Nightside (2021 version)

Nightside Image-1

Okay. So, a little backtracking here just might be in order. This story has been around a while. First posted in 2014, I took it down, worked on it and put it away. Then I wrote Asynchronous Mud as a follow-on to this story (NightSide), and now I’ve reworked both and combined them so at last they just might begin to make sense. Even so, you’ll need to have read all recent works to fully grasp where this is coming from. As to where this is headed? Sorry, but let’s not go there, at least not yet.

Music matters? Always. First up, NightSide, a Henry Mancini piece from the score for the film Hatari! Light, seductive, pure early sixties vibe. Next up, something dark…very dark, but something a little classical, perhaps more fitting the moment. You’ve about a hundred pages ahead of you before you start this one, BTW, so grab a big mug of Joe (er, coffee) and put your feet up before you settle in.

NightSide

Part I: Background Noise

Zermatt // December, 1978

She walked out of the hotel, looked up at the canopy of gray mist overhead and squinted into the snow, turning her head and looking around the hotel’s grounds – slowly, but very carefully. The Matterhorn was just fleetingly visible beyond and within the thin veils of wind-driven cloud, the peak a bitter claw tearing into the gray underbelly of the sky. She turned, looked at the copper spire of the parish church just a few meters away, at the gold numerals on the clock’s faces; it was 0900 hours – and just then the muted bell began tolling. She smiled, looked at the watch on her wrist, a new Rolex she’d bought the day before, and she smiled at the unerring inaccuracy of this impulsive bit of vanity. A day old and already a minute slow. She shook her wrist, in effect winding the watch, then undid the diver’s clasp and took it off; she pulled out the stem and adjusted the time, checking it against the clock on the church while she also looked at the watch face.

She admired Precision – in all things – and took great pride in the precision of her craft, but she had recently discovered she most admired those things with their reputations deeply rooted in the word. Equally, she detested things that masked shoddy craftsmanship behind a veneer of precision, and she was vaguely concerned about this new watch, because in her line of work timing was critical. She slipped the watch over her wrist and clasped it, then walked around to the hotel’s ski room and picked up her skis, a pair of shiny new Volkl Tigers. She slung them up on her right shoulder and began walking through town to the Trockener Steg. She stood in the shuffling line and then boarded the tram and, luckily, found herself by a window; she looked across the Theodulgletscher at the Matterhorn as the lift carried her up into the clouds, but soon the view disappeared within swirling curtains of snow. Forty minutes and a transfer later, she stood atop the Testa Grigia and looked south into Italy. No clouds, just sunshine…and a glisteningly broad expanse of fresh powder leading down the sun-dappled valley to a village…and the scene felt to her a little like she was looking at specks of dirt on fields of white velvet.

She wiped off her goggles and slipped pole-straps over her wrists, then she pushed-off down the trail for the alpine village of Cervinia, and those specks she’d seen were many miles away. She stopped every few minutes and looked around as she caught her breath, and more than once she pulled out her Leica M and took a few pictures. She took her time, in other words, acting the bored tourist all the while as skied through the open expanse of pristine snow into the village. She skated along the almost empty streets to a decent looking restaurant in the middle of town and took off her skis, put them in the rack out front and locked them up. Taking off her gloves she unbuckled the topmost buckles on her boots before she walked along aimlessly, and eventually she made her way to a cozily timbered restaurant and she walked in, waited to be seated. A minute later she was led to a table along a far wall, and yet she dropped a glove as she sat. The man seated at the table next to hers reached down and picked it up, handed it to her.

“Excuse me,” he said in Italian, “but you dropped this.” He had just paid his bill and stood to leave.

“Thank you,” the woman said in English, but she didn’t look at him as he left. She took the glove and put it in her little backpack, then looked at the menu. She drank water, ordered veal and left an hour later. On her way out to the street she cleaned off her gloves and put them on, carefully taking the small piece of paper the man had placed inside and slipping it inside a jacket pocket, then she put her skis over her shoulder and walked through town to the lift. She read the note and smiled once in her chairlift, and an hour later she was atop the Testa Grigia once again, her legs cold from the long chair-ride up the mountain, but she stopped, took a few more pictures of the Matterhorn, before she skied back down through the trees into Zermatt. She walked back to the hotel and dropped her skis at the basement ski room, then walked on into town, tossing pieces of the paper into several rubbish bins along the way.

She walked to a patisserie near the Gornergratbahnof, went inside and looked around the room. She glanced briefly at an older man across the room, saw an empty table near his and walked there. She leaned over, released the top two buckles on her ski boots and put her gloves on the table. A waitress came by and she ordered coffee and a few cookies, then let out a long sigh.

The man had a dog by his side, not at all unusual here in the village, but this dog was a little larger than those usually found in a bakery like this. As she leaned over, she reached out and rubbed the dog’s ears, ignoring the man as he looked down at her, perhaps a little annoyed.

She looked up at the man. “I’m sorry, but he’s adorable.”

“Ah. No harm done,” the man said, his accent vaguely middle eastern.

“Is he a setter,” she asked.

“Well, he’s a she, but yes, she’s a Gordon.”

The dog seemed to know they were talking about her, and basked in the sudden attention while the woman rubbed her ears. “Do you hunt with her?” she asked.

“No, I’m afraid not, though I think she would be good doing so. She has a keen nose.”

“My father hunted with setters, English, black and whites. Two girls.”

“And where was this?” the man asked. “In America?”

“Yes, in Minnesota.”

“Ah, yes. Very cold there, is it not? You don’t look like you’re from America.”

“I’m not. I was born in Argentina. My father worked for 3M, and my parents immigrated when I was very little.”

“Ah, and what do you do?” he asked.

“Me? Textile design. Mainly commercial fabrics, airline seat upholstery, things like that.”

“Ah. So, this is a working vacation?”

“Sort of, we have a plant near Zurich, and one in North Carolina. I thought I’d get in a few days skiing before heading back home.”

“How was the snow today?”

“Not bad for this time of year. Still crusty, some ice, but that’s December snow for you.”

“Indeed.”

“Do you ski,” she asked.

“Oh, not so very much these days,” he said, smiling absently.

Her coffee came and she drank the strong local brew, ate just one of the cookies and paid the bill. She stood to leave, smiled at the man and left quietly.

He watched her as she left, then looked at man standing outside and nodded. The woman stepped outside while she put her gloves on, then she walked back to the Zermatterhof, barely smiling when she caught a passing reflection of the man following her in a closing door.

He probably thought he was being very clever, the woman thought – smiling to herself – and not the blundering fool he so obviously was.

+++++

He barely lifted his hand, signaled the waitress to bring his bill; sufficiently nervous now, he quickly paid-up and left the bakery before he’d finished his coffee. Once outside he looked down the street, saw the woman and her tail, then he looked back down the street towards his house, saw his other bodyguards watching and he turned, walked to the safety of his house.

“Do you know who she is?” the man said when he reached this second bodyguard.

This guard shook his head, and he spoke in Persian. “We’ll get the roll into the diplomatic pouch tonight. We should know by tomorrow morning.”

“It should be easy enough to check out her story,” the man said.

“Yes, General.” This man was a captain in the SAVAK, the Shah’s secret intelligence service, and he’d recently completed a years refresher at the CIA’s counter-terrorism center near Yorktown, Virginia. He was, in a word, efficient. Ruthless, but very efficient.

The general was of the old school, however, one of the original men recruited by Norman Schwarzkopf in 1953 to create a secret security apparatus concurrent with the Pahlavi restoration. As such, the general’s CIA inspired methods were discreet, but direct. Brutally direct, according to the general’s friends and associates, and he was one of the most feared, and reviled, men in the Shah’s Iran.

While revolutionary impulses had flared in Iran since ’53, this time things felt different, at least to many of the Shah’s long-time supporters. Religious fervor had attached to student organizations, and even previously secular labor movements, beginning in October 1977, and now many of the Shah’s more accurately informed associates were retreating to their estates in Switzerland and South America, waiting for the inevitable. Still, the general wasn’t taking any chances. He had long known he was a target of the opposition, knew there was a price on his head, so when anyone, absolutely anyone approached or even looked at him too long, they were tailed, their identity ascertained, and if that wasn’t possible, their non-hostility confirmed by more direct means. People with even remotely hostile backgrounds simply disappeared, even in Switzerland. Many already had, the captain knew. That was his job, and he enjoyed considerable status in the state for doing it well.

The general turned and looked down the snowy street once again. The woman looked to be heading to the Zermatterhof, an upscale place for well-heeled American tourists, not spoiled Iranian-student-malcontents or their agents. He sighed, shrugged his shoulders slightly and looked at the captain, then started back up the hill that led through stands of quiet trees, and to his chalet hidden there.

+++++

So, security is as tight as expected, she thought as she walked up the steps to the hotel, resisting the urge to turn and look at the idiot tailing her. He’d followed so close, and on the same side of the street! She understood the general’s men were well trained, so this guy must have been new, fresh out of school, or… What else could it mean? Was the man in charge of the general’s security simply sloppy? She was an unknown, therefore she had to be a high priority target until proven otherwise, and if that was so why was this low-level stooge on her tail? Was the general’s detail not as well trained as she’d been briefed to expect, or were there time sensitive gaps in his coverage? More interesting still, was the security detail too small for effective coverage?

She walked the stairs to her room, put away her ski clothes and went to the bathroom. She looked at her reflection in the mirror while the tub filled with hot water, and she soaked for a good half hour before finishing off with the shower wand. She made it down to the dining room before seven and took her usual table, and from the corner of her eye she saw the stooge who’d tailed her earlier; he was across the room at small table – alone, of course. He studiously ignored her, another sign of his poor training.

She ate her smoked trout and salad quietly, bending over more than once to rub her right leg, pretending her muscles were painfully sore. The main course came, then dessert, and still she sat quietly, not rushing, not giving off any signs she was aware that this festering turd was following her.

Her waiter, an attentive young Yugoslavian named Miliden, asked if she wanted coffee, and she said she preferred espresso, with a twist. He smiled and walked off to the kitchen; she pulled out a trail map and looked at the runs off the Gornergrat, decided to try those in the morning. Miliden returned with her coffee and she continued to look over the map, finally leaving a little before nine.

The stooge left a few minutes later. He left a small tip.

+++++

The captain entered the living room, saw the general sitting by the fireplace, deep in thought. He hesitated, not wanting to disturb the old man, so almost decided against disrupting their usual routine. He coughed as he closed the door behind him, then walked to the fireplace. “General?”

“Yes, Hassan, what is it?”

“There is nothing new to report, but there is more evidence that Khomeini is more involved than we previously suspected…”

“Can we not get to him?”

“Two operations have so far failed, as you know. We are trying to position assets now, for another attempt.”

“Next?”

“The woman returned to her room, had dinner alone and no one other than her waiter approached her during the meal. The waiter is well known, not an agent. As a precaution, a locator had been affixed to her skis, but apparently a leg was bothering her so she may not go out tomorrow.” the captain told his general, wrapping up this brief update.

Now that he was closer, he could see the general had that faraway look in his eyes. He was interested in this woman; indeed, it had been several months since the general had been with a woman, but the captain knew the general had ‘a thing’ for American women, especially if they were young. Especially if they looked like this one. Well, they were going back to Tehran in a few days, and the ‘old man’ could stand having his ‘clock cleaned’ – as his trainers in Virginia used to say – before heading back into the storm.

“What do you think? Could she be…”

“We will know more in the morning, sir. Does she…interest you?” The captain had never seen such confusion in the old man’s eyes before, and he was unsettled by the sight.

“When I looked into her eyes, Hassan, I saw the face of an angel,” the old man said. In fact, I think I saw God.”

The captain looked nervously around the room, hoping there was no one else around to hear him speak like this.

“Anyway,” the general said, breaking the spell, “it’s time to sleep. As you say, we will know more in the morning…” He rose and walked up the stone stairway to his room, slipped out of his robe and slippers and into bed.

Almost instantly, he felt himself falling in the darkness.

He saw the earth just in shadow far below, and darkness reaching up for him. Then he was falling, falling and gathering speed, his robe slapping in the slipstream, the roar soon almost deafening. He knew he was falling to his death, wondered if a bomb had been placed on his jet…

He looked down, saw nothing but the bare limbs of dark winter trees standing in deep gloom – like arms reaching up for him out of the snow – and in a heartbeat he was falling through the outstretched arms of the forest, until…

…he was among stands of whispering trees, staring at them, lost in the wonder that he was still, somehow, alive. He looked around this strange place while he collected his thoughts. There was no sky, only a deep gray fog that was only vaguely lighter overhead, and everything he looked at seemed to radiate an aura of blackness. Veils of bare-limbed trees disappeared within layers of darkening mist, and suddenly he knew there was nothing beyond the darkness. There was only here. There was only now. And this was eternity.

“This isn’t a dream,” he sighed as he bent down and picked up a handful of wet, mold covered leaves. He turned them in his hand, studied them, then brought the decaying mass to his nose, smelling darkest earth on his hands and just then thoughts like the stones of years came to him, crushing his soul, the weight of all his life’s burdens pushing him down into the earth. Leaves came to his face and he kissed them, then in a flash he was by them and he watched as they drifted away in the darkness.

Then he heard a rustling in the air and turned to face the sound.

He saw an old, cast-iron post, very tall, perhaps ten feet tall, with an ornate cast-iron lamp on top, and the lamp was aglow, it’s feeble amber light just barely penetrating the gloom. She was there, her face turned towards the sky, her back to him, then she started to fade away. She was, he saw, caped in deepest maroon, her flowing auburn hair adrift in the dark mist’s silky stillness, yet even so she too was veiled in the black aura of this place.

There was nothing he could do.

He walked towards the amber lamplight, he began to follow her – like a memory he couldn’t shake…

He reached the lamppost, saw it had been formed of copper, yet now it was a weathered, blackened verdigris, and he reached out, felt the cold metal on his skin and slowly shook his head. Where had she gone? Into the light?

No, she was far ahead now, standing under another lamppost, waiting for him. He saw the same feeble glow lighting her way… then he looked at her feet. She was on a path of some sort – and he looked down, saw only leaves so he brushed them aside with his foot. He saw oddly shaped bricks under the leaves, but she was walking again so he followed her – again – on the same path.

She walked ahead, he followed her to the next lamp post, then the next, and the pathway became uneven, almost rough, and he tripped once, falling to an path full of rotting corpses.

His hand recoiled from the sight as his mind raced to react. What did this mean?

This path was formed from decomposing bodies, leaves mingling with flesh, shards of bones poking through the forest floor here and there. The he saw rolling waves of skulls, dark pockets of  hollow eyes looking up at him through the leaves, vacant eyes following him as he stood and resumed walking. The skulls were everywhere he looked now, and within every memory that came to him, their disjointed stares defining his Walpurgisnacht, then he heard music. A piano playing in the distance, playing a nocturne, and he knew this was their music. ‘Is this the music of the skulls? Is that what I hear?’ 

…but then he stopped, and he stared at the woman – because now he could see that it was she who was playing the piano…

…and then he found he was standing at the base of a large stairway…

…and the stair’s appearance was oddly Greek, he thought. An arced stairway of polished white marble waited just ahead, flanked at the base by two more verdigris lamp posts, while at the top there appeared to be a landing of sorts, and beyond, a stone archway. A doorway, he guessed, but leading to where?

But then she was walking up the stairs, her pace stately, her maroon cape trailing down the stairway as she ascended, her hair drifting on errant breezes. And as before, he could do nothing but follow her. He felt impelled, yet when she reached the landing she stopped and turned to face him, and the sight of her imperious beauty simply took his breath away. She was regal, yet he could also see that she too was damned. She stood in whorish splendor, maroon corset showing beneath her cape, garters attached to charcoal lace stockings and fantastically high heels. He walked closer and stopped when he saw her face: the flesh looked like smoothest ice, her lips a mottled maroon – just like the makeup around her eyes, he thought. But no, this wasn’t makeup. No, what he saw was decay. Withered flesh, decaying before his eyes – turning into another skull, turning into death, death like skulls within the forest floor – and the sight of her suddenly filled him with dread, then slowly, impossibly, an impenetrable gray lust came to him, spreading like the fires of Hell through his loins.

As he reached her she turned and walked to the far side of the landing – but now  he could see there was nothing beyond the arched entry. Only the trees, and that same infinite gray, waited…

And when walked through the arch she stepped off the landing and into the mist and he wanted to scream, but he was too late. He wanted to hide his face in his hands as the faces of all the people he’d killed over the past three decades came flooding through memory, drowning his soul like the weight of raw earth falling on a coffin. He wanted to cry, to release his humanity from the prison he’d created in his mind, but nothing came from his lips but the silence of the dead. He was dry inside, as withered and decayed as all of the rest.

He opened his eyes, lifted his face to the archway now overhead, and as he watched a raven flew by, and it settled directly atop the ornate opening. He walked to the edge of the passageway, looked out over the trees, and there he saw a vast wall of curved stone, and he stepped back, looked up at the raven.

Only now he saw the decaying woman, but now she was made of cold, black stone and ten meters tall, yet every detail was there…the cape, the corset, the stockings and heels, all of her garish details, and at the apex of her legs, within the womb of her cold, dead flesh, came the same soft amber glow he’d seen atop the ornate lamps.

He walked to the edge of the passage and looked up into the amber glow. He saw indents and handholds where an unknown sculptor had fashioned the lacy edge of her stockings, and the straps of her garters, and he reached across the abyss and found a place for his hand. He brought the opposite foot across to another handhold and pushed his body across to the cold stone flesh of her legs. Committed now, he looked up and began climbing. After several minutes climbing he paused and looked around.

He shook his head, confused. The amber glow was still up there, but was it further away now?

Then he looked down and wanted to scream. The landing and the arched doorway was hundreds of meters away now, as if the statue of the woman had grown, and now there were huge snakes winding up the statue’s legs – chasing him – and the closest was a huge cobra. 

This snake looked up at him and opened it’s mouth, revealing impossibly evil looking fangs dripping with venom. Now terrified, he looked up and started climbing again, but soon he was growing tired, feeling winded, but then he reached the top of the statue’s legs. He scissored his way up the remaining few meters, and when he came to the cold stone labia he reached out, found not cold stone but warm flesh, and he could tell that the source of the amber glow came from within the stone.

He reached out with his hands, pushed the labia apart and climbed inside, pulling himself into the warmth of her womb. He came upon a darkness so complete, a warmth so comfortable, he let himself go. He closed his eyes, felt himself drifting away, then he looked down, saw that the cobra was still coming for him.

He climbed deeper into the womb of the night until he came upon a ledge, a smooth platform of some kind, and he pulled himself up, and there he stood…waiting for the coiled strike that had to be coming.

But in the next instant he found himself adrift in space, and everywhere he looked he saw stars and nebulae and great swirling galaxies…yet he felt little now…only filled by a sense of wonder at the beauty he had suddenly found. He reached out and cupped a galaxy in his hand and an impossible warmth came to him.

And for a moment he saw himself as he had been – once: innocent, curious, his idealism shining pure and clean.

Then he remembered what he really was, what he had become, and the cry that came from his stone cold lips split the atom of the night.

+++++

She woke at seven the next morning, rinsed her night’s troubled sleep off in the shower before she dressed to ski, then walked down to breakfast in the dining room. Last night’s minder was absent, she soon saw, but another likely tail was already seated across the room, an American drinking coffee and reading the International Herald Tribune. So, she thought, this one was trying to pass himself off as an American. Then she saw a Persian woman sitting by herself on the far side of the room; was she looking her way a little too covertly? Yes, of course she was, and that made sense, didn’t it?

Yet she found herself looking at the ‘American’ once again. Strong – yet not overtly muscular; he had the lean, hard-edged look of ulterior motives, and she was about to look away when he looked up from his paper – and then he looked at her. He smiled, then looked at his coffee and began reading again, and in an instant she was on guard. She didn’t know who he was or who he worked for, but this one was dangerous. She looked at his shoes, at the soles of his shoes, wanted to see what kind of print they’d leave in the snow, then she finished her breakfast and walked down to the ski room in the basement.

Ten minutes later she was on the Gornergratbahn riding up the mountain railway, wondering why anyone would turn a train into a ski lift. It took forever to get to the summit, and she followed the herd out onto the snow and looked across the expansive valley at the Matterhorn. She admired the view, the mountain standing over the mist-enshrouded village like a sentinel, then she walked over and grabbed her skis, put them on. When she had her gloves and poles on she poled over to another overlook and pulled out her Leica, took a few shots of the Matterhorn across the valley, but then she felt someone skid to a stop beside her…

“Something else, isn’t it?” the man from the dining room said.

“Yes, it’s wondrous!” she said, trying to keep the surprise out of her voice. “I wonder, could you take one with me in it?”

“Of course,” the young man said graciously. He took the camera from her and stepped back.

She watched him closely. Leica M’s like her’s were difficult for most people to understand, yet he focused and set the aperture with practiced ease – then he paused. “What are you shooting?”

“Kodachrome.”

“64, or 25?”

“64,” she said. He nodded his head, re-set the shutter speed and and closed the lens all the way down. He shot a few verticals, then four more horizontals from different angles. “You shoot like a pro,” she said, admiring the way he moved.

He smiled. “Maybe that’s because I am,” he laughed. “I’m scouting some locations for an apparel company shoot next week. This place is magic when all the Christmas lights are up.”

“I can just imagine.”

“So, will you be up here long?”

“Just two more days,” she said as she took the camera from him. “Ski down a few yards, would you? I’ll get one of you!”

“Sure,” he said, much to her surprise. A ‘spook’ wouldn’t let her do that, would he…?

“Are you going down to Riffelalp?” he asked as she took his picture.

“I was thinking about it,” she said. “Closer to lunchtime, maybe.”

He nodded. “There’re a couple of chalets in the woods just off the main trail, under the Riffelboden. Family run, I think, like dairy farms during summer. They make their own cheese, and they have mulled wines, fondue, raclette, that sort of thing. I stopped at one a few days ago,” he said as he put his goggles back on, “and I’ve been hoping to go back ever since, if you’d like to join me.”

“Sure, sounds fun,” she said, putting her camera away while she side-slipped down to him.

“What are you doing up here?”

“Fabric design,” she said. “My firm has a plant near Zurich; thought I’d come up here for a few days. You know your way around here?”

“Sure, but stay away from the black runs over there,” he said, pointing. “Snow’s too unstable right now, avalanche danger.”

“I’d like to take it easy for the first couple of runs. I don’t want to hold you back.”

“Not a problem, I’m stiff this morning too. I’ll probably be too slow for you.” He pushed off, started down the broad expanse of snow.

She pushed off and fell in behind him, watched his legs as he turned. ‘He’s good,’ she thought, yet she had no trouble keeping up with him, and less than ten minutes later they were standing in line at the Riffelberg chairlift, waiting to ride back up to the top.

“Good snow today,” he said when they were on the lift, obviously enjoying the morning.

“Very good,” she said, “for December, I think.”

“Where do you ski back home?”

“Anywhere I can, really, but I haven’t had much time the past few years. You?”

“Same thing, I guess. I don’t usually have too many winter sports clients.”

“What’s your usual clientele?”

“Corporate. Lots of portraiture, for annual reports usually. Physical plant, oil refineries and the like, again, for annual reports. That’s the meat and potatoes of it, anyway.”

“And when you shoot on your own?”

“Oh, I like to play with light – natural, I mean. Landscapes. Mountains and sunsets, that kind of thing.”

“Been doing much around here?”

“Some,” he said.

“Could I see some?”

“Sure, I’ve got a few rolls coming in, hopefully by tomorrow.”

“Well, maybe tomorrow evening?” she asked.

“You know, maybe I should know your name?”

“Oh! Well, yes, why not? Dana Goodman.”

“Dana? Paul Ruddesheim. From Boston, by the way.”

“Minneapolis,” she said as the chair came to the top of the lift. They hopped off and slid down the ramp. Paul looked at his watch, then he took off down the same run, picking up the speed a little, but still she kept up with him and they were back at the chairlift just a few minutes later. They were in the chair again when she broke out some lip balm and put some on.

“Good idea,” he said, fumbling in a jacket pocket.

“Here, use mine.”

“Thanks.”

When they slid off the ramp at the top, he stopped and looked at his watch again. “If you’re up for an early lunch, we could head down now…”

“Sounds good,” she said, and she watched him push off then skate down the hill, rapidly building up serious speed. She followed him again, but this time he was pushing it hard, pushing her to the limits of her abilities. The snow was soft, ruts were forming in the loose crud kicked up by all the other skiers on the hill; she was still behind him, still only a few meters off his pace when he arced off to the far right side of the run and ran almost straight down the hill, his speed easily pushing through 70 kph, then he slowed, making a series of quick slalom-like turns just before he came to a rocky ledge. She was tucked in behind him when she realized he was airborne, that he had jumped a cornice; she pre-jumped, brought her knees up to her chest as she judged their height and how far they’d fly. She saw rocks on both sides of the run-out ahead, but no trees or people, and she guessed she was thirty feet above the snow when she left the cornice, and the vertical fall looked like fifty feet, maybe more. He was either showing off – or being a real jack-ass, she thought.

Still, he made a perfect landing and fell into a tight, slalom-like rhythm, burning off speed until he came to a stop near some trees. He looked uphill but was surprised to see her skidding to a stop on his downhill side.

“I’m impressed!” he said, shaking snow off his goggles.

“That was fun,” she said, grinning.

“Did you race? In college?” he asked.

“A little.”

“Uh-huh. I know what that means.”

She laughed. “And you?”

“GS and downhill. Wasn’t good enough to make the US team, though.”

“Is that one of the chalets there,” she asked, using her pole to point out a hut a few hundred meters away.

“That’s one of ’em,” he said. “The second one down the run, off to the left, is the one I want to go to. Ready?”

“Well, I’m hungry now. Hope you are too?”

He smiled, pushed off and headed through the trees at breakneck speeds, and a few minutes later skidded to a stop beside an almost ancient looking “chalet” – but to her it looked more like an old barn that had been converted into a rather rustic looking trailside diner.

Which, it turned out, was exactly what it was.

There was room inside for a few people to sit, more on a rock lined terrace out front, but it was too cold for that. They took a seat at a small, timbered table inside by a very old stone fireplace, and a rather buxom bodied, blond haired, blue eyed woman brought them a local cheese fondue and hot, mulled wine without even asking what they wanted…

“This is all they serve,” Paul said, relishing her surprise. “I guess they figure if you don’t like it you’ll just get up and leave.”

“Well, it’s damn good,” Dana said, spearing a second piece of bread and dunking it in the bubbling cheese.

“Same family’s been making this cheese since the beginning of time, I think,” he said as he speared two pieces of bread and set them in the pot. “Try the wine. It’s decent.”

“Suppose they have any water up here?”

He turned and asked for a bottle, and the woman brought it moments later. “Sorry about the cornice,” he said. “I was just feeling so good, and it’s my favorite jump on this side of the mountain…”

She laughed again. “Good way to get rid of an unwanted girlfriend,” she said.

“Might be at that,” he grinned.

They ate in silence after that, and though she took a few sips of wine she finished the water, then motioned for another bottle.

“Chocolate fondue’s not bad if you want some desert, and they have what tastes to me like Turkish coffee.”

“I’m fine, thanks.”

He shrugged. “I’m going to head over to Sunnegga if you feel like tackling some of the steeper trails.”

“No thanks. I’ve got to make a few calls back to the states this afternoon,” she said. “But thanks for pointing this place out…it’s great!”

He smiled as he laid out some francs for the bill, and Dana paid her share. She finished the water and they walked back out to the terrace – only to find more people arriving. Dana threaded her way through the people over to her skis and put them on, waved to Paul and pushed off down the trail. Every now and then she caught brief glimpses of the village below, and she stopped once, when she had the feeling she was being followed. She turned and looked up the hill – through the trees – and…did she see someone duck behind a tree?

She skied down the trail a few hundred meters, then quickly darted into a cluster of trees – and there she waited a moment, then looked up the trail…but she saw nothing, no one…no skiers at all. She shook her head, pushed back onto the trail and skied down through the village to the hotel, where she dropped her skis and boots off in the ski room before going up to her room. She showered, put on more formally attractive clothes before she walked back to the main shopping street.

She found her new Rolex was now three minutes slow and walked to the jeweler, expressed her disappointment and asked him to check it out. She wanted to drop off her rolls of Kodachrome and saw a small camera shop across the way and went in, filled out the processing envelope and dropped the rolls in, then she saw a used 85 f1.5 in the display case and looked it over for a while, then as if on a lark she decided to purchase the lens. She looked around once outside again and, as if the thought had just come to her, she walked back to the patisserie and went to the counter, picked out a few interesting items and asked for an espresso. She looked at more items in the case, then she went and sat at the same table she had the day before.

The General came inside a few minutes later, his magnificent Gordon setter tucked in close by his side, and he saw her. He seemed to smile – if faintly – before he too went to the counter and ordered. He turned, looked at her when he was through, then came to the table next to hers.

“What a happy – coincidence,” he said, smiling, then he sat in a chair just a few inches from her own.

She looked at the setter and scratched her ears again, and the dog licked her hand.

“She likes you,” he said. “That is most unusual.”

“That’s because she has very good taste,” she cooed, doting on the girl.

“How was the snow today,” the General said, going over the security report again in his mind.

“Very good,” she replied. “There was enough sun to soften up the icy spots.”

“Ah, well, I must go up tomorrow and see. I think there will be sun a few more days.”

She smiled, picked up her coffee.

“I see you have a Leica,” he said, looking at the silver box on her table. “For an M?”

“Yes, it’s my secret fetish. I tried a Nikon once, but it lacks something.”

“Yes, the clarity of the rangefinder. That makes all the difference.”

She nodded. “Yes, but the quality of the lenses…that’s what brought me back.”

“You have an adapter for it,” he said as pointed at the lens.

“No, not with me, but the shop had this and I just couldn’t resist.”

“Franz is a good man,” he said, pointing at the camera store she’d just come from. “He does well for such a small village. So, you have an M4?”

“Yes. Well, the M4-2.”

“Ah, the Canadian Leica. I understand a new M4 is coming soon, perhaps next year.”

“Oh, really,” she said, appearing genuinely interested. “Any idea when?”

He smiled – gently, then held up his hands while he pursed his lips and shook his head. “You never know with Leica.”

“I would love a fast 75,” she said lustfully.

“I have heard rumors one is coming soon,” he added somewhat boastfully, speaking as someone with inside information usually does.

“Faster than 1.5?” she asked, looking at her purchase.

He steepled his fingers before his face, and his eyes smiled. “1.4,” he crooned, his spoken numbers lilting, almost gleeful.

“Damn,” she said. “So I get to buy a new body AND another lens. Well, I won’t be skiing much next year!”

“I have quite a collection,” he said, hovering next to the edge of her precipice, “why don’t you come up and have a look?”

She looked at him, curiosity in her eyes. “Really? You wouldn’t mind?”

He pursed his lips, made the same little self-deprecating shrug once again, as if to say ‘It’s nothing…’

“Well,” she added, “I’d be delighted. Perhaps you’d join me for dinner, and we could walk up after?”

“Say about seven?” he asked, smiling.

“That sounds good. I’m at The Zermatterhof.”

“Ah. Of course.”

She finished her coffee and was getting ready to leave when she saw him looking at her – an odd, almost perplexed look in his eyes. “I may have a spare adapter,” he said after a moment, pointing at the silver box. “Why don’t you bring your M4 and that new lens. You really should test it before you leave, make sure it works.”

She nodded thoughtfully. “Yes, thanks. That’s a good idea,” she said as she gathered her gloves and hat. “See you at seven, then,” she said as she waved, before she slipped out the door on a breeze.

He thought about her grandfather as he watched her walk away. He remembered the man well, in fact. A physician and a close advisor of Mossadegh’s; the man had barely managed to flee Tehran in ’53, and while the CIA had followed him as far as Argentina they’d lost track of him near the Andes, though once the general’d heard the man had been spotted in Bariloche. They sent a team, but too late; he was neither seen nor heard from again.

The old man looked at the captain waiting across the street and thought about all the varied streams of history. No way would the captain understand this obsession, no way would he remember the passions of those first days back in power – except what he may have heard about through the stories of others. No way would the captain understand how difficult it had been to get rid of all the deeply embedded nationalists left behind in the bureaucracies and the military. So while one more part of the score would be settled tonight, this last remaining vendetta had a bittersweet feel to the old spy. This last, long-standing enmity was something almost ancient now, but as the woman’s grandfather remained one of the Shah’s most bitter memories, her fate had been all but sealed the moment they met.

Yes, because while her grandfather was dead and gone and her father out of reach, she was here, and the order had come from the Shah himself: Kill her, but first make her understand why, then make her suffer –

+++++

She knew she was blown – but then again they had been counting on that happening.

The general had almost single-handedly killed everyone in the Shah’s Iran, anyone allied in any way with the Mossadegh regime, but the word was the General had gone after the few Jews in Mossadegh’s inner circle with unusual ferocity. As such, the General had become a high priority target for the Israelis, yet they could not take him out within Iran without creating unnecessary blowback, so his case had lingered for years. But then the General had recently been spotted moving around outside Iran, and when the opportunity arose he had been tailed, members of his support team identified, and then the late night conferences began working on the best way to approach and take out such a high-profile target – despite the American umbrella of protection he enjoyed through the Shah.

Then it was learned the General had a house in Switzerland, and an interesting – if complicated – new wrinkle developed: what about an operation in neutral Switzerland? Was that off limits? But then word had come down to Captain Benni Goodman: the situation with the General needed to be resolved – in case the Shah retrenched and consolidated power once again. Because, it was hoped, the message would be clear: to those enemies of Israel who might think the Mossad wasn’t watching – and waiting – you had better think again.

So, first the team had planted a vast net of very attractive crumbs – revealing faint bits of Dana’s Goodman’s background – that even the flat-footed Iranians would be sure to find. Next, they pulled her from the design house in Zurich she’d been tasked to and sent her to a safe house Geneva. She might then have returned to Tel Aviv, but her handlers decided against the risk; instead, Captain Goodman had briefed his niece, Dana, on the mission and her target, leaving out the rather personal backstory behind this sanction on a walk beside the lake. Captain Goodman conveyed the hope that once Dana’s identity was ‘discovered’ – she would become an irresistible target, perhaps one the General would think worth blowing his diplomatic cover for. Their superiors in Israel were counting on that, Captain Goodman told her…

Once she’d arrived in Zermatt – where she’d first located his house and observed his routine – she’d signaled ‘contact made’ to her handler in Geneva. She had checked in a small hotel for a few days, until word came to make her move to the Zermatterhof, then she waited for the formal authorization that had been hand delivered two days ago, in Cervinia. Then, once the OP had been irrevocably green-lighted, she’d initiated contact at the bakery.

But every operation of this complexity, she knew from even her brief experience, develops at least one serious complication along the way, and that fly in the ointment had arrived at breakfast that morning, and then later, on the trail beneath the Gornergrat. She didn’t know who this Paul Ruddesheim was, or who he might really be working for, but her instincts screamed CIA, and if he indeed was working for Langley then she had to assume he was here to protect the old man. Or worse…to take her out before she could make her approach.

The ties between the United States and the Shah of Iran ran deep; those between the SAVAK, the Shah’s secret police, and the CIA ran deeper still. The only question bothering her now was what to do if this Ruddesheim interfered with her mission, if he tried to protect the general. More worrisome, if he knew she was Mossad – in effect, who she really was – and if he tried to take her out, oh well, she’d have to go hunting off the reservation – as the training officers in Virginia liked to say. That was one complication she really didn’t want to deal with, and now there wasn’t time to report this new wrinkle without the possibility of compromising her mission. ‘Abort – or proceed?’ she asked herself as she walked through the village.

But she already knew the answer. The stakes were too high, weren’t they?

She got to the hotel and went down to the ski room, then once she’d checked to see if she was being followed she went beyond, deeper into the mechanical bowels of the old hotel. She’d been briefed on this last detail in the little note passed to her the day before, and in a dusty corner behind a jumbled mountain of cardboard boxes, under a pile of turpentine soaked tarps, she found a small, black plastic box. She picked it up and carried it back to her room.

She unlocked the box with the key given to her by her handler the week before, took out the Walther TPK and screwed the suppressor onto the end of the barrel. She slipped the clip of .22LRs out of the box, checked the load, then slammed it home and racked the receiver, chambering a round. She put a phone book under the mattress and fired a round through two pillows: the serrated hollow point splintered into four equal shards, and she dug two from the box springs, two from the phone book. She wrapped these in toilet paper and flushed them, then showered and changed again. After she dressed and was ready to leave, she tossed things about the room, leaving the appearance of a state of casual disrepair, wanting the room to look like she’d been planning on returning after dinner.

‘The Leica!’ she thought in a panic. She’d almost forgotten the most important element to the entire operation! She went and got the camera body out it’s case and cleaned it up a little, then she pulled open the false bottom of the hard case. She slipped the Walther inside the case, as well as the two extra clips, and then she held her right hand up to the bottom of the case and pushed hard, locking the false bottom in place. She cleaned her new lens and kept the 50mm already on the body, then closed the case and locked the top latch. Then she looked at her wrist out of habit, remembered her new Rolex was gone and was sorry she’d not been able to pick it up, then she grabbed the camera case and headed for the elevator.

He was of course already downstairs, waiting in the lobby, and curiously enough, he was alone. She assumed his minders were already in the dining room as she walked over to him.

“So nice to see you,” she said as she held out her hand, and she smiled when she saw his eyes fixed on her legs.

“My, but you do look lovely tonight.” He was almost leering at her when their eyes met, then he looked at her case. “The Leica?” he asked.

“Yes. I thought I’d bring it along. Shall we go to the dining room?”

“We could, but I was hoping you’d let me take you to my favorite place.”

“That sounds lovely,” she said gayly, though inwardly she groaned as she followed him to the door. She stood aside and let him open it for her, then they walked out into the night – together – as she had taken his arm in hers. She had to admire his basic street-craft, too: keep your opponent guessing, keep changing agreed upon plans to mess up strategic orientation. She was counting on his not quite knowing her real identity, but if that had been compromised he might be assuming she had tactical support on the ground, so the General’s men would be following them now, looking for her support team.

But, of course, she was solo, and that just might help ease their suspicions – for a while.

They came to the restaurant, and as it was near the main train station she considered trying to make the last train down the valley to Visp. She might just have time, she knew, if things went according to plan.

“Here we are,” the general said as he opened the door for her, and she recognized his men from the street, already inside and waiting. “These are my associates,” he said. “I hope you don’t mind if they join us tonight.”

“Not at all,” she said brightly, then the group was led to a large table by a freestanding copper fireplace. “So, what line of work are you in,” she asked the old man.

“Political trouble shooting,” the old man said, smiling.

“Government work, I take it?” she replied. “So, fondue?”

The more senior looking of the old man’s associates was looking at her case, then he spoke to the general in farsi.

“May I see your camera now?” the old man asked.

“Certainly,” she said, handing over the case and the key.

“Hassan heads my security detail, so I defer to him in these matters.”

“I understand.”

Hassan opened the case and took out the camera. He looked it over and handed it to the general, then he pulled out the other lens; she took a sip from her glass of ice water while she looked around the restaurant. A moment later Hassan handed her the case and she put it under the table, while the general held the camera in his hand.

“I’ve never understood why some people consider the Canadian body inferior,” he said. “I’m given to understand that the tooling is identical in both facilities.”

“Oh, I think there’s the intangible belief in the superiority of German manufacturing techniques,” she replied, smiling.

“Not to mention Germans,” the old man added, his grin a jab at her history.

She laughed. “True.”

“Where is your family from?”

“Minnesota,” she said.

“Ah. So you are used to the cold.”

“And skiing,” she smiled.

Several pots of bubbling cheese and oil arrived, baskets of bread and plates of meat and shrimp appeared, and the old man’s team dug in, apparently used to eating here – frequently, she guessed by the way they attacked the food.

“Here, may I fix you a plate,” the old man asked.

“Please.”

He moved formally, slowly, put sauces on her plate, then bread and a few long fondue forks. “Help yourself to whatever appeals to you.”

“Thank you.”

They ate in silence for a while, then suddenly his men excused themselves one by one, eventually leaving just the two of them at the table. Alone.

“Not a very talkative bunch,” she said.

“They take their duties seriously,” he said, looking directly in her eyes.

“You must have an important job,” she said – as naively as she could, under the circumstances.

“Would you like to head up to my chalet?”

“Whenever you’re ready.”

“Well, let’s go then.” He dropped a wad of francs on the table and stood, then helped her as well. They walked out into the night and back through town, then to a street that led up the west side of the village. Ten minutes later they came to a modest chalet and he led her to the front door, but she noticed his hands were shaking.

“Are you alright?” she asked while she looked at his hands, then his face.

“To tell you the truth, I’m not so sure.”

“What’s wrong?” she said, her voice sincere, full of concern.

“I had a dream last night,” he said. “A very unsettling dream. I have not been the same since.”

“A dream?” she asked, in a daze. “What was it about?”

“You,” he said.

+++++

‘Paul Ruddesheim’ kept to the shadows a few hundred yards back, Hassan by his side – looking up the hill as the general walked slowly across an icy patch in the road. He knew Goodman’s Mossad cover, MI6 had for at least a year, the CIA a few months more, and both agencies knew it was only a matter of time before Mossad made a play for the general. Still, his orders were not to blow her cover, not interfere with her mission, but not to help her, either. He was almost ashamed of taking her off that cornice run, but he’d wanted to know how tight she was, how resourceful, how physically adept.

And he’d been impressed. Cute, in an athletic way, her long auburn hair and dark eyes wild and elegant at the same time, but he was sure she was an amateur, not used to playing in his league. He wondered if he’d have to pull her out, save her ass when she encountered the general’s full team…

Hassan’s objective was to let the old man get her into the house, then move in and take her down. He’d said something about ‘hurting her’ before they eliminated her, and Ruddesheim was under no illusions what that meant. Group rape before a bullet to the head more than likely, then dropping her body outside the Israeli consulate in Zurich tomorrow afternoon, probably with a pig’s head with her in the body bag. Well, non-interference meant just that, but he didn’t want to watch that go down. He thought about lunch, her calm inquisitiveness. No, he wouldn’t let them kill her…

“What’s he doing?” Ruddesheim asked, watching the general and ‘Dana’ standing on the walk that led to the house, apparently just talking. Two more members of the team joined them then.

“She’s not being tailed,” one of the men said.

“You’re certain?” Hassan said. “No one?”

“Unless she has a locator, no one knows where she is.”

“To bad for her if a locator is her only backup,” Hassan said, knowing all such signals were jammed in the valley.

“Are they talking? Still?” Ruddesheim asked.

“Yes,” Hassan said, handing his binoculars to the American.

Ruddesheim took them and swept the area, especially the rooftops. “I see something over there, by that house,” he lied, and the two new men looked that way. “Did you check that area?”

No, they hadn’t, they said. He looked at Hassan, who scowled at his men. They looked down, chastened, then took off up the hill.

“You should get rid of those two,” Ruddesheim said. “Their skills are pathetic, and what I saw yesterday was embarrassing.”

“I’ll see to it myself, sir. I think the general is moving again…”

+++++

“So, what do you think the dream means?” she asked. “I think the stairway is an interesting symbol, but the statue, climbing into the womb?”

“I do not know. I struggled with that question all morning. Seeing you now only makes me more curious. Here, let’s get inside, before you catch a chill.”

He unlocked the door and led her inside. Like most chalets in the canton of Valais – where simple exteriors more often than not gave way to sumptuous interiors – the General’s was, if not quite opulent, much more opulent than a modest government pensioners hideaway. There were several small impressionist works hanging on the living room walls, and against one wall she saw a glass case full of Leica cameras and lenses. She couldn’t help herself…she walked right to the case and stared in awe. He came to her side and smiled at her reaction, then she turned to him and he could see it in her eyes.

“You should be so proud,” she said. “This is truly magnificent!” 

And for some reason the old man started to cry, gently at first, but then…

…and quite unexpectedly she came to him, held him to her breast. “Sh-h, sh-h,” she whispered as an electric wave passed from her body to his, “Is it your dream again? Tell me, really, what do you think these visions mean?” 

“That I turned my back to God and Heaven, that I turned away from living a righteous life, and now it is time for me to pay the price of my arrogance.” 

“The skulls? The bones?”

“Exactly.” 

“I think I understand,” Dana Goodman said.

“Where is your weapon?” the old man said, his voice now a coarse whisper.

“In my case,” she replied, finally understanding the true nature of the dream she too had experienced last night.

She felt his head nodding as if it was her own. “Get it now, would you, please.” 

She opened the latch and removed the camera, then she pressed the lock on the bottom of the case; the lock tripped, revealing the little Walther – and she pulled it out.

He knelt, placed the side of his face on her womb while he held her thighs in his hands. He wanted to climb up her legs towards her warmth, enter the womb of her night and crawl up into the expanding universe he’d discovered in his dream, yet when he felt the silenced barrel of her pistol against the back of his skull he felt confused and alone…

“I am ready,” he said at last, pulling her close…

He heard the front door opening, heard Hassan moving into the room, then she fired once, twice, but the old man didn’t move, indeed, he couldn’t move…

“What are you doing here,” he heard her ask someone…

“Me? Just observing,” he heard the American say – before he heart two more shots…

And then she was running her fingers through his hair once again, and he felt the pistol against his skull again, only now the tip of the silencer was very, very hot.

“God will forgive you,” the General said just before she pulled the trigger, and then again.

She walked to the entryway, saw the captain, Hassan, trying to staunch the flow of blood from his neck wound. She ejected the clip and slammed in her second, put the Walther to his temple and fired again – and the man grew still.

She walked over to Ruddesheim and looked him in the eye. 

“Observing, huh? Well, what did you observe tonight?”

He helped her pull Hasan’s body into the living room, and then he went around the room unscrewing light bulbs. When he finished she took a seat and waited, her eyes closed tightly, while Ruddesheim melted away into the shadows. A few minutes later she heard the other members of the General’s team coming into the house, and she waited until they were inside to room before she opened fire. In their confusion she cut them down one by one. Then she turned to Paul Ruddesheim.

“So? What do I do with you?” she asked.

“Nothing. We know who you are, your cover, and we have for over a year. Killing me will just lead to needless reprisals, and nobody needs that right now.”

“I see.”

“Do you?”

She nodded. “So? I just…”

“You just have time to make your train,” he said, smiling just a little – and then he tossed her a green and gold box.

“My Rolex?”

“Yup.”

“You’ve been on me the whole time, haven’t you?”

He nodded. “Since Geneva. Now…go! You’ve got ten minutes!”

She didn’t wait, did not hesitate. She grabbed her camera case and walked back through town to the railway station. With just minutes to spare she purchased a through ticket to Geneva and waited on the platform for the train. With standard Swiss efficiency she knew she’d make the early morning Swissair to Athens, and as per the plan she’d disappear there.

She boarded the little train and it rumbled down the valley, and she spied a few errant splatters of blood on her coat. She went to the WC and took it off, put it in a trash bag, then she went to the overhead rack and tidied up her camera case. When it was clean again she relaxed a little, and an hour later she transferred to the main line at Visp, catching the overnight to Geneva.

She closed her eyes, felt herself falling and woke in a landscape of burnt gray mist, an infinity of black trees – until she saw a lamppost looming in the bleak dawn just ahead. She turned when she heard a sudden cry for help and she saw the old man sinking into the leaves and skulls, his outstretched hand reaching out to her, and then an icy hand gripped her heart.

Part II: Synchronicities 

New York City     December, 2008

She lay in bed, lost in the sweaty aftermath of the recurring dream. Lost in the residue of her crumbling marriage.

She lay in bed, looking at him as he slept.

So broken, she thought. So brilliant, and so irretrievably broken.

No, she knew now beyond any reasonable doubt he was a shattered, lost soul.

So much of his understanding of himself was lost in delusions of his own self-importance, perhaps even of an immortality only he knew about – a real Master of the Universe from Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities. Twenty years on Wall Street had done nothing to dispel that notion, but then in a matter of days all that had come crumbling down. The last fifteen years of his at Lehman Brothers had defined him, then the bubble burst and the end of the game came on like a freewill into darkness – first as disbelief, then as a creeping inner dissolution took hold of the man. Until now, months later and he still stayed at home, drinking in the darkness of his life. Drinking, if he even bothered to get out of bed. She took their daughter to school most mornings these days, at least when she was home, but she was back on the west coast run this month and going to be in LA the next two days; now she wondered if he’d even bother to wake up in time to get their daughter to school.

No, she needed to talk to her sister as soon as possible. Tonight, if all went according to plan. If anyone could help her through this, her sister could.

Her stomach already sour, she looked at her watch and got out of bed, walked quietly to the shower and washed away the night’s sweat. She packed in silence, went to the kitchen and put on coffee, then went to her daughter’s room and kissed her on the forehead, looking longingly at the girl’s blissfully carefree sleep.

But then she stood inside the shadow of dark panic once again, the dream intruding even into her waking mind. What was happening to her? Was she, too, losing her mind?

How long had she been having the dream? A matter of weeks? A month, already?

And every night, without fail? She shook herself free of the darkness, walked away from the shadow and back into the kitchen.

Why? What was it about the dream that had so focused her mind?

She walked to the garage with her coffee and put her bag on the passenger seat. She started the car and backed out the drive, then made her way through heavy snow to the crew lot at Logan. Once on the crew shuttle she relaxed, sat back and drifted back to the dream…

…dark gray mist. Everywhere, walls of silent, bare trees her only company…

…a vast carpet of brittle leaves – leaves haunted by something unseen…

…always the one lamppost, it’s feeble glow so lost, and she was also very much alone…

The shuttle stopped at Terminal 3 and she hopped off, went to the dispatch office. There were new RNAV approach plates for LAX and she put them in her binder, then she looked over the  METARs along this morning’s route, and she put that weather information sheet on her clipboard too. Weights and balances, checked and signed, and then the passenger manifest: checked and signed. Fuel load-out: signed. Mechanical issues, looked over and signed. She wondered where Doug Ross, her First Officer this morning, was; he was usually early and always prepared, but not today.

She looked at the dispatcher, caught his eye: “Where’s my F.O.?” she said.

“Oh, right. Sorry. Called in, has the flu. Your F.O. has checked-in already,” he said, looking at the clock on the wall, “maybe fifteen minutes ago. Reckon she went out to the gate.”

She looked at the bug list, pointed at it: “What’s with the hydraulic pressure on two?”

“Already got it. A pinhole leak, new fitting. Issue’s supposed to be resolved.”

“Okay,” she said, “thanks Dale.”

“You bet, Captain. Have a nice flight.”

She left the office and walked out into the terminal, through the bleary-eyed, early-morning crowds shuffling on their way to the security line. She went through the crew line then walked out to the gate, dropped her bag in the cockpit then walked down the stairs off the Jetway down to the ramp. She saw her F.O. on the far side of the aircraft, on a ladder with her head inside the number two engine nacelle, so she walked over to the ladder.

“What’s it look like, Katie?” she said to her First Officer up there on the ladder.

Katie Douglas popped her head out of the engine and almost dropped the flashlight in her hand. “Looks dry, Captain. I powered up Bus Two, actuated some systems. If there’s a leak I can’t find it.”

She nodded. “Okay. I’ll finish the walk-around. See you upstairs.”

“Right, Captain.”

Laura Richardson walked aft, towards the rear of the Boeing 777, checking wheels and tires and brakes, then cargo doors and the RAT hatch, the Ram Air Turbine that powered limited electrical systems in an emergency, then she walked over to the number one engine, where the Fuel Boss was finishing-up their load-out. Satisfied things were ship-shape, she walked back up to the Jetway, then into the aircraft.

Jake Steinway was in the first class galley, opening a bottle of champagne. She always got a chuckle out of him, always had something fun to say about a female captain and a “boy-toy stewardess” being in charge of the flight, and today was no different…

“Had your sex change operation yet, Captain?”

“Yeah, well,” she said, “Mine’s all set – right after yours!” 

He high-fived her, came close and hugged her. “I can’t wait!” he lisped in his staggeringly effeminate way. “You’ll do me first then, won’t you?”

The other flight attendants were left giggling as she groaned, then she walked forward into the cockpit. She found the flight-plan in her case and began waking up the ship’s systems…

+++++

He woke slowly, rubbed his throbbing temples and wiped away drool from the corners of his lips. He sprinted to the toilet, stood for hours until he’d drained his bladder, then went to the kitchen and poured himself a cup from the brew Laura had left on the coffeemaker. He looked at his wristwatch, saw he was up earlier than expected and went to Dana’s room and woke her with a kiss on the forehead…

“Time to get up, sweetheart,” he said softly. He watched her grumble and groan, stretch out under the covers, her arms hitting the headboard – and he wondered once again how they grew up so fast.

“Hi, daddy,” Dana said warily. “Has mom left already?”

He smiled. “There’s lipstick on your forehead, and it sure isn’t mine!”

They laughed.

“You taking me to school today?”

“You betcha.”

“Cool.”

“Cool. We’ll leave ‘bout a quarter ’til, okay?”

“Okay…”

He went to the kitchen and made french toast and bacon, poured juice and had it all ready by the time Dana came out. They ate in silence, then he slipped the dishes into the dishwasher before they walked out to the car. He was buckling in when the phone rang.

“It’s your mom,” he said, handing the phone over to Dana.

“Mom?”

“Are you up yet?”

“Yeah, we’re in the car. Dad made french toast and bacon!”

“Did he?”

“Better than yours, too,” she said, laughing with an insider’s quiet glee.

“That wouldn’t be too hard to do,” Laura said. “Could I speak with your father?”

“Sure. Will you call when you get in tonight?”

“Don’t I always?” She heard Dana passing the phone to her father. “Ralph? You there?”

“Yup. Missed you this morning,” he said quietly, knowingly.

“I missed you last night,” she said.

“I know. I’m sorry.”

“So, what are you doing today?” she asked, changing the subject quickly lest the black hole return.

“I don’t know. Laundry, I guess. I need to shovel out around the basement windows, do the sidewalks before they ice over. You coming back Friday?”

“Yup. I’ll be home around four.”

“Okay. Dana’s recital is at seven. I’ll have dinner ready by five,” he said.

“Thanks Ralph, but why don’t we eat out for a change.”

“Fine with me.”

“Okay. Guess I’ll talk to you tonight. Bye-d-bye.” 

He said goodbye and switched off the phone. “What say we do pizza tonight?”

“Sure, Dad…sounds fun.”

+++++

“Two-two heavy, taxi to position and hold.”

“Two-two heavy.” Richardson advanced the throttles ten percent and let off the toe-brakes and the fully loaded 777 eased forward onto the runway. She steered with the nose-wheel paddle until they were on the centerline.

“Two-two heavy, clear for take-off.”

“Two-two heavy, rolling.” She advanced the throttles to forty percent and watched the readouts stabilize, then she ran up the throttles to take-off power and kept the aircraft on the centerline while Douglas called out their power and speeds –

“V-one…and…rotate!”

The “Trip-seven” lifted and at seven degrees nose-up began climbing, Richardson scanning the instruments. “Positive rate, gear up,” she called out, and Douglas lifted the lever by her left knee, raising the landing gears.

“Two-two heavy, turn left two three five degrees to KIRAA, clear to BLZZR at four thousand, contact departure on one three three point zero.”

“Two-three-five at four. Departure on three three zero,” Douglas said as she switched to COMMs 2 and checked in with air traffic control.

Richardson keyed in rates and headings and cut in the autopilot, then she scanned the instruments while they climbed out towards Hartford. “Hydraulic pressure still looks good on two,” she said, and Douglas grunted a quick “Okay, got it.”

“Two-two heavy, traffic at your ten o’clock, four miles, three thousand and descending.”

“Two-two heavy, got him,” Richardson replied to ATC. They entered a layer of solid cloud, hit a little mild turbulence as they flew through the seemingly impenetrable gray layer, then the 777 broke out into sunshine and a ‘bluebirds’ sky – clear, and not a cloud in the sky ahead. With high pressure moving in from Baja through the southwest, they’d have a strong jet stream to contend after they crossed the Mississippi, but other than that they’d enjoy a non-eventful flight… 

+++++

It had been a bad night, Lakwan thought as he looked over the bedroom.

First, they’d tried to hit a liquor store but the old Korean dude behind the counter had been armed, and so was his kid – and the kid had been working in the walk-in refrigerator when they came in, and what followed had turned into a slow motion blood-bath. Five of his brothers had walked in the store with guns drawn, and the old man stood back from the counter, hitting the silent alarm before he put his hands up. But then the kid had come out of the walk-in with a Remington 870 pump and got three rounds of double-00 buckshot off, hitting Soultrain in the chest and legs before he’d turned and shot the kid. By then, the old man had some kind of hand-cannon up and started shooting, hitting Soultrain in the face, then his little brother Markus got it in the main pump. Both had fallen to the tile floor in a bloody heap – just as he heard sirens coming from only a few blocks away.

They’d ‘jacked a car and took off down Sepulveda, slipped into the ‘hood and dumped the car a few blocks from his crib, then the three remaining brothers walked to their house and crashed for a while. Still, Lakwan couldn’t sleep and he was still all buzzed-up from killing the Korean kid – when he remembered the shocked-sad look of disbelief in the kid’s eyes when he knew he’d been hit and that he was going to die. 

Then he heard Laqeesha knocking around in the other bedroom and went to see what she was up to, and he looked at her in the early morning light as he walked in the room. She was wiping her neck with an alcohol pad, then she slipped the H into a vein in her neck and soon fell back on the bed in a shuddering sigh, the syringe still dangling from her neck. Lakwan shook his head, went over and pulled the needle out and wiped her skin with the pad, but she had spread her legs wide now and was rubbing her clit. He was hard in a flash and put his face between her legs, and they spent the next few hours fucking and sucking, and he finally shot his load up her ass – her favorite way to end this particular game – and his, too.

He looked around the room now that the sun was coming up, and he could barely remember the Korean kid now, but he knew they were going to need some flash in a hurry, ’cause the girls were already running low on H.

Still…he’d been watching a bank over in Culver City for a few days now, and now he had a plan… 

+++++

Ralph Richardson got back to the house after dropping Dana off at school, and he walked into the kitchen, finished the dishes then walked to their bedroom and cleaned-up before he went to Dana’s and picked up her dirty clothes. He went to the living room and turned on the television, found an old movie on cable and sat quietly, watching John Wayne and Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson outsmart the bad guys one more time. He picked at his fingers from time to time, leaned forward and put his face in his hands, then walked to the kitchen, looked in the cabinet over the refrigerator and pulled out a bottle of Chivas.

He held it in his hand, looked at the cinnamon colored liquid in the bottle as he rolled it round and round, then he took it to the garage and threw it in the trash. He went back to the kitchen cabinet and grabbed every bottle he could find, then he carried them all to the trash. He went round the house, found every bottle he’d stashed over the last few months and dumped those too, and by the time he’d finished his hands were shaking, his heart pounding in his chest, burning little ripples of fear coursing through his forehead. He sat and rubbed his forehead again, his wringing hands miming the poetry of despair, and he could see the whole charade playing out in his mind again… the walking back to the garage, pulling bottle after bottle of booze out of the trash and fixing a strong one…then up there on the screen he saw Dean Martin’s ‘Dude’ confronting his own demons in the bottle and everything was suddenly very clear again. He had to – just stop. Bring this part of his life to an end. Move on from self-pity, move back into the light of his love for Laura and Dana, because if he didn’t he was going to lose it all.

He heard the phone ringing and muted the TV as he walked into the kitchen.

“Hello?”

“Ralph Richardson? My name is…”

And it turned out that Goldman Sachs had received his resume and wanted to talk with him. “Will today work for you? Say in about two hours?”

He was dressed and out the door fifteen minutes later…

+++++

“What do we have for grub?” Richardson asked as she looked at the outside air temp, then the cabin temp. She checked the auto-temp panel once again, after one of the flight attendants called to report the last ten rows in coach seemed colder than usual.

“Sandwiches, and, uh, well, it looks like sushi,” Douglas said.

“Sushi? You gotta be kidding me… Like what?”

“Looks like California rolls, maybe salmon and tuna sashimi.”

“Jesus, is nothing sacred?” she said, almost laughing but still shocked. “Where’s my moldy tuna sandwich when I really need it?”

Douglas pulled the sandwich out, looked it over and frowned. “I think you’re in luck. It’s not green yet, though.”

“Ah, sweet. Let me have it.”

“You don’t like sushi?”

“Me? Are you kidding? I love sushi, just not sushi made at Logan, and probably a week ago, at that.” She unwrapped the sandwich and gave it a sniff. “This sandwich, on the other hand, was probably made last August. It’s had time to sit for weeks, if not months, time to reach it’s full potential.”

“It smells potent, alright,” Douglas said as she took a piece of sashimi and held it up to her nose. She threw it back in the sack then took the other tuna sandwich. “I think they prepared that fish back in August, too.” She shook her head, bit into the sandwich. “Not too bad,” she said, shaking her head. “Kind of like a panty-liner, ya know?”

“It’s the mercury,” Richardson said. “No self-respecting bug would hang out in a sandwich this old.”

“I hope you’re right…oh, St Louis coming up on the left.”

Richardson looked down at the city, could see downtown and the river gleaming in the sunrise. She switched on the intercom. “Good morning ladies and gentlemen, this is Captain Richardson up on the flight-deck, and those of you on the left side of the cabin can look down right about now and see downtown St Louis, Missouri. There’s some sun on the river, but if you look close you’ll just be able to make out the Gateway Arch. By the way, we’re currently at thirty four thousand feet and we’re looking good to make our scheduled arrival time of 12:45. The air’s still pretty smooth up here but we ask that you keep your seat belts fastened as we’re expecting some rough air over the Rockies in Colorado and again as we pass over southern Utah. We’ll pass just north of the Grand Canyon in about two hours, and if it looks like we’ll be able to see it, we’ll let you know.”

She switched from intercom back to COMMs as she finished her sandwich. “I wish they’d pack Tums with these goddamn things.”

Douglas belched, handed her a can of raspberry flavored seltzer water. “This might help.”

“No Dr Pepper?”

“Nope. Sorry.”

“Fuck.”

“Yup. What’s going on with Ralph? Anything new?”

She shook her head. “Nope. SSDD.”

“Oh? Well, how’s Dana doing?”

“Really good. Piano recital this Friday evening, and she’s doing really well. You ought to come.”

“Yeah? Sounds good. What’s she playing?”

“I’m not really sure. Some piece by a Danish composer…Imogen Schwarzwald, I think.”

“She have a boyfriend yet?”

“Oh hell yes. Non-stop calls, and of course now she wants her own phone.”

Douglas sighed. “And so it begins. The Wonder Years…”

“Oh…shut the fuck up!” They both laughed.

“Two-two heavy, St Louis center.”

“Center, go ahead,” Douglas said.

“Two-two heavy, traffic at your eleven o’clock is an Delta MD80, he’ll pass under you at flight level three three.”

Richardson looked down, nodded her head. “Yup.”

“Two-two heavy, okay, we got him. Thanks.”

“Two-two heavy, good day, contact Kansas City on one two one one.”

“Two-two heavy, twenty one one,” Douglas repeated. “Looks like some weather up there.”

Richardson changed the range scale on the weather radar. “Big stuff for this time of year. We ought to pass south of it, though.”

“Okay.”

She drifted off for a moment, drifted back to the dream…

…to the lamppost, glowing in the mist, lighting her way through the gloom…

…then she appeared, just as she did every night in every dream, right here, right now…

…the woman in the maroon cape turned and looked at her, beckoned her to follow…

…and following the woman through more lamps in the mist, until soon they came to the stairway…

“Captain?!”

“Hm-m, what?”

“I said, should we ask to divert south a little, away from that cell?”

Richardson looked at the display, wondered how long she’d been out, then she called Kansas City…

+++++

Ralph walked out of the interview feeling almost ecstatic, better than he had in months, anyway. One of his friends from Lehman was already onboard and had put in a good word for him; they’d check his references and give him a call next week. If there were no problems, could he start next Friday?

Could he start next Friday? Hell, he’d wanted to kiss that prickly-assed son of a bitch, and now he just couldn’t believe it. Could it happen – so fast? In the middle of this wicked downturn? Shit! He was the luckiest man alive!

He took the T from the Prudential Center back through downtown, then switched to the Red Line and rode out past Cambridge. He found his car now had about four inches of snow on top and started the motor, set the defrost to MAX and went around the outside brushing off snow off the hood and glass, chipping ice off the passenger door handle just in case. His hands freezing, he got in and drove through the slush and ice to Dana’s school, but he was early, so he reclined the seat and snoozed…until he heard her tapping on the glass.

He jerked awake, flipped the switch to unlock the doors and she hopped in…

And she looked at him, the question in her eyes plain to see.

“Why’re you so dressed up?”

He looked at her, grinning. “Job interview today. It went well, I think.”

She smiled, even though she wasn’t quite old enough to know what all this really meant, but she seemed happy to see him happy and that was all that mattered. “Way to go, Dad!” She held up her hand and they ‘high-fived’, then they both laughed the laugh that had held them together through all the good times – and the bad.

“Home first, then pizza?” he asked, grinning that grin she’d missed for so many months.

“You know, I’m really hungry,” she replied. “Think they’re open yet?”

“They will be by the time we get there. It’s home-made root beer night, remember?”

“Ooh, right-on!”

They laughed and talked about her day as he pulled out into traffic, and they made it to Gino’s in time to be the first ones seated. A house special pie and two pitchers of root beer later they were deep in the zone, as happy as they’d been in months… 

+++++

Dana Goodman sat at her desk, looking at the list of names on her screen. Dozens of names, many of them friends, friends she’d hired. And all of them would be laid off in the next few days, by Friday at the latest. And it was her job to get the job done “in a timely and expeditious manner.” 

She stood and walked to her office’s wall of tinted glass and looked out over Beverly Hills, and the Hollywood Hills beyond, lost in thought. Lost in life’s choices, the choices that had carried her from Minnesota to Israel, only to be chased by death back to America. Home first, to Minnesota but then on to California, to Los Angeles. Where her life, she laughed, had finally begun.

The chase. Oh, the chase. It had all started that night in Zermatt. Killing those six Iranians. She’d thought she was so strong, so tough, yet all that death had burned a hole in her soul, but it had taken months for the searing pain to slip past denial and reach consciousness. She was working in Tel Aviv when a telephone call in the middle of the night shattered all her illusions and her life changed course once again.

Her mother called that night, told her that her father had just suffered his second heart attack, and that this one had been very bad. Could she come home? There might not be much time left…

She asked for a leave from her superiors in Mossad and had flown home, and echoes of the dream chased her through all the passing time zones. She spent the last few days of her father’s life in his hospital room at the Mayo Clinic, and she was with him – and held him – as he passed. She’d looked in his eyes, watched the humanity in his soul flicker as he took his last breath, and she’d wiped the tears first from his eyes – then her own – as he left her, and as his eyes grew calm and still.

She’d spent the next week at his house in Westwood Hills, an affluent suburb out on the west side of Minneapolis, and she’d looked out over the golf course and walked the trails around the lake while trying to come to terms with his passing, but in the end very little about her life made sense anymore. She thrashed around in the memories of that night in Zermatt, trying to understand just what she’d been rebelling against all those many dreadful years ago when she’d left home for Israel. He didn’t like the Beatles? Let’s have a fight about that. Jim Taylor wasn’t Jewish, so let’s go out with him, see if we can rub that in the old man’s face too. It always came back in a rush, but when her mother asked her to help clean out the closet where he’d keep his clothes, and the little boxes where he’d kept his memories, she’d finally come undone.

Then her kid sister arrived, a few days too late for the passing but just in time for the services. Laura was the late arrival in so many other ways, too. Dana was finishing middle school when Laura was born, and she’d gone off to college before the kid had gotten out of kindergarten. By the time Laura had moved on to the very same middle school over in St Louis Park, she’d moved to Israel.

So the funny thing was, they simply didn’t know one another. Two sisters, her flesh and blood, and they’d never once had a chance to sit around and laugh about boyfriends or argue about chores not done; no, they were strangers, complete strangers. And when she drove Laura home from the airport that fact more than any other hit her hardest. Her father gone now, her mother lost in a haze of grief, and here was this girl home from college, her sister, this total stranger. She’d pulled off the highway and cried when all the heartbreak came rushing through the distance between the two of them.

And yet someway, somehow, and against all odds her sister became her best friend over the next two weeks, and suddenly nothing in the world was as important to Dana Goodman as what was left of her family.

Now here she was, lost in LA, still a million miles away from family – just like always. Still, Laura flew out twice a week when she had the LA run, and now she looked at her watch, checked her appointments. Laura’s flight was due to arrive in a little less than an hour, and she was planning to meet her later that afternoon for an early dinner. Laura wanted to talk about Ralph, what to do about her marriage now that it seemed to be in a terminal decline – at least, that’s how she’d put it yesterday, when they’d talked for almost an hour. Dana hated to hear it, hated what a split would surely do to her niece, what it would mean for Laura to lose faith in her husband after nearly twenty years together…

This was an evening she wasn’t looking forward to, then she turned back to the list of friends whose lives she was about to destroy.

+++++

Lakwan looked at the foot-traffic heading in and out of the bank, then at the clock on the dash. The armored car should be here in about five minutes, he told his boys, then he looked around the streets once again.

Good, he said to himself, still no cops…

+++++

“Two-two heavy, Los Angeles Approach, maintain two four niner degrees, descend and maintain three-seven hundred, report passing SHELL. Winds light and variable, visibility two miles in haze, altimeter two niner niner two. Contact tower one three three point niner.”

“Two-two heavy, maintain two four niner degrees, descend and maintain three-seven hundred, report passing SHELL,” Richardson said. Douglas was handling the landing while she called out the checklists and handled the radios. She could see the tops of a few of the taller buildings in downtown  LA poking up through the smog – still maybe fifteen miles away – and she scowled at the bronze colored air blanketing the city. Her eyes were already beginning to burn, and she knew within an hour she’d be on eyedrops, and her throat would be burning…

She scanned the panel, looked as ILS flags popped on the HSI and as the autopilot locked onto the glide-slope and localizer…

“Flaps ten,” Douglas said, and Richardson hit the lever under her right hand and watched the panel indicator.

“Ten, and speed one seven five,” she said as the 777 drifted down into the smog…

+++++

“Okay man, there it is,” Lakwan said as the armored car turned into the shopping center’s parking lot. He started his car and watched as the truck drove up to the bank, looked on as the two men in the back of the truck walked inside the bank. He looked at the clock again. “Usually in there less than two minutes,” he said. “When they come out we roll, hit ’em just as they get to the back of the truck…”

“Well, you better start rollin’, mother fucker,” BigTop said, “‘cause they be comin’ right now!”

“Fuck…” Lakwan sped through the lot and screeched to a stop just in time; the brothers raced out of the car with their guns drawn and they started shooting at the guards before they had time to react. Lakwan threw a Molotov cocktail under the engine and the pavement under the truck burst into flames. He dashed to the fallen guards and grabbed the bags they’d been carrying out to the truck; one went for his gun and Lakwan shot him in the face then he ran back to the car. They were just getting in the car when a gunshot shattered the rear window, and he heard sirens as pulled out into traffic on Manchester. Traffic was heavy as he slipped through the heavy midday traffic; when he looked in his rearview mirror he saw red and blue strobes a couple of blocks behind and cursed.

He couldn’t see the LAPD helicopter overhead, or the KLAX News JetRanger just a few hundred yards behind the police chopper, but just then BigTop leaned out the window and took a shot at the cops.

“Man, they’s a helicopter up there, ‘Kwan. Better find some trees or some shit, and fast…”

Lakwan saw the Salvation Army store just ahead and turned south on Vermont, just before he saw the cop car heading north. He passed it southbound, and BigTop fired two shots at the cops as they passed…

+++++

“Two-two heavy, LA center, be advised there are police helicopters at your eleven o’clock, report a robbery suspect in a pursuit, bank robbery, shots fired. They’re about a mile north of your position heading east, about two hundred feet AGL right now.”

“Two-two heavy,” Douglas said, concern in her voice as she looked down and to the right, “too much haze, can’t see any traffic.” She looked at Richardson… “You’d better take it…”

“My aircraft,” Laura said immediately. She understood, didn’t need to be told why. She had zero view out that side of the cockpit, while Katie had an unobstructed view, and so she’d started scanning her instruments, watching the autopilot’s moves. She dialed 157 knots on the auto-throttle and dropped the flaps to twenty degrees…

Lakwan passed through the red light at East 92nd street doing well over 80 miles per hour, and he drifted to the right lane as he approached West Century… He shot across traffic and made a left on Century, but he saw there were now three cop cars behind him now, and they were getting closer. Central Avenue was just ahead now, that little power station on their left, Will Rogers Park on his right…so maybe he could duck into the park, hide in the parking lot somehow, but he saw a cop car was waiting there already. As he sped past the waiting patrol car he was thinking he had nowhere to go now…

+++++

Douglas was peering into the smog when…

“Okay, got ’em. About two o’clock now, maybe a half mile…”

Richardson looked at her altitude readout: 1600 AGL, rate of descent 300FPM. “I don’t like this,” she said, if only to herself…

+++++

BigTop was leaning out the window again, and he fired at the closest cop car; PeeWee was leaning out the other window in back, now shooting up at the helicopters…

+++++

Will Butner was piloting the KLAX News chopper, and he had the JetRanger crabbed to the right so the camera operator could get an unobstructed angle on the unfolding chase below when bullets slammed into his right leg and hand, and then into the cockpit glass. As instinct kicked in he pulled up on the collective and added power.

He didn’t see the looming jetliner overhead…or the right engine nacelle that swallowed the helicopter milliseconds later…

+++++

“What the…” Richardson heard Douglas say, then lights were going off all over the panel. It felt like something had reached up from below and grabbed the right wing…then the aircraft was banking right so she instinctively turned the wheel, trying to counter the roll she should have corrected with left rudder…

“What happened,” she said calmly – even as the right wing dropped further. Now she got onto the rudder and concentrated on stabilizing their speed.

“Helicopter, I think,” Douglas said. “It got the wing.” She was flipping breakers, switching electrical buses, deploying the RAT. “LA Approach, Two-two heavy, one of those helicopter got our right wing, unknown structural damage, hydraulics failing.”

“Two-two heavy, state your intentions.”

“We’ve lost two,” Richardson said, but just now the roll to the right was really accelerating. “Help me on the rudder.”

“On it.”

Richardson was looking ahead, out the windshield, and she saw grass ahead, maybe a playing field? If she could just get the right wing up…

“See the field?” Douglas said.

“Yup, she’s not responding…”

“You’re losing it,” Douglas added.

“Kids all over that field. No way are we going down there.”

“Right a little, a little right rudder, vacant field there…”

“Got it,” Richardson said…

“Well, damn,” she heard Douglas say, but just then she was following the caped lady…into the lamplight at the top of the stairway…

+++++

Ralph and Dana were home watching TV when the news broke, when images of the disaster flashed around the world. Laura’s sister called a half hour later, devastated, barely able to breathe. She asked them to fly out as soon as they could, and he called her back a half hour later, told her they would get in a little before noon the next morning.

When the first investigators at the scene of the crash interviewed people from the playground, they all said pretty much the same thing. The 777 was almost inverted as it passed just overhead, yet it appeared to change course at the last moment. The right wingtip just missed the soccer field before it ripped through traffic on Century, before the massive airliner cartwheeled into the power substation on Central.

The data recorders were located within a few hours, but fires burned through the night. The manhunt for the three bank-robbers was still underway as night fell, or so the breathless news crews reported, but their stolen car had been found, abandoned…behind a church.

+++++

Deputy Sumner Bacon sat looking at his pancakes, completely bored and wishing he was back in his apartment working on his thesis. Instead, he was sitting in a Denny’s at two in the morning, listening to an academy trainee drone on and on about all he’d learned about the penal code the past two weeks. He’d been on the streets for twenty three years, however, and trainee enthusiasm had gotten tiresome and stale – like maybe fifteen years ago. Not it was all he could do not to tell the kid to shut the fuck up and leave him be.

The biggest thing on days had been the 777 crash up near South Central, the airliner on approach into LAX, and even though that was somewhat more interesting than the inner workings of the California penal code, he’d not even wanted to talk about that incident with this irritating rookie. He’d been to several such crashes in and around LA over the years, and the smell of kerosene-soaked flesh got to him, now probably more than ever before. And as much as this new kid wanted to talk about the crash, and all the carnage he’d seen on TV, Bacon had simply begged off the topic, asked to talk about something, anything else.

But now, after he’d finished only a few bites of the diner’s rancid, grease-soaked pancakes, he pushed the plate aside. “You finished,” he asked the ur-rookie, hoping the indigestion would go away before they got their next call…

“Sure, ready when you are.”

He nodded, took the bill and went up to the counter where the night manager waited, smiling. Bacon handed the girl the bill and she tore it up, tossed it in the trash. “Thanks for coming in tonight, Sum.”

“You bet, darlin’.”

“Looks like you got a wet one,” she said, and he assumed she was referring to the state of moisture behind the rookie’s ears…

“Oh, you know, the song remains the same, darlin’. But hey, the night is young, so there’s just no tellin’ how much fun the night holds…”

She smiled, even though her feet ached. “I’m off at eight if you want to drop by.”

He smiled, nodded his head. “Might just do that, Baba. Have to see how the night goes.”

“Okay. Seeya later.”

He led the rookie out into the night, the docks and refineries down the hill in San Pedro casting an eerie glow over the harbor, and now, to make the air even more fetid, a nice, thick fog was drifting in, casting a strange, deep amber-gray glow over the harbor area…

“Did you call her Baba?” the ur-rookie asked. “What gives?”

“Baba O’Riley,” Bacon said with a tired grin. “You know, ‘it’s only teenage wasteland’?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Not a goddamn thing, Rook.”

“Oh. Okay.”

He got behind the wheel, checked into service, then he drove to the 110 and made for the southbound onramp. When the light turned green he turned and went to the shoulder of the onramp and turned off the engine, then he rolled down his window.

“What gives?” the trainee said.

“Listening for drunks.”

“What?”

“Shut the fuck up and listen, Rook. Who knows, you might even learn something.”

He leaned back, shut his eyes, but it wasn’t even a minute later when he opened them again, turned on the engine and waited…until a white Lexus coupe drove by, straddling the lane dividers, causing a whining rumble as the tires pounded against the raised ‘bots-dots’ – he watched the Lexus for a moment then slipped the car into gear and took off down the onramp. He hung back a moment, watched the Lexus as it swung from lane to lane, then, as it took the ramp onto the Vincent Thomas Bridge he knew this just had to be a DUI…

Yet he decided against stopping the Lexus on the bridge, so he pulled in behind it, keeping about a hundred yards back, but then, as they approached the apex of the bridge the Lexus slowed, then stopped.

“Not good,” he said, almost to himself. “Nope, not good at all…” He turned on the strobes as his patrol car rolled to a stop, and he called in to dispatch, checked out on a welfare concern atop the bridge, possible DUI, possible suicide. He knew without having to ask that back-up would already be starting his way…

He was getting ready to get out of his Dodge when the Lexus’ front door opened and a woman stepped out. She walked around to the front of her car and scrambled over to the anti-suicide fencing, then she started climbing the fence…

“What the fuck!” the rookie yelled, but Sumner Bacon was already out of his squad car, sprinting past the woman’s car. She must be stronger than hell, he thought as he jumped up onto the fence and began climbing after her.

She was already at the top, struggling to get a leg over the… “Fuck!” he yelled. “Lady, that’s razor wire, stop where you are or you’re gonna get shredded!”

Blood started raining down on his face just seconds later, just before he got to her, and he felt the rookie climbing up the fence behind him. Moments later Bacon was on her, with her leg in one hand, his other holding on tightly to the fence.

“Come on, lady, give me a break, would you?”

She was struggling, still trying to get over the wire, only now she was really bleeding. He heard another car approaching, turned to see it was another patrol car coming to back him up, and he relaxed, knew paramedics and firemen would get here soon and help get her free of this wire…so all he needed to do was keep her on this side of the wire.

But then she relaxed, started back down the fence, and he kept pace beside her…until she was back down on the road beside her Lexus…

Maybe he expected her to fight, or to run, but instead she came to him, her eyes awash in tears – and she put her arms around him and held on tight as, apparently, shock set in.

Two other officers were on him within moments and he held up his hand, told them to back off.

“My sister,” she gasped, “my sister…”

“Your sister? What about your sister?”

“Pilot,” she whispered, “she…captain of the jet, the crash…”

“Oh my God,” he heard himself whispering. “It’s okay now, you can let go. I’ve got you. Just let it go…”

And she did.

She was beyond help after that, lost in grief only a cop with years under his belt could understand. He could relate. Oh God, how he could relate…

She slipped down to the ground, her arms around his thighs, her face turned to rest on the side of his legs, and then he felt infinite sorrow in her wailing words…

“Oh God, they’re here!” she screamed. “Please forgive me. Take me, I’m ready, take me now!”

He knelt beside her, held her close, tried to get her to look at him, to get her to come back to the living, but when he looked at her face he almost recoiled from the horror he saw reflected in her eyes. Still he held her, still he looked into the abyss, until he saw a faint amber-tinged cobalt glow within her eyes…and then… 

…he felt gray mist encircle them as they knelt out there in the cold, as he fell into the depths of her soul, until he too felt himself adrift. She fell deeper into his grasp, but suddenly he felt like he was falling, falling off a stairway, falling into dark wet leaves…

…then he closed his eyes, afraid of the things he’d seen in her eyes, afraid of the truth he’d seen inside that cool, amber-blue terror, and as his own fear began to push everything else aside he closed his eyes as vertigo clawed the air around them, and he began to sense they were surrounded by hundreds of birds screaming for release… 

…and then, infinite warmth. The sound of surf breaking on a distant shore, a warm breeze carrying sweet scents of gardenias and hibiscus. He was afraid now, but he felt her arms around his, and he opened his eyes to confront – whatever this was… 

…then he cried out at the sight, as impossible implications washed over and through him…

…for everywhere he looked, in every conceivable direction, he and this strange woman were floating, adrift within a vast fields of stars… 

Part III: Asynchronous Mud

San Francisco       December, 2023

He walked through Portsmouth Square, up staggered steps into the warm evening, feeling very anxious; indeed, he was really feeling almost excited. Better than he had felt in ages, as a matter of fact. The decision made, now all he wanted was to experience all this evening had to offer. He was tired of the loneliness, the suffocating sense of ‘alone’ that had defined his life for the past dozen or so years. He’d wanted his life to change somehow, and radically, but he’d always found such outcomes to be an almost impossible dream. Reality, he’d learned, has a way of fucking with your head, sometimes so much that even your dreams can’t keep reality from nipping at your heels.

Mark Stuart was by any measure one of the most gifted computer scientists of his generation, and he’d started three companies that, in quick succession, had redefined how so-called autonomous, self-driving cars navigated and operated in heavily congested, chaotic urban environments. His patents alone would have made him a billionaire many times over, but then he had put his ideas into action, and his actions drew investors. And when his first company, PraXionGroup, released it’s first hardware plug-in for Apple’s first-generation car in late 2022, the world changed. Their car could now drive in zero visibility on snow or icy surfaces as well as any driver could on a clear, dry street, and it’s sensor array applied predictive analysis routines to monitor pedestrians on crowded city streets – and all the early, and disastrous, fatality incidents soon became a thing of the past.

And that mattered to Mark Stuart because he’d been one of the earliest victims of the technology. He’d been run over by one of the first driverless vehicles on a test track, his pelvis crushed, his face and arms hideously disfigured. It had taken three years of painful reconstructive surgery to resurrect his ability to walk unaided, but plastic surgeons had simply been unable to salvage his appearance. As a result, he remained reclusive, worked out of sight from all but his closest friends and associates.

And as such he’d been alone, completely and utterly alone, ever since. He saw the looks in people’s eyes, the revulsion, the urge to flee, and he’d vowed to never again inflict such feelings on others again.

Then an old friend of his, a friend named Toby Tyler, a friend he’d made while in the hospital when recovering from his injuries, told him about a place he’d heard about recently, a new place over in China Town that had the most outrageously gorgeous women Toby’d ever seen in his life, and while it was apparently open to one and all, the women seemed to cater to men like Mark; indeed, they seemed to exist to take care of men like Mark.

“What kind of women are we talking about here, Toby?” he asked.

“You know, bro, the kind that take care of business.”

“Oh, you mean…”

Stuart had laughed away the idea. At first, anyway. Then the thought of being with someone, anyone – even a hooker – took on a momentum all it’s own. The idea, repulsive at first, soon became so attractive he could hardly think of anything else…so he’d called Toby, gotten the particulars and made the call, and now he found himself walking up Washington Street, looking for an address…and a way out of the pain and suffering of his strictly enforced loneliness.

He came to an alleyway and looked down at what looked like very old brick pavement, then up at the festive lighting dangling from the trees and attached to the backs of buildings that lined the passage. He saw neon lighting down the way, an open courtyard with a large group of people partying on a patio of some kind. He walked down the alley, looked up at little red jalapeño pepper lights splashed throughout the trees overhead, at neon reflections in the windows on either side of the passage, the pinks and purples creating an almost otherworldly sensation as he walked slowly towards a door at the end of the alley.

The door was a dark, matte teal-grey color, and there was a huge, weathered bronze X on the door right at eye level, and in smaller letters just below – the words ‘Marks the Spot’. He smiled at the double irony as he reached for the door, but he jumped back when he looked at the door knob. The handle and knob were formed by a small, tightly coiled rattlesnake, made of bronze as it turned out, but excruciatingly well detailed, so even knowing that he hesitated again as he reached for the snake’s body and gave it a turn.

Yet as soon as his hands touched the snake the door opened, slowly moving out of his way.

The walls inside were the same deep, matte teal-gray color, the heavy trim on the floors and ceiling a darker grey green. The black slate floors and the deep gray ceiling seemed unnecessarily elegant to him, the bronze framed Klimt ahead a bit over the top, yet now his eyes were drawn to a single Chippendale chair at the far end of the narrow room, it’s ornate wood stained a deep bronze, it’s rich fabric a flame stitched pattern of deep French blues and somber ochers.

And there was a glass window across from the chair, recessed in the wall and almost invisible, a mottled black glass window much like he would have expected to find inside a sadistic doctor’s office. He walked to the window and looked around…he couldn’t see a buzzer or any means of…

But then the window slid open, quietly and very  slowly, revealing a touchscreen.

A woman’s voice began speaking, soothingly, almost seductively…

“How may we help you this evening, Mark?”

“Excuse me?” He seemed taken aback, shocked that they knew who he was.

“I’m sorry for the informality, Mr Stuart. What can we do for you this evening?”

“I, uh, well, assumed you’d know…?”

“Ah, just so. Perhaps you wanted to visit with one of our associates tonight?”

“Yes. Perhaps.”

“Could you tell me what sort of associate is of interest to you?”

“Excuse me…I’m not sure I understand what you’re asking?”

“Yes. Of course. Shall we start with gender?”

“Female, Goddamnit!”

“Alright. Take a look at these six images, would you please, Mark? Which one of these women interests you most?” The screen showed six faces, each impossibly attractive, each one taking his breath away. “It’s a touchscreen, Mr Stuart. Just indicate your preference by…”

He touched the face of a women with deep reddish gold hair and deep green eyes.

“Thank you, Mr Stuart…”

“Mark, please. Call me Mark.”

“Certainly, Mark. Now, which of these images do you find most stimulating?” Six more images filled the screen, the red-headed woman dressed – or in various states of undress, he saw – in six different types of exotic lingerie. He chose one with the woman in bustier, corset and stockings in deep gray with emerald inserts, and the woman wearing deep maroon pumps. “Thank you, Mark. Now, could you tell me, in very general terms, how you’d like to spend your evening with Eve?” 

“Is that her name? Eve?”

“Yes, Mark. And as this is your first evening with us, she’ll need to know a little about your expectations for the evening.”

He looked around for a moment, unsure of himself, unsure how honest he should be…

“Mark?”

“Yes?”

“Are you lonely, Mark?”

He looked down at the slate floor and shrugged his shoulders. “I think you could say so, yes.”

“How long has it been, Mark? Since you spent an enjoyable evening with a woman?”

“A long time. I think it may be close to maybe sixteen years now.”

“Perhaps you’d just like a relaxing evening? Dinner and some dancing? An evening with no pressure, no expectations?”

“Yes, that’s it exactly!” he cried. “That sounds absolutely perfect!”

“And just one more question, Mark?”

“Yes?”

“How long would you like to stay with Eve?”

“I don’t know. How long would you recommend?”

“Perhaps you should stay with her all evening. What time would you like her to wake you in the morning?”

“I don’t have any appointments tomorrow so anytime will do. Perhaps noon?”

“Certainly, Mark. If you’d take a seat, Eve will be with you in just a few minutes.” The screen went dark and the window closed as quietly as it’d opened, and he sat, crossed his arms on his lap and closed his eyes – wondering about his sanity for the umpteenth time today.

Yet he saw her in his mind’s eye as he drifted along the far shores of sleep, carried along by the soft currents of desires too long unquenched. Alabaster skin, perhaps soft freckles over her nose, and those hauntingly green eyes of hers lovingly fixed on his…

…and he felt her fingers running through his hair, her lips almost touching the side of his face, her breath in his ear as she whispered his name…

He opened his eyes, saw her standing there by the side of the chair, leaning by his side. A deep maroon cape was hanging open, revealing an impossibly perfect body underneath, and as he leaned back in the chair he looked up into her eyes…

…and if her image had taken his breath away, the reality of this woman was beyond overwhelming. His heart began to race a little, and he could feel his pulse hammering away behind his eyes.

She looked into his eyes and smiled when she saw his reaction, then she leaned closer and kissed him on the forehead, the soft warmth of the simple gesture overwhelming him completely. He wanted to take her and hold her, and almost as if she anticipated him she stepped back, took his hand and helped him stand. Then the back wall simply slid open, revealing another ornate passageway beyond this entry foyer; now he followed her to a another door down this hall and walked into the room beyond just behind her. The door closed on it’s own, the lighting in the room brightened some, revealing what looked like a small living room in an English cottage. Beyond the windows he saw an impossibly verdant forest – hi-res monitors, he guessed – but the illusion fit the décor, and even the air was scented in fragrant undertones of piney forests, yet there was something slightly erotic in the air, as well…

“Could I fix you a drink?” Eve asked. “Or perhaps I could get you something to eat?”

“Perhaps,” he said as he hovered over the edge of her vast precipice. “I don’t know.”

“Are you uncertain, or perhaps afraid?” she asked, genuine concern in her voice.

“Yes, a little of both, I think.”

She held out her hand again and led him to a bedroom off the small living room, the same countryside out the two large windows that framed the bed. She was looking in his eyes when she started unbuttoning his shirt, and all the time she held his eyes in hers. She bent and unbuckled his belt, helped him out of his shoes and socks, then she asked him to lay on the bed, on his stomach, she asked. He did what she asked, but when he heard the cape slip from her shoulders he turned and looked at her.

“My God in heaven,” he whispered, “but you are the most gorgeous woman I think I’ve ever seen in my life.”

He watched her as she smiled, and as she helped him down to the bed he marveled at the soft warmth of her touch, and of how much he missed that little electric feeling of another person’s skin on his own. Whatever it was about this woman, he knew against all odds he was beginning to care for her. He couldn’t help it, even if it was just loneliness, even if this was some kind of financial transaction. The feeling was suddenly overwhelming, and the feeling was simply impossible to ignore.

Then he was face down on the bed, and he felt her fingers lightly running up and and down his back, then down, to the backs of his thighs. He began to relax again, to drift along her gentle currents…

He felt her on the bed then, as she crawled over him and sat on the backs of his thighs. Then he felt the palms of her hands on his skin, once again her skin so soft and warm, rubbing his lower back, up the spine to his shoulders, massaging the cares of this life out and away, into the night and far, far away. Oh, he was drifting again, drifting on the currents of this woman’s exuberant willingness to give of herself, to forge a reality beyond his so-called deformities and weaknesses, beyond all his understanding of women…

He felt her leaning forward, leaning close, her breath on the back of his neck, her fingers in his hair, then, massaging his temples. He felt her breasts flattening on his back, felt her lingerie against his skin, her high heels rubbing against the sides of his knees – and he felt himself growing under her. For the first time in many years, so many years since he had felt any kind of awakening…since he’d felt any kind of desire lurking behind all the fear and denial of his daily existence… 

“Turn over, Mark…” he heard her whisper, then he felt her body rising over his, over the heat of his desire as he turned under her…

…and her fingers wrapped around the head of his desire… 

…then she was rubbing him against her petals, a deep, moist warmth pulling him inward… 

…and then he was inside the moment, the sheer heavenly warmth of the sensation overwhelming his every sense of himself, and soon he was lost inside the dizzying motions of union…

…then drifting again as he felt the tightness of her response to his first, tentative countermoves. She moved with him, her responses so intuitively perfect, her timing so gently in sync with every move of this new dance…

…his hands on her perfection, her breathing unhurried – yet somehow in perfect rhythm with his own…

…meeting his need, taking the momentum of his fear, her fingers raking his soul, then her fingers curling through his need, her needs as pure as his own, his furious need building in union with hers, and then he was holding her close, guiding them both to the moment…to the light…

…then there was light, unexpected, powerful, relentless, and she was bearing down on his need, pouring all the energy of their coming together into a sort of back-arcing fusion, wild need overcoming all inhibition… 

They came down together, her face pressed against his neck, her easy breath a silent breeze sifting past his ear, then he was holding her, his fingers feeling the expansion of her chest, her ribcage fusing with the moment, then she was over him again, looking into his eyes, smiling.

She saw the question in his eyes and pulled back a bit, her face full of curiosity, even joy.

“What is it,” she said playfully. “Your eyes are smiling, but I think…”

“I think I love you,” he laughed, “whoever you are…”

“Love me?” she whispered slowly, almost wondrously as she turned the words over in her smile. “Why would you love me? You don’t even know me?”

“Because it’s been so long since anyone let me feel this way. Because you’re so enchantingly perfect. Because when I look into your eyes I feel so perfectly at peace, yet so alive with the lust I see in your eyes.”

“Ah,” she grinned, then she let slip a little laugh. “Then Mark, you’ve got it very bad indeed.”

“I do. True.”

“And then what, Mark? Love, marriage, babies and a house by the lake?”

“Would that be so bad?”

She pulled off him, rolled away and hopped off the bed. “It’s too early to get so serious, my love. What will I cook you for supper? A steak perhaps? I also have a nice Dover sole ready, if you’d like that instead. Almandine, perhaps? With an artichoke soufflé and braised new potatoes?”

“What? And you’ll just whip that out in a ‘jiff, will you?”

“Ooh, Mark, don’t start talking about whips or I’ll never get you to eat…” She breathed a little laugh as she walked off to the kitchen, and he put on his briefs and shirt before he walked out to the living room, to a chair where he could watch her as she went about her work in the kitchen…

‘There’s something almost surreal about watching a woman in lingerie cooking,’ he said to himself, but there was precision in the way she cooked, an economy of motion he found almost soothing, and she talked to him all the while, asking about what he was doing at work, about his friends and what he hoped to do with the rest of his weekend. And what hit him hardest, he thought as she set their dinner out on the simple Stickley table off the little kitchen, was how completely out of sync her behavior was with how the world he knew really worked.

She seemed completely dedicated to his happiness, but it wasn’t as simple as that. No, the level of empathy in her conversation wasn’t forced or in any other way a false pretense. On the contrary, she seemed engaged, interested, and even willing to offer suggestions that reflected an almost complete empathic understanding of his concerns and hopes, and even what he was working on. Let alone how the hell did she know sautéed Dover sole almandine was his favorite dish in the world? And artichoke soufflé? There were only two places in town that prepared one, and yet she’d just made it to perfection? Even better than Gaston’s!

She watched him as he ate, enjoyed his reactions to each and every bite, then she saw seriousness in his eyes, a subtle shift in the way he held his arms…

“So, Eve’s not your real name, I take it?”

She shrugged, yet he saw no evasion.

“No, of course not. I wonder? Would you tell me your real name?”

“Is it so important, Mark? Really?”

“Well, how long have you been working here?”

“Me? This is my first day. You are my first…client.”

“And you were trained to be so, I don’t know, so perfect?”

“You think I’m perfect, Mark?”

“You know I do, Eve. Don’t you?”

She shook her head, and he thought he saw tears come to her.

“I’m sorry,” he said, suddenly very unsure of himself, very unsure why he felt it necessary to question her so. “I didn’t mean to upset you.”

“Well,” she said as she stood, “I’d better clear the table.”

“Please, let me,” he said as he stood.

“If you’d like,” she said as she walked to the sink in the kitchen. He walked up behind her, put his hands on her waist and kissed her neck, and she leaned her head to one side, revealing her flawless white skin once again. He kissed her again, massaged her flat stomach as he nibbled his way up to her ear, his hands moving to her breasts, her breath deeper with each caress.

She turned and faced him, kissed him hard on the mouth, their tongues intertwined in the heat of the moment. She was more forceful this time, no pretense remained as she pushed him back and pulled down his briefs, as she took him in her mouth, her hands on the backs of his thighs. No, there was no doubt, nothing subtle between them now. He felt her tongue, her head moving rapidly now, her hands grasping his, jacking him as her head swirled around his need. His hands moved to her shoulders, then he was holding her face as the fury grew from the middle of his back and spread throughout his body, and she picked up the pace, hammered him furiously as the moment approached, then she was taking him over the edge, holding him inside her mouth, swallowing as he released and released…

He felt almost weightless in that moment…weightless and tumbling backwards…then he felt her holding him, steadying him. She stood, pulled him close and held him as he came down for the stars, her fingers running through his hair again, then he was kissing her neck…again and again…

“And we didn’t even need whips,” he said, smiling.

“Maybe next time, my love.”

+++++

He woke up the next morning as hopelessly confused as he had ever felt – in his life. She was by his side, lightly stroking his hair, looking into his eyes with such love in her own. He rolled over and faced her, brushed her cheek lightly with his fingers as they stared at one another…

“Did you ever fall asleep?” he asked her.

She shook her head. “Maybe a little, but I’m still not sleepy,” she added, still smiling gently at him, barely biting her lower lip. “I liked watching you sleep.”

“You did?”

She nodded her head – almost precociously: “Um-hmm, yes. You can tell a lot about a man by the way he sleeps.”

“Can you, now? Like what?”

“Men don’t lie when you ask them questions,” she grinned, “when they’re just falling asleep, anyway.”

“And what did you ask me?”

She rolled over and looked at the ceiling, smiling broadly at his question, then she turned back to him, looked him in the eye. “Do you really want me to tell you?”

“Yes, I really do.”

“I asked you if you really, really loved me.”

“And I said yes, didn’t I?”

She bit her lip again, nodded her head. “Yes,” she said, almost afraid to say the word.

“And what did you think of that?”

“I felt very happy inside, like little girl kind of happy. Like it was Christmas morning and I got everything I’d ever wanted kind of happy.”

He leaned up and rested on his elbow, looked her in the eye again. “Would you like to come home with me, to stay with me?”

“Forever and ever?” she said – with that sly grin twinkling in her eyes again. “Is that kind of like  a ‘come home and stay with me forever’ kind of question?”

“Please don’t make fun of…”

“Sh-h,” she said, bringing a finger to his lips. “I’m not making fun of you Mark,” she whispered. “There isn’t anything in the world that would make me happier.” She leaned in and kissed him again, stroked the side of his face. “Oh, my love,” she whispered. “I wonder if we could make it work…”

“If we loved one another as much as I love you right now, we could make anything happen.”

She nodded her head. “Well, I’ve got to go now. I hope you’ll think about me while we’re apart.”

“What? You…”

“I really must go now, Mark. Please, no questions. I have to leave.” She was up and off the bed in a flash, and he watched her as she walked to a door across the room and went inside. He heard the door lock behind her and that was that…

He felt a sudden overwhelming emptiness, a pervasive loneliness more devastating than any he’d felt over the last sixteen years; he sat up in bed, rolled his legs out from under the sheets, his feet finding the floor in a rush, grounding him to the physical reality of the room while he fought off the dysphoria of her leaving.

“My God,” he said, fighting for breath, “what just happened?”

+++++

She walked into the exam room, now undressed and so tired she felt ill.

“Have a seat,” the ‘doctor’ said, “and put your feet on the metal plate. You’ll feel better in a few minutes.”

She sat, vaguely remembered instructions concerning foot placement on the charging plates, and sat watching the physician-engineer, waiting for his questions…

“So, how do you feel this morning?”

“Fine,” she said. “Tired, but very good, overall.”

“And emotionally? How do you feel?”

“Happy,” she said, without a moments hesitation.

“And can you tell me how you feel about Mark Stuart?”

“I…I love him…” 

The physician-engineer looked at his screen, watched her responses then typed in his own observations. He watched the screen again, adjusted settings and smiled, hopeful. He hit send and waited a moment, then he asked her the same question: “Tell me how you feel about Mark Stuart?”

Her features brightened, she smiled at him and said “I’ve never felt so alive in my life, doctor. I do love him so…”

The physician-engineer looked at his screen, satisfied with the results. He looked at her, reached out and grabbed her face, turned it side to side. “Open your mouth, please.” She opened wide and he took out a penlight and looked inside her mouth, between her cheeks and gums. “Did you notice any reaction to his semen? Could you taste anything?”

“Yes, I think so, but I’m still not sure.”

“Well, Dana,” he said as he looked her in the eye. “Do you think you’re ready for this? I mean, really ready?”

“I think so, Doctor Evans.”

“Well, I’ll call Ralph and let him know. I want you to just sit here for now, and keep your feet on the plate, okay? You’ll feel better once the charge level is back up to thirty percent.”

“Thank you, doctor.”

+++++

He walked down the same hallway he had the evening before, only now he couldn’t see a door of any sort – anywhere. As he reached the end a different wall slid open, this opening revealing another, much larger room beyond, a conference room of sorts he saw, complete with a large table with a half dozen chairs around it. A large flat panel came to life as he entered the room, a logo for Richardson Autonomics floating in and out of clouds, like a bluebird flitting through fields of cotton on a summer afternoon… 

Another panel on the opposite side of the room slid open, and a woman came into the room and took a seat, followed by a younger woman who looked similar to Eve, yet with slightly different features. She came to Stuart, asked him if he wanted coffee, or perhaps something else to drink?

“No, thanks,” he said, yet there was something about her voice? Similar diction, yet quite a distinctively different accent…almost like she was from the south, perhaps the Carolinas?

Two more people came into the room, two older men, one quite old, and this man was in a wheelchair. Moments later another man dashed in, this one in a white lab coat, and he was busily flipping through pages on a tablet.

“I don’t suppose anyone would care to tell me what the fuck is going on?” Stuart said, and the middle aged woman simply turned to the screen. The cloudscape dissolved, replaced by the room he’d shared with Eve last night.

“Would you like to come home with me, stay with me?” he heard himself say, and he squirmed in his chair.

“Listen, I don’t know what it is you people want, but blackmail sure isn’t going to get…”

The woman turned to him and smiled. “Mr Stuart? This is not what you think. Please relax, as we have a lot to go over this morning, and we need your help.” She turned back to the screen, and playback resumed…

“Forever and ever? Is that kind of like ‘come home and stay with me forever’ kind of question?”

“Please don’t make fun of…”

“Sh-h, I’m not making fun of you Mark. There isn’t anything in the world that would make me happier.” He watched as she leaned-in and kissed him again. “Oh, my love, I wonder if we could make it work.”

The woman turned and looked at him again. “Mr Stuart, could you tell me what was going through your mind right then, what you were feeling, more specifically?”

“Not until you tell me what’s going on. Now…and I mean right now!”

“Mr Stuart,” he turned to the old man in the wheelchair as he started speaking, and everyone turned to face this man as he spoke, “your confusion is duly noted, as is your anger. Now, please let me rephrase Ms Anderson’s question. Do you love Eve?”

“And who the hell are you?”

“Ralph Richardson, Mr Stuart.”

Stuart’s eyes narrowed. If there was anyone in the Bay Area more a recluse than himself it was Richardson, and even his company was among the great unknowns of Silicon Valley. No one knew much about the company, what they were making – or even what they intended to make, for that matter – and about the only thing he’d heard, other than some big guns were involved in the company’s creation, was that Richardson was involved in some sort of biomedical research.

“Okay, sir. What’s this about?”

“Please answer the question, Mr Stuart.”

“As much as I’d like to tell you, sir, why are my feelings any of your business?”

Richardson smiled, turned to the woman. “Would you ask Dana to come in now, please?”

“Yes, Mr Richardson.” The woman didn’t make a move, didn’t push any buttons or speak a word, yet seconds later yet another doorway slid open and Eve walked in, still completely undressed. All eyes were focused on Stuart, on his reaction to Eve’s presence in the room, as he watched her walk around the table and then, as she stood beside him.

“Eve?” Richardson said, looking directly at her. “Do you remember Mr Stuart?”

She ran her fingers through his hair. “Of course I do, Ralph. Why?”

“Mr Stuart, could you please tell Eve how you feel about her?”

Stuart looked at Richardson, then at Eve. He stood, took both her hands in his, then brought one to his lips and kissed it. “I love her, Mr Richardson. Is that what you wanted to hear?”

“Thank you, Mark. Eve, could we have a few more minutes alone with Mr Stuart?”

“Of course.” She turned and left the room, but she stopped and smiled at Stuart before she slipped through the doorway.

“Dana?” Stuart said. “You called her Dana? Then Eve. What’s going on here, Mr Richardson?”

“I suppose an explanation of sorts is in order. Perhaps you have time to sit and listen to a story?”

“I can do that.”

“Are you sure you wouldn’t like something to drink first?”

+++++

She walked back to the exam room and sat in her chair, her feet on the plate, yet she couldn’t remember why she needed to do that, or what she was doing in this room in the first place. Still, she sat, looking at her hands on her lap.

“Those aren’t my hands,” she said after a minute, and she wondered what the rest of her body looked like…

+++++

“So, how did I get here?” Stuart asked.

“You mean Toby? Yes, we met years ago, and as he thought you might be a good resource we asked him to mention our, well, this place to you.”

“A good resource?”

Richardson shook his head. “I’m sorry. We’re getting ahead of ourselves now.”

“Listen, I’ve got to know. Is she, Dana, Eve, whatever her name is…is she, well, is she human?”

“That’s a very good question, Mark, and one I’m reluctant to answer even now, but again, we need to go back a few years, twenty years ago, to be more precise.

“Do you recall, well, I’m sure you must…” Richardson sighed, adjusted his eyeglasses while he paused. “When an American 777 was hit by a helicopter, during that police chase in Los Angeles?”

“Yes, of course. That was a truly…”

“Yes, it was. What you probably don’t know is that my wife was the pilot of that aircraft.”

“No, I didn’t know. I’m terribly…”

Richardson waved his hand. “Not important, Mark, but thanks… Anyway, let’s move on. What is most relevant concerns my sister-in-law, my wife Laura’s sister. She was working in Los Angeles at the time, and she had been for several years. She was working for a start-up, a company with breakthrough solar technologies. The Air Force was involved to a degree – because they were utilizing a new technology to measure solar output via angles of incidence, and they were making precise, long term measurements of the sun. Anyway, that wasn’t Dana’s real background, her real background, anyway. We found out later that she had worked for the Mossad…”

“What’s that?”

“The Israeli equivalent of the CIA, but they tended to be a little more proactive in the world than other western intel agencies in those days. Assassinations, infiltrating western companies, even our armed services were routinely compromised by the Mossad. Then, of course, the Iran-Israeli Cold War put an end to that dilemma.”

“I imagine so.”

“Her name, by the way, was Dana. Dana Goodman. Her family was, as it happens they were Jews, originally from Iran but they fled to Argentina in 1953, after a CIA-MI6 coup deposed the Mossadegh government. But that is, as they say, water under the bridge. I guess that’s when problems in the Middle East began in earnest, not that that matters so much now, but she was a part of all that.

“Anyway, for what it’s worth, Goodman wasn’t their family name, and Dana was just a kid when her father moved to Minnesota, and he worked for 3M until he died, which was back in the 80s, I seem to recall. Dana went back to Israel for a while…”

“Excuse me. So Dana, her family, were from Iran, but are you implying they were Jewish?”

“Oh, yes. There were in the mid-20th century, and I suppose there might still have been – until the war, anyway – more than a few Jews in Iran. Merchants, physicians – who knows? Anyway, her grandfather was a physician, and closely allied with the Mossadegh government, but when the Shah returned to power they had to get out in a hurry. The Shah remained in power until January, 1979, as I’m sure you know, but by that time Dana had been living in Israel for some time. She became very actively religious while an undergrad at UCLA, but she quit school and moved to Tel Aviv during her junior year. I don’t think the details are relevant, but she finished school over there and went to work for Mossad right out of college. She was working in Zurich about the time the Shah’s government was collapsing, and the most important thing that happened during that period was, well, something quite interesting happened.” He looked away, lost in the memory. “Anyway, to make a long story even longer, it seems she was in on an assassination project of some sort, where several members of the SAVAK, the Shah’s internal security apparatus, were killed. Her targets had been instrumental in eliminating the Shah’s political opposition, and I guess many Jews were among those liquidated, or taken out. That’s was Israel’s stated interest in the action, anyway.”

“Wait a minute… You said her name IS Dana, not was. Is she still…”

Richardson shrugged. “Again, I’ll leave that for you to decide, Mark.”

“Wait a minute…now, just what does that mean?”

Richardson looked down at his hands again, then he looked at the young woman by his side. “Dana, why don’t you go sit with Eve for a while.”

“Okay, Dad.”

Stuart watched the exchange feeling more and more confused, very much on the outside looking in, and simply unsure whether or not he should just get up and leave – before this went much further, or got much stranger.

“Mark, I’m curious. Have you been with many women over the years, or have you just had a couple of serious relationships?”

“Didn’t Toby tell you?” Stuart replied, not a little sarcastically.

“No, I’m afraid not.”

“I haven’t been active much, as you can imagine, since my accident. Does that answer your question?”

“I’m sorry, it’s just that I wanted to know about last night. How was, well, how did you feel, physically, when you were with Eve?”

“What do you mean, how did I feel? How was I supposed to feel?”

“Satisfied, perhaps, might be the word I’m looking for. Was Eve a physically satisfying lover?”

“Well, I’m sure you have recordings of everything we did. What can I tell you that you don’t already know?”

“A lot,” he said, chuckling. “It seems, if I’m not reading to much into the matter, the intensity of the experience was enough for you to fall in love with her? Is that about the size of it?”

“Yup. You could say that, but now you’re telling me, well, if I can read between your lines a little right now, is that Eve isn’t really quite what she appears to be, is she?”

“Not in the way you mean. No, she’s not.”

“Excuse the fuck out of me, but how many ways can there be? I mean, either she is, or she isn’t human, correct?”

Richardson shook his head, turned to the older man beside him. Sumner, I think we’ll need the Balvenie ’68. Why don’t you bring the cart.”

“Yessir.”

“You have a ’68?” Stuart said, somewhat in awe. “I didn’t know there were any left.”

“I managed to lay my hands on a few cases, before all the recent unpleasantness.”

“Cases? Okay, sir, now I’m impressed.”

The old man returned, pushing an ornate whiskey cart into the room. Stuart saw several Balvenies, a few so rare they were regarded as almost mythical, then he saw a Glenfarclas 60 that had to be a hundred years old. He saw that the bottle was unopened and shook his head. Of course, he thought to himself, a man like Richardson would know that these casks were a particular weakness of his, but Stuart knew he’d gladly sell his soul to the devil himself for just one sip of that Glenfarclas.

“Mark? See something that catches your eye?”

“Whatever you’d like will be fine.”

“Some Famous Grouse, perhaps? Or could I can send someone out for a few cans of Colt 45?”

Stuart laughed. “I’m sorry, sir. The Balvenies would be very nice.”

“As you wish,” the man behind the cart said. He poured two fingers in a cut crystal cocktail glass and carried it over, then returned to the cart. “Ralph?”

“I think I’d like to try the Glenfarclas today, Sumner. This seems a fitting occasion.”

“I agree, sir.”

“Well, by golly then, you’d better pour one for yourself!”

Stuart’s eyes crossed; he was fuming inside as he watched the two men settle down with their glasses, and now he was sure Richardson was trying to hide a goading smile…

“Now, Mark,” Richardson said, looking up at the ceiling, “the story gets a little strange from here on, and I have to ask that what you learn in here today remains in this room. Can we agree to that much right now?”

“Yes, sir. I’ll agree. I’m all ears, as a matter of fact.”

“Well, good. So, Dana eventually moved to California in the months after her father passed, and she began working, as I mentioned, for a solar firm in West LA. She was, as I mentioned, still working for Mossad. Actively, we think. She was still a spy, in other words, and the FBI knew about her activities, too. Anyway, she’d made a lot of friends in LA, a few very close friends during her undergraduate days at UCLA, and things were going well. So, the company was failing, running out of money after the crash in ’08. She was stressed out, was going to have to fire a lot of those very same friends of hers, and then Flight 22 crashed. Not good timing, I guess, from that one simplistic perspective.

“She drove to the crash site that afternoon, and it turns out she saw the wreckage, the fires and all that. Bodies being carried from the scene, that kind of thing. My guess is her mind snapped. Just snapped like a dry twig. The things she’d done over her life. Killing people, being a spy at a difficult time, then having to lay off friends at her company, while she was still a goddamn spy, spying on her friends. Who knows? Maybe she was already brittle, about to break, but I doubt Laura ever thought so?”

“Laura?”

“My wife.”

“Oh, yessir.”

“She snapped, I think, and she was driving around in a fog, through south central LA for God’s sake – and it was after midnight. She ended up at the harbor, on the Vincent Thomas Bridge, and then she tried to jump. That’s when things changed, and, well, I hate to say it Mark, but all our lives changed that night…only you just don’t know how much things changed…”

+++++

“The stars – they were everywhere – they seemed to coalesce around us. I don’t know how to describe it, what it was like out there, but all of a sudden I remembered thinking they were fireflies. Like we were inside one of those glass balls, you know? You shake the thing and then it looks like it’s snowing inside? Only we were surrounded by fireflies, and then they were all over us, swarming all over us. And then I see one of them in front of my face, hovering right in front of my eyes. I don’t know what it was, who it was, but it was talking to me, telling me to relax, telling us that we weren’t in any danger…”

The screen paused and Mark looked at the man sitting next to Richardson. “Is that you?” Stuart asked. “You were a cop?”

The man nodded his head. “Yessir, I was ‘the cop on the bridge’ that night. And yes, I stopped her from jumping.”

“And this,” Richardson said, interrupting, “is what people on the bridge saw.” He resumed playback, and the screen came to life again. Stuart watched as the cop climbed the anti-suicide fence on the bridge, winced when he saw the woman up there getting tangled in razor-wire, then the cop was talking to her, extricating her and then helping her down. He couldn’t quite make out her words when they reached the bottom, but then she was holding him, crying into his chest, then she slipped to her knees…

…and then Stuart’s world turned in on itself…

…as he watched the two of them, the cop and the grieving woman, as they grew vaguely transparent, their forms dissolving within a gauzy, glowing amber-gray mist. Whoever was filming the event moved in close at that point, their camera movements rapid yet somehow tentative, as if whoever it was couldn’t quite reconcile what they were watching unfold with any sort of reality they understood. The camera circled about the two kneeling forms, tried to get close and then Stuart saw the ‘fireflies’ – thousands of pale forms hovering and circling those two people. He watched, not sure himself if he understood what he was seeing anymore, as the flies coalesced into a pulsing sphere around them, and then Stuart gasped as the sphere began pulsing, glowing a deep, radiant bronze with each successive pulse – until there was a shift and the sphere began spinning, the pulsing movement growing faster and faster as the spinning increased, then colors – moving through a molten kaleidoscope – and when the sphere was a deep cobalt it collapsed in on itself…

…and then – he saw a blinding flash… 

And at that point the recording stopped, the screen…went black.

“That video was made by a television news crew. They’d picked up the call on a police scanner and gone to the bridge, got there just in time to get this footage. When the video stops, at the bright flash, power in the LA basin was disrupted. From LAX to Huntington Beach, and as far inland as Anaheim. Aircraft on approach at LAX, Long Beach and down in Irvine reported a large blast in the harbor area…”

“I remember that,” Stuart said, confused again. “Something about an incident at a refinery, wasn’t it?”

“I guess that was the best story they could come up with in the time they had,” Richardson said.

“They?” Stuart asked.

Richardson shrugged. “I don’t know. Feds, I think, would be my guess.”

“What happened?”

“Mark, no one knows what happened out there on that bridge,” the other man said, “but Dana and I were unharmed.”

“Unharmed? You mean the other people out there – were hurt?”

“Oh yeah.”

“Killed?”

“Some. Yeah.”

“Shit…” Stuart sighed. “What happened to you. And…Dana?”

“Again, no one’s real clear about all that, Mark,” Richardson said. “What is important, what’s most relevant, is that Sumner and Dana for all intents and purposed simply disappeared. For several minutes – almost an hour.”

“Disappeared?”

Bacon squirmed in his chair. “When I was aware I was on the bridge again there were hundreds of emergency personnel everywhere. My patrol car, the news van, an ambulance…everything had been tossed around by that – blast.” 

“Of more importance, Mark, of the hundreds of people out there that night, no one that had seen anything of the sphere and the departure remembers a goddamn thing. Not one thing that happened out there. But there was a crime scene unit out there, as well as an environmental containment unit, and both were recording the scene when, well, you’ll see for yourself.”

The flat panel on the wall showed the scene on the bridge as Bacon had described it: his patrol car was now on it’s side; the ambulance had been blown across the center divider; the news crew’s van – it’s antenna deployed, pointed at the sky – was half on the road, the other half through the fence, it’s front hanging out over LA harbor.

Then a cobalt blue sphere was hanging in the air above the crowd, the surface of the sphere alive with hairy blue lightning. The sphere expanded for a moment, then contracted sharply, settling on the pavement – and as the fireflies returned people scattered. The videographer had the presence of mind to take cover but kept recording events as they unfolded, as the spinning sphere began dissipating, and as a human form took shape in the spinning bronze mist. The spinning slowed, the mist turned gray and disappeared on a harbor breeze; the jerky video zoomed in on a man, apparently a sheriff’s deputy, but his uniform was scorched and tattered, his back to the camera. He appeared to be shaking, and he was looking up into the night sky. Then the videographer was among the surging crowd moving towards the man, and when the man came face to face with the camera Stuart began shaking.

“Oh, God no,” he whispered as he looked at Sumner Bacon standing out there under the night sky, an infant girl cradled in his arms.

+++++

“Is that…Dana?”

“Yes, and no. To the extent we even know what she is.”

“There are no easy answers with you, are there?”

Richardson chuckled. “Well, the infant in the recording and the girl you were with last night…they are a mechanism, of sorts, but I can’t tell you any more than that, and simply because after almost twenty years of study we just don’t know what she is, or who made her, or where, because all those things are still open to conjecture. As far as human? Her emotional component, her memory, are in large part Dana’s. Even so, some things are absent.”

“Are you saying that after twenty years of study you don’t know “what” she is?”

“Uh-huh. There’s a skeletal structure, but it’s not bone in the usual sense. There’s a neural network, a circulatory system, even a rudimentary digestive system. She drinks water. Period. Yet after intense periods of emotional activity, she ‘drinks’ electricity. And she reproduces, well, essentially, she exhibits asexual reproduction. She’s reproduced annually for many years, and her offspring are almost perfect reproductions, right down to her emotive and cognitive capacities.”

“They’re all Dana-copies, you mean?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Has anyone had sex with her before?”

“Nope. You’re the first.”

“That’s astonishing. She feels completely human, and in every way I can think of. The way she responds, even lubrication, all felt human. She even tastes like a girl, maybe a girl right out of the shower, but human. Her labia and clitoris were, well, very responsive to stimuli.”

“Interesting.”

“So, after all these years she didn’t, I mean, you didn’t try any experiments of this nature?”

Richardson shook his head. “She wasn’t ready. Wouldn’t let us. A few of her offspring have ventured out, but so far you’re the first. As far as we know, anyway.”

“Wouldn’t…well, what about DNA?”

He nodded his head. “Yes. She has DNA, and it’s similar to ours. Like 99.7% similar, but there are radical exceptions, notable deviations.”

“So, what’s next? With her, I mean.”

“Well, at this point that depends somewhat on you, Mark.”

“Me? Look, I’m going on the assumption now that I’ve been part of your experiments…”

“To a degree, but I think you should know that Eve, or Dana, well – she chose you.”

“She – what?”

“She chose you, Mark. It’s our understanding she wants to move in with you. That’s been her trajectory for months.”

“Trajectory?” What’s that supposed to…”

“She’s very goal oriented, Mark. And as you’ve seen, she’s very affectionate – when she wants to be.”

“And when she doesn’t want to be affectionate? What’s she like then? A gorilla, maybe?”

“Thoughtful. She becomes very reclusive, retreats into her thoughts.”

“Is she self-aware? I mean, concerning her earlier self? The old Dana, I guess I’m trying to say.”

“Limited, would be my guess. There’s a layer of consciousness, I think we could say at this point, that seems to be the old Dana. I don’t know how intact that structure is, or if there’s a safety mechanism of sorts that keeps her from accessing those thoughts and feelings.”

“And you’d like me to help get answers to these questions, wouldn’t you?”

Richardson leaned back and sighed – then he steepled his fingers over his chest. “Wouldn’t you?” he almost whispered after some time had passed.

“This is the most extraordinary thing I’ve ever run across in my life,” Stuart said. “I mean…”

“Tell me one thing,” Sumner Bacon said, watching Stuart’s eyes attentively, “you’ve been alone in the worst possible way for the last fifteen or so years, and yet you experienced a dramatic reawakening last night. The best possible resurrection, I’d like to think. Would you like to return to your isolation? Or would you like to explore this opportunity, for your sake, and for ours?”

+++++

Part IV: Asynchronous Mud II

Tokyo               September 2024

Kenji Watanabe sat in the taxi next to Mary, trying his best not to stare at the girl’s legs – and soon finding this next to impossible he turned and looked at San Francisco Bay and SFO, the international airport now just off the 101. He watched as a JAL 797-200ER flared over the water and settled gently onto the runway, reverse thrust kicking up a small cyclone of dust and tire smoke – before all that sound carried across the water and washed over their orange Tesla. He shook his head, did his best to hide his revulsion of any and everything to do with aviation, and so of course found himself looking at Mary’s crossed legs – again.

He had picked her up just the day before, at Richardson Autonetics’ Palo Alto facility, and he was, he thought, almost proud of her. She was, according to Richardson, “our first unit certified for export;” she would be the very first of her kind in Japan – and she was his, all his and his alone. He would not disassemble her, would never reverse engineer her…no, after last night he was simply going to hold her close – cherish her and never let go. He had never experienced a night such as that before; he had never felt so in love, or loved.

She was more human than human, Ralph Richardson told him in that meeting. Incredibly sensitive – both physically and emotionally – Richardson said, yet unlike human females not prone to variations in mood, or desire – if that’s truly what Watanabe felt most comfortable with. This flexibility, Richardson patiently explained, was but one of the many behavioral parameters that could be customized – even after delivery – should the need arise. Watanabe had been skeptical then – but not now.

And after last night, Watanabe was one hundred percent certain that nothing about this remarkable being needed any sort of customization, at all – if only because she was utterly perfect in every way, and in every sense of the word. No…she was beyond perfect. She was as docile and empathically understanding one moment as the most accomplished courtesan of old, and yet the next she was a hellion – and least when the lights were out and her clothes off. Though it had been years since he had been with a woman, she had coaxed whatever lingering shyness remained from his bruised psyche and carried him over the ultimate threshold, back to the headiest days of his youth.

Now he turned and looked her in the eye – and as she turned and looked into his waves of unbelievable peace washed over his soul. ‘This can’t be happening to me,’ he told himself once again – for perhaps the tenth time in as many minutes. ‘She’s simply not possible…’

And yet she was. Here was the proof of that assertion – right by his side.

Her hair was purest black, her skin so white she almost looked ready to perform a kabuki set, yet it was her eyes that most enthralled him. Black one moment, then in the next a cobalt so deep it was almost possible to feel the mystery of existence – like an azure sea, he thought, at twilight. When she walked or stretched in just a certain way, even the shapes of her arms and legs varied – as individual bundles of ‘muscle’ reacted to new directions of movement. He had danced with her at dinner and not noticed even the slightest imbalance or hesitation; in fact he found her lightness of movement beyond graceful. And then at one point he had felt light-headed and had begun to lose his balance, and she had felt his unsteadiness and reached out to him, helped him to their table. Once there she had taken his wrist in her fingers while she watched his face, then reached into her clutch and produced the correct medication for the moment! He had looked at the competence in her eyes and smiled at a sudden passing thought… 

“What is it, Kenji?” he remembered her asking. “Why are you laughing?”

“I was just thinking. If perhaps I suddenly needed open heart surgery, no doubt you would pull all the necessary equipment from that magic bag of yours and – presto! You’d be there, wouldn’t you?”

Her smile changed just the slightest, and he’d felt oddly reassured by the expression she wore in that moment.

“I will always be there for you, Kenji-sama. If it is in my power, I will do whatever is necessary to protect you. Even from yourself.”

And in that moment, inside the first time that particular feeling swept over him, he knew there was something utterly different about this being. She was sentient, yet she wasn’t exactly human, but neither was she some heartless artificial construct – as he had first been led to believe by his most vocal opponents at home. Sex robots had been on the scene at home for almost two decades, though none had ever caused an uproar. That might change now, Watanabe told himself, and perhaps that was because of that one little phrase Richardson had uttered at their introduction – that “more human than human” quip. And yet oddly enough, it was women’s groups who seemed most militantly opposed to the very idea of such a creation.

‘Yes, how very strange,’ Watanabe said to himself. Human, yet not human. Biological in a way, yet not. A robot? Perhaps, in the strictest definition of the word, but his company had been making robots for fifty years and this ‘Mary’ was anything but. His robots helped manufacture cars and produce medical equipment to impossibly fine tolerances, yet his designers had never once considered something so radical as this. True enough, yet this ‘machine’ was about to sit beside him on a flight across the Pacific…something none of his products would – or could ever do.

But no…he had her export documentation in his briefcase, and members of the consulate’s commercial section would be at the airport, along with representatives from US Customs – and Richardson Autonetics – to see that his departure was trouble free. She would travel in his suite, not in the cargo hold, but that was more for his comfort than hers. He simply disliked flying alone, almost as much as he hated flying with a companion, and as he looked at the airport an involuntary shudder passed through his body once again.

+++++

He marveled at her touch once again, the feel of her hand in his. Warm, the warmth of flesh on flesh, the pressure her hand exerted on his reassuring. He sat looking out the curved window ahead, looking through the leading edge of the vast wing at the main hull of the new Boeing StratoCruiser – the first of a new generation of hyper-efficient flying wing designs – and he only hoped this design was safer than the last aircraft he had flown on.

That had been 15 years ago, on a huge Airbus A380 flying nonstop from London to Tokyo. Descending over South Korea, the number one engine had simply exploded when, apparently, corroded fan blades in the inner compressor failed. The wing a perforated mess, the pilot had tried an emergency descent for Incheon International, but less than a half-mile from the threshold of runway 15 Right, a vast fire broke out inside the left wing and the Airbus cartwheeled into the sea. There had been fewer than fifty survivors from the almost four hundred onboard, and family and friends told him how lucky he had been. How lucky, the told him, to have even survived.

Indeed…how very lucky.

The first time he’d seen the results of this luck his soul had filled with such despair he’d very nearly killed himself. The left side of his face looked like rolling fields of molten lava – an angry red flow of indignant malice that begged no further explanation – most especially when he saw ‘those looks’ in women’s eyes, but, in the end, those noxious sidelong glances had hardly been the worst of it. His left shoulder was now a titanium structure, the femurs of both legs a series of titanium and carbon fibre struts. Then there were the two metal plates in his skull that provided a nonstop ache, but those, mercifully, had been replaced with ceramic moldings a year after the accident and the pain had subsided…a little. He’d had fewer severe headaches over the next few years – since that operation, anyway. And how funny, he’d thought, that he was measuring the progress of his life by incremental lessening of devastating pain. Was all he had to look forward to now? Diminishing pain accompanied by increasing loneliness?

In the beginning he resorted to escorts and call girls, and the best of them ignored his looks – for a few minutes, anyway – but in the end he couldn’t meet the revulsion in their eyes with anything approaching dignity. So, he’d grown reluctant, even unwilling, to meet even that minor disappointment head-on, and time after time, so within a few years he’d turned away from human companionship. He disappeared into his work, turning a once modestly successful microchip manufacturing company into a wildly successful multinational electronics venture, yet in the process turning further and further from his own humanity. He worked with a small group of known associates and for the first few years after the accident rarely left his office. After five years he never left at all, and had in fact constructed living quarters on the same floor as his office. People on the factory floor had renamed him ‘the Monk’ – after his so-called self-enforced celibacy – yet his closest associates knew even this almost reverential term of endearment cut him to the core.

Celibacy was, at least as he understand it, a choice that came from within, not something forced on the soul by external events. He felt no overwhelming need to lead a chaste life, only overwhelming sorrow. And word of Kenji Watanabe’s unyielding sorrow soon became – almost  –public knowledge.

Then – almost by accident – he’d been introduced to a man from Palo Alto, California, a resourceful polyglot named Toby Tyler, and as Tyler worked with electronics companies all over the Orient, the Californian had, apparently, learned all about of Kenji Watanabe’s predicament, about his ongoing reclusiveness and isolation, and who after meeting Watanabe for dinner in his latter’s office, had mentioned a radical solution to the problem Kenji Watanabe faced. Toby told Kenji that what he really needed was a new type of assistant, an assistant who’d never judge him, who would never turn away in dismay or disgust. And it turned out that friend of this man, a successful Silicon Valley entrepreneur in similar straits, had been the first to employ one of these assistants and was extremely enthusiastic about her. 

“Perhaps I could find out more for you?” Toby Tyler had asked Kenji Watanabe.

And although Watanabe had almost desperately wanted to know more, he was reluctant to say so. At least, not enthusiastically – but before he left, Tyler had given Kenji the contact information for a man named Mark Stuart – and not fully understanding why – he’d called the man, not knowing what to expect but curious even so. Yet it seemed that this Stuart had been expecting Kenji’s call, and had been more than willing to talk about his recent experience with a new ‘assistant…’

“Look, there’s really no way to describe this rationally,” Stuart said near the end of their first conversation. “You need to meet Eve, so why don’t you fly over this weekend? As it happens, my jet will be passing through on Friday, refueling at Haneda. You’re welcome to come anytime, of course, but you’d have the aircraft to yourself…”

With such an irresistible invitation, Watanabe had yielded and agreed to come – despite his overwhelming fear of aircraft. And he found he enjoyed the little jet’s luxurious accommodations, the splendid isolation of a cabin designed to hold twenty all to himself, and Stuart’s driver met him at SFO and took him directly to a large house in the hills above of Palo Alto, a rambling affair set out amongst the evergreen hillsides along Skyline Drive. He’d been shown to a small cottage below the main house, a Mission Style bungalow of cedar and stone nestled deep inside a clinging grove of eucalyptus, pine, and oak. His only bag had been carried down to the cottage for him, and the driver told him to expect dinner in a few hours, and that someone from the main house would come down for him – soon.

And despite his looming anxiety he had napped for an hour, then showered and changed clothes, one moment wondering why he’d agreed to this and the next shaking as irrational waves of curiosity pushed at his knees. 

Then, a knock on the door.

He saw a man much like himself when he opened the door. The stranger’s face had been savagely scarred once, and wounded in other ways, too, but Watanabe saw something he hadn’t expected in the man’s eyes. Was that hope he saw…perhaps? Or was that simple contentedness he saw on the man’s face, and in his eyes? 

The man held out his left hand, and Watanabe saw the man’s entire right arm had been seriously mangled, and was now barely useable. Without words he held out his own battered left hand and bowed slightly. 

“Mark Stuart,” the other man said, returning the bow.

“Kenji Watanabe. I am so pleased to meet you.”

“What say we head on up to the house. Sorry, but there are going to be a few people here tonight, politicians and other like-minded whores, if you know what I mean, and a few Hollywood types to liven things up a bit.”

“Ah, well perhaps I should excuse myself then. I am tired, and do not feel much like a party tonight?”

“As you wish, but I have to tell you, I think you’ll regret that decision.”

There was something in the way Stuart said those last few words…some infinitesimally small warning in the man’s tone that let Watanabe know he was being judged, even if from afar. He decided, despite knowing he was being manipulated, to put aside his own discomfort and agreed to join the man on this walk up to the main house.

Which was, as far as he could tell, an almost faithful replica of Greene & Greene’s Gamble House, right down to the arboreal front entry. He walked inside with Stuart and his eyes lit up as he took in forests of honeyed oak, all glowing in verdigris-accented amber mica lamplight. And then to his utter amazement he saw several Hollywood types, including more than a few unimaginably beautiful woman dressed in all the most fashionable shades of preening vanity, these men and women so astonishingly gorgeous he found the scene grotesquely amusing. And when he spotted least two senators talking to one of the women, two men whose corrupt nature would normally be a given, he had smiled inside – because now he knew the danger here was great. Even if he hadn’t known them personally, known them to be noble men dedicated to government service, he would have felt as such – because mixing politics and lust always led to dubious outcomes. Then one of the politicians, the Junior Senator from State of California, saw him and waved before he came over to greet him – and Mark Stuart… 

“Kenji! What the devil are you doing over here?”

“He’s come,” Stuart interrupted, “to spend some time here with me this weekend. We were going to take a ride in the morning, if you have the time…?”

“Hell, Mark, of course I’ll make time. I had no idea you two knew each other…”

But just then an older starlet of fading repute walked over to join their conversation; she’d just been nominated for Best Supporting Actress in the upcoming Academy Awards, for her performance in a cop movie set in South Central LA, and Watanabe regarded her warily, afraid of her reaction to his disfigurement.

“Mark? I didn’t know you ran with Republicans,” she said in a chiding tone as she walked up and took his arm in her own. “Say it isn’t so!”

“Oh, Samantha, you know me…I’ll let anyone come to these little parties…” Stuart said with a self-deprecating shrug. “Let me introduce you to a friend of mine, just in from Tokyo. Kenji, this is Sam Sinfield. I don’t think you two have met…”

“A sincere honor,” Watanabe said, bowing deeply as he held out his hand. ‘She took it! And with not the slightest look of revulsion in her eyes…!’ 

“Kenji! Isn’t that the cutest name!” she gushed in a deepest Carolina accent, keeping his hand firmly wrapped in hers. “Kenji? Why don’t you come with me – buy me a drink or two?” She pulled him away from Stuart and they walked over to a bar set-up just off the main kitchen. “What’ll it be, Kenji?” she asked as she ordered some kind of Mojito.

“The same, please,” he said, bowing his head indifferently.

After the bartender finished two huckleberry mojitos, the two of them walked out onto a vast brick and stone patio located just off the living room, and Watanabe almost hissed as, startled, he took in the view of the bay spread out below. The sun was setting and he saw city lights just winking on, yet he felt the autumn air was still warm. “What a nice evening this is,” Ms Sinfield said as a soft breeze drifted from the forests surrounding the vast house – filling the air with scents of pine and eucalyptus and lending the whole scene a little golden tint of ‘Hollywood’. He took a sip of his drink, noted fresh mint and berries of some sort mashed in the bottom of the glass, and he nodded his head in approval.

“It’s just yummy out here, don’t you think, Kenj…” the woman sighed intimately. “Like the night is full of magic, alive with infinite possibilities…ya know?”

He heard the woman but was too wrapped up in the even-glow to consider her words carefully, at least at first, but then he recognized the trap and stopped himself from falling further under her spell. ‘I am being grossly manipulated,’ he told himself. ‘Why else would this woman be here with me? Speaking to me in such familiar terms?’ 

“Yes,” he replied, “just so. But I have always considered that the infinite resides in the night.”

“Oh? Why’s that?”

“How else could the way ahead be lit?”

She sighed, nodded her head. “Do you really think we can ever know such things, Kenji?”

“All things are possible, Miss Sinfield, in the soft glow of an evening like this.”

“So, why’d Mark invite you tonight? Bad karma?”

He looked at her when he heard that. “I’m not sure what you mean, Miss Sinfield?”

“Oh, Mark has been kind of a recluse for a few years. You know…the Howard Hughes thing, but recently all that changed.”

“I see. Well…We talked earlier in the week about a business proposal of sorts, and he invited me to meet someone he thought I might find interesting.”

“Interesting?”

“An assistant of his. Eve is, I think, her name.”

“Oh. Her,” she said, a falling note of despair in her voice.

“You do not sound very happy about the idea. May I ask why?”

“Sure, but it’s no secret. Ever since she came into his life he’s been different. I would have said it was love at one point but it’s much deeper than that now, I think. She’s become like an extension of his soul, and he rarely goes anywhere without her. You know, Mark used to be very shy, almost introverted, but now I’d say he’s almost the exact opposite. Very secure in his skin, very sure of himself, if you know what I mean…?”

“But – is that such a bad thing?” Kenji asked, yet almost immediately he regretted asking the question, for he could see the answer in the woman’s eyes. She had loved this Mark Stuart once-upon-a-time, though he suspected in the superficial way an actress might love a wealthy man, and perhaps she had been unable to elicit such a response from Stuart. “I mean,” he said quickly, trying to seize the direction he wanted this conversation to go, “have you talked to her? Do you think she feels the same way towards Mr Stuart?”

“You know, I have. Once, at lunch on Mark’s boat, we talked a bit – about men, I think – and she professed to know little about them, only what she knew about men through her understanding of Mark. It’s funny, I think, but to me right then it felt like she can’t see the past, any past, beyond what the time they’ve had together.” She paused, took a sip from her mojito and then shook her head. “All I can say is that she seems completely devoted to him. And I mean completely.”

“Devoted, you say. What about love? Do you think she loves him?”

“Kenji…what is this? Are you pumping me for information?”

Watanabe felt red-faced and flushed, as if he was suddenly sweating hellfire when she asked him that, and though he stammered an apology he felt angry with himself for such an obtuse show of emotion. “No, I am sorry if it seems that way. It’s just that I’ve heard so much – yet at the same time very little of substance – about her, so a thousand pardons as I was merely curious. Even so, I am compelled to ask: did you love him before she came?”

The ball in the other court now, he watched her reaction to this parry – yet he was disappointed again.

“You know, Kenji, at one time or another everyone falls in love with Mark. Everyone. First you fall for his generosity, then you see something under it all…something deep inside like a force of nature. A more powerful intellect you’ll never meet, but then you dig a little deeper and you find out he’s really, at heart, a gentle soul. And the funny thing is, Kenji, he really wants to accomplish something good in this lifetime, yet he’s not so sure of himself that he really knows what ‘good’ is. Does that make any sense at all?”

Watanabe nodded his head. “Yes, very much. History has been a long parade of men who were certain of their knowledge, and the tides of time are littered with dubious results.”

“Exactly. Mark questions everything, but most of all he questions his own preconceptions. Anyway, I think everyone who gets to know him well begins to understand that about him. And Kenji, in the end I think that’s why everyone falls in love with him.”

“Everyone?”

“Oh, you know what I mean. It’s that thing that draws people – almost like moths to the flame. They used to call it charisma, but I never thought of that kind of attraction as something so banal. People loved JFK, half the country cried their eyes out for a week after his murder…and while I’m just as sorry as I can be – but that ain’t charisma. That’s love.”

“Ah, I see what you mean. You are saying that people almost, well, they almost venerate Mr Stuart?”

“Oh, not quite that…Oh, look! There she is…” Sinfield said, trying not to point.

“Who?” Kenji asked, following her gaze, but he didn’t need any further cues. No, he could tell, just by looking at Stuart’s eyes.

He was looking at a fairly good looking woman, taller than himself but about the same height as Stuart. Reddish brown hair, flawless skin, much whiter than Stuart’s, and she was dressed simply, yet quite elegantly – like she had consciously dressed so as not to upstage any of his guests that evening. And yes, there was something almost serene about the man’s eyes now that she was with him – like he was suddenly complete, whole again, despite his obvious injuries.

‘So much like me,’ Watanabe thought, and suddenly he wondered if that was important.

“Come on, Kenji, it’s time you met her, don’t you think?”

“Yes, perhaps so,” he said, taking the actress’ hand, yet now, suddenly, he felt quite nervous again about this whole evening. About the idea of a meeting with Stuart – and about acquiring an ‘assistant’ – whatever that might mean, but soon they were back in the living room, standing by the man…and this assistant of his.

“Mark?” Samantha said innocently, “has Eve met Kenji yet?”

“No, I don’t think he has,” Stuart said, turning to the woman by his side. “Eve, this is the man I was talking to Sumner about yesterday.”

“Ah, yes, Watanabe-sama,” the woman began, speaking now in flawless Japanese. “I am so honored to meet you.”

“The honor is mine, Lady,” he replied in English, not wanting to make his host ill-at-ease. “Is this not a most gorgeous evening?”

She looked at him for a moment, accepting his gift of a traditional greeting. “Yes, with cool wind in her tree, just in silence, she sings to the moon’s tears.”

Watanabe staggered under the weight of the woman’s haiku, at her perfect choice of words. He hissed sharply and bowed his head. ‘You already know me so well?’ he sighed inwardly, wondering how she saw his disfigurement: as the wind, or the trees. Would he break and fall, or could he stand up to her song?

Yet all he could see now was the quiet smile on her face, and in her eyes. A serenity…borne of what, he wondered? Was her victory complete, or had this just been her opening move?

+++++

“It is an honor to meet you, Mr Richardson,” Kenji said. He looked at the man, at this man’s infirmities, and he thought he understood more about why he was here.  Richardson’s wheelchair was a vast, complicated thing, almost a portable life-support unit, for the man now had to be almost ninety years old. “And I must say, I admire this building very much. I have read much about it in the architectural press.”

“Have you now, indeed? Well, perhaps we can arrange a little tour, later this afternoon if you’d like. I love Wright’s architecture so I spent quite a while searching for a disciple.”

“Yes, well, I’d say you have succeeded beyond one’s wildest imaginings. And I’d enjoy such a tour very much.”

“Fine, fine…Mark? Did Eve come with you today?”

Stuart whirled around, looked from Watanabe to Richardson. “She’s with Sumner right now, I believe. I think they’ll be along in a few minutes.”

“And have you told Watanabe-san about our project?”

“Yessir, I think he’s up to speed. At least through the episode on the bridge.”

Richardson looked at Watanabe all through this exchange, trying to gauge the man’s reaction – but his face had remained a mask – all emotion impossible to discern. “So? Any questions, Kenji?”

Watanabe turned and faced the old man. “A few. This technology Mr. Stuart speaks of? Is it yours?”

Richardson shrugged. “Is that so important, Kenji?”

“The sphere Mr Stuart describes…he mentioned seeing a being of some sort before the transformation?”

“A being, yes. That does sort of complicates matters, doesn’t it? Who or what they are, well, we have no idea, and neither do we have any idea what their objectives are. They’ve not been, well, we’ve had little contact with them since that night on the bridge…”

“And the more I think about them,” Sumner Bacon said, coming into the room with Eve, “the more unsure I am about what they are. Or what their motives are.”

“Ah, good morning Sumner, Miss Goodman. What have you two been up to?”

“Talking with MJ, seeing how she’s doing today.”

Watanabe turned and looked at the old police officer, the startling story of that night on the bridge still fresh in his mind. “You were saying, Sumner? Excuse my persistence, but what exactly do you think that presence was?”

Bacon shook his head, sighed as he looked from Richardson to Watanabe. “Sometimes I feel like the thing that communicated with me was a being, other times I think it was a construct of some sort.”

“A machine?” Watanabe seemed incredulous. 

Bacon nodded his head. “I’m sorry, but that night remains a jumbled series of impressions, and even so most of my memory is from before and after the event. We’ve tried hypnosis, all manner of off-the-wall methods to get at the time I was gone, after we disappeared inside that sphere, but I guess in a way all that time simply vanished, and I have no memory of it at all.”

“Memory forms in time,” Watanabe mused openly. “With time dilation, perhaps all that you experienced inside that sphere happened inside one instant, at least as far as you were concerned. People on the bridge might have experienced the passage of time as minutes, perhaps even hours, yet during that instant…”

Richardson looked at Bacon; they both nodded their heads. “Yes,” Richardson said, “that’s what our theoretical physicists say.”

“Very interesting,” Watanabe sighed. “So the question remains, which…”

“And we have no way to test either hypothesis,” Richardson said, his hands open, expressing the hopelessness all involved in the project felt.

“How many of these ‘assistants’ are there now?”

“Seven. So far.”

“And this new assistant of mine? She chose me, as well?”

Richardson nodded his head.

“I see. Am I…?”

“Only the second one,” Richard’s sighed. “Eve was first to make a choice.”

Watanabe turned to Eve just then, and looked into her eyes. “And your purpose? You know nothing of why you are here?”

She looked him in the eye as well, while she gently shook her head. “No.”

“I find this all very troubling,” Watanabe said. “Like we are pawns in a game we know nothing about…”

“Yes, that’s quite true,” Richardson interrupted, “but then again Kenji, whoever’s playing this game did in fact choose you. Doesn’t that make you just a little…?”

“Curious? No, not really. I would say fear is the word that comes first to my mind. Yes. I am afraid.”

“Of what,” a woman said, walking into the room, and Watanabe turned and looked at this new presence… 

…and his world cartwheeled out of control.

He looked at his idea of human perfection, a woman so gorgeous his heart jumped breathlessly in his chest and his vision clouded.

“Kenji, I’d like you to meet Mary,” Richardson said. 

But the woman was staring at Watanabe now, like there was no one else in the room. “Watanabe-sama? Tell me please, what are you afraid of?”

“You, dear lady. I am most afraid – of you –”

+++++

Now, sitting in this huge airliner high above the Pacific, he could think of little else. Fear and acceptance. Fear and curiosity. Fear, and the choices he’d made over the last two days.

To let this woman, if that was indeed what she was, so deeply into his life. This was insane! 

He turned, saw she was resting on the bed in their suite, and he looked around the room again – bewildered.

All the first class suites were located here, inside the innermost portion of the Boeing’s huge wing, with the leading edge of the wing made of some carved translucent material. One entire ‘wall’ of this compartment was, in effect, a huge, curved window – and now he was staring at a great wall of dark clouds just ahead, ahead as this monstrously large jet arced through the sky with limitless views of the way ahead. And yet, as intoxicating as this view was, it was also intensely disorienting to Kenji. He tried to wall-off memories of that day, but when his guard was down he slipped through time again and he saw that other airliner cartwheeling into Incheon Bay. 

And just then, in the deepest part of the unfolding memory, in the wildest moments of his confusion, she came to him, comforting him without asking where the roots of his distress lay.

“You express empathy so naturally,” he said to her after the first time this happened. “Are you so attuned to human emotion?”

She ignored his rationalizations with a gentle shrug. “I can’t imagine the pain you must have endured,” she whispered in his ear, “with all you experienced.”

“You know about – the incident at Incheon?”

“Of course,” she said, rubbing the mottled skin on the side of his face. “You have such strength of nerve,  Kenji-sama, so much that it leaves me breathless.”

He had turned then and looked into her eyes, yet he felt nothing duplicitous in her words, no insincerity whatsoever. “I wonder, would it be impossible for someone like me to fall in love with someone like you?”

Yet she had smiled upon hearing those words. But “Yes. I wonder,” was her only reply, yet just then she had leaned into him, kissed his forehead.

“This is all so impossible,” he said again, so quietly she might not have heard him. “Why are you here?”

But she had simply smiled at this question. “The day ahead will be very difficult, the next few days as well, but then you’ll see. The best years of your life lay just ahead, and I will be there with you, always, to keep you safe.”

He’d looked into her eyes then, saw something important there. “What do you mean? How could you possibly know what tomorrow will bring?”

And she had laughed away such questions. “What a wondrous machine,” she’d said, gayly. “It’s almost like a time machine, don’t you think?”

“A – what? A time machine? How so?”

“Oh, I was simply thinking what it must have been like to sail these seas a hundred years ago. From, say, San Francisco to Tokyo; such a trip as we make now would have taken months, would it not? And yet we will make the journey in just a few hours, so in a way, this machine has compressed time – from months to hours. A time machine. And think of email. Time further compressed, just like another time machine.”

He smiled. “I see. You are most wise, Mary. And what other time machines might you tell me about?”

And she had simply smiled again…the same beguiling, inscrutable smile she called her own. “We are drawing near,” she said, pointing at the island of Honshu looming out of the mists ahead of the giant wing, then she leaned over and tightened his seatbelt, her face tightening into an equally grim set.

“What is it? Is something wrong?”

“No, Kenji-san. All is happening as it must, time must reveal herself as she will.”

“What does that mean?”

She pointed at Tokyo Bay ahead. “The rest of the day will be very difficult…”

“You said that before. What do you mean?”

And as they approached the airport, runway 34 Right he remembered, he saw she was pointing at a boat perhaps a half mile from the end of the runway… 

He saw a flash emerge from this boat, and a finger of flame as the flash leapt into the sky… 

“Oh no,” he said. “Not again.”

“Yes, Kenji-sama. And the first time? Over Korea? That too was no accident.”

“What? How do you…”

But she leaned in and kissed him, this time roughly, on the lips. And he felt her tightening his seat belt once again…until the nylon belt bit into his lap…  

…just before he felt the missile’s impact, somewhere off to this left… 

Startled, his mind reeling again, he looked ahead as the left wingtip lurched and dipped violently, and he started to cry as memory fused with reality…as once again real fear came for him. 

“Kenji-sama, look at me,” he heard her say, then she took his face in her hands and forced him to look. “You are not going to die, do you understand? I will not allow it.”

“What? What are you saying?”

“Kenji, do you love me?”

“What?”

He looked at the water reaching up for him once again, reaching up for him, waiting to hold him in cold embrace, then he looked back into her eyes…

“Yes, I do. God forgive me, but I do,” he said to the water’s reflection he saw in her eyes.

Then he felt the wing slicing through water, then an explosion – and then he felt cold water everywhere. The air smashed from his chest by the impact, he thrashed wildly as he tried to move – but he realized his legs were set in deep mud. He struggled and thrashed with all his might but he was stuck fast – and then he saw her by his side. Smiling.

She came to him and kissed his lips again, then pulled him free and helped him swim for the surface, and to daylight. They burst free of the darkness a moment later and he wanted to cry for this latest rebirth, but all he could think to do was to turn and look at this precious Mary… 

And she was looking at him with such love in her eyes it left him feeling weightless and without a care in the world, feeling almost immortal as death raged all around them. He held her close and kissed her anew, with no reservation now. 

“I am so proud of you, Kenji-san. You are most brave, and very wise.”

“And I love you,” he said, suddenly very happy to still be among the living – then he felt a growing disturbance in the water. Something below, he wondered, but no. The water around him was spinning, gently at first, then faster.

She came to his side again, held him fast. “Don’t be afraid, my love,” he heard her say as he looked into her eyes once again…

“What’s happening?” he almost cried, then he saw tiny particles in the air – swirling like a small tornado around them, then he understood. Just like the bridge…and with Sumner Bacon…

There was a flash just after the sphere formed, an inward collapse of some sort, then he was free of the motion, adrift in a sea of stars… But no, it was dark out now, and suddenly he knew he was still in the water. She was beside him still, holding onto him, helping him stay afloat, and then he heard a helicopter overhead, and rescue boats all around them.

Then he felt another presence and he looked out – at his hands.

He was carrying an infant, a baby girl in his outstretched arms, and he cried out when he saw the baby looking up at him, up into his eyes – and with this impossible woman still by his side…

“Are you ready, my love?” he heard her ask.

He heard her, of course, but his eyes remained focused on the child – because he could tell the child was his. ‘But…how could this be?’ he asked himself.

Then helicopters beat the air overhead and rescue divers jumped down to help the survivors swimming frantically towards the rescue boats just coming out into the bay, and for the first time in fifteen years Kenji Watanabe felt no fear.

© 2016-2021 adrian leverkühn | abw | adrianleverkuhnwrites.com all rights reserved | and as always this is just a little bit of fiction.

3 thoughts on “Nightside (2021 version)

    • Well…as I mentioned, NightSide first came out in ’14, so all I needed to do was work on continuity and the usual missed grammar issues. My Parkinson’s is acting up and my right hand has become especially bothersome, and that’s really been slowing me down, esp. on bad days. Time for a med adjustment, I reckon. But I hear you. Keeping focused on the positives is the way to go now. And writing is still a big plus, both to and for me.

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  1. I have recently watched a vid on utubby by Kryon called Ascension Gate: Number 44 that might peak your interest. It’s about knowing your own consciousness and cellular communication. It might assist you and ur health challenges and even give u a few story ideas. I use the info and it has helped me. The key is persistence and patience. Keep well Amigo.

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