane,” the co-pilot said.

“Come on,” Jamie said as he crawled and contorted his way out of the left-hand seat. “Fuck, feels good to stretch for a second. Ah!”

They walked back into the cramped aisle by the forward galley and the main entry; Jamie opened the bi-fold door to the tiny restroom and fired away, talking all the while about what a funky airplane the 737 was, how solidly built it was and how easy it was to fly, then he backed out and motioned: “Your turn.”

“Not much on privacy, are you?”

“No such thing, living inside a fucking rock, but you get used to it. Anyway, you’d better get used to it, too, at least if you’re serious about making it onto The Emissary. There aren’t that many open slots left, you know.”

“I’ll make it.” Austin leaned into the room and held his nose while he pee’d. He popped out after thirty seconds and gasped for air. “My God in Heaven! It really stinks in there!”

“Yeah? Seventy year old crap’ll do it every time. Remember, this bird ain’t no spring chicken.” He patted a wall affectionately, looked around at the interior, at the men gathered in the rear.

“You seem to take everything so calmly, Jamie. How do you do it?”

“Hm-m? Hell, I don’t know, kid. Just the way it’s been, I guess. When you fly, you stay calm or you screw the pooch every time. You get killed, fast. And speaking of which, you’re gonna need to be thinking pretty quick on your feet in about ten minutes. You’d better go back there, get with the ground team and ready to roll.”

“Yeah, right.” Austin turned, looked at the commandos huddled in the rear of the aircraft. Fifty men against whatever thousands ConIsmus could muster. Would they be enough? Would Weblen-son really be able to neutralize so many, so quickly? “Well, good luck Jamie.”

“Me? Shit, Ace, I’m gonna be sittin’ up front reading some vintage porn while you’re out there kicking ass. I may have big brass balls up here in the big, blue sky, but put me on the ground and I grow chicken feathers every time.”

They looked at each other for a moment, then shook hands. It was an awkward moment, in a relationship that had been nothing but a brief series of awkward moments.

“Right. Well, take care, brother.”

“I’ll try to keep a couple of cold ones ready.”

“Cold ones?”

James slapped his brother’s back. “Later, Ace, later. I’ve got to go do some of that flying shit right now.” He turned and walked back into the cockpit but hesitated a moment, turned and looked at his little brother one more time. He swallowed hard, tried to keep from tearing up while he watched the kid walk back to the other men.

“What a crazy, fucked up world!” he said, almost to himself. He turned and shut the cockpit door behind him.

+++++

Tribonian Bergtor-son led his small team – and the people they’d picked-up over the past couple of hours – through the Institutes buildings; he was looking for Misogi Kibata, the silver-haired exchange cadet from the Asiana confederation. The girl’s father was part of Asiana’s mission to the BlackWatch; it would do no good at all at this late date to lose the girl – even if she had known the risks. Besides, he’d heard a rumor she had a crush on Aurelius/Austin. That couldn’t hurt. And if he could get her onto The Emissary? Goodness! What concessions could he wring from Asiana for that

His radio crackled.

“Streetsweeper-3 to lead, we’re with Snowbird and we have her.”

“Lead to three, good work. Proceed to pick-up.”

Outstanding. Now, why hadn’t he heard from the birdmen?

+++++

Weblen-son pulled the Justinian through the surf, then up onto the beach. He looked at his watch, counted the minutes until sunrise. “Cutting it close,” he said.

She was bleeding, bleeding badly, but he hadn’t expected the sharks. He’d lost two men out there, two men when the brutes had appeared. The air car’s pilot started screaming, then disappeared in a thrashing flurry of red foam, and Weblen-son had grabbed the Justinian and begun pulling her towards shore. The next attack was beat back with small arms fire, but the sharks learned fast and came up from underneath on their next run. Weblen-son and five of his men made it ashore with the Justinian, and two of them were firing at the circling fins even now. His medic and another squad had remained ashore and they were tending the Justinian now, while he coughed and heaved salt water and bile onto the sand.

+++++

Her eyes were closed tight and she could barely open them, so Sinn August-dottir drifted, still sitting, she assumed, in her air-car. Suddenly she was aware of pain, pain in her legs and she forced her eyes open, reached down and felt her flight suit had been cut away. She forced her eyes open, raised her head and saw there was a blood-soaked pressure dressing over the top of her right thigh, and now her forehead burned, She reached up, felt a deep cut there, felt blood oozing through a gauze pad hastily taped there, then she saw four other men were laying on the beach beside her, two wounded badly but still talking, two no longer talking, and she wondered how she got to the beach. Then she saw the horrible gashes on their thighs and arms and she remembered flashing teeth, gunfire, and Weblen-son pulling her through the water. She heard gunfire in the memory, primal fear, existential fear, and she tried to recall having felt that way before, ever, but she simply could not. There had been nothing like this to fear in decades, since before she was born, and she saw them clearly now – the sharks that had come for her. The black eye, the huge open mouth, the serrated teeth. Great White. She remembered the image from a memory, a book perhaps, or a movie, and she saw the shark in her mind’s eye and compared that to the animal in the water.

“Yes, it was a Great White,” she said gently.

“Three of ‘em, Justinian,” one of the wounded men said. “Hey doc, she’s up!”

A medic was by her side now, sticking a syringe full of morphine into her other thigh. The world began to swim and shimmer as rolling waves of warmth carried into softness, and she could just barely make out what the men are saying…

“She’s lost a lot of blood, Commander.”

“We don’t have time for this; we’ve got to get moving!”

“Moving?” the Justinian said through a shifting purple haze, “Moving where, Commander?”

“To the airport, Justinian. The hospitals were attacked not long ago, and the streets are no longer safe. There is an aid station at the airport, and we’ve been told to report there.”

“What…? Why there…?” she tried to speak, instinctively knew something was wrong but her body wasn’t responding anymore. An orderly leaned over and put an oxygen mask over her face…but the gas smelled odd, metallic…then she felt her body falling, falling like a leaf onto a broad, fast running current… ‘I remember water,’ she thought – as the last ragged vestiges of consciousness reached out for her, before she was pulled up into the light. “I remember water,” she said, but her mind was closing now, her breathing too slow, almost shallow when she saw the rolling black eye again. She tried to fight now but nothing worked – and she knew she was doomed.

“We’ve got to hurry,” Weblen-son told his medic. His men gather and put her on a stretcher, and are walking through the sand towards ground transports when a huge, ripping sonic boom tore through the sky high overhead. Weblen-son looked up, saw the Commandant’s SCRAM-jet shuttle re-entering the atmosphere high over the city, then begin its wide, arcing turn to bleed-off energy out over the sea. He wasn’t a pilot, not a real pilot, anyway, but he knew with the wind blowing from the sea to the land that the shuttle would land heading west, that it would line up for the approach to LAX over the city, and he knew they were running out of time.

“Alright, that’s it…they’re here! We’re got to make a run for it, or we’re staying here for the duration.” He looked at the fiery re-entry one last time while his men loaded into the trucks, while he did the math. “We’ve got about ten minutes to get to the rendezvous.”

With the Justinian’s stretcher secured in the back of the transporter he clambered in, but he paused and looked at his dead men on the beach – then out to sea, remembering. He shook his head and climbed in, put on his seat belt as the pilot pulled back on the stick; the truck crawled up into the grim, smoke-filled sky, and he looked at the arcing gray smoke trail of shuttle – now out over Catalina Island – as it turned to the east.

‘This is going to be close,’ he said to himself, then realized he hadn’t heard from StreetSweeper for far too long – and wondered what had gone wrong.

+++++

“There it is!”

James Stormgren craned his head to the right, looked out past the co-pilot’s pointing finger. The SCRAM-jet was trailing a thick white vortex of condensation, the fiery residue from re-entry, and it appeared to be turning on the base leg of it’s approach while still over the sea. He looked down at the shiny domes that covered the remnants of Palm Springs, then at the threat receivers on the instrument panel: everything was still ‘all quiet’ – until the radio came to life:

“Angel One, LA Center, clear to land, no other traffic, contact approach on one two two point five.”

“Angel One to one two two point five,” he heard the shuttle’s pilot say.

Stormgren reached up, dialed in the new frequency and began jamming the ground radar, looked out over the left wing and saw the Commandant’s shuttle begin it’s turn onto final. He poured on throttle and began climbing for the intercept; by the time they were over the eastern limits of the city’s ruins he had the ‘invisible’ 737 tucked in behind, and just a little above, the shiny white dart-shaped shuttle.

And so far no radar contact, no warble from the threat receiver.

He backed off a little, moved a little left, then he saw another shimmer in the air.

His father, in the F35. The last real First Republic fighter, the fighter his father had flown once upon a time. He looked at the shuttle and a part of him hated to destroy such a beautiful machine, let alone the men and women inside, and a part of him hoped the other pilot would be able to control the shuttle and somehow bring her down intact. He wondered if he’d be able to in similar circumstances.

Probably not, he told himself. The shuttle was little more than a falling brick now, an unpowered glider with no way to evade a hostile enemy.

‘Murder,’ he thought. ‘This is little more than murder…’

He could see a huge white desalinization plant off to the southwest, the coast and sea sparkling beyond; almost dead ahead he could see the remnants of huge explosions drifting in the still morning air, apparently large fires were still burning down there in the city, probably out of control now, the heat out of control too.

“Five hundred,” the automated voice of the flight computer chimed as the runway grew near.

“Missile armed,” he heard his father say, and he knew that almost instantly threat receivers on the shuttle would go off, that they’d initiate countermeasures.

“Center, Angel One, we’ve got missile warnings up here…”

“Angel One, nothing on radar. It must be ground based…”

“Two hundred, minimums,” the voice of the 737s flight computer said.

“Fox one!” Thomas Stormgren said, yet the command was almost whispered. The Sidewinder leapt from its wing mounted rail and crossed the two hundred meters to the Commandant’s shuttle in a millisecond; before, probably, the other pilot had time to react to his threat receiver. The missile slammed into the left engine pod; fan blades and a huge orange blossom of fire erupted from the wing and left side of the fuselage; the shuttle began rolling drunkenly to the right as it’s pilot struggled to control the resultant asymmetry.

The shuttle crossed the runway threshold nose down and left wing up; the right wingtip struck the ground and the shuttle began cart-wheeling – before disappearing inside a roiling black cloud alive with orange flame. When the pressurized, almost empty hydrogen tank ruptured, a concussive explosion ripped across the airport, breaking glass for miles around.

Stormgren chopped the throttle, flared the 737 and touched down on the adjacent runway; he didn’t use reverse thrust now, didn’t want to call attention to their arrival and alert whatever ground forces were stationed at the airport, so the jet rolled out slowly to the end of the runway, and he saw the old coast highway, and the beach beyond. He turned the jet, aimed it right back down the runway, then cut power to the number one engine on the left wing as the jet rolled to a stop. He heard doors opening in the cabin, men shouting as they clambered down emergency webbing; he saw his brother running away from the aircraft to help establish a defensive perimeter and felt a little surge of adrenalin-fueled pride as he watched his father overhead, keeping a lookout.

“There!” his co-pilot sang out, pointing toward the old main terminal complex a mile away. “Trucks!”

Yes! And no one pursuing! The plan might work after all!

He looked the far end of the runway – to the wreckage burning uncontrollably there – yet so far not one fire truck, or other emergency vehicle, was responding. What the hell was going on?

Now two groups of trucks approached; one on the ground from the terminal and the other from the air. The air truck landed in a cloud of dust; men boiled out and joined the others already on the ground. He saw a stretcher being off-loaded from the air-truck, a couple of wounded ConIsmus troops being helped out by commandos when the first truck from the terminal arrived.

Another few minutes to load and they’d be able to get The Fuck Out of Dodge. Men were climbing the webbing to get aboard, and it was slow going.

A sonic boom, then another and another. Heavy transport shuttles re-entering atmosphere over the city; reinforcements arriving from another city-state. He reached for the intercom:

“Hurry it up back there! At least three shuttles inbound!”

Stormgren looked out his window; only a couple of men remained, one talking on a radio handset, pointing at the angry looking shuttles overhead, arcing down toward the airport like predators. Stormgren looked up at the shuttles; he’d never seen anything like them before. And they weren’t lining up to land on the runway! They were coming straight down, like helicopters, aiming right for the runway.

“Start one!” he yelled at the co-pilot. “Dad? You see those?”

“I’m on ‘em,” he heard his father say, but his F35 had gone to ‘invisible mode’ once again.

“But…” he heard his co-pilot object…

“Goddamnit, start one! Inbound fighters…” he said as the first laser guided bomb slammed into the runway.

“Starting one!” and Stormgren heard the turbine spooling up seconds later. The remaining men on the ground turned and looked up at the cockpit; one was still talking on the radio, Austin pushing him to the boarding web.

A commando burst into the cockpit. “All aboard!”

Jamie didn’t bother looking aft as he put his hands on the throttle: “Let’s go!” he shouted. “Now!”

The co-pilot nodded, looked at the engine temps and pressures as both engines spooled up.

“Confirm take-off flaps,” he said as the aircraft gathered speed.

“Set and confirmed.”

He looked back at the the runway, then ahead – and something caught his eye. The first troop transport was flaring to land far down the runway – and they were heading right for the old Boeing.

He pushed the throttles to the stops and pedaled the rudders to full command authority, all thought of his father up above fading as this new reality settled-in just ahead: he might not be able to clear the shuttle and it’s heavy, down-firing landing thrusters. The 737 gathered speed, the old concrete runway rumbled away underneath as it passed through one hundred knots, and Stormgren looked down the runway at the approaching shuttle.

“V-one!” the co-pilot called-out.

“Fuck!” Stormgren yelled. Another shuttle was now landing behind the first, and the shadow of a third shuttle appeared on the runway ahead, blotting-out the sun as it turned to land.

“V-two, rotate!” the co-pilot called out.

Stormgren pulled back on the yoke as explosions rippled through the air ahead. The first shuttle disappeared in a roiling fireball, then the third shuttle, the one still airborne, tumbled from the sky and fell into the old terminal.

As the air around the airport exploded, and Stormgren wrestled the old jet into a steep left turn; with throttles still set at take-off power he headed straight for the Santa Monica Mountains just north of the airport. Warning lights and threat receivers on the panel howled, yet he concentrated on keeping the aircraft as low as possible. A surface-to-air missile roared by a few hundred feet overhead; the threat receiver remained full red, continued howling as the missile disappeared into the deep haze over the city. He pushed the stick down a bit more; at fifty feet over the ground and three hundred knots indicated the landscape rippled by in a blur. He pulled up sharply to clear the ruins of a fallen skyscraper and the threat receiver howled again. He jinked hard high and right, then slammed the nose over and to the left as a second surface-to-air missile roared past and slammed into the hillside a half mile ahead. He leveled the wings as they topped the rubble and he pushed the stick down and eased off the throttle. They crossed the mountains, then flew over the ruins of the San Fernando Valley while Stormgren scanned the panel for the first time since take-off.

“Hull integrity, pressurization, secondary hydraulic reservoir are gone,” the co-pilot said. “And my fucking nerves are shot, too!”

“Roger that!” he sighed. “What do you make our fuel?”

“About two hours forty, a lot less if we stay down here in the weeds.”

“Okay.”

The cockpit door opened and Stormgren turned, saw Thor Bergtor-son – who until a few minutes ago had been Tribonian to the Senatus – standing in the doorway. The old man’s arms were stained with blood, his shirt ripped in several places.

“You guys alright back there?” Stormgren asked, his eyes wide, full of concern.

“It’s pretty breezy, but yes!”

“Breezy? What? Why?”

“Maybe you better come take a look!”

“Can’t right now…”

“Right. Well, the entire right side looks like Swiss cheese…”

“What about the wing?”

“Brown fluid coming out of the engine pylon, a big hole just shy of the wingtip.”

“How big?”

“‘Bout a foot ‘round.”

“Jenn, can you see it?” Stormgren said to his co-pilot.

“Leading edge looks okay – can’t see much else.”

A small mountain range loomed ahead and Stormgren increased power, settled on a four degree climb at seventy eight percent EGT – low and slow.

“Where are we headed,” Bergtor-son asked. “Edwards?”

“Nope. Hole in the Wall.”

“No kidding? Never been there.”

“What’s the Hole in the Wall?” Jennie asked, and Stormgren looked at her, smiled.

“Once upon a time it was called Area 51.”

He saw her mouth drop, her eyes flickering with disbelief, then he flashed his best ever ‘shit-eatin’ grin: “Wanna go see a Starship?”

+++++

The 737 taxied to a rough stop by an ancient tan hanger, while two very well preserved F-22 Raptors circled overhead. Stormgren chopped power, set the brakes, began shutting down systems one by one, and the cockpit suddenly grew warm, then hot.

“Well, that was fun!” his co-pilot said.

“Nothin’ to it,” Stormgren said, but his shirt was soaked through with sweat, his hands were still shaking. And the sun was now high in the sky, the air conditioning shut down when the engines idled down. The APU was fried so there was no power now.

The cockpit door opened, letting in more hot air, and he saw a stairway had rolled up to the fuselage and cadets and bureaucrat-cum-spies were filing out on the tarmac and jogging for the closest shade they could see – which was inside the open hanger door. Bergtor-son stepped back into the cockpit, fresh bandages on his arms and neck.

“A hundred fifty four out there,” he said, stating the obvious. Blistering hot air filled the cockpit now and it was beyond stifling. “We’d better get inside.”

When he was down on the concrete he heard the F35 on final, but still – he just couldn’t see the thing. He heard the tires hit the runway, saw puffs of smoke as the tires hit, then he saw the shimmering air. Oblivious to the heat now, he watched his father turned the jet and make for the hanger, then he felt Jenn by his side, looking up into his eyes. She tiptoed up and kissed him, then took his hand and pulled him to the hanger.

‘Goddamn! Why haven’t I noticed her before?’ he said to himself as he watched her. ‘That’s something that’s about to change,’ he sighed, looking at her red hair flying in the desert wind.

+++++

The hanger, like all the other buildings at the old base, was an empty shell; all it provided was access to a major R&D facility located deep underground.

James Stormgren sat in a small auditorium with the commandos who’d been on the flight; there were about forty men in the room and a handful of women, including his co-pilot Jennie.

His father walked in a few minutes later, and he stood before the assembled commandos, his eyes tense, full of concern.

“ConIsmus forces have breeched the Mag-Lev platform,” Bergtor-son began. “In about twenty minutes we’re going to detonate a large device east of the city. That’ll be the end of our access to the west coast, for good, I’m afraid.”

He looked around the room. “We’re not sure how ConIsmus will react, but we’ve just learned of a startling new development…”

Bergtor-son burst into the room, swearing under his breath. “We have eight hours until they detonate the device,” he said to Thomas. “The BlackWatch have just confirmed this. We must launch now, or as soon as we can.”

Stormgren nodded.

“I guess that’s it, then. Is everyone ready for this?”

He turned to his old friend then, asked the one question he had been dreading for some time. “Will you come, or are you going to stay and watch?”

“Oh, Thomas, I wouldn’t miss this for the world. We’d better get moving.”

+++++

Something was pinching her earlobe, the what? The right one.

She opened her eyes, saw an impossibly black face hovering over hers, shining a bright light into her eyes.

She tried to speak – but couldn’t – and an impossible terror welled up inside, seeking release.

“I’m Doctor Uhuru, Justinian,” the woman said. “You are in the recovery room. You were injured, very badly I’m afraid, and have been in surgery to repair your leg, and to remove shrapnel from your neck and chest. As soon as you can breathe on your own we will take you to the ICU, but first I’m going to have to take the tube from your throat. This will feel strange…”

When the physician was finished Sinn tried to sit up and cough but she felt to weak; still, she drew-in deep gulps of air through her nose and mouth while the woman looked at her vital signs on a bank of instruments – then she saw a gauze pad floating in the air over her bed…

“Where am I!?” Sinn August-dottir cried.

“I told you, in the recovery room,” but the doctor’s eyes followed Sinn’s and she plucked the paper from the air, wadded it up inside her coat pocket. “Much has happened in the past few hours, much you may not be ready to hear, and your body is weak. There are people waiting for you, when you get to the ICU, and they will explain things.”

“You can’t tell me where I am?”

But the physician walked from the room, leaving her bereft and alone, so alone. She’d never felt so isolated, abandoned in her life…

Yet the woman had said people were waiting for her.

The commandant! It had to be! She was in the hospital under the mountain – it could be nothing else…then she felt that warmth again, and she was floating…

Her eyes opened, but she was in a different room now.

Yes, but everything felt different here. Now, aside from the noisome glow of all this strange machinery, she felt a strangeness, a foreignness about everything she saw, and even the air she breathed tasted strange, almost manufactured. And she still felt alone, a profound loneliness enveloped her being inside this strange, glowing darkness – so what was this place? And – could she feel the room spinning, or was there some sort of medication affecting her senses? But, over there! Someone was sitting in a chair by her bed. It was a man. Was he a nurse? Where was that doctor?

“Could I have some water?” she croaked. The man in the darkness moved uneasily, reached for a cup and stood. He came to her, holding an odd looking cup and spoon in one hand while he held on to the bed frame with the other, and after he secured himself to the floor he fed her bits of crushed ice.

“Ice! Real ice! Oh, God, I feel so stiff. Where am I?”

“Well, I’m sure not God,” the man said, “but we did pull off a few miracles.”

“Aurie – Aurelius?” She could feel his voice in the core of her being.

“Try Austin.”

“Oh, right. Stormgren. I remember now.”

“More ice?”

“God, yes please!”

She took more from his spoon, chewed it slowly. The entire sensation was so foreign: “Ice…it’s been so long since I had ice.”

“Good stuff, frozen water,” Austin said. “Nothing like it.”

“Could you turn on a light?”

“You sure?”

“Yeah? Why wouldn’t I be?”

He ignored the question, the authoritarian tone of her voice, flipped a switch by her side and the room lit gradually, as if he had made arrangements for her own personal sunrise. Blue light, deep and radiant, glowed from the ceiling; in a moment streaks of gold and orange appeared in this “sky”. She looked around as the room grew lighter, but everything was all wrong! The room was too narrow, the ceiling too low, and everything was rounded – there wasn’t a sharp angle or corner anywhere – and one wall was all wrong… like she was inside a dome.

A dome! Of course! His people must have been building domes for as long as we had been building caves, maybe longer!

Yet the closest wall was sloped, curved! As the wall fell away from the ceiling she could tell that it too was curved, part of the dome; even the window inside this wall was curved! And the window? The glass was black, the corners of the window radiused, and the glass itself was – what? Too thick?

He watched her face, watched for signs of panic, even fear. As the light grew stronger it also became less radiant, somehow white and diffuse at the same time…like a cloudy day, perhaps. Her face was as soft now, but still radiant, and he hated what the next few minutes would bring to her life.

It was then she saw his face. He seemed older, or was it just a newfound maturity she saw in his eyes?

“Where are we? Is this a Dome? Am I a prisoner?”

“This – place – is called The Emissary, and no, you are not a prisoner.”

“But, you didn’t say – where this place is…”

He nodded, looked down at her legs, willed her eyes to follow his own…

She saw a canopy over her right leg, and suddenly knew it was gone. A short stump was, she guessed, all that remained.

She felt her throat closing, a scream building and he reached out, brushed away hair that seemed to be floating in front of her eyes, just beyond her silently falling tears.

“It’s not as bad as it looks,” he said.

“Right, right, that’s easy for you to say…” He wiped away more tears and only then did she notice her hands were secured to small railings on the bedside with thick padded straps. She pulled at the straps, then panic filled her eyes. “Oh, God no, I am a prisoner!”

Yet Aurie smiled – again. “No, not quite, but you keep trying to pull out your IV, even in your sleep, so they tied them off a few hours ago.” Then he was trying not to laugh, and she was suddenly filled with blind rage and furious hate.

“You fucking bastard! You think this is funny!”

“In a way, yes. Yes, I do, because it is.”

“Get out of here, you arrogant fool! Go away and leave me be!”

“In a minute.” He grew stern, watched her now as a biologist might examine a specimen under a microscope. “We have a few things to discuss.”

There WAS something different about him. She wasn’t imagining it – because she saw it in his eyes, in his hair, and she grew afraid – quiet and very afraid.

“You’re older,” she said, her voice trembling.

“Yes.”

“Have I been in a coma?”

“No.”

“Aurie – Austin, would you stop this! Why do you speak in riddles? Or is the truth so hard to speak?”

His movements were jerky, somehow forced, as he turned and stepped over to the window. “There’s no easy way to tell you this, so just try to be look at what you see, and listen carefully to what I have to say.” He reached out and turned a dial; the intensely polarized window began clearing, then a white metal shutter of some sort slid up into the ceiling and out of view.

The moon hung before her, seemingly just outside the window, but it was rotating – like the room was fixed and the moon was orbiting a point outside the window. And the stars! Everywhere she looked – vast fields of stars! The sight was too strange, too unreal for her mind to take in. She was looking at a the moon, and behind, she saw two stars – one fierce and blinding white, the other a malevolent red eye.

“What is this? A hologram?”

“No.” He looked at her as he moved back to the bed, but he smiled even as her eyes grew wide, as her lips began to tremble. She tried to speak but only fractured bits of parched words crawled from her sundered mind.

“But, what is this? Two stars?”

“The white one is our sun, the red one is earth.”

“What?” she cried. “The earth?”

“The Senatus elected to send it’s people deep underground, then detonated a weapon that fused nitrogen to all available hydrogen and oxygen. Unfortunately, their scientists assumed the reaction would stop with those elements in the atmosphere. It did not. The earth itself is fusing even now, and will within a few months reach critical mass. The earth will become a star at that point, and we must be far from this orbit when it happens, or we will meet their fate, on their terms.”

“They destroyed the earth?”

“That about sums it up. After they moved the remaining population under their control to the caves, the broadcast a warning. They were purifying the earth, they said, to rid the planet God made of human imperfection, and only those chosen by God would remain to repopulate the surface.”

“Oh my – God.”

“If you insist, but I wouldn’t.”

“What? What does that mean?”

“Well, the concept of God isn’t real popular around here right now, if you know what I mean. Maybe that will change, but I’d keep that in mind when you talk to people around here, for the time being, anyway.”

“You said you were older. And Austin, you DO look older. What happened?”

“We’d best talk about your leg, first. The docs harvested cells during surgery, and they’re growing you a new one from your own DNA and stem cells. The docs will talk to you soon about what they plan to do, but the short version is you should have a new leg within a year or so. Still, the process won’t be pretty.”

She blinked, looked up at him. She understood his words, yet they made no sense to her world. Nothing made sense of this place, not without God.

“Second. In case you’re having trouble with the idea, Dorothy, you’re not in Kansas anymore.”

“I got that. But are you saying that this is, well, Oz?”

“Not quite,” he laughed, “at least not yet. The Emissary is, well, more like a shuttle.” He watched her eyes; they were trying to follow his lips as he spoke, trying to wrap around the meaning behind his words. “We’re heading to L1, to a so-called LaGrange Point, and when we approach there’ll be a burn, a long burn. Like a rocket, except you won’t hear anything. But the acceleration will be powerful, and to you I’d guess painful. You won’t be able to fight the effects of the burn as your wounds move – at all. I was hoping they’d let you sleep through this, so, well, that you’d wake up after. It will be very disconcerting, disorienting.”

“And, I suppose…like this place isn’t disconcerting?” She pointed at the moon rotating outside the window – and at all that rotation implied.

“About two days ago, when we launched from Nevada, you were pretty much on your way to dead. You’d lost so much blood and expanders weren’t working anymore and, well, anyway, they got you to surgery here, then stabilized you until the ship left orbit. Once the initial acceleration stopped the operated, and that was about ten hours after we left. But the thing is, my dad and I left on a ship. About a day and a half passed here, on The Emissary, but I was gone almost eight years – completely the opposite of Einstein’s prediction, too, or so we thought at first.”

“You’re losing me.”

“Me too. The short version? We left in a ship, or I should say we disappeared in a vehicle of some sort and were gone a couple of days, then we reappeared, but for dad and myself eight years had passed.”

“That’s not possible.”

“No, it isn’t.”

“Where’d you go?”

“Well, we don’t know. The correct question is why were we taken where we were.”

“Why? You mean someone…?”

“Uh-huh.”

“The ship? Who built it?”

Austin shook his head, shrugged his shoulders. “Yo no se, darlin’. But the important thing here is understand that we’re not alone. There’re other civilizations out here, and that’s going to be hard for you to grasp…”

“But why? Why should I doubt you? Because you think having a multitude of civilizations out here automatically excludes the possibility of God? I don’t think that changes things one little bit. If He can create one planet, why can’t He create millions of them?”

“Yeah, maybe. If that’s the case, I’d say He’s got a wicked sense of humor, though.”

She laughed. “May be. So, what happened during those eight years you were away?”

“I’m not sure I can explain, but I think we were being tested, or maybe evaluated is the best word.”

“For?”

“A seat at the table, I guess.”

“The table? What’s that mean?”

“If we’re worthy of survival.”

“Jesus…”

“Look, I…”

“I know, I know. Enough with all the God stuff…”

“No, not really, just keep in mind that when you look at the universe solely through the prism of religion, you in essence cut off half your intellect. You can look at the universe through faith and reason, not simply one or the other, but the problem we ran into on earth was that we tended to use one to obscure the other. We had a binary way of looking at things, it was either this way or that way, and because of that rigid construct it could never be both. Maybe we evolved that way, or maybe religious power structures forced us into thinking of the world that way, but the net result was we set ourselves up to fail.” He pointed at the reddening earth hanging out there in space. “There’s the result of our failure, by the way. I’d prefer we not make the same mistake again, if it’s all the same to you.”

She looked at him for the longest time, said not one word, then she looked out the viewport – at the moon spinning away, and at the baleful red eye hanging out there like an insinuation. At one point he almost thought she was going to cry – but she caught herself and pulled back from the abyss – then looked at him again.

“You never said what happened to you during the eight years you were gone.”

“No, I didn’t.”

“Is there a reason why?”

He took her hand now, squeezed it gently while he looked into her eyes. “After the burn we’ll be coasting, we’ll be leaving the solar system at about 70 percent of light-speed. If all goes according to plan in about two years we’re going to rendezvous with, well, with something out there.”

She looked at him, wondered what he was holding back – until his words registered. “Something?” she asked. “What does that mean?”

“Well, someone might be more accurate.”

“Someone?” Her eyes blinked rapidly. “Who do you mean, exactly?”

“Well, it ain’t a bunch of kids on Spring break heading to Florida, alright? My guess is they’re, well, more like nerds. You know the term?”

She nodded slowly, and a smile creased her face. “But what about…?”

He brought a finger to her lips, shook his head. “Sometime before the Secession War, the first one, I mean, NASA discovered a ship beyond the solar system, a huge ship. They thought ‘huge’ because of the amount of light it put out, then someone figured out the ship was powered by a light sail, and that the sail was huge. I mean really, really huge. The ship was headed, well, sort of, towards our solar system, and some people in government were scared, afraid the discovery would shatter belief systems, and I think that’s when things started to go to hell – in a hurry – and it’s probably no coincidence the Secession War started a few months later. Society would have fractured, the whole religion and science thing again, and everything began falling apart in government. With no coherent policy, even a secret policy, politicians split along lines faith and reason and went their separate ways.”

“That simple, huh?”

“Yes, but the scientists, well, they already had an organization in place to deal with such an eventuality. They called it the BlackWatch.”

“We never…”

“Never heard of it. I know. But it’s even more interesting than that.”

“Something to do with the ship?”

“Yup. The BlackWatch had been talking with them for years. Learning – listening, and learning. They were like, I don’t know, like teachers, then one of them came in a small ship. He was…well, something like a man. Biologically male, anyway. He brought evidence of a really huge space-faring civilization they had discovered, and, well, they were off to see the wizard, going off in search of this old civilization, and they invited some of us along for the trip.”

“Is that why…I’m here?”

“Yes. Your mother was one of the principal investigators, she discovered the ship, and she made first contact with The Watcher.”

“The Watcher?”

“Yes. He was old; expendable, as I understand it. He cloned himself.”

“He what?”

“Well, you see, in a way he was my father.”

“He WHAT?”

“I know. I don’t understand it all either. Anyway, this has been their plan, your mother’s and The Watcher’s, almost from the beginning.”

“So are you…”

“Yes. His DNA was integrated into mine.”

“Oh, God…”

“Do you remember the night I was taken? During the ride-along?”

“Yes… how could I forget…”

“There was a train under LA, a Mag-Lev. I was taken there, brought to Clarke Station. Your mother rode with me that day, and the experience was puzzling, almost funny. Odd, because I thought I recognized her. Funny, because it was you I recognized – in her.”

Sinn’s eyes were unfocused. Diffuse.

“My mother…? Was alive?”

“Yes.”

“Is she?”

“Yes.”

“The Watcher?” she asked slowly. “Is he here, on this ship?”

“There are twenty five ships in this fleet, Sam. I’m not sure which one he’s on right now.”

“Sam?”

“Samantha. That’s your name.”

Her lips started trembling now, and her eyes twitching, so he pulled a blanket up to cover her arms, rubbed her shoulders.

“She’s…my mother is alive…here, on this ship?”

“Watching us, even as we speak. Right outside that door, as a matter of fact.”

“Oh dear God. I thought she was…”

“ConIsmus abducted you, Sam, to get back at her. The operation was conducted by your friend, the commandant, and perhaps that’s why she named you Sinn. As in Sin, her original Sin.”

“What did you say?”

“Nyx was the one who abducted you, who took you from your family.”

“I always wondered what that name meant?” but she had turned away from him in that moment, turned and looked out the window again, and she heard the door open and close at one point and thought he’d left. Then she saw a woman’s reflection in the glass, the figure inside distorted by the curvature of the wall, by the passage of time.

“Nyx was the daughter of Chaos,” the woman said. “The only God feared by Zeus himself, she was of the underworld, Goddess of the Night, and she gave birth to Destiny, Death – and Dreams.”

Sam turned to meet the voice, and recognition was instantaneous.

Austin looked at the two women for a moment, then backed out of the room as quietly as he could. His father and mother were waiting for him there, and they tried to console him, to comfort him, but there was little anyone could do now.

Radiation levels in Saint Angeles had grown far beyond lethal levels after the second subterranean detonation, and those who’d been exposed for more than a few hours were now growing very sick indeed. Tribonian Bergtor-son, Commander Weblen-son and his men, the remaining cadets in the Academy – all were falling ill now, and none was not expected to live out the week. All were isolated in this one pod, and the pod would be jettisoned as soon as the last passed away.

He had wanted to tell her, but it was decided her mother would. Now, right now, and so he had left. It was his duty to leave, and Austin looked at his father as the father took in his son, and they held each other as closely as they could – because each understood the solution was so simple. So dreadfully simple…and so irrevocably final.

+++++

”Tell me about the Watcher,” Sam said when he returned later that ‘day.’ “What does he have to do with The BlackWatch?”

“His technology, he, well, he jumpstarted certain kinds of science. Primarily a new type of human-machine interface.”

“Do you know who, or what they are? The Watcher’s people, I mean?”

“I do, but it doesn’t really matter now, Sam. At some point the BlackWatch learned who I was, who you were, then they told your mother about us, about your plans to mate with me. She knew she’d never be able to tell you about this stuff, that you were too far away – emotionally – to reach, or to understand. So she sent for me, sent for me so I could go back and get you out of there, and, if possible, onto The Emissary ship.”

“What happened to you? During those eight years?”

“My father and I, both of us. It happened to us both. But not to my brother, for some reason.”

“What? What happened?”

“A gift, you might say. Or a curse. We can move through time.”

“What do you mean?” she scoffed. “We can ALL move through time, Austin…”

“Oh? Can you?”

“Of course. We’re doing that right now…”

He smiled, held out his hand. “Take my hand,” he said, “if you’d like me to show you what I mean…”

“What?”

“Take my hand, and shut your eyes.”

“Why should I…I have no idea what you’re trying to do to me…”

“I’m asking you to…take a leap of – ”

“What? Faith?”

“Yes, if you like. Faith. In me.”

She did not hesitate now – she reached out, took his hand in hers and…

…in the next instant she was standing on a sidewalk, looking in a shop window – and the air outside was impossibly crisp and clear…

“Where are we?”

“Beverly Hills. Rodeo Drive. This is a store, an Italian store, called Gucci.”

“When is this?”

“1974. There is great uncertainty here today because the President of the United States, or what you and I call the First Republic, has just resigned. There is a war going on now too, it’s been going on for nine years in a place called Vietnam, and it’s going badly.”

They watch as a woman leaves the store, and Sam turns and follows the woman with her eyes. “I know her? I’ve seen her before…”

“Yes, her name is Elizabeth Taylor, and she is a very famous actress…”

“Is…you keep saying is, like this is just happening? But isn’t it the past?”

“No, it’s not the past. What happens five minutes from now has never happened before…”

Then it hits her – she is standing on two legs!

“My legs! They’re both…”

“Yes. They are. We have slipped behind that time, to a place where that had not happened – yet. You have two legs here and now, and you have not been irradiated – yet. Do you understand what I am showing you?”

She swallowed – hard – and her mind raced through the possibilities. “I can return to the past?”

“Yes.”

“I can stay in the past, and live there as I was?”

“So long as you go beyond the time where your illness happened, yes.”

“You’re not telling me something. What is it?”

“You cannot go alone. Either I would have to go with you, or my father. And we would have to stay then with you, until you passed.”

“And if I went to the future?”

“You would go there as you are now, and you would die within hours.”

“What if I went back…to Saint Angeles as it was when I met you? Would all the people be there who were before?”

“There would be no before. All would be as it was?”

“Could I change things? The things that happened?”

“You could try.”

“But…could I really change things…really make a difference?”

“Again…only if you try. But that’s all anyone can do, isn’t it?”

“The things in this window…what did you call this place?”

“Gucci. An importer of fine Italian leather goods.”

“These things look so fine. I’ve never seen anything like them before.”

“The world has rarely seen things so fine.”

“Are the things in here expensive?”

“Yes.”

“Like?”

“Miss Taylor just bought a handbag and a pair of shoes. They cost 15,000 dollars.”

“I don’t know what that means…”

“The woman there, behind the counter? She makes a little more than 9,000 dollars. In a year.”

“But…that’s grotesque! How could…something like this exist?”

“Such inequality has always existed, and in this case, such huge differentials drove events that led to the First Secession War, and the eventual collapse of the First Republic.”

“Can we go back to ship now?”

He let go of her hand and they were in the room again, and the pain in her leg returned like a thunderclap, the radiation induced malaise came on as a seeping flow of warm water might, slowing filling all her unseen places with wasting illness. She felt disoriented – until she looked out the viewport and saw the earth. It hung out there in space like a glowing ember, dying, slowly, but dying.

“I want to see my mother,” the dying girl said.

+++++

Aurelius Krül-son sat behind an arcing row of tables in the front row of a small classroom; he yawned – and wiped a smeary tear from his cheek – while his friends filed-in and took their assigned seats in the Academy classroom. He opened his notebook – Institute-issued and graded weekly for neatness – and took out a couple of pencils from the pristine attaché case that lay by his feet on the simmering concrete floor. He looked at his friends, at Greggor and Pol and Misogi  and he smiled inside, smiled at futility of the moment, and then a new instructor – one he felt quite certain he had seen before – walked into the classroom, and yet Krül-son caught his breath when he saw her, for he knew he had never seen so desirable a woman – and while he knew desire was a very tricky thing, he was confident he knew where this desire would lead…

The instructor was short, and while not particularly slender she was by no means overweight, yet she exuded a precocious self-confidence that was positively buoyant; of more importance and certainly more to the point, he thought she was sexy, conscientiously sexy, like she enjoyed projecting authority through the overt appearance of sexuality – and that made her a very rare bird indeed. She walked to the podium before the class and laid out her materials on the adjoining table – slowly, quietly, her every move exuding a gentle mirth – then she picked up a marker and walked over to the whiteboard.

‘Sinn August-dottir; District Attorney’s Office; Law of Search and Seizure I.’ Her words on the board, like her persona, were carefully structured and precise; the lettering and punctuation left by her fine-boned hand was clipped and neat, and full of latent purpose. At first all Krül-son noticed was the curve of her hips and legs, but soon the wedding band on the third finger of her left hand caught his attention, yet after a moment his eyes wandered back over her exciting lines.

She turned to the class but looked right at Aurelius Krül-son, then she nodded at him, and smiled.

‘Well, all she can do is try,’ he said to himself, then he looked up slightly, looked up at one of the surveillance cameras in the ceiling and smiled.

blackwatch-endpiece-image

© 2009-2016 | Adrian Leverkühn | abw | adrianleverkühnwrites.com | this is a work of speculative fiction, and no persons depicted herein, oh…yada-yada-yada. Well, you get the point, I reckon. The two images are by William-Adolphe Bouguereau.

Anyway, hope you enjoyed the journey.

So Many Stars

These things happen. Stories, I mean. They pop up out of nowhere.

Driving into town, listening to music, they come. Music is the key that unlocks the door, to memory, anyway. I listen to words and a memory comes calling, then a story takes shape from memory.so-many-stars-im

So, out of the blue, another story. Many thanks to Andrew for looking this one over before, making a few suggestions.

+++++

So Many Stars

“Dwell on the beauty of life. Watch the stars, and see yourself running with them.” 

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

It’s an old story, really. Been told a few times too, I reckon.

About an old man – well, not really old, not quite yet, anyway – but an old man who’s followed his heart and run into a few potholes along the road more or less traveled. A man you’d have thought was old enough to know better. My story, if you want to know the truth of it. I think I’ve got the beginning down, maybe even the middle, but it’s the end that’s got me stumped. And I’ve been sitting here all night thinking about where this story’s headed, but right now I’m clueless.

Actually, I think the last chapter got underway yesterday, but if I start there you’ll be more clueless that yours truly, so let me take the snap and drop back in the pocket, hit the rewind button and see if I can get this straight.

A while ago, three months and four days if memory serves (but who’s counting), the company I worked for advised a bunch of us that our services would no longer be needed. As a point of reference, that company is an airline and management had decided to retire an entire type of aircraft – the 747-400, if you’re interested in such things – and that meant Change was headed my way. If I’d been a few years younger I’d have been retrained, taken classes for one more type rating, and so would have been able to keep flying for them a few more years. But I had passed the magic number, was a few years too old to warrant the expense and was bought out, given early retirement. Not a bad deal, financially anyway, but the thought of being put out to pasture with a few years of flying still ahead left me feeling a little put out. In short, I wasn’t ready to head to the barn just yet, and so I put out a few feelers.

Actually, one was all it took.

My phone chirped as I was walking through the terminal in Minneapolis, and I looked at the screen and stepped out of the stream of people dashing madly by for their connecting flights, hit the little green button and listened to the proposition.

An outfit based, nominally, in LA, and let’s be coy right here and now and just call this company Sheep-Shit Airways, wanted me. Badly. Bad enough to offer me an obscene salary, sight unseen. They needed a chief pilot, one FAA certified to do check-rides. A pilot with at least ten thousand in type, fifteen even better. Someone who wouldn’t mind flying the Indian Ocean, back and forth, over and over again.

Someone who wouldn’t mind flying sheep, and I mean live sheep, from Perth, Western Australia, to Saudi Arabia. Several times a week.

Really, if the recruiter hadn’t been talking so fast I’d have hung up before he mentioned salary, but he was and I didn’t.

He mentioned a number and I kept my mouth shut, made a non-committal grunt – and he was off to the races. ‘Of course,’ he scrambled, ‘with your qualifications…’ – and he mentioned another number. I whistled, and we both knew he had me by the short hairs.

On my next block of time off I hopped down to La-La Land – to Newport Beach, in point of fact – and met management. The only burning question on their minds was ‘when can you start?’ and right then I should have known better…but…someone kept dangling that number in front of my eyes, pulling on the short hairs and, well, that was all she wrote.

I started with them a few weeks ago. Rented my house to a co-worker, put my car in storage and packed a few things before heading back to LAX, and there I made a connection for Sydney, then another for Perth.

When I left Minnesota it was ten below and there was blowing snow everywhere in Minnesota but the runways and taxiways; when I stepped off the Qantas 737-800 in Perth the sweat that formed (instantly) on my forehead began to boil – and I was still inside the terminal. I’d never flown into the new airport northeast of the city-center, and the only time I’d been in the city was during what passes for winter down there. Which is to say it was hotter than hell then, too, but nothing like this.

The base manager met me as I walked off the jetway and hustled me to their facilities on the far side of the field and, once there, introductions got underway. Still, I need to introduce you to Sheep Shit Airways, just so you know what was really up down under.

+++++

Sheep Shit was the brainchild (or brain-fart, depending on your point of view) of one Frank Cordoba. Frank flunked out of Stanford and finished his studies at a small business school just up the road in Menlo Park, almost taking a degree in marketing before becoming seriously interested in racing Corvettes and chasing strippers. Frank’s dad owned a few car dealerships around the Bay Area and had made some money along the way dealing narcotics, but I think the old man had always assumed little Frank would take over the family business one day. Well, dad died one day too soon and little Frank had an epiphany: he was suddenly quite a wealthy man. Matter of fact, he was rich as hell, and discovered he really didn’t care about cars or racing – or even strippers – anymore. He looked at FedEx and UPS and was pretty sure he could do better, so with a few friends from Menlo – and with his sudden millions in hand – he started an air cargo operation just about the time the first Gulf War got under way. Long story short, he made some serious money renting out old 747s and flying military equipment to and from Saudi Arabia, and he made some new friends in the Kingdom, as well.

Sheep don’t graze well on sand, but the Kingdom’s growing population, and growing surplus of cash, presented lands of opportunity and Frank was all over it. Kind of like a wet blanket, if you know what I mean. On one side of the equation, millions of people with billions of petrodollars were hungry for a supply of fresh sheep, Australian sheep at that, and Frank stood ready to balance the equation with an idea – and stepped in to fill the emerging need. Sheep Shit Airways was born, and had been marginally profitable from day one by following Frank’s Simple Formula for Air Cargo Success: lease the oldest aircraft at the cheapest possible price, pack the cargo to unsafe (oh? legal?) levels and fly the aircraft until they were no longer economically viable to maintain – then dump ‘em and get more run down – but cheaply serviceable – aircraft at bargain basement prices.

As these old 747s were near the end of their service lives, and as they weren’t carrying human cargo anymore (because, hey, pilots don’t count), the interiors were stripped to bare metal, fumigated, then reassembled to allow palletized sheep pens to be loaded on both the cargo and passenger decks as rapidly as possible.

So why, you ask, was this outfit known far and wide as Sheep Shit Airways?

Well, sheep aren’t exactly world travelers, but they are, by and large, nervous sorts. When you pack more than a few nervous herbivores into a tight metal tube and fire up those four engines out there on the wings? Yup, they start to get excited.

My first flight to Saudi-A was instructive, so let me digress.

Pull out onto the active and begin your dash down the runway, rotate and start your climb-out and all is right in your little world. You’ve been flying people for three decades and things feel pretty much like, well, normal. The way things should, I guess I’m trying to say.

Then something is odd, something unsettling: a new smell wafts through the airplane and hits you in the face like cold tuna.

You see, those sheep back there in coach are taking their very first airplane ride. Their first experience. In an aircraft. With all the sound deadening insulation humans expect – REMOVED.

The aircraft rotates and climbs into the sky, and several thousand now very agitated, very well fed herbivores rotate too, and this being their first airplane ride and all they, well, a bunch of them manage to get upset. Then they start thrashing around, or trying to anyway, because they’re packed in tighter than sardines in olive oil – so can hardly move.

That’s when, I suspect, the real panic sets in, and when deep sheep panic sets in the floodgates open. In a matter of seconds several thousand sheep let go, and the aroma is immediately noticeable. In the extreme.

Andy Ainley, my first officer on that first flight, reached down and pulled a giant economy sized can of air freshener from his flight bag – and flipped up the landing gear lever with one hand while spritzing a Country Cinnamon Apple aerosol into the cockpit – and I gagged. I gagged, you see, because while I was clueless, my eyes were burning.

And that’s not normal.

“What the fuck is that smell?” I barked. “Are we on fire? Did you shit your shorts?”

Ainley looked away, but I could see he was trying not to laugh. “Welcome,” he said, “to Sheep Shit Airways.”

I rolled my eyes, once they stopped watering, that is.

It’s about 6000 miles from Perth to central Saudi Arabia, so depending on winds anywhere from ten to fourteen hours. That’s ten-to-fourteen hours with a bandana tied over your mouth and nose, and a couple of spritzes of cologne on the bandana helps – for a while, anyway. I say helps advisedly because nothing, and I mean nothing, completely gets rid of the stench let off thousands of rounds of sheep shit. Even after you crawl on your hands and knees out of the cockpit (gagging, gasping for air) – the stench remains – but by that point it’s in your clothing, your hair, and it never leaves your mind.

A crew comes in after the furry little shit-bags are hauled off and, wearing gas masks, they sanitize the interior as best they can – which turns out to be a pretty good thing for all concerned. All the sheep shit falls, by the way, into stainless steel trays under the pens so there’s usually not too much of the muck on the decks and walls, and what little there is remaining is dealt with summarily, given a decent send-off, then the interior is fumigated, once again, and the aircraft’s ready to go – again.

So one more point: if you recall your aircraft, 747s have a big hump in front, and that funky spiral staircase that leads to a second (really, a third) floor, sometimes called the upper deck. This lofty perch is where the front office, aka the cockpit is located and, and lets be frank here, the cockpit is the one place I’ve called home most of my life. The upper deck on a -400 is relatively large, as these things go, and there’s a head up there (you know, a place to wash up?) and, on some variants, a small bedroom with a couple of bunks in it. Sheep Shit Airways’ were so equipped and they had (graciously, cheaply?) left the upper deck accommodations intact, too, so there were seats up there. Big, fat, wide first class seats – a few dozen or so – and seats that, according to my FO (Andy Ainley) remained empty most flights. Still, he told me that on occasion we hauled people, and that bothered me.

There are no flight attendants needed to haul sheep, thus no working galley, no beverage service, and worst of all, no ‘Mile High Club’ – so, who the hell would fly with us? And after a few minutes of the enduring biological attack right after take off, who the devil would stay onboard for ten-plus hours – unless out of pure, unadulterated desperation? I guess you could start an IV drip of morphine and LSD and settle in with movies on your phone, but really, why bother? Do the words Flight From Prosecution come to mind…?

+++++ 

So, I guess we all have expiration dates stamped on us somewhere, a ‘Best If Used By’ date that lets the world know we’re just another commodity destined to used up and sent to the dump. It’s not a very flattering view of life, but the reality is that once we humans hit a certain point our expiration dates roll around, our ‘shelf life’ is up and it’s time to move out of the way, let fresher produce take our place on the shelves.

I grew up in a small town, and, as luck would have it, a town Deep in the Heart of Texas. A railroad town, and I grew up in a railroad family. A town where everything was movement, where nothing stayed the same from one day to the next, where life was lived moment to moment, and life turned on the whim of a vast machine you never saw and rarely heard. The landscape I remember was an foliage of rust and steel, shifting colors as fast freights and slow locals rolled through on their way to someplace, anyplace else but my hometown.

There was a small depot in the center of town, a simple one-story building, wood frame construction painted pale yellow, gray trim around the windows and along the soffit, all wrapped up under a tin roof painted a hopeful shade of red. When I was a kid, passenger trains stopped there several times a day; by the time I left the passenger trains were a fading memory, and even then it felt like the good ole days were destined to never return. By the early 70s, hopeful was a word that had slipped from the town’s vocabulary, but change is change and besides, the roof was all faded and chipped by then. You meet change head-on or it rolls over you, and leaves you for dead – in the middle of the road.

There was a small diner in the center of town, right across from the depot and with a white sign over the door, the sign framed by two red dots at each end. Drink Coke! – it read inside the red bookends – and in between, in the middle of the sign it read “Spring Street Cafe – Home of the Best Food – and the Slowest Service – in the World.” Hamburgers were a dime there when I was a spud, cheeseburgers fifteen cents, while homemade root beer was a nickel and an ice-cold glass of Coke a little more.

There was a high school in town, not very big but big enough to have a football team, and I quarterbacked the last team the school fielded, right before the school was closed – due to declining enrollment. I was pretty good, too. Good enough to attract a few scouts, good enough to land a scholarship to play in Austin, nowhere near good enough to make a career out of it so I joined an ROTC program and went into the Navy. I learned to fly, became good enough to make a career out of that, and so the worm turned.

I think it was the railroad, really, and growing up around trains, that left me with the desire to move people around. Our house the house I grew up in, the railroad built, the railroad sold to my grandfather and which was financed by the railroad was on the southwest corner of Baldwin Street and Pullman Avenue. Tree lined streets with gas lights scattered on the corners, the pecan trees around our neighborhood providing broad shady pools to fuss away our summer afternoons and, as mom made red Kool-Aid and oatmeal cookies almost every day, we bounced through life on a sugar-high. And I have to say that the girl next door wouldn’t have been my first choice, but Nancy-Sue Travis turned out to be my playmate of the mouth when it mattered most, a sweet soul who opened up the world of possibilities only a girl can show a boy.

She took me places in my mind I never knew existed, and we walked hand in hand under summer stars, always ready to explore the new terrain she constantly seemed to invent. I knew every inch of her, memorized her landscapes with my fingers and oh, how I loved her lips. I found my humanity within the warmth of those lips, began to see a world of possibilities beyond the contours of need, and we would sit out there under the dome of the sky – counting stars, I think – wondering what was out there in all that empty space. Realizing how small we were, yet how impossibly big life was.

When I left for Austin, Nancy-Sue had just started to work at the café, waiting the counter and, I guess, waiting for her expiration date to roll around. I heard from her once my freshman year, but didn’t even open the letter. Change, you see, had come calling and I was already on that train, disappearing into the night as fast as I could – and while I never heard from her again, I’m not sure I even once looked back.

+++++

I’ve already mentioned Andy. As in Andy Ainley, the First Officer during my first month at Sheep Shit. He was, prior to his own meeting in Newport Beach, an FO for Qantas – until he displayed an attitude, an unofficially unapproved attitude, one day on the flight deck. His crime, according to his version of events, was finding that the captain had staggered to work while three sheets to the wind, and then reporting this little gem of information to the office. I never checked out his version of events, but I know the folks at Qantas reasonably well and I’d like to hear both sides before making a decision. That said, I commiserated but doubted the hell out of his story; beyond that I didn’t really give a rat’s ass. He was a born natural in the cockpit, his instincts were spot on and he had a soft hand on the stick. Pleasant to be around and proficient…what more is there?

As our flights were so long, and over water, we were required to carry a third crew member, and on my first few flights we were joined by one André Dufour, late of Air France and a veteran of an even more storied carrier than Sheep Shit: Air Afrique. He flew Caravelles and the 742M from Paris to Dakar for decades, but after 11 September he moved back to France and went to work for Air France, started flying the -400 freighter. Until he broke their age barrier, that is, and had to retire. With more than a few years flying cargo available to him, in short order he found himself in Newport Beach, too. He’d been in Perth a few months when I arrived, and was quite a character: our very own Mr Mystery Man…

Flying sheep didn’t bother André, not really. While flying commercial traffic in equatorial Africa, he ran across more than a few hygiene challenged passengers – and their cargo – so much so that the first wave of sheep shit to wash over his Gallic nose didn’t elicit much more than a shrug. And André didn’t like flying people as much as cargo, because passengers griped about his flying style, which was, well, in a word: rough. Commercial pilots (and their autopilots) are trained to fly with a soft hand, to make gentle corrections – so as not to scare the everlovin’ do-do out of little old ladies knitting back in coach. To put things in perspective, André did not care about these little old ladies. André liked to fly. He lived to fly. If he ever had an opportunity to do barrel rolls in a 747 he surely would have – with a shit-eating grin on his face, too. I might have called André a man’s man, or a pilot’s pilot, but he was as gay as they come, the worst kind of overtly effeminate, in-your-face gay I’d ever run across. Then Ainley whispered in my ear: “He likes to dress up…you know…like a dame. Like he’s some kind of 1940’s Hollywood starlet…”

Uh-huh. Okay. Sure. Whatever you say, Andy. On my third flight to SA I saw André in the head trying on mascara, checking his face in the old mirror.

“Well, what do you think?” he asked, and yeah, more than a little coquettishly.

I stopped and looked at him, appraised the look for a moment. “Depends on what you’re going for,” I said, trying my best not to bust out laughing.

“Like a whore on the Place Pigalle, about to get on my knees,” he shot back – and a little too defiantly, I thought.

“Well then, a little more eyeliner and I think you’re there.”

He smiled at my response and, having made his point – that things between us were out in the open now – I guess he was happy. André didn’t like closets, didn’t like hiding in them or living in one, so what the hell…more power to ‘em, ya know? C’est la vie and all that. As long as he didn’t try to fly in those six inch heels…?

At any rate, yesterday we put down at King Khalid and taxied to the cargo ramps on the north side of the field, and after we shut down trucks moved up and our sheep were escorted off the aircraft. Soon the disinfecting crew was working through the cabin and, as it was now safe to pull bandanas from noses, we wrapped up paperwork and were just getting ready to leave for the Marriott when there came a knock on the door.

That doesn’t happen all the time; in fact it’s really quite rare for someone to come to the upper deck before we open the door, and Ainley looked at me, I looked at André – who looked weird in his hooker makeup – and I decided to go to the door and check out the view through the peephole.

“Man in uniform,” I said. “Military, I think.”

The man knocked again, a little more insistently this time. “Open up, please,” the man said. “I have a priority dispatch for you.”

I unlocked the door, not quite ready to believe Sheep Shit Airways had a priority re-tasking from the Saudi military, and opened it slowly. “Howdy, Tex,” I said, hiding my disbelief as best I could, “what’s on your mind?”

The man, a full bird colonel in the Saudi Air Force, handed me the paper in his hand and I read it, shook my head then handed it to André. The colonel was staring, wide-eyed, at André, and he was – I feel sure – not quite ready to believe he was looking at a four-striper wearing heels and make-up, then he turned to me again. “Fuel trucks are on the way,” he said. “How soon can you depart?”

“That depends on how many rules you want me to break.”

“Yes,” he said, “the hours involved put you over the clock. Still, a hefty bonus has been paid, and the King would very much appreciate this.”

“No doubt,” I said, stifling a yawn, thinking of dinner and and a movie – in bed.

“We have filed a preliminary flight plan,” the colonel added helpfully, handing me another sheaf of paper.

“Swell,” I think I added. “Y’all don’t have something you could handle this with?”

“No, nothing. Not even Emirates. Again, the King would very much appreciate this…”

“Gotcha. Well, about a half hour to get loaded, so I guess as soon as Texaco gets over here and puts some gas in this thing we can skedaddle.”

“What?”

I shook my head. “We should be wheels-up in 45 minutes, give or take.”

The colonel smiled, seemed very relieved and shook my hand, then ran down the stairs and disappeared.

“Seems like somebody’s ass is in a wringer,” I said – to no one in particular…

“I’d like to put his ass in my wringer,” André said, licking his lips.

I don’t know. There are some days when weird just seems to be the new normal…know what I mean?

+++++

When I left the navy I got on with Northwest Orient and went straight to 747s. Enjoyed the training, the somewhat less regimented atmosphere in the cockpit, but it was the stewardesses that got – and held – my attention those first few years. The girls were a revelation back then too, and I don’t want to seem too sexist here, but after six years in uniform they were just sexy as hell and their “come fly me” persona came close, on more than one occasion, to driving me right out of my skull.

Minneapolis Tokyo, Tokyo Minneapolis, like a Duncan yo-yo doing end-over-end loops on my way to infinity, the only social life I had revolved around layovers in Japan. That is to say, I had a lot of fun with stews, and I think I came to be known as the kind of happy-go-lucky type, always ready to go out for drinks and dinner, and, I assume, could be counted on if one of the girls wanted to get laid. The reputation stuck, too. I never took these relationships seriously, and the girls I was with never did, either, and as a result I was happy as a clam – and I became a dedicated, completely confirmed bachelor. I didn’t want to get married, had no desire to have kids or a dog; I wanted to be free of all attachment, free of commitment, free of house payments and most of all, free of the specter of divorce lawyers and alimony.

It seemed to me, back in the 80s and 90s anyway, that every couple I knew was in a marriage that lasted about five years. I didn’t meet many who were happy, even before their marriage came apart in balls of flaming wreckage, and all that misery took me back to my parents.

What I remember most when thinking about my parents is that they should’ve gotten a divorce long before I came along. Dad was away a lot of the time, making runs to West Texas or Louisiana, and my mother started drinking when he was away. Then she started drinking all the time, and as if that was just a prelude to the main performance, she started fucking all the time. And not fucking my father, if you know what I mean; then the rumors started, all the sidelong glances and whispered accusations – and in a small town that’s lethal. When dad was home he was sullen, then increasingly angry, but dad was a Marine and the word Duty was always up front and center in his mind. Divorce wasn’t an option, so I grew up on a battlefield, the engagements playing out in slow motion, the wounded carried off to mend – so they could live to fight another day. Some days I came home from school and found mom in bed, fucking her brains out with some engineer or truck driver passing through town; other days I found her passed out on the kitchen floor, and empty bottle of bourbon by her side. I’d get her to bed and cook dinner, do my homework and watch some TV, going in to check on her from time to time.

But some nights she’d get weird. I go into her room to check on her and she’d sit up in slurred delirium and reach for my belt buckle. A sudden gush of filthy expectation would spill out over my world and I could see into her heart, see her broken dreams then, and a part of me wanted to hold onto her, tell her everything was going to be okay…

But I couldn’t. Not really. Because I wasn’t sure, not in the least, that anything would ever be okay in our little corner of the world.

Then one night I was checking on her when dad came home unexpectedly; he helped me tidy her up and we talked about things for a few hours and the next day when I went to school he drove her into San Antonio and checked her into a hospital. When I came home I found him on the sofa in the living room, a pistol in his hand.

“What’s that?” I said as I looked at the stainless Smith & Wesson, suddenly feeling more than unsure about life and love and the meaning of existence, but it was the look in his eyes that got me. Faraway, distant and unfocused, like he’d seen a great truth – and didn’t like the view. He put the pistol back in it’s box and looked up at me, said something about going to the Dairy Queen for dinner, like nothing unusual had just passed between us. But something had changed, something big and dark, a shadow lurking in the night between us and things were never the same after that.

+++++

I could see a convoy approaching the left side of the 747; Hummers broke off and surrounded the aircraft – then the loading operation was underway. Fuel bowsers were hooked up, and once anti-static leads were confirmed, Andy went aft to supervise the refueling. André and I entered data for the run to Stuttgart into our flight management computers, and a half hour later I looked down to check on progress – only to see a stretched Mercedes S600 – black, of course – as it pulled up ahead of the wing. The door opened and all I saw was leg, and even from up in the cockpit I could tell I was looking at an extraordinary, world class leg, a drop-dead gorgeous leg, and when the second slipped into view…okay…I was well and truly impressed. The rest of the woman attached to the legs was pretty nice too, in an upscale, sunglasses and Hermes scarf sort of way, and I watched her black dress ascend the exterior stairs and disappear – and curious now, I shook my head and wondered what the hell was going on.

“What next? Kangaroos?” I sighed.

“Oh, you’ll get used to it,” André chuckled. “One of the benefits of the job.”

Now just what the hell did that mean? A woman hadn’t been mentioned in the dispatch. No, not a word, and yet André’s words seemed to imply this was a more than regular occurrence…

Oh, joy. What the hell had I gotten myself into this time?

+++++

I’d been flying for Northwest about ten years when life presented one of it’s first ‘Payment Due’ reminders, and everything about the next few years caught me off guard. Unprepared, clueless even.

I’d just bought a small condo in downtown Minneapolis, a fun place, visually interesting. An old railroad warehouse, huge but strong as hell, the building had been converted into lofts and I bought a two bedroom unit. It was located near the Mill District, looked out over the river – well, it was just my cup of team. Brick walls, hardwood floors, tin ceilings so high you could barely see ‘em, and soon enough I was bringing stews home or meeting gals downtown and all in all life was pretty good.

Then I got a call from mom.

“I need you to come home,” she said – and my heart sunk.

“Is dad okay?”

“Yes, he’s fine, strong as a ox and twice as stupid, but he’s fine.”

“What’s wrong?”

“I’m not going to talk about this over the phone, so just come home, Jimmie. As soon as you can.”

“Mom?” I said, hating it when she called me ‘Jimmie.’ “Is it an emergency, that kind of ‘come home’ thing. If it is I can ask for leave, if not…”

“It is. Get down here as fast as you can.”

Four hours later I was in coach, sitting in the back of an ancient 727 as it taxied for the active, wondering just what the hell my mother was drinking.

+++++

Another knock on the cockpit door; I see Colonel Smiling Face standing there with Madame Hot Legs in the shadows. Open door, do my best not to appear annoyed, am utterly unsuccessful when I try not to stare at Hot Leg’s legs.

“Yes, Colonel?”

“You’re new to this, Captain Stewart…”

So, he knew my name. What else did he know?

“…so let me explain.” He handed me a manilla envelope. “This is your passenger’s passport and a ticket to New York. See that she gets off the aircraft in Germany with as little interference as possible; after that she’s of no interest to us anymore.” He seemed to pause and turn his head a little, as if he was speaking for the woman’s benefit, not mine, then he handed me three more envelopes. “For your trouble,” he said as he turned and walked back down the staircase.

Each envelope was labeled – with three names, mine included – and when I looked inside mine I whistled.

“See,” André said, grinning like a snake, “you get used to it.”

+++++

It’s about a thousand miles from Minneapolis to Austin-Bergstrom International, call it two hours and some change, and home is not quite 50 miles from the airport. Hop on Highway 71 and head ESE for an hour and you’re there, Deep in the Heart of Texas, land of chicken-fried steak – smothered in cream gravy – and dilly bars. Highest cholesterol levels on the planet are found in East Texas, and it may just be a coincidence, but perhaps that’s why most of the best cardiologists in the world work in Houston. Quite a monkey dance, ain’t it?

Home, such as it is, didn’t look too different these days, either. The high school wasn’t where it was supposed to be, yet something new had sprung up west of town to take it’s place, something really big, a sprawling thing you could look at and be forgiven for thinking it was a prison. The Dairy Queen was gone, but there were a couple of smart looking coffee places on the main drag, and yes, the railroad was still there, splitting the town in two – kind of like a stake driven through a vampire’s heart.

There was a fresh coat of paint on the house, and the yard had recently been mown. The pecan trees seemed fatter, more lush than I remembered and, indeed, the landscape I saw seemed a little more alive than the last time I saw it.

Yes, call it seventeen years since I’d left, seventeen years since I’d seen my mother.

Dad?

He came to my graduation in Austin, and again, after I finished my jet transition training program at Pensacola. We kept in touch, in other words, and he filled me in things going on around town. He would always love my mother, or so he said, but here and there, in between the lines I caught wisps of that lingering, smokey anger in his words. I pulled up to the front of the house and looked around, looked around the houses and trees as a dusty parade of unwelcome memory began, a marching band of hopes and dreams that somehow always passed me by.

Then the front door opened. The same front door my great grandfather used to open on his way to work. That I had walked through coming home from school, when I found that other parade marching by, strangers in my father’s bed, doing things to my mother I’ll never forget.

And my father was standing in that doorway, looking at me. Just staring, clearly at a loss, like I’d been gone for a few hours and was late for supper.

I remember thinking this, and only this: ‘Why am I here? What did I do to deserve this?’

The door closed behind him and he walked out to the door and I rolled down the window. He stuck his hand in, his right hand, and I looked at it, wondered what to do.

“Hey, boy. You gonna stay out here all day?”

I left his hand hanging there and got out of the car, walked around and gave him a hug. It didn’t feel right not to – and I figured if I hugged him he wouldn’t be too upset if I ignored mom.

“Got a bag?” he asked.

“Yeah, Pops. I’ll get it.”

We went in and mother was sitting there – and on the sofa across the room?

Nancy-Sue Travis. She of long walks under starlight, my playmate of the mouth. Sitting on the same sofa my mother used to pass out on, sitting under an afghan mother’d knitted for my seventh birthday, her feet curled up under all her naked fragility. Her skin was gray, eyes sunken into her head, and her hands and feet were orange, around her eyes, too.

And for once, I had just enough sense to keep my fucking mouth shut.

+++++

The flight director said it was 2457 nmi from King Khalid International to Stuttgart, not quite six hours to the threshold. We’d fly over Damascus, Nicosia, Sarajevo, transfer to EuroControl as we approached Zurich and, assuming no change in the weather, make a straight in approach to runway 25.

Our cargo?

A 1955 Mercedes 300SL, the mythical, so-called Gullwing model, silver with a red interior. The King’s favorite, now due for an oil change. Yes, that’s right. Twice a year, whether needed or not, this car was hauled to the airport and flown to the factory – for a little TLC – and then back home a week or so later. It was tied down now over the main wing spar box, and there wasn’t one speck of dust on it. Anywhere. I know, because I checked.

Our passenger?

One Miss Samantha Taylor, US citizen, born and raised outside of Fresno, California.

After I went down to drool all over the King’s Gullwing, I stopped off and introduced myself.

“Jimmie Stewart?” she said, laughing. “You’re not serious?”

“I am.”

“You’re not, like, related, are you?”

“Yes, he’s my little brother.”

She laughed, again. Everyone does every time I crack that joke.

“And yours is Samantha?”

“No, it’s really Kate, Katherine Hepburn,” she feigned.

“Ah, so Tracy it is. And where is C K Dexter Haven?”

She smiled at me when she heard that. “I bet not many people get that one,” she said, then she crossed her legs and I tried not to stare. So of course she caught me staring.

“Well,” I said – blushing madly, “the colonel seemed kind of happy to see you leave. What’s the story?”

She looked away, sighed. “You want the short version?”

“I’ve got to get back to the cockpit in a half hour. If I don’t reset the autopilot we’ll crash.”

“So, you’re a smart ass, too? Gee, this is going to be so much fun.”

I took the hint and nodded, stood to leave and she looked away, out the window and into the night.

“Sorry we don’t have meal service, but I’ll try to check in with you in about an hour.” I turned and left her in the gloom, but I heard a mumbled “Don’t bother” and decided to take her at her word.

+++++

Mom and dad left us alone, left Nancy-Sue on the sofa and me standing there – clueless. Again, as always.

I wanted to ask her how she was doing, what was happening with her, all the usual questions you’d ask someone you’d loved once but turned away from, but all her answers were right there in front of me, staring me down, daring me to ask.

She pointed to a space next to her on the sofa, so I came over and sat.

The first thing she did was take my hand in hers, and kiss the tips of my fingers. She was crying when she did, and I felt lost, bereft in that moment – because I knew she was saying goodbye, and I knew something had gone terribly wrong with my life when I stopped caring for her, and in that moment we were back out under the stars. Walking along, alone in the moment, just the two of us.

It had been all so clear to me, my life, the way it had been mapped out for me. I was supposed to have graduated, gone to work for the railroad and come home to her every night. Live the life my mother and father never had, find the goodness they’d never shared. The life I’d wanted for them, for us. For me. I had to make things right, that had been my charge, and I’d turned and run away. I’d run away from Nancy-Sue, and all that was supposed to go right in life.

And the first thing she said to me?

“God, how right you were to leave this place, to get away from all the lying and hating and cheating…”

I didn’t know what to say.

But she did.

“I wish I’d had the strength to leave when you did.” She squeezed my hand just then, and she looked away for a few minutes, then turned back to me and said: “I should have gone with you, you know…I should have…”

But no, I thought, she’d have never made it out there, she had been better off staying with the familiar, surrounded by the people and places she’d grown up with. I knew I’d been the one to break the faith, that ‘home’ was never going to be right for me – because mine never had been.

And I tried to tell her, but in the end there was no way I could say something like that to her. And even if I had, I doubted I could make her understand – because I wasn’t sure I did. Not then, anyway. I sat there thinking about all the ‘what ifs’ and ‘might have beens,’ yet the simple truth of the matter was simple, so very easy to see: I could not – or would not come to terms with the anger that still defined my feelings about this place, and I never would until I could look my mother in the eye and tell her how much I hated her, how much I resented what she did to all our lives.

Then Nancy-Sue pulled my hand to her face and kissed it again. I could feel it then, the illness running wild under her skin. I turned to her and held her close, and for a few minutes I wanted it all to be okay. The way it might have been, should have been…

And then she whispered in my ear…

“I want you to meet somebody.”

Her name was Alice, and she was seventeen. She was, it turned out, my daughter.

+++++

About halfway through the flight to Stuttgart, somewhere over Greece, there came a knock on the cockpit door and André walked over and unlocked the door. I heard him talking to Samantha – I assume asking for a few pointers on how to apply eye-liner – then I felt her behind me, peering over my shoulder – trying to look out the windshield.

“I’ve never seen anything more complicated in my life,” she said. “Are you sure you know what all these buttons and things do?”

“No, not really, but I carry one of those Idiot’s Guides with me…you know, How to Fly a 747 Without Really Knowing How To Fly? I can get you a copy from Amazon, if you’re interested.”

“Asshole.”

“Yes, I’ve got one. I’m sure you do too. At least you give every indication of having one.” Then I turned and looked at her.

Nope, she wasn’t having any of it…any of my bullshit. She was just looking out the glass, staring at the night sky from seven miles on high. A grain of sand skimming along a rock hurtling through space.

“God, there are so many of them…?”

“What’s that?”

“Stars. So many stars. I had no idea.”

I hit the memory switch on my seat and it whirred back, then I took off my harness and crawled out of the way. “Take a seat,” I told her. “The view’s much better.”

Once she was down I hit the switch and the seat inched forward, and she craned her neck until she was looking almost straight up. I knelt down, looked where she was looking and I pointed to Orion.

“See that bright pattern, there, a little to your left?”

“The butterfly looking thing?”

“Yup. That’s Orion, the Hunter. He’s drawing a bow…”

“I see it!”

“He’s wearing a belt, and there’s a sword hanging from it, over to the left. Got it?”

“Yes?”

“There’s a fuzzy patch in the middle of the sword…”

“Okay, I see it, but it looks kind of pink…”

“Because it is pink, and it’s pink because it’s not a star. That’s called the Orion Nebula, and it’s a huge cloud of hydrogen gas. Now, I want you to consider one thing about that pink spot. You see that fuzzy spot because light was emitted from stars inside those clouds, and little bits of that light traveled all the way here, to this spot on earth. And it took those little bits of light 1500 years to get here, just to tickle the back of your eye.”

She turned to face me then, and I could see a little smile through the look of wonder in her eyes. “I bet you’re a great dad,” she said, and I turned away. Turned away because she couldn’t have made a sharper cut if she’d used a razor blade.

+++++

About halfway through the services for Nancy-Sue I tried to take Alice’s hand – but she pulled away from me. Stepped back a little, then turned and walked to the cars parked under barren pecan trees. I swallowed hard, tried to make sense of her hatred but I couldn’t. I had no frame of reference. At least I think that’s what I told myself, standing out in that sharp winter’s wind, staring into the hole in the ground Nancy had just been committed to.

Nancy had asked that I take Alice, take her to live with me in Minneapolis.

In the second semester of her senior year?

When Alice heard that she laughed in my face. “Who the fuck are you?” she spat at me. “Some fucking sperm donor?”

“But…”

“You are not my father,” she screamed, now right in my face. So she stayed at her grandparent’s house, the home she’d lived in almost all her life. She disowned me, asked me to leave, to never try to contact her.

So I left.

And a few weeks later I got a letter from her. Asking me to forgive her.

I wrote back to her, told her if there was ever anything I could do for her, to just let me know.

Of course, I figured I’d never hear from her again.

What goes around, comes around – ya know? Ain’t that the way it always is?

+++++

I walked back to the head, washed my hands and face then went over to the little ice chest strapped down where the galley used to be and got a coke and a cup of ice. I popped the top and poured, then I heard her. Behind me, again.

“Could you fix me one too?”

“Sure.”

“Would you sit with me a while?”

I turned, looked her in the eye. “Oh?”

“Look, I’m sorry, but I won’t bite.”

“I’m impervious,” I said, pointing at my chest. “Heart of cold stone.”

“I doubt that.”

“You shouldn’t.”

“Why? Why do you think that?”

So I sat, I sat and told her about Nancy-Sue and Alice, even a little about my mother and father, all of it. And it hurt. To think about it, let alone pour this stuff out all over a stranger.

But Samantha was a good listener. She pulled me along, pulled me out of myself.

“What about your mother?” she asked me at one point. “Did you ever tell her how you feel?”

“You know, I saw her a few years ago, when I went home for Dad’s funeral, and I thought about it. About telling her off. But really…what’s the point? Open up that can of beans again – just to get something off my chest. No good reason, is there?”

“Probably not.”

“Yup. In the end she’d be hurt and I’d feel like shit for making her feel like shit.”

“Well said.”

Thanks. I put a lot of thought into that one.”

“I was at Menlo, back in the late 80s. A bunch of Saudis there, at the business school…”

And suddenly I was all ears.

“They all had Ferraris and Maseratis, and by the end of the first week of school they had all the cute girls, too. I ran with that pack, and we were kind of, well, like their harem. And the funny thing about it was everything was kind of medieval. Like we were property. From the moment we entered their lives they let it be known what was expected of us, and that there was no turning back. The one that chose me, well, he was a prince then. He had a jet at San Francisco International, and weekends we’d go to New York or Paris. I was eighteen, and it was all very impressive. I moved to Riyadh after graduation, but we never married. He was, you see, already married. Had been since he was sixteen, something like that. And he had about twenty of us, girls from Europe and the States, stashed around different houses. Playthings, like a Ferrari.”

“Why didn’t you leave? Just pick up and go?”

“Because we couldn’t. We heard stories about what happened to girls who tried.”

“Sheesh. But then, here you are now. Free to leave?”

“Gray hair and wrinkles. I think I’m what you call past my prime, or a bottle of milk that’s been on the shelf a little too long. Like I’m past my expiration date.” She sighed, looked out the window. “They put some money into an account in Switzerland, for my years of faithful service. Can you believe that? Service? Faithful service?”

“Does the name Frank Cordoba mean anything to you?”

“Yes, Captain James Stewart of Minneapolis, Minnesota, it does, and you can bet he knows everything there is to know about you, too. And that everyone who works for him in a close capacity does too.”

“What?”

“Oh, the colonel? He knows exactly who you are, where you went to school, what rank you held in the Navy…everything. That wad of cash burning a hole in your pocket, the one he gave you? Guess what? You’re a servant now, a servant of the Kingdom, bought and paid for – if you know what I mean.”

“What?”

“Sure. Your pal, Cordoba? His old man used to work for people like Nixon, back in the day. Did dirty work for the party. You’re familiar with the term? People who get in the way, ya know, kind of get moved out of the way? When Frankie met the prince in Menlo Park, well, the Cordoba family moved into the big leagues.”

I was feeling a little sick to my stomach so finished my Coke, went to the ice chest to get another. When I came back she wasn’t as talkative, like she had suddenly come to her senses and figured out it was time to shut the fuck up…

+++++

So of course a few week later there was another envelope in my mailbox. Alice was graduating from high school in early June, and she wanted me to come. There was another letter from my mom, too. Alice’s grandparents didn’t have the money to buy a prom dress. Things were tight, real tight. Could I help?

Could I help?

Of course I was on my way to Austin on the next flight, Alice’s sweat-soaked envelope tucked neatly in a pocket. After I picked up the rental car and made the dash down 71, I got to my folks house in time to pick her up and drive her back to Austin. We had dinner and roamed a mall, found her a dress and all the doo-dads girls need to pull off their magic transformations, and it was like she wanted to bridge the distance between us, but didn’t know how. I was content to just be with her, to walk with her and listen to her talk, because she was so much like the woman I should have…well, you know where that’s going, don’t you?

And that was the really odd thing. I think I’d rushed to be with her because Nancy-Sue was gone. This girl – of ours – was all that was left of something that had turned out to be important to me, and I know that sounds kind of screwball, like ‘she’s only important to him now because she’s dead…’ – but it was more than that. A whole lot more.

We drove out of the city in silence, and every now and then I’d look over at Alice – yet there in the blue-green glow on the panel-lights I saw Nancy-Sue – then, about halfway home my daughter said “Thanks, Dad,” and I kind of choked-up inside.

I came down for prom night, and again, a few weeks later for her graduation. I was happy she was happy with the way things were going, happy she’d decided to at least try. When she called me ‘Dad’ or ‘Father’ I knew she was pushing her limits, but one time she told me she couldn’t stand the thought of calling me ‘Jim,’ or (God forbid) ‘Jimmie,’ and I don’t know…somehow that admission cemented things between us in place.

I met her boyfriend, Mike, who by all accounts was a ferocious linebacker and smart as hell, and after we shook hands all he wanted to do was talk about flying in the Navy. And that conversation was weirder still – the whole ‘this kid could become my son-in-law’ thing – the notion that I might have this instant family grow out of thin air, magically come into my life, a grandson soiling his diapers while sitting on my lap…?

My father called me a few weeks after graduation, told me they’d been driving back from Austin that night and apparently Mike tried to beat a train at the crossing on the west side of town. Alice was gone, my father told me, and Mike would never walk again. I know I heard those words, but I think it was the irony of the moment that left me speechless, unable to breathe. The railroad had made all our futures possible, and now, through no fault of it’s own, the railroad had just taken mine away.

I’m sure there’s a symmetry at work here – somewhere, but really, it eludes me even now.

+++++

Innsbruck was below now, a layer of scattered cloud hovering over that close little valley, but I could see the lights of the airport down there shining through. ‘Here I am!’ – they seemed to call out – “We’re here if you need us…”

Here if you need us?

As the thought struck home I wondered what they were telling me, what I was trying to tell me about all I’d lost. Home? Someplace like home? But home was, for all intents and purposes gone now. Dad gone, mother in a home, a nursing home. Emphysema, congestive heart failure – the usual end to one who’d smoked two packs a day for fifty years. Nancy-Sue gone, Alice too, and even the little house on the corner was just a memory now, sold to people just starting off, working for the railroad and with life still like a train in the distance, a future coming, things to look forward to.

What did Dorothy tell Toto?

There’s no place like home?

I smiled at my distorted reflection in the curved glass, thinking ‘Yes, there is no place now.’ That little condo by the river seemed more like a jail cell, and the future I’d built for myself more than a little confining, like a dream. Someone else’s dream stuffed into my head, crying to return – home.

The radio brought me back to the present and I got to work, looked over the missed-approach procedures for Stuttgart and started working frequencies. Andy was taking the final, so I started reading through the pre-approach checklist, trying not to think about the lights far below – under the clouds.

+++++

Mom was a wreck, a vast train wreck strewn all over the countryside. She watched her husband disappear into his grave, witnessed another hole in the ground swallow up her past, and I helped her to the car after, fearful of the reckoning that surely had to come now. I watched as a handful of his remaining friends drove up to the house and walked in, and their wives, as such people often do, came with them and laid on a Hill Country feast. Hams, deviled eggs, macaroni salads of every conceivable sort, all scattered from the kitchen to the dining room, and the survivors came together and talked about old times while they ate. My father’s friends, engineers and firemen, tried to talk to me, tried to talk about how they’d cheered me on thirty years before, on that high school football field, but I was a pilot, I worked for the very industry that had crippled, almost killed off the railroads, and there was a resentment in their eyes I’d never noticed before.

Had my old man felt that way about me too? Had my life been a repudiation of his? Had I chosen to do that to him, to us? Had my life turned into one vast plot, for revenge, perhaps, for all those drunken, smoke filled nights?

I helped clean up after the house emptied, and I watched as mom went to the cabinet where she still kept her booze. She poured a stiff one and trudged off to her bedroom – and she said not a word to me, shared not one passing thought. I guess there was nothing left to say, really, nothing left but the questions between us – that would forever remain unchallenged.

+++++

There’s one airport in Stuttgart capable of handling a 744, one very long runway with one primary approach. Pretty straight forward stuff, even in foul weather. Clouds were deep and dense, the air roiled with sleet and rain as we passed the outer marker, but Andy was handling it well enough.

I caught something in my eye out left and ahead, a pulsing beacon maybe, but then a little Cessna resolved in the mist, trying to…

“My airplane!” I shouted and Andy let go as I went to full power, began a sharp climbing turn to the right…

“Approach, Argosy 2-2 heavy, we’ve got a Cessna in the pattern, turning on final just ahead. Executing missed approach now,” I told the tower, then to Andy: “Set up the go-around, would you?”

“Jesus Fucking Christ,” Ainley said. “How’d you see him?”

“Beacon, just barely caught it,” I replied, trying not to spit nails and cuss out the sonuvabitch in the Cessna. And at four in the fucking morning, too, but getting things back in the groove became the new priority. Resettled on the new approach, and I flew it on in this time. Deep fog was settling over the valley and we were about to go CAT III, a so-called zero-zero approach with no visibility at all, and Ainley expressed no desire to shoot one after seventeen hours on the stick.

+++++

I was getting off the aircraft one day in Tokyo, but someone from dispatch was waiting for me in the Jetway. Some kind of emergency at home, the woman said as she handed me the details.

At home?

But, I have no home?

Yet even so, there was a message from the police, home being that field of dreams Deep in the Heart of Texas. I called from the pilot’s lounge, was told they’d been called to my father’s house when my mother was reported out in the front yard, drunk – and fingering herself – and not content to simply shame herself completely, she’d started yelling at anyone within view – to come fuck her. The officer responding arrived in time to observe her commanding a six year old boy to get off his goddamn bicycle and fuck her in the ass, and when he – politely, I feel most certain – tried to intervene she scratched the officer’s face, tried to kick him in the nuts and otherwise acted the genteel southern belle. Not feeling jail the correct facility for her, an ambulance was summoned and she was subdued, strapped-down then carted off to a special hospital in Austin.

“How soon,” the person on the telephone in Texas wanted to know, “can you get here?”

I explained the logistics and the officer sighed, asked permission to do a ‘white warrant’ on her, a psychiatric commitment that would put her on ice for 72 hours. Sensing I’d arrived at a moment of truth, I agreed with him, told him I’d get to Austin as soon as I could.

I don’t know why, but the kid wished me ‘good luck.’

Somehow, I knew we’d need it.

+++++

So many metaphors. One must be right for me.

Flying in fog, screaming through the night at 200 knots, and I can’t see anything but a cluster of instruments dead ahead. I look up, look at the swirling ocean of mist around me, strobes pulsing white reminders – ‘we’re right here…see us?’ – then that mechanical voice joined me in the night…

“200 feet…”

“160 feet…”

“100 feet…”

“50 feet – retard, retard…”

I can – just – sense the moment of contact before it happens, when the mains hit and the hyper-choreographed dance of reverse thrust and braking begins, then slowing for the turn-out and crawling onto the ramp, shutting down a half million pounds of airplane and fuel for the night.

But it’s morning. The fog is turning –  incrementally –  lighter, and for the people here their day is just beginning. I feel like I’ve been up more than 24 hours – because I have; my eyes are burning and my skin is tingling, my body is screaming for bed and wants nothing more to do with flying…

But we had to supervise unloading the GullWing, fill out fuel chits and customs forms but it’s all so easy now because we’re flying the King’s Mercedes…doors open magically, the curtain parts and we see the Great and Wonderful Oz pulling all the Levers of State, making magic things happen out of sight, out of mind…

And when I go back up to the cockpit I find Samantha – Sam – is still sitting by her window, looking out the platic, her eyes wide shut as another life parades through her reflection…

I go, sit next to her.

“Are you alright?”

The smallest shake of her head.

No, she’s not.

Then she turns just the tiniest bit and takes my hand in hers.

“Do you know how long it’s been since I felt my skin on someone else’s?”

“That bad?”

“You have no idea.”

“Anything I can do?”

“I looked at you when I got onboard and I’ve wanted you ever since.”

“I see.”

“Do you? I mean, really, do you? Because this is so much more than a burning fire. I want to be fucked, but I want to fall in love again, I don’t know, maybe fall in love for the very first time. I want to know what all those things feel like – because – I never have. I feel like a slave that’s just been freed, like a newborn taking her first breath, opening her eyes for the very first time, opening my eyes to the possibilities…”

“But?”

“Yes…but. There’s always that big ‘but.’ They’ll never let me live, Captain. I know too much, too many secrets. Where all the bodies are buried and all the money is hidden. I know things that would put most of the congressmen in D.C. straight into prison jumpsuits, and I’ve never heard from even one of the girls who left like I just have. They all disappear, so I take that to mean…”

“I get the picture.”

“Do you?”

I nodded my head. “And I assume you think there’s something I can do to help?”

“I have a plan, yes, but first…? Do you know where a good, soft bed it? There’s something I need to …”

+++++

When I got back home – well, to Austin, Texas, but close enough – from Japan, I found my mother in full restraints. Wrists and ankles tied to the bed, a catheter in place and an IV running into her right forearm. Her doc, a third year psychiatric resident, told me the primary problem mom was facing was dementia, but with an underlying schizo-affective disorder, with traces of borderline personality as well as elements of narcissistic personality disorder thrown in for good measure.

Like what, I told her, you think you’re telling me something I don’t already know?

She smiled. A nice smile. Disarming. “She’s really put you through it, huh?”

“You have no idea.”

She nodded her head. I think because she did know. “So, you were in Tokyo? What do you do?”

“Pilot, for Northwest.”

“That’s got to be fun. I’ve never been to Tokyo…what’s it like?”

“Crowded, like swimming in the sea, in packed pods of little people all darting around madly, mindlessly.”

“That sounds awful…”

“It’s not. I love it.”

“Do you go there regularly?”

“Yup. Too regularly.”

“Look, I’ve got an hour for lunch. Can we talk about your mother while I grab a bite?”

Mom needed to be stabilized medically before the real work could begin, Linda Stephens, MD, told me over a lunch of something I thought certain only a goat could enjoy. Her liver, she added, was just just about totally fried, she had undiagnosed diabetes so of course chronic kidney disease too, COPD and incipient cardiac insufficiency. This on top of a truly foul sense of humor, and, oh yes, cataracts.

“Is that all?” I think I said.

“Yeah, thank God for Medicare,” she said, and I’m pretty sure I laughed. Then she looked at me like, well, you know. “You have a nice smile,” she said, then: “I like it when you laugh.”

So…I’m looking at that dreamy, faraway look in this woman’s eyes and thinking: my mother’s shrink is coming on to me?

“Oh, I’m sorry,” she stammered, catching herself in mid-fall.

“Would you like to have dinner with me tonight?” I said, catching her off balance.

She had more than a nice smile, too. Fucked like the proverbial epileptic whore, if you know what I mean. Plug in and hang on for the ride. Still, there was something about this one. Something real, something that cried out “Home!” Like what I needed to do right now, right here and now, was stop and take a long smell at her roses.

She grew up on a farm outside of Athens, Texas, was a small town girl – she knew what a Dilly Bar was without having to stop and think about it. She’d wanted a fancy red sports car, but bought a Chevy pickup instead, because she went home a lot on weekends and still helped out on her dad’s place. She wasn’t afraid to be seen with a little dirt under her fingernails and wore sensible shoes. That kind of small town girl.

And she was smart. Took her degree in philosophy and turned that into an M.D. She liked to talk about current events and what we might do next weekend. I took her to Tokyo and we walked until I was about to drop, saw more things in one week there than I had in ten years. She talked and I listened, and against all odds I found myself falling in love with her. An odd feeling, too, kind of fun, but with a lot of anxiety.

And I think I told her about my feelings one day. Out walking around a Buddhist temple, acting like tourists. We were hand in hand when she told me she was madly in love with me, that she been since the moment she laid eyes on me. Totally irrational, she added, looking at me with the kind of possessiveness that drives most sane men to drink.

“So, when can we get married?” she asked then and there.

Married? Me? I think the numb speechlessness might have given away my feelings. It’s amazing how quickly something so fine and big can come crumbling down into piles of rubble.

Oh yes. Mother. I moved her to an assisted living facility, but by then another doc had taken over.

+++++

The plan, according to Sheep Shit Airways, anyway, was for us to bunk-out in Stuttgart for the required interval, then fly back to Perth for the next load. Yeah, I guess, like…whatever. But me? I was thinking about the money in the envelope, and what it all meant – at least according to Sam. I don’t cotton to the idea of being someone’s slave, and the slow burn in the middle of my gut was reminding me of that, but now it was time to leave the aircraft and get some sleep. Nothing else mattered now.

So Andy and André handled the bags and I helped Sam down the two-story stairway, then we grabbed a taxi and went to the nearest Marriott, and a black C-Class Mercedes followed us to the hotel, and two men in sunglasses watched over us as we checked-in. How clever, I thought, especially as there was so much sun out this foggy morning.

I got her an adjoining room, of course, and when she’d gone in I laid out my bag and was getting stuff out to shower when she knocked on the door between rooms.

She was naked as the day she was born and grabbed me by the cock and pulled me into the bathroom. We showered, draining the Rhine in the process, and she coiled around me in the steam, began striking all the right places, and soon all thoughts of sleep were gone. Barely dry, we fell onto the bed and she took charge, yet it was soon apparent her every gesture, every thought that passed her lips was all about wanting to be loved, needing to be appreciated as something more than a toy. As someone who’d been used and discarded for decades, as someone yearning to feel something deeper than love.

And you know? It’s kind of odd, but I could relate to that.

+++++

I flew down to Austin the weekend they were moving Mom from assisted living to a long term care facility. She’d become unmanageable again, throwing feces on the people who came by to check-up on her, urinating all over the place, trying to get orderlies to eat her out – those kinds of unmanageables.

And Linda met me at the airport.

“We need to talk,” she said.

“About Mom?” I asked, my eyes locked-on her belly.

“No, you silly moron. Us. We need to talk about us, you and me. You and me – and the baby we’re going to have.”

+++++

I let her sleep-in that first morning, sleep with her dreams and get comfortable with them, and sometime in the afternoon I went down to the lounge. Sat down and ordered a dark rum something and pretended to drink it, brooding in my dark corner thinking dark thoughts.

And André wandered in, though thankfully not in full drag, and he came over and sat down across from me.

“You’re a good pilot, Jim,” he began, “but I think perhaps you are a lousy human being.”

“Oh? So you’ve just noticed?”

“Some people hide it very well. Others, not so.”

“So, what gave me away?”

“That woman. Sam. She is in trouble, no?”

“Yes, very much so, I think.”

“These women, these women the Saudi’s send away, they do not treat some of them so well when they leave.”

“Discarded, I think, is a better choice of words.”

“As it may, but I thought I read in your dossier that you are engaged.”

“That’s true. I am.”

“And yet you take this woman to your bed?”

“That’s true. I did.”

“So, this is why I think you are a bad man.”

“I see. I agree completely.”

“I can fix this, you know. I can take you upstairs and put on my other clothes and fuck you in the ass.”

“You know, André, as tempting as that sounds, I think I’ll take a rain-check.”

He laughed.

I laughed.

Nervously, I might add.

“So,” he continued, “what are we to do with this girl?”

“Get her on that Lufthansa flight to New York. Tonight. They won’t fuck with her over there.”

He nodded his head. “That may be, but my guess is that won’t stop them.”

I nodded. “Delta still flies non-stop from here, to ATL, but she’s got another flight on Lufthansa booked. Frankfurt, then Chicago and on to San Francisco. Try to throw them off.”

“So, she’ll show up for Lufthansa, then hop on the Delta flight?”

“That’s the plan.”

He steepled his fingers, sighed. “We may need some sort of diversion.”

“Oh?”

“I’m not an idiot, Jim. I saw the goons in the Mercedes, and I don’t think they’re going to let her out of their sight for one minute.”

“Goons. I like that…”

“Yes. I thought of Bogart and Bergman when I saw them, and I smiled a little too, I think. Perhaps they would approve, too, this desperate flight of hers, and you struggling to help her?”

“So then, in this old world of yours, I’m Victor…what was his name?”

“Lazlo. Paul Henreid. And of course I would be your Captain Renault. Oh, and this Samantha makes an excellent Ilsa Lund, don’t you think?”

“I do, yes, but with all due respect to Miss Bergman, Sam’s got better legs.”

“Yes. She’s elegant enough to make me wish I was straight again.”

“Again?”

“Yes, but that’s a long story, one for another day. Oh! – here comes our Ilsa now…”

And he was right, of course, she did look a little like Ingrid Bergman. A much taller Ingrid Bergman, and with Bergman’s perfect breasts too, but her legs were something else entirely.

She sat across from me, looked at André, then me. “What are you having?” she said, looking at my drink and wrinkling her nose.

“A rum something. I’m not sure exactly what it is, but it’s just a little shy of 200 proof.”

André picked it up and sniffed, then put it down and pushed the glass away, mumbling “And here I thought you’d spilled jet fuel on your trousers…”

A waitress came over and Sam asked for some white wine, a Riesling, perhaps, and I watched as a jazz trio came in and set up their amps and mics. Then Sam’s goons came in and sat across the room from us. One even looked our way. Foolish.

“This is so fun!” André said breathlessly, in all his limp-wristed glory. “I can hardly wait to see what happens next…”

Sam looked at André and smiled, but I could see she was a little put off by his over-the-top showmanship, then her wine came and the waitress asked André what he’d have.

“Ooh, one just like his,” he cooed, and after the girl left Sam looked at him coyishly…

“So, are you going to drink it, André, or suck it off?”

I rolled my eyes. “Oh, here we go…” I sighed.

“Ooh, Jim, I like her…she’s reading my mind. Maybe we could go up later and have a little threesome?”

“No thanks, amigo, I’m trying to quit.”

“Oh? So there’s hope for me yet?”

And Sam chimed in next: “Should I leave you two alone?”

I simply shook my head. When the cocktail waitress came with André’s jet fuel she looked at my glass and asked if I was ready for another.

“Sure,” I said, “but this was really weak. Could you ask the bartender to make the next one a little stronger?”

+++++

I was in a funk. I mean flat-out, stone-cold depressed.

I’d gone to visit my mother and after five minutes the only thing that came to mind was little Regan MacNeil in The Exorcist. Head spinning, split-pea soup flying everywhere, screams of “Your mother sews socks that smell…” filling the air with latent malice. All that was missing was Father Karras absorbing Satan and flying out the window, absolving humanity’s sins one more time as he tumbled down those perilously steep steps.

But Linda had tried to warn me over the phone. Hadn’t she? Hadn’t she said something to the effect that mother had really gone downhill? That it wasn’t going to pretty?

And that her condition was only going to get worse, that the COPD and CHF were getting very bad now? That her brain was starved for oxygen, that normal function was shutting down.

No, not pretty at all.

We were sitting at my favorite restaurant in the world, an old Mexican place on the east side that’s been there, right there, since before the last ice-age. Best cheese enchiladas in the known universe, and the thought of arriving too late and finding they’ve run out of guacamole a mortal sin known to make grown men weep, because even presidents have been known to divert Air Force One to Bergstrom – just for their guacamole. Yes, it’s that good.

And I sat there at the table with Linda, looking at that green stuff in the bowl on the table and thinking about my mother, strapped down in a hospital bed just a few miles away.

I’d failed her, hadn’t I? I’d tried once, when I still cared about her, but her pandoras’s box of insanities had driven me away, just as surely as little Regan’s demons drove away Father Karras. They’d driven my father away too, once upon a time, but that sense of duty intervened – and he stuck it out.

Until he finally put that Smith and Wesson in his mouth and pulled the trigger.

But…I’d failed Nancy-Sue too, hadn’t I? Wasn’t that plain to see now?

And what about Alice? Didn’t I fail her too? I tried, at least I think I tried to be there for her once I knew she needed me, but…? Wasn’t that another case of me doing too little, and maybe just a little too late?

Even so, Linda was holding my hand, helping me through cascading floods of doubt and self-recrimination. When you get right down to it, there’s nothing better than to have your existential crisis with a psychiatrist sitting across from you, ordering you another Margarita and feeding you green goo on stale chips.

But no, she was drinking club sodas, wasn’t she?

And she was sitting there, eating for two now, as she put it.

And my chromosomes had danced the dance with hers, tripped the light fantastic and in the afterglow something happened – again. The cosmic tumblers had fallen into place – again – only this time there was no running away.

And I told her about my feelings. My feelings about failing my mother. About failing Nancy-Sue and Alice…

“You know, Jim, you told me once, in Kyoto, that you loved me.”

“At the temple,” I said. “Higashi Honganji – I remember cherry blossoms?”

She nodded. “Do you – remember?”

“You’ve picked a helluva time to ask me that, you know.”

She nodded, and yes, I think then she understood. That’s the problem with shrinks, but I guess you knew that already.

+++++

A vocalist joined the trio and began playing, so I leaned back and drifted down Moon River for a while, thinking of two drifters – off to see the world. I looked at Sam, wondered if she might be my Huckleberry Friend, if there could ever really be such a thing. She was looking at me, kind of a cross-eyed stare, distracted, but then I realized she was looking through me – looking at the goons –

Then the trio started in on their next song, a song that took me back to Nancy-Sue and long walks in the night. So Many Stars. Sergio Mendes’ smooth vibe on the dreams that wait for us out there.

And the choices that come for us in the night.

The girl’s voice was something else, and she had a kind of smokey Streisand thing going…

The dark is filled with dreams

So many dreams which one is mine

One must be right for me

Which dream of all the dreams

When there’s a dream for every star

And there are oh so many stars

So many stars

I kept drifting, drifting in her currents, until I was somewhere deep in the heart. I saw an old phonograph in the living room, and I heard that music again, coming out of tinny speakers – and I saw my mother. Dancing. In her bare feet. Alone – lost in the arms of her dreams – as voices lost in time drifted through the music…

And there are oh so many stars

So many stars

“Jim, are you alright?”

It was André. I turned and looked at him, wondered where I was, thought I saw myself dancing with my mother, and I remembered the way she looked at me that night. I’d just been accepted to UT and she’d been all crazy proud of me, so happy. She’d been dancing to that music when I came in from practice, dancing before I’d shown her my letter. It was the only time she ever told me she was proud of me, the only time I ever felt like she loved me.

But drifting through the music I suddenly realized I’d been very wrong…about her, about a lot of things.

+++++

She came and sat beside me, held my hand, looked at me like I was a little boy who’d just lost his puppy.

“I think I understand you, Jim. You’ve been running all your life, haven’t you? On the football field, at home – and then here, in Austin. Then you just kept on running. Maybe out of fear, or maybe it was something as simple as habit, something like inertia. But I know this about you too. You’ve felt cornered all your life, because you hated your mother – but thought you had to love her – and that there was something wrong with you because you hated her so much. And then, your father’s suicide…”

“But I…”

“No, Jim, let me finish.” She had my hand in something like a death grip, which I suppose it was, really, and while I could see some kind of fire in her eyes I also saw something far more troubling. She knew I was slipping away, that my own inertia was pulling me away from her. “You told me you felt guilty about leaving home, about leaving Nancy, but I’d like to know why? Why’d you feel guilty? Had you made promises to one another? Did you know she was pregnant?”

“No. I felt like I had to get away from her, that she was suffocating me, wanted to cut me off – from my dreams.”

“So why on earth would you feel guilty about leaving someone who made you feel that way?”

“I’m not sure I did…not until I learned about Alice.”

“And you didn’t learn you had a daughter until the girl was, what? Seventeen?”

“Yes.”

“And you’re supposed to feel guilty about that, too?”

“I don’t think ‘supposed to’ had much to do with it. I felt guilty because I wasn’t a part of their lives. I started to think it had been my destiny to be there…for them.”

“Your destiny…to not follow your dreams? Really? I’m curious…whose life are you living, anyway? Yours, or are you beholden to any and everyone who stakes a claim on you? That you have to cut your dreams loose and fall into a new orbit when someone passes too close?”

I shrugged, but not because I didn’t know she was absolutely correct. No, I was getting mad – because of the look in her eyes. Anger. Almost fury, the very opposite of love. “You’re wrong about one thing.” I paused, waiting for her to ask, but she wasn’t biting so I continued. “I don’t hate my mother.”

The look in her eyes was almost murderous, like I’d betrayed her – and all she thought she knew about me, then…

“Bull-fucking-shit,” she said.

I don’t know, it was like something snapped inside as I sat there, numb at first – then furious, looking into her eyes for a way out. I felt betrayed, injured and hot with pure madness, and she seemed taken aback – like she’d gone too far.

“Goodbye,” I said as I pushed back from the table, throwing a wad of cash down, then putting on my coat. I walked away, walked out into the night. And I never looked back.

I guess some things never change.

+++++

“Jim?”

“Yes, André. Sorry. I was just caught up in the music.”

“Jim?” I heard Samantha now. “You’re crying.”

“Am I? How silly.”

“The music…? Made you feel how…?” she asked.

I looked into her eyes, let her look into mine. “I was thinking…what it would be like to fall in love with you?”

“You don’t want to know,” she said, smiling.

“I’m not so sure.”

And I felt André’s eyes on me just then. Not condemning, not judging me – more like he was measuring me. Something like depth of resolve, perhaps. Was I, just maybe, a man of my word?

+++++

I called a taxi from the restaurant, went to the hospital.

A nurse made a stink about visiting hours. I told her I needed to talk to my mom, and that it was important.

She called someone, then called an orderly – who took me to her room.

Of course, the nurse had called Linda…

My mother was a shadow of herself now, just another shadow in a room full of dark places falling off into a different kind of night. She was, I assumed, in that place people go when on a diet of haloperidol and thorazine, a dry-mouthed land of hazy awareness spiced by never ending sleep. I pulled a chair to her bedside and looked for her hand, found it under the restraints binding her to the bed, to this life – and I took her hand in mine.

“Jimmie? Is that you?”

“Yeah mom, it’s me?”

“I didn’t want you to see me like this?”

“It’s okay, Mom. Doesn’t matter one little bit.”

Her tongue was thick and dry and she had trouble talking now, so I brought a cup of melting ice to her lips and slipped the straw into her mouth. She took a sip, then another, then shook her head a little.

“Thanks, Jimmie. I was feeling a little dizzy… ”

“I love you, Mom,” I said – and she smiled as those words skipped across her waters like a stone.

“I know you do, Jim. You were the only one who did, you know.” She looked up, shook her head. “Feel so dizzy, but there’s something I need to tell you – about your father.”

“No you don’t, Mom. All that doesn’t matter now. It never mattered.”

She squeezed my hand, she looked at me again and smiled – then she stopped breathing.

The orderly was standing by the door and he came to her bed, checked for a carotid pulse then ran from the room. I heard the ‘Code Blue’ call on the intercom, carts rushing down the hall, nurses shouting and it all sounded very serious – then we were in the living room, listening to that song…

Along the countless days, the endless nights

That I have searched so many eyes

So many hearts, so many smiles

Which one to choose, which way to go, how can I tell

How will I know, out of, oh, so many stars

So many stars

I held my mother’s hand as our last dance played out, and I refused to let her go – until it was time to leave again, to walk out into the night and run again – far, far away.

Linda was in the hallway, waiting for me, but I was lost now, far from home and all alone. I walked from the shadows and fell into her arms…wondering not just where I was, not only who I had become – but how I’d arrived at this naked, hollow place – where nothing made sense. And where, suddenly – as if in blinding absolution – everything did.

+++++

I felt a hand on mine.

“Jim?”

“Hmm?”

“I think we’d better get him up to the room”

André’s voice. Full of – what? Concern?

They are helping me stand – Sam on one side, André on the other – then walking me from the lounge. I am aware the goons are staring at me, laughing under their breath, then I see the elevator. Door opening, a couple of nicely dressed women walk out, pause, stare at me then dart into the shadows. We step inside and I see the goons following now, see their reflection in the polished brass wall. The door shuts and I stand up.

“Okay, they’re following,” I say. “Let’s stick with the plan.”

Sam gets off on the third floor and walks to a far exit, takes the stairs down to the basement garage; André slips off on the fourth, and Andy is waiting for him there. They backtrack to the same stairway, then Andy heads to the garage while I go to my room. I turn on the shower and the television, close the bathroom door then lay down on the bed, though I have conveniently forgotten to close the room door completely.

It doesn’t take long.

Like sharks coming out of blue gloom, the goons walk by once, circle back and pass by again.

On their third pass they stop outside my door; with guns drawn they step silently into the room.

One listens through the bathroom door while I ‘sleep’; he hears someone in the bathroom, takes one steps back and kicks the door open. And his face disappears in a pulpy red mist, and as his companion meets the threat with his pistol – his face too disappears.

André steps out of the bathroom, a silenced Walther firmly in hand, and he wraps the goons’ heads in towels. He steps into the hallway, looks both ways, goes for the a soiled linen cart he’d stashed earlier and rolls it into the room. We get the two bodies stuffed into the cart and André rolls it down to a utility room by the service elevator, then we head for the main elevator.

“Did you get all the cameras?” I ask.

“Oui.”

Andy has the car by the elevator lobby in the garage and we slip inside; Sam is in the trunk as we head for the airport. Forty minutes later we are airborne with a flight plan logged for Perth; ten minutes after takeoff Andy changes the flight plan to Quito, Ecuador. Climbing over France, Andy declares a medical emergency, EuroControl advises Lyon is the closest facility that can handle a 744, and Geneva is our ‘stand-by’ alternate.

Twenty minutes later we are on the ground, an ambulance on the tarmac ready to take me to the nearest medical facility. There are only two of us onboard the empty aircraft, so customs isn’t a problem, and minutes later I’m in the ambulance, on my way to a hospital to be treated for presumed gall stones, but what will ultimately be regarded as a case of severe belly pain accompanied by extreme flatulence.

+++++

André sits comfortably close to the old lady by his side, taking his grandmother to Paris – if anyone cares to ask. The woman sitting by his side does indeed appear very old, yet not at all frail… Indeed, she has very nice legs for someone so well on in years, and he helps her off the train in Paris, hails a taxi and takes her to a safe house south of Orly. He turns Sam over to handlers who will conduct a thorough debriefing, learn all she knows about the influence of radical Islamist groups in the Kingdom which, it turns out, is considerable.

André considers this last operation a success, and though he will miss flying he has a small house on his family’s farm out the Rue de 8 Mai 1945, near the village of Sissonne. He wants to do little more now than paint little toy soldiers on their miniature battlefields, and perhaps, from time to time, to play with interesting new eyeliners – but he has trouble letting go of things, trouble turning away from friends.

+++++

I was inside an operating room at St David’s Hospital in Austin, Texas, looking on as the anesthesiologist started his spinal. Linda had decided to have not one child – no, she instead opted for two. A pair of girls, or so I’m told, about to come into this world by Caesarian. I watch the scalpel trace a scarlet line down her swollen belly, look on with an odd sense of becoming drifting around my eyes, then…

…the first girl’s head appears, and the obstetrician looks up at me, then at Linda.

The little baby’s skin is as black as night, certainly blacker than my blond haired lily white chromosomes might have had a part in making, and I look at the doc, then at Linda. She is not looking at me just then, only at the little girl the nurse has held up for her to see. Then, I don’t know, maybe she does the math – then – looks-at-me.

And in perhaps the most eloquent statement in the history of such moments, she says, hopefully, something that sounds a little bit like “Oops?”

I think I’m smiling, but I know my eyes are blinking like semaphores, sending out clear signals of existential distress into the room.

“Oops?” I end up saying. Then, as implications spread around the room like a cancer: “Well, ain’t you something?”

I walked out of the operating room, pulled off the scrubs I’d been obliged to wear, tossed the mask and booties and little paper hat into a bin and drifted out electric doors that parted before my anger like Moses before the Red Sea. My place in Minneapolis rented out, our old home just down Highway 71 now a memory, I suddenly felt well and truly homeless – and the feeling left me breathless, unsure of myself. I’d been staying at Linda’s place in Round Rock the two weeks since my return from Lyon, had even drifted to a Ford dealer and bought a pickup truck, a mammoth thing that weighed at least twice as much as a fully-laden 744.

I got behind the wheel of the beast and turned the motor on, set the air-conditioning to MAX and let the frigid air flow over my steaming anger. Taking a deep breath, I headed for I-35 – lost in the idea I had no place to go. No time to be somewhere, anywhere. No one to go home to. I looked over the immediate options, saw sweltering heat to the right and somewhere, somehow, cool mountain air to the left. I turned north, towards Waco and Dallas, and on the outskirts of town I saw an RV store on a frontage road and turned back. A couple of hours later there was a recklessly huge camper strapped on the back of the Ford and, after I pulled back onto the interstate, and I resumed my northward trek.

Something about all this was comforting, this seeing a problem and fixing it, striking out on my own, drifting down my own little Moon River. Still, there was something missing.

If I was going to travel the backroads I was going to need a companion, and now convinced that women were the anti-Christ I pulled into a rest area and pulled out my phone while I looked over a roadmap. A little town, maybe ten miles away…

I called their animal shelter, asked if they had any dogs in need of a home. They did, but they were closing soon. Could I be there within a half hour?

I said I could, and set off down a lonesome highway in the middle of Nowhere, Texas, and ended up in a little village called Maypearl. I found the shelter with minutes to spare and went in.

There were a couple of puppies in cages, and an old girl sitting off by herself. Maybe she had been a retriever once, perhaps a Golden, but she was old now, her eyes milky cataracts, her muzzle white with cares not of her own making.

“What’s her story?” I asked the town’s Animal Control Officer.

“Her owner passed away last week, no one to take her. Her ten days are up, too.”

“What does that mean?”

“I’m putting her down as soon as you leave. I would have already if you hadn’t called.”

“What’s her name?”

“Holly,” the guy said. “Holly Golightly, if you can believe that…”

“As a matter of fact, I can.”

The guy gave me a simple rope leash and I helped Holly out to the truck, opened the door and waited. She sniffed my legs, looked at the seat and hopped up, circled once and sat as she looked at me. The she sighed, kind of a thoughtful, well considered sigh. I went around and got in, looking at her looking at me…

“We’re going to be alright, Miss Golightly. It’s just you and me now, off to see the world. Where would you like to go first?”

She sat up, looked out the windshield, then at me.

“I don’t know either. I was thinking north, if that’s okay with you? Maybe New Mexico, Arizona – someplace like that.”

I backtracked to the interstate, got back on my little moving river and…

The phone chirped.

I looked at the display. An international number – France?

“Hello?”

“Jim?”

“André?”

“Where are you now?”

“Somewhere just south of I Don’t Know.”

“I have you just south of a place called Desoto. I’m at DFW, the American concourse outside of Gate 21. You should make it in a half hour.”

The line went dead.

“Well, Holly, I think there’s a fly in our soup. What’ll it be?”

She starting scratching behind the left side of her face, then shook her head roughly and I felt her ear. Warm. A little too warm. Too late to call a vet now, I set the GPS for DFW and followed the prompts, pulled up to the terminal forty minutes later. I pointed to the back seat and André hopped in.

“Another woman, I take it,” he look, looking at Holly.

“I couldn’t resist. How’re things in the spy biz?”

“Troubling. The goons are back.”

“Surprise, surprise. Still after Sam?”

“No. You, I’m afraid.”

“Swell.”

“They were at the hospital in Austin, then we lost them.”

“Great news all over.”

“What happened?”

“With Linda, you mean?”

“Oui.”

“Well, when the first cookie popped out of the oven…well, my guess is the father was from Somalia, or perhaps Mali.”

“Merde.”

“Took the starch out of my knickers, amigo.”

“Head for the north exit, take 635 east,” he said.

“You put a fucking beacon in my truck?”

“Oui. Last week, when the latest goons were spotted in Paris. Someone in CIA is feeding them information.”

“Why am I not surprised?”

“We should not have involved you.”

“I seem to recall you didn’t have much choice.”

“That is true. So, here I am. A debt of honor, I suppose.”

Holly was sitting up now, looking over the back of her seat, looking at André.

“How long have you had her?”

“Holly? Oh,” I said – looking at the watch on my wrist, “about seventy five minutes.”

“Ah.”

“I think she’s going to be the love of my life.”

“Yes, I can see the possibilities with her.”

“Did you say 635 East?”

“Oui.”

“You bring high heels and lipstick, or is this trip strictly business?”

“Oh, oui, I always come prepared. Why, do you have something in mind? Something you’d, perhaps, like to try?”

“Feel her left ear, would you? Seems a little warm.”

André called Holly – who obligingly hopped into the back seat – and he played with her for a minute, then felt each ear.

“Oui, it’s infected. I think a dose of flea medication might be useful too.”

“Oh, joygasm.”

“North on 35, towards Denton.” He got on a phone and spoke quietly, rapidly, then rang off and we drove on in silence, the sun slipping down to the horizon now. Almost an hour later he looked up and spoke. “Here. University Drive West, and take a left,” and after another mile “Turn left here, on Western.” Another mile or so and I saw an airport off to the right, a small municipal field, and I saw a Falcon 8x sitting between hangers, a single rotating beacon beating atop it’s fuselage. “Pull up there,” André said, “by the airstairs.”

He opened his door and got out, walked up into the jet – and a moment later two men came out and walked around to the back of the truck, then André came back out with a briefcase in hand.

“Some money, in case you run short, and a few toys,” he said, passing the case in through the window. “A phone too, with direct access to me. Do not let this fall into the wrong hands, Jim.”

“Understood. What are those guys doing back there?”

“A better tracking device, a new identity,” André said, shrugging as he handed my another envelope. “You never know, oui?”

I saw her then, and those goddamn legs of hers…gliding down the stairs, coming out into the night, coming to me. I got out and ran to her, held her eyes in mine and I saw real joy there, but then André was beside us.

“I’ve just learned the goons in Austin had a little accident, something about a fire in their rental car. A pity, no? Anyway, that should buy you some time. That, and this fucking monstrosity…” he said, waving his hand contemptuously at my little camper, “are all the disguise one could possibly need.”

Sam had reached down, taken my hand in hers, leaned her head against my shoulder and I put my arm around her.

“Jim, could you keep in mind the 21st of next month? Chama, New Mexico. There’s a campground?”

“Okay, André, we’ll be there.”

He shook my hand, kissed both Sam’s cheeks then turned and bounded up the stairs. We watched them taxi to the end of the runway and depart, then I turned to her.

“I’m sorry, but I need to introduce you to my new girlfriend,” I said, walking to the rear door of my truck. I opened it and Holly jumped into my arms, and, I don’t know, maybe just then I felt like I’d finally found my place in the world.

We were on 287, driving north again in the middle of the night. I pulled into a rest area and helped Holly down, walked her over to a beckoning patch of grass when I felt her come up behind me. Sam put her arms around me again, and I felt the side of her head against my back…

“What was that song you were playing a while ago? Was that the same one in Stuttgart?”

“Yup. So Many Stars. When I was a kid, I used to watch my mom dance to it.”

“I think deep down, you must have loved her very much.”

“We had our moments,” I said as I turned to her. “But not as much as I love you.”

Then Holly was jumping up on us, pulling me back to the truck, leading us on – into the night.

(C) 2016 Adrian Leverkühn | abw | adrianleverkuhnwrites.com