The Fifth Batallion
by Michael Priv
THE BOOK IS GOING THROUGH EDITING. SUBJECT TO CHANGE.
PART 1
NOT-BEING


1
Pyrenees Mountains, Spain, 1640

The majestic tranquility of the Pyrenees felt obscene that morning or, at the very least, incongruous with what was about to unfold here. How many of them were going to die today? Each hoped it would not be him.

The young officer finished braiding his hair and threw the braid behind his back with a well-practiced move, watching a red hawk gliding overhead in harmony with the universe. Wait, did the bird just glance his way disapprovingly? Were they ruining his breakfast? Or was there more to that disapproving look?

Adjusting the tattered lather webbing on his narrow chest, he surveyed the vicinities. The artillery encampments were arranged along a low grassy ridge, studded with rock protrusions and sage brush. The individual gun emplacements stood out like spots of mange on a very dirty dog. The artillery regiment, flying the standards of the praying mantis, the old Confederate Wait and Pounce symbol, was facing a valley with a fortress dug into a hill, the objective of their mission.   

“1st battery, shell shots ready! Look alive, lads, it’s about to start!”

At the 1st Battery 3rd Gun emplacement, the battery commander’s voice set the rag-tag crew of men into frantic action. The 3rd Gun commander, the young officer with the braided pony tail, was dressed inappropriately into a worn tunic of a British Navy officer.

He knew what was coming.

“Weapon crew, munitions, get the gun ready!” He yelled to his two crew chiefs. The weapon he referred to was the fifteen-hundred-pound gun in their charge and the munitions were the cannonball shots it fired.

“Yes, Sir! Yes, Sir!” The crew was good. The officer knew them all.

“Powder runner, go!” the munitions chief, an older Spaniard named Juan, yelled to Timothy, the powder runner.
Timothy, a small skinny boy, too small for his thirteen, dashed off like a rabbit, beating the dirt with his bare feet, the cut-up burlap long shirt, tied mid-section with a rope, flapping in the wake.   

“Shot runner, fetch me a shell shot!” Juan ordered.

“Yes, Chief!” immensely strong Adnan, the swarthy Lebanese shot runner, was the only man present who could probably run all day with a thirty-pound cannon ball under each arm. Fittingly, his job here was to keep the cannon balls coming. His red salvar trousers with a sash and a short potur robe set him apart from the rest of the crew—and probably pretty much everybody else on this side of the Ottoman Empire.   

Both runners dashed to the back of the gun position, where the gun’s supplies were kept behind a wide roundish basalt
protrusion.

The shell shots were hollow iron balls filled with explosives and equipped with impact fuses that were supposed to detonate on impact. Usually they did but sometimes the explosion would come with a delay, making them even more dangerous.

“Weapon in position! Heave-ho!”
“Heave-ho!” Wylin, the weapon crew chief, the old Brit, was missing an eye. A terrible scar ran across his face, making him look like a pirate. Wylin was, in fact, an old pirate, roaming the southern seas for over thirty years. He knew his way around a gun. Young officer liked that very much about his weapon chief.
Men heaved the gun in position.
The young officer roughly sighted the target about five hundred yards downrange along the barrel of the massive gun. The weapon team pushed and shoved the gun just so to achieve the rough aim per the officer’s orders. The gun was still relatively easy to move now on dry ground. They were going to use a lot of water here in the next hour or so, turning the position into a swamp that would swallow the gun wheels half way to the axels.
“Hold!” the officer raised his arm. “Shim tight!”
The wheels were shimmed to hold the gun in position.
“Munitions crew, front-n’center!” yelled the munitions chief Juan and then added with a thick Spanish accent, “Suneet, stop daydreaming about your fat girlfriend! Move your culo!”
“Yes, Chief!” The dark complexion of the skinny wadder, a young Asian man by the name Suneet, unexpectedly turned scarlet.  The only Russian on the team, Feodor, laughed, slapping young Suneet on the back, “Fat means good, no?”
Muttering in Spanish, Juan shook his head and rolled his eyes in mock bewilderment. Soldiers laughed, except the stone-faced Wylin. The officer smiled at Suneet reassuringly.  
At the gun the weapon’s gang had now been replaced by the munitions team: the swabber, the wrapper, the wadder, the piercer, the rammer, the loader and the lighter. The four supernumerary members of the munitions team, the helpers, busied themselves with their barrels of water, wads of old cut-up hemp rope and canvass strips, a stack of neat sheets of parchment and a couple of heavy linen sheets.   
Timothy returned with a keg of gun powder, boy’s face ablaze with excitement at the approaching battle. He would now serve as a supernumerary ready to lend a hand where needed until the next keg of powder was called for by his superiors.
The agile, dark-skinned swabber mopped out the interior of the barrel with a wet mop—the action intended to extinguish any embers from a previous firing which might set off the explosion of the next charge right in the barrel. Since the gun had not been fired yet, the action was completely unnecessary, but had to be done nonetheless—such was the old tradition. When hot iron started flying and given the ambiguous position God habitually took in regards to saving their butts, every little bit helped.
“Measure six livre,” the ammunition chief instructed the wrapper.
The wrapper packaged a measured portion of the gun powder equivalent to about eight pounds in a sheet of parchment, folding it just so, creating a cartridge. Into the barrel the cartridge went, jammed in by the rammer. The piercer stubbed the cartridge a few times through the touch hole with a pointed pricker to expose the powder. Next, the wadder stuffed a small wad of old canvas and rope, prepared by the supernumeraries, into the barrel, which was also rammed home by the rammer. Next, the shot was loaded and rammed in, followed by another wad, also rammed in. Meanwhile, the lighter primed the touch hole with a bit of gunpowder.
“Excellent job, you black-hearted sons of bitches!” The officer yelled in a voice alight with affection. His guys grinned. He sighted the target down the barrel again, fine-tuning the aim. The weapon crew re-adjusted the shims to achieve the aim.
The gang, except for the lighter, stepped away from the gun.
The 3rd Gun was now ready to fire.
The entire procedure took less than a minute. Outstanding.
The officer stole a glance to his right and left, noting with deep satisfaction that the crews of both 2nd and 4th Guns at his flanks were still getting their guns ready. He really liked his crew.  
The lighter held his linstock, a wooden staff holding a length of a smoldering match, over the touch hole in the rear of the gun, the breech, now primed with gunpowder, ready to ignite.
The young officer studied the target through his spy glass. The embattlement looked formidable. Cut into a sandstone knoll with massive basalt protrusions, the hill stood well over a hundred feet tall. Numerous artillery gun nests and ramparts at different levels suggested that the cliff had been hollowed out inside, and in fact it was. This fortress would not be easily breached. The young officer, however, had no doubt it would fall. As far as he was concerned, there was no such thing as an impenetrable fortress. He knew what kind of damage their thirty-two large guns could inflict in a sustained one-hour-long barrage. He was planning to lounge on one of those ramparts within two hours at the most, long before the place heated up in earnest. It could easily get up to a hundred degrees here in the Pyrenees today, with the humidity numbers to match. He was looking forward to leaving behind him what was now in store ahead of him.   
In his mind, the officer went over the mission briefing of the night before. In the flickering torch light, the commanding officer explained the plan of attack, pointing at a display, roughly modeled after the actual scenery. The artillery played a major part in the upcoming offensive. The hour-long barrage of all eight four-gun batteries, thirty-two guns in total, was supposed to not only soften the enemy defenses but also distract them sufficiently from a group of commandos scaling the east slope, a sheer basalt wall, where they were least expected. The commandos’ mission was to get inside the fortress and destroy the Big Gun up on top, making a full frontal attack possible. Was it a good plan? A sophisticated plan with built-in contingencies and safety redundancies? He sighed. None of that made any difference. They had to attack. They had no choice.
The bugle bleated “Attention!” followed a long minute later by the shrill note, signifying the command to fire. All thirty-two guns went off as one, covering the fortress with explosions, dislodging rock and dust.
When the gun discharged, the recoil sent it backwards until it was stopped by the embankment, created for that very purpose. 
The attacking infantry regiments positioned below, closer to the fortress, under the banners of the praying mantic, opened musket fire, only marginally effective at that range.
“Reload!”
The 3rd Gun crew sprung into the reload action. Over a dozen men plastered the gun, pulling and shoving and shimming it back into position. Men knew what to do. Adnan ran off to fetch the next shot; the wrapper was already busy packaging the next cartridge with Timothy helping him and the rammer on the ready.
The defenders returned cannon fire.
Shortly, men took their shirts off, their bare bodies glistering with sweat. The morning was still young but it was getting hot already, particularly next to the gun, which was now too hot to touch.
“Cool the gun!” the weapon chief yelled. A couple of men of the weapon crew soaked one of their heavy tarps in water and threw it over the barrel to cool down the gun.
          The ebb and flow of the gunnery action had settled into a hysterical rhythm, punctured by occasional whining of approaching death closely followed by the warning screams, “Incoming!” which would send the crew scattering for cover. Explosions, mostly harmless, were at times followed by body parts flying in all direction.
          The dead and seriously wounded presented a tripping hazard, so they were laid out in the back. Somebody would attend to the wounded later, or at least that was the plan.
“Back to it! Hey-ho!” the officer would bellow after every casualty. “Hey-ho!” the crew would echo, resuming the flurry of action.
          With several men lost and the remaining crew exhausted, the pauses between shots had lengthened considerably. Cooling the gun was no longer necessary.
          The musket fire from the fortress intensified.
          “Switch to canister shots!” a wild-eye battery commander’s messenger yelled to the officer, stopping briefly next to the 3rd Gun position.
          Adnan was already off for a canister shot, an anti-personnel round, consisting of many small iron shot in a heavy metal can, which would explode on impact, scattering fragments and the shot.
          There was a big explosion to their right at the 4th Gun position, signifying a direct hit at the gun powder cache. The 4th Gun position was obliterated. Nothing moved over that way.
          “Incoming!”
          Diving for cover, the officer caught a glimpse of Adnan grabbing the hot and spinning cannon ball from the ground in an attempt to throw it away from their position.
“Adnan, no!”
The cannon ball exploded, distributing chunks of Adnan’s body all around the 3rd Gun position.
          “Martin, run shots! Get us another canister right now!” the munitions crew chief yelled to one of his men, wiping Adnan’s blood off his bare chest. The man took off immediately to fetch the next shot but stumbled and fell, hit in the back by a musket ball.
          “I’ll do it!” Timothy yelled but the officer knew that lack of physical strength would make the boy ineffective.
“No, you stay here, I got this!” the officer yelled.
“I’ll go!” the munitions crew chief, Juan the Spaniard, shouted to the officer.
“Good! Go, Juan!”
Juan raced to the back for the next shot.
          Thankfully, the enemy musket and cannon fire subsided markedly, suppressed by the artillery anti-personnel rounds.
          The respite offered the officer a chance to re-inspect the target through his spy glass. He liked what he saw: destroyed ramparts, blown up gun nests, several holes in the sheer wall, dead bodies visible here and there and the blown up front gate. Most importantly, he saw that the commandoes scaling the east wall had now crested the top. Amazed, he suddenly noticed his old friend, the hawk, gliding high.
          “Look alive, men! We’re almost done!” The officer yelled to his exhausted and very dirty troops, ankle deep in mud now. He helped the crew wrestle the gun into position.
          Two strong explosions at the top of the fortress spelled success of the commando mission. The explosions also destroyed a portion of the wall up on top, exposing something huge nestled inside the hollow hill. That something inside the hill seemed as unlikely to be there as anything could possibly ever get.
          “The spaceship!” somebody yelled.
           “Spasibo tebe, Bozhe!” yelled Feodor in Russian. “Thank you, God! We’re getting the hell out of this cursed place!”
The crew cheered, grinning and slapping each other on the backs.     
          Artillery fire immediately stopped for the fear of killing the commandos and damaging the ship. After all, that spaceship was the real object of their offensive.
The bugle sounded infantry attack which meant the gun crews were supposed to abandon the guns and join the infantry.
          “Join the attack!” confirmed the messenger, on the run as usual. His head was bandaged with a bloodied rag. The messenger then stopped and added, “Battery commander’s dead. Beaudoin, the Frenchman, is in charge now.”
          The young officer nodded and waved his thanks, watching the messenger making his way to the 2nd Gun position to their left at a healthy gate. The whistling sound of the incoming round scattered his crew. The messenger kept on running.
“Incoming!” the officer yelled at the messenger’s back. “Hey, get down!” The messenger’s body was thrown backward toward their position by the explosion. The limp and battered body hit the dirt about fifty feet to their left and remained motionless.
The officer just shook his head.
          Having collected their pistols and swords, the decimated 3rd Gun crew, dirty, sweaty and exhausted but some still grinning, joined the thin throng of the artillery regiment catching up on the double to bring up the rear of the two infantry regiments, about a thousand strong, already mid-attack on the fortress, the praying mantis banners flying proudly over their ranks.
With their cover blown, the defenders unleashed hell on the attackers in earnest. The Big Gun, the Phaser, was destroyed by the commandoes, but they still had their hand-held energy blasters. From this distance the officer saw at least two dozen of the defenders taking position in front of the gate, wearing the ray guns on their arms, some already firing in his direction. The funnel-shaped deflectors, protecting the shooters from the radiation kickback, were worn over the arm like a long glove. That made ray blasters difficult to stack and nearly impossible to aim but kept the personnel from glowing in the dark. The blasters were close quarters weapons, rarely used long-range.
The attackers had no weapons better than those of 1640. Musket, gunpowder and steel were their tools that day. Yet it was not muscle and metal that would seize the fortress. Speed was of the essence now. Thus, the mad charge. Some of the attacker still managed to reload and fire their muskets, some shot their cross bows when they got closer, but, for the most part, the attackers simply ran like hell toward the fortress.
With lightning bolts striking and his comrades falling all around him, the young officer made it unscathed almost to the gaping hole, where the heavy gate used to stand. A make-shift defense line, set up by the defenders, was presently being overrun by the attackers. Amid the dead bodies of the defenders, a big, muscular soldier fought for his life, scorching anything in sight with his ray blaster only about thirty feet in front of the young officer. The officer pointed one of his pistols at the enemy and squeezed the trigger. With a loud shudder, his old Blunderbuss burst into flames. The officer dropped the faulty weapon and reached for his second pistol. Too late. The defender’s blaster was already lined up for the officer’s torso shot. An attacker on the officer’s right let fly a cross-bow bolt. The ray struck the officer the very instant a crossbow bolt embedded itself deeply into the defender’s forehead. The eyes of the two dead men momentarily met.  
Writhing in agony and clutching that heat-fused cavity on his body where his belly used to be, the officer willed death to come and take him right that moment. He could not take the pain even an instant longer. Timothy’s face hovering over him came into focus. Tears ran down Timothy’s very dirty face, leaving glistering tracks.
With a roar the spaceship departed its secret berth. The half destroyed top of the hill opened like a lid and was now standing at its end—sage brush and rocks and all defying the laws of gravity.  The officer looked up at the sky. The last thing he saw before death thankfully came for him was the huge spaceship climbing majestically to the required lift-off altitude and then silently darting up and away from there. Gone.
The hope was gone.
The hawk eyed the carnage below with mild amusement.


2
San Francisco, 2016
“Hi!”
With some difficulty I focused on the beautiful, mature face of a woman leaning over me. She was smiling. Nice teeth. Nice. . . everything. Right, Dr. Rosenthal, Jane, the psychiatrist. Regression therapy.
Wow. What the hell did I just see? Did it actually happen? A war in 1640 in Spain with ray blasters and a spaceship, no less. Crazy. How could that have possibly been true? No way. But the long-gone battle that I just relived in my therapy session was so real, so intense. Too real. My belly was still on fire but getting better by the second. I touched my midsection gingerly just to make sure it was still there and breathed out a sigh of relief. I should probably remember from now on to refrain from getting my vital internal organs incinerated by ray blaster fire. Ha-ha. Bravado fell short of being truly reassuring at the moment.
“Welcome back, Norm,” Dr. Rosenthal greeted me. “Very happy to see you.”
“How am I doing?” I asked weakly. Physically I felt terrible, but not as bad as I felt emotionally, truth be known. That entire ordeal in Spain—what the hell was that? As if I wasn’t frightened and confused out of my mind already. Was I that young officer?
“You tell me how you’re doing,” Jane replied. “Here, take a look. She handed me a mirror.
I stared at the dead man. The dead man stared back at me. Accusingly.
          Gray, hollow eyes. Only about twenty-six, yet already oozing melancholy, the sign of old age. Sullen lips, pale complexion, unkempt stubble, disheveled sandy hair. The faded, horrifying Dead Poetic T-shirt featuring their latest hit “Self-destruct and Die” did nothing to cheer things up. Pathetic.
          I squinted and bared my teeth. The face in front of me morphed into a grotesque mask.
          The splitting headache and horrible taste in my mouth, the remnants of my drinking the night before, did not help matters either. Good that Jane didn’t know that I came hung over for my therapy session. It isn’t the alcohol that gives you a hangover, it’s all the other crap they put in there for taste and color, I reminded myself and felt a little better. Bastards.
          “Sick and tired” didn’t even begin to describe how I felt about myself and life in general. And now this Pyrenees crap.
          The oblivion beaconed. Oh, how much I wanted to end the pain. Death, the beautiful seductress, was reaching for me, calling me—the tantalizing nothingness, the suicide, that painless gateway to heavenly oblivion.  I resisted the temptation as usual. Why did I resist?
          I knew I was not well. Deep down I knew. That was the good news. I was not fully crazy. I heard crazy people never perceived their insanity. So there was still hope for me. But that was not the main reason. Linda was the main reason. Linda—my lover, my friend, my life. We have been together for two years, three months and eight days now. I would never kill myself. I would never let her down.
“What day is it?” I asked groggily.
“Still Saturday,” Jane replied with her usual easy smile.
Saturday morning. Right. That’s when Jane saw her special patient.
“Here, have a Perrier,” Jane handed me a cold bottle.
I gulped hungrily.
“Probably should wrap it up for now. I’m visiting Bill later today.” I said.
“Yes, well, you may have to change your plans, Norm. We have some more work to do here. Bill will understand. Tell me about him.”
That’s right. She knew Bill. Bill was the one who recommended Jane.
“William Hall? My buddy, my pal?”
Jane nodded.
“Well, Bill is yoking a living as a math professor at Stanford. That’s about all.”
“What else can you tell me about Bill?”
“He invited Linda and me to a Russian place on Masonic for our last anniversary. We liked it.”
“Good. What else?”
“The Russian, the proprietor, his name’s Eugene, yeah, Bill took me to his house, too. I got their computers cleaned up there and met Eugene’s family and their housekeeper Aunt Rosa.”
“Great! What else? Tell me more.”
“Not much to tell. We hang out. I don’t feel good about that. Why would a middle aged Stanford professor want to hang around with a young, suicidal drunk such as myself?”
“Why do you think?”
“That question did cross my mind. Don’t get me wrong. I like Bill. That’s why I never brought it up to him till our last meeting.”
“How did you two meet?”
 “We met accidently about a year ago, at an AI convention at Stanford. He came to me with some small talk and then did the weirdest thing: he showed me a beat-up photo of a grasshopper or a praying mantis or something, smiling, as if it were a joke.
“I just stood there staring at the picture of an insect. Dumb, you know? But something stirred inside the first instant I laid my eyes on the strange creature. I felt it should have meant something to me, but for the life of me I couldn’t figure out what.”
“Go on,” Jane, professional to the core, seemed fascinated by my story.
“’What is this?’ I asked Bill, kind of spooked. ‘Are you an orthodontist?’ I mean. . . what the hell you call them? People who study insects?”
“I get it,” Jane assured me.
“Yeah. So I asked. Bill stopped smiling but said nothing. Awkward. He put the picture away. We kept talking, he introduced himself. That was how we met. We’d been meeting pretty much every Saturday ever since. He always wants me to read some silly Sci-Fi books and then we discuss them. What does he want from me? Pisses me off. So I lost it with Bill last Saturday.”
“Tell me in detail.”
“You know, I came there as usual.” In my mind’s eye I saw Bill’s Eichler-style coop in Sunnyvale. It looked pretty much like the other astronomically overpriced shacks up and down the street.
I never knew Bills’ wife. She died of cancer several years back, before my time. The unhappy circumstance of her demise, I suspected, left a gaping hole in Bill’s housekeeping practices. His place was a mess, even for me. His housekeeping habits were probably at least partially to blame for the fact that he did not have a girlfriend for two years, three months and eight days, unlike me. I had Linda.
The wife’s death however, failed to leave any noticeable mark on Bill’s psyche. “Marriage is a wonderful institution, but who wants to live in an institution?” Bill used to say, quoting his favorite philosopher Groucho Marx. He never took anything seriously.
Bill, in his fifties now, was a kind and genial man, the only person I knew who’d actually quote Groucho and wear earth-toned cardigans at home.
I continued to Jane, “At his kitchen table, sipping on my coffee, I complained to Bill that I was very depressed and saw no purpose in anything. Bill said that I had to supply my own purpose and meaning to life and that nobody would do it for me. He said anything was fine whatever floated my boat but first I needed to get a boat to float.”
“A boat to float?” Jane asked.
“Yes, that first I needed to get a boat to float.”
“As in ‘get a life’?” Jane made a note on a yellow pad she held in her hand.
“Exactly. He told me to create a life for myself, that I could live with.”
I laughed remembering our conversation.
“You know, he told me to start reading and maybe create a world of my own, something that was interesting to me, like I could create a purple planet shaped like a Reese’s Pieces, populated exclusively by intelligent dung beetles conspiring to take over the galaxy.”
“Yeap, that’s Bill,” Jane nodded delightedly.
I chuckled.
“But it is weird, you know? That we are friends?”
“Why is it weird?”
“Jane, do you understand what I’m telling you? Bill is a well-to-do Stanford professor double my age.”
Jane nodded. I recalled the anger that unexpectedly whaled up in me at that moment at Bill’s house, threatening to burst through.
“What did you tell him?” Jane asked.
“My anger did burst through against my better judgment. I asked him what the hell he wanted from me and why he was insisting on hanging around. I thought he was a perv, grooming me for something despicable.”
“And how did Bill react to that?”
“He just waved me off. He seemed completely unruffled.”
“I want the truth, Bill, I mean it!” I remembered myself saying, calming down somewhat.
I could see him now in my mind.
“The truth?” Bill furrowed his eyebrow as he ran a hand through his thinning hair. With a sigh, he got more comfortable in his favorite chair and reached for his special recipe steaming half-cognac Arabica. He shook his head in disbelief.
“Are you sure you want the actual truth? It may be a bit too thick for you right now, you know?” Bill asked me.
I stared in my coffee. Black. Tortured by premonitions, I knew as I had always known that there might well have been some kind of truth that was hidden from me.
“He was about to tell me the truth.” I told Jane. “I was sitting there waiting, feeling all worried. I asked him again why he made me read those sci-fi books. Just weird.”  
Jane nodded. “What was weird about the sci-fi books?” Jane asked.
“It wasn’t the books that were weird. They were just silly stories. It was what he said about the books that was weird.”
“Such as…?”
“He would call them therapeutic aids. That he was an extraterrestrial and part of some landing party, some invasion force. That there were others like him but they sometimes forgot who they really were, and he used the books to restore their memory. Just nonsense…” I stopped abruptly, remembering the four-hundred-year old Pyrenees bloodbath I just lived through.    
“Go on…” Jane prompted with a smile.
If she thought I was crazy, she hid it well. A true professional. Sure, she sees nuts like me here day in and day out. Even on weekends.
          “What exactly did he tell you?” Dr. Rosenthal seemed genuinely interested. “Can you relay his words to me as he was saying them?”
          “He was saying something like ‘We are all members of a military unit, the 5th Battalion. We landed here on this planet over five thousand years ago as the advance contingent of a large invasion force. In the Andes. But this place turned out to be an enemy prison planet. Since the prisoners don’t know it’s a prison and the guards keep out of sight, we didn’t even know they were here, the enemy. We thought it was just another Stone Age planet. But the guards took it as an act of war and whacked us. Now we can’t get out.’ Something like that. Crazy, ha?
          “And what was your reply?” Jane was positively non-committal.
          “I got pissed. He was playing me. I slapped the table and spilled the coffee. I said ‘You think I’m crazy? You’re an extraterrestrial from some battalion of five thousand years ago? Enemy prison planet? You expect me to believe this shit?! You’re nuts!’”
          “Tell me more about all this anger you felt.”
          “Well, he took me for a fool. He was playing me. I felt upset.”
          “Were you hiding anything from him? Anything you did not voice that you did or that happened that he should’ve known?”
          “Not really. Maybe just that I kept seeing this taxi cab everywhere, it seemed. Big black number 3415 on it. Somebody is watching me. Is that something I should’ve told him? How would I know if I should have or shouldn’t have?”
          “When did the surveillance start?” Relaxed and casual as usual, Jane was overdoing it now. Even I saw that the news tensed her up.
          “Probably two days ago. Maybe earlier. Who knows?”
          “Do you still think Bill was playing you?”
          “Why? Does he have anything to do with it? Did he get me in trouble? I knew it! Old perv.”
“We are all in the same boat, Norman. Listen to me, we are helping you get back on line, so to speak. My question was if you really felt he was playing you.”
Oh, so she was in on this too. Great!
“No idea anymore. What am I supposed to think?”
          Jane shrugged. “Okay, let’s take a break.”
          “It’s been over an hour, Jane. Thank you. I think I really should go. I am still supposed to drive to Sunnyvale to see Bill.”
          “Bill can wait. He knows you’re here. We have a lot more work to do, it may take some hours.”
          “Hours? I had other plans.”
          “Well, let’s see how it goes. Let’s continue at least a little longer. Help yourself to some sandwiches in the waiting room. They are for you. I’ll make coffee. You’re welcome to the Perrier in my fridge too. So, let’s take a short break and reconvene, okay?”
          “Yes, mam!” I saluted.
          Dr. Rosenthal left her office with a smile, as if I said something funny.
          The sandwich was tasty. Peperchinies made anything taste good. Munching on my tasty sandwich, I remembered our first meeting a few days back. Dr. Rosenthal made quite an impression on me in that first session when I first met her.
If there ever was a stereotypical psycho-therapist, Dr. Rosenthal, wasn’t it. First of all, I expected a man but he was a she, and, second, she was one sexy lady. Not yet old, in great shape, with the air of confident, sophisticated femininity about her, she made no attempt to hide her slender legs or obscure the shape of her perfect breasts. Her warmly gleaming green eyes brimmed with intelligence on her elegant face, framed in shoulder length auburn hair. She smelled good, too. Jane slowly ran her immaculately groomed, sexy fingers over the front of her silk blouse, re-adjusting a sapphire necklace that looked pretty exquisite to me. I caught myself staring at her hand on her chest. For a second I was happy that Linda did not accompany me here. Dr. Rosenthal was quietly watching me watch her.
I asked her, “Are you a sex therapist, Dr. Rosenthal? Just want to make sure I have the right office.”
“No, I’m not a sex therapist. I’m simply myself. Call me Jane. Do you like me being myself?”
“Yeah, I do.”
“I want you to be yourself,” Jane showed her perfect teeth. “Do you want to be yourself?”
“Do I have to? Can I be you? Educated, nice legs and all. . .”
“Don’t you like your own legs? Just think, wouldn’t that be great if you really liked yourself? Let’s work together to find the causes of why you would rather be someone else. Let’s start with who you are. Who are you, really, Norman?”
“Who, me?” I was taken aback. “My name is Norman Bolstad; I’m almost twenty-seven, six feet, size eleven shoes. What else? “
“Are you sure that’s who you really are? Almost twenty-seven? Like twenty-six and a half? Size eleven shoes, you said?” She chuckled, her eyes sparkling.
“What is the first word that comes to mind?” Jane suddenly threw at me, dead serious, piercing me with her suddenly hard eyes, and snapped her fingers.
“Cunnilingus,” I blurted out, choking on the word, and turned red.
Calm and pleasant again, Dr. Rosenthal nodded. “Thank you for telling me, Norman. Anything else you didn’t want me to know?”
“Can’t think of anything else at the moment,” a little embarrassed, I felt strangely relieved.
“Well, thank you. Let’s try again. Who are you really? Look deeper.”
I thought hard. I looked deeper. I shrugged. “I guess you’ll tell me.”
“I will do better. I will help you find out. Is that all right with you?” Her eyes were warm and smiling. I liked that.
“Yes.” I felt more at ease with the remarkable lady. Not even two minutes into my therapy, but I already learned a couple of important things. First, it was okay to be myself. Who knew? And, second, I had no idea who I was.
“Tell me about your life,” Jane was interested, ready to listen.
I told her briefly what I could. She asked a few questions, but mainly listened.
“You told me about your parents, about Linda, your work buddies and other people in your life, but you never mentioned Bill Hall. Why didn’t you?”
Yes, she wanted me to talk about Bill from the beginning. Why?
“Bill is important,” Jane explained to me then. “I would like to do a bit of a regression therapy with you, using Bill as the regression subject. Do you understand what regression therapy is?”
“No. What is it?”
“Regression is locating and reliving earlier experiences that might have caused your present problems. We will attempt to touch upon forgotten, ignored or repressed experiences that may contain emotional wounds that never healed. You understand? They never healed and that may affect you now.”
I nodded.
“Finding and reliving such experiences may unlock emotions and bring new insights into your life, as well as let any old mental and physical trauma heal.”
“And what’s a regression subject? You wanted to use Bill as the regression subject.”
“Yes, I did. A regression subject is simply a person, location or event which can be used as a recurring subject to remember, going earlier and earlier in time. A lunch, for example. I could ask you to remember the lunch you had yesterday, then the day before, then any lunch last week and so on, earlier and earlier.”
          “Ok, I got it; I’ll be remembering my encounters with Bill.”
          “Exactly. Let’s try? Are you with me?”
“Well, sure, let’s do it.” Fear tied my insides in a knot. I was not comfortable with mentally going back in time, but confronted with my drinking, depression and suicidal tendencies, I knew I had to do something and soon.
That was our first session. We struggled a bit with this regression therapy then but didn’t get anywhere and ended off.

3

This time I hit the Pyrenees incident right off. Boy, what a hit!
“Tell me more about Bill,” Dr. Rosenthal told me as soon as we reconvened after I finished the tasty sandwich with coffee. My head felt a lot better now. Maybe all I needed was some food. Or coffee.
“Just another happy go lucky Stanford professor,” I brushed her off with a dismissive gesture. “Let’s discuss my mother. Don’t you want to explore the mother angle? The penis envy and all that?”
“We can discuss your mother some other time, if that’s all right with you.”
I nodded.
“Okay, close your eyes,” Jane smiled reassuringly. “Take a few slow, deep breaths, relax, listen to my voice.”
I did. I hid there in wait in my sanctum behind my closed eyelids in anticipation of the terrifying unknown. What I really wanted was to dash the hell out of that office. But I stayed. If there was a chance to end my depression, I felt it was my duty to take it. For Linda. Sometimes the hardest choices are the simplest: a man’s simply got to do what a man’s got to do.
“Find an earlier meeting with Bill, earlier than the Pyrenees.”
I opened my eyes. “I didn’t know I met Bill in that Pyrenees battle. How do you know?”
Jane was suddenly uncomfortable for the first time since I met her, “I’m sorry for passing my own judgment on your past, but since we had been using Bill as the regression subject from the beginning and then we contacted the incident in the Pyrenees. . .”
“Well, if Bill was there, I don’t know who he was. Timothy? Could’ve been any of the guys.”
“Ok, no problem. Let’s go briefly over every meeting with Bill that you can remember, starting with the most recent one, and moving earlier into the past,” Jane ordered me calmly. That is how we originally found the Pyrenees incident.
We went over several of my meetings with Bill, moving ever earlier. Bored, I kept at it. It did not take long to reach our first meeting at the AI conference.
“Tell me an earlier time you met Bill,” Jane ordered firmly.
“We never met earlier. That was the first time.”
“Well, take a look. Take a deep breath. Relax. Do not think or filter your responses. Just tell me what comes to mind. An earlier time that the AI conference at Stanford. See anything?”     
“No. Nothing comes to mind. We simply never met before.”
“That’s all right. Relax. Take a few deep breaths. Just like that, good, Norman, thanks. Okay. An earlier time now. Keep looking. Don’t think, just look. Relax. Go earlier. Any pictures come to mind?”
“I’m telling you. . .” I started but then stopped, startled by a vivid picture in my mind of a deep trench, clad in roughly sawn wooden boards, the enemy artillery fire. The stench of death from the no-man’s land hit me like a baseball bat. I started coughing.
“What is it?” Dr. Rosenthal asked very softly. She knew I got something.
“Belgium,” I breathed out with conviction. Was I making this up? Damn, it felt real. “Yeah, Belgium,” My voice caught. I knew it was Belgium, I was not imagining it. “1916. World War I.” The picture hit me full force: the unbearable horror of being at the receiving end of sustained artillery fire and the stench of hundreds or even thousands of decomposing bodies on the no-man’s land, competing with the equally unsavory smells of gun powder, unwashed bodies and excrement. War.
“And Bill?”
“Who?”
Bill was not my concern at the moment. The ground shook violently, explosions choking me with smoke and dirt. The powerful booms were about to blow my eardrums out. Covering my ears, I opened my mouth a bit to even out the air pressure. The rifle was squeezed hard between my knees, as if my life depended on not letting it go—which it probably did. The German infantry attack was soon to follow. My heart was clucking in my throat like a very small terrified bird. I was afraid it was going to stop clacking altogether momentarily.
“I’m here, Norm, you’re safe,” Jane’s voice reached me from some place safe, half a world away. I opened my eyes. What I lived through just a second ago in my mind was terrifyingly real.
Scrunched in the armchair in Jane’s office, I was gripping my ears so hard, they hurt.
“Whew! What a mess back then,” I mumbled. Beads of sweat ran down my neck.
“Very good! Would you like something to drink?” Jane handed me a Perrier. I gulped the refreshing, bubbly coldness and nodded my gratitude.
“All good? Take a breath and close your eyes,” Jane instructed calmly when I was done.
“I’d much rather keep them open, if you don’t mind,” I mumbled. The stuff was scary.
“It simply helps you concentrate. Close your eyes. Go back and tell me about Bill,” Jane insisted gently but firmly.
I closed my eyes and tentatively let my mind pull me back into that horrifying trench. Relieved, I noticed that it did not feel nearly as bad now, as if the edge was taken off that experience. It stunk but so what? The bombardment was very loud and the ground shook most uncomfortably, but it occurred to me that in that trench we were very well protected against the near-hits, while the chance of a direct hit was very low, considering the angle of attack of the artillery shells. Now, it could’ve been different if they used mortars instead of regular artillery guns. . . Mortars have not even been invented yet, thank God. Of course, Germans had already invented howitzers. Germans loved their howitzers. . .
“Can you locate Bill?” Jane asked, focusing my attention on the incident at hand.
I surveyed the trench, looking for Bill. One of about a dozen soldiers cowering in the trench closest to me was unmistakably Bill, although he looked completely different. He was using the bombardment as “downtime” to shave, shaking off the suds onto his already very dirty boots. The soldier grinned at me, “Fritzes will never find my dead body unshaven! Never!” his irritating falsetto was drowned by the explosions. The soldier was dark, small and hairy, and spoke French. Yet, unmistakably, he was Bill. Not just because he resembled Bill in his housekeeping habits. There was a certain feel to Bill, as it turned out, and I picked it up. Also his eyes. Wow. I recognized something in his eyes.
“His eyes. He seemed to have the same eyes somehow. How could that be? That couldn’t be, right?” I opened my eyes again.
“Did you get a feeling you knew those eyes? Eyes are a good thing to pay attention to. Some aspect of the way one looks at the world through the eyes doesn’t change when you pass from one life into another, allowing us to recognize our spiritual companions through time. Very good on spotting that. But eyes were not the only thing, was it? Did you feel the vibe?
“Not sure what that means, but I did feel something.”
Jane nodded energetically, “That’s the vibe. Very good, Norm. Let’s continue. Okay with you?”  
I really needed to think. “Actually, hold on, Jane, let me get my bearings here.
“Sure,” Jane readily agreed. “Tell me.”
I threw my head back onto the high headrest of the immense armchair, “Wow. The eternity, I mean, potentially. If there are two incidents from past lives, there must be many others, a continuous record. A kind of immortality, I suppose, right? Huge!”
Jane was pleased. “Excellent!” She smiled at me happily.
“I don’t know everything. But whatever or whoever I really am, I’m definitely more than just a twenty-six-year-old lab technician. I see it now.”
I suddenly realized that my suicidal thoughts vanished, but decided to keep it to myself in case they resurfaced later and I ended up looking foolish.
“Anything else?” Jane prodded with an encouraging smile.
“I know I have a future. And I have a past, too, even if I can’t remember it. Jane, thank you. This is really awesome!”
Was that a tear in Jane’s eye? As was customary for her, she did not try to hide it, making a note in her pad.
“You are most welcome, Norman. Very well done. Happy for you. What else are you thinking?”
I started suspecting that I knew Linda before this life, too. That would explain so much.
“Dr. Rosenthal, could we help Linda remember too?” I held my breath waiting for her reply.
With a furrowed brow, Jane leaned forward at the desk, staring at me intensely.
“You should not tell Linda these things. First of all, she would never believe you. That’s the way she is hypnotically wired. She is not allowed to believe you. Second, if you applied any kind of psychotherapy, like regression therapy, for instance, to Linda or other. . .” Jane stumbled, looking for a word, “. . . people like her, they may go mad. Many of them have over the years. It is risky. I’m truly sorry for the bad news.” Jane leaned back in her chair again.
“Why?” I was shocked by what I just heard.
“You’re very different, Norm. You didn’t have the brainwashing treatment that she went through. A very important difference. I wasn’t planning to be the one bringing you up to speed. I thought Bill was going to do that, but I will give you the general overview right now. Are you up to the truth?”
“That you are an extraterrestrial like Bill?” I didn’t know if I should have laughed or cried.
Jane just looked at me.
“Are you an extraterrestrial?” I asked point blank.
“Depends on your definition of an extraterrestrial,” she shrugged.
“It’s a simple question!” I snapped, startling Jane.
“Didn’t mean to annoy you. If you’re talking about a person who was born on a different planet and then arrived here, then no, I’m most definitely not an extraterrestrial. I was born in Daly City, not even ten miles from here, in a nice Jewish family,” Jane smiled. I smiled. She continued, “attended George Washington high school in San Francisco, did quite a lot of cheerleading in my freshman and sophomore years. Had a Bat Mitzvah at the age of thirteen like a good Jewish girl. Wore braces. A rather sheltered and unremarkable middle class childhood. Does that sound extraterrestrial to you?”
Swamped by confusion, I could not even reply. 
“Well, are you or are you not an extraterrestrial?” I finally blurted out. This was maddening.
Deliberately, Jane put down a pen she was twiddling and leaned forward, staring me in the eye, “Here is the deal, Norman. We are all extraterrestrials on this planet. Every single man, woman and child you had ever met or will ever meet or heard of, or read about, every single one is an extraterrestrial.” She raised her immaculate eyebrows at me as if expecting questions. I kept silent.
Jane got up, adjusting her skirt elegantly, and walked around the office, a good-looking, middle class, sexy as hell extraterrestrial—just like all of us, apparently.
“This entire planet is a prison facility,” Jane paused and looked at me again, questioningly. I didn’t say a word. She continued, “Populated exclusively and only by convicts, duly convicted for their crime of Non-Conformity in a court of law and sentenced to the worst punishment extant, the forever dead sentence, reserved exclusively for recidivist non-conformists. That is the worst crime there is and so it warrants the nastiest form of a death sentence, which goes miles beyond simply killing the body, as it also includes permanently impairing the long-term memory of the condemned. They don’t remember where they came from, so they can’t ever go back. They’re banished forever as spirits, because they did not want to conform.”
“What does it mean exactly that they didn’t want to conform?”
“Non-conformists are any criminals, both violent and not, and also sexual deviants, religious extremists of any kind and all kinds of con men and frauds, who succeeded in proving their incorrigibility to the authorities. They wouldn’t change their ways. Let’s say a thief who kept stealing despite the psycho-therapy, rest regiments at official retreats, hypnosis, medications and house arrests. Let’s say he kept reverting to his larcenous ways. That put him in the basket case category and so now we find him here, on Earth, with the forever dead sentence. They gave up on him, and the objective then became getting rid of him for good. You get the concept here?”
I understood the concept just fine. The continuity, the transcendence of a spirit inhabiting a succession of bodies, would render the capital punishment ineffective. The non-conformist criminal would just come back a few years later in a different body even more pissed off and dangerous than before. The authorities apparently found a permanent solution. They wipe out your memory of past lives, so you don’t know who you really are and where you came from, making it impossible for you to ever come back. And it is irreversible. I guess you piss people off long enough, and they’ll find a way to get rid of you.
Jane glanced at me sideways again, wrinkling her dainty nose in an apologetic smile.
“Too much to take in?” she asked in a lowered voice.
I shrugged, “What the hell, keep going, I’ll process it later.”
“I’ll help you,” she promised, and I knew she certainly would. I caught myself thinking, no feeling, that I knew her for a very long time. She called it a vibe. Holly Jesus and Mosses . . . I decided against telling her. What if I were wrong? What if she took it wrong? What if she thought I was coming on to her or even worse, what if she took it as an invitation to come on to me? Furthermore, what if all of this was a hoax and I’d just make a fool of myself? Was I hypnotized? How would I know? Possibly I was simply hypnotized into believing all this crap.
Jane continued, “The procedure the authorities use to wipe out the convicts’ memory is called thought injection, a brutal form of drugs-induced hypnosis, fortified by excruciating pain, culminating in death of the body. Certain verbal and visual commands are given to the subject during the entire procedure a few seconds past the point of death.”
“What?! Motherfuckers! What shocking brutality! Where? Here on Earth?”
“No. This is a Murabian prison.”
“Where is this damn Murabia?”
“Located in another planetary system similar to ours, called Sagittarius, Sigma Sagittarii, to be exact. The natives call their star Ezregar. Murabi Empire occupies the closest to Ezregar three planets, locally known as Choss One, Choss Two and Choss Three. Choss means ‘home’.” 
Home? The idiots. We are all nomads. No such thing as a home. “Our” homes belong to the bankers, landlords or the tax collectors in the best of times. Now look at these atrocities. Apparently, all the humans walking around here on Earth were tortured to death right at their home before they got here. And their eternity was ripped away from them in the process. What kind of home is that? No wonder most people here are crazy one way or another. They survived the atrocities far beyond anything we’ve ever suspected the existence of here on Earth. Hitler and Stalin were small angry boys throwing sand at each other in the sand box by comparison. Disgusting. Screw those Murabian judges and the executioners and the rest of those creeps, and screw the horse they rode in.
Wait, but what about Linda? Apparently she was one of the convicts. What could have she possible done so terrible to merit the forever dead sentence?  
I had to digest this for a second. Common sense to the contrary, deep down I knew Jane was telling the truth. Deep down we always know. Plus she probably couldn’t have invented this stuff even if she wanted to—and why would she want to?
“So they dumped them here, these prisoners I mean, a long time ago and forgot all about them forever? Just scratched them out?”
“Oh, no, of course not. Nobody forgot about the prisoners. This is a guarded prison facility, so there are Guards. Also new prisoners never stopped coming. We get a constant inflow of new convicts. Daily. Hourly maybe. Nobody knows. They transmit them here instantaneously, a few seconds after the convicts separate from the bodies after the treatment. The receivers are installed deep in the oceans.”
“So these planets Choss, is that where we are all from?”
“That is where all the convicts are from, not us. In addition to the ever-increasing convict population, two other small groups reside here on Earth: the about two thousand troops of the 5th Battalion, which is us, and I do mean you too, and a relatively small contingent of the Guards.”
“What about different categories of people like the Arabs, whites, blacks, Asians or something?”
“Nope. The whites, blacks, purples, turquoise—are all one and the same category with not the slightest difference between them. The only different groups are the convicts, the 5th Battalion and the Guards. We are with the 5th Battalion.” 
“Whoa! Slow down there, Jane. Doesn’t make sense. . .”
“Yes?”
“Well, I mean I have so many questions. First of all, so you’re also from the 5th Battalion? Like Bill?”
I already knew the answer, so I rushed on, “I already know the answer. I just never thought they had women among the troops in the 5th Battalion.”
“You can’t always be born a male, doesn’t work that way. You can usually bend the 50-50 odds but you can’t completely change them. So we always had females among the troops, but I was usually a male then. Anything else?”
“Yes, thanks. So the Guards, right? Should I be worries about them right now?”
“Worried? Listen, you will not die. You always get to walk away—not your body, mind you, but you. So theoretically there is really nothing for you or anybody to worry about. Theoretically. That’s not at all how it works subjectively. So if you feel like worrying about something, go ahead and worry.”
“You’re saying I’m immortal but I don’t feel immortal. Why is that?”
“That’s because your body is mortal. You keep identifying yourself with your body. That’s the origin of the confusion. You’re not your body. You just aren’t. No other way to hand it to you. Think—what do you mean when you say ‘I’? Do you mean the exact shade of whiteness of your teeth or your shoe size?”
“I suppose that would be a part of it,” all this was too confusing, but I absorbed this new data like a sponge. I felt this information nourishing a part of me that was long neglected and was in desperate need of nourishment. And that nourishment I craved was The Truth.
“I see what you are getting at. My soul, right? My soul is immortal?”
“That your soul is actually you. It isn’t ‘your’ soul. You can’t have a soul because you are that soul. You are the soul currently occupying the body equipped with size eleven feet. See that?”
“Okay, and so that soul, me, is immortal, I get it.”
“Yes it is. It simply cannot die. It isn’t poetry. Death is simply not an option available to us, ever. We, the souls, the spirits, are inorganic by nature; we’re simply not alive in a conventional sense of the word, so we can’t die in a conventional sense of the word. Soul dies as a matter of semantics but it’s nothing permanent.”
“Not alive? What are you talking about?”
“The spirit. I’m talking about the spirit. I’m not talking about the body. The body is alive. But we, the spirits, we’re not of this world. We’re not alive the way an organic organism is alive. We are a form of energy. Our true existence is outside of any time-space system. Being at home outside of time, in truth, we cannot even grow old, not to mention die. The soul, the spirit, is thought-based. It’s a form of thought energy, in other words. You are a self-aware spiritual entity which is essentially a thought. You noticed how thoughts seem timeless and come to mind out of nowhere—out of no time and no space?”
“How the hell can a thought do that? Who’s thought?” Who thought the thought? Wait a minute. . .
“You, we, all of us here or on any other planet anywhere, we are all the same way, just units of a peculiar energy, same as thought, also referred to as ‘spirits’ or ‘ghosts’ or ‘souls.’ It really makes no difference what planet or what country you’re from, because, honestly, originally you are not from any of those places anyway. Your body is born somewhere, but you are not native to any physical location. We existed before time and space and we can and do exist both within the time stream and outside of it. We’re capable of many things. We pick up a body out of boredom, mainly, we have fun with all the drama, the body ages and dies, we grab another body. Makes sense?”
“Reincarnation?”
“Call it what you want.”
“But what about suffering? Losses? Defeats? Are those real?”
“As real or trivial as you make them—knowingly or unwittingly, mostly unwittingly.”
“What about children, mother instinct, family bonds and all that?”
“More drama, but lots of fun and satisfaction, actually. I love my kids. I’m very proud of them. See? Just because life is a drama, it doesn’t make it a lie. It is very true and real all right. As real as the best movie can ever get—or better. Do you understand?”  
I decided against answering that question right then and pressed on. “Okay, Jane, so what about the Guards?”  
“The Guards, first and foremost, are the custodians of the force field generators. They have other duties, such as discouraging spirituality through ridicule and false notions of the supernatural horrors, the Satan, devil, Hell, demons, zombies, vampires, ghosts and goonies and such. But their main concern is the force field. Being a prison, Earth is surrounded by a force field at a distance of about four thousand miles. That field prevents the imprisoned souls from wandering off, including us, the prisoners of war.”
“So we, the ex-military, and the Guards, can remember, right?”
“Yes, we can. But, first of all, we are not ex-military. Let me correct you on that. We are prisoners of war. We have all signed long-term contracts back home. We’re professional soldiers with thousands of years to go on our contracts, for most of us. We have never been formally discharged, so we’re not ex- anything. We’ve been killed in action here by the Guards a long time ago, that’s all that happened. As our CO General Brell used to say, ‘Death is a poor excuse for the dereliction of duty.’ So we are still in the active service. Our duty as POWs is to escape and evade. That includes you, Norm.”
“Me?” I thought I was in trouble before.
“You are a Confederate soldier. The Baltizor Confederacy of United Stars. We swore to uphold the Confederate War Code, and we did for many a lifetime long before we arrived here.” Jane got up again to stretch her impressive legs.
“Got it.” Well, not really, but I had to say something. Couldn’t just stare at her legs. I tried to adjust my thinking to the notion of being an immortal soldier on a very long-term contract. “So how did the Guards wipe out two thousand troops to the last man? Was one hell of a fight, I bet.”
“No. Actually it was all over in about ten seconds. We outnumbered them about 70:1, too, as we found out later. But at the time we didn’t even know they existed. They used what’s called ‘vibe machine’ on us. A vibe machine consists of three energy terminals around the target area that wirelessly produce a prolonged electric jolt of a certain frequency, amperage and voltage in the millions. That much electricity pulverizes the bodies into pink mist within a few seconds.”
I couldn’t believe my ears. I just stared at this woman, “You were pulverized?”
“Yes, we all were.”
“How did it feel?”
“Pretty much like it sounds,” she let out a sigh and shook her head. “No fun. Your body is torn into microscopically little pieces. Hurt like hell at first, but it was over very fast. That wasn’t even the worst part.”
“No? What else did they do to you?”
“To us,” Jane corrected me. “Yes, you see, Norman, the use of any variation of a vibe machine anywhere in this galaxy is prohibited and actionable by law. So we’re stuck here because the Guards will never allow us to leave to keep a lid on this. They will do all they can to keep us here. There is a statute of limitations on their crime, but we don’t know what it is.”
Can the authorities still find those exact Guards who pulverized you? After 5000 years?”
“No idea. It doesn’t really matter. You look puzzled. What’s on your mind?”
“Well, I was just trying to figure out how they built three terminals and a huge power plant of some sort to zap you. Were you all keeping your eyes and ears shut tight for a few months or what?”
“They hacked into the power plant we built as a part of our mission orders. We also built two terminals on both sides of the Base as a part of that power plant. They simply hacked into the system, taking it over for a few seconds, retasked the hardware, reconfigured the output, got their space transport in position, using it as the 3rd terminal, and threw the switch.”
“Wow!” I was duly impressed with the conniving bastards. “So these Guards, they aren’t just garden variety prison Guards. They are as dangerous as a kick-ass special forces unit, right?”
“Right,” Jane nodded tersely.
“Is that all I need to know about the 5th Battalion and the Guards?”
“Well, we’ve been trying to escape ever since. Now we are mid-another attempt.”
“Okay, I’m tracking.”
“I guess I should also brief you on a trivial matter of back pay,” she added as a matter of fact, pacing around her office.
I couldn’t stand it. “Back pay too?”
Jane nodded. “If we completely abandoned our escape attempts, we would forfeit the back pay for dereliction of duty and would also be subject to a court-martial—if we ever succeeded in presenting ourselves for the trial. Of course, presenting ourselves for the trial would have meant that we had escaped, which would have automatically absolved us of any charges. The bottom line—we can’t stop trying.”
“Just a second, Jane, back pay? You can’t be serious.”
“Right! But I am,” Jane nodded eagerly. “The POW one-eighth pay for about five thousand years with compounded interest. You like Maui? It’s yours. Just joking, but you get the idea. How are you taking all this?”
“Yeah, well, mind-boggling as you can imagine. The back pay is way out there.”
“But kind of fun to think about sometimes,” Jane agreed.
 I nodded. Me, a billionaire? I could imagine Linda basking in whatever the billionaires habitually basked in, but I couldn’t envision myself in that role.
“Now, you mentioned earlier that the force screen erases our memory, correct? Like me, for example, I can’t remember. But somehow it doesn’t seem to affect the Guards. Are the Guards wired differently?”
“The Guards arrive here every twenty-five years on a fifty-year contract. They are extraterrestrial humanoids, recruited from heavy gravity planets. That gives them the edge. Under these conditions, they are immensely strong and light on their feet. You can tell them apart in a crowd. You see a very muscular guy or even a woman with thick necks and powerful chunky legs, with a sensible haircut and sober cop eyes, you got yourself a Guard.”
“We don’t like them, right?”
“No, we don’t,” Jane agreed emphatically. “We stay away from them, if we can. They’re not particularly vicious and they’re very professional but they can be bad news. It’s nothing personal to them. Now, about their memory.”
“Yeah. About their memory.”
“The memory loss is caused by the effects of the force field, which over time overwhelms our own matrix memory system.”
“A who? A what?”
“You see, long-term memories, the past-lives including our decisions and solutions to various problems at the time, are not stored anywhere. A soul does not travel with a truckload of suitcases. These memories are created anew within a certain energy matrix any time you want to view them. We carry with us the energy field, the matrix, and the DNA of the memories, so to speak, so we can recreate any memory at will. With me so far?”
“Yeah, just thinking how that could be,” I scratched my head.
“Don’t overthink it. Keep it simple,” Jane suggested. Keep what simple? None of what she explained to me was simple. I refrained from arguing.
Jane continued, “Anyway, Norm, the effects of the field are miniscule. It takes thousands of years of exposure to make a dent. The Guards are here on a fifty-year contract, which is a vastly insufficient exposure to make any difference. So the Guards remember perfectly well. The members of the 5th Battalion do not show homogeneous response to the effects of the force field, but it gets to all of us sooner or later. It seems to normally take two to five thousand years to click off the long-term memory. It does not happen gradually. It is literally like an on and off switch. The field overwhelms us and we become one-lifers, like the convicts. One lifetime you remember everything, and then you die and boom! Next you are born a one-lifer with no long-term memory. Just like that.”
“So after five thousand years, wouldn’t we all have lost our memory by now?”
“Yes, indeed, we would and we probably all have at least once by now. This memory ‘off’ switch phenomenon was first observed in Mesopotamia about 1200 B.C. by Gishimar, a royal scientist at the court of King Kurigalzu II. Gishimar discovered that some of his old battalion buddies he met have lost their memory. He used a form of drug-induced psycho-therapy at the time—experimented with local herbs with good results. Various attempts were made through the ages to build a machine that would nullify the effects of the force field in one’s mind but the technology was insufficient at first. The first memory machine was built. . .”
“So there is a machine?” I interrupted. “Then why did Bill waste his and my time for a year and why aren’t you using it on me now?”        
“The machines can be dangerous. We lost guys that way. They are the last resort. We always try other means first.”
“What other means?”
“Our symbol, the sign of the praying mantis, or simply reading science fiction and talking about it—these things are often enough to click the memory back on. If not, we use regression therapy,” Jane explained. “Remembering even a single event from a past may blow the electro-magnetic impairment and restore long-term memory. If one event isn’t enough, we can find two or three same way. But the rule is that if the memory is not restored by recalling three separate incidents from past lives, the regression therapy will not be successful in restoring the long-term memory. In other words, you can remember more and more individual incidents, but they will remain disjointed events with no actual context, thought-stream or continuity—not what we call a memory. Your past-life abilities do not get restored that way. I’m hopeful we can avoid using the machine on you. We only recovered two incidents from the past so far. We have to try for one more to know one way or the other.”
“One more? Is it going to be as terrible as the other two?” I asked despite myself. Of course, she couldn’t have answered that question.
“The specific incident I would like to get is your first arrival to Earth. Let’s try for that but I’ll take anything.” Jane replied.
“The first incident would be the deployment of the 5th Battalion, I suppose?”
“Yes, let go for that. Ready?”
I nodded.
“Good. Close your eyes please.”
I closed my eyes.
“Perfect. Now relax and see if anything comes to mind, any images or sounds, regarding your deployment here on Earth.”
I relaxed and just looked into the blackness with my eyes closed. Nothing.
“What do you see?” Jane asked.
“Blackness. You know, like when you have your eyes closed.”
“Do you see sparks and patterns of energy?”
“I see pinpricks of light, like stars. Don’t think that is what you mean, though.”
“Okay, open your eyes.”
I opened my eyes and stared at her.
“Now close your eyes and tell me what you see.”
I complied and saw the blackness behind the closed eyelids alight all kinds of sparks and patterns.
“Is that what you saw?” Jane asked.
“No. What I saw was different, kind of like a starry sky. Lots and lots of stars.”
“Okay, perfect. Let’s look at that again. Relax and tell me what comes to mind. We are looking for your deployment.”
“See the starry sky with a zillion stars.”
“Look away from the stars. What do you see?”
“Damn!” I grabbed the sides of the armchair.
“Yes?”
“Going down!” I yelled to Jane.
Throbbing of the rapidly descending personnel carrier reverberated through my body, trapping me in its terrifying rhythm. Strapped in my seat, among about twenty others, I held on to my harness for my dear life. The automated guns were silent. I knew we did not need them but felt vulnerable anyway. Fear tied my stomach in knots.
I willed myself to get a grip. The Stone Age natives would not challenge our descent. Invasion—what a joke. There was nothing to invade on this miserable little planet, if you ask me. Nobody asked a lowly sergeant.
Mia’s beautiful face suddenly emerged from that corner of my mind where no one ever visited. Mia was laughing, trotting unsteadily, her adorable little hands reaching for me. I picked her up, laughing with her, smelling her, pressing her small body to my heart. . . The endless sky of love opened up in me. Mia, my little daughter. Back to back missions. How much I wished to be with you, my little angel, but—hell, Daddy’s got to work, right?
I looked down the length of the craft, taking in the scenery of about twenty of my friends, suited up and strapped in securely. I heard the pilots’ chatter in my earpiece. The rest of us maintained radio silence to let the pilots do their thing. I scanned the monitors. The overhead view showed the diminishing in a distance mother ship, Chettez, discharging dozens of landing crafts, identical to ours. No more than about a hundred miles away now, the blue-white planet, the quickly approaching P-3, occupied the entire screen of the landing monitor. An enormous mountain range on the screen was getting closer, most of it covered with snow.  Must be cold, too. I hated this place already.
Private Zigs, idiotically grinning as usual, was showing me a large chrome screw or a bolt or something, chirping into my earpiece, “Yo, Surge, I heard the local girls here put out for anything shiny, so. . .”
“Operational traffic only!” I snapped.
I knew this was going be a long mission. Damn this place!
“Yes?” Jane repeated softly, yanking me out of that personnel carrier.
I told her what I just saw.
Jane gave me a long, expecting stare. I guess to oblige I was supposed to jump up in jubilation of having restored my memory. No such luck.
“What was the name of the mother-ship?” She finally asked.
“Chettez.”
Her face fell. Jane smiled a sad smile, “Great. This is the key event in restoring memory loss because at some point you crossed the prison force field for the first time. That’s key. So that is very good.“
“Anything to make you happy.”
“I’m happy,” Jane replied. She didn’t look happy. Not even a little.
“That’s three incidents, right? Do what you got to do.” I tried to help her through this best I could.
Jane got up without a word, pulling out a cheery looking, red iPhone from her purse. I noticed her hand trembled slightly. Suddenly looking much older, Jane tiredly walked out of the office into the waiting room. I heard a semblance of a muffled phone conversation. She returned quickly with a forced smile in place.
“Well, Norm, you want to see how the machine works?”
“What can I expect?” I asked quietly. This was it then.
“The normal expectation of life is death, right? You’re one of us. You are under surveillance. It is about to get very hot very soon and it won’t stop. I think it’s worth the risk.”
“What about Linda?”
“Exactly. What about Linda? Sooner or later somebody will hurt her just to get to you.”
“So you honestly think I should subject myself to the machine treatment?”
“Yes, I do. I’m here for you. Bill’s on his way, too.”
Bill was coming here. I felt better.
“How does it work? Tell me more.”
“The way it works is the machine approximates the exact parameters of the force field as it affects the mind. The procedure consists of finding the first instant your mind was subjected to the force field and zapping you with the exact same field. As you may know, two things cannot occupy the same space. If they try, they get destroyed. That is the way the original effect of the force field is nullified at that instant, blowing up the entire cumulative effect over time. If all goes as planned, it takes a fraction of a second and your memory is restored as suddenly as it originally dropped off. The switch clicks back to ‘on’ position and you’re good as new for a few thousand years again.”
“And if it doesn’t go as planned? The worst case scenario?”
“It may take a few hours or a couple of days to recover. You can usually expect full recovery. The worst case scenario is bad. You may end up with a near total cognitive impairment—this life-time only,” Jane explained, looking me straight in the eye.
This life-time only. I decided against pressing her for a more detailed explanation. What was the point in asking? They’d kill me if it’d gone wrong. I had to do it anyway.
“What are the odds of things going bad?” I asked quietly.
“About eight percent,” Jane stared me straight in the eye.
If I were a gambling man, I’d take such odds any time. 92 percent chance of success was not bad at all.
“If I turn into a tofu, you do what you have to do, but promise me you’ll take care of Linda, okay?”
Jane nodded, “She will be taken care of, Norman. We will not abandon her.” I knew they wouldn’t.
I unfolded myself from her enormous chair. Funny how things worked. I didn’t want to die. I felt I actually loved life all along. I never thought I did. “Okay, where is the machine? Lead the way.”
I expected some terrifying, formaldehyde-soaked surgery room in a basement, the skull drilling, electrodes in the brain and all the good stuff of which the horror movies are made.
“Right here,” Jane nodded at her laptop. “This is the machine. Sit down.”
I sat down staring at the laptop.
“The Guards always seek out our memory machines and destroy them. So now we have software openly sold all over the world as two separate Apple apps, the wine tasting one and the Angry Bird as the key to get the other working. You need both apps. These apps have been downloaded by tens of millions of users all over the world, as you can imagine. Nothing the Guards can do about that now,” Jane explained as she pulled out two electrodes from her desk drawer and plastered them to my forehead with sticky tape. This was supposed to be dangerous. Eight percent. I was thinking that I used to want to kill myself, but now when I finally found a footing in life, I may end up dead anyway. Sucks.
“Ready?” Jane asked with forced cheer in her voice.
I nodded silently. Didn’t want my voice to betray my weakness at this moment. It occurred to me that Jane was by far not the worst last thing to see before you die, but I would much prefer to see Linda.
“Can I call Linda?”
Jane nodded. “If you are under surveillance, they already know you’re here. We have to assume her phone is bugged and the call could be traced to this location. But at this point. . .”
Grateful and relieved, I pressed “Linda” on my phone, my favorite contacts entry.
“Hi, Picky! Where are you? Done with Dr. Rosenthal for today?” Linda’s cheerful voice filled my entire being with joy. Linda was the only person who called me Picky after one of my infantile work buddies characterized me to her as a few sandwiches short of a picnic. She called me Picky ever since.
“Hi, sweets! No, I’m still here with Dr. Rosenthal. Hey, you know, I quit drinking. That’s it on that!”
“I sure hope so!”

“Linda, I just called to say I love you. Damn, I didn’t mean. . .”

“Who does your lyrics for you? Stevie Wonder? No April rain, no flowers bloom?”

We both laughed.   

“What can I say? I taught Stevie everything he knows,” I assured Linda.

“You did an excellent job on him. Love you too, Picky. Bye, hon, see you soon!”

“See you. . .”

That was that, then. I turned to Jane, who was listening to my silly conversation with Linda, all upset.

“Okay, Lady Jane, let’s do it.”

“Norm, you’ll be okay,” she smiled an encouraging, yet strangely nervous, smile. I smiled back. Shockingly, I was not as cowardly and pathetic, as I thought I would be in such a situation. I was taking it like a real—what? A real man? No, a real soldier. I was taking it like a real soldier. I was a real soldier. I knew it now. Wow!

“Now, think of the instant you first crossed the force field,” Jane ordered firmly.

“I remember the deployment.”

“How far from Earth?”

“The orbit was probably about five hundred miles out or so. Right?”

“Five hundred sixty-four to be exact,” Jane nodded. “So by the time your landing craft deployed, you’ve crossed the field some thirty-five hundred miles back.”
“Would I feel that first instant?”
“No, you wouldn’t feel a thing.”
“So how can I possibly find it?”
“Just keep thinking back from the deployment event and I’ll pick up that instant here, I know the indication I’m looking for, a brain wave response. So just keep thinking. I’ll know it when I see it.”
I kept thinking back from being cooped up in the shuddering landing pod with Zigs and the boys. Back, back, back. Nothing came to mind at first. Then I saw a large brightly lit chamber with hundreds of troops suiting up before boarding the personnel carriers. Then inside the pods. Nothing.
“Think earlier,” Jane ordered.
I thought earlier. Breakfast—we had none. Disappointing. No liquids and no food for twenty-four hours before deployment. We got hydrated intravenously just before the suit-up. That sure took all the fun out of hydration. Had to do these things on empty stomach and all that. Earlier. . .
Suddenly somebody switched off the lights. My eyes were open and I could see things but I could no longer recognize anything or anybody and had no idea who I was or even that I was supposed to be somebody and have a name or any identity at all. I simply observed the shapes and colors in front of me mindlessly. All I saw was motion in front of my unblinking eyes. Light didn’t bother me. Nothing bothered me. There were some sounds, all completely unrecognizable. A prick of the arm. Then nothing.
Finally, the oblivion that I wanted so much. In retrospect, a so-so experience. Just empty, stupid nothingness.


4
My Linda. I saw her in my dream as a little girl. Her name was Ursula then. Neighbors and playmates, we grew up together near Liege, Belgium, the year of the Christ 987. I was about five, when I recognized her in a three-year-old neighbor’s daughter. When Ursula, or Ussi as I used to call her, was old enough to play with me, we splashed together in our beautiful river, the Meuse. We shared our first awkward kiss when she was nine.
Once in the pastures down the river, when she was probably ten or eleven, completely unlike her perky self, Ursula sat quietly, her back against a willow, weaving a wreath with the most beautiful flowers she could find, her lips moving in silent prayers.
“What is it?” I asked, alarmed.
She just kept shooing me away.
Finally, with the wreath completed to Ussie’s full satisfaction, she placed it on my head.
“Before Father God and Mother Earth I choose you as my husband. Do you choose me as your wife?”
“I do,” I mumbled, shocked but ecstatically happy—the happiest boy-man on Earth.
“Forever?” Ussie asked solemnly.
“Forever.” I confirmed.
We kissed.
“Martin, I want you inside me,” Ussie whispered in my ear.
Her velvety voice and that moment in tall grass at the riverbank—so meaningful, beautiful and intense—are etched in my mind forever.
Was our lovemaking sublime! I knew we had been lovers before, but Ursula could not remember any of our past lives together, as usual. She used to call me crazy for my stories.
But I actually convinced her that we had lived together and loved each other before. I told her how she died about a thousand years prior. She was a man then, by the name Theodoric; we were Germans. My name was Adelheide, and I was Theodoric’s wife. We were both killed in a battle with the Romans, who felt compelled to cross the Rhine River and set up their stinking forts in our forests. We kept fighting those pretty Roman boys with their plumes and flashy clothes, inflicting terrible losses on them—and ourselves. We would always push them out, but they would always return to fight us again.
Theodoric (Ursula, Linda—same person) was killed in that battle by an arrow to the throat, his death was quick. I outlived him by mere seconds. I took a spear through the chest, but not before I charged the suddenly terrified adolescent archer who shot that fatal arrow that killed my Theodoric, and succeeded in hacking his head clean off with my heavy sword.
          When I told Ursula how she died, she cried in pain, grabbed her throat and coughed so hard that she was soon spitting blood. She was so sick for a few days, and her throat hurt so much, that I promised myself then and there to never again tell anybody their past deaths.
          From that point, Ursula knew she had lived before. That added depth and beauty to our relationship and our lovemaking.
         


5

“. . . Catatonic like that? We need three attendants for special care 24-7 for a couple weeks.” I heard Bill’s concerned voice.
I opened my eyes, feeling pretty good, well-rested.
“Who’s catatonic? Me?” I asked, hoping to make an effect. “Hey, tits!” I added when Jane’s beaming face came into focus. “Sorry, I meant ‘Hey, Jane!’”
“That’s better,” Jane replied, grinning.
“Nice tits,” I added. “No, wait, I’m not supposed to say such things to a lady, right? It’s all coming back to me now.”
“No, never,” Jane, smiling, patted my face with her warm hand and shook her head in an emphatic “no.”
“Yo, Gratch, you crazy bastard! Welcome back! And don’t you give Grom any crap about his pussy, either. How you doing, kid?” Bill leaned over me, smiling. The familiar Bill’s smell of a good aftershave, coffee and cognac reached my nostrils. I smiled. Wearing his favorite brown sports coat and a dress shirt unbuttoned on top and no tie, Bill perhaps could pass for a distinguished professor, but he definitely didn’t sound like one. Boy, was I happy to see Bill right now.
“I’m a woman, you two!” Jane was still beaming but sounded wounded now. “I was born a woman, married, two grown kids.”
“Is that so, Grom? Drop your panties and present the evidence!” Bill leaned back laughing, pleased with his joke—in bad taste and leaving a lot to be desired in many other ways as jokes go, but good-natured as usual. 
“Next time bring your birth certificate, Grom, don’t forget,” I concurred. “Bill, don’t call me Gratch. Call me Norman, okay?” I didn’t feel comfortable with my name of five thousand years ago.
Bill signified his agreement with a grunt.
Having removed the IV, Jane was taking my blood pressure and other vitals.
“Perverts like you give aliens everywhere a bad name,” she stated in an accusing tone of voice. “Drop my panties. Wouldn’t you two like that, hmm?”
Actually, what I would really like was to call Linda and said so.
“You can do better than that, kid,” Bill assured me. “You can go home. You can go see Linda. We’ll brief you first so we’re all tracking.”
“You can get up now, Norm, slowly,” Jane said.
Feeling a little woozy but generally okay, with Jane’s help I walked slowly to the arm chair I knew so well. Jane took her seat at the desk and Bill pulled up a chair.
“Anything to drink, anyone?” Jane asked like a good hostess.
“Cognac, please,” Bill replied.
“Whiskey and soda for me,” I ventured. Then I caught myself, remembering that I quit drinking. “No, wait. I’ll have a beer.”
“Sorry, no cognac or beer,” Jane replied.
“What do you have? Gin?” Bill asked.
“Perrier.”
“Perrier and what else?” Bill shook his head in disbelief. “Norm, do you believe this crap?”
“I have only Perrier,” Jane explained with a charming smile. So much for being a good hostess.
“I’ll have a Perrier then, but don’t expect a good Yelp review,” I assured her.
“This joint sucks, right Norm? I’m never coming back here. Never. I’ll have to go with Perrier, but under protest and I want that noted,” Bill glared at Jane with mock indignation.
This felt great—all this, having my old buddies at my side and my newly re-acquired immortality. Now I knew. I couldn’t wipe a silly smile off my face. That smile seemed to have stuck there forever.
“I love you guys,” I blurted out.
“Sorry, I’m already spoken for,” Bill waved his bottle of Perrier in a dismissive manner. “My only love is mathematics. And Jane, of course, right, Jane?” 
“Welcome back. We love you too,” Jane smiled at me, ignoring Bill. “Okay, Norm, so here is the situation,” she was all business now. “We don’t know what the hell is going on.”
“That’s the situation? How are you going to brief me, if you don’t know what the situation is?”
“The situation is that the mantis sign went out in classifieds all over the world. You know?” Bill looked at me questioningly, probably testing my freshly restored memory.
          “I know. The new and improved escape attempt.”
          “Right,” Bill continued, satisfied with my reply. “Somebody must’ve found the Guards’ spaceship. We need their transport to blow this 7-Eleven, as you know, because the locals are pathologically incapable of producing an operational space craft. So, yeah, the escape attempt. The messages seem to indicate that somebody finally found the damn spaceship.”
Right. It was coming back to me. Our usual stumbling block. To escape, we needed to lay our hands on an operational spaceship. On this particulate planet that meant a choice of one, the Guards’ transport, so take your pick. The Guards hid it well.
This planet was still Stone Age. We couldn’t expect anything operational coming out of any local efforts for a very long time. We needed a propulsion system that wouldn’t require a freight train of fuel just to take off. We needed something with an impenetrable hull made of polymer armor yet to be invented here. Scientists here on P-3 had discovered nuclear fission—hollyluya, but what have they done with it? They have been using it to boil water. Need anybody say more?
          “However,” Jane took over, “nobody still seems to know where the Guards’ spaceship is. Whoever found it is not talking. We don’t know why, although tonight I’m meeting with somebody, who supposedly knows something.”
          “Who?” I asked.
          “You’re better off not knowing,” Jane replied.
          Bill nodded vigorously, sipping on his Perrier and making disgusted faces.
“Furthermore, the CO is apparently leading the charge this time, trying to pinpoint the whereabouts of the transport, but. . .“ Bill’s suddenly sour facial expression signified doubt bordering on troubled disdain.
          “You are not doubting Brell, are you?” I asked. Our Commanding Officer, General Brell, was above reproach.
          Jane shook her head but chimed in with her own doubts, “Brell is Brell. He’s the mensch. However, we simply don’t know. Some of our guys have disappeared. Somebody supposedly knows the transport’s location but isn’t talking, probably for a good reason. Somebody new is working against us. Things are different this time.”
          “Brell took himself off the scene centuries ago. Why is he jumping up and down now? We simply don’t know who is on whose side at this point. That includes the CO. So, yeah, I doubt Brell,” Bill explained.
          Jane sipped her Perrier thoughtfully, fiddling with her necklace that I liked so much. “Possibly we are dealing with a completely different setup now.”
          “A new player or players on the scene?” I asked.
          “But where would they come from?” Bill shook his head. He looked surprisingly thoughtful for once, kind of how a normal math professor would look like, “Okay, you guys, let’s summarize what we do know.”
          “Let’s,” Jane agreed.
          “Yeah. So General Brell disappeared a long time ago, right?” Bill glanced at me.
          I shrugged. No idea when he ran the show last. I was too preoccupied with myself to notice. Definitely long ago.
          “We don’t know why,” Jane added, “but our assumption had always been that he knew what he was doing and why, and it wouldn’t be anything dishonorable.”
          “I never had such assumptions,” Bill disagreed. “Honor is a relative concept. Who knows?”
          “Come on, you know Brell. Honor is not a relative concept to him. It’s all very simple to Brell,” Jane insisted.
          “And it’s important why?” I asked.
          Jane explained patiently, “He seems to be in charge now to galvanize the effort, to master the troops, to lead the way, right? That would be a startling departure from his op basis of the last thousand years or more. This is an important anomaly.”
          “Being all flashy like that? Throwing his weight around? Startling is right, I’d say,” Bill agreed.
          I had to agree. Didn’t sound much like General Brell I knew.
          “Okay, what else?” I asked. “Not enough data here, so what’s the point chewing on it?”
          “The Priests,” Bill stated.
          The annihilation of the Advance Battalion derailed the entire invasion, which made the CO, Brell, a subject to a court-marshal and a wanted criminal. A small cohort of Brell’s staff and closest officers had been hiding and protecting him. For reasons lost in antiquity they called themselves Priests. As his staff officers, they swore allegiance to the General long before we landed here. Priests maintained that the entire invasion was a politically motivated setup. In their opinion, Brell was framed, and he well could’ve been. Brell, a full general, was a prominent member of the Baltizor High Command, relegated to leading a small advance contingent. He must’ve pissed off a wide variety of people to merit such an enormous kick in the pants. Right or wrong, Brell was in hot water. Fear of Justice, among other things, kept him out of circulation and marooned here on Earth, which could’ve been the original intention of whoever orchestrated this atrocity. That was a possibility. They might’ve wanted to get rid of Brell, so they invented the nonexistent invasion of a faraway planet, unbeknownst to us occupied by the enemy, setting him up and sacrificing two thousand troops.
Or, possibly that was not what happened at all.
          “What about the Priests?” I asked.
          “No idea what they’re up to. They kind of faded into the background some time ago, maybe a hundred years or more. The suspicion is that they are up to no good, looking at how suddenly they all disappeared.”
          “MP’s?” I asked. The MP’s have been hunting Brell for the last five thousand years, ever since we got fried, derailing the invasion.
          Bill just shrugged.
          “So what are you guys trying to brief me on? You don’t know shit.”
          “Well, not much strategic data, that’s true,” Jane agreed.
          “I think we should lay low, as I’ve been saying for a while now. Jane disagrees.” Bill pointed an accusing finger.
          “How do you lay low?” I asked. “I’m already under surveillance.”
          “Exactly my point,” Jane nodded energetically. “It’s too late now.”
          “We could all still disappear for a couple of months,” Bill insisted.
          “Overruled. Not okay. And won’t work.” Jane stated. “Any more ideas?”
          Bill leaned back in his chair and shook his head.
          “Okay. So what else do you have for me?” I asked. I had to get going. “Your briefing sucks, by the way.”
“How about a secret stash right here in this office? Can we brief you on that?” Bill grinned.
          “You may need it,” Jane flashed a concerned frown.
Jane got up and explained, “Right here, in my office, left of my desk, in the wall. Remove the paneling, there is a hole in the drywall behind it covered by a piece of drywall hanging on two screws.”
“You got a spare passport there, a thousand in cash, a couple of frag grenades and a loaded Beretta 9-millimiter,” Bill concluded.
My mouth hung open. “What?! Why?”
“We don’t leave our own behind, you know that,” Jane smiled. “You wanna see it?”
I just nodded, too touched for words.
Jane showed me how to remove the paneling and the two screws the drywall was hanging on. The nestling place inside the wall contained a small, beat-up metal lunch box—my emergency kit, and also a stash of assorted weapons.
“Thanks for everything, guys. I mean it.” I started getting up. 
“That’s not all,” Bill gestured me to sit down. “Got a valuable contact for you. Who knows, you may need it.”
“Yeah?” I was interested.
“You know him. Eugene, the Russian restaurant owner on Fulton and Masonic, Bistro Zhiguli.”
I remembered Eugene, the restaurant owner, a balding middle-aged Russian, pleasant and chubby, given to melodrama like most Russians. Bill got Eugene to hire me once to clean up his computers. I met his wife and two young sons, his house keeper and three other employees.
“Yeah? What about Eugene?”
“Remember him? Remember his cook? Remember a customer dining with a group of ass-kissers when we were there?”
“A what?”
“Think back. Look at it all now that you got your brains back. Just look. What do you think?”
“Holly shit! The Mafia! How did you know?”
“Same way you just did. The cook comes out with a shoulder holster under his two-thousand-dollar blazer. Did you see how he held himself? Of course he was packing under-arm. Only an idiot would’ve missed it.”
“I missed it.” I confessed apologetically. 
“Like I said. . .” Bill nodded.
“Hey, now I remember that customer, too! A party of five, a real serious dude surrounded by ass-kissers, like you said, all men, each the size of a Clydesdale, all wearing very expensive suits and watches,” I remembered. “And gold rings.”
“And gold chains.” Bill added.
I nodded eagerly.
“And?” Bill prompted me.
“All packing shoulder holsters—right!” I concluded my observations.
Bill chuckled with satisfaction. “Exactly. Each of them armed. Here is Eugene’s black phone number,” he groped around for something to write on, getting a pen from his breast pocket. “Jane?”
Jane pushed her yellow pad toward him. Bill scribbled a number on the yellow pad, tore off the sheet and handed it to me. “Memorize the number and destroy the paper.” Bill tore several blank pages from the pad and handed them to Jane. She threw them into the shredder.
I committed the number Bill wrote to memory. Jane shredded the paper.
“What’s a black phone?” Jane asked.
“Eugene bragged about owning one of the first so-called “black” phones in the United States. Black phones apparently don’t register on any scanning equipment, couldn’t be found on the Ethernet to eavesdrop on, and don’t leave any paper trail such as monthly bills or records.” I explained.
“Yet another reason to believe that Eugene is a mob figure. Who else would’ve even heard of such a phone?”
Jane just shook her head.
“Thanks, Bill,” I didn’t know what do with all the gratitude I felt, so I just shook his hand.
“You’re welcome. Watch your back, kid,” Bill slapped me on the back. “This back right here.”
          “That’s the point,” Jane agreed. “We’re in it together. Let’s kick butt, but keep in mind that things may not be as they seem.”
          “You guys sure know how to bring a guy up to speed. Thanks again. Good to be back.”
          “Yea, let’s do it again sometime, only next time I’m buying,” Bill got up, stretching. “Life’s too short for Perrier.”
           
6
For no good reason I suddenly loved San Francisco—the fog, the traffic, the claustrophobic feeling—all of it. I used to hate it but not anymore. Not for good twenty minutes now. Not since I regained my eternity. Holly Praying Mantis! This was huge! The brisk walk felt good, too.
A taxicab across the street had a large number 3415 stenciled stark black on bright yellow. Trouble? Hey, you bastards, bring it on!
They did. Or somebody did.
A Crown Vic swerved my way from nowhere, startling me, as I headed down Pacific for my Rabbit.
What the . . .?
A tough-looking white guy of about thirty-five emerged from the back seat of the large car (black, bristling with antennas) to my left and beaconed to me. Mediocre gray suit, neat but unimaginative haircut done mostly with a #3 buzzer attachment, it seemed, except the sides were cut much shorter—the proverbial “Fed” as good as tattooed in large letters across the guy’s forehead. He smiled a parody of a smile at me—I immediately christened him Smiley—he kind of stretched his lips uncertainly, as if testing if the muscles still worked. They didn’t work all that well. He needed more practice. His eyes kept drilling me intensely. He beaconed to me again with that strange smile.
Right that instant I knew that he was simply diverting my attention from something to my right. I tucked my head to protect the throat and whirled to my right with a right leg block about knee-high and an arm block at about face level. Both blocks solidly connected. I saw them as I finished my turn. Two guys. The lucky one closest to me absorbed both of my blocks. Obviously, I called him Lucky. My right arm block connected with his face as a back fist. Combined velocity of his approach and that back fist threw his head far to my right. As I was still turning into my block, I followed the turn with my left jab into his throat and continued the motion further by jamming my right shoulder into his chest, throwing him off his feet. I grabbed his hand with the gun as he was tumbling, pulling it and extending it under my arm past me, in the direction where Smiley would now be attacking from, presumably.
Without a look to my back, I simply squeezed the trigger. The gun went off way too loud in the gathering darkness of the city. I obviously missed, as a good kick in my left kidney exploded in my brain, sending shards of pain all through my body. The kick knocked me off my feet, but I still was tangled with Lucky, also on his way down. My breath caught. Smiley sure knew how to throw a good kick. Those legs had to be disabled as a priority. No time or inclination to assess the damage to my body right that moment.

To finish with Lucky, still squeezing his hand with the gun in my right hand, I pinched his lower lip with the thumb and the index finger of my left hand and yanked it down hard. We both hit the ground, his blood splattering. He yelped and gargled. I now had his gun in my right hand, albeit the wrong way to. The barrel of the Glock was resting at the base of my thumb.
I rolled to avoid incoming kicks and to get a better grip on the gun. The attackers were both to my left now, coming fast. I shot the further one, Smiley, in the leg and jumped to my feet in time to block a rapid succession of kicks from his yet unnamed partner, whom I christened Noname. He was fast. The gun, kicked out of my hand, clanked on the pavement. Noname was a high kicker. Probably looked good in his Taekwondo class. Probably girls liked it. A quick low kick to his shin made him stumble mid-stride. The next low kick into his other shin sent him down. I grabbed his right hand on the way down and twisted it hard as he fell, breaking his wrist. Noname yelled in pain. Smiley was back on line again, limping and bloodied but with his gun on the ready. A good solid punch on the face with the heal of my palm, accompanied by the satisfying sound of the breaking cartilage, and Smiley was out of my hair. I quickly found my gun and shot him in his other leg just to make sure he stayed down this time.   

I earned myself an instant to assess the situation: the abduction attempt by three armed professionals plus the driver. I noticed that the reasonable thought of giving in and simply getting in the car felt completely foreign to me.

Why me?

The fourth assailant, the driver, this far stayed in the car, understandably expecting his three compadres to fair much better than they did against one skinny me. For some reason I christened him Larry. I knew Larry was about to make his entrance.
          I dropped to the ground and slid under the car, pulling myself to the other side. I made it just as the driver with a gun in his right hand emerged from his car door. Larry’s hamstring was my target, and when he hit the ground, I jammed my fingers into his eyes and jumped to my feet, kicking the gun he dropped a few feet away from him. That’s that, I was done here, I thought.
Larry yelled in pain, flapping around, as expected, but recovered surprisingly fast. His counter-attack was swift and effective. In the gathering darkness I didn’t even see where the knife came from, I only noticed it plunged about an inch into my thigh. I yanked it out and jumped Larry, as he kicked my legs from under me and knocked the knife out of my hand. I found myself back on the ground, rolling with Larry. He managed to get a seemingly unshakable grip on my throat. From the corner of my eye, I saw bloody and pissed off Noname recovering now and about to join Larry with the gun in his left hand on the ready. My attempts to break Larry’s grip on my throat were ineffective but groping around, I quickly found Larry’s gun, pressed it hard to his shoulder and shot him twice. With a tortured scream, Larry let go of my throat and rolled over. Noname immediately let out a shot that grazed my side. I rolled. His other shot went wide. I shot Noname in the knee from down low, sending him tumbling. I got up, struggling for a breath, and shot him again in his right shoulder. Pocketing the gun, breathing hard and limping, I turned the corner to Polk and boarded a city bus under the accompaniment of several police sirens converging on the scene of the recent attack.
The heavy-set middle-aged black bus driver eyed me suspiciously but said nothing, as I dropped a handful of change into his till.  I said, “Thank you.” He just nodded toward the back of the bus.
In the relative safety of the bus I assessed the situation. My throat hurt, my back hurt, my rib was grazed and bleeding but not a lot and my thigh hurt. Everything else ached. Otherwise, I was perfectly fine.    
Okay, so it started. The proverbial shit hit the proverbial fan. No idea who these people were or their motives, but I was fairly certain that life as I knew it was over, at least for now.
The assailants did not kill me. They could, if they wanted to. They had the opportunity. Killing me was obviously not their objective at the moment. They needed something or wanted to get some information from me. Possibly I would have even given it to them, whatever it was they wanted, but I had no clue about anything—except that their failed attempt to apprehend me and all the damage I inflicted spelled immediate danger to Linda. They would go for a softer target now to get to me.
My phone call to Linda solicited her cheerful, “Leave me a message.” I did. I left her a message to leave her apartment immediately and meet me at the restaurant we went to on our second anniversary. I told her it was an emergency. Fat chance. I knew Linda and her independent streak a mile wide. “How high?” would not be the first or second thing on her mind when confronted with an order to jump.
Jane did not answer her phone, either.
Bill’s voice on the phone sounded strained, his breathing was hard.
“Yeah?” He yelled. “Norm?”
“Yes,” I replied. “What’s going on?”
“Some bastards are chasing me all over town, can you believe this shit?”
On the phone I heard the sirens blaring very close by—sounded like several. How many police cars did he have on his tail?
“I’ve been hit, too. Lose them and go see if Jane’s okay,” I said.
“What do you think I’m doing, genius?” Bill sounded pissed off now. “These morons shot holes in my car! Twice!”
That explained his sour disposition. Two bullet holes in a brand new Mercedes would ruin anybody’s day.
Through the whine of police sirens on the phone I clearly heard several gunshots and tires screeching.
“Ok, Norm, got to go.”
The line went dead. Bill had his hands full. Things were heating up fast. We still had no intel as to who we were up against.
Going home was a terrible idea, I knew that. But what about Yvette? Yvette was a sparrow I rescued as a baby a few years ago and raised to maturity. I recalled the tiny pink thing with a disproportionately large yellow mouth that I brought home one afternoon. She seemed to like chicken soup mixed with baby formula every hour or two. I built a huge redwood cage for her, six-foot high, undoubtedly the most elaborate sparrow cage in the known universe. Oh, the riches and splendor of that cage! The Taj Mahal would have looked like a chicken coop by comparison. Yvette utterly ignored the cage and slept in a soup bowl in one of my kitchen cupboards, heroically defending it against any and all intruders, namely me. The cage was pushed into the corner of my bedroom now, serving as a gathering place for other things I didn’t need but was too lackadaisical to do anything about. My dear little Yvette was also in danger now. I had to get Yvette out. I had to go back to my apartment.
The bus driver silently agreed to stop the bus between stops at a street corner just long enough for me to jump off.  I decided against Uber to avoid a record trail and flagged down a taxi.
          The cab let me off a block away from my apartment. I walked the rest of the way, half expecting an ambush. My place was trashed. These people did not fool around. Stepping over the broken furniture, cut-up sofa cushions and my linen closet’s contents on the floor, I went to the kitchen to check on Yvette.
The small, deformed brown corpse of my dear little bird was pinned to the kitchen wall with a black commando knife. She was so trusting, would come to anybody. My breath caught in my aching throat.
Thank you for everything, Yvette. I pulled out the knife and held the small corpse in the palm of my hand, thinking about raising Yvette as a baby and then all the fun we had through the years. I wanted to place her little body in the redwood cage but then decided against it and placed her in her favorite soup bowl in her cupboard. Rest in peace, my little friend.
Who were the people who’d done it?
None of our guys—or even the Guards for that matter—was non-conformists. We would never even think of doing anything as pointless and heartless as murdering a tiny, defenseless bird just to upset me. It simply wouldn’t occur to any of us. Definitely the work of a one-lifer, a human, a psychopath.


7
Navigating with some difficulty through the mess, I found my old backpack on the floor and stuffed a few basic necessities in there, like a first aid kit, a change of socks and underwear and my toiletries. I found my binoculars lying around and stuffed them in the backpack as well. Then, standing in the middle of my destroyed kitchen, next to the cupboard with the dead body of my dear Yvette, I dialed Linda.
          “Hi, Picky! Are you all done yet?” Linda’s voice was soothing and reassuring under these crazy circumstances. I wished I were at her place next to her and gotten a hug. But then I could have inadvertently led my enemies to her.
          “Yes, Linda, I’m all done. Hey, did you get my voicemail?”
“No, must’ve missed it. What’s that about? That you love me?” She laughed in a throaty manner that she thought was seductive. Well, in a word, it was. 
“Yeah, yeah, of course I love you. Listen, change in plans. I want you to get out of your apartment immediately and drive to the place where we celebrated our anniversary, remember? Have the man there, you know who I’m talking about, call me right away. This is an emergency.”
          Linda started asking something, but I cut her off. I did not want her to mention the name of the place. “Go now. No delays. Go fast!”
          “Yeah, but why. . ?”
          Suddenly, the receiver away from her now, Linda yelled, “Stop right there! Who are you people? How did you get here? Out immediately! I’m calling the police!”
          My stomach dropped and was now sloshing heavily somewhere in the vicinity of my knees. An overwhelming sense of dread washed over me. My world stopped at the realization that Linda was about to be taken. Blood erupted in my head, threatening to blow my eardrums and pop my eyes out. To the very last shreds of my being, I wished I could be home now to protect her, to kill every last motherfucker who had the audacity to threaten my Linda. Too late.
          “Put down the phone, ma’am.” Calm men’s voice some short distance away from Linda. “We are the police. Put the phone down, I said!”
          “Norman, these people here, what the hell!” Linda yelled to me, terrified, and then to them again, “Show me the badges! I have police on the line here! Not another step, you hear? Show me the damn badge right now!” There was panic in Linda’s voice. Who and what exactly was she looking at?
          “Is that Norman? Take it easy, ma’am. Calm down. Give me the phone.”
          The guy knew my name. The aspiring dead men who killed my bird, raking up the brownie points now by also kidnapping by girlfriend. I’ll kill you all.
           I heard another voice, more muffled, further away from Linda. I only heard bits and pieces “. . . secure Suzy . . . start on the kitchen.”
          Sounds of struggle. Other voices in the background—some commands, some responses. Some intonations sounded like a phone or radio report at a distance. Couldn’t make it out except for the name Mike. Linda!
          Too late. . .
“Hey, Norm, you there? We got your bitch.” The voice belonged to the probable group leader, the one who gave the command to secure the woman. Arrogant. White, probably young.
“What do you want?”
“Don’t pretend you don’t know what we want, man, you pathetic little mouse. Give it to us and we’ll let the girl go.”
“Give you what?”
          “Moron! You’re way over your head. No cavalry for you, man. Nobody’s gonna save you. We busted your terrorist cell and killed the other chick, too. What’s her name? Jane. She sang like a bird.”
Jane was dead? She was planning to meet somebody. Something must’ve gone very wrong. And no, she didn’t sing. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be having this conversation right now. This guy was a dead man.
“So, like I said, nobody’s coming to help you,” the delinquent continued with misplaced swagger. “Give us what we want and you can have your bitch back. Do you have the thing?”
“No, not yet, but I know where it is,” I lied.
“Good. You have an hour to get it. Then wait for further instructions.”
The line went dead. I pushed the green call button.
“Wha-at?” Same voice on the line, irritated now. Quiet in the background.
“Hey, what do I call you?”
“Call me sir, you moron. What do you want?”
“Okay, Siryoumoron, put Linda on the phone.”
“You talk to Linda when I say you talk to Linda. Hurry up and stop calling me! Fifty-nine minutes.” Click. The line went dead again. 
I pushed the green button.
“What?!”
“You know where I am. You want me, come and get me.” I hung up. I looked at the street below, barely making out a line of cars parked there as usual. No vans, no Crown-Vics, nothing suspicious.
The cell phone rang.
“How may I help you?” I inquired politely.
“You moron, how long do you think you’ll last if we come and get you? Five seconds? Ten seconds? You want me to come over and bitch-slap you personally? You have no chips to bargain with and your bitch. . .”
“Silence, one-lifer!” I barked. “You insulted my girlfriend three times already. No deal. You will die within twenty-four hours. I will kill you last, so you witness all your men dying before your eyes.” I hung up.
After a long second the cell phone rang.
“Norman, it’s me! What’s going on?” This time it was Linda.
“Hi, honey! How are you holding up there?”
“I’m okay, Norman. Are you all right?” 
Ma’ girl! I could tell that at the other end of the line Linda was terrified and doing all she could to hold her composure, yet she was asking me if I was all right. How could anybody not love her?
“I’m okay, hon. Don’t worry. I’ll be getting you out of there shortly.”
Linda interrupted, prodded by her captors, no doubt. “Just give them what they want, okay?”
“Okay, sweetie, sure. They will get everything that’s coming to them, don’t worry. Now listen to me carefully. Are you listening?”
“Yes, but. . .”
“Good. Listen. They will release you at the Moscone Center. Wait at the Howard Street exit. You will be picked up by the owner of the place where we had our second anniversary, or by his men. Do you understand?”
“Yes, I do but what . . .?”
“I love you too, hon. We’ll be all right. Give me the guy back.”
The grunt was back on the line.
“What now?” The convict sounded more guarded now. Didn’t take to my attitude. Well, I didn’t like him either, but didn’t dwell on it, since I knew our relationship was not going to last.
“I want the girl out now, and I want a hundred grand in cash. Drop Linda off in front of Moscone Center on the Howard Street side, and no tail or you’ll never see the. . . thing. Got it?”
“The thing?” he asked.
“Yeah, exactly. The thing. Don’t play dumb with me, you primitive fuck!”
“You mean the flash drive?”
“You want it?”
They were looking for some flash drive, apparently.
“Are you out of your fucking mind? You ordering me now?”
“Yes, I am. And no more cussing from you, I mean it.”
Silence. Did he believe me when I promised to kill him within twenty-four hours? Did he have a premonition of the impending doom? Probably not yet. Soon. I’ll find a way to kill you, you motherfucker, I know I will. 
“Okay, I will check on the woman.”
“And the money. When I safely have both—the woman and the money—in that order, I will give you the flash drive.”
“No, screw that. How about I kill the bitch and we storm the apartment and beat you to a pulp till you talk? How’s that sound?”
I weighed my answer carefully, knowing that too much flippancy with these psychos could earn Linda a bullet in the head. But no, upon a brief reflection I decided to continue pressing from the position of force.
“Okay. Get your girlfriends and come on over. You know where I live.” I replied and disconnected.
The cell phone rang.
“Got the money yet?” I asked.
“I read your file, Norman. You’re nothing, you hear? You think you’re Schwarzenegger now ‘cause you got lucky that one time in San Francisco? You’re nothing. And where am I supposed to get a hundred grand anyway? You crazy?”
“I don’t like you, pisshead. There is no such thing as a nobody. Everybody is somebody, even an ape like you. The price’s just doubled. Two hundred grand. You have one hour to free Linda and get the money—both. Move your ass! Go-go-go!”
“Okay, but you’re dead!” he finally blurted out hatefully.
“Likewise, ape-man.” I hung up.
The cell phone remained silent this time. Whew. How many phone calls did it take to get a simple idea across to these people?
Linda was safe for now. More precisely, my actions did not make her any less safe. I had additional intel. Now I knew they were looking for some flash drive. I needed more intel as to what the hell was going on and by whose orders, and I needed weapons, finances and personnel.
Heading away from my apartment, I knew that I was leaving a part of my life forever. No huge loss—except for Yvette. I felt the grief pouring onto me with renewed force. Bastards.
Sirens blaring, police cruisers speeded past me, converging on my apartment building. Somebody was orchestrating this insanity. More sirens at a distance. Turning the corner, I found Vallejo devoid of any foot traffic as usual. I flagged a cab. 


8

The small, two-story medical building on Pacific, where Jane rented her office was probably supposed to be empty at this time of the evening, but the entrance door stood ajar and there was light in some of the windows. A haphazardly parked large SUV, black, next to the fire hydrant in front of the entrance briefly filled my heart with dread. I pushed the entrance door open slowly with the barrel of my gun.
 A body of a dead cop in black riot gear, lying face down in a pool of blood by the stairs, was the first thing I saw, as I entered the lobby. Must have been shot upstairs and rolled down.  I assumed he was a cop but then realized he wasn’t. The SWAT-style attire of the dead man was missing one significant component—the letters SWAT or POLICE or FBI or any indications of that sort. The black assault uniform and the Kevlar on the dead body had no markings of any kind, offering no clue as to who he was. He was certainly not a cop or FBI. The only assumption I could possibly make was that Jane shot him, which made him my enemy, too.
I heard the noises of struggle from upstairs, voices, a scream, furniture being pushed around but no shots. A silencer on the AR-15 next to the body explained the absence of gunshot reports. Silencers. Who uses silencers? I set my backpack next to the dead body and frisked the dead guy, glancing around nervously. What I really should have been doing was rushing upstairs to help Jane, but it would really help us to know who we were up against. Our only enemies here on P-3 had always been the Guards. We had no quarrel with anybody else here. This man, however, was not nearly muscular enough to be a Guard. A spare AR-15 clip, a Glock with a silencer, which I immediately appropriated, a couple of useless flush grenades, and, yes, a wallet—a handsome, youthful face on the California driver’s license, credit cards, this and that, some money. I was about ready to throw the wallet aside when I found the second photo ID, which stopped me dead in my tracks—a Marine Corps ID, identifying the dead man as a US Marine First Sergeant (E-8) Damien Glower. Great. Marines, the Special Forces. What the hell?      
Coming up the stairs with my newly acquired silenced gun on the ready, I heard the spitting sounds of multiple guns and the moaning of another soldier shot several times in both legs, by the looks of it. He was sitting, propped against a wall by the 2ND floor elevator door right in front of me, bleeding. He raised his assault rifle at me the instant he saw me. I shot him in the forehead and kept moving down the hallway toward Jane’s office where all the silenced shooting was coming from. 
A soldier stumbled out from the smoky entrance to the office next to Jane’s, nearly bumping into me. I pushed the barrel of his rifle aside just as he squeezed the trigger, his burst missing me. My knee kick in the groin was completely futile against the battle gear he had on. He pushed me hard; I lost a grip on his vest, but not on my Glock. Propelled across the hallway, I slammed into the opposite wall and shot him twice in the chest, the power of my shots knocking him back into the smoke-filled office. I pushed off from the wall that I struck and lunged at him low, expecting return fire. Return fire I got. Bullets pounded the wall behind me above my head, as I rammed into his midsection with my shoulder. We both fell. His helmet came off, offering a target for a head butt. The position was exactly right, so I took the opportunity to break the seat of his nose with my forehead. Such a head butt should’ve fazed him, but it didn’t.
We rolled on the floor, kicking the chairs; I lost my gun somewhere next to the desk. I managed to disengage, jumped to my feet, my opponent now pointing his own silenced Glock in my direction. The rolling chair I threw at him spoiled his aim and next instant I was on top of him again, trying to wrestle his gun from his hand, his enraged eyes huge right in front of mine. His sudden quick glance over my shoulder betrayed danger from behind. I immediately rolled, pulling him on top of me, his body shuddering and convulsing under the hailstorm of bullets pounding his Kevlar. One of them seared my shoulder—painlessly at the moment, except the shoulder immediately went wooden. Desparate, I groped around on the carpeted floor under a desk in search of my gun. I found a Glock, no idea mine or his, stuck my hand out and let out three shots blindly from under the opponent’s body in the general direction of the machine gun fire. A hysterical “Fuck!” that followed was music to my ears. I pushed the struggling body of my opponent aside just in time to see a Marine stumbling in the door, struck in the Kevlar by one or more of my shots, recovering. I shot him in that pale space between the lower brim of his helmet and the top of his Kevlar vest, which I would have normally called a “face” but not right that moment. Right then these were not people to me, they had no faces. They had to be killed, that’s all they were to me. I felt pretty good about this one now—he was dead. I killed him.
The firefight in Jane’s treatment office next door died down.
Breathing with a great deal of difficulty, my opponent sat on the floor, staring at me, his face covered with blood from his broken nose. The half a dozen bullets fired practically point-blank into his Kevlar-clad back must have felt like being hit by a truck--repeatedly.
“I hate terrorists,” the Marine spat blood hatefully, reaching slowly and painfully for his ankle holster.
“We’re not terrorists,“ I told him. “Stop reaching for your gun or I’ll kill you,” I added, watching him grab the rubber handle of a smaller gun strapped to his ankle, his face contorted with pain. He kept fumbling with the holster, staring me straight in the eye, so I shot him in the forehead. Strangely, his eyes were still trained on mine even as he was dying and died a moment later. He found his target and wasn’t about to let go of it even in death.    
I felt goose bumps. Jeez. . .
Jane’s waiting room was riddled with bullets—the armchair, the couch, the bookshelves, the cheery floral pictures on the walls, the counter, the door—everything. Somebody shot the water cooler, too. It was soaking the carpet now. Carefully, I entered Jane’s treatment office. Her bullet-ridden large desk was turned on its side. She must have used it as cover. I saw Jane’s legs sticking out from behind the desk. She was missing a shoe. Two black-clad assailants in her room were dead in front of the desk. With a heavy heart I rushed to Jane, afraid of what I would find and knowing exactly what that would be.
Blood was trickling out from Jane’s mouth. She took several punches in the face, it seemed, and several bullets, at least three in her stomach and chest. I didn’t have to be a doctor to recognize the finality of these wounds. Strangely, Jane was alive but unconscious, sucking in the air with difficulty through her collapsed lungs.   
An unsilenced shot rung deafening behind me.


9
I whirled around. Bill was standing in the door, pointing his smoking gun at the head of one of the “dead” soldiers, who was now really dead, still clutching his silenced Glock in his hand, outstretched in my direction.
With not a word, Bill ran to Jane. He dropped to his knees and hunched over her. After a quick glance at her wounds, he looked at me with sad understanding.
“Thanks,” I nodded in the direction of the dead soldier. Bill did not respond, running his hand gently over Jane’s bloodied and matted hair.
Jane’s eyelids flattered.
“Jane!” Bill called out to her.
I grabbed a small pillow from the floor—Jane kept a few pillows on the clients’ armchair and on the couch. Bill lifted Jane’s head; I stuck a pillow under it.
She opened her eyes and tried to say something. More blood came out of her mouth.     
“It’s okay, don’t speak,” Bill told her affectionately.
“You did good. Just rest now,” I said.
“How does it look?” Jane finally managed, looking at Bill, then at me.
Bill kept silent, so I replied for him, “Doesn’t look good, Grom. Sorry.”
Jane made a sobbing sound and nodded her understanding. “Call me Jane,” she whispered. I knew that.
“Just wanted to make a point. We don’t die.”  
“Yes, Jane,” Bill whispered back, glancing at me angrily. “You sure made one hell of a girl this time around, you sure did. The best!”
Jane smiled.
The sound of approaching police sirens filled the room.
“Paper. . . in my pocket,” Jane was hurrying up now. “Meeting tonight at 10 p.m. Go! No, wait!”
Jane grabbed Bill’s hand and squeezed it, staring him straight in the eye, “Take care of my family, Bill.”
“I will, Jane, I will,” Bill promised.
Jane looked at me, “Norm, get your emergency box. It’s important. Get me a grenade. Go now.” She let go of Bill’s hand.
“Goodbye, Jane. See you next time,” I said. She smiled weakly.
Bill kissed her on the bloodied lips and squeezed her hand one last time.
I stuck my hand into the pocket of Jane’s blood-soaked skirt and found a small yellow tabbie folded in half, which I pocketed. Then I ran to the hiding place and knocked out the panel with my foot, not bothering with concealment. The cover was blown sky high anyway. Inside the wall I found the familiar metal lunch box. Among the assorted weapons next to it, I picked an old M33 fragmentation grenade and brought it to Jane. She smiled her thanks weakly.
Bill and I rushed downstairs. My backpack was right where I left it. In went the lunch box. The police cruisers were upon us, sirens blaring practically outside the door.
“Where is your car?” I yelled to Bill.
“Too far,” he replied. “Come on!” Bill pointed at the black commandos SUV at the entrance.
He jumped into the driver’s seat, fumbling for a key. The large SUV came to life. I took the passenger’s seat. No less than five police cruisers were converging on us from all directions, sirens blaring. Bill rammed through the police cars, speeding up Pacific away from Van Ness with the cops right behind us.
“Who are these guys? Do you know?” Bill asked.
“Marines,” I replied.
“What? Why?” Bill glanced at me in confusion.
“Don’t know.”
“What the hell do they want?”
“Don’t know.”
A bullet went through the back window and lodged itself in the instrument panel between me and Bill.    
“Jump off when I turn the corner, I’ll cover you,” Bill yelled. “Sort out what the fuck with this meeting Grom was talking about. Go. Let’s get these fuckers. They owe us. Let’s get them good!”
“Okay, will do!” I replied.
Bill grinned at me, turning the corner at about 60 miles an hour.
“Now!” he yelled.
I jumped out and rolled, clutching the backpack. What’s a few extra bangs and scrapes, right? I lunged for the entrance of a well-kept Victorian at the corner. There was no other cover except a small bush. I crouched at the door by the bush, trying to seem as small and unnoticeable as possible. Several police cars wheezed past me after Bill, but the last of the cruisers stopped right in front of me, brakes screeching. Two cops jumped out. Two powerful flashlight beams reached toward me. I’ve been spotted. Not really caring if they had their Kevlars on, I shot them both and ran up the street in the same direction Bill led the posse—a bad direction to run, but I heard more sirens approaching from the opposite direction.
The siren-blaring and red and blue lights blinking car pile-up up the street ahead attracted my attention as I was clearing a fence between two houses. Probably aware of my situation, Bill made a U-turn, totaling a few of the SFPD cruisers in the process, and was now backtracking toward me, followed now by only two cruisers. I jumped the fence and stayed low, observing the developing situation in case Bill needed help and in case I could help. Two new cruisers joined the chase, approaching the passé head on. They turned the corner at high speed, the front one colliding with Bill. Bill’s SUV careened into a light pole and then smashed into the house across the street. Bill’s body was thrown out of the SUV. He was trying to get up groggily, covered in blood, his body shaking badly. A police cruiser screeched to a halt in front of him, cops jumping out. With a shaky hand Bill took a wildly inaccurate shot at the approaching cops and was immediately riddled with bullets.
You died well, my old friend. So much death tonight. A very bad day. I knew this was just the beginning.
I ran into the ally between two houses. The backyard I emerged into had no exit, just concrete retaining walls on the left and in the back, compliments of the usual San Francisco hilly terrain. The drop on my right was closed off with a chain link fence.
Then I heard it, pulling myself up onto the back concrete wall—the grenade explosion maybe half a block away. Goodbye, Grom. You’ve always been a hell of a soldier, but this time around, just like Bill said, you also made one hell of a girl. Sorry, we can’t take care of your family as promised. Bill was dead and I had no idea where they lived. Very sorry.         
Fear gripped my heart. I was alone now. Worse than alone. I had to keep Linda alive, too.  Nobody else would do it for me. In addition to having almost zero resources at my disposal at the moment, I also had nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. And Linda. . . The enemy seemed to have unlimited resources. And things were unfolding fast, way too fast, non-stop.
Well, if I couldn’t retreat, I’d attack. Bring it on, motherfuckers!
Many a lifetime in the military taught me this rule number one in life: Always have an exit strategy. Always have a Plan B. I had one now, complements of my best friend Bill Hall. My Plan B was Eugene, the Russian restaurant owner, the supposed mafia boss, whom I tagged to pick up Linda at the Moscone Center. I believed he could help me in other ways, too. I just needed to call him, but for that I had to lay my hands on a burner phone or steal a phone or something.   
I lost my way among all the backyards, fences, fire escapes, flat rooftops and concrete walls, so I had no idea what street I ended up on at first but quickly realized that I made it all the way to Broadway, crowded and noisy as usual. Getting lost in a thong of silly tourists, I walked to an AT&T store and bought a burner phone with a bunch of minutes. I just needed a safe but crowded place now to make a call, preferably far away from here. Union Square would do.
In the cab on the way to Union Square, I opened the lunch box. First thing I saw was a small white envelope sitting next to the grenades on top of my fake passport. 
I reached into the envelope and took out a flash drive.


10
I managed to fall asleep in the cab. I dreamed of her.
She was not Linda then, her name was Ursula. We eventually got pregnant, Ursula and I—the happiest day of my life but an incredible insult to her family. I think Ussi was about fourteen or fifteen then. I was the villain regarded with utmost contempt and animosity by that clan. They decided to send for Old Martha, the whisperer, and abort the baby. Fools! Who did these people think they were? They had known my Ursula for just a few short years, and they thought they were entitled to pass judgment and make life-or-death decisions for OUR child?
          In our one-horse cart, we left home with my parents’ blessing and traveled in secret some one hundred twenty miles west to Ostend, a North Sea coastal town—I had an uncle there, Anceel.
          Uncle Anceel set us up with a room in their communal Big House and got me a job as a fisherman. Ursula stayed home. She had our baby, a big, healthy boy with blue eyes, like mine. We called him Thomas. I was away at sea for a spell and then home for a few days. Business was good. In a couple of years, we managed to build a small three-room house on the outskirts, had another baby, a girl this time, little Agnes. Ursula kept the house nice. I loved my family. Life was so good, it simply could not have been any better. I thought the wonders would last forever, but the bliss only lasted for about four years. Then—the storm.
In my dream I relived the horrific events of that tragic day. Our fishing schooner with a crew of eighteen was caught by a squall over a hundred miles off-shore. Pummeled by relentless wind and freezing rain, we attempted to make it to shore using the jib for maneurability and the gaff topsail for speed. I saw myself among a dozen others, heavily bundled in oilskins against the freezing squal, climbing the webbing to deploy the sails with my heart pounding and freezing sweat pouring down my face. The unfolding sail kicked hard, sending my friend, Baas, a father of four, plummeting to his death into the heaving frigid sea, his last scream still fresh in my mind’s ears. We didn’t outlive Baas by long. We all died that night in the mess of falling masts, flying rigging and debris, whipping ropes, ferocious winds and waves rolling over the top deck. I saw a pale face of old Willem praying to God for mercy, hugging the stump of what used to be our fore mast for his dear life on the heaving deck just as a heavy tackle took out the side of his head. His lifeless body was immediately devoured by the ferocious sea. I had a good grip on the webbing but the schooner with the masts broken and the rudder rendered useless was but a toy in the hands of Mother Nature. I saw the wave coming, I stared right at it, a fifty-foot swell frothing with fury as it lifted the doomed schoone, crested, crashing the boat, and then capsized it.
“Ussie!” The last thing I saw in my mind as the burningly fridgid water filled up my lungs was the terrified face of Ursula, as she ran out of the house in nothing but a long shirt with tears streaming down her face, looking into the sea and asking God to save me.
“Martin!” Her scream was the last thing I heard before my mind shut down.          


11
 Siryoumoron called me with the good news that they had access to the money. Surprise!
          “And my girlfriend?”
          “Already on her way to Moscone Center.”
          I paid the cabbie from my emergency thousand and got lost in the crowd. Seemed clear. Standing in line at an ice cream place presented a great opportunity to look for surveillance. Definitely all clear.
Then I checked into the inexpensive Burton Hotel that catered mostly to students, backpackers and budget-conscious tourists.
“This way, Mr. Bolstad,” the clerk directed me to my accommodations.
          The only problem with the room was—as always at hotels—the room was a trap as it offered only a single exit. Not a problem in this case, however, since Special Ops, aware of my exact whereabouts by tracking me through my cell phone, wouldn’t make a move until they were sure I had the flash drive in my possession. Cops and FBI would not be able to trace me here for some hours. I rented this room specifically with the purpose to lead on and destruct the cops. And now that I had the flash drive, I wanted access to a computer. They must have one available in the lobby. Time check—8:55 p.m. The night was still young.
          Alone in my room I was finally able to call Eugene, the owner of Café Zhiguli, my favorite Russian restaurant-bar on Fulton and Masonic.
          In addition to proudly sporting the best food within at least a three-mile radius, four large TV screens and ambience friendly enough for the cook to come out and mingle with the visitors, Eugene also carried forty-eight different kinds of beer from around the world—all on tap. According to him, it was the largest beer collection under one roof on this side of San Francisco Bay.
Eugene called himself a beer therapist and claimed to have cured, or driven into deep remission, a wide variety of ailments ranging from flat-footedness and hair loss to clinical depression and everything in between. The medical miracles apparently even included curing a broken arm once—in as far as the arm seemed totally healed to its owner after a carefully measured dosage of three liters of Belgian Westvleteren-12, administered with half a pound of beer nuts—within a thirty-minute period. With a 10.2 percent alcohol content, three liters of Westvleteren-12 would probably seem to cure any disease known to man, except, perhaps, cirrhosis of the liver.
          I liked Eugene. Bill even introduced me to his wife, kids and governess Aunt Rosa. As I understood now, having regained my immortality, in cultivating his, and mine, relationship with Eugene, Bill was not motivated exclusively by Eugene’s sunny personality. Right that minute Eugene could better protect Linda against the Special Ops than the police, if he wanted to, and he could help me in other ways, too. I had a job to do. I needed help.
          Eugene answered on the third ring.
          “Hi, Eugene, this is Norman. Need a favor.”
          “Norman who?”
“Norman. Bill’s friend, remember me?”
“Oh, yes! Hi, man! Just like that? You need a favor? Well, okay, what kind of a favor?”
          “Need you to organize a car to pick up Linda in front of the Moscone Center. Remember Linda? I want her in a secure location for now.”
          “The black chick you were with? Yes, nice girl, I remember. What’s all this about? Norman, what is the number you are calling from?”
          “A burner phone I just bought.”
          “Good. Hey, listen, what kind of trouble are you trying to get me into—just curious? I’m a respectable businessman. I only like trouble that puts some bread and butter on the dinner table in front of my poor children.”
          “How much bread and butter would you like for your children? A hundred thousand cash okay? Can we get orders out on getting Linda picked up? She’s been waiting there for a while.”
          “Certainly!” Eugene went off line for a minute and then continued. “My boys are on their way. So, Norman, we left off at you offering me a sum of money.”
          “Yeah. I offered you a hundred grand. Acceptable?”
          “Are you joking? You know how much children eat nowadays? Besides, do you actually have the money?”
          “No, I don’t.”
          “I see,” Eugene replied after a pause. “Tell me, Norman, you nice kid you, aren’t you driving an old VW and working at some office as a clerk or something?”
          “Yes on the Rabbit and no on the clerk. I’m a lab technician. Never mind. You see, right now I’m well into starting a business venture. Unfortunately, my unscrupulous business associates held Linda briefly against her will to pressure me. I convinced them to let her go. As a priority, I want to ensure her safety. I might also need some other small favors from you very soon.”
          Silence. “Okay, let’s presume. . . What kind of small favors? You need muscle? Tell me, how much are you expecting to get out of this business venture?”
          “I’m in for a couple hundred grand at the moment. Wanted to give you half.”
          “My boy, I wouldn’t get up in the morning and face an uncertain future for a hundred grand
so . . .”
          “Well, all right. I suppose I could get a mil within a day or two. We could split it in half.”
          “A mil is more like it.”
          “I said we could split a mil 50-50.”
          My remark had not solicited a response from Eugene. A long pause followed. I patiently waited.
          “You know, Norman, you bright kid you, you know how much I love you? I would happily have Linda stay with my friends for a while as a dear guest and do other small favors for you in the future—as a friend. You know, any friend of Bill is like a part of the family to me. But I worry about bread and butter for my children. You know, to me, a million—”
          My hurried “half a million” interruption was completely ignored.
          “. . . doesn’t go nearly as far now as it used to. You know how much I’m paying for a head of lettuce for my restaurant nowadays?”
          “How much extra for the lettuce?” I asked, a bit rattled now.
          “Two point seven five million dollars in total, all expenses included.”
          “But I’m only getting one million, Eugene! And I’ve been doing all the heavy lifting so far.”
          “Well, I figured if you told me one mil, you were probably in for at least ten. So two point five mil is not that much to ask for my children. You want them to starve to death? And I have a feeling that I’ll have expenses on this up to my kazoo. Deal?”
          “Two point five now? It was just two point seven five!”
          “Norman, listen to me. Everything’s so expensive. Do you see what these politicians are doing to our country? They’re killing us. The manufacturing sector is struggling. Everybody is investing into virtual bullshit like Facebook now. Millions of unemployed. My heart goes out to these poor people, Norman. Don’t you understand? We are in this mess together, let’s work together. What are we even arguing about? Is two and a quarter million really that much to ask?”
          I liked this guy and enjoyed the Russian bargaining procedure—a whole new world.
“Okay, Eugene, listen to me, one point five mil and that’s my final offer. I could go find a superb service provider practically anywhere for one-fifth of that, but I wanted to let you make some money as a friend. You know how much I love you? So take it or leave it.”
          “No, I will help you, of course. For two mil even. But only because we are like family. We have to help each other.”
          “Yes, of course.”
          “One more thing, Norm. If your business venture doesn’t pay, I’m afraid you won’t walk away, you understand? You’re my favorite clerk. I don’t want you to become my favorite dead clerk. Got to have rules, no? Otherwise it’s a mess. You tracking?”
          “Okay, I understand, Eugene. Great! Settled then. Keep Linda safe. Please ask her to call me on this number from a safe phone.”
          “All right. Anything you need right now from me in your business venture?”
          “Yes. I need you to find me two secluded locations. First one should be a house. Somewhere in the woods, at least five miles from the nearest Starbucks. Really secluded. I need a good crew, maybe three or four guys, at the back of that house in place by 3:00 a.m. latest, let’s say fifty yards behind the house, fanned out and well-concealed, okay?”
          “You mean tonight at 3:00 a.m.? Are you kidding me?”
“No, I’m not kidding you. I’m talking to you as a top-notch professional.”
“Oh, okay. Got it. I can swing it, don’t worry. And you want the house around here some place?”
          “Let’s say within fifty miles, seventy miles, something of that nature. Has to be a heavily wooded area. I want good concealment.”
          “So it’s a cabin then, in the woods. Is this house going to remain reasonably intact after your visit?”
          “I won’t steal anything, if that is what you mean, but the house may suffer some minor damage. May even need a new paint job here and there. I got a couple of fragmentation grenades on me.”
          “Frags are my favorite! I like you, Norman. I really do. Remind me of myself a bit, except I was much better looking—and still am. Okay, I got the picture. Will call you with a location within an hour or two. In our travel agency we never sleep, you know. Service with a smile. What about the second location?”
          “Should be another empty house, an old warehouse or a factory out in the sticks not too far from the first one. Should double as a holding place. I may have to interrogate somebody there, don’t know yet how it will all work out. It might get noisy.”
          “Okay. Will take a bit. Hey, Norman, who are you? You are not just a clerk, are you?”
          “Of course not! I work at the lab.”
          Eugene chuckled. “Makes sense now. You know, Norman, deep in my heart I always knew that you were a lab clerk and not any old regular clerk. Do you need help where you are?”
          “No, I’m fine, Eugene, thanks for all your help.”
          “You got it, boy. And don’t worry about Linda.”
          Instant compliance and never “can’t do” for an answer. Linda was being safely kidnapped by the Russian mafia now. I had promised to pay them two million dollars. Although I was two million dollars short at the moment, that did not bother me nearly as much as some other things in life, like, for instance, why the Special Ops were after me, the death of my friends and the mounting body count and what the hell was going on anyway.


12
I examined my wounds and washed up at the hotel room sink. Nothing super-dangerous that a bit of Neosporin I found in my backpack and some sticky tape couldn’t cure.
Time has come to see what Jane thought was so important regarding the meeting tonight. The small note read, “5B Sulindu St., 9:00 p.m. Mr. Cedu.”
Too weird to be a real address. Mr. Cedu did not leave the house number, either. And, furthermore, I’d never heard of Sulindu Street in San Francisco. But the word itself was vaguely familiar. Sulindu . . . sulindu . . . What was the term for a target acquisition mechanism, a direction finder or whatever that was we used in artillery in the old days? That’s right! I read the note again. 5B Sulindu St., 9:00 p.m. Mr. Cedu. Sulindu was a lens, a part of an optic device. It had a rather large glass crystal, shaped like a diamond, as one of its components. Glass Street? Crystal Street? Diamond Street? Diamond Street! Boy, I was good. Even so, what was the house number? Could the last name Cedu also be a code? According to my cell phone keypad, CEDU stood for 2338. Okay, let’s try 2338 Diamond at 10:00 p.m. tonight.
I had the cabbie drive me around the Diamond Street neighborhood until I found what I was looking for—an apartment building higher up the hill on the 17th overlooking the target house at 2338 Diamond some distance away. At 9:45 p.m. the cab let me out at the very end of the apartment building’s parking lot on 17th. No surveillance as far as I could tell.
How would I get up on the roof and get down from there fast in case this whole operation started sliding sideways? A fire escape would be nice. The four-story apartment building had no fire escape. There were walkways on the second, third and fourth floors with all the doors facing the walkways. I unhurriedly walked up the stairs to the fourth floor then to the end of the fourth floor walkway, climbed up on the guardrail, reached the edge of the roof fascia with my fingertips and reasonably noiselessly pulled myself up onto the roof.
          With the roof all to myself, I walked around a large maintenance structure in the middle, a gratifying crunch of gravel under my feet. Kind of fun walking on gravel. Kind of reassuring—especially good if you needed reassurance. Having gotten up onto the roof of the maintenance structure, I settled at the edge facing Diamond Street with my binoculars in hand.
It was a dark and cloudy evening, perfect for covert operations. Was anybody else having a covert operation here tonight? Well, let’s take a look. I looked. From my vantage position, I saw the rooftops of several single-family houses across the backyard of the apartment building I was on, redwood decks sporting lemon trees in wooden barrel planters and hanging birdfeeders. I saw Diamond Street beyond and houses lining up on the other side of it. I found number 2338, the bronze numerals large and prominent in the street lamp’s even glow.
          The house on 2338 Diamond Street was a rather mundane looking two-story Craftsman with somewhat ornate but unimaginative wood trim and siding, not freshly painted, some lights in the windows—nothing suspicious. However, moving in with no intel, I simply had to assume that the territory was hostile. First rule of engagement was approach from an elevated position. Hence, the roof.
          I checked Diamond up and down as much as I could through my binoculars. There was the cab that was stalking me before. Check. Any vans? Yes, there it was, a van a bit up the hill from 2338. Alarming. I scanned the street again within my limited field of vision. Aha, a homeless man all tucked in, in a doorway a couple of houses down the street. Could be a real homeless, but I had to assume he wasn’t. And was that a black Crown Victoria parked a block away up the street? The Feds? My head rang with a cacophony of alarm bells. A seething snake pit of disastrous omens. I bet I’d find a few more reasons to be alarmed across the street from number 2338, on Diamond Street’s closest side to me, hidden from my current position.
The house was clearly under surveillance and set up for heavy action. By whom? The Feds? The military again? What did they want from us? Feds were my friends, not my enemies. I happened to like the rule of law. My only enemies were the Guards.
          The crunch of heavy footsteps on the graveled roof below cut through the stillness of the night. My heart jumped into my throat. I felt perspiration on my forehead despite the evening chill. Waiting in the darkness, I finally saw a man, large but not unusually muscled, walking purposefully toward the edge of the roof facing Diamond Street. Dressed in the battle blacks with F-B-I in large letters on his Kevlar, the officer was openly carrying a sniper rifle, a standard Heckler & Koch PSG1, as far as I could tell. Mumbling something unintelligible, presumably into the radio to his Command, he took a horizontal firing position at the roof parapet exactly by the book: both elbows on the ground, one leg bent at the knee and pulled up beside the body to take pressure off the diaphragm—helps when maintaining prone firing position for extended time. I’d bet he had the 2338 entrance door in his scope. Very bad news. One thing I knew I didn’t want right that very minute was anybody calling me on my cell phone. I carefully extracted the battery and stuffed all the pieces back into my pocket.
It started drizzling. The neighborhood was as quiet as it ever got at this time of day, probably—a few cars, even fewer pedestrians, an old guy walking his Corgi.
          The FBI sniper below, not even thirty feet from my position, suddenly mumbled something urgent into his headphone, got up with his rifle and keeping away from the maintenance building walked around it, looking toward the point where he came up on the roof. He must have had a ladder set up there. I looked. There was another Fed hurriedly getting up on the roof, an older guy, not particularly powerfully built either. He was looking directly at me, it seemed. He couldn’t have possibly seen me in the darkness. The sniper had his rifle pointed in my direction now. They could not have seen me, and they still did not see me. But they knew I was there and they were cutting me off. Somebody on the radio alerted them to my presence. How could I have possibly been spotted? Either from an even more elevated position with the use of night vision optics or by homing on my phone, in which case I knew who alerted the Feds to my presence—the Marines.
          “Hey! Up on the roof. Get down with your hands up! You have nowhere to run!”
          Thankful for the adrenaline rush, I lifted my body on all four, pushed forward and lunged on the sniper, using the weight of my body to knock him down. A person of authority, he did not expect such audacity. I knocked him off his feet and we rolled on the roof. I heard the other Fed running heavily on the graveled roof around the maintenance structure. Having temporarily disabled the sniper’s right arm by a punch in the shoulder pressure point, I managed to get a quick jab into his throat. He was now wriggling and fighting for his next breath at my feet. Suddenly a red dot appeared right in the middle of his forehead. His head jerked back, hitting the roof, as his eyes lost their focus and closed. The FBI sniper slumped dead. I did not hear the shot, but I knew it must have come from a higher point to my left. A glance in that direction confirmed my deduction—there was a tiny pinprick of red laser light reaching toward me from that elevated position, must have been a roof top a couple of streets over. The red light of the sniper scope was reaching toward me—but not for me.
          “Freeze!” I heard the yell of the second Fed now in position behind my back. Then the soft slap of a bullet and the sound of gravel shuffle as if somebody was stumbling around in small circles. Then a body fell and everything went silent again. Without having to look, I knew that the second FBI man was just as dead as the first one. A search of the dead sniper yielded a cell phone, a Glock and his wallet. The dead agent’s name was James Burk. Then I walked over to the second dead man, an older guy, and pulled out his driver’s license. Frank Silezny.
          Smack in the middle of a war again. What else was new? There was always a war somewhere, and I was usually smack in the middle of it.
          Finances, communication lines and weapons were three of the five pillars of any successful military operation—and probably any business operation, too, for that matter. The only difference being equipment and tools instead of weapons. I was armed. My finances and communications, although not entirely non-existent, left a whole lot to be desired. The two additional pillars were personnel and intelligence data. Personnel was only me now that my friends were dead, and I had no intel whatsoever, not a clue, except that I was expressly and specifically not the assassination target at this time. That’s it. I looked at my watch—10 p.m. The party was starting, but I was considering not attending.
          Multiple, quickly approaching sirens announced the arrival of several emergency vehicles, mainly cops, probably. I heard more Feds or cops yelling down by the building, sirens blaring, tires and brakes screeching. The cops had arrived in force. Time to go.
I ran to the edge of the roof and jumped to the balcony walkway below. Having recovered my balance, I found myself looking at an apartment door with a sloppily painted numbers 4-1-6 on it. Hide inside? Large window offered a view of a sparsely furnished living room. An elaborate but gaudy Crucifixion tapestry occupied most of the living room’s far wall. Christ was clearly suffering, a bit like me. However, unlike me, he seemed fully committed and cognizant of what the hell was going on.
A pretty Latina, obviously pregnant, dressed in a simple oversized housecoat, fear in her eyes, rushed out of her living room when she saw me outside her window. I decided against entering the lives of the people living here.
Unhurriedly, I walked down the fourth floor walkway and then down the stairs. A fire truck, there for no reason whatsoever, was blocking the exit from the parking lot to several cop cruisers and an ambulance. The most interesting vehicle of them all was an idling SFPD cruiser, the driver’s door wide open, near the curb below me. That was exactly what I needed, except my ride was unfortunately facing the wrong way. The fire truck blocked the driveway entrance, but I had a clear shot through the lawn over the curbs. Would have to do that obstacle course in reverse.
          Cops on the second floor landing were busy questioning a Mexican guy or harassing him—sometimes you couldn’t tell. I excused myself and smiled, as I approached the group calmly, squeezing between an older cop and the railing, keeping both cops and the Mexican to my left and the railing to my right. The older cop glanced at me blankly, obviously preoccupied. But an instant later, with a sudden shock of realization, the cop’s lips formed a sound, an alarm call perhaps. His shoulders squared, and his right hand shot down for his gun. I pushed him hard toward the others with my shoulder, cleared the handrail in one motion and descended into the bushes.
The landing spot was well lit. The way I was coming down, I would hit two large evergreens. Turning my body ninety degrees midair, I aimed for the clear spot and landed squarely between the bushes. Sounds of cops yelling. A shot fired. Fast response time—damn those cops. The car door ajar. Hole appeared in the windshield in front of me. I squeezed a few quick shots from my Glock in random directions to keep the cops at bay, jumped into the cruiser. Reversed. Tires screeched. Knocked something down. Another shot. More shots. Another hole in the windshield. Very bumpy going over the curbs. Steering wheel hard right. More screeching. Shift to drive. I was out. Marooned in the parking lot by the fire truck, the cops lost the race from get-go.
          Zigzagging through the city, I quickly made it to Dubois and Van Ness, drove under the overpass, much to the chagrin of several homeless people who were trying to sleep there, and ditched the police car. I reversed my jacket from black to orange, pulled the hood over my head. It was raining a bit, nothing suspicious.
          My goal at the moment was, first and foremost, survival and, secondly, figuring out the exact situation I was in.
          A normally enjoyable walk down Van Ness Avenue was not all that enjoyable now. I had to think. Usual heavy traffic, several police cars, sirens blaring, lots of foot traffic. I was nearing the Tenderloin, the best part of town to get mugged or killed in. Also the best place to lay low. I could take a right on any of these streets, Jones or Turk or whichever, and get lost in the Tenderloin, hole up in one of the cheap hostels. It was still drizzling—perfect night to disappear. What about Linda?
I knew who killed the FBI agents, but for the life of me I couldn’t figure out why. I called Siryoumoron.
“You, psychopath, why did you shot the two FBI agents?” I asked.
“You know why,” the psyco laughed. “Give me the flash drive and we’re out of here.”
“But we already have an arrangement! Don’t we? We are already working on you getting that stupid flash drive. What else do you want?”
“Yeah but I still don’t have it in my hand. I want it in my hand.”
“No more senseless killings, you hear me? Or I swear you’ll never see the flash drive. I mean it. I’ll wash it down the toilet myself and then I’ll gut all your little girlfriends in front of you and make you watch. Clear?”
”Fuck you,” Siryoumoron hung up. Was somebody running these crazies? Loose cannons. Were they complying with orders?
I took a cab to Union Square.


13
          Stretched out on the bed in my hotel room, I was thinking the situation over.
We, the ever-decreasing contingent of still cognizant officers and crew of the 5th Battalion, had been attempting to escape from this planet for five millennia. We needed the Guards’ spaceship.
We located it once in the Pyrenees hundreds of years ago, creating a brief but ferocious armed conflict, which unexpectedly prompted the Catalan War among the local hicks. Our crusade had nothing whatsoever to do with the locals. Goes to show how volatile this planet is—and always has been—a black powder keg of rampant psychosis waiting for the slightest spark.
Our Pyrenees campaign was as futile as everything else we tried. The incorrigible locals, however, kept on hacking each other for nineteen more years, wiping a charming Roussillon Kingdom off the face of the Earth in 1659. Sorry. I felt really bad about the whole thing.
Earth and its people were definitely charming, in a juvenile delinquent kind of way, and I couldn’t wait to see how it all turned out, but come on! I wanted out of here so bad.
About five thousand years ago, give or take a few, we landed some place in the Andes to set up a base for the main contingents of the Fifth Invasion Force. Our outfit’s full title for that reason was the Advance Battalion of the Fifth Invasion Force. In official communications, we were addressed as the A5th Battalion or A5B. Ages later, we started calling ourselves The 5th Battalion but that was a misnomer. In any case, our mission was to establish and secure the base.
Who knows why we wanted this planet. It was all strictly irrelevant to me. As a gunnery sergeant, my interests in life rarely overlapped with those of the Command. A valorous confederate soldier to the core, I was almost as gluttonous, womanizing, hell raising and lazy as the next guy. I liked to think I was a little better than most since I was blessed with a daughter, Mia, my little angel. Her mother couldn’t stand me. No matter. I had a daughter when I came here.
My actual assigned duty title at the time had a rather manly ring to it, I thought, Lancer Gun Commander. Girls liked it. We were assigned to the Second Surface Crawler; I had a turret with a Lancer gun under my command and a crew of two. We sure had fun firing that crazy thing at our training and demonstrations. The time expectancy to fully set up, fire the gun and destroy any target within range was thirty seconds. We were still honing it down to do it in under three minutes. Meanwhile—what can I say? The enemy would have to wait just a little bit longer to be blown to pieces by our Lancer gun.
We only spent a couple of months on P-3, or Earth as we called it now, before we were instantaneously wiped out, all two thousand of us, including the added construction troops and eco contingents, in a rather gory but efficient manner.
General Brell made an executive decision to set up camp higher up in the mountains but on a low spot, in a small valley surrounded by rock protrusions and grassy knolls. The intel data indicated that the planet was populated by technologically undeveloped humanoids who had no advanced weaponry, communications or social order to be of any danger to the mission. So Brell’s main concern was concealment. He did not expect any attack other than by ground forces armed with sticks and stones—as the absolute worst-case scenario. We were not even supposed to fight the locals; it was not that kind of an invasion.
We all worked twelve-hour construction shifts building bunkers and digging tunnels. The work shifts were followed by four-hour guard or kitchen duty and the rest of the time was pretty much unassigned.
At the time, I was madly in love with one of the female traffic coordinators from Signals by the name Zea. I had a hard-on for her the size of the Big Dipper. What indecent and reprehensible daydreams were induced by her cherubic lips and full breasts! My futile attempts to score with her in various indirect ways finally prompted me to approach her off duty, brief her on my Big Dipper situation, and ask her point-blank if she wanted to make love up in the hills on the grass. She stared at me rather angrily. “Absolutely not! Stop stalking me!”
A definite no, wasn’t it? Well, it wasn’t. Trust me, I know. I’ve been there—on both sides of the ramparts. Must watch their eyes.
 “Oh, I am really sorry, Zea, didn’t mean to offend you.” And I honestly didn’t. Why would I? I liked her a lot. Her eyes softened. “I just really wanted to kiss your lips. For a long time.” Her eyes softening and misting over, “a very long time . . . and then kiss you all over . . . your other lips.” Her stare hardening. Back-paddle fast. “But really I like you a whole lot and wanted to hold you close and kiss you tenderly, if you’d let me.”
She said yes.
War is Hell, I always say, but it has its moments.
We never made it to the hills. Walking away from the Base holding hands and conversing amicably, we were suddenly hit by a wave of pain, utterly unreal in its intensity pain. A deafening, grinding sound drowned our cries of agony. I momentarily felt a rapid vibration, akin to an electric shock, that started shredding my body, pulverizing it within seconds into pink mist. I bailed out of the body dizzy, blind and disoriented after the first few instances of pain.
Brutal. Mere memories of that death were torturous. Electromagnetic vibe machines, the disgusting indiscriminate weapon, pulverized everything alive and caused serious harm and birth defects well beyond the range perimeter. Genetic mutations in humans and animals prompted a complete ban on these weapons by the galactic community, although they were still used by warring sides if cornered or whenever they believed they could get away with it, despite the death sentence threat. The offending side’s only savior in such cases was complete annihilation of all witnesses and obliteration of any remains and residues. Getting the place aired out to oxidize the residues, some sun radiation and rain, would effectively destroy any physical evidence within a few weeks.
The people, of course, the actual witnesses, were indestructible. That which every one of us recognizes as him or herself is indestructible and immortal. There is no way to eliminate the witnesses. Ever. But they could possibly be made to forget—difficulties in accomplishing that end notwithstanding.
The annihilation of the battalion derailed the entire invasion. Somebody had to hang for this. The obvious choice was our Commanding Officer, General Brell, who was now a wanted criminal. Military Police had been hunting him down ever since. We had an MP contingent assigned to our battalion.
Ancient history.
Who cares now?





14
          Linda called, rattled with all the excitement. Eugene apparently had her picked up by several large and very pissed off men. They took her to some house blindfolded and did not allow her to leave. Probably guarded from me as much as from anybody else—a little insurance that I didn’t skip town with the two mils.
“Do you know where you’re being held?” I asked.
“No idea,” she replied with a sigh.
Obviously.
“Linda, I will get you out of there tomorrow, I promise.” Not sure if my voice betrayed my feelings. I could only guess how terrified she was after all her adventures.
“Do what you got to do, Norman. I trust you,” she replied softly.
So powerful. So composed. When did she get to be that way? She’d always been that way, I realized. Whenever she needed to be strong, she always was. As with my respect and admiration for Linda, my resolve was growing and congealing within me into an unstoppable juggernaut of power. Deep in my heart, I knew we couldn’t lose. We would prevail.
Meanwhile, they wouldn’t treat her badly. They probably planned to kill us both tomorrow, but there was absolutely no reason to mistreat her right now.
          I ate something, paid with the dead FBI agent’s credit card to lead on the cops and threw Burk’s valet in the trash. There can never be enough red herring was my deep conviction. Special Ops could track me through the homing device they must have installed in the cell phone, so hiding from them was not my priority. I was too lazy to look for the device. Why bother? I knew it was there. But I was worried about the cops and the FBI.
Eugene called me with the first location. It was about a mile and a half off of Rio Nido Road by Guerneville, off 116, Route 1 North. It was a three-room cabin deep in the woods, currently vacant. The security was going to be disabled and the door unlocked for me by 3:00 a.m. The front door was facing south. Four of his guys were going to be fanned out about fifty yards north of the back door. The house was some seventy-five miles north of my current location in San Francisco. Eugene did not yet have the second position ready.
          I used the cell phone they’d knifed to the wall in my apartment to call Siryoumoron. He seemed happy enough to hear from me.
          “Hey, Norman, how’s it hanging?”
          “A bit to the left. And you?”
          “Can’t complain. Got the stick yet?”
          “Not yet, man. Driving to get it right now. You got the money?”
          “Got it right here.” He replied breezily and then added after a pause, “Stay in touch.”
Yeah, sure.
          Stretching out on my hotel bed felt good, and my thoughts raced along the usual track. Linda was safe for now—my brave girl. My mind immediately went to Yvette—I remembered her alive and happy, jumping around on my shoulder, cooing into my ear, or snoozing on my finger comfortably. Death. The most prominent feature of an immortal’s mental landscape is the death of loved ones. And there were plenty of those deaths. And the loved ones were not necessarily parents or close friends, or even wives or children, although they could well be, but a loss of a bird in this case really touched the nerve. My little bird loved me with all her brave little heart. Murdered by a psycho in cold blood just to upset me.
I sat on my bed, thinking.
How is my dear girl doing? I thought, my insides aching from worries for Linda. I was also dead tired. Are the Russians just going to release her when we kill the Marines? They may want to clean up any loose ends and also pocket all the money. They think there are millions there for me.    
Time check: 12:48 a.m. Should get going to Guerneville. But I wanted to see the files on the flash drive first just in case they offered any vital tactical or strategic insights into the situation—or simply explained why the hell US military would feel such animosity toward us.
          The hotel’s business center was already closed.
“I need to use one of your counter computers. It’s an emergency,” I said to the lethargic young man at the front counter downstairs. According to his name tag, his name was Brad.
“Sorry, sir,” he replied indifferently. “Not allowed.”
“What do you mean exactly, Brad? That I can’t use a computer? Is that it?” I asked, thinking that I may have to repeat my request, only this time while poking the lazy bum with my gun.
“Exactly, that means a Franklin,” he stated lazily. Lethargic or not, he knew his Founding Fathers.
“I’ll give you a Jackson.” I handed the bastard a twenty, which he ignored.
“Four Jacksons or come back tomorrow. We open at nine,” he said.
“Two Jacksons and I promise not to kill you,” I retorted irritably, showing him the butt of my gun.
“Okay, two Jacksons is perfect, sir, I like it very much,” the clerk finally woke up and was now eyeing me with fake admiration. 
 He let me behind the counter to one of the empty stations.
          The flash drive contained only two files: a JPEG image and a WORD doc. The JPEG picture turned out to be a tourist poster of gently rolling hills covered with lush trees pummeled by wind and rain—not helpful. Possibly the file would explain what that was about.
          The doc file was a poem or something—in some language I’d never seen in my life. Although written in a semblance of English letters, it had way too many vowels in a row and some of the letters had slashes across them, unlike anything I’d ever seen. Obviously, I was only going to get clues from these files—maybe, at best. The files could have been key to my current predicament but disappointing to say the least. I checked for any hidden files on the flash and hidden messages within the files but found nothing.
          “Thank you for your business, sir.”
“Brad, I’m leaving now, I want you to be a better person by the time I return. Agreed?”
“Definitely! Thank you, sir, come back soon.”
Hopeless. 
          With the few belongings and weapons, I left the building through the back loading-dock door.
1:05 a.m.
A walk around the place confirmed the absence of visual surveillance. The military could be tracking the cell phone from half a mile away.
The blue Ford Taurus I stole had an almost full tank of gas. The general aroma or rot and decay, pizza leftovers and empty beer cans, created a rather dubious ambience in the car. The air freshener on the rearview mirror was failing miserably. I was not curious about the owner, although I felt vaguely sorry for stealing his Ford. Some dumb redneck from the Central Valley, I decided, on a gawking trip to San Francisco, a Johnny Cash freak. I jabbed the radio and was greeted by a friendly female voice announcing Johannes Brahms’s Opus 120 followed by something so excruciatingly classical that I hurriedly turned it off. So much for the Johnny Cash freak, a dumb redneck from the Central Valley. You never know.
 Traveling north across the Golden Gate Bridge and up 101 North, a pleasant drive, I stopped at Jason’s near San Rafael for some coffee and a sandwich. I also wanted to make a stop to confirm my acquisition of the flash drive—to make Siryoumoron happy. We aim to please.
          I called him after my coffee and a sandwich.
          “Hey, jarhead, I got the drive.”
          “Let’s meet, I got the money.”
          “Nah, too tired. I’m going to hole up for the night. I got a summer house out in the sticks. Will call you first thing tomorrow morning.”
          “Well, fine. See you tomorrow.”
          Could I be wrong? Were they not tracking me? No way. My calculations were correct. They were tracking me and most likely following me at a distance, and not too great a distance, either, a mile, max. Now that they knew I had the stick, they’d attack at their convenience instead of waiting for me to organize defenses or skip town altogether. The best time and place was later tonight at my summer house out in the woods. I made that clear and sure hoped they reached that same conclusion. I really did not want them to attack me prematurely or wait till tomorrow.

15
          Route 1 North, then 116 eventually brought me to Rio Nido Road going north. I found the dirt turnoff into the woods and navigated in the dark through the bumps. Fords are great for that. What if I were driving a Jaguar? I shuddered. It was raining lightly, too. Rather adverse driving conditions all around. Nobody following me. Either they were that good or there was, in fact, nobody following me, which would be a disaster. I wanted them here. I’d bought a trap for them for two million dollars that I didn’t even have.
          The black shape of the house loomed ahead. I parked right in front of it. Marines were very close by, but now they would need about an hour to verify my location, review satellite pictures of the layout, work out at least a rudimentary plan, gear up and then arrive here. I decided I had about an hour before the show started.
          An hour was a lot more than I needed. No rush.
Time check—2:45 a.m.
With my bag in hand, I walked through the puddles to the front door, not worrying about leaving tracks. Tracks are good; they’d expect to see tracks. The flashlight picked out elements of terrain under my feet—a clump of grass, a piece of firewood, an old concrete walkway. There was a brick parapet porch wall to the left of the door, which could be used as a somewhat hardened firing position. The Marines were sure to notice it too. No other tracks. Were the Russians here?
The front door was slightly ajar. Yes, the Russians were already here. They’d disabled the alarm and opened the door. Since the Russians obviously had not walked here, they must have approached from the back and through the house. The door creaked when I opened it wider. A creaking door! Good.
          The house smelled deserted. Probably nobody wanted to rent it that far out in the woods during the winter, the rainy season. Pity. A couple could have a very nice winter vacation here—kind of like a ski vacation minus the snow and the skiing, which would hone it down to sex and beer—the skiing vacation of the best kind. The rooms were large, paneled, huge fireplace. Would probably be fun to spend a couple of weeks here in the woods with Linda.
          I changed clothes in the dark, took out the commando knife the psychos used to kill Yvette, the guns and the two frags, packed my new clothes into the backpack and took it to the stolen car. Back in the house, I used one of the Russian grenades and some string to rig a simple booby trap in the furthest bedroom, using my cell phone as the bait.
          Marines were adept at spotting and disarming—or simply avoiding—booby traps. Out in a jungle somewhere or in the Afghan mountains, jump up and down all you wanted, you’d never get a Marine to pick up an unknown object, move anything or step sideways, tripping any wires. The problem with these particular Marines, however, was arrogance. I was counting on them to commit the error of all errors, to succumb to the ancient curse that had wiped out armies and destroyed entire civilizations: underestimating the opponent, thus violating rule number two of hostile engagement, Never underestimate your opponent. Arrogance, not curiosity, killed the cat.
          Having set up the booby trap, I went out in search of a good position for myself. They had a sniper, a good one. I’d seen him in action. If I had a sniper, I’d deploy him, of course, but where? In front of the entrance, higher up on a tree, ideally within a hundred feet from the front door. Surveying the layout as best I could in the dark, I found only two good positions for a sniper. There were only two large trees in front within a hundred to hundred fifty feet. One of them had a large propane tank set up right under it. I would position my sniper on the other tree, far enough from the propane tank. The tree was well to the left of the entrance—seventy-five to a hundred feet away. It was difficult to judge distance in the darkness, but I had the position pretty well figured out in my mind.
          The Special Ops must have a car or several cars. Where would they park them? An important question because they’d most likely leave one man, let’s call him Wheels, to guard the cars and insure quick getaway if needed. Wheels could also double as the back spotter and the last containment line. To be effective at all, Wheels would have to be positioned close enough to the house to see what was going on. Would make a lot less sense to park the cars half a mile away in the bushes. If I had my sniper up on the tree about a hundred feet to the left of the entrance door, I’d put my backlines spotter, Wheels, in front of the door, possibly a bit to the right, at most thirty or forty feet to the right. I marked in my mind the position of the parked car, or cars, and Wheels holed up behind one of them.
          Now, where would I be coming from? I had no silencer but I had a knife. To use it effectively I would have to be located close behind their back containment line, Wheels, with no threat from my back, except I suspected Eugene had a sniper somewhere that way with a night vision scope.
According to Eugene, they had four men here. That meant at least five. They’d probably have one in front that I didn’t know about, a sniper with a night vision scope. If Eugene wanted his money, it wouldn’t make any sense to cover the back and leave the front wide open. But that was not important right now. Russians were not my enemies in this engagement; they wanted to keep an eye on the money.
          With the cars parked and Wheels located as I expected, my best position turned out to be a good forty feet further away from the house in a clump of dense low bushes. I’d have to cover some forty feet of open space without alerting Wheels. Could be done. That was why God created diversions. Wheels would have to get thoroughly distracted first. Then I’d take him out. Then I’d have to cover some hundred feet to the probable sniper’s position up on the tree. How? Very quietly. The rest of the plan was rather vague in my head, somewhere between “shoot them up” and “kill them all.” I did not have to worry about any of the Marines escaping through the woods in the back; I had Eugene’s people fanned out there. Well, grunts, this is going to hurt. I promised Siryoumoron to kill him last. I also wanted to find out which one of these animals killed my Yvette and make sure that bastard was offered a few minutes to reflect on his transgressions before he died.
          I smeared my face and hands with shoe polish and hid in the clump of bushes. Their infrared scanners didn’t concern me. The arrogant hoods were too full of themselves to bother scanning that far out in the woods.
          Nothing was moving. I was well-concealed in my bushes, cold and wet. Perfect. Was I wrong? Were the Marines on their way here? Or were they sleeping peacefully in warm beds in San Francisco while I was freezing my ass off here? Finally, with a great deal of relief, I saw two shadows move toward the house more or less noiselessly. Standard Marine posture with the gun glued to their faces, arms held high—a grossly overrated stance, if you asked me, as it limited the field of vision.
Time check—3:55 a.m.
No cars. I did not like that. The deployment seemed totally different, not as I expected. I had no silenced weapons and no night vision equipment. The op had to go as planned, or I would fry here and so would the Russians.
          The two Marines slipped behind the house to cover the back door.
          Two more black shapes moved smoothly toward the house through the woods and took position right in front of the house, covering the windows and the front door.
          Then I heard cars moving slowly through the woods with their headlights off—two vehicles, both dark, a sedan and an SUV. They parked them right where I thought they would. Things were going as planned after all.
          From my position in the bushes I could not see exactly how many more Marines got out, but it looked like they had four or five more for a total of at least eight. I heard muffled clanking far to my left. That must be the sniper taking his position. The one who murdered the two FBI men, agents Burk and Silezny. The rain stopped; there was not a movement in the air. Total stillness, wet darkness and silence. The stillness and silence parts were not going to last much longer. Things around here were about to get very loud indeed.
          Then, barely audible at this distance, I heard the front door creak. The front attack unit entered the house, homing in on their cell phone.
          The diversion I was waiting for was a grenade explosion. Would they spot the booby trap? No chance, not these clowns—too arrogant. Not a chance.
          The grenade blast, muffled as it was inside the house, ripped through the wilderness, loud and startling, even for me.
          I vaguely made out Wheels talking urgently into his earpiece by the sedan’s front end, trying to get the scoop on the grenade explosion. He was facing the house. I simply ran up to him from behind, reached over his shoulder, clapping his mouth while forcing the commando knife, compliments of the Marines—the irony—through the base of his neck. He went down as if his legs were suddenly chopped off. He never saw what hit him and never uttered a sound.
          The sniper was next to die in this lineup of the doomed. He had seconds left to live. Funny how that works. He thought he was well-concealed and far away from any danger. He thought wrong. I ran lightly in his direction. We were only about twenty feet apart when I spotted him the same instant he spotted me. A sniper with a laser night scope is vulnerable that way, betrayed by the pinprick of red light. I saw the red laser pinprick sliding effortlessly toward me. Dropping down, a bullet whistling over my head, I shot the sniper four times with my Glock—unsilenced, of course. From this distance, I could not have missed even if I tried. The sniper’s body fell off the tree, banging and clanking. The sounds of moaning, labored breathing and gargling reached me as a Marine’s silenced automatic fire by the house entrance slapped the vegetation around me. I reached the sharpshooter’s former position in three huge leaps. The sounds of me tearing through the low growth betrayed my exact position, and bullets started pounding the tree trunk the instant I slid behind it, right next to the wounded sniper. He was still alive. One of my bullets had struck him in the throat. He was busy splattering blood and gargling, no longer a super legend in his own mind, to be sure.
          He looked at me as I got down next to him behind the tree.
          “Can you hear me?” I asked softly.
          He nodded and hissed something.
          “I executed you for the murder of FBI Agents James Burk and Frank Silezny and for your participation in the kidnapping of Linda Steward. You will die shortly for your crimes. Any questions?”
          “Orders,” the sniper hissed, struggling to make himself understood, willing me with his eyes to hear and understand him. I did, I’d heard him perfectly. He’d said, “Orders.” Typical convoluted convicts’ thinking.
          “You gave the oath to defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic. Those were your orders. Where does the Constitution give you the right to murder two FBI men and kidnap a US citizen? What part of your orders didn’t you understand?” I felt the anger whaling in me with renewed force. What did Yvette ever do to these fuckers?
          The sniper was no longer listening, his eyes wide open but looking inward, looking at something he did not want to be looking at. Then he slumped down with his eyes still open but no longer alive.
          Shadows in the darkness. I barely made out two Marines flanking me from the right, one covering them from behind a parapet porch wall in front of the house, to my left. I had to assume that a couple of other Marines were coming around from the left, except I did not know exactly how many there were to begin with and how many I’d gotten with my booby trap grenade. I could only vouch with certainty for the two I had just killed and the three advancing.
          With the second grenade on the ready, crouching close to the ground, I took a few quick steps toward the attacking Marines, shooting my Glock in their direction. Yelling, “Grenade!” I changed direction, rushing toward the porch, pulled out the pin and only then threw the grenade behind me, took three more quick steps and hit the wet dirt. The fragmentation grenade exploded close enough to the two flanking Marines. It was a good throw judging by one of the Marine’s screams and curses. I was only about twelve or fifteen feet from the parapet wall, my Glock lined up to fire. I took the opponent out with one shot in the forehead as soon as he poked his head out. I jumped behind the parapet wall, followed closely by the bullets pounding old brick.
          Everything went quiet again. So far I was certain that I’d killed three of approximately eight bogies and wounded one—the one who was screaming now. How many did I get with the booby trap?
I crawled to the front door and inside the house and got up in a crouching position. It was dark, smelled of blood and explosives.  The entrance to the last room was obstructed by a dead body. The dead soldier was facing out of the room when the fragment caught him in the back of the head. He must have spotted the trap or heard the safety pin snap too late. I searched him, found nothing of any interest, except for a couple of MK concussion grenades hooked to his vest. That was probably more weaponry than I needed or even wanted, despite being outnumbered. I hated dragging luggage around. I started out with a knife, the Glock with a total of twelve rounds, seven rounds in Jane’s Beretta and the two grenades. I still had four rounds in my Glock and the fully loaded Beretta. Four of the Marines were confirmed dead and one wounded. But I wasn’t about to break rule number two, Never underestimate the opponent, just as I was betting my life that the Marines would. For them, their arrogance meant a speedy and painful demise, but so it could for me too, just as speedy and painful a demise, although not nearly as permanent.
          MK grenades in my pockets, I started sideways, slipped on something and almost fell. The wooden floor was slick with blood. Whose blood? The dead soldier I found never made it that far. There must have been another Marine—wounded—who must have crawled out the back door. I peeked out and saw a motionless body on the back porch. Staying very low, I pulled the dead Marine inside and examined his head best I could in the dark. Sure enough, he had a bloody hole at the top of his head. The Russians had a night vision silenced sniper rifle on this side too. I felt like an amateur. Why couldn’t I ever get properly prepared for anything? Everybody else was always better prepared than me. With a deep sigh I got up and walked through the house and out the front door.
          4:06 a.m.
Five Marines confirmed dead and one wounded. The two who, as I suspected, went to the left of their sniper’s position were not accounted for. In their shoes, with their unit taking heavy casualties, I’d probably fall back to the base position behind the cars, about fifty feet straight ahead. Close enough for an MK grenade except it was too dark for an accurate throw. They must have picked up the wounded soldier and carried him behind the cars. Crouching and moving silently to my left, then forward, I kept first the house and then the bushes directly to the back of me, thus concealing the outline of my body, letting it blend with the background. There they were. I was close enough now to make out shapes of the parked cars. I threw both of my concussion grenades at the cars and ran to my right, counting out four seconds, and then hitting the dirt.
          An MK-3A2 is a modified version of the familiar World War II MK grenade—just eight ounces of TNT with a fuse set for a five-second delay, which for safety reasons was usually considered to be a four-second delay. Two grenade explosions, one after another, momentarily lit up the scenery and sent one of the Marines flying over the car. I crawled past their base position and doubled back to approach them from behind. One of the Marines was moaning audibly behind the SUV, wounded. Must be unconscious, otherwise he’d keep his moans to himself. As I crawled past him, I finally saw the last Marine on the ground behind the sedan. He was on his back, also wounded but holding his AR-15 at the ready. His breath was labored and uneven, as if he was suppressing a scream.
 “Put down your gun or I’ll shoot!” I yelled in his direction.
          “Okay!” he croaked, laboring for a breath. “Don’t shoot!”
          The gun clanked on the ground. I crawled forward, getting behind him, not believing for a moment that he was unarmed and waiting to give himself up—wounded or not. He’d witnessed me killing off his entire team. It was prudent for me to be careful.
          I finally saw the Marine with a Glock in his right hand. He couldn’t get up or even move much, it seemed, but the misguided fool was still fighting all enemies, foreign and domestic. I groped around, found a stick and threw it toward the sedan—clank. The soldier’s hand with the gun jerked up and away from me. I jumped on top of him and wrestled the gun out of his weakened grip. Sitting on top of him, I pressed the gun to his temple. He stared at me wide-eyed in the uncertain moonlight.
           “Who are you, man?” he squawked, choking.
          “Don’t waste time, soldier. I have a question for you. Who killed my bird?”
          “T’was Adams. Lieutenant Adams.”
          “The group leader?”
          “Yeah.”
          “Where’s he?”
          “He went inside the house, working the homing beeper.”
          So much for killing the bastard last. My grenade booby trap got him first. He was either the dead man I found inside or the other one, finished off by the Russians behind the house.
          “Thank you. Who is running the Op?”
          “I need a medic, man. Get me a medic!”
          “I will not get you a medic. Your handlers know where you are. They’ll pick you up either right before you die or very shortly after. Time to do a bit of soul searching there, soldier, make peace with yourself.”
          “Fuck you.”
          “How many of you were here in total?”
          “Seven.”
          He was lying. Eight Marines were accounted for already. But his answer indicated to me that there were probably no more left. He’d have to make his answer as close as possible to the truth to be believable.
          “Are you going to honestly answer my questions?”
          “Fuck you.”
          Pointless. I left him there.
          His Glock was fully loaded—fourteen in the clip and one in the chamber. I threw the one I took from Agent Burk into the bushes. Checked for the other soldier’s vital signs, the one thrown clear over the SUV. He was dead.

16
The battle was over. Silence of the dark, wet forest reasserted itself. Darkness, my old confidant, embraced me comfortably, pulling me into its cavernous sanctuary. The darkness that harbors unseen dangers seems menacing. However, once all the dangers are shot up and blown away from the immediate vicinity, it feels positively comforting.
Shadowy figures of the four Russians emerged out of the friendly darkness in a diamond formation, guns on the ready. Not all that friendly. The burner phone rang.
          “Hello! Heavenly Massage, may I help you?” I spoke into the receiver with mock breeziness.
           “Hey, Norman, my favorite massage clerk you! Good to hear your voice. How you doing there?”
          “Hi, Eugene! I’m done here. Please tell your hooligans not to shoot me. And don’t forget to bring in the sniper, too.”
          “What sniper?”
          “The one out front.”
          “Oh, that sniper. Okay, I’ll bring him in, too.”
          Not even the slightest attempt to deny or justify planting a sniper in front of the house to take me out if need be. Douche bag. If you can’t trust even the Russian Mafia, who can you trust?
“Much appreciate. Listen, how’s Linda?”
          “She is fine, says hi and everything and so on and so forth and all that. You got the money?”
          “I think I got some of it for now.”
          “Good. Norman, my boys told me you took out eight Special Ops there all by yourself?”
          “Well, not totally. I actually got some help on one of them from your boys.”
“Yah, yah, right. Listen, who are you, man? You can tell me.”
“I’m and extra-terrestrial gunnery Sergeant from Baltizor United Stars.”
          “Yeah, right. I’m thinking kind of too rich for a clerk, don’t you think?”
          “I’m not a clerk.”
          “Anyway, very professional work, man I’m impressed.”
          “We aim to please.”
          “You aim, hey? To please? Ha-ha, that’s funny! Well, all right, give the money to Andrey. I’ll talk to you in a minute.”
          The line went dead. The Russians walked up to me in the dark, dressed in all black, guns ready.
          The oldest one, a tough old guy by the looks of him, asked with a heavy Russian accent, “Where is the money?”
          “Andrey?” I asked.
          “Yes, that’s me.”
          “So why are you pointing your gun at me?”
          “Norman, is your name? Norman, you killed eight Marines in a gunfight. How I know what’s in your head now? Maybe you decide to bury us here and keep all the money or something.”
          “Relax, Andrey, if I wanted you dead, you’d be dead already. I knew where you were and about the sniper in front. Have your guys collect the bodies and check these two cars for the money. And don’t kill the wounded.”
          “Okay, okay, yobannoye nachalstvo.” Andrey spat on the ground in disgust. “Everybody is a goddamn boss.”

Andrey talked to the guys in Russian briefly, the sniper walked up from the tree line in front, a peculiar looking Asian guy, most likely a Buriat, a Siberian native, a born hunter—must be running in the genes in those Siberian tribes. Rumors had it they could shoot a squirrel in the eye from fifty paces with a twelve-gauge shotgun loaded with a single pallet just because squirrel pelts with no bullet holes brought more rubles. And this Buriat was not armed with a shotgun. He was carrying an old three-line bolt-action rifle, vintage circa 1893, equipped with an ancient-looking scope. No night vision. The Buriat didn’t need a night vision scope.
A minute ago I had babbled that Andrey would be dead if I wanted him dead. Now I wasn’t so sure. A sideways glance at Andrey confirmed that he noticed my doubts. With a patronizing smile, Andrey slapped me on the back but said nothing. I guess he didn’t have complete certainty that I wouldn’t wipe them out if I wanted to after all, and so didn’t want to unnecessarily get into a pissing contest.
One of Andrey’s guys brought him a bag from the SUV. Andrey set it on the ground and unzipped it, shining his flashlight inside.
          “How much is in here?” He shifted his weight uneasily. What he saw didn’t look anything like two million dollars.
          “Two hundred thousand.”
          “And the rest?” he inquired, squinting suspiciously.
          “Have a bit more work ahead. Need your help.”
          “Oh, yeah. The second location.” Andrey nodded, relieved. “I’ll take you there.”
          “Not yet.” I waved him off. “I’ll let you know.”
          The Russians were laying out the dead Marines in a neat row in front of me. The two wounded were placed carefully separate from them. Andrey calmly observed them working, grunting approvingly and smoking an unfiltered Camel. He turned to me, “Hey, listen, Norman, you wanna work with us? We can use bright kid like you. I can talk to boss. Pay’s good, health insurance, dental.”
“No way! Dental too?”
          “Sure! Eye doctor, childcare. You know, children are future. Right education is where it’s all at. You, for example. You got education, right? You are some kind of clerk?”
          “Not a clerk, no. I work at the lab,” I interjected meekly, but Andrey was not listening.
          “Education is everything. Before you got educated, could you take out eight Marines? ‘Course not! I keep telling my oldest, that bum. . .”
          “Andrey, we got a job to do. Focus!”
           “Stand back and admire, man. Enjoy this moment, okay? You did good job today,” Andrey explained. “We respect you. You are not just any clerk today. You are best out of all clerks!” Other Russians nodded, smiling.
          “I’m not a . . . Hey, listen, guys, I respect you too and all that, but I need to make a phone call, will you excuse me?” I went to the display of the Marine’s pockets content on the wet grass and found the only cell phone among the machine gun clips, grenades and loose ammo.
          I called the last number, the only number. Adams never called any other number. He was probably supposed to erase this one too but, as usual with him, arrogance killed the cat.
          “Status report.” Brisk, commanding baritone. I thought the dead Marines were vain.
“Err, fine, thanks for asking.”
          “Who is this?”
“Guess.”
“Norman Bolstad?”
“M-hm. And who are you?”
“Call me Colonel,” he replied with only a microscopic delay. Sharp. “Where is Adams?”
“Nice making your acquaintance, Colonel. You don’t even know how much you’re worth to me. Lieutenant Adams is disposed of. I mean indisposed! Can I help you?”
          “Any of my boys around?” Colonel was still maintaining his composure but now barely so. Good.
          “Yes, sir, they are all eight right here, laid out on the ground in two rows.”
          “Did you kill all my Marines, you crazy son of a bitch?!” Now he’d finally lost it.
          “Well, yes and no. I mean, no, two of them are still alive. But yes, the entire team’s down. Don’t even know how that happened. Terrible tragedy. But they started it! All I ever wanted was to give them the stick. . . I was so scared, so scared. . . Do you still want the flash drive or screw it now?”
“Yes, I want it!”
          “Okay. I’ll give it to you for two million dollars.”
          “What? You got your money, you imbecile. Give me the stick!”
          “Imbecile? That’s new. You know, Adams used to call me a moron? What a good man and what a terrible tragedy, and so young. Damn shame. Anyway, Colonel, you must understand. I need two mils for bread and butter for the kids. You know how much they charge for a head of lettuce nowadays? Politicians will ruin this beautiful country, I’m tellin’ you.”
          “Shut up!” the Colonel bellowed. “I don’t know what stupid games. . . I can’t get this kind of money for you in an hour. You know how long it takes? Weeks!”
“Okay, say goodbye to the flash drive then. I’m walking it straight to the Russians.”
“Okay, okay, I’ll see what I can do. Stay where you are, I’m coming with your two million dollars.”
          “Sure. And your mother is Joan Rivers, right? No, I’m changing location. Will call you shortly with the new coordinates. Be there in two hours. Just you, no Army this time.”
          “Norman, you. . .! I have a question for you.”
          “Yes, Colonel, shoot—so to speak. Shoot! Ha-ha! Funny, right?”
          “Who are you, really?”
          “Do you mean to tell me that you had two FBI agents killed, and you lost three Special Ops teams to get me and you don’t even know who I am? Colonel! Inexcusable. I’ll tell you who I am. I’m a concerned citizen!”
          “Listen, you.” He caught himself with difficulty. “I don’t promise to make it in two hours, but I’ll see you as soon as I can—that I promise.”
          “If you ain’t here in two hours, I’m going to the Russians with my stick and hello Dolly! You know what I mean? Hello Dolly for you, man. By the way, don’t even bother showing up without the money. Don’t piss me off. They killed my bird, did you know that? I’m already pissed. I’ll kill you and all your lady-friends. You know what just happened here to the Adams team.”
          Infuriated Colonel hung up, muttering something terminally vicious.
          “Andrey!” I called out to the Russian team leader. “We’ll have the money in about two hours.”
          “No, we won’t,” Andrey answered. “Or you wouldn’t ask for holding to torture the bastard. I’m not educated much, but I got work experience.”
Two Russians had their machine guns pointed at me now. So much for being the best clerk. I peered at one of them in the moonlight’s uncertain glare. He smiled apologetically and shrugged as if to say, “What do I know?”
          “Norman, you cooking something,” Andrey alleged weightily, waving his gun in front of my nose. “I heard you ask that guy for two mil. That’s how much you owe us. You didn’t ask for any kapusta for yourself. I know why. You’re not planning to pay us, that’s why. You’re planning to wipe us out and keep our money. I’ll kill you first, you bastard, I swear!”
          “But I got the two hundred grand here,” I protested. “That’s enough for me. You can take the rest.”
          “Two hundred’s nothing. You go to Caribbean with your old lady, you won’t last a year.”
          “But I’m not going to Caribbean.”
          “You wanna stay here? After what you did to these Marines? You think I’m stupid? What you cooking, man? You got ambush waiting for us, you svoloch? Where?”
          “What are you talking about? I don’t even know where the second position is. You never told me, remember? Plus, you got Linda. So relax, man.”
          “I don’t trust you.” Andrey shook his head resolutely. “You’re too smooth. Too smooth. Would probably dump your girlfriend and take off with all our money. You don’t want more money, you have something cooking. What are you cooking? Talk!”
          With a sigh, I took out the phone again.
          “Yes.” I heard Colonel’s voice, still irritated. So sensitive, jeez.
          “Eh-h, Colonel?”
          “Who else? What do you want?”
          “I want four million dollars now. Something just came up.”
          “Four million?! Unbelievable! Did you want a blow job with that, too?”
          “Well, I don’t know, it’s kind of unexpected. Are you good looking? Do you work out?”
          I had to hang up immediately following that exchange; Colonel was getting positively hysterical.
          “Happy?” I asked Andrey. He wasn’t, I could tell. He was still suspicious and the guns were now poking me in the ribs.
          “You called him only because I told you. You wouldn’t’ve called him on your own. You, traitor svoloch son of a bitch!”
          I got bored with this nonsense and simply walked away, shaking my head. Nobody shot me—I liked that. Andrey got into a long phone discussion in Russian, while I searched both cars that the Marines had used. Nothing interesting.
          Andrey finally got off the phone and, looking away, addressed me gruffly, “I am very sorry, Norman, I apologize for overreacting.” He must have been repeating verbatim what Eugene told him to tell me.
          “No problem, man, just doing your job, right?”
          Andrey nodded, sniffing uneasily and dejectedly, still avoiding looking me in the eye. Bad news.
          “Where are we going now?”
          “Some old machine shop. About half hour from here. Nice and deserted—like you wanted.”

17
          We drove to the old machine shop in two cars. Two of the Russians in my car had their guns pointed at me. I guessed I was not as close to my newly found friends as I’d thought I was. The money went in the other car. I fell asleep immediately and had a dream about my Linda, my lover, my life.
After drowning with the fishing trauler during a storm in the North Sea, I did my best to be born again as a boy at Ostend, of course, to come back to my Ussi and the kids but failed as usual. I was very bad at that. I hoped to master this someday and get better. Some people retained their sense of orientation and full sight perception in a disembodied state. Not me. I was disoriented between lives and my perceptions were dim. That was how I ended up in Eindhoven, a part of Germany then but really in Holland, about two hundred miles east of Ostend. At least I was a boy. I liked my new parents very much. They gave me a nice, manly name, Edgar. I must have been about four when I remember myself asking my mother where Ostend was and her pointing in the direction of the hills on the outskirts of town. “Behind those hills,” she said. A small child of four, I stared at those hills. At the age of eleven I was finally ready to return to Ussi, to walk behind those hills.
As fate had it, right then we were raided by the Vikings. The filthy creatures took the town by surprise. I fought that hopeless battle shoulder to shoulder with other men of my family. I was small, but I was still a man, I knew how to fight, and I was brave. I jumped on one, trying to claw his eyes out, while older men of my family attacked the beast with knives. Together with my father, we killed two of the brutes. Then with my father dead, I killed one more by tripping him and plungimng my knife deep into his eye. As a family, we must have wiped out over half a dozen of the stinking animals. I remember seing my mother and sister attacking a wonded one with pitchforks and then setting another one on fire. One of them went after my mother, but I stood firm on his way, straining pitifully to lift a two-handed broad sward against him. The Viking gave me a long stare and turned away without a fight. They did burn down the house and the barn. The horror of that night is also etched in my mind forever.
My father, uncle and older brother were all killed defending our home. When the dust settled, at the tender age of eleven, I became the head of our devastated household, having to take care of my now homeless family.
My younger sister later died of her wounds and my mom’s sister froze to death that first winter with no home. But life went on. People bury their dead and keep going. We rescued some yarn and fleeces from the fire, mom and my aunt started knitting, I was selling things at the market and soon we were able to buy a cow. After almost a year of living in make-shift lean-to’s, we finally built a real house the best we could. Our horse was killed by the Vikings. It took us three years to start harvesting enough food from our small field to survive on. Then eventually my mom remarried.
I was finally free to go, so I walked back to Ostend.


18
I woke up in the car sweaty, with a pounding heart, thinking about Linda. My heart went to her with a ping. How was my hero doing there in Russian mafia clutches? Deep down inside I knew she’d be all right. Russians would not hurt her until they had the money. After that, yes, I could see that they would, but not before.
The second position turned out to be a large barn with a caved-in roof. It was secluded.
          “Where do you want us?” asked Andrey. He was still avoiding looking at me. I wondered what orders he’d received from Eugene in regards to me. Or should I’ve even wondered?
          Andrey tried to give me a silenced Scorpion but I refused, as I had no use for a machine gun. I was packing a fully loaded Glock, and I still had my 9mm Berretta. What else did a man need to be happy? A little human compassion, love and understanding from his comrades at arms would be nice.
          I told Andrey that I expected very few people for this party, one of the guests being the colonel, the only one we were interested in, as he was supposed to bring the money. I made Andrey think that I wasn’t really expecting much trouble. We had no idea what the colonel looked like. Actually I had no idea about anything at all except for complete certainty about the money; we were not about to get any tonight, despite promises to the contrary. It was inconceivable to me that any government agency could possibly come up with four million dollars in a matter of minutes in the middle of the night. I decided not to share my thoughts with the Russians—what with Andrey being so impressionable and all.
          I breathed in deeply the smell of quietly decomposing wood and rusting machinery. I have always been impartial to such rich, musty smells. The smells of time. The smell of the illusion of things enduring. In actuality, we endured forever, things didn’t.  
Meanwhile, Andrey set up Buriat with his antique weapon on a large poplar tree about seventy yards from the entrance. We took position inside.
          Around 6:00 a.m., it was still pitch dark when the guests arrived. Long night. I had managed to catch a few winks but felt like a truck hit me. My mouth tasted as if I had sucked on an old dusty carpet for a while. Peering out through the comforting darkness and shivering, I barely made out the vague outlines of two cars parked sideways in front of the barn. I bet one of the people behind them had a megaphone in his hand now, getting ready to make a speech. Andrey, noticeably frazzled, came over with the news of two more sedans at the back.
          “Norman Bolstad, come out with your hands up! The place is surrounded! You have nowhere to run!” I heard the artificially enhanced Colonel’s familiar baritone.
          “They’ll butcher us here, if they storm the place,” Andrey whispered, peering into the darkness with a concerned frown. “Damn! What went wrong? Just way too many of them. We’re trapped. And how are you gonna interrogate your guy now? What’s the plan?”
          “Plan? Me? Do I look like a man with a plan? Hey, don’t worry so much. Have faith. Watch how I do it.”
 “Come and get me, you motherfucker!” I yelled out to the man with a megaphone.
          “What the hell are you doing?” Andrey hissed at me excitedly, eyes bulging. “Are you crazy?”
          “Oh, relax, Andrey, will you? Don’t be such a crybaby. Just do your job. They don’t even know you’re here, they think it’s just me. Here, let me punch you guys in.”
          I fired my Glock twice in the general direction of the sedans, unleashing a silent hailstorm of bullets upon us. Russians scattered for cover, not yet returning the fire, looking for targets in the darkness. I raced to the place by the right side wall that I’d noticed before, keeping low as stray bullets whistled around me. There it was, the rusty drilling machine, my mental marker, with the caved-in part of floor next to it. Crawling under the rotted-out floor, I made my way to the exterior wall. Groping along the wall, I found a vent opening, through which I inched my way out into the night. Yes, just as I left it—pitch dark and wet. Bending low, I scuttled toward the front, hitting the dirt as I turned the corner.
          Russians finally returned fire. Everybody except me had silenced weapons, which turned this particular firefight into a ridiculously subdued affair. Keeping to the left and off the line of fire, I moved forward quickly to flank the cars. Several attackers moved toward the barn in the darkness, their silenced machine guns spitting fire. One of them stumbled, as if hitting an obstacle, and fell. The rest were now between my position and the barn, held by the Russians behind me. I finally passed the cars, giving them a wide berth, kept going for a bit. I then doubled back, keeping low. Two shadows were cowering behind one of the sedans. From about thirty feet away I studied them both carefully, remembering that I had the Buriat behind my back ready to shoot me at a drop of a hat. I finally decided that between the two characters in front of me, the colonel was the pissed off and nervous one.
          A grenade explosion lit up the barn in front of us, momentarily outlining the colonel and the second guy against the bright background, providing me with a great shot. After I shot the colonel’s partner in the head, I tackled the colonel, pushing him over the car as Buriat’s bullet drilled the fender right next to my face. Buriat’s next bullet punched Colonel’s shoulder. The colonel dropped his gun but recovered quickly and reached for the spare in his ankle holster, cursing loudly. He must have thought I shot him. For once I was innocent but that was about to change.
I shot him in the left knee and pocketed his other gun. Accompanied by Colonel’s loud cursing, I crawled under the car, picking up a silenced AR-15 which I’d found laying around, to face the Buriat in the tree. Buriat’s body thudded in the dirt after I emptied the entire clip into the poplar tree.
          Colonel screamed bloody murder, cussing up a storm. He had the air of a man who was used to getting his way, a hard man, a tough military officer—a terminal one-lifer asshole, in other words, or, to me, an arrogant and vicious bastard.
          “I told you not to piss me off, didn’t I, Colonel?” I hissed. He had some words about my mother. I slapped his face, hard. “You had to bring the damn army, didn’t you? You just had to get all these people killed. And I bet you forgot the money, too. You’re such a twerp!”
          Ignoring Colonel’s whining, I pulled him into one of the sedans. It turned out to be a Crown Victoria—what else—the one that had keys in the ignition. I drove into the woods for a few minutes with my headlights off. Then I stopped and dragged the cussing Colonel out.
          “Colonel, I am going to ask you some questions. If you lie to me, I will shoot you in the extremities. If you tell me the truth, I will not hurt you anymore and I’ll get you out of here. Clear so far?”
          The colonel kept cussing and wriggling around, trying to get to me. I took it as a “Yes”.
          “Who is issuing your orders regarding me?”
          Colonel spat at me. I stuck the barrel of his gun into the bullet hole in his shoulder. He yelled and moaned. Revolting as it was, I couldn’t think of a faster way of getting the intel. And, honestly, I did not like this bastard. Not to even mention that his Marines killed Yvette. All of them had pissed me off, but none more than their leader, the colonel.
          “Who is running the show?”
          Colonel stopped fighting and was still now, gazing at a very far place in his mind somewhere.
          “Why should I talk?” he asked with unexpected composure. “You’ll kill me anyway.”
          “Do you want me to demonstrate why you should talk? Watch me shoot you in the knee, pay attention.” I cocked the gun and pointed it at his kneecap. The colonel shuddered and started sobbing.
          “Who is pulling the strings?” I asked again.
           “General O’Hara,” he finally mumbled.
          “Kevin O’Hara?” I choked up a tiny bit, hoping the colonel hadn’t noticed. What had I gotten us into? “The Defense Secretary of the fucking United States of fucking America?”
          “Yes, him.”
          Holy Jesus.
“Personally?”
          “No. We answer up to General Ken Roberts, Special Ops Chief.”
“Why are they after me?”
          “Dunno.”
          “Did he order to kill me?”
          “No . . .” Colonel’s voice trailed off, but a good shove got him to focus again. “Roberts’ orders were to obtain the flash drive from you by any simple means but I decided—”
          “I understand, Colonel, say no more. A little initiative, right? Saving some taxpayers money? Brownie points?”
          “Well, actually . . .”
          “How do you communicate with General Roberts?”
          “Cell phone.” He nodded weakly toward his breast pocket.”
I pulled the phone out of his pocket, opened it, removed the battery and stuffed all the pieces into my pocket.
          “Okay, Colonel, thank you. I will get you to a medic later. One last question: where’s my money?”
           “Getting delivered to my C2 at nine hundred hours today. Furniture Connection on Florida and 27th. In the basement.”
          I nodded. “I will drive you back now.”
          C2 is a Command and Control Post, the nerve center of any military operation. What he’d said made sense. I drove the car with the bleeding and passed out Colonel back to the barn where the silent firefight was supposedly still raging on, and jumped out, leaving him in the car.
          Carefully, I made my way back to the foundation vent on the side of the building and crawled through it back inside.
          A body. With the colonel’s silenced Luger .30 on the ready, I turned the guy on his back. Dead. A blond Russian kid. Then I saw one of the colonel’s men moaning in the shadows and another one lying still. How tragic. Will the insanity of people killing each other for no damn reason whatsoever ever end? It started so long ago that you couldn’t fit even a small fraction of the number of years in a pocket calculator. Nobody knows how, when or where exactly the wars started, but they’d sure seemed to be the favorite pastime ever since.
Making my way through the barn, I found five more bodies, one of them was still alive and moaning. It was Andrey, wounded in the stomach below his vest and unaware of his surroundings. I shook him a bit and washed his face gently with some water from his canteen. Andrey grunted and opened his eyes, focusing on my face slowly.
          “You came back, you bastard! Svoloch! You set us up, you hui sobachiy! Didn’t expect to see you again.”
          “Of course I came back,” I replied soothingly, propping him up a bit to make him more comfortable. “I took the boss for a ride into the woods. He told me the money drop location and time. Then I rushed back here as fast as I could, while you guys held the fort. You guys did an excellent job here tonight, Andrey. Thank you. I mean it.”
          Andrey brightened up and smiled. “We did good, yes? Have you seen any of my guys alive?”
          “Not yet. I’ve only seen three so far, including you. The other two are dead: The Buriat sniper and the blond kid with Uzi. I’ll keep looking.”
          “Buriat too? Sucks. The blond kid’s Dima, he loved his stupid Uzi. I can’t believe you came back, man.” Andrey moaned as his eyes glazed over.
          “Take it easy, Andrey, hang in there. I’ll go look for the other two.”
          Andrey did not answer.
I found another wounded Russian unconscious in the back, behind a jagged concrete protrusion, a part of the old foundation, next to a good size smoldering rip in the back wall. Probably a grenade. Must have been some battle. The floor was covered with spent bullet casings. Then I noticed a dead American soldier slumped against the wall in a dark crevice, still clutching his gun. Then another dead American.
Russians were just doing their job and so were the Americans. None of them had any insight whatsoever into the real picture—and neither did I at the moment—they were simply complying with their orders. People were manipulated into obeying orders, regardless what side they were on. What kind of a stupid existence was that, I ask you, to always do what somebody else wants you to do even if you don’t know why and even if that killed you? Why not grow a brain for a change?
Come to think of it, my existence wasn’t any different. I, too, had always been complying with orders lifetime after lifetime, idiotically priding myself in not being a nonconformist. The joys of being a conformist. Oh, man, did I conform! But all these people here were supposedly nonconformists. They were convicted, tried and executed specifically for flagrant and willful nonconformity. Lo and behold—as soon as they arrived to their prison, they immediately set up a system that enslaved them into full conformity, these so-called nonconformists, a system compelling them to follow orders to fight and kill each other in meaningless wars, despite the fact that they were all supposedly non-conformists. The irony!
          6:42 a.m.
Through the hole in the back wall I peered into the developing greyness. Darkness was on the retreat. New day was dawning. The still lingering darkness swallowed the details of what lay ahead, but I could about make out the shapes of two cars some fifty yards away. Nothing moved out there.
          I climbed through the opening and drifted cautiously toward the cars. The body of a dead Special Ops soldier lay not even twenty feet from the back wall. I found two more dead bodies in the tall grass and then two more closer to the cars. I also found another wounded American soldier and the last Russian. He must have been the one who’d charged the American position and was probably responsible for most of the dead Marines lying around. A goddamn hero. A dead hero. What a waste.
          At 7:00 a.m., the morning was on the offensive full swing, sending darkness to run for cover where it was currently lurking. Lush North Bay vegetation stood in its green glory all spruced up by the rains, ready to receive the brilliance of the new day. Small birds, woken up to the beautiful morning, shrieked hysterically all around the battlefield, jumping among the dead bodies, snatching insects and other nonsense in the wet grass and darting here and there through crisp morning air.
          I carried Andrey and the other wounded Russian to the colonel’s Crown Vic. Unconscious Colonel managed to slump over both front seats, large as they were. A big guy. Supported by the seat belt, Colonel held the sitting position reasonably well. With the two Russians laid out on the back seat, I was almost ready for the return drive to San Francisco to rescue Linda, except for the money. A stroll through the brisk morning freshness to the Russians’ car rewarded me with the moneybag, my two hundred thousand dollars. Why did Andrey decide that I would want to hole up on some Caribbean island the minute I laid my hands on any money? To me, there was nothing more intolerable in the known universe than a long, boring vacation. What a crazy idea. Nauseating piña coladas and coconut sunscreen lotion—life sweet enough to sugar-shock you into permanent brain damage.
                                                           

19
          The uneventful drive back to the city was complicated by adrenaline giving out. Kind of a repeat of my drive out of the city last night, plus the money and minus the Marines, the rain, and most of the uncertainty. The situation was much clearer in my mind now. I had some computer files that the Defense Secretary of the United States of America wanted from me. He’d ordered his minions to obtain the files from me in a simple way, which would be buying them from me. His orders had been flagrantly sabotaged locally, which resulted in the loss of two FBI agents, fifteen Special Ops troops and three Russian gangsters, not to mention a bunch of wounded. Well, if O’Hara didn’t really want me killed earlier, he probably did now, after everything that had happened. I bet, to him, I currently felt like a nasty boil on his ass. Now he’d really want to keep a lid on it. Damn Colonel! I jabbed the unconscious Colonel in the ribs. He moaned.
The major conundrum remained. Why the hell would General O’Hara want to pay four million dollars, taking considerable political and administrative risks, for a picture of some hills and a poem in a foreign language? Furthermore, why would such presumably valuable files be given to me? Why me? What special qualities did I possess that made Jane take the chance of placing such important documents in my custody? The only conclusion I came up with, upsettingly enough, was that it was my mediocrity, my depressions and drinking that made me the least likely custodian of the documents, thus landing us in the middle of this seething snake pit of trouble.
 I drove the Crown Vic straight into the cavernous underground Safeway parking on Fulton and Masonic, one block away from Eugene’s Café, walked across the street into the Starbucks, got some coffee and called Eugene on my go-phone. 

          Eugene picked up right away. “Hello, Norman!” He was probably sitting there waiting for my call, phone in hand.
“Hi, Eugene.”
          “Where have you been, man? How did we do? Why isn’t Andrey answering? Did you get the money?”
          “Hey, slow down. We got into serious trouble at the second position. You lost three guys. I have Andrey and one other wounded in my car with me right now. I also have a wounded Special Ops Colonel in there with them.”
           “Shit. Who did I lose?”
          “Don’t know the names.”
          “What about Vasily, my Buriat sniper?”
          “The one who was supposed to kill me? He was having a very bad night. First he missed me, twice, and then he got dead. All on the same night.”
          “Buriat missed you twice? How?”
“Well, he. . .”
“Never mind. I don’t want to hear.”
“He. . .”
“I don’t want to know, I said! What am I going to do with the colonel? And what about my money?”
          He never denied that Buriat was supposed to take me out. Some friend. Dear God, please protect me from my friends. Thank you. Very much.
          “The colonel is supposed to get the money at nine, here at their C2 at Furniture Express on Florida and 27th.”
          “So, another hit then?”
          “Sure looks like it. A hardened target. Bring Linda. You get your money, I get Linda.”
          “I knew you were trouble. Okay. Drive straight to the restaurant, we’ll plan it out and get to it.”
          Yeah, drive to the restaurant, right. What if Eugene decides to hit the Furniture Express without me? What if he felt I was quickly becoming a liability? I decided his restaurant was not the right place for me to be at the moment.
          “I have to take care of some things, Eugene. You’ll find the car on A Level at the Safeway parking garage on Fulton and Masonic, a black Crown Vic with the three wounded inside. Can’t miss it. I’ll see your guys at the furniture store in half an hour or so. Send some good guys and don’t forget Linda.”
“I get the impression you don’t trust me, Norman. Are you still upset about Buriat? Come on! It’s the neatness of things. You know how it goes. Nothing personal. Stay by the car, we’ll pick you up.”
          “I’m gone already. Like you said, it’s the neatness of things. Otherwise, it’s a mess.”
          Time to visit the furniture store. I flagged a cab.
          The Furniture Express, an old, warehouse-like, red brick structure, occupied the entire block. Eight cameras at the front face of the building—at the first glance. And what were those steel circles every few feet on the sidewalk? A rising traffic barrier perhaps? Or just a decoration? Also the high warehouse ceiling offered a security-conscious furniture dealer a chance to install a catwalk along the top with gun ports. That is what the small black windows up on top looked like to me. Not an ordinary furniture shop by any measure. The occupants probably wouldn’t skimp on hardening the lower part of the structure as well—in addition to the snipers on the catwalk and the possible anti-traffic fortifications. Bad news all around.  
The coffee shop across the street was all dark wood, mismatched sofas and lots of brick-a-brak everywhere. That explained the name of this place, Coffee Medley. Photos of all sizes, depicting nobody I knew and autographed by nobody knows whom, covered all the wall space not otherwise occupied by toy train models, old beer bottles, rusty garden implements and other trinkets of dubious nature. Half a dozen oblivious customers livened the drab couches here and there, all diligently plugged into their laptops and i-pads. The business day had started.
“Coffee?” the gangly, tattooed sales guy at the counter asked hopefully.
“Sure.” I adjusted my backpack with the two hundred grand on my back. “And something good to eat.”
“Like what?” he asked.
“Surprise me.” I threw a ten on the counter. “Milk. No sugar.”
From my seat by the window I saw the entire front of the furniture store, including a ramp down into the basement to a huge roll-up door on my left. 
          I needed to get inside. I couldn’t just walk in, they would recognize me in an instant—as they had proven earlier—in the darkness, on a roof top from half a mile away. Shooting my way through was out of the question. They’d probably outgun me fifty to one. I did have a Glock and Jane’s Beretta on me. . . No, there must be a better way. Entering from an adjaicent building or an adjacent basement was equally imposible as the store took up the entire block with no other adjacent structures next to it. Sewer lines? Storm drains? Unreal. A conundrum.
          The Tatoo brough a hot ham and cheese croissant and a steaming cup of coffee with milk and no sugar. Good man. I thanked Tattoo.    
          Paraglide down onto the roof? Dig a tunnel from across the street? I needed a real plan. I didn’t have one.
Gnowing at my breakfast, I thought that perhaps I didn’t actually need to get inside. Eugene could just keep all the money, as far as I was concerned. I only wanted to get Linda out, that’s all I wanted. The Russians would not kill Linda here. They still needed her to reel me in. They would bring her here as the bate, expecting me to show up. If I didn’t show, they’d take her back to holding and try to contact me. Therefore, possibly I wouldn’t have to get inside this fortress at all—if nothing went wrong with the Russians getting paid in the basement. Things could get out of hand, if they were forced to shoot their way out.
The Russians arrived in two indescript sedans, eight goons in total plus the Colonel and Linda. I saw Colonel in the front passanger seat of the front car, Linda in the back of the second car. I didn’t get a chance to take a good look at her. Down the ramp the cars went and stopped there for a long minute, while the Colonel talked to a couple of guys, who came out of nowhere to inspect. The short convoy was let in through the roll-up door. Linda was inside now. I decided to stay away from the Special Forces C2 for now and hit the Russians later at a softer location. There simply was no feasible way of getting into this building or bringing Linda out of there intact. Of course, my decision was contingent on the Russians getting their money safely and driving out of that basement without a war.
In the relaxed quiet of the coffee shop, the almost sleepless night and the recent losses I suffered insidiously took the center stage in my mind. My dead friends, Bill Hall, Jane, Yvette, the kidnapping of Linda—I felt it all now.
My mind suddenly became a caledoscope of hundreds of happy pictures of Linda in a rapid succession—Linda laughing, smiling, talking, just looking at me or away, listening to me, cradling my face in her hands, kissing me, her face ablase with sexual extasy, Linda’s body heaving in delicious orgasms, Linda cooing to Yvette, Linda talking to me gently in bed, her face next to mine. I felt sluggish and suddenly tired, very tired. I felt alone, overwhelmed. I felt that I was letting Linda down and worse, that I was possibly losing Linda. Also my recent bangs and scrapes started hurting all at once, sending lashes of pain throughout the body.
A UPS delivery truck stopped right outside the coffee shop entrance. A young, uniformed driver jumped off the truck with a couple of packages. As a true tree-hugging San-Franciscan, I noticed right away that he left the motor running. It probably took more gas and more exhaust to get the truck started again than to leave it idling for a few seconds. It was, however, taking a bit longer than a few seconds, as the driver and Tatoo got into a long discussion about the Warriers. Despite my current hellatious circumstances, I felt slightly annoyed by their lack of environmental sesnsibility.   
Sudden change in the situation across the street became apparent as automatic blinds suddenly slid down in all the furniture shop windows at once. The neon green OPEN sign in the door flipped to red CLOSED. Linda! Alarmed I ran outside and that is when I heard two muffled explosions pops and then two more. Grenades. Somewhere inside the building. In the basement. The Colonel must have blew the whistle mid-transaction.
Surprisingly, the idling UPS truck, was a lot more adjile than I expected from such a boxy contruption. I backed up along the coffee shop building and rushed full-throttle at the furniture shop entrance, ignoring the driver, who was now jumping up and down behind his truck, yelling absenities at me.        
I was spotted immediately. The round steel pegs that I noticed earlier, about six inches in diameter, four feet apart, began rising on the sidewalk all along the front furniture shop wall—the security barrier designed to stop any attacking vehicles, such as the UPS truck I was driving that very moment at top speed right into the building. The truck, riding high, cleared the rising security barrier in a nick of time, it seemed. My windshield shuttered under machine gun fire from the top level gun ports and several lower level gun ports that I have not even seen earlier. I ducked just as the back of my seat was disintegrated by bullets, stuffing flying everywhere. Next instant I rammed the store. Large shop window crushed all around the vehicle. Crouched under the dashboard, I muscled the gas pedal, putting the weight of my entire body behind my right hand pressing on the gas pedal. My recent tiredness and feeling of inadequacy and overwhelm had evaporated without a trace. The pain was gone as well. Some parts of the body of the truck that I could see from my crouched position developed more and more holes in them under incessant gunfire. The engine coughed and whined, but the truck kept going.
My path of travel inside the store was obstructed—by furniture, supposedly. I couldn’t see anything, croaching under the dash board. The careening truck hit something hard, listing to my right, and stalled. It was about to overturn. I pushed out of the open driver’s door while I still had a chance and scrammed for cover. Lots of heavy sofas. Good. Gunfire from multiple points. Twenty points or more. Massive amount of gunfire. No time to take my bearings, assess the situation, find targets to return fire, figure out the location of the stairway or the elevator, just no time. None. Sometimes zero to sixty is an instantenious proposition. Too bad if we can’t hack it that one instant when we really must. I knew I could. 
The stairwells are usually located at one or both of the side walls. My point of entrance into the store was closer to the left wall, so using sofas as a cover and not bothering to return fire, I slithered toward the left wall as fast as I could. The UPS truck on my right burst into flames, assisting my escape. A fleeting ping of guilt for stealing and destroyting the truck and dozens of packages from the environbmentally insensitive driver did touch me ever so slightly and was gone like a puff of smoke. Guilt was inapplicable right now.         
          I finally saw a target, a man dressed casually in khaki pants and a green shirt, probably one of the sales people, with an EXIT sign right above his head, shooting something small, possibly a MAC-10, blindly in my general direction. He did not see me in the smoke. I took him out with a head shot, betraying my position, and dove for cover under a hailstorm of bullets from all directions, including the high angle from the cat walk. I did not like this place at all. I was pinned down behind a heavy leather sofa. I swear to God, you people, from now on I’ll do my furniture shopping elsewhere.
          The UPS truck exploded with a powerful bang, momentarily throwing off the opposition and offering me an instant of respite. I dashed toward the exit, now only about fifty feet away. A steel security door started sliding down in front of me, cutting me off from what must have been the stairwell to the lower level. Another “salesman” with a handgun, this one wearing a Kevlar, materialized to my right, shooting at me. One more joined him. A bullet nicked my shoulder. I ignored it, dropping to my knee and firing at both targets, bringing one down. The other one ducked under the closing steel plate, which was coming down too fast for me to make it. Bullets, fired from somewhere behind my back, started pounding the closing steel plate. I couldn’t possibly make it. I was too far from the sliding steel. It was coming down too fast for me to make it. The door would squash me like a bug, breaking my spine, crushing my bones, cutting my body in half. I would surely die here under this door in only a few seconds. Gonna hurt like hell, too, like two hells. I leaped toward the now almost shut steel door, fortifying my all-out effort with the mental kick of all the intention that I could master, pushed in my backpack in and slid under the door just as it clicked closed, catching my jacket, pinning me down. Whew. Bullets pounded the steel door from both sides now.
          I found myself in a short, smoke-filled hallway, terminating at a stairwell door. Thanking Jesus and the United Parcel Service for the smoke cover, I wrestled out of my pinched jacket and returned fire. The Glock was now empty. Time for Jane’s Beretta. I still couldn’t see the opponent through smoke. Then I saw him down the short corridor, crouching next to the stairwell door. The instant I saw him, he saw me and took a shot. I returned fire.
The soldier pushed the door open with his feet and rolled inside-a fancy move, to be sure. Self-closing mechanism prevented the door from slamming instanteniously, but it was closing. Upon it in two strides, I pushed the door open, firing blind and still taking fire from the lonely but very determined defender, his exact position in the stairwell unknown. Stairs. I ducked bullets, lurching to my left, and slipped. A roll down a flight of stairs will probably leave a mark. No matter—nothing felt broken. My opponent stopped firing. Crouching on the landing between the floors, I must have slipped out of his line of vision. That gave me an idea of his exact location. Probably staying low right by the basement door, waiting for me. 
Without looking, I took a shot with my left. Not a lefty, I made a principle in life to use both hands whenever possible. What do you know, I got one into his Kevlar-protected chest, knocking him backwards, as my quick glanced confirmed. The path down to the basement was clear.
          Grabbing the backpack, I dashed toward the “salesman,” who was recovering way too quickly after being shot in the Kevlar. A good whack in the face with the butt of my Beretta toppled him over again. I frisked him, pocketing two clips and his Glock. I also yanked his security card off his neck.
          “The place’s in lock-down. You can’t use the card.” The contempt on his bloodied face was beyond words. “Fucking terrorist,” the soldier hissed, holding his broken nose with both hands.
          “Who, me terrorist? No, no. Just looking for my girlfriend.”
          His chuckle didn’t come out right. “Try the coffee shop across the street.”  
          “Russians got her in the basement,” I explained over my shoulder, as I gave his card a go in the electronic door lock. It worked just fine. Lock-down my ass.
          The astonished “Dude. . .” was the last word I heard from behind, as I slipped into the mirky, greenish cavern of what must have served as the Control Room. At least that is what made sense to me, as it explained the low intensiry, greenish lighting.


20
          Lots of shooting, glass everywhere—some broken, some still intact. Yes, lots of broken glass all over the pale, gleaming vinyl floors. Desks with glass tops, glass cubicle partitions, glass tactical boards, several rows of computer screens on one of the walls—dozens of screens. The Marines Special Ops C2 was made mostly of glass. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the time to ponder on the philosophical significance of this discovery. Maybe later.
          A young, athletically built blond guy, sporting a standard crewcut and dressed in bloodied jeans and Kevlar over a dark t-shirt was crawling painfully toward me, reaching for me, shaking, propping himself on his other hand, the one still clutching a handgun. Seemed like he took a machine gun burst across his Kevlar and both shoulders and also into both legs, unless some of the blood on him was somebody else’s. A sizeable blood smear on the floor behind him originated somewhere in the bleak depth of the Control Room around the messy pile of dead bodies and overturned filing cabinets.
Only about six feet away from me now, the wounded soldier froze, staring up at me from the floor, obviously surprised to see me. He couldn’t have been reaching for me then. His quick glance at something to my right betrayed his objective. With my gun trained solidly on his head, I stole a glance to my right. A square recess in the wall by the door, which I just came through, housed an unmarked red lever deep inside the niche. The manual door lockdown override. Somebody must have interrupted or prevented the normal lockdown procedure. I bet that somebody had a great health insurance coverage, including childcare and dental.
“Stay down, I got it,” I assured the soldier and pulled the lever down. Something clicked inside the wall, presumably shutting off the entry card reader, and a steel security partition slid down from the ceiling, sealing off the entrance.
“Thanks,” he breathed out, uncertain now if I was a friend or a foe. Although not truly a foe, his friend I certainly wasn’t, which is why I relieved him of his Glock and joined the firefight. This one was easy to figure out: Russians, Americans—anything that moved was a valid target for me.
The garage was my only objective. That is where I expected to find Linda. The way I figured it, the garage was at the far left front corner of the building, while the Control Room was located at the far left rear. That placed me right behind the garage area. Hang on, hon, I’m almost there.
Taking out a couple of targets, the Americans, that came into my field of vision, I moved carefully toward the front wall of the shuttered control room. A dead Russian attracted my attention mainly by his attire. He was dressed in Addidas pants, a matching jacket and a white t-shirt. Knowing Russians’ love of uniforms, I wondered briefly if I could expect them all to be dressed that way here.
Almost despite myself, I was fascinated by the computer monitors plastering the opposite wall: survalance photos of me and my friends, satellite pictures of my neighborhood, Jane’s office building. Bill’s house in Sunnyvale, among other things, several mysteriously pulsating thermal images, live traffic feed of what looked like Van Ness, survalance footage of people I didn’t know getting in and out of cars, digital schematics of audio recordings, more satellite shots, an x-ray video of some luggage moving through security, more satellite pictures and more thermal images. This furniture shop was not a one-off makeshift command center set up just for me, this was a permanent covert Special Ops Command & Control installation in the heart of San Francisco. Holly Jesus. Once again, I had no time to ponder.     
I dropped down to my knee and fired, almost by the far wall of the control room now, reacting to some motion on my right. I missed. My gun was kicked out from my hand by a kick from the left by a Russian, dressed in Addidas. A big guy. I rolled, coming out of the roll in a good position for a low kick. The Russian stumbled, I brought him down on top of me with another kick, this one to the side of his knee, noticing from the corner of my eye the second Russian, now in position to take a shot. Several shots rang in rapid succession, pummeling the body of the Russian on top of me. He shuddered a few times and went still. I didn’t have my gun. I ran out of time. The next shot of the remaining Russian will take me out. I kicked the dead body off me and rolled. The shots rang as expected, but the great pain that I expected never came. I jumped to my feet.
The second Russian was dead, shot by an American soldier, who was now looking at me through the scope of his AR-15 rifle. It occurred to me that the soldier must have saved my life because he saw me fighting with the Russians.
“Thanks, man,” I said, genuinely greatful.
“Who are you?” he asked, his rifle still plastered to his face. “Hey, aren’t you that kid, whatchemacallit, the clerk guy?”
“My name is Norman. How many times do I have to tell you people that I’m not a clerk?” I replied tersely.
“Yeah, Norman, that’s right. You’re that terrorist kid, you motherfucker! You took out all our guys at. . .”
That conversation was obviously going nowhere, so I dropped straight down on my butt with his shots ringing above my head, and kicked his feet from under him. As his body hit the gleaming floor next to me, in one fluid motion I yanked his knife off his belt and slashed the side of his face with it, giving him something else to worry about for the moment. With the soldier’s AR-15 and my recovered Beretta in my pocket I rushed toward the control room entrance. A grenade explosion ripped a rugged hole in the wall to my left, knocking me off my feet. I took a few shots at the shadows moving in the smoky darkness on the other side of the wall. Somebody yelled in pain.
I had to crawl the last few steps to the entrance door, as I was now being shot at blindly through the thin wall from at least three points—all of them to my left now, left of the control room entrance door. As the door flew open with my kick, I emptied the big AR-15 into the hallway to my left blindly and stole a quick peek. A couple of Addidas’ed motionless Russians decorated the floor, probably gotten by the grenade, and a couple of equally motionless Americans.  Two other Americans were wounded, possibly by me. The AR was now empty. I shot them both multiple times into their Kevlars and legs with the Beretta. The handgun froze open. I was now all out of ammo.
Shots rang behind me in the hallway. I rammed the opposite hallway wall in front me full speed, protectimg my head with my hands and hoping desparately that it was just as flimsy a partition as the hallway wall just taken out by the grenade. Luckily, it was. I broke through the drywall and metal studs and found myself in what probably used to serve as a crew lunch room before a fire fight that must have swept through here, leaving a few dead bodies behind amid the aftermath a grenade explosion. I could see the garage through the ripped off door in the opposite wall of the lunch room. Finally, the garage!   
Bullets kept pounding things around me. I should probably remember to get me a Kevlar vest next time.
I hit the floor next to a dead, Addidas-clad body, and grabbed an AK from the blodied floor. The fire from my right had to be suppressed, or I’d either end up dead or pinned down. I loved the AK as soon as I squeezed the trigger. A heavier weapon, it felt better, more solid, more balanced. It also seemed to be a noticeably more powerful weapon than AR-15 and used .32 caliber bullets instead of .22 for AR-15. Having emptied the magazine blindly to my right, I reloaded the AK with a clip I found on the dead Russian and bursed into the garage just in time to see a Russian goon throwing two large briefcases into the back seat of one of their sedans, then hopping into the driver’s seat and taking off. The back door of his sedan flew open as he was pulling out and Linda rolled out, her hands bound behind her back. She scrambled away from the car. My fire cover burst into his back window went true. The car with a shot-up rear window rolled uncertainly to its left where it was stopped by the far garage wall, the car’s signal blaring.
          My mad dash toward Linda was interrupted by gunfire as the second of the Russian sedans burst onto the scene. I rolled, taking cover behind a rather small wooden crate next to a concrete pillar. Two Addidas men jumped out of the sedan, one of them with an RPG on his shoulder. He was aiming at me. The other one kept shooting at me to keep me in place. I was pinned down.
          Firing my AK wildly, I attempted to get back into the lunch room. I only managed a few steps, when the RPG round exploded my entire world behind me. Briefly I sensed flying through the air. Then a crash. Then nothing at all.
          When I came around, the Russians and Linda were gone and the garage was filling up with cops in SWAT uniforms. Russians still had Linda. Did they believe they got me? If they did, they’d kill Linda. I should immediately let them know I was still alive. Not looking for any cover, right then and there, with a shaking hand I called Eugine’s “black” phone.
“Norm? I knew you’d make it, boy, good to hear your voice.”
“Tell your goons to keep Linda alive or I’ll kill you all in the goriest way I know, I promise.”
“Don’t worry, man, she’s okay. I already told them. They said, ‘He’s dead, RPG, blown to bits’ but I said ‘No, he made it.’ So, yeah, look, kid, you know how much I like you, but you got to understand the situation. You dragged us into a war with the Pentagon, you know? Special Forces, man! You didn’t tell me before, did you? I really need to think about the safety of my organization here. We all got wives and kids to worry about, too. I didn’t know I’d have to deal with the Marines on orders from the goddamn White House. Are you kidding me?”
“Let her go and I’ll disappear.” 
“No, that won’t do. You come see me, I’ll let Linda go. You stay.”
“Eugene, trust me, you don’t want me to come see you.”
“Yes, I do.”
“You’ll kill Linda anyway. She knows too much.”
“She doesn’t know shit. She can’t connect me to anything. She’s only seen a few of my guys and now only two are still alive. I’ll transfer them somewhere. She got nothing. I can definitely let her go. Listen, you think I want to kill you guys? You think I like killing my friends?”
“Not sure what you like. Thanks anyway. I’ll think about it.” 
At that, I hung up. In my estimation, Eugene had received enough motivation to keep Linda alive and that was all I wanted.
My shoulder was dislocated, my ears were ringing badly, my head was covered in blood from several lascerations, and I had a new sizeable gash on my thigh. What a night.       
No way I could get out of here unnoticed now. Ten-fifteen minutes ago I didn’t see any way in, now I couldn’t find any way out. Funny. Well, I did get in, didn’t I? I failed to get Linda out. Damn! All that for nothing.
I checked my pockets in search of a weapon. I was unarmed. That won’t do. I crawled around, groping for a weapon and finally found a loaded Glock laying around. I pocketed the Glock.
“Hey, medic! Get me a medic,” I yelled to the shadowy figures in the smoky garage.
Almost immediately a black-clad cop leaned over me. “Stay calm, soldier,” he said. “The EMTs are here already.” He thought I was a soldier.
“Hey, I got a live one here!” he shouted.
After some rudimentary medical attention, such as an injection of something or other and hydrogen peroxide all over my head and thigh and some creative bandaging, the EMTs loaded me onto a gurnery and off we rolled toward the ambulance, waiting outside. I suddenly recognized the familiar figure in brown, the UPS truck driver, giving a statement to police in a loud tone of voice. He referred to me as an “asshole” in his description, but fortunately did not recognize me with several blood-soaked pads plastered to my head, as I was rolled past him.   
The ambulance took off with a siren. A middle-aged EMT tech and his youthful female helper busied themselves rigging an IV for me.              
          I pulled out the gun and cleared my throat significantly to get their attention. They both stared.
          “Guys, thank you very much for all you did for me and for your country. I want you to know that you are in no danger whatsoever. But I do need to get patched up and out of here very fast. Understood?”
          The girl nodded eagerly. She would probably like to see me go and the sooner, the better. Her boss was not convinced.
          “You have a concussion and that thigh should be looked at,” he stated, unafraid. Well, of course he wasn’t compliant, I just told him myself that he was in no danger, dah.
          “Great!” I replied. “What’s your name, doc?”
          “Burt,” he replied.
          “And you?” I waved my gun at the girl.
          “I’m Megan,” the girl said with some reservation.
          “Okay, Burt, Meg, listen, it’s a matter of National Security. Saw me up, clean the blood off my face, get me a hat to cover the bandages, give me a couple of shots of antibiotics, pump me full of uppers—do your magic, guys. No time to waste. The country will never forget your service. Never! You hear me?”
           

         
        
21
          It only took an hour by taxi to cover a couple miles from wherever the hell the ambulance dropped me off to Eugene’s mansion on Green Street. I would have probably walked faster—and cheaper.
          Burt and Meg did a great job. A baseball hat covered bandages. My jeans had to be discarded as they were ripped and covered in blood, so I was wearing Burt’s EMT dark-blues, a couple of sizes too big. Burt’s Fruit-of-the-Looms brightened up the ambulance considerably.  I liked his pants, more room for my Glock and the knife.    
          I thanked Bill Hall silently for all the careful work he’d done last summer to get Eugene to invite me over to his house to clean up his files and reload a few things on his home computers. Bill really wanted me to see where Eugene lived and meet his elderly housekeeper Aunt Rosa. By then I had already met his very nice wife, Clara, at the café on several occasions. I also knew his two school-aged sons. In addition to Eugene, his wife, their two sons, the housekeeper, a handyman Vadim and the cleaning lady Masha, they also had a live-in security guard, Oleg, a grim Russian Special Ops vet.
Eugene’s enormous but impersonal mention failed to impress me from the beginning. To be polite, I had to exaggerate my awe a tad. The reasoning behind living in such a huge and unwelcoming house escaped me as usual. I often felt in life like a stranger at a party. Everybody else seemed to know exactly why people kissed ass, slaved, cheated, stole and murdered each other to live in huge, multimillion-dollar houses. It made perfect sense to them. But Eugene’s five thousand square foot, multimillion dollar monstrosity with an underground garage for a dozen cars sure felt like an inside joke to me.
          At 10:30 a.m. I stood in front of Eugene’s intercom feeling mildly annoyed again by the same inside joke. Sullen Oleg opened the door and eyed me suspiciously.
“Hey, Oleg. Eugene sent me to check on the computers.”
“He didn’t say anything to me. I’ll verify with Eugene. Stay here.” He took out his phone, peering at me, searching for any reaction. He found none.
“Go ahead.” I walked past him indifferently, ignoring his order, then turned, thrusting my knife into the base of his neck and covering his mouth with my hand. Oleg’s body kicked a few times and went limp in my arms. I wish I could avoid killing Oleg, but I knew I couldn’t. Sorry, man, no other way. Maybe I’ll make it up to you some time way down the road. You never know. I dragged his limp body behind the house into the manicured myrtle bushes, and pocketed his phone.  
Aunt Rosa did not recognize me until I gave her the password “Britney Spears.” Then she was all hugs and smiles. She called me horoshiy malchik (good boy), ushering me into a kitchen roughly the size of a football field, where the family probably spent most of their lives. As I’d found out on my first visit here last year, Aunt Rosa loved Britney Spears, so I put together a couple of CDs for her. Now in addition to Britney Spears, Aunt Rosa also loved me. Clara, Eugene’s wife, was still asleep.
          I went to the porch and called Eugene from Oleg’s phone.
          Eugene answered with a short but passionate terrade in Russian, which was wasted on me in its entirety.
          “Listen to me, Eugene,” I interrupted, “Stop blabbaring. Oleg’s dead. You know how much I love you? You’re like a family to me. So I swear to God, I will kill Clara and everybody else in your house, unless I see Linda back here in an hour in her car with my money to pick me up.”
          “You, fuck!“ Eugene started hatefully but I interrupted again.
          “Oh, yeah, and did I tell you I rigged your house with explosives? The detonator is only good for a thousand yards or so. I leave with Linda with no problems, your family and your property are safe. At the sign of any of your people following us, you can kiss Clara goodbye. Clear?”
          Eugene was silent for a long minute. I could make out the sounds of Good Morning America, partially buried under some Russian MTV videos. Four TV screens at the café offered early patrons a variety of entertainment this morning. I was not really worried. Eugene was a reasonable man. He would never risk a shoot-out in his own home and putting his wife in danger just because somebody went above and beyond what was considered good manners among Russian mafia types. Eugene knew what I was capable of.
          Eugene reached the intended conclusions and promised me to have Linda there in her car in a couple of hours.
          “But if you so much as touch a hair on Clara’s head,” he started. I hung up on him again.
          “Come! We’ll have some tea,” Aunt Rosa announced with a smile. “Where is Oleg?”
          “Don’t know, he was just here, he let me in.” I shrugged.
          “I’ll call him,” said Aunt Rosa. “He loves tea.”
          Near-sighted Aunt Rosa started patting all horizontal surfaces in search of her cell phone.
          I whipped Oleg’s phone from my pocket and turned it off.
          Aunt Rosa finally found her phone. “Strange,” she said. “Oleg isn’t answering.”
          “Probably doing something important. It’s okay,” I assured her. “Let’s have some tea.”
          “Yes! Let’s have some tea. Let’s invite Masha and Vadim, too.”
          “Sure!”
A Russian tea ceremony could be as elaborate as the Japanese one. Russian tea is prepared in a ceramic teapot with dried, crushed tea leaves. You fill the teapot with boiling water, cover it with a ceramic lid and set it aside for five minutes. Then you boil some more water in another pot and set it next to the ceramic teapot. Next you get an exquisite porcelain cup into which the lady of the house places a sliver of a lemon. Then she pulls out minimally two dozen of different types of cakes, pastries and cookies, while repeatedly apologizing for not having any sweets at all for her dear guests. I like vanilla sushki the best—kind of like a happy marriage between a donut and a pretzel. The lady of the house pours about half a cup of very strong tea from the ceramic teapot into your cup and then dilutes it with some hot water and adds a teaspoon or two of sugar.
That concludes the tea preparation ceremony and starts the tea consumption ceremony, which lasts anywhere from thirty minutes to three and a half hours, at which point it smoothly morphs into a full meal and normally ends with more tea and pastries. And so it goes. I’d imagine it could be quite demanding.
          Clara woke up around 11:00 a.m. and joined us at the kitchen table in her bathrobe, all soft and pleasantly fuzzy from sleep. Clara was a small, pretty woman in her late thirties, her blond hair tied in a simple ponytail by a colorful band. Not particularly beautiful, Clara was genuenly alluring in a feminine way. She smiled, not especially surprised to see me, and asked me to forgive her for not wearing any makeup. With that, I embarked on a complement so convoluted and sugary that I lost the main thread about half-way through, but so did she, so that was fine.
          We talked about Russia, America, Obama, religions, Britney Spears and recent movies. It was fun.
          Linda called me around noon with the news that she was parked outside Eugene’s house. Was I happy to hear her voice!
After a deliberate mutual thanks and a farewell ceremony, complete with hugs and kisses from Aunt Rosa, Clara and even Masha, I finally walked out with some sushki for Linda—compliments of Aunt Rosa. Got to watch that old lady, or she’ll smooch you to death.
22
          Linda’s Honda Civic was double-parked outside with its engine running. I’d barely got in when Linda took off like a bat out of hell. I knew she’d had a rough night, and her morning wasn’t any better. She looked tired. I thought I also discerned bruises around her wrists, her lip was swollen and her hair was a mess.
I looked around. Nobody was following us.
“Picky!” Linda squeeled in delight.  
“Hi, love! How you doing?” I grinned back, squeezing her hand, and she squeezed mine in return, affectionately.
“How. . .?”
Linda nudged me to shut up, making big eyes, and scribbled the words “car bugged” on some old receipt lying around. What did they do to my Linda? Not only had she known about the car being bugged, but she also understood the value of keeping her knowledge from the bad guys, thus holding her options open in case she wanted to misinform the opposition.
          “I’m all right, honey,” she said.  What a terrible night! How are you holding up?” Linda asked, concerned. At a time like this she was concerned about me. Need I say more about my lady?
          “What’s on your head? Bandages?”
          “Yeah, just a few scratches, no worries.”
          She was there at that furniture store, she knew what went on. I knew she wasn’t worried about a couple of scrapes.
“How is Yvette?” Linda asked.
“Yvette’s dead, hon,” I answered, sadness gripping me again.
Linda looked at me and shook her head in disbelief. “Killed?” she asked. “Or an accident?”
“Killed,” I replied.
Linda squeezed my hand in reassurance that she was with me through thick and thin. A thought went through my mind suddenly about how different Linda was now than, let’s say, forty-eight hours ago. Then she would’ve probably been a complete wreck at the news of Yvette’s death.
We drove in sad silence for a moment, remembering Yvette.
          “I’m pooped. Got a room at the Burton Hotel near Union Square. A pretty decent place. Let’s take a shower, get some sleep. Some bad people are after some information I have. I tried to sell it to them but they blew it, the imbeciles. Let’s rest a bit, and then I’m taking the goods to the Chinese.” I explained tiredly and scribbled “Starbucks.”
I could not think of a better way to use the bug at the moment. I’d keep the Russians busy while talking to a cop, any SFPD cop, to find out where I stood with the law.
Sending Russians to the Burton Hotel, which was very probably being stalked by SFPD, put kind of a perverse little bow on the whole package. Had to admit I was still a bit cross about Eugene ordering Buriat to kill me and several other things that put a sizeable kink in our relationship. Meanwhile, I wanted to talk to a cop.
Where would you find a cop? Starbucks is a good place to try. Have you ever heard of a held-up Starbucks? These coffee shops were virtually crime-free during business hours. And they should be.
          Linda, with a concerned and bewildered frown, pointed at the large bag on the back seat. She made huge eyes at me again and scribbled “$1 million—Eugene”, and raised her eyebrows quizzically. Eugene kept three million. Figures. Lettuce prices must have gotten completely out of hand. I showed her my bag and scribbled “200K—me” and shrugged in a hey-what-do-I-know manner. She eyed me with a frightened frown and concentrated on her driving. Ma’ girl.
I’d inadvertently put her life in grave danger. I was still unaware of how I’d gotten involved or what exactly I was involved in, but I was definitely up to my butt in crocodiles and so was Linda, by association. She was kidnapped twice in one night. Must be a record. What an ordeal!
          The Starbucks Fillmore was quite busy, as typical for any Starbucks. A funny transcending phenomenon, the Starbucks—transcends everything. A news reporter friend told me once how Jordanian youth liked to gather at one of Amman’s numerous Starbucks to vent their anti-American sentiments over their low fat, vanilla spice lattes.
          We’d stopped at the one on Fillmore because I saw a cop through the window.
          The tag on the cop’s shirt read “Sgt. Feinstein.” Mazel tov. I picked up an old newspaper from an empty table and held it over my right hand as if concealing a gun under it. I didn’t bother to actually conceal anything under the newspaper, but I did have a Glock in my pocket. I took an empty seat in front of the cop. He stared at me calmly. Mid-fifties, grey hair, grey mustache, grey, intelligent eyes. Chewing his scone slowly, a cup of steaming brew in his left hand. A lefty. Both hands above the table.
          “Hello, Officer Feinstein, mind if we join you?”
          “We?”
          “Me and my Glock.”
          “You shouldn’t threaten a police officer with a bare finger, Norman. Just ain’t right. Listen to me, you don’t need more trouble right now. You need less trouble right now. Verstehen?” The cop indulged in a bit of a smile, keeping both hands above the table. He actually looked quite relaxed sitting there, sipping coffee and munching on a reduced fat oat scone.
          “You know my name? Have we met? I’m at a disadvantage here, officer.”
          “Call me Surge, Norman. We had a picture of you passed around last night. There was an APB on you.”
          “Was? Not anymore?”
          “Oh, yeah, we still have an APB on you but as a witness now. Feds want to talk to you. You didn’t kill the FBI men, but you saw what happened. That makes you a witness. You should turn yourself in and turn in the gun, too, before you lose it or break it or something. Government property.”
          “Thank you, sir, for the information and Happy Passover!” I got up.
          “I’m German, you schmuck. Boy, are you mixed up!”
“That I am. Nice chatting with you, sir. I’m going to walk out now. Please remain seated. I had a very rough night.”
          “I ain’t interested in chasing you. But I want to know who killed the Feds.”
          “Other Feds.”
          “Why?”
          “I suspect it had something to do with escaping from this planet on the Guards’ transport. Okay?”
“Okay.”
“Take care, Surge.”
          “You too, Norman. My advice—get some rest and stay off booze, amphetamines and coffee.”
          “Will do.”
          I walked out unhurriedly. The German Sergeant Feinstein would not blow a whistle on me—not till he was done with his java, if ever. I liked that about him, my kind of a cop.
          “All done?” Linda asked matter-of-factly when I joined her in the car.
          “Yes, honey. Chinese are paying up. We’ll be rich!”
          “Oh, good! We’ll buy a house in San Ramon and get two cats!” Linda was playing along like a real trooper.
          “Two cats? I’ve always been impartial to pittbulls myself.”
          “Shut up, Norman, do yourself a favor. Stop embarasing yourself. A pittbull? Do you even know what being classy means? Where to now, by the way?”
          “Burton Hotel. Let’s get something to eat first.”
          “I’m starving. Let’s do Vietnamese. Wait till you hear what the Russians fed me. Talk about torture.”
          “Poor baby,” I cooed, motioning to Linda to park her car next to a lonely Toyota minivan that I was planning to steal.


23
          The way I figured the current situation, our next destination was going to be Washington DC, to have a talk with whoever was behind this insanity. The Sienna I stole was nothing exciting but fully sufficient, as Toyotas usually are, with one indisputable key advantage over Linda’s Civic: it wasn’t bugged. Linda refused to take part in the car theft, so I had her wait a short way down the street. How did I know how to steal cars? No idea. Picked it up somewhere along the way, as with most things I knew. People often leave their cars unlocked anyway.
After giving me what-for regarding my criminal exploits, Linda briefed me on what had happened to her. The Russians treated her all right.
“Norm, get me in the loop. I insist. You got me into something real bad here. I almost lost my life. I have the right to know what’s going on.”
“Hon, wait a little longer, will you? It isn’t the time yet. Please?”
She shrugged and turned away, upset.
I wasn’t ready. I would truly have to do a lot of fancy explaining to impart the truth to Linda about things like the Fifth Battalion and the Guards, the news of her immortality and a horde of other things. I was tired. I was not looking forward to that talk, but I knew I would have to do it at some point.
          Somewhere around Tahoe, we stopped at an out of the way motel that had a full wing under renovation. Linda immediately went to the shower. Using the cell phone so graciously bestowed upon me by the late Special Ops Colonel—never asked his name—I placed a call to General Roberts. The Pentagon. Wow, Pentagon! The Hub, Planet Earth. Think of all the power, intercontinental intrigues and transoceanic saber rattling that emanated from that seat of American power.
It would only seem that contacting the Pentagon on a privileged line would grow some extra hair on my chest. However, even if you looked at it all from the viewpoint of say, a hundred years of planet Earth time, current US Government, or any current Earth government for that matter, loses most of its significance. Try looking from the viewpoint of a million years of thousands of galactic civilizations constantly mired in interstellar politics. How much significance does the convicts’ military really have in the overall scheme of things? None whatsoever—objectively speaking.
          Voice mail message on the fourth ring. A voice mail? A computer-generated voice told me to leave a message. I did, two words, “Praying Mantis” and hung up.
          How could a call, placed on such a high-value line, solicit a voice mail message reply? Was this normal? I could see how that could be. Roberts could simply be unavailable for a wide variety of important or unimportant reasons. But I could see quite a different scenario, too, as a distinct possibility. What if Roberts, aware of the colonel’s death and failure of the mission, was now hot on my trail personally—unsuccessfully thus far, as I’d had the phone battery removed so my location couldn’t be traced.
What if he was expecting this call from me, waiting for it—he and a hundred thugs—all waiting for me to place that call? Now I had placed the call and—what? They had located me. Tick-tock. Some black Kevlar-clad dimwits with big guns were probably boarding some transport to come here and kill us both that very second. What was next? Next, I could expect a return call from Roberts when they were ready to strike to confirm my identity and establish that I had the flash drive in my possession. And then? And then we were dead.
Death, to me, was not as permanent a bummer as to a one-lifer, but a major bummer nonetheless. What with all the disappointment, pain and losses (Linda, for one, a huge one)—not to mention the ridiculous pampers and the giddy ‘mama, papa’ routine, learning the alphabet, then the hormones fireworks and puberty hustle—some eighteen years of pure nonesense just to start being a person again. Pathetic. Not yet, not now.
          Linda was still in the shower. We had to leave this place. Yes, drop the phone in the toilet, get in the car and drive off while we still had a chance. Perhaps, but then I wouldn’t get any closer to solving the mystery, would I? And I’d always have to keep running. And what about my friends who gave their lives running the interference for me? I had a better idea. With our moneybags and a bewildered Linda wrapped in a towel in tow, her clothes in a bundle, I simply walked down to a room under renovations, carrying a blanket in a heap, and picked the lock. The room had no furniture, smelled of fresh paint and had plastic on the floor. It only took a minute to uncover the floor and crash. Ah, rest, finally. I closed my eyes and felt Linda’s hot breath on my face and then her lips on mine. Well, I wasn’t all that tired anyway.
          Snuggled next to Linda, savoring the delicate scent of sex, I smiled, remembering Linda’s enthusiasm a few minutes ago. Pleasant, languid satisfaction spread through my loins. Linda slept peacefully, smiling an adorable little smile—the newly found hardness melted away from her face. I set the cell phone on the floor within easy reach. According to my theory, a reasonably good one, our safety was assured all the way until they got here and called me to verify our position and the flash drive’s location. Meanwhile—rest. Not even sure how and when I fell asleep. I was dreaming of Linda. A long time ago. Her name was Ursula then.
I was barely sixteen when I caught up with Ursula. My heart skipped quite a few beats when I saw her. About thirty-four then, wearing a simple cotton work robe and soft rawhide shoes, Ussi was even more beautiful. I was so happy to see her! Blood rushed to my head, numbing my senses and turning my legs to jelly. If I could just touch her! I wanted so much to embrace her, kiss her lips. Not yet. Ussi wouldn’t recognize me. One-lifers trust their eyes too much, vastly overestimating the true capabilities of the primitive lense and optic nerves to see the real truth.
My Ussi. She lived in our old house with her new husband Phillies now. He was a mean, burly guy of about forty, an old man. A strong, silent type. A total jerk, in other words. I hated him immediately. If he were such a tough guy, why didn’t he build his own house, hmm? Why did he have to take mine? Like I said, a fake and a jerk. And what kind of a stupid name is Phillies?
Ursula did not recognize me at first in a homeless stray looking for work. I stared into her eyes and held my gaze. She suddenly grew speechless, tears rolling down her cheeks. Then she sobbed, averting her gaze and wiped her tears with the sleeve of her tunic. She allowed me to do some chores around the yard in exchange for food, and I could sleep in the barn. Later that day, as I was chopping wood, I saw her crying. She did not recognize me, but I guess I reminded her of—well, of myself.
I also met Thomas and Agnes, my children. They were older than I was now, good-looking people, both of them, strong and cheerful. My heart went to them. With a start, I discerned a clear resemblance to their father, to me. Wide in the shoulders, both, high foreheads and large strong hands. Unbearable as it was to keep silent that moment, I kept the joy of returning to my beloved family to myself. Both of my children stared at me for a long minute. Then Agnes showed me around, smiling and holding my hand. She didn’t wish to let go. We were perfectly comfortable holding hands. I cherished the company of my sweet little girl, especially her open face and the graceful, composed way she carried herself—she must have taken after her mother. Thomas was a toolmaker’s apprentice, recently married. I felt very happy around Ussi, Thomas and Agnes.
Ursula had two healthy boys with her new husband, little Peter and Paul, who were busy scurrying around most of the time, yelling excitedly.
Soon, we were spending most of our waking time together. Then the inevitable happened. One time Ussi sent me to the creek nearby to wash clothes. She joined me a bit later. We washed the clothes, horsing around and ended up in the water, fully dressed. Laughing, we splashed and chased one another. Then Ussi gave me a large linen sheet to dry myself, took one for herself and went deeper into the woods to change. I quickly won—or lost, as the moral uprights would say—a brief but very intense moral struggle with myself and followed her into the brush.
          I found her drying her sweet, naked body with a sheet, gazing at me dreamily. I came over and stood in front of her wrapped in my sheet, shivering, staring. I adored that body. God, how much I missed her! She missed me too. I could feel it. Still naked, she started rubbing my back through the sheet, explaining in a suddenly hoarse voice that she didn’t want me to catch cold. She brushed her hand against my genitals through the sheet several times, gasping. Then I felt her warm, eager hand inside the sheet stroking me rhythmically, while I caressed her delicious moist softness. We were both red, trembling and breathing heavily.
I had the body of a sixteen-year-old boy. She was a married thirty-five-year-old woman, a mother of four. In my estimation, the result of our lustful preludes was going to be a huge guilt trip, and she’d probably send me away forever and ruin everything. Preemptively, I whispered in her ear, “I love you, Ussi. I adore you. I’m back.”
I was the only one who ever called her Ussi.
Beautiful eyes suddenly large as two saucers right in front of mine. Her legs gave out. She dropped to her knees in front of me, pushing back the scream, tears streaming down her suddenly luminous face. I saw incredible anguish mixed with joy and a whole lot of love on that beautiful face. I dropped to my knees in front of her. We hugged. She held me tight to her chest while her whole body convulsed and shuddered in silent weeping. We both wept.
          Ussi sang songs on our way home, her eyes brighter than stars in the sky; she was radiating absolute and utter happiness. It was dark by the time we got to her house (my house, actually). It was time to turn in for the night.
I could not sleep on my old horse cloth in the barn, staring into the darkness, thinking how things could have been, when the barn gates creaked, and I heard Ussi’s light steps. She climbed the shaky ladder to the hay bay and groped around for me. Without another word, Ussi fell into my arms. We both cried quietly for a bit. We kissed and cuddled and then made love—finally!—long and sweet, tasting, savoring and enjoying every square millimeter of each other’s body.
Tragically, we only run into each other about once every thousand years or so. We had spent centuries searching for each other, thinking we’d found one another only to realize we hadn’t. All that while Ursula never remembered anything and so had no idea who she was always searching for. Well, now we were finally together. We savored every moment.

Seemed that I was setting up the cell phone one moment and it was ringing the very next instant—but actually over two hours later.
          “Yeah. Ha-lloh,” I mumbled my best imitation of a coherent phone greeting. I knew it was Roberts (who else?) and the call was of crucial importance, but I couldn’t get my eyelids unstuck and my lips working. Adrenaline quitting is a bitch.
“State your name.”
That was it? Not even a “hello”? Arrogant bastard, a big shot general in Washington. He knew who I was.
          “Who, me? Charley. Charley Brown. The guy who deeply offended the entire troop of Girl Scouts you sent to sell cookies last night. State your name.”
          “General Roberts,” the voice stated in a snotty and kind of huffing manner. “DOD Special Ops.”
          Yes, Department of Defense.
          “Whoopee do.”
          General chose to ignore my ever so slightly disrespectful retort. “Charley? You mentioned an insect in your message. What was that about?”
          “That’d be about A5B. Is this a secure line?”
          “There is no such thing as a secure line, soldier, but don’t worry about that right now.”
“Cool. Here is the beef I have with you, Roberts. You tried to kill me, you kidnapped my girlfriend, and you killed my bird. That is unbecoming of a true US Government executive and a Baltizor Confederate officer. I’m disappointed, to say the least. You guys caused the death of two FBI agents and the entire Special Ops operation, complete with their CO, a full Colonel, as well as several innocent bystanders.” The innocent bystanders were the Russian mafia soldiers, but I decided against discussing the finer points with an arrogant brute like Roberts. He was so full of himself, he’d never get through his thick skull that they all were, in fact, innocent. The Marines, the Russians—all of them.
          “A tragic mistake that I truly regret. I can brief you on that.” If the General was remorseful about all the death and suffering he caused, his voice did not betray his feelings. More likely, he had no feelings whatsoever. None.
          “Yes, please, do brief me.”
          “The Command orders were to get the computer files from you. They are needed for an upcoming operation of the same sort you’ve occasionally been a part of in the past. My orders were to pay you off. We ran into criminal noncompliance on the ground, which resulted in the tragic events and casualties that you cited. Dealing with the kind of people prevalent in this locale, such a turn of events is very unfortunate but hardly surprising, is it? You know what kind of people I’m referring to?”
          “The P-3 criminals. Yes, I know—and so did you and the DOD. So why hasn’t the op been controlled better? Why operate at such risk?” I rubbed my eyes, stifling a yawn. Boy, I was tired. Linda snuffled peacefully behind my back. Cute as ever. These guys were out of control.
 “Where is Brell?” I asked.
          “What is your name and rank, soldier? For the true ID verif.” There we go, the ID verif. I felt my stomach knotting briefly. Next he’d check if I had the flash drive on me.
          “Gunnery Sergeant Grach, 2nd Surface Crawler, A5B.”
          “OSI battery?”
          “No, sir. The Lancer gun. We didn’t have OSIs on the 2nd Crawler.”
          “Very good, Gunny, pass.”
          “So what’s Brell’s 20?”
          “Why do you want to know, Sergeant?”
          “I don’t. But you got me into this mess, so now I think I should.”
          “I’m taking my orders from General O’Hara. And have been for a very long time. Very long time. Does that answer your question?”
          “Yes-s . . . sir.” The implication was that General Brell, the Commanding Officer of the Advance Battalion was now the DOD, the Secretary of Defense of the United States. That is what Roberts was saying to me. General Roberts, that is, most likely one of Brell’s Priests, one of Brell’s closest cohorts from way back when. So why wasn’t I buying that O’Hara was Brell? Because Brell would never have operated so sloppily and ruthlessly, causing the deaths of innocent people and wreaking havoc and mayhem right, left and center. That’s why. How did I know? I knew Brell. But the million-dollar question was why Brell’s identity was so important to the top brass all of a sudden. Important enough to take incredible chances, to lie and kill for?
          “Where is the removable data storage device, Gunny?”
          Kabum. The other shoe had kicked the bucket.
          “I have it on me, sir. How can I get it to you?”
          “Where are you?” As if he didn’t know.
          I gave him the name of the motel, location and my room number—not the one we stayed in but the one we were supposed to occupy.
          “Stay where you are. I’ll send somebody over in the morning. Say 10:00 a.m.? You probably need some rest.”
          Not likely. I had no time at all. They’d be here in seconds and kill us both. Fear squeezed my entire being in that debilitating grip I knew so well.
“Great! I do need rest,” I replied evenly. “Thank you very much, General. Over and out.”

24
          Time: 2:15 a.m. Another long night. Roberts was lying and his promise to let us rest till morning was another one of his lies—one of many. I tossed Colonel’s phone into the toilet and turned to wake Linda up. She was already awake, watching me, eyes big as two saucers.
          “What’s going on, Norman? Who is this general from the Pentagon? Are you out of your frigging mind?”
          “Let’s get out of here first, hon, we are in danger.”
          “No! You got me into this. I want to know what’s going on first.” Linda was fussing but getting dressed quickly. Ma’ girl.
          “Out, Linda, through the bathroom window. Now!”
Hopping on one foot and pulling up my pants in the dark, I peeked through the blinds on the front window just as a large van and several SUVs pulled into the motel parking lot. Machine guns on the ready, disembarking faceless people in all black started taking position in front of the room a few doors over—the room where we were supposed to stay. With no further ado, I rushed after Linda to the bathroom window.
If I were smarter, I would have probably parked the Sienna behind the motel instead of parking it in front. On the other hand, Sienna, designed first and foremost for family safety, was not the best getaway car anyway, so having to steal another car now opened an opportunity for a nimbler, more muscular car. Optimistically speaking, I might not have been all that dumb leaving Sienna at the front after all. No, I quickly concluded, I was as dumb as I thought, even dumber. One look around the back parking lot sufficed as the proof. The selection of potential getaway cars was limited to only two vehicles on the stark asphalt emptiness: a dilapidated pickup truck loaded with empty wooden crates to twice its height and an old, tiny Ford Fiesta with engine smaller than in most modern lawn mowers. The back seat was stuffed to the top with bags and belongings. A withering look from Linda, as I broke the driver’s window with my elbow, added insult to the injury.
“Get in!” I ordered a bit too rough. “Sorry, babe, we got to go.” I softened the rhetoric. She’d had enough roughness lately—way too much, actually.
“That’s all right, Picky, I’ll live. For the record, it’s all your fault,” Linda replied with an accusing glance in my direction. There was no fear in that glance and not much anger, either. Surprisingly, Linda was holding up like a real trooper. Who knew?
Should’ve stolen the truck, I thought, pulling out of the parking lot through the back entrance just as half a dozen commandos turned the corner to cover the back. Sneezing out wafts of smoke, the Fiesta gingerly made her way out onto the back street, sparsely lit by a single lamppost.
“I’ll kill you,” muttered Linda, cramped on the passenger’s seat, clutching the two moneybags. “Sure, and pocket all the money?”
Another withering look.
I silently handed her the Glock.
“Here, in case we need it.” I nodded in the direction of the armed grown-ups playing ninja.
“Not in your life!” Linda bristled. “I’m not shooting anybody. I’m not a killer! Besides,” she came down an octave, “I don’t even know how to aim or anything, so . . .”
“You wanted to kill me, remember? Not fair!”
“Don’t get fresh, Norman. You’re in a heap of trouble with me right now, just so you know. I don’t even wanna talk to you so shut up and drive.” She suddenly punched me on the shoulder, hard. Live and learn.
“Yes, dear, so I’ll be just driving here quietly then, okay?”
“I have a life. I had a life! I had a job. I had my mom and dad . . .” She started sobbing.
“But, hon, now you have a million bucks.”
She hit me again, painfully.
She was right. Joking aside, I was responsible for placing Linda in mortal danger. Even if we emerged victorious at the other end—if we emerged at all, as the case might be—there was plenty of suffering in our near future for us and many others, including but not limited to all the dead and maimed soldiers and even to the owners of the cars that I kept stealing. Alas, life as she knew it was definitely over. My heart squeezed painfully. Nothing I could do would change the course of events. I really wanted to hit my head on this pitiful little car’s fender a few times in powerless desperation. Linda, my dear, I wish I could’ve prevented this nightmare.
I kept silent.


25
To confuse the pursuers, I skipped I-80 and kept driving north into the park, then turned right, east, on one of the back roads. We couldn’t outrun any mode of transportation with the possible exception of a backhoe. The old Fiesta, floored, barely did fifty-five. Fortunately, we had some hours before the Feds found us. This car obviously wasn’t up to the task of seeing us through; we needed a better car. To my chagrin, I could see nothing but black emptiness all around us.
“Who are these people after us?” Linda asked nervously, wringing her hands.
“CIA, NSA, AFV, DUI, CBS, DMV—some such letters. Who knows?” I replied, shaking my head miserably.
“But why? Why are they after us?”
“They want the flash drive. This one.” I fished the tiny object from my pocket.
“This little piece of crap? Give it to them! Right now! Let’s go back!” Linda yelled through sudden tears. “Don’t you understand? They’ll kill us!”
“Too late. They’ll kill us anyway. They already sent three teams of Marines after me and that was before we trashed their command center. Now I’m a witness to all of that.” I shrugged apologetically, stepping on the gas with all my might. “And I wounded three of their guys earlier, too,” I added.
We were almost all the way up to sixty now.
She stared at me through tears as if she was seeing me for the first time. “You killed all their Marines?”
“Well, some are probably in a hospital right now . . . I hope.”
“And the others are—what? Dead? How many did you kill?”
I didn’t reply.
“What’s on that stupid flash?” she asked sobbing in earnest now, trembling, face in her hands.
“A picture of some hills, trees, rain and a poem in some unrecognizable language. Listen, Linda, I am really sorry about all this. You know, I’d never knowingly put you in any danger.”
“Norm, sometimes you’re such an idiot.”
Being crestfallen and apologetic didn’t work either. I had to keep things light and hopeful—for Linda’s sake and mine.
“Relax, hon. I have a plan.” I patted Linda’s knee but she pushed my hand away.
“Oh, yes, murderer, now I feel much better, you have a plan! Who are you planning to kill now? The president of the United States?”
Lacking too much vital information to answer that question honestly, I answered as truthfully as I could under the circumstances. “I sure hope not, I really like that nerd.”
Linda’s despondent sobs confirmed my suspicion that I wasn’t getting anywhere with my attempts to comfort her. With a deep sigh, I concentrated on my driving. That is when I noticed two pairs of headlights behind me, at a great distance but gaining fast, too fast.
“Shit! How could they have found us so quickly?”
Linda made big eyes at me. “The soldiers?”
“Do you still have your cell phone on you?” I asked.
She pulled out her phone and showed it to me.
“That’s how they’re tracking us,” I commented calmly, thinking.
Linda unexpectedly threw her phone out the window into the darkness.
“No, wait!” I yelled. Too late. We’d have to get off the road in a few seconds, and the phone would serve as a fifty-foot neon sign with a huge arrow pointing at us.
“What? You said they were tracking my phone!”
“That’s okay, honey, never mind. We’ll have to drive off the road now.”
Bumpy driving down the steep embankment with my lights off. The car finally hit the dirt and stalled. It wouldn’t start. Two large dark SUVs whooshed past doing at least ninety.
“Do you want me to push?” asked Linda, her lips trembling. She seemed terrified.
“No, hon, we’ll leave the car here and go on foot, quick now!”
“Leave some money for the owners,” she suddenly said, surprising me. Not nearly as terrified as I thought.
“Not now, Linda, we really must go.”
“They need it.” Linda bristled, surprising the living crap out of me yet again. “Here, let’s leave this.” She fished two wrapped wads of hundreds, twenty thousand dollars’ worth in total, from one of the moneybags and stuck it between piles of clothing in the back. That’s more money than these people have ever seen in their life, I thought to myself. The chance of the money ever reaching the Fiesta owners after the Feds were done searching the car was slim, but that failed to diminish the deed in my eyes.
“Linda, did I tell you I love you?”
Linda smiled affectionately. “Can I get a rain check on that? Come on, Picky, you’ll tell me later. Don’t forget.”
We ducked into the thicket, branches scraping at our skin, my heart pounding.
Looking back from some pine-covered hill, I saw several cars right around where we left the Fiesta. They were joined by a helicopter illuminating the scene brightly from above. The helicopter flew in circles, looking for us, the fugitives.
Shadowy vastness of the sleeping forest around us was its own mysterious world—a rather uncomfortable one, I thought, as I slipped on the uneven ground and rolled down the hill in the wet darkness all the way down, followed by Linda.
“There are bears here, did you know that?” Linda asked, picking twigs out of her hair.
That was true, I remembered, Tahoe National Park was known for its bears.
“Watch out for people, hon,” I replied. “Screw the bears. Keep up.”
At sunrise, chilled to the bone, exhausted and dirty, we finally found a town of sorts, which consisted predominantly of horse stables.
We washed up the best we could in a trough lined with slimy moss and strolled to the center of town, following a presumptuous “Downtown” sign. We kept close to houses or trees as we went, expecting pursuit. Several black SUVs did indeed pass us, forcing us to duck into the gutter. We were quite possibly now following the SUVs to their destination. Did we have any choice?
The vast complexity of our situation could be reduced to two key factors that could help us gain any advantage or clarity at the moment: a good car and the information contained in the flash drive files. Those were at the heart of our basic and immediate problems. Two more factors reached even deeper into the cosmic existentialism of it all: food and rest.
We chose the coffee shop for its name, Wi-Fi Java. Linda wanted to see the files. Apparently, she’d been great at riddles and crosswords since early childhood. SUVs were nowhere in sight.
Fortunately, this place offered more to the weary travelers than coffee and Internet. Munching on our eggs at their computer, we tried the flash drive.
Same storm-pummeled hills and the document in an unrecognizable language.
“What do you make of this?” I asked Linda as she studied the picture in silence.
She shrugged. Then, “Wait, something’s wrong.”
One of the black SUVs suddenly loomed large right in front of us in the shop window. It stopped.
“Linda, go!” I threw a hundred on the table—we had no smaller bills—grabbed Linda’s hand as we galloped toward the back door, Linda clutching the flash drive in her hand.
That is when I saw him—one of the customers coming in through the back door and strolling unhurriedly past us toward the agents who were about to storm the joint. A big guy. Greying crew cut. About forty-five. Light on his feet. Calm, intelligent gaze. Thick neck, very muscular—excessively so. Couldn’t have been clearer if the word “Guard” was tattooed in red on his forehead. Damn! Cold beads of sweat suddenly formed on my forehead.
 I rushed out into the morning freshness.
“Wait, Picky, wait!” Linda half-yelled after me.
We had to go. The FBI, or whoever was after us, was too close for comfort. And the Guards were here, too. Not a good place, in a way of an understatement, not good at all.
Some older guy had parked his beat-up Camaro across the street in front of a liquor store. Our next ride.
“Howdy.” I smiled and waved. He eyed me indifferently.
“Hey, listen, how much do you want for your Camaro?” I inquired as casually as possible.
Linda emerged from the café, looking all worried and keeping aside, as if she didn’t know me.
“Not for sale.” The old guy’s stare turned suspicious now.
“Ten thousand, cash,” I replied and handed him the money. “I’m a collector. Like this car. It’s got character. Okay?”
I kept glancing at the back café door, expecting to see the Feds any second. Nobody came out. Why? Somebody or something was holding them inside, that’s why. Could it be that the Guard was helping us? Nonsense.
The old man snatched the money from my hand so fast, he could’ve dislocated all kinds of ligamens at his age. “Knock youself out, kid. Dunno where’s the title’s at, though.”
“Hey, no problem,” I assured him. True, the title was the least of our problems.
“She’s a little slow on the uptake, so watch that, and the carburetor’s . . .” the old man continued.
“Oh, don’t worry, pops, we’ll give her a full once-over when we get home to Phoenix,” I promised. “Thanks!” Then to Linda, “Aisha, honey, look what I found! Isn’t she a beaut? Get in, let’s take ’er for a spin.”
The old-timer threw a startled glance at Aisha. Oh, no, an interracial couple! They probably considered this exactly the kind of behavior people normally got themselves brimstoned for in the afterlife.
“Crazy city brats,” he mumbled, pocketing the money on his way to the liquer store.
Linda got in with a tight frown.
“Aisha? Seriously? Racist pig.”
“Relax, Aisha. At least you got a race. All I got is the default setting.”
Several local police cars whooshed by at high-speed with their sirens blaring. The cops paid no attention to us. What the hell happened with the pursuit?
Camaro was slow on the uptake, just as the old-timer promised, but ran fine once it got going. Clocking ninety, her large, throbbing V8 rumbled easily.
“Now, this is a real car!”
The SUVs were still nowhere to be seen.
                                                 

26
“I need some clothes,” Linda’s announcement was music to my ears: she must be feeling all right and back to her own self, the Special Ops be damned.
“Sure, honey, let’s stop in South Lake Tahoe, have a dinner, buy some stuff.”
Security-wise not the absolute best time for hanging around, but sometimes morale of the troops is more important than the immediate security concerns.
We hung around the small town, bought new clothes for both of us. Linda’s black designer jeans hugged her butt most admirably and her turquoise silk blouse didn’t do very much to obfuscate her curves. Her new turquoise high-heeled shoes were way too chic for where we were going.
“Very nice,” I declared, looking at her shoes. “But not the most practical footgear for running.”
Linda’s steely glare adequately expressed her opinion that she deserved the shoes after all the trouble I’d put her through. So naturally, we got the shoes.
We also got a pair of New Balance cross-training shoes for me, as well as a pair of Levi’s, couple of Nike T-shirts and a few other little things—nothing too ostentatious.
At Kuztum Bargains in Tahoe City we scored a cheap laptop and two blank flash drives.
Then against my better judgment, Linda got me a haircut encounter of a really close kind.
A good dinner was next on the agenda. Linda felt like Greek or Mediterranean, as usual. We decided on Artemis Grill on Lake Tahoe Boulevard. I ordered my favorite Kalamboki as a starter—roasted corn with spiced feta butter. Linda started with Karpouzi—watermelon and feta cheese with pine nuts.
With our deadly predicament always in the back of our minds, we found the strength to converse pleasantly and even horse around. Linda relaxed quite a bit over her Galeos Halibut steak. I had Mousaka lamb, chased by half a bottle of Shafer Merlot, Napa Valley 2009 for sixty bucks, completely unfazed by the prices or any sentiments as to how fitting our wine was with the food we ate.
Now all I wanted was to check in some out of the way motel and get some rest. I was looking forward to a wonderful, short and quiet evening together and then plenty of sleep. After a short but pleasant stroll to our parked Camaro, we drove off in search of a suitable hole to crawl into.
“Here is Motel 6,” Linda announced. “Is that indescript enough?”
“That’ll do. Probably half-empty and deserted,” I agreed. I didn’t want attention.
A crowd of tourists with children in the small lobby created a terrible din. Two clerks in attendance were busy shepherding the flock. Nothing like I’d imagined.
“Sixty-nine dollars for the night, plus taxes,” a tired-looking older man, probably from India or Pakistan, informed me matter-of-factly. “Cash or charge?”
“Here.” I handed him a hundred. “I’ll be out by eleven tomorrow. Can I just get my room and crash? I’m really tired.”
Through the window the clerk saw Linda in the car, smiled and nodded in understanding. He gave me a key and waved me out, skipping the formalities.
Exhausted out of our minds, we crashed and slept like two rocks—at least I know I did. I dreamed of Linda again.
Her name was Ursula then, my one and only true love, my Ussie.  Almost a year passed before we were finally caught in the act by Ursula’s husband Phillies. That fateful night, we were making love in the barn, basking in every delicious moment, when the fat bastard attacked us with a pitchfork.
          Although I was very preoccupied and working hard at that moment, survival instincts honed by an eternity of nearly constant trouble saved my skinny butt once again, as well as Ussi’s much nicer butt. Even before I was analytically aware of Phillies’s presence, I had already grabbed Ussi, moaning and hopelessly lost in her adorable oblivion at that moment, and rolled both of us a couple of feet over, outside of the pitchfork’s reach. I then grabbed the extended pitchfork, yanked it while kicking Phillies’s hand on the pitchfork staff. He lost his grip, and the pitchfork flew out of his hand and mine. I lunged at him, pushing the old man off the ladder. We both fell, rolling around on the earthen floor in uneven candlelight, kicking various implements around.
Ussi finally screamed.
          Phillies had at least a hundred and fifty pounds on me. It was not to my advantage to roll around with the fat hog. Having disengaged from him, I jumped to my feet and kicked him a few times before he got up heavily, spitting blood. Fighting naked, I felt awkward and vulnerable. My nakedness was also pissing Phillies off beyond belief, I could tell. I punched him several times in the face while easily escaping his slow punches. I only succeeded in getting him even more pissed off. Looking into his bloodshot eyes, I suddenly knew that he was going to kill me.
I kept successfully evading his bear hugs, repeatedly punching him in the face now slick with blood. That, unfortunately, did not seem to affect him. He was too angry to care, too much adrenaline. Sooner or later, he would connect and that would be the end of me. I glimpsed Ursula’s horrified, white face right when Phillies threw one of his slow, heavy punches with the right. I was blocking and stepping in for an uppercut when I stumbled in the dark on the uneven floor and ended up in his bear hug, squeezed mightily. My attempts to break the hug, my head butts and knee kicks were all futile. I was dimly aware of my ribs cracking and vision fogging. I couldn’t breathe. I knedw I was suffocating.
The unbearable pressure suddenly let off. I slid to the ground gasping. It took me a few seconds to come around and realize that Ussi had hit him on the head with a large chunk of firewood. He was sitting on the floor now, smearing blood all over his head listlessly, while Ussi recovered her chuck and was getting ready to whack him again.
          I staggered to my feet, coughing and retching. Ussi lifted the chuck high above her head and lowered it on Phillies’s head for the second time. Her husband slumped on the dirt floor—out cold but obviously breathing.
          While I was resting outside, painfully sucking the air into my lungs and nursing my broken ribs, Ussi got the buggy ready, saddled one of their horses and went inside the house to see the sleeping kids for the last time. We left our old house forever, abandoning the children into the care of her husband. My lover’s dear face was contorted in anguish, tears streamed down her cheeks as she looked back at her home for a long while after it was completely swallowed by the darkness behind us.
          We ran away from home in the night’s gloom, each of us boiling in our own personal hell that we carried with us through the ages wherever we went, whether or not we remembered the why, the what and the wherefore—the two of us, together.
At about 6:00 a.m. or so my blissful state of unconsciousness was rudely interrupted by Linda’s insistent nudging.
“What? Guards? Cops?” I jumped off the bed naked, with the Glock on the ready, covering the entrance door and the window.
“Linda, cover the back!”
“Relax, Norm, nobody is attacking us. It’s not bad, actually. I think I have some good news.”
I relaxed and climbed back into the bad. True, it’s not so bad, I thought, as I was greeted by the pleasant sight of a butt-naked Linda sitting cross-legged on the bed next to me. Turned out she was examining the flash drive picture on our new laptop.
“Picky, look at this.” She pushed me excitedly. Linda smelled good and looked even better. I tried to stick my head between her legs, but she turned me away. “Later,” she said. Didn’t sound much like Linda.
Well, let’s see what had gotten her so interested.
“Look!”
I looked. Same hills, trees pummeled by wind and rain.
“I saw it already, sweetie. Let’s get back to sleep, okay?” Having established that we were not under attack right that very moment, I wanted some more rest.
“Honey, look again. Here.” She pointed at some water gushing out on the side of the hill.
“Yes, I know, it’s called water. There is a lot of it in this picture.”
“Keep looking. What does it look like?”
“Looks like the water is rushing down the hill in a torrent, which we don’t see as it is hidden by the hillside, and then splashes high, hitting something. Maybe a rock?”
“No, it isn’t a rock, Picky. It’s a pipe.”
“A what?”
“A drain pipe of some sort. See how even the flow is? Look, just look.” Linda zoomed in, immediately throwing off the resolution of the image, but bringing closer the torrent’s point of emanation. “What does this look like?”
I saw it now. It definitely looked like the edge of a large pipe, at least two feet in diameter judging by the trees next to it.
“Well, okay, it’s a pipe. So what?”
“Nothing in itself. That’s what I thought, too. Could just be a drainage pipe to prevent land erosion or something, right?”
“Right.”
“But now look here.”
She pointed at a tree on the side of the hill.
“A tree? Good night.” I tried to pull the blanket over my head, but she wouldn’t let me.
“I said look.”
I looked again. A tree among other trees. Most of the trees where bent violently by the wind, at least the canopy, some other trees were not. Well, there were different trees so they bent differently under the wind, I supposed. I was no botanist. Wait a minute; it did look strange that some trees were noticeably straighter than others, as if almost unaffected by the wind and the torrential rain. I peered some more. The unaffected trees grew in a certain pattern. Wait a minute!
“Are we at top resolution?” I asked. Linda nodded. “Zoom larger.”
The image was blurred now, but I saw clearly that a group of trees in a square pattern behaved differently from the rest. An anomaly, to be sure.
Linda unwrapped a brand new Yellow Pages book she found on the night stand and placed the uneven piece of clear plastic on the screen. She then carefully traced the outlines of the anomaly with her lipstick, creating a square, drawn in perspective view, roughly a fifty by fifty feet, judging by the approximate tree sizes.
“Wow!” I breathed out.
“See? Look at this now.”
Silently, she moved the plastic to find a clean spot and then traced the height of the trees on the anomaly’s down-slope side. She then picked the plastic off the screen and moved it over a bit to line up the second drawing, the height of the tallest trees on the down-slope side, with a large green clearing right next to and down-hill from the anomaly.
“What do you make of it?” she asked, incredulous. “This looks almost like a huge lid or something. See? This whole part of the hill might be a lid that pivots on the down-slope side and stands up on its end, perpendicular to the ground. At that point these trees are lying flat.” She demonstrated on the screen. “These trees aren’t real and the hill might be hollowed out inside.”
I stared at Linda in amazement.
“I’m so proud of you, babe!”
Linda continued, happy with the effect she’d created. “Now this pipe here serves as an additional indication that the hill might be hollow inside.”
She was right. And it could even serve as a point of entry for us—when time came.
“A genius! Your brains is why I love you, hon. That and your money, of course.”
Linda, pleased, frowned at me quizzically. “Does it make any sense to you?”
“Yes, it does.”
“I think it’s time you let me in on the whole thing, Picky. Right now.”
“I sure will, hon. What about the poem? Maybe it gives the location.”
“Maybe. I looked it over. Not a word. Some weird language with lots of hyphens.”
“Well, we are onto something anyway. Cool.” I gave her a hug. “Well done! Thank you. You’re right, I’m way overdue on the explanation. It’s gonna be a bit unpalatable but bear with me, okay?”
“Okay.” Linda propped her back on the pillows and turned attentive eyes to me.
Here we go, the moment of truth. I felt nervous and unsure. How was she going to take it? I didn’t believe for a second that she’d believe a word I said. Was she going to go crazy, like Jane Rosenthal said? Had to tell her anyway, no other choice. “Well, you see . . .” I started.
Loud knocking on the door interrupted me. Linda slid under the covers, peering out apprehensively.
I put my new briefs on before opening the door. The Indian clerk from the office, very agitated.
 “Out, out! Both of you. Get up please, get dressed right now. Get out!” he yelled, waving both hands in the air.
“What the hell, man?”
“They just showed two of you on TV. Cops are looking for you everywhere, and I’m getting off my shift now. You aren’t even registered. I don’t want anybody to see you here. Get out right now!”
“Cops?” I asked, shrugging. “Ridiculous. What have I done supposedly?”
“Armed robbery. And the black lady’s some chemist or something.”
Somebody fabricated new lies. Somebody really wanted me dead.
“So they say I’m an armed robber and you just barge in here like this, pissing me off? Look, man, if I was an armed robber, wouldn’t I be blowing your silly head off right this minute? Think. You’re so dumb, you mixed everything up. Doesn’t matter. Honey, we’re leaving!” I was getting dressed quickly now. Time to go.
“Chemist, am I?” Linda suddenly pitched in from under the blanket. “Never been so insulted in my life. What kind of a motel are you running here anyway? Terrible service, simply terrible. One star.”
“At most,” I chimed in. “Half a star. Come on, honey, get up. Let’s go.” And then to the clerk, “Get out, man! I’m gonna complain to the manager. I gave you a hundred bucks, and what do I get? Nothing but insults. Get out!”
The unhappy clerk left the room muttering.
“Linda, let’s go,” I repeated.
“Shut up, you, armed robber. It’s all your fault.”
She had a point. We dressed quickly and got out. Probably anaccustomed to being thrown out of motels because of a televised APB on her, Linda was still pouting.
I held the car door for Linda. An old El Camino drove by slowly, cruising through the parking lot toward the office. The driver glanced at me. A young guy, nothing special or noteworthy—nothing at all, except, perhaps, for his huge, muscular shoulders and enormous neck.


27
          “How are we gonna decipher the poem?” I mused as we drove off, heading north on 50 in the general direction of Washington, DC, not purely at random.
          “No, first we need to change cars,” Linda objected, still upset.
          She was right, of course. I just wanted to see if we were followed by the Guard. We were not.
          “Exactly. I meant after we switched cars. What kind of a ride would you prefer this time?”
          Linda’s look failed to incinerate me yet again. This car was compromised. We needed to get out of town. What else could I do but steal a car? Rent one? Buy one? Leave a paper trail a mile wide? Damn sorry, Linda.
I took the nearest exit and drove onto a Safeway parking lot.
          The car I stole this time was a Honda Accord, pretty new, with plenty of gas.
          “What’s hidden in that hill on the picture?” Linda asked, still sullen. “I want answers and I want them now. What’s in there?”
          “A spaceship,” I replied honestly, searching for understanding in her eyes and finding none.
          “Norman, I swear to God! Stop horsing around. Drugs? Smuggling? Human trafficking? What did you get me into?”
          “No, no drugs, no smuggling. Pentagon, remember? The DOD? They don’t care about such things. Not usually, anyways, I hope,” I added remembering the Oliver North affair. “And neither do I, you know that,” I added honestly.
          “What then?”
          “A spaceship.”
Linda flailed her arms in frustration.
“Promise to hear me out, Linda. It’s kind of unusual, I realize that.”
          Linda nodded in desperation. Here we go, the moment of truth. I decided to lay it on her as gently and to the point as I could.
“You see,” I started uncertainly, “this planet is a prison facility of a galactic empire. Everybody you see walking around here is a convict, we’re all prisoners.”
“I’m gonna hurt you real bad,” Linda interrupted, squinting at me, fists clinched, infuriated, anger showing red on her caramel skin. “You . . .”
“Hear me out, please. You promised.”
She shut up reluctantly and looked away, still breaking the communication but covertly now, simmering.
“We’re all prisoners here. We just are. Not because I say so, you get it? We were all brought here forcibly and we can’t leave. Most of us are locked up with the same verdict: nonconformity, the highest crime there is. So you’re all nonconformists one way or another.”
Linda glared at me, furious. “You think I’m that stupid? Why are you doing this, Norman? Why are you brushing me off like this? Tell me what’s going on. I swear to God . . .”
“You promised to hear me out, Linda. Can you just listen? Or do I have to start charging you a hundred grand for every interruption?”
She gave me a crooked smile. “Any bulk discount? If I let you keep the bag, can I interrupt all the time?”
“Shut up. Keep the bag.” I waved her off. “Listen to me, will you?”
“Why am I supposed to listen to this nonsense? What possible purpose could this idiocy serve, Picky? Please!”
“Give me three minutes, okay? Two minutes?” I was begging now. I always knew it’d be hard, but now it seemed impossible even to begin. “Humor me, hon. You know I’m crazy about you, right?”
“You’re just crazy! Not about me, Norman. You’re totally nuts.”
“Yeah, I know, but are you crazy about me?” I inquired slyly.
“Yes, okay.” She simmered down a bit. “All right, I’m crazy about you too, Norm. Now what?”
“Wonderful. Just shut up for two minutes. Where were we? Right, so we are all prisoners here, and most of us have served a very long term already and we will never get out. But we’re actually immortal units of awareness fooled into believing ourselves to be mere one-life animals. That’s a part of the sentence. Or, rather, that is the sentence. We’re not mortal, and we’re not animals at all, we’re not even biological in nature, we’re units of thought residing in bodies, just for fun.”
Linda’s derisive snorting interrupted me. I took her hand in mine and ignored the snorting. She relaxed a tiny bit.
“In my case, I’m different. I arrived here voluntarily as a part of a military force a long time ago. We were all butchered by the Guards and so . . .”
“By who? The Guards too now?”
Linda’s sarcasm knew no bounds. Boundless sarcasm. Disdain. Contempt. Wasn’t it how truth was always received? Well, not always, always, I hoped, possibly just sometimes always.
“Linda, listen to me. This is a prison. It has Guards. That’s normal, okay? Prisons always have Guards.”
She stared at me, shaking her head in disbelief of the idiocy she was hearing.
“Blink twice if you hear the sounds coming out of my mouth, hon.”
“I don’t understand,” Linda finally said. “Do you actually believe this crap? You need to see a specialist, Norm—again. Please, I’m begging you. You’re scaring me.”
I thought the situation over. The straight-forward approach was not going to do it; I saw it now.
“Okay, sweetie, listen, you got me.” I had an idea. Might work.
“It’s all bullshit. You’re right. Ha-ha! Actually, it’s a movie I saw. Good movie. I wanna tell you, okay? Sci-Fi.”
“I don’t do Sci-Fi, you know that. What’s the name of the movie, anyway?” Linda asked, obviously relieved but still suspicious—assessing if I was really crazy or, rather, how crazy I really was.
“I forgot the name now. Let’s see, something like Forever Dead or something. Great flick, four stars, I think, maybe five. Or six.”
“Name some actors?” Linda relaxed a bit more but not completely.
“I think this guy, you know, from Transformers, what’s his name?”
“Shia Labeouf?”
“Yeah, him. Handsome, bright, right? And the girl was Halle Berry, I think. Maybe not. I forgot.”
“An interracial couple? Like us? Are you making this up?” Linda questioned with renewed suspicion.
“No, of course not. What are you talking about? Halle Berry’s white.”
“What?!”
“Sure. You didn’t know? Black is a marketing ploy nowadays. They promote in Africa. Emerging markets and all that. Everybody wants to be black now.”
“You are crazy. A complete lunatic. I see it very clearly now.” Linda rolled her eyes in exaggerated torment and folded her arms in a pious, long-suffering manner.
“Okay, so let me tell you, okay? It’s a great movie. A love story.” Linda perked up through her mock piety. A love story, her favorite. I went on, encouraged. “Oh, yes indeed, a great love story that spanned ages, millions of years even, all over the galaxy. These guys are immortals.”
Linda snorted. Angry again. I ignored it.
“They never die but their bodies die, so they learned to recognize each other’s soul in any body. Can you imagine? True love, babe. Awesome.”
A glance in her direction confirmed that I had her now: eyes misting over, gentle smile on her lips. Girls. Beautiful.
“So, listen, this chick—yes, it was Halle Berry, now I remember,” I went on with more conviction. “She gets in trouble back home and they ship her to this faraway planet as a prisoner forever. Man, you should’ve seen the tears and all. Totally heart wrenching.”
No objections there. Linda gobbled it all up.
“Did he find her?” she asked quietly.
“What do you think?” I asked, also quietly.
“I think he did.” She suddenly looked affectionately straight into my eyes. The bastards might have taken her memory away, but they didn’t destroy her soul. Deep down she always knew.
“M-hm.” I nodded vigorously. “He found her or she found him, whatever, but they did find each other, they sure did.” Linda sighed. “He actually came there first, to that planet, as a part of a military force, which was ambushed and killed off by the enemy. Total wipe out, all dead. She came in long after that happened.”
“Looking for him, for her love?” Linda whispered, crying quietly, hushed.
“Not sure. Maybe. But she did come here.”
“Here?” Her head snapped in my direction.
“I mean there, to that planet, you know? Not here ‘here’ but more like there ‘here’.”
“Okay, fine. So they met and stayed together for thousands of years, loving each other more than life itself?” Linda asked, settling back for a new load of mush.
“Well, not exactly stayed together for thousands of years, no. Deep inside they did always stay together, not always in actual life, though. But anyway, what I wanted to say is that he was a POW, right? And those prisoners of war were always trying to escape from the prison planet but they needed a spaceship, and they didn’t have one, so for thousands of years they searched for the Guard’s transport. The Guards on that prison planet, they had a spaceship for emergenciesm, supplies and personnel. They hid that space transport in a hollowed out hill.”
Linda suddenly sat straight and grabbed my wrist, squeezing hard. I looked into her eyes. She stared at me in complete astonishment.
 “You don’t want to tell me you’re an extraterrestrial for real, do you?”
“’Course not, hon. Don’t be silly. There is no such thing. That’s just a movie, remember?” I smiled reassuringly.
“Then what’s this?” she asked, raising the laptop to my eyes. “What’s on the picture? A hollowed out hill. How. . .”
I kept silent, looking straight forward now, driving.
Linda jerked her head a few times as if wanting to get out of the car but said nothing.
          I was done explaining. Nothing else I could say, really, except repeating more of the same. The moment of truth—literally. The truth was always there first, and the piles of lies always came later in time. So appealing directly to the truth was powerful, as it could blow the layers of lies to smithereens—in theory.
A long silence followed.
I guessed it worked because, surprisingly, the only questions she had after pondering deeply what she’d just heard revolved around our relationship.
          “We gravitate toward each other all the time through the ages . . .” I heard Linda gasp at that, I never knew how much she loved such stuff. “. . . but we don’t always find each other. Most of the time we don’t. But we keep trying, we always keep trying. And we do manage to be together every once in a while.”
“True love?” Linda whispered.
I nodded. “Definitely, hon. True love is many things. One of them is agreement. We always agree, right? I say you’re absolutely the best, the one and only. Do you agree?”
“Yes, I do.”
“See? That’s what I’m talking about, you agree. Seriously, agreement breeds closeness, intimacy, trust and willingness to open up, willingness to communicate in many different ways, including sex. The way I see it, Linda, agreement is the prerequisite for true love. No agreement—no true love.”
“Listen, that sounds pedestrian, Norm. Where is magic? No magic, only agreement? I don’t believe it. How would we keep running into each other without magic?”
          “That’s the magic called ‘intention.’ Intention to be together is what makes things happen, if common agreement is strong. We keep looking for each other lifetime after lifetime, longing to be together and love each other, and so we eventually gravitate toward each other, propelled by the power of our intention. Intention is King. I guess intention is love.”
          “Intention? Yea, I agree, actually. When you really want something, you make it happen. Magic. Hey, wait, if I’m in prison right now and you’re here accidentally, then how would we ever meet if you didn’t happen to land here by mistake? Seems like a pure coincidence, not a matter of intention.”
          I shrugged. “We met, didn’t we? That’s exactly how that works. And it’s not the first time we’ve met here on Earth, either.” I decided to leave for later the so-called “coincidences” concept, the planned and premeditated results of the power of our intentions. Pure coincidences do not exist.
          “Do you love me?” Linda suddenly asked quietly.
          “I sure do, honey. With all my heart.”
          With a smile, Linda leaned toward me, hugged and kissed me.
          “But if you are immortal and I’m not,” she started.
          “You’re as immortal as me, Linda. We aren’t different in any way except that somebody fucked up your long-term memory for you. That’s all.”
          “Is that memory failure, is it permanent?” Linda’s eyes right next to me, begging silently for the right answer. “I want to remember our other lives together.”
          “Oh, no!” I lied. “’Course it isn’t permanent. We’ll patch you up, you’ll remember what you had for breakfast on May 18th of 1267, I swear.”
          “Oh yeah, on Tuesday, was it? Had eggs.” Linda smiled and snuggled to me as much as she could in the car.
          “Picky, does it seem normal to you that you were dumped onto a planet held by the enemy? Doesn’t it look suspicious that nobody knew about the prison guards?”
          No kidding, definitely suspicious. And look how quickly Linda picked it up.
          “You’re brilliant, you know that?” I caressed Linda’s face and she cradled my hand to her chest.
“Very suspicious indeed,” I agreed. “But who the hell knows? So here we are.”
“Hey, listen.” Linda perked up again. “Do they transport billions of souls here from way out there somewhere, light years away? On that spaceship somehow? How do you even package souls on a spaceship?”
 “They don’t package souls or ship souls or anything like that. They have technology. They’ve had it for eons, kind of like a teleportation rig for thought units. You know, we are thought-based energy units. That’s what spirits are. Stick a transmitter there and a receiver here, somewhere in the ocean, and zap, here you are. Instantaneously.”
“That would be faster than the speed of light. Einstein said that was impossible.” Linda seemed confused. Well, those matters were quite confusing, I agreed.
“Speed of thought is faster than the speed of light. Thought can be instantaneous.”
          I think she understood. We drove in silence for a while, my hand in hers, contented smile on her face. She suddenly bolted upright again. “But if you are escaping, what am I supposed to do? Leave everything and everybody and run away with you? My job and all?”
          “Well, look, I’d be a very rich man on Baltizor. I’d receive my back one-eighth-pay with interest for about five thousand years. Probably one hell of a lot of money.”
          “I get it, but what about my parents? My friends? My job?”
          I kept silent, letting her come to some conclusions on her own. In truth, the life as she knew it was over, and everybody dear to her was in mortal danger.
          She pondered that for a while in silence, a pensive frown on her face.
          “What’s it like over there?” Linda finally asked quietly, probably understanding now.
          “Safe and orderly. Predictable. Respectful. Friendly. A little boring but an okay life. Nice. Especially if you got money. People are polite. No crime. You’ll like it there.”
          “How can a place like that exist? Societies here always seem to be in a state of agitation or on a verge of collapsing or something.”
          “This is a planet of non-conformists. That makes all the difference. Look, United States is 240 years old and look at the rifts in this society. It seems be already tittering on the verge of something or other. Murabi Empire is over 800,000 years old. Baltizor Confederacy is well over 300,000 years old. Those societies are very stable. Rock-solid. Unshakable. Nothing changes much. Everybody is more or less okay financially and stable. Upward mobility is difficult but downward mobility is seriously obstructed as well. People like it that way. They can plan ahead.”  
          Linda was thoughtful for a minute.
“So the burocracy is quite prevelant then?”
“Yes, burocracy is definitely important there.”
“So if I have no papers of any kind and in fact I’m an illegal, would they allow me to stay?” Linda was dubious now.
          “You’d be my wife. That should be enough. Hey, look, I don’t know. Let’s do one problem at a time, hon. As my friend Bill Hall used to say, ‘we’ll jump off that cliff when we get there’? We can’t jump off of it now, okay?”
          Linda just nodded, smiling.
“As long as we jump together,” she finally said.
We drove in silence for a spell, holding hands and smiling.
          “Picky, where are we going now?”
          “Don’t know. Driving north right now, then east. Where do you think we should be going?”
          “Well, what we really need right now is some help with the poem. That’d be the Santa Cruz Faculty of Foreign Languages. You know the one I’m talking about?”
          “No, I don’t.” I shrugged. “But I suppose it’s a university in Santa Cruz, right?”
          “Yes, it’s a big school of languages in Santa Cruz. We might get lucky on that poem.”
          “Okay, so that’s where we’re going, then.”                                     
          Santa Cruz was in the opposite direction, back toward the Bay Area, but I liked making loops and doubling up anyway—made me feel safer.
In Santa Cruz, we stopped at Kinkos first and printed out the picture and the short poem. All the letters in the poem looked normal, although there seemed to be way too many vowels and hyphens, and some letters had bars across them. Put together they made absolutely no sense. Could be a code, God help us.

28
“A Native American language,” we were informed by Agnes, a plump and pleasant intern at the faculty. Linda and I exchanged bewildered looks. “Possibly Navajo or Apache,” Agnes added. “I can’t read or understand it, but I recognize the bars across the U and L over here, see?”
She referred us to Professor Baker, their top authority on Native American languages.
A barrel-chested blond guy in a plaid lumberjack shirt, jeans and huge work boots, about ten years my senior, astonishingly, was the professor, despite his clothes, physique and young age. When we entered, he was poking around an old, dented filing cabinet.
“Professor,” I started. “Sir . . .”
“Please, call me Shane,” he interrupted, turning to us. “I’m not really into all the rank-induced vicissitudes. I was born Shane, so I’m Shane. Can I help you?”
“Okay, Shane, no vicissitudes from us, then,” I agreed immediately. “Hey listen, are you a Native American?”
“Who, me? Oh, no! I’m a mongrel, you know, a little Scottish, a little Irish, a tad of German, a dash of Danish—the usual. And you?”
“No, not me. I’m an extraterrestrial.”
He laughed. I laughed.
Linda punched me in the shoulder and made big eyes.
“Professor, we need your help.”
Baker walked to his desk and took his seat. He was all attention now. Good guy.
“We have this writing here.” I gave him the printout. “Probably a poem. Would you mind taking a look, please? Agnes at Information thought it was a Native American language, possibly Navajo or Apache. Some ancient folklore or something?”
 “Folklore, huh? Sure. Let’s see.” Shane studied the poem and snorted his appreciation softly. “Beautiful. Where did you get this?”
“A client brought it to my office, asking what it was. Not sure where she got it,” Linda interjected hastily. “What does it say?”
“This is a folk poem in one of the Dene family languages, also known as Athabaskan. It may be ancient, but it was written in this form after 1997 when their phonetic alphabet was finalized. You got that?”
He looked at us weightily.
“It may or may not be ancient by content but this rendition is modern.”
I puffed my cheeks and nodded just in case, although I didn’t get the importance of that observation. Linda glanced at me, also nodding significantly.
“I don’t get every word, but what I understand is beautiful. Something about a mountain, which is the sleeping God who sometimes wakes up, yawns mightily and stretches from sleep, reaching up to the stars. Something of that nature. It’s definitely not Navajo or Apache, although they all belong to the same Athabaskan languages family.”
“Where is that mountain exactly?” Linda asked.
“That reaches for the sky?” Baker stared at her. “There is no such mountain. It’s just folklore,” he explained slowly and carefully as if talking to a child. “They have songs, poems, fairy tales that don’t necessarily depict real locations or events, you know, just like our fairy tales.”
“Sure.” Linda nodded with a smile. “What I meant was, where is Tabaskan spoken? Possibly they could tell us more about this poem over there.”
“Athabaskan? Oh, a huge territory. You’d be traveling for a very long time. Alaska, Yukon, North-West Canada, Washington State, Oregon, Northern California, Colorado, Utah, Navajos in Arizona, Apache in Oklahoma. It’s even spoken by some native Mexican tribes.”
“All the same language?” Linda’s face fell in disappointment.
“No, of course not, different languages but the same family of languages. They all have common roots and share similarities, kind of like English and Spanish. Some languages are a lot closer to each other than others. But it’s all one family, same basic roots. There are subgroups, too, of course.”
 “Of course,” I quickly agreed. “But, Shane, you recognized that this isn’t Navajo, for example, so could you narrow it down some more for us?”
“This language belongs to the North-Pacific subgroup. That hones it down quite a bit. I’ll tell you what, I’ll do it as a research project for my students after the New Year’s. This would make a fine study assignment.”
“No, Shane, that takes too long. We’re not that invested in all this.” I shrugged. “We’re on vacation. Could you look into it right now for us?”
Shane gave me a long stare. I held his gaze.
“Well, I suppose so.” He nodded. “I only have about an hour before the next lecture, but let me see what I can do with my North-Pacific database.”
“Thank you, Professor,” Linda replied, smiling.
We passed the hallway outside his office like parents waiting for the doctor’s verdict on a child’s mumps.
The door finally opened and Bob invited us back in.
“Tolowa,” he announced with a cheery smile in a way of greeting. “Also sometimes referred to as Chetco.”
“Great! What’s Tolowa?” I asked, hoping it was as good of news as Bob’s wide smile indicated.
“A language. And also a tribe.”
“Where can we find these Tolowa people? Are they spread out all over?” asked Linda.
“No, Tolowa is a small tribe located at Siletz Indian reservation in Oregon.”
“That’s it? One reservation? Such a small area?”
“Exactly! Confined and concentrated. Of course, it isn’t all that small a reservation, about six thousand square miles, shared by several tribes. One of them is Tolowa.”
“Where is that Siletz Reservation located?” Linda inquired.
“In Siletz, naturally, Oregon. Route 229. Hey.” Shane suddenly turned to me. “I would still like to use this as a research assignment. Would you mind?”
“Not at all, professor, keep the printout. Thank you very much for all your help.”
 “There you go.” Linda grinned at me in the car. “The hill wakes up, yawns and reaches for the stars.”
“Tolowa people of God, we come in peace!”
“On and forward.”
Easing out of the parking lot, Linda chirping excitedly, I felt downright happy about the whole thing and life in general.

29

          The route straight up north from Santa Cruz took us through the Bay Area again, from I-880 to I-680 to I-80 and finally out of the Bay Area toward Sacramento and onto I-505 with its seventy mile an hour speed limit. Low clouds over the Central Valley and the smell of rain in the air failed to dampen our jubilations and we did, indeed, have something to be jubilant about. For starters, we were still alive. That was a wonderful thing, especially under the circumstances, and in itself the cause for a major celebration. Secondly, we knew where the Guards kept their transport. Thousands of years of search had culminated here and now with yours truly, finally. Not a small thing indeed. I—I found it! Me. The one and only. With Linda. Actually she found it. Equally important, Linda’s and my relationship was now more or less on the same page. Boy, I couldn’t believe how awesome that felt. And she took it so well. Yes, deep inside she always knew.
          “But I cannot forget, refused to regre-et . . .” Linda crooned along with Maroon 5 in tune with the radio, holding my hand, all dangers temporarily forgotten.
          “So glad I met you, takes my breath awa-a-ay . . .” I joined in the karaoke, happy to accommodate her good cheer.
          The fast approaching large SUV in my rearview mirror spelled trouble. So were the breaking lights of an identical SUV right in front of me. Boxing me in. The jubilant mood instantaneously evaporated.
          “Linda, hang on to something,” I yelled, swerving to avoid the collision with the Tahoe in front of me.
          “What?” Linda yelled, startled. “What now?”
          “The Feds. Brace for collision!”
I kept swerving to avoid the Tahoe zigzagging in front of me. Tires whined and shrieked. Several other cars collided, creating a picturesque scene. A car flew off the road into the ditch. Something caught on fire as evidenced by the plume of smoke behind me.
          “How do you know they’re Feds?” Linda’s face was contorted in terror. She was looking around for a place to drive off the freeway. Fields stretched as far as the eyes could see on both sides of us. No way could we outrun a Tahoe in a Honda Accord through a dirt field.
          “Who else drives two matching black Chevy Tahoes? Not to mention the antennas and them obviously out to get us.”
          Maneuvering all over the road, I managed to pass the Tahoe in front, so they were both behind me now. Staying in tight formation, we were doing over a hundred.
          Shots rang from behind. My side mirror blew off. Both the back window and windshield suddenly developed bullet holes. The bastards were shooting at us, trying to take us out, no doubt about that now. They were not trying to stop us; they were shooting to kill. Complying with their orders.
          “Linda, grab my gun and shoot back at them. Aim for the windshield.”
          “No, Norman, I told you already, I’m not a killer.”
          “Sure you are! Just try, you’ll see.”
          “Fuck off, Norman!” Linda snapped.
          “Okay, okay! Then grab the wheel.” Sometimes a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.
          I slid into the back while Linda held the wheel and eased herself into the driver’s seat, cussing.
My attempt to shoot the driver fell short of my expectation. Two pale smudges on the Tahoe’s windshield behind us served as a testimony to my superb shooting skills, but the bullets didn’t penetrate. Bulletproof glass. Definitely the Feds.
          I climbed back to the front.
          “What happened?” Linda yelled. “You missed?”
          “No. They’re bulletproof. Let me drive.” I reached for the wheel.
          “Hang on to something, Picky!” Linda suddenly yelled. “We’re getting off the road!”
          Then I saw it. A break in the fields, an opening, a street running parallel to I-505 and careening off of it perpendicularly, at a distance, into some town. We were about to pass a stack of construction lumber and cinder blocks prepared for some repairs next to the road in the gutter, creating a sort of a disjointed ramp—our way out of here. Linda had to make the jump. There was no time to fasten the seat belt. I bent forward under the dashboard, keeping my hands close to my body.
          Accord left the road as embankment dropped from under us. We were airborne for a long second. Cars are not made to fly. For one thing, the front is too heavy and the speed of the car, considerable as it may be, is always insufficient to keep that hunk of steel up in the air for very long. Cowering under the dashboard, I felt the car’s front tip down and expected a crash when we bounced off the stack of construction materials at high-speed. The newly found altitude and momentum carried us all the way to the road. We hit the road hard, damaging the car’s front. Front shocks were gone, wafts of steam from the broken radiator enveloped the car. Linda, seemingly unfazed, kept flooring the Accord down the street into town.
          The thugs didn’t follow, which made sense, as they couldn’t have possibly made that jump in their heavy SUVs.
          I flipped the heating on to help cool off the engine and switched the fan to the maximum. Hot air blew hard inside the car. Fortunately, the windows blown off by gunfire offered plenty of cooling and ventilation.
          Linda ran a traffic light, tearing through the sleepy town. We found ourselves in what must have served as downtown in these parts.
          “Turn here,” I told Linda. “This parking lot.”
          We parked the smoking Accord and walked away with our money and a bag with all the clothing that we’d bought.
          Linda started hyperventilating.
          “Adrenaline,” I explained. “Breathe evenly and slowly. Try to calm down.”
          “But why . . . why wouldn’t they . . . leave us alone?” Linda’s breath was rapid and shallow.
          “Let’s sit down here, honey.” I helped her onto a bench at a bus stop and held her close to calm her.
          “We need to keep moving. Can you walk?” I asked.
          “I’m all right,” Linda answered, smiling a contorted smile and still panting. My dear girl.
          “Can we stay here for a while? In this town? Maybe they won’t find us here.” Linda was almost begging, huge dark eyes full of fear.
          “One thing we can’t do is stay here, hon, I’m sorry,” I replied.
And I was sorry for several reasons at once, including having to appropriate another car, an older model Buick in this case, with plenty of power and three quarters full on gas.
          We left that town without ever having a chance to find out its name.

30
          Back on I-505, we were doing at least a hundred, weaving in and out of traffic, spurred along by my sincere hope that they wouldn’t expect us back on the same road moving in the same direction again so soon. Linda kept insisting that we’d run into the Tahoes again soon. She was right as always. Right behind us, one of the large SUVs slid from the rear of a red eighteen-wheeler sporting a large SWIT logo. The Tahoe leveled with me effortlessly. Even the powerful Buick was no match for the Feds’ vehicles. A bullet lodged itself in the headrest of my seat. Large Chevy pulled up next to me. The shooter was getting ready for another shot through the passenger’s open window. Linda screamed.
          I hit the brakes to spoil their aim, almost getting rear-ended by the SWIT truck right behind me. I stepped on the gas again. My Buick labored under the new assignment, accelerating heavily. Tahoe lined up with me again, another shot, then a few more. Linda let out a bone-chilling shriek. My heart clucked in my throat. The hair on the back of my head stood up in anticipation of a hot bullet drilling through my skull. Now my back passenger’s window had bullet holes in it as well.
“Picky, look out!” Linda screamed.
“Stay down!” I yelled back. Things looked outright shitty.
Linda kept screaming something that I couldn’t quite understand. The Tahoe lined up with me again, presenting a great view of the asshole in the passenger’s seat, the one responsible for all the bullet holes in my windows. Well-groomed, suit, tie, sunglasses. What do you want from me, slick? I shot the shooter twice through my window, nabbing him in the shoulder. Tahoe driver hit the brakes to disengage from me. Revving up, I nearly collided with the second Tahoe, which swerved from the line to the right to box me in. Here we go again.
          This time they brought in a helicopter. It was keeping up with us a couple hundred feet in the air.     
          The Tahoe in front of me almost flew off the road trying to knock me out, overcompensated getting back on the road, and then careened to the right in front of me, knocking some small car into the ditch. Damn, the body count was outrageous. Sorry, people!
With a ping of apprehension, I noticed that the SWIT truck was staying even with us. What did he want? I accelerated, speeding forward in the left lane and clipped the Tahoe’s bumper, left-hand corner, just as it careened past me to the right doing at least ninety. Tahoe spun out of control and was immediately broadsided by the SWIT truck, which kept on accelerating in the right lane despite the collision. With the mangled remains of the Chevy Tahoe thrown off the road by impact, the truck fell in slightly to the right behind me. He didn’t seem to have any intention of leaving. What the hell?
The second Tahoe was accelerating to ram me in the back when the SWIT truck suddenly swerved into the Tahoe, knocking it into the ditch to the left of the roadway. Down the embankment the Tahoe went, then up the embankment on the other side and into the incoming traffic, where it was pummeled head on by another truck, the exact replica of the one that was helping us, large white letters SWIT prominently visible on the cab and trailer. What the hell was SWIT?
          Suddenly, we ran out of pursuers.
Except for the helicopter, I reminded myself.
Too late. The bullet holes suddenly started materializing in the Buick’s hood. The short line of bullet holes led directly to me, and the next instant I was hit. It felt like getting whacked with something big and heavy on the chest.
          Things went foggy and silent for a second, probably from shock. Then I realized that Linda was holding the wheel and screaming, “Norman!” at the top of her lungs. She looked absolutely terrified but, as I’d come to expect of her now, she did what she had to do.
          It took both of us working together to stop the car on the shoulder. Warm blood ran down my chest and belly. Terrible pain was gradually welling in my chest. It was getting harder and harder to see and breathe. I was dying—I knew that, this wasn’t my first dance. Damn shame.
          “Look!” Linda exclaimed wide-eyed, pointing ahead.
I peered through rapidly gathering greyness in my mind at the SWIT truck that screeched to a halt in front of us. The driver, a very big blond kid, jumped down, raising in one hand what looked very much like an M2 .50 caliber machine gun. The heavy gun came to life, spraying spent casings on the asphalt. The helicopter above us took a dive to its right, came out of the dip smoking above the incoming traffic lanes, and exploded in the air, debris falling on the freeway below. The shooter tossed the weapon onto the driver’s seat of his truck and walked calmly toward us. His forearms were as thick as my thighs. Or thicker. They would have to be to accurately shoot an eighty-some-pound weapon one-handed. The Guards.
“Linda . . .” I mumbled in a futile attempt to warn her and then passed out. Linda’s large dark, pleading eyes full of concern were the last thing I saw before submerging into oblivion.



PART 2
BECOMING

31
“Norman!”
Alarms rang in my mind. Norman? I pushed the sound away, flexing my mental muscle in a meek attempt to get a grip. The oblivion of my bottomless past was calling. I resisted, relishing the sense of returning cognizance.
“Norman!”
Here was that sound again. Nor-man . . . Oh, that means me! I’m Norman.
“What?” I mumbled, struggling to see through bloodshot eyes. “Dad?”
“I’m not your dad. Open your eyes!” A deep voice, unrecognizable accent.
I obeyed.
Probably shouldn’t have, I thought, staring at a huge middle-aged guy towering over me, veins in his huge neck thick as ropes. About six feet tall and immensely muscular, the man was dressed in bib overalls and a T-shirt that did nothing to mask his physique.
“No way,” I mumbled. “The Incredible Hulk.”
“Good, you’re up. We need to talk.”
“Where’s Linda?” I asked, lifting my head and looking around. The bare concrete room was sparsely furnished with a cot and nightstand. There was also a small metal desk with a chair. Steel door. No windows. No pictures on the walls. A prison cell?
“Forget Linda. She’s a convict. You aren’t, remember that. You’re a prisoner of war. Big difference.” The large man sat down on a stool next to the cot I was lying on. “I have a job for you.”
“What are you planning to do with Linda?” I asked, trying to get up.
He pushed me down.
“Wait a minute or two longer before getting up. I said don’t worry about Linda. Focus.”
“A job? I’ll never work for you. You know how much suffering you meatheads caused us and all these people?” I tried to get up again, sensing my strength returning.
“Just doing our job, Norman. We didn’t get these people here, you know that. They were banished from the society for their crimes. And since when do you give a shit? All you people ever want is to get out of here, right?” The meathead smiled. “Feeling better?”
“What’s your name and post title?” I asked, sitting down on the cot and realizing that I was naked.
The Guard chuckled indulgently. He seemed to like me. “I’m the Station Chief. You can call me Stan. Stan Switkowski.”
“Switkowski? The SWIT trucks, is that you?”
“Yep, that’s us. Switkowski Trucking.”
“A bunch of Polish immigrants running a trucking company? What kind of a stupid cover is that?”
“Small business is the backbone of America,” Stan declared, emphasizing the importance of that notion with a raised finger.
“Lame.”
“Besides,” Stan continued as if he hadn’t heard me, “a few extra bucks is nothing to sneeze at when you’re running a huge operation like ours.”
“Okay, I’ll call you guys when I need some hauling.” I realized that I was actually rattling him on purpose. To prove that I wasn’t afraid, perhaps?
Stan nodded impatiently. “Yeah, okay. Listen, Norman, we need to talk. Are you about done babbling?”
“Why am I naked? Get me my clothes.”
“We ran you through the tube. You know what that means?”
I knew exactly what that meant. The tube was a chamber where natural healing processes in the body were accelerated a thousand-fold, or more.
“Such sophisticated equipment. I’m impressed. They fund you well, I suppose.”
Stan shook his huge head. “Nah. Funding’s for shits. They keep cutting us back. But we still got our old revival setup here, probably about four hundred years old by now. Rickety piece of junk.”
“Well, thanks anyway. What about my clothes?”
“Incinerated. Everything was soaked in blood. I have my guys looking for some kids’ stuff for you. But you can wear these for now.” Stan grabbed some neatly folded clothing from the bed stand and threw it at me, followed by white socks and a pair of huge toe protected work boots that knocked me back onto the cot on impact.
“What happened after I passed out?” I pressed on, pulling up the socks and donning the oversized overalls.
“We delivered you both to the shop, took out the bullet and threw you into the tube.”
“And Linda?”
“Linda’s next door.”
“Alive?”
“Alive.” Stan shook his large head indulgently.
I breathed out a sigh of relief. “Linda stays with me, understood?” I glared at the big man.
“Forget it. You should’ve thought about Linda when you blabbed your big mouth. She knows too much now, she’s got to go.”
“You think I’ll let you kill her?”
“You have no say. Look, even if I wanted to . . . Standard security protocol. We’re doing a job here, remember? Nothing personal. But hey, listen, I have something important to discuss with you. That’s why I brought you here.”
“I appreciate you saving my life and all, but before we talk, you got to realize that whatever you want from me, Linda will be the bargaining chip. So let’s skip the bullshit. No Linda, no talk.”
Stan looked annoyed now. “You want me to make you? Gonna hurt like hell.”
“Knock off the bullshit, Tiny. I do what I gotta do. You too, do what you gotta do. Get Linda here and we stay together or no talk. Clear?”
If they wanted to kill me, they wouldn’t go through all the trouble of getting me here and reviving me. And Linda had nothing at all to lose at this point. Nothing at all.
The overalls were at least eight sizes too big and so were the boots. I felt silly in these clothes but grateful to the meatheads for being clothed at all.
Stan got up and walked around a bit in silence, looking like a proverbial bull in a closet, except in his case, a remarkably light-footed bull.
“Okay,” he finally agreed, shaking his head in frustration. “I’ll get Linda here.” Stan walked out of the room and returned with Linda, who looked scared. She seemed smaller than half his size.
Linda ran straight to me, buried her face in my chest and hugged me tight.
“How are you feeling, Picky?” she asked. “I thought you were dead. It was so bad. But then they took you away and one of them said you’d be fine.”
So one of them was more partial toward us than others, perhaps. I wanted to meet that guy.
“Which one of them said that?” I inquired.
“Enough already!” Stan barked. “Can we get focused here? Finally?”
“Okay, what do you want?” I asked. Linda and I sat down on the cot with our arms around each other for comfort. That felt good.
“Okay. Here is the deal, I want to give you and the rest of your A5B comrades our transport ship with our pilots and send you on your merry way back to any destination you choose within the Baltizor domain.”
My jaw dropped. We’ve been fighting and dying for this again and again for thousands of friggin years. Here this clown just offers me a ride out of here?
“Like it so far?” Stan grinned, enjoying my surprise. “Sure beats roaming around the reservation looking for who knows what hill, doesn’t it?”
“Perhaps,” I retorted noncommittally. He knew that I knew about the reservation.
“You wanna hear the catch?”
“Probably not.”
“The only condition is you find Brell and organize a talk between the two of us. The idea is just for me to talk to him. I guarantee his safety.”
“That’s it?”
“That’s it.” Stan leaned back.
That didn’t make sense. “How is it gonna work with Baltizor being your enemy and all? And what did General Brell do to you?”
“Well,” Stan said getting up and pacing the room again. “First of all, let me catch you up a bit here. Murabi and Baltizor have not been at war for at least a couple hundred years. They are best friends now.”
“Shit!” Two hundred years! Nobody told me. Or was Stan lying? So far he didn’t actually strike me as a low-life, lying type.
 “And Brell’s been a royal pain in the ass,” Stan added, shaking his head dolefully. “You see, he is wanted for questioning by Baltizor High Command, and I’m supposed to turn him over before his statute of limitation runs out, but we can’t find the bastard. Makes us look bad. It looks almost like we lost the most important prisoner or something. If I talk to him, I could at least report that I saw him and questioned him. Performance review’s coming up, the raise for me and my guys. You’re a bright kid, you understand.”
Yes, I understood. Stan was lying. Was I supposed to believe that he’d practically get on his knees and beg one of the prisoners to help him get his bump in pay? Nonsense. But I had to roll with the punches, so to speak, since we were really at Stan’s mercy right now—not the other way around. And Stan wanted Brell.
“The only reason he is in trouble is because you meatheads wiped us all out back then with not even a warning, remember?” I inquired. “You think I care about your pay? Go to hell.”
“Not fair! That wasn’t me or my guys,” Stan exclaimed, waving his hands in front of my face. “I’ve only been stationed here since 1979 and half of my crew arrived after me. And what do you think our guys should’ve done back then? What would you have done? You building a hardened military installation and all, deploying two thousand troops, an overwhelming force to our twenty-eight at the time? Did you know that our contingent was only twenty-eight men? And we were at war then, too. What would you have done?”
He had a point there. Logical as far as the logic of war goes, which is not very far. You know, kill-anything-that-moves type of logic. Dah.
“So why didn’t you tell us earlier? I mean, two hundred years? You had no grounds for keeping us here for two hundred fucking years, man!” I pounded my knee in frustration.
“My apologies. But listen, nobody ever asked for you, either. They don’t seem to even want you back. Plus, of course, our guys used the illegal means to whoop your asses back then, as you mentioned, which was the only thing they could’ve done being outnumbered about seventy to one. Sorry about that. Anyway, the statute of limitations on that aggravated weaponry rap recently ran out. So, now we are in the clear. Now I want to send you guys home.”
 “Okay.” I replaced Stan in pacing around the small room, calming down. They’d kept us here to save their asses, these bastards, since nobody from back home ever asked anyway. Understandable from his perspective, and he apologized, which made it okay, supposedly. It was also in the past, which made it largely irrelevant, particularly with more immediately pressing matters at hand.
The Guards’ clothing, hanging on me like on a coat hanger, made Linda snicker. “Let’s suppose for a moment that I’d find the old man for you and convince him to come back here with us. God only knows why he’d want to submit himself to the aggravation, but anyway, let’s just say we’d deliver Brell, what happens to Linda?”
“I need to have a word with Brell. You get me face to face and you go home.”
“Linda and I go home together?”
“Linda stays.”
“No deal. Linda goes where I go. We go together.” I sat next to Linda again and took her hand. She hugged me. Not sure if she understood that we were discussing her death sentence here.
“Nope. She’s a convict. This is a prison. I don’t have the authority to release any convicts. I’m not a court, I don’t sentence or pardon anybody. Not my job. Do you understand how this works?”
“You ask me if I understand how this works? You held two thousand inmates here for hundreds of years illegally! Do you understand how this works? No deal. Screw you.”
Linda hugged me even closer. Stan got up, grumbling something disagreeable. The conversation was over. I needed to do something radical—and fast.
“I tell you what,” I addressed his back as he was leaving the room. “I’ll whoop your ass for her. If I win, Linda comes with me. You can always say I forced you.”
To my surprise, Stan wasn’t lauging when he turned to face me. “This isn’t a matter of fighting me personally. I happen to like you guys, but I’m doing a job here. You try to do your job well at that laboratory, right? Me too. Besides, you can’t force me.” He indulged in a smirk now. “I got at least two hundred pounds of muscle on you. You couldn’t whoop my ass if I was blindfolded, drunk and had both hands tied behind my back.” He glanced at me smirking. “And while jumping on one foot,” he added. Dick.
“Mind placing a little wager behind all that big yap that’s coming out of your mouth?” I inquired with an easy smile.
“Picky, what are you doing?” Linda whispered, frightened, pleading. “He’ll kill you in two seconds. Look at those muscles! Don’t do it. You don’t have to prove anything to him. Do what he says.”
She didn’t realize yet that the only thing I couldn’t do was what he said.
“Watch and learn, babe,” I replied jumping to my feet with a smile. “It’s all in the wrist.”
My solution was crazy, which was exactly what the situation demanded. No normal solution would work—and not necessarily any crazy one either. I knew the odds. This was going to hurt. A lot.
With a shrug and a dismissive hand wave, Stan started to turn away. He yawned demonstratively.
“Norm, you’re such a clown. . .” he started but didn’t complete his thought in its entirety, as he found it difficult to talk with my size sixteen toe-protected shoe in his mouth. Stan hit the floor hard, blood on his lips. I kicked him several times while he was down. I’d managed to piss him off now but failed to incapacitate him to any extent. The damn meathead was huge.
A couple of similarly huge younger heads poked in through the open door.
“Dad, you need a hand?” one of the guys asked with no accent, smirking, taking in the scenery. Did he say “Dad?” The other one could hardly contain his mirth as well.
“Stay out of it, Klimek!” Stan snapped. “Get the tube ready, we’ll have to use it again on this idiot.”
“Aye-aye, Chief!” the guy replied but didn’t move an inch, and neither did his grinning friend. They obviously enjoyed the show. A third head that joined the first two belonged to a large, middle-aged peroxide-blond female with a concerned look on her face. She yelled something to Stan in a foreign language.
Stan grumbled something back. He swung at me and missed. I punched him hard again and then kicked him in the balls.
“O-u-u,” Stan whined, holding his balls with both hands. The female yelled at him again, agitated now, obviously worried for the family jewels. Nobody paid any attention to her.
I attacked again, aiming to make good use of Stan’s temporary incapacitation, which turned out to be disappointingly short-lived. Stan came back with a series of kicks and punches, exhibiting startling skill and agility.
The fight immediately degenerated into a sordid one-sided punishment, whereby Stan would lift me up by the scruff of my overalls and throw me against various walls. On one such throw, I aviated out of the room, my fall cushioned by several meatheads, whom I trampled on the way down.
“Picky!” Linda yelled. “Stop it immediately!”
“Yeah, sure thing, hon-n-n!” I croaked, hitting the wall hard in the larger room and sliding down next to some kind of a work bench.
The large room must have served as a machine shop, full of humming, unrecognizable equipment. There were guns laid out on a large table well outside my reach, probably for cleaning. Stan walked up to me unhurriedly, grinning a bloody smile, as I was struggling for a breath, wriggling on the floor.
“Time-out!” I begged, panting, flashing him the time-out sign with both hands.
Likely not a sports fan, Stan simply picked me up by the front of my overalls again, about to throw me against the opposite wall. Fortuitously, I managed to grab a hammer from the workbench on my way up and strike him on the top of his head as hard as I could under the circumstances. He immediately let go. I fell to the floor, got up on shaky legs, wiped blood off my eyes, and led with a solid kick in the balls again, followed by another good strike on the side of his head with the hammer. Stan went down. I aimed for his balls again, but he kicked my legs from under me. Next thing I knew I was airborne again with the opposite wall as my immediate destination.
With deep satisfaction, I noticed Stan slowing down, breathing heavily, blood all over his head. I had a chance to get up by the time he crossed the room, so I was able to kick him and delivered a series of mostly futile punches as he approached. He looked really pissed now. He picked me up by my throat with one hand, lifted me off the floor and banged my head against the concrete wall. With both hands, I hung on to his fist for my dear life, desperately hoping to save my neck from snapping.
“Let ’im go or I’ll shoot!” I heard Linda yell.
I followed the scream with my bloodshot eyes as I couldn’t move my head, currently seized in the vise of Stan’s grip. Linda was holding onto a gun with a shaking hand, pointing it at me, or possibly at Stan, from across the room. She must have picked it up from the guns cleaning table.
“I swear to God, I’ll shoot! Let him go!” Linda yelled again.
The large blond female erupted with a distraught tirade again. The half a dozen big guys in the room all turned toward her and Linda, but nobody moved. Then they all simply turned away to watch the fight again, amused.
Stan also glanced at Linda when she yelled, but now his attention was once again on me. With a bloody grin, he banged me against the wall one more time.
A shot rang ear-splittingly loud in the concrete chamber.
“Ouch.” Stan’s eyebrows climbed up his forehead in amazement.
“Oh, I’m sorry!” I heard Linda’s earnest interjection. “My bad! My bad!”
“Did your girlfriend just shoot me in the ass?” Stan asked me, incredulous.
“Kh-h-h,” I replied, on the verge of passing out.
He let go of my throat. I slumped on the floor, gasping for breath.
“She did!” Stan exclaimed, examining a bloodstain on the seat of his overalls and then touching it gingerly with his fingers. “Your crazy girlfriend shot me in the butt!” Stan glared down at me in an accusing tone of voice.
“And that fate will befall any man, woman or child. . . the audacity to raise their hand. . .” The speech was too long for me at the moment, I realized in retrospect, writhing on the floor, coughing and struggling for breath.
Linda ran over and helped me sit with my back against the wall. I felt a lot worse now than I did when I’d been shot in the chest from the helicopter. All in all, this had not been a very good day so far.
I looked around. The other Guards were smirking and shaking their heads, sharing their views on the recent entertainment. One of the dudes was paying up what could be, and most likely was, a lost bet to another Guard. I wondered how I’d done in the wager. Technically, I won. Or rather, we won—Linda and I.
The blond lady was now assisting Stan in examining his butt, still nagging him incessantly in that foreign language.
“So now that we whooped your ass as promised,” I mumbled weakly, having found a break in the woman’s pestering, “you let Linda go.”
“You whooped my ass?” Stan sneered. “If it wasn’t for your crazy girlfriend who shot me in the ass. . .”
“Exactly! You see now? We are a team. That’s what I kept telling you, Stan. We work together. She always comes through, you saw that with your own eyes. It may get rough out there. I’ll need a good partner.”
“Okay, I’ll think about it.” Stan nodded, picking me off the floor like a child and placing me on the gurney, rolled in by one of the younger meatheads. “We have to get you into the tube, fast.” Then to one of his guys, “Notify Bogdana. Get the tube and the infirmary ready, two complete setups. I’ll also be taking the ride.”
“You’ll get the tube treatment too?” Linda asked Stan shyly, probably intimidated by his size and her own causative participation in his tube treatment prospects. The huge lady threw a disapproving glance at Linda. She kept speaking to Stan in that foreign language in a raised voice. Stan grumbled something back to her soothingly.
“Yes, I think I should probably do the tube too,” he replied to Linda conversationally, “for my head. Not for my ass, really. I can feel the bullet, it didn’t go deep. A couple stitches and I’d be as good as new.”
“Stan, I’m really sorry for shooting you,” Linda appealed fervently. “Please forgive me and tell your lady friend that I didn’t mean any harm, I just wanted you to let Norm go. I apologize. Could you tell her that?”
“I speak English,” the large lady replied. “My name is Zhdana. This idiot’s my husband. Serves him right.” She nodded in Stan’s direction, smiling now.
Stan smiled down at Linda and shrugged. “I forgive you. You got a good man here,” he added, nodding in my direction. “Not much of a fighter, though.”
“Honey, don’t feel bad, with an ass that big, you simply couldn’t’ve missed,” I interjected weakly from the gurney.
Stan and his lady laughed at my simple joke. Linda giggled.
Nice enough guy, Stan, the Station Chief of the Guards. Who knew? Those were my last thoughts on the stark-white infirmary’s hospital bed before they put me under.

32
Once again, I woke up on the cot feeling downright terrible, but my faculties quickly returning.
          “I need a safe passage to DC and some credentials to get a personal audience with a couple of high White House and Pentagon officials,” I told Stan, sitting in his cluttered office half an hour later. The Guards finally found more suitable, “kids’” clothing for me. I felt much better in jeans, a plain green T-shirt and a pair of human-size sneakers.
“Could you guys do that?”
My attention was currently stuck on the Better Business Bureau Honor certificates for several years that lined the cheap wood-paneled wall to my left, next to the Switkowski Trucking business license and the Department of Transportation commendation for 2008. The knowledge that back in 2008, customers never filed a complaint about Switkowski Trucking was comforting. I would probably also refrain from complaining. One look at those biceps. . .
The entire wall below the framed awards and license certificate was lined with beat-up, black filing cabinets. Dozens of framed photos adorned the wall to my right. Linda occupied the chair next to me and was also gazing at the documents and picture displays on the walls with a great deal of interest.
          Stan peered into the computer screen on his desk, kluged up with papers and sundries.
          “Wanna meet Kevin O’Hara?” he asked in a distracted manner, intent on his computer. “We can arrange that.”
          “Why do you think I would want to meet him?” I wondered.
          “Rumors have it he’s Brell. He isn’t. O’Hara is probably spreading the rumors himself to confuse somebody,” Stan explained. “His residual PPS doesn’t match.”
          That’s right. They could identify us by the PPS, if they had it on file.
          “Residual PPS?” Linda asked.
          “Protoplasmic signature—a unique energy signature that all spiritual entities have,” Stan explained. “O’Hara’s true identity is the Logistics Chief under Brell, Colonel Srok, one of the Priests.”
          “Then why would you want to arrange for me to meet with him?” Something wasn’t adding up in this whole affair with Brell’s identity, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. And I really didn’t feel like being the Guards’ errand boy or a traitor, either.
          “He keeps saying he’s Brell,” Stan shrugged. “That in itself is interesting, especially in light of his repeated attempts to kill you, which some of your former buddies might find reprehensible for the Commanding Officer. He might know where Brell is. I doubt he’d tell you, though. But you can meet with him if you want. It’s your mission.”
          “If you are so precise in spotting identities by the signature, why don’t you keep screening people until you find Brell?”
I stared at a framed, signed photo of Stan shaking hands with President George W. Bush. Having been a citizen of the People’s Republic of San Francisco all my adult life, I had never personally met anybody who didn’t consider George W. Bush a scoundrel and a war criminal. Now I simply couldn’t get over the fact that the first person I ever met who appeared to like Bush was an extraterrestrial prison guard, posing as a Polish immigrant.
          “Can you imagine the size of such an operation?” Stan asked. “I don’t have the manpower or resources. Especially since he doesn’t want to be found.”
          I considered what I’d heard for a minute, staring at Stan’s large, impassive face as he searched for something on his computer. Linda’s tag on my shoulder was an invitation to look at some picture on the wall that she was studying. I recognized the young blond Guard who shot down the helicopter and saved my life. Standing next to a SWIT truck, grinning, he proudly held a DRIVER OF THE MONTH certificate in front of him for the camera. The guy must have been a good driver and wasn’t all that bad a machine gunner, either.
          “I’ll need my money,” I said.
          “You’ll have your moneybags, sure. I even added a little bit,” Stan answered.
          “How much did you add, just curious?”
          “Oh, about this much,” Stan replied, holding out his thumb and index finger about an inch apart. Must be about twenty-thousand dollars, I figured. Better than a poke in the eye with a rusty nail any day.
          “So how am I going to find Brell?”
          “No idea. But I suggest you give it a very good try. You got Linda to help you. And you’ll have Alesh, the guy who brought you here. You know Alesh?” Stan glanced at me.
          “The guy who shot down the helicopter?”
“Yes, him. Good man. Competent.”
“Is he gonna kill us both when we’re done?” I asked casually, looking Stan straight in the eye.
“You’re going home. I told you already. Everything’s on the up and up.”
I kept staring at him.
“Hey, okay, look here.” Stan got up and walked to one of the filing cabinets. “Two hundred seventy-eight of you high liability, still conscious A5B guys, right here. See these folders marked in red?”
I nodded.
“That’s high liability color marking, pain in the ass, in other words. All two hundred seventy-eight known A5B members are here, including yours. Let’s take any one at random.” Stan pulled a folder from the cabinet and read, “Peter Logan, see?” He turned the folder my way so I could see. There was a rubber stamp across the bottom stating Discharge. “See this?”
“Let’s take a look at some more folders,” I said.
“Here’s yours.” Stan pointed at a similar stamp in my folder.
“Just as I told you. You’re going home.”
I believed him. I was finally leaving this hellhole! I didn’t even know how to feel about that at the moment.
“And Linda?” I felt the warm softness of Linda’s hand in mine.
“You got to understand that she’s a con. It ain’t easy but you got to grasp the concept. You really do. It is highly irregular and even criminal to even. . .”
“Linda is a work party on a special assignment, that’s all,” I interrupted with as much authority as I could muster. “You assigned her to this mission yourself. She’s with me. Get used to it.”
“Right. But helping out on a special assignment as a work party within the facility is one thing. . .  You know what?” He suddenly changed his mind. “Let’s see how it goes. Let’s give it time and see, okay?”
I felt I could trust him, as stupid as that seemed. His absolute power over both of us was undisputable. Yet, he seemed to treat us as equals, and he looked completely comfortable doing that. In my estimation, that made Stan a good guy. A sense of hope and tremendous relief made me giddy. I squeezed Linda’s hand and she returned the gesture.

33
No idea how the Guards did it, but within a couple of hours our mission was fully set up and ready, including our cover identities. With our new passports and journalistic credentials in hand, we boarded a small underground monorail train that ran through the Guards’ system of tunnels. The train wobbled a bit like a boat when I stepped on it. Observing the chassis closer, I realized that the vehicle was hanging over the rail in midair. No friction—must be magnetic. Nice.
Alesh, the machinegun driver of the month, dressed in a spiffy dark suit and red tie, accompanied us together with another, uniformed meathead, who turned out to be our airplane pilot.
Linda and I sat close together, holding hands, our bodies touching. Not sure about Linda, but I needed reassurance. First, the uncouth collaborating with the enemy didn’t sit well with me—said collaboration being based solely on the enemy’s assurances that we were no longer enemies. Second, trapping my Commanding Officer to turn him over to his enemies stunk to high heaven. Oh yes, definitely pungent. If I trapped Brell and turned him over, it would be. Not if I just had a talk with the man, solved a few important mysteries, and then either escaped from the Guards or killed them—another nearly impossible and foul-tasting development, as I’d taken to liking some of those meatheads. Third, ethics and morals aside, I was simply nervous about meeting with the White House types. I was never happy about or really up to any high-level encounters, and now I felt intimidated. The fact that these high-level officials had killed a bunch of people, while hunting me, and tried to kill Linda was no help, either.
I was being propelled and bounced around by the circumstances and the powers involved. Not very much was happening on my terms so far, but I was about to change that. Linda and I were alive and still together. That was the bright side.
Further on the bright side, we both looked, well, ample was probably the word. For starters, I was cleanly shaven, totally unlike myself. My expensive grey suit, blue shirt and striped tie complemented Linda’s navy blue skirt suit and cream-colored blouse. Long coats, grey for me and cream-colored for Linda, completed the ensemble. No, actually, high-heel shoes completed Linda’s ensemble. A nice pair of legs never hurt anybody, I reasoned, happy that Linda chose to wear a skirt, offering a delightful sight to my weary eyes. With her hair smartly done and all made-up, Linda could easily pass for a high-powered reporter or an executive from any media venue.
Our Tiny, Alesh, obviously wasn’t given to any quibbles, as he was snoozing peacefully through the entire half-hour trip.
The train stopped automatically. A system of empty, bare concrete, sparsely lit hallways and elevators finally brought us to a large hangar. Two Lear jets lined up against one of the walls and one more was parked in the middle of the great cavern. Half a dozen meatheads fussed on and around the plane in the middle, getting it ready for the flight. They greeted Alesh and the pilot cheerfully and completely ignored us, or tried to—the completeness of their disdain toward us, the two convicts, thrown off somewhat by their startled double takes at Linda. I puffed my chest out a bit more. Alesh chuckled derisively, shaking his head.
Inside the plane, high up at cruise altitude, Alesh gave us a one-sentence pep talk, staring us down from a large leather seat.
“Do the job, you two cons, and do nothing else or I’ll kill you both.”
“I’ll eat you alive, so watch your back, Tiny,” I threw at him, hatefully. “You’ll be alone against two of us cons, remember that.”
“Calm down, both of you.” Linda raised her voice. “Nobody eats anybody or kills anybody. We want to do the job, sir,” she addressed Alesh respectfully, “and we may need your help, and you may even need our help at some point, so let’s work together.”
“Unlikely.” The scorn on meathead’s voice had no bounds. The Tiny was practically oozing self-righteousness from every orifice.
I decided to take Linda’s advice and leave the fool alone. How many times had I flown on a Lear jet before? Including this one, it was the first that I could remember. Why spoil the moment?
Huge armchairs, nine of them, fully reclining as I quickly determined, were sparsely located in the spacious and sophisticated leather interior offering plenty of elbowroom, headroom, knee room, butt room, ear room and all kinds of other room. Eight of the armchairs faced forward and one, currently occupied by Alesh, faced the other eight. Galley, the ultimate in ergonomics, was disproportionately large and well-stocked, fully sufficient to cook a gourmet meal for eight from scratch, by the looks of it. I loved the lavatory, beautifully appointed, combining functionality with flawlessly pleasing aesthetics. The hot water in the faucet, the slick cabinetry and lighting system all duly impressed me. This plane, functional as it was, was created to pamper the filthy rich—present company accidentally included for the moment.
My gawking experience was rudely interrupted by Linda’s, “Picky, you know what you’re doing in the Pentagon? Come, study with me.”
I sat in my chair, facing Tiny. Alesh was listening to some tunes on his iPhone.
“Hey, Tiny, what’re you listening to?” I was really curious what music these assholes liked.
With a sneer, Alesh handed me his earphones. “Hey, I just met you! This is cra-a-azy . . .” I heard Carly Rae Jepsen’s reverberating voice. “Call Me Maybe”. Amazing. Meathead and I were about the same age. I nodded my approval of his taste in music, handing back the earphones. A slight grin momentarily illuminated his rugged features.
“Come, read the briefing,” Linda called out to me. “You need to get briefed. Did you know we’re with Anchorage Press?”
“Who me? No way! No-no, screw Anchorage Press, Linda. What’re you talking about? Clearly, a case of mistaken identity, that’s what it is. I’m big time. I’m happening. I’m with the Chicago Tribune.” Tiny smirked at me and that small connection hit the spot again. “Anchorage Press is only for the young and hopeful. You know? The springboard to syndication.”
Linda rolled her eyes—what a fine adolescent she’d make—and handed me the briefing that Stan prepared for us. I plopped into the seat next to hers. She smelled positively delectable and looked even better. Why don’t they have private cabins on these planes? I wondered briefly.
I still couldn’t believe she’d shot Stan. Ma’ girl!
We were both with the Anchorage Press, as Linda said, cleared among eighty-seven other media organizations for the press conference with the DOD. The subject of the press conference was the war in Afghanistan and the latest personnel shuffle up on top. We were booked at the Ritz-Carlton right across the highway from the Pentagon. Alesh was to arrive at the same hotel independently and take a room across the hall from ours. He was not supposed to attend the conference. We arrived at Dulles International some twenty miles away only about an hour and a half before the press conference, so we had to boogie.
Stan’s briefing contained detailed directions to the conference room: Approach from Corridor 2: Take the stairs to the 3rd floor A-ring and walk counterclockwise through the tunnel walkway. Proceed until you reach the escalators at the Apex between corridors 7 and 8. Take the escalators to the first floor; follow signs to the conference center.
The packet also contained the main players’ photographs: the DOD Kevin O’Hara, whose lackluster appearance and receding chin-line only deepened my suspicions about his true identity, and Ken Roberts, a one-star general, the DOD Chief of Special Operations. Unlike O’Hara, Roberts struck me as a formidable adversary. Handsome, strong face, resolute, decisive. Commanding presence. I fidgeted in my chair under his heavy, alert gaze. Were we planning to pull some wool over this guy’s eyes?
Stan’s briefing also contained special instructions for us to call Alesh the minute we were out of the meeting with O’Hara and Roberts. None too subtle, Stan didn’t beat around the bush. Apparently, to get us out of any trouble, the Guards were setting up two explosions an hour apart somewhere nearby to discourage the DOD from hustling us too much. The first explosion, the lesser one, was scheduled exactly thirty minutes after the official end of the press conference, unless we called it it off. The second explosion, an hour later, was supposed to further convince the DOD to not mess around with us in case the first warning failed to get through to them. There were no other contingencies if those two warnings didn’t work. For our own safety, we were also ordered to disclose the fact of our cooperation with the Guards to the DOD.

34
Dark, oppressive clouds and penetrating cold wind greeted us at Dulles International Airport. It was about as cold in San Francisco but not as windy.
The five hundred-dollar deluxe room at the Ritz-Carlton, although a much better accommodation than the room I had at the Burton in San Francisco for a hundred bucks, was nowhere near five times better. To me, five hundred a night was a rip off, a con—pure and simple. I later revised my attitude slightly that be it a rip off or not, I’d rather stay at the Ritz-Carlton for five hundred dollars than at the Burton for a hundred.
“Honey, you wanna quickie?” I suggested when we were done exploring our elegant accommodations. Sex had been on my mind for a long while now. Linda’s sophisticated yet strangely revealing outfit utterly failed to extinguish the flame. In fact, I wanted to tear it off her the first moment I saw her in it.
“Are you crazy? We’ve only got about forty-five minutes before the press conference. . .” Linda’s voice trailed off, as I kissed her neck, caressing her breasts with one hand and savoring the electrifying suppleness under the ephemeral fabric of her panties with the other.
“Okay, just a quickie.” Linda breathed in sharply as I massaged her clit, guiding my fingers along the length of it. I nodded eagerly, as I felt her caress the front of my pants. We didn’t even undress. We loosened our clothing enough to expose the relevant body parts and went at it with a great deal of enthusiasm. I set a neck-breaking tempo, orgasming copiously in a long minute, accompanied by Linda’s climactic moaning—always the absolutely best music to my ears. Her moaning turned to throaty, happy laughter, as she cradled my face in her hands, smiling affectionately into my eyes. She followed that with the little kisses that I loved so much, turning all my insides into syrup. No words could express how I felt during moments like this.
“Your jizz is running down my leg now,” Linda announced with a happy grin on the way to the Pentagon building, her hand in mine, spring in her step.
“Is it disgusting?” I asked, absolutely certain that to Linda it would not be.
“No, Picky, I feel so-o-o sexy right now!” Linda cooed, pressing her body against my arm, her eyes gleaming intensely. “Let’s do it again! I heard they have great johns here. You know, standing in a stall? A nice memento from the Pentagon.”
“Definitely something to tell the grandkids about! Yes, Little Debbie, your gran’ma and I, we fucked everywhere, even at the Pentagon.” We both laughed the easy laugh of the happy, our fears temporarily forgotten, comfortable in our own universe, on our way into the lions’ den.
I thought we were going to be late but we weren’t, due to the extreme brevity of the Pentagon security procedure. We went through the metal detector, presented our press IDs, got checked off their roster and were issued passes—that’s it, end of scrutiny. My mom could run a tighter ship than this, I thought.
Following Stan’s directions, we quickly found the conference center with its high ceilings, huge windows and elegant, modern design.
Kevin O’Hara, resplendent in his five-star uniform and full regalia, surrounded by half a dozen staff, Ken Roberts among them, took the podium promptly. He started with a ten-minute briefing on the Afghanistan war, which could be summarized in one compound English sentence, “We keep throwing huge amounts of money and resources at them, but the bastards keep on creaming us.” Then the DOD opened the floor to the press. I raised my hand and waited for my turn.
“Next! Yes, em . . . Norman.” O’Hara nodded to me, straining to read my nametag.
“Anchorage Press. Thank you, sir. Would you personally prefer to see the future US strategy in Afghanistan akin to a praying mantis approach of waiting and pouncing? Or would you rather see a more proactive solution?”
O’Hara’s eyes lit up with recognition. Ken Roberts stiffened behind him, staring at me and then at Linda intently. I glanced down at Linda. She was smiling at Roberts—if baring one’s teeth at somebody could truly be called a smile.
“Our current strategy is combining the relatively passive presence of daytime Army patrols with nighttime Special Forces’ surgically invasive missions,” O’Hara replied gamely. “I would say that we make a good use of the praying mantis approach, as you called it, while simultaneously being proactive. Okay? Who’s next?”
Back in my seat, staying in character, I pretended to jot down O’Hara’s reply. Linda solemnly attended to the recorder for the same reason.
The press conference revealed nothing new about the doomed war in Afghanistan—precisely zilch. I would’ve felt very silly right now if I’d gotten all dressed up, had really flown just for this all the way from Anchorage, Alaska, and rented a five hundred-dollar room.
We lingered after the conference until two uniformed guards escorted us into a huge hall several stories underground. No less than a hundred people, both uniformed and not, toiled at computer workstations facing a wall of monitors, or walked purposefully in every direction. We were ushered into an oppressive concrete cubicle.
Two soldiers scanned us for electronic devices and confiscated our cell phones and the recorder before they allowed us in.
O’Hara and Roberts were already there, seated at a large conference table. The room was decorated in the best traditions of Early Paleozoic style: bare concrete walls, floor, and ceiling and a grim, grey steel table and matching swiveling chairs around it—all bolted to the floor. No windows. No computers or telephones.
“Is this your office?” I asked O’Hara in a way of a greeting.
“This is a safe conference room. Nobody can eavesdrop on us here,” O’Hara replied, unperturbed by my sarcasm.
“Oh, good.” I turned to Linda. “Isn’t it good, honey?”
“Splendid,” Linda replied through her teeth.
Both generals kept silent, so I decided to get right to it.
“General, sir, I wanted to talk to you about the location of the Guards’ transport. Are you interested?” I asked O’Hara.
“Yes, we are,” replied Roberts out of turn, indicating who was the real boss here.
“Okay, the Guards will give it to you, that’s the message,” I told Roberts. A tough-looking son of a bitch. “No need to kill us for it, no need to send the Marines and helicopters. Okay?”
I didn’t mean my question to be rhetorical. So far, they’d sent five strike teams after me with at least two helicopters. Three of the teams were completely wiped out, two of them by yours truly, and the Russians, and one by the Guards. One helicopter was down, causing civilian casualties. I wounded a number of the servicemen. The one expanded team with a helicopter at the Tahoe motel never made contact with me and so got away intact.
“We’ll make the decisions about sending more troops up your ass,” Roberts assured me menacingly. “What’s the twenty on the transport?”
“I need a favor first,” I replied.
They stared at me.
“I wanna talk to Brell.”
“Okay, talk.” O’Hara sounded positively hostile as he sat back and crossed his arms on his chest.
“I meant the real Brell, O’Hara. Not a dumb little fuck like you. Don’t you even think of bullshitting me. Look where it’s gotten you so far,” I shot back.
“Where did it get us? Why not bullshit you?” Roberts hissed, getting up and looming over us.
“Did he just call me ‘little fuck’?” Incredulous O’Hara asked Roberts, who chose to ignore the question.
“You got nothing to bargain with, you understand?” Roberts continued in a calmer tone of voice, staring me down. “You know where you are? The Pentagon. Your asses are mine now. You’re never leaving here. Got that, pipsqueak?”
I also got up, squaring up against his mighty physique as impressively as possible, I hoped. “You are wrong, Roberts. I’ll get out of here. The Guards saw to that. Do what I say, or you’ll experience a warning shot across the bow ten minutes from now. You wanna be dead before nightfall?” I strolled around the room in a picturesque manner, letting what I’d said sink in.
“Is that how he wiped out all your people? The Guards helped him?” O’Hara asked Roberts.
Roberts nodded, scowling. “Makes sense.” He stared hard at me. “But why would the Guards disclose the location of their transport to you?”
“Come on, Roberts!” I shook my head in feigned disbelief. “You’re smarter than that. Well, okay, maybe not. You know that the war’s been over for hundreds of years. You know that the statute of limitations on the illegal weapons use recently expired.”
“But why would they confide in you?”
“They like me and Linda. They trust us.”
“What do they want, these assholes?” asked O’Hara with disgust.
“They want Brell. Then we can all go home, including you. They’ll even fly us home.”
Linda tugged on my sleeve as I was now standing over her. I looked down. She tapped the face of her watch with a slender finger. I always found her hands very pretty. Three minutes before the deadline. Both generals noticed our exchange.
“You’re a nobody, Norman.”
Roberts too now? Lt. Adams also used to call me a “nobody.” Then the Colonel. P-3 convicts, both of them. The two degenerates in front of me were not. What happened to them? What horrible affliction got the best of them?
“What the hell happened to you, people?” I asked. “You’re more deranged than any convict here.”
“We’re saving their butts before they destroyed the entire planet, these idiots,” O’Hara replied, offended. “If we don’t save this crappy little planet, they’re all dead.”
“Oh, you know what’s good for us, are you?” Linda asked.
“Shut up, convict!” Roberts barked. “You know nothing! You people raped the planet and ran it to the ground. You’ve done yourselves in politically, as well. You horded yourself into a corner. What’s next? A nuclear fucking war? Yes, we know what’s good for you! You sure don’t.”
“Look at yourself, Roberts! You just killed a bunch of people and you’re perfectly willing to kill any number more. Am I to believe you will save this planet? You’re insane!”  
“I don’t experct you to understand.
“Right. I don’t expect I’ll understand, either. Nobody understands crazy. It’s incomprehensible. That’s why it’s crazy.”
“We want to see that shot over the bow before we commit to anything or continue,” Roberts glared at me.
“No prob. Let’s wait.” I sat down.
The deadline came and went. Nothing happened. A large, unpleasant knot started developing in my stomach.
Roberts stepped out of the safe room, probably to check on any recent events that could be considered hostile in the DC area. Then he returned. Nothing.
“This is going to hurt. Norman, Linda, screw you both,” O’Hara finally said to us. Then he turned to Roberts. “You know what to do.”
Roberts nodded, standing and sneering.
The muffled roar of a powerful explosion ripped through the safe room’s dead silence. The floor, the walls, the table and chairs, everything shook. Whew.
“Right here in the Pentagon? On Level C. Or D?” O’Hara squeaked incredulously. “Must be the Guards ‘cause. . .”
Roberts rushed out of the room without a word. We could see him talking to a Marine through the door that he left open. People were rushing about in the background.
 “Computer utility room,” he reported upon arrival shortly. “Most of the backup servers and batteries are destroyed. No casualties.”
“Was that enough of a warning, Roberts, or should I ask for something more spectacular?” I gloated.
They both stared at me for a while, calculating and cold. Who were these guys? How did they manage to get so fucked up so fast? Or had they always been that way?
“What do you want?” Roberts finally asked in an arctic voice.
“Where’s Brell? I want to know fast so we can get out of here, because in exactly one hour you will all develop concentric target circles on your backs. You’ll be hunted down and killed one by one. Give me what I want and I’m out of your hair.”
“Don’t flatter yourself, pipsqueak, you’re not in my hair. You are a minor neusense, that’s all. You want Brell?” I caught the quick glance that Roberts and O’Hara exchanged. What were these two hiding? I mean, what else were they hiding that had to do with Brell? Plenty, I bet.
“He’s of no importance to us,” Roberts continued, probably lying. “Brell’s gone nuts. You can have ’im.” Roberts sat down. He looked pissed, and I suspected that Brell had very little to do with it, if anything. He simply wasn’t used to things not going his way. Yes, now I definitely was a major thorn in his butt—and that felt good.
“Brell’s a guru now, founded some cult or some such bullshit.” Roberts shrugged as if in desperation and shook his head.
“A cult? Like a religion you mean?”
“Precisely.” Roberts grinned mirthlessly.
“Some Free Eternal Spirit or something,” O’Hara added.
I stared at both of them in turn.
“Lives in a cave,” O’Hara continued. “Gone completely insane.”
“Where’s that cave?” I asked, shocked by what I’d heard. Brell went off the deep end. That truly sucked.
“Last seen on Palau about a week ago. We don’t keep tabs on Brell. Fuck ’im. He’s nuts but harmless. What do you want him for?” Roberts seemed dubious about the whole thing.
The last report they’d received on Brell was a week ago. A funny way of not keeping tabs on somebody.
“I just need to talk to him.” I shrugged casually.
“Does he have anything to do with our departure plans?” O’Hara asked in an almost friendly tone.
“Something always has to do with something, but some things are something else,” I replied vaguely to draw them out.
“Whatever.” Roberts didn’t take the bait. “He won’t cooperate. I don’t care!” Roberts threw his hands up, dismissing the whole conversation. “I just want the location of the spaceship. Do you know where it is? Yes or no?”
“No, I don’t,” I lied. “But I have the flash drive stashed in a safe place. Maybe you would even get somewhere with it. Use your nerds and computers. You can have it after I talk to Brell.”
“What about you? Where’s the transport? Do you know?” Roberts turned to Linda and stared hard into her eyes.
Linda stared right back at Roberts silently.
“Are you two playing me?” Roberts was positively hissing now. I disregarded his question.
“Well, cheerios, nice to see you and all that. Off to see Brell.” I got up.
“Knock yourself out,” O’Hara replied, getting up and indicating that the meeting was adjourned. “We’ll be in touch.” He raised his eyebrows to stress the significance of that threat.
“Just to make sure you deliver the flash drive,” Roberts clarified, rocking his chair, hands clasped behind his head.
“Or what?” I asked, smiling. “You’ll send me a hundred more Girl Scouts?”
“Do you think I care how many troops you kill?” Roberts’s hollow laughter was chilling. “I’ll send ten thousand more. A hundred thousand! A million! In the name of national security, anything I want. Who do you think you’re dealing with here? We have this entire shitty planet by the balls, you got it? USA, Russia, China, NASA, Homeland Security—I don’t care. Congress, Republicans, Democrats, Communists, money, food, drugs, justice system, healthcare, oil—you name it, that’s us. Everything.”
I silently headed toward the door with Linda in tow.
“Not everything,” came Linda’s curt retort. “You don’t have me! So you’re full of shit, big cheese general. You don’t have everything.”
“Everything! You hear me? Everything. You two. . . riffraff! Everything! You’ll come back crawling, begging for mercy,” I heard behind me.
A Marine lieutenant parked outside the door returned our cell phones and personally escorted us to the elevator.
“These two give me the creeps. I’d take human convicts over these extraterrestrial assholes any day.” Linda, clearly disappointed, echoed my sentiments. Of course, in the final count, the “humans” were also extraterrestrials, but that wasn’t the point here.
“Where the hell is Palau?” I asked Linda.
“In the Pacific, near Philippines,” she replied casually. Incredible. She knew everything all the time.
I raised Alesh on my cell phone and called off any follow-up attacks.
We navigated the endless corridors in silence. I feverishly computed an escape route, going through varieties of possible scenarios. Didn’t look good. We had a chunk of cash but we’d have to surface sooner or later. Brell didn’t sound like the ticket out that I’d made him out to be. Without Brell, my newly found friendship with the Guards was probably short-lived. If I wanted out of here, or wanted to live quietly with Linda in case the escape attempt failed as usual, I might have to crawl back to the Priests, as Roberts predicted. And through whatever means necessary make myself useful enough—or even indispensable—to convince them to spare my life and Linda’s. Wow, things could sure crap out fast. Was it smart to take that tone of voice with these idiots?
“So if these people control everything, why would they want out?” Linda, a cool breeze of common sense, as usual. “For their back pay? They’re moving billions and trillions right here. They got it made. They’d be nobody back home. . . wherever you all came from. Makes no sense.”
That’s right! Things changed even faster than I thought. The profound truth of Linda’s observation struck home with a bang. Why didn’t I think of that? Why would they want to leave Earth? If they didn’t, why did they want that spaceship so bad? And why did O’Hara impersonate Brell?
Also, another thing: the Priests, at least these ones, were no longer protecting Brell. They were busy accumulating power and wealth. Brell must have somebody else looking after him. If not the Priests, then who? What did this power shift mean to me? Brell could still be the thread to unravel this mystery and a ticket out, although it seemed less likely now. But I had to see him anyway.
Before we left the Pentagon, I decided to stop by their library and check on the cult Brell had supposedly founded.
The register of religious organization on the Internet revealed nothing. There was no officially recognized church of the Free Eternal Soul.
“Try Immortal Soul,” Linda suggested.
No such listing.
There was a Church of the Free Immortal Spirit in Manila under the heading of “Miscellaneous Asian Religions.” Asian. They had a high-profile retreat on Palau. Bingo!
Alesh greeted us inside our room with his usual scowl.
“Found Brell?” he asked derisively, addressing no one in particular. Reclining in one of the huge armchairs and staring at the ceiling, Alesh nursed a can of Mountain Dew.
Linda gasped and froze at the sight of a dead body, a bullet hole in his forehead, on its back on the floor next to the coffee table, about eight feet away from Alesh.
“No, we didn’t find Brell,” I lied just in case. I was getting good at this. “It’s complicated. Who’s the stiff?”
“No idea.” Alesh shrugged lazily. “I saw him break into your room, gave him a few seconds and followed in after him. He was going through your stuff. I asked him what the hell—politely—but he pulled a gun on me.” Alesh nodded in the direction of the coffee table. There it was, the Exhibit A, a gun on the table and a fancy one at that. A Nighthawk .45, seemed to me, probably a six-seven grand custom gun. White steel body, fancy grip.
“You want it?” I asked Alesh immediately. “’Cause I’d like to have it.”
“Norman, knock it off!” Linda interrupted. “How can you possibly be so callous? You should be ashamed of yourself. A man died here and what are you thinking about? Stealing his gun?”
“Should I be thinking about CPR?” I replied, smirking.
“How about you think of his mother, wife, kids? Do you give a damn? You should!” She waved her arms in the air. “Don’t you understand what just happened? A man lost his life here. A human being. Somebody’s friend, somebody’s son, a husband, maybe. We killed him.”
Alesh and I exchanged bewildered glances. What the hell was the woman talking about?
“Linda, maybe he was somebody’s friend but not ours, this human being,” I allowed in a reasonable tone, speaking slowly, so she wouldn’t miss the obvious. “I understand you’re upset, but you got to relate to the fact that if he hadn’t broken into our room, and if he hadn’t been pawing our moneybag, and if he hadn’t pulled a gun on Alesh, he would still be alive now. So whose fault is that?”
Linda threw her arms up and rushed to the bathroom, upset.
“How did you do?” Alesh asked, no longer derisively, after Linda slammed the door behind her.
“Pretty good, I suppose. Still in one piece. Thanks for the bang, by the way.”
“We got delayed a bit with the blast.” Alesh’s statement of the obvious was paramount to an apology.
“That’s okay, man, no worries,” I assured him just in case he was worried. “Thanks anyway. So, yes, we met with O’Hara and Roberts, neither one of them is Brell. But you already knew that, right?”
“Right. Now what?” Alesh assumed his preferred stretched out position in the armchair. Lazy bum.
“Now we’re flying to the Philippines next. Roberts said Brell was seen there a couple of months ago.”
Alesh perked up. “Philippines? Where at exactly?”
“Some bar in Manila, apparently,” I lied. “Get us to Manila and we’ll take it from there.”
“Where at in Manila?”
“The Headless Horseman Bar, that’s all I know.”
I was more surprised by what I’d said than Alesh. Sometimes the sounds that originate from my mouth surprise the living crap out of me. Why the Headless Horseman? The first saloon name that came to mind. Did they even name their bars in English over there or in Tagalog? And why headless?
“Okay, then.” Alesh nodded agreeably. “That’s something. I’ll set up the flight.”

35
Stan denied our request for the Lear jet this time. With a mere two thousand-mile range, we’d have to land for refueling four times to cover the nine thousand miles to Manila. Too much logistical hustle for its worth. Instead, we were booked on a Delta flight to Manila for the next afternoon.
Meanwhile a couple of phlegmatic meatheads, summoned by Alesh, packed the dead body in a huge duffel bag and carried it out of our room. That went a long way toward restoring Linda’s good graces toward me. The evening found us on our huge bed horsing around most orgasmically.
Having Alesh stand guard felt safe. Regrettably, that sense of safety would have to end, as I would need to lose him in the Philippines to find Brell. I couldn’t lead the Guards to my Commanding Officer. That ain’t right, as my friend German police officer Feinstein would’ve formulated it.
Later that night, Linda and I went dancing at the famous Washington DC Fur nightclub on New York Avenue and Patterson Street, a former warehouse, with thirty-foot high ceilings and a huge dance floor. Not much for dance clubs, I actually liked this one because you could get away from the crowd and relax in the club’s numerous intimate lounges or late-night espresso bar and café. Something different for a change.
The flight to Manila took the entire next day. Alesh had police officer credentials—damn Guards could do anything they wanted—so he was allowed to carry his gun. I had my newly acquired Nighthawk .45 in my luggage, comprised mainly of a couple of toothbrushes, some underwear and a shole bunch of hundred-dollar bills.
Manila greeted us with the warm humidity often associated with that part of the world. Linda, fascinated by the city, was glued to the cab window on our way to the hotel. I couldn’t get myself interested. To me, Manila resembled rundown parts of Los Angeles or Mexico City. Just another city, poor and dirty for the most part. I was preoccupied by mentally sorting through various innovative ways of losing Alesh. I didn’t like my options. Somebody here was going to die soon.
          The hotel we found was no worse than any good hotel anywhere. Just a hotel. I was actually never big on all that travel nonsense. Linda called me on it.
“What do you know about the Philippines, Picky?” she asked, looking down on the city through the eighth story window next morning.
“Their ex-first lady, Imelda Marcos, owned as many shoes as a hundred average women, something like thirteen hundred pairs, I think, or fifteen hundred. Why do you ask?”
“What do you mean why do I ask?” Linda shrugged elegantly. “And what do shoes have to do with anything? This happens to be an ancient culture and a thriving modern metropolis. Look at this gorgeous place!”
“I’m glad you brought it up.”
Linda grinned. She knew me well.
Talking about gorgeous, who wanted to look at Manila when I had naked Linda in front of me? A pleasure to behold. We both admired the view that way. Every little part of her body, like her hand, the way the roundness of her breast showed from behind as she turned her back to me, her neck, her full thighs—everything about her was squeezable, beautiful, desirable. She knew that I loved looking at her. We both slept naked and loved spooning. Such an arrangement also presented Linda with an extra chance to show off in the morning.
Alesh tagged along with us, enticed by my promises of finding Brell. All I was trying to do was lose Alesh without having to kill him—I kind of liked that son of a bitch machine gun driver of the month. The nonlethal alternative was becoming increasingly illusive, since he’d taken away my gun upon arrival. So now I couldn’t shoot him in the leg and run, could I?
Before we left, I examined our clothing and possessions and didn’t find any bugs. Alesh supplied me with a go-phone, which must have been bugged, but Stan knew that I’d assume that, so the phone could only be a small part of the security arrangements. I didn’t buy for a second that the Guards trusted us. Most likely they simply believed they could control us. They probably had a contingency plan for locating us if we got away. Or they wanted us to get away and lead them to Brell.
Turned out there really was a Headless Horseman Bar & Grill in Quezon City, Manila. I was right as usual. There was a hospital nearby, too. An escape plan congealed in my mind.
We had the cabby let us out a block away from the Headless Horseman, so Alesh could watch from a distance. As expected, the bar was closed in the morning. It opened at eleven. We took Rodriguez Sr. Avenue toward Saint Luke Hospital on foot, Alesh in tow. He didn’t try to find out why we headed for the hospital, just followed us at a distance. They definitely were up to something.
Did they want us to escape? Happy to oblige. Stealing an ambulance was as easy as jumping into an open vehicle and driving away. The paramedics, who left the truck here, very concerned with the health of their patient, left their ambulance wide open and the motor running.
“Jump in!” I directed Linda, as we ran by the idling ambulance.
I didn’t have to elaborate. Linda dashed inside. We took off as briskly as the heavy Ford ambulance van would allow. To my surprise, Alesh ran after us a good quarter mile. Then he commandeered a cab. A car chase through the streets of Manila first thing in the morning wasn’t part of my plan. Possibly they didn’t want us to escape after all.
Alesh called me on the phone he’d given me.
“Norman, stop the van immediately or I’ll shoot you both.” He sounded a little peeved.
“Hey, relax, man, you know where we are. Earth! Right? We can’t get off, you know that.  So chill!”
I threw the bugged phone out the window and pressed on through the busy streets of Manila.
With the siren reverberating a catchy cadence on our intestines, we were tearing through the city, the cab closely on our tail. It didn’t take long to lose it in a maze of red traffic lights that I kept running, under the accompaniment of Linda’s disapproving expletives.
I stopped the ambulance in front of a huge, shopping mall, painted blue, a large white sign “Robinsons Galleria” prominently displayed on the front, right next to a huge billboard, depicting a pretty Philippina in a bikini bra. I stopped for an instant to contemplate my approval for huge billboards as they had a tendency to depict everything so BIG.  
We navigated all the way through the mall, past Dunkin Donuts, K-Mart and a multitude of other stores to the other side and emerged, remarkably, through a Toys-R-Us store. In Manila. Small world. At this point I wouldn’t have been surprised to find Dunkin Donuts or a Big-5 on any of the Baltizor planets, either. Small galaxy. Small universe.
The cab we flagged at the mall’s opposite entrance delivered us safely to the Church of the Free Immortal Spirit, which occupied the first floor in an old, three-story dilapidated house in Paranaque, a poor residential neighborhood, known for its churches.
A nondescript, except for her grasping eyes, yet friendly, older Philippina inside introduced herself as Joyce, the church keeper. She was alone on the premises. The church, the size of a small apartment consisted of a hall with a podium, a large flat screen TV and a couple dozen folded metal chairs stacked against the wall. Three doors on the right might have been small offices and a bathroom. A tiny bookstore with books and memorabilia was more like a nook than a room. All the books were written by the same author, Robert Peterson.
Joyce smiled and talked about their meetings, seminars and volunteer work.
“Who is Robert Peterson?” Linda asked.
Grace turned her alert and serious eyes to Linda. “Our founder. We call him the Teacher or the Amibrotos, the Immortal.” I noticed that despite the highly occult meaning of her words, Joyce didn’t seem overly reverent. She didn’t seem about to throw herself on her knees at the mention of Thy Holy Name, in other words.
“Peterson?” I asked casually. “Where is Bob? Where can we find him?”
“He isn’t here,” Joyce replied just as casually, smiling. Except for a quick, guarded glance she threw at me, that was. And slight tightening of her shoulders. She was going to report on us snooping around the instant we stepped out through that entrance door. Good.
“He never comes here, so I’ve never met him personally and don’t know where he resides. We see his lectures by Skype every Saturday. Why do you want to see the Amibrotos?”
“But you can contact him, right?”
Joyce shook her head. “No, I can’t. We have our policies. It’s an organization, you know?”
“Well, all right.” I nodded. “We are staying at the Pearl Manila, room 812, if you get in touch with anybody.”
“Why do you want to see him?” Joyce asked again, smiling. There was no mirth in that smile. Zero mirth.
“We seek help,” Linda answered. “Marital difficulties. Do you think he can help us?”
“He can definitely help, yes. What are your names?”
“My friends call me the Praying Mantis,” I replied.
“Why?” Joyce seemed genuinely shocked. “Why would they call you that?”
“He’s very religious,” Linda explained, patting me on the back.
Joyce was all smiles at parting. This church was a front, a make-believe. And so was Grace. She smacked of a security operative more than a church keeper. What danger could pressure Brell into this level of security? Real and imminent danger, that’s what danger.
“Where to now?” Linda asked. “And what about the money?”
We’d left our moneybag at the hotel.
“No worries, hon. We’re going back to the hotel.”
“But Alesh will catch us!”
“I thought we liked Alesh?”
Linda shrugged with a bewildered look on her face.
“Next time I’ll shoot you two idiots on sight,” Alesh greeted us upon our return.
“You’re a bitter loser,” I replied, squeezing past him in the hallway. “I won. Admit it. Do you hate it? I hope you do.”
Alesh mumbled something angry and stomped out.
We spent the rest of the day shopping and dining with Alesh always nearby. We visited the Headless Horseman Bar and asked around to Alesh’s satisfaction. Nothing important came up, as expected.
“Are you happy now?” I asked Alesh. “All I want is for you to be happy.”
He grumbled something.
So how would we find Brell? Or, rather, why didn’t he find us yet?
“Give it time,” Linda said.
Right she was as always. Next morning we set off on foot with Alesh shadowing us at some distance.
A green delivery van, parked on Escolta Street in the downtown district of Binondo, suddenly came to life as we were crossing the street. It swerved at us from its parking spot at the curb, tires screeching. We jumped to the other side of the street to avoid the van, which suddenly stopped right behind us, cutting us off from Alesh. Another van, a white one, sped over the curb right in front of us. The doors flew open and four masked assailants, armed with AKs, each sporting large praying mantis patches on their left shoulders and breast pockets, pushed both of us into the van. The doors clanked closed, and off we went speeding down Escolta Street. The entire operation must have taken less than ten seconds. Very impressive. Obviously, I wasn’t the only one left of the A5B contingent who knew soldiering.
          The attackers put away their guns. Stretching on the van’s carpeted floor, I yawned comfortably. If one ever wanted to get abducted, this was definitely the best way to do it.
          “Nicely done,” I mentioned casually to the masked attacker looming closest to me. He nodded his thanks.  
“Norman, what are you saying? These people are terrorists. They’ll probably rape and torture us now and then chop off our heads on video. Don’t just lie there, do something!” Linda yelled.
          “Relax, hon,” I smiled reassuringly. “They won’t rape us.”
          “Rape you?” chimed in one of the attackers pulling off his mask and turning his glistening, smiling face to Linda. “Well, okay, but not all of you at once. Maybe just some of you for right now.” The middle-aged, unshaven, heavyset guy eyed Linda lasciviously and licked his lips. “What are you, a Double-D, hmm, sugar? About 145 pounds?”
          Linda gasped in horror, clasping her mouth with both hands but then froze, eyeing everyone suspiciously. “Do you know these perverts?” she finally asked me.
          “Which perverts? You mean these perverts over here? Yes, we go way back. Relax, hon.”

36
          “Whose idea was it to call it ‘Free’ Immortal Spirit? Pretentious, isn’t it?” I asked the swarthy, middle-aged abductor, whom I singled out as the leader. We were all sitting or stretching out on the van’s carpeted floor. Our destination was unknown to me, but I hoped we were on our way to see Brell.
          Our captors, numbering four in the cab plus the driver, ranged from adolescent to at least seventy and represented three of the major races of Earth. The driver turned out to be an Asian woman of undeterminable age by the name Thida, a Cambodian.
          Liran, the group’s barrel-chested leader smiled indulgently, eyeing me with affection.
          “Can’t say I remember what you looked like back then, you know when, but I do get the vibe. You’re one of us for sure. Welcome, Norman!”
Yes, the vibe. With a little practice, you can learn to recognize old friends, relatives or lovers with your eyes closed. We served together with this guy. We were friends, yes indeed. A long time ago. Was it really such a long time? Five thousand missley years out of hundreds of trillions of years? Not that long ago. A blink of an eye.
“Thanks, Liran, happy to see you too.” I grinned happily.
“I heard a bit about your adventures,” he continued with an unrecognizable accent, which later turned out to be Hebrew, mopping his full, glistening face with a paper towel. “You guys are all right. Sorry to frighten you, Linda. Would that be a consolation to tell you that I love chocolate?”
Oh, no! A racial innuendo? How was Linda going to react? I held my breath.
Linda grinned at Liran and nodded; yes, it would indeed be a consolation. She seemed to have completely recovered from her fears of being raped and tortured and was enjoying the company. How could anybody not love this girl?
“And Freedom?” Liran turned to his crew. “What do you guys think, too pretentious?”
Old black man next to him smirked, shaking his head. A bearded white man slapped me on the back. He looked a bit like—what’s that guy’s name from the Bee Gees?
“No, no,” I protested. “I didn’t say ‘too pretentious,’ I said ‘pretentious.’ Too pretentious would be Absolute Freedom or Total Freedom or something. I’m saying it’s all babble. What’s freedom? Who’s free? A nine to five working stiff? A billionaire? A homeless beggar? You? Me? Nobody is free here or anywhere else—but for damn sure not here on Earth anyway. The whole planet is a prison. We are all inmates. I call that pretentious.”
Liran listened to me with an indulgent smile—the patronizing dick. It suddenly occurred to me that he probably knew something I didn’t, being close to Brell and all. A happy wave of anticipation swelled inside me. What were these guys up to? Freedom? Seriously? Linda was making big eyes at me. She felt something too. She crawled over to me on all fours, no longer scared or self-conscious, and nestled against me, eyeing Liran in eager anticipation. I put my arms around her, feeling happy.
“Well, what’s your definition of freedom?” Liran asked. “You tell me what freedom means to you, and I’ll tell you if we deliver.”
“Freedom is when nobody runs your life. . .” I started and immediately thought better of it. Everybody I’d ever known had run my life to a degree and that was good. I liked that. I assisted somebody, held the door or something, helped Linda, helped our guys at the lab to do their jobs. Yvette definitely used to run my life for me to a great extent. My entire life revolved around Yvette, especially when she was a baby. I did things for them and loved it. It pleased me to feel useful, but that also meant they ran my life in a way.
“No, wait. That’s not it. I meant nobody. . . I mean others can’t. . . No, no, wait. I know, I know.”
“You are free to choose what you do or how you act,” Linda ventured, incisive as usual.
“Exactly! Freedom of choice. Thanks, Linda.” I kissed her wherever I could reach. The kiss landed on her shoulder. I was pleasantly aware of her body snuggling tighter against mine.
“What about others who are affected by your free choice? Somebody chooses to be a murderer, how’s that work? He whacks you out but did you choose to be killed?” the old black man suddenly joined in.
I saw the point. “That’s why we have laws and cops and all that.”
“So we don’t want free choice?” the driver Thida asked. “We want cops now?”
“Honest people want regulations, not freedom. Nobody wants freedom except criminals, but who cares what they want, right?” The old man chuckled.
Confusing.
“What’s a criminal anyway?” Liran asked unexpectedly. “In some countries using the wrong piece of paper to wipe your ass could land you in Gulag for twenty years or get you killed. Even now as we speak, somebody yapping against their psycho dirt bag in North Korea will get butchered. A woman may be considered a criminal just for showing her face in public. Hell, women still get stoned to death for adultery in some countries. But then grown men screwing eight year olds is all right in Yemen. Stealing five bucks in the US can get you a jail sentence, but illegal surveillance of hundreds of thousands of people without a court order, torturing people, killing unarmed suspects by police, holding foreigners illegally in despicable, humiliating conditions and denying them the right to an attorney is okay for the US police, the CIA and the president of the United States. So what’s criminal? Catch the drift?”
My head spun. “So what’s freedom then?” I asked, hoping for a clear answer.
“You know what freedom is, Norm. Freedom is when you feel free, happy, love everybody—you know? You feel free—you are free. Keep it simple.”
“Huh?”
Liran laughed. The van stopped. The door slid open, letting in fragrant ocean air and the screams of sea gulls.

37
At Sihanoukville we all boarded a rickety bus.
“Where to now?” I asked Liran.
“Siem Reap,” he replied.
“Is that in Cambodia?” I asked.
“Yeah, about one hundred fifty miles from here.”
“Wow, that’s a long trip. How did you guys get to Manila so fast?”
“We’re taking a scenic route now. A security precaution.”
Made sense.
“This Siem Reap isn’t it a tourist trap? I think I’ve heard about it.”
“You can call it a tourist trap, sure. Angkor temples attract millions of tourists. The most prominent, Angkor Wat, is huge—the largest religious structure in the world. The name Siem Reap means the Defeat of Siam—Siam is the former name of Thailand. This is where Khmers, or Cambodians as we call them now, beat the shit out of the Thai Prince Ong’s Army in the sixteenth century.”
“That’s fascinating. I can kind of see why Brell, I mean the Teacher, picked such a location for his base,” I ventured.
“It’s not my job to brief you on the whereabouts of the Teacher. I’m just saying that we’re headed for Siem Reap right now.” Liran didn’t want to talk anymore. I shouldn’t have pried.
The rural scenery outside was made surprisingly pleasant by the smiling natives. These people smiled a lot. Most even waved at us, especially the kids.
“Do they always wave to buses?” Linda asked.
“Pretty much,” yelled the driver. “Very friendly people.”
“Yes, very friendly,” Thida pitched in. “Good and honest people. You can trust these people here. You can give some money to a kid and ask him to run to a store and buy something for you, and he’ll bring you everything you asked, including your change.”
Linda started shouting, “Hello! How are you? Nice day!” to everybody in sight, waving through the open window.
Siem Reap is really a cluster of small villages along the Siem Reap River. These villages originally developed around Buddhist temples, scattered along the river to its delta where it meets the great Tonle Sap Lake.
The bus let us off by an interesting looking pagoda. After a hurried handshake, Liran took off with his crew in a van that was waiting for him, leaving us on the sidewalk.
“Now what? Did they abandon us here?” Linda turned to me, incredulous.
The bus driver gave us a folded piece of paper with instructions and also left. The paper read:
Guys, don’t panic. Be tourists for a day, check into a hotel and wait for
instructions. Have fun!
No signature.
“Checking for a tail,” I told Linda. “That’s all right.”
“Picky, I love it here,” Linda replied. “Let’s walk.”
“Let’s.” I agreed.
We simply started walking in a random direction.
Although still an authentic place in many ways with pagodas and Asian looking architecture, signs of progress peeked at us from almost everywhere—gas stations, laundromats. We walked past a sign “Baker and McKenzie Law Offices.”  
Sivutha Street, where we were let off, was the center of the city. Lots of guesthouses, restaurants, jewelry stores, handicraft and woodcarving shops—no lack of interesting things to look at.
          Thus, carried by the flow of foot traffic, we ended up in the Old French Quarter. Smell of good food enveloped us, a savory reminder that it was way past lunchtime. Taking a couple of turns at random, we found ourselves on Pub Street, alive with small restaurants, cafés and bars, serving every kind of food under the sun. Some places exuded class and style, and others were not stylish at all. Exotic. Eclectic. What should we eat? Venturing deeper into the bowels of the place, we got lost in the alleys lined with small shops and glutted with cheerful crowds.
          “What would you like to eat?” I asked Linda.
          “Let’s take the first place we come to, you know? Let’s surprise ourselves,” Linda suggested.
“Can’t go wrong,” I agreed. “Let’s eat at the next dive.”
The next dive turned out to be a burger joint, The Banana Leaf. Throw me into the veritable epicenter of exotic international cuisine. . . And what kind of a name is “Banana Leaf” for a burger joint? Surprisingly, their Croc Burgers did indeed strike a chord as did the Happy Hour Every Hour, the restaurant location in a side alley in the middle of the shopping area, the balcony to watch the throngs of happy shoppers and rubbernecking tourists, and good beer. Nice place.
“Excusez-moi!” I called out to a pretty Cambodian waitress zooming by with a couple of orders of burgers and fries and two largish bottles of brown ale on a tray. Ah, stout!
Our burgers and the two of us in tow finally settled down at a table outside on the street, alive with bicycles, happy people, rickshaws pulling carts with gawking tourists—some of them looking around in a peculiar, kind of detached way that follows brain overload, I guess. They couldn’t quite digest all the visual stimuli. Instead of doing so much looking, why wouldn’t they get off their butts and go talk to people, ask questions? There is a lot of virtue in rubbing elbows, understanding things, making new friends, getting a little drunk—maybe, learning some phrases in a new language. Just live! But no. Talking about being forever dead.
“Buy flower?” A tiny voice brought me out of my reverie.
A little girl, about eight, in a bright dress was offering Linda a rose. I liked her smile and the intelligent alertness in her eyes. Precious. I paid for the flower and made the girl stay a few minutes longer.
“What’s your name?” I asked, smiling too, feeling happy.
“Chea,” she answered with an even brighter smile.
“Do you go to school, Chea?” Linda asked.
“Yes.” She nodded eagerly. Then added, looking away, “But not all time.”
“Sometimes?” Linda offered.
“Yes, sometime.” Chea lit up again. “You Americans?”
“Yes, we are,” Linda replied proudly.
“You very pretty,” she told Linda.
“Thank you, you too,” Linda replied.
“You know Justin Bieber?” Chea asked, making big eyes.
Damn little Canadian brat. Even here?
 “No, we don’t. Sorry,” I replied.
Chea got the cutest little pouty lip and walked away.
Adorable.
“Chea!” Linda called after her.
          The little girl returned.
          “How much money in American dollars would you need to not miss school for a whole week?”
          Chea thought about it, furrowing her eyebrow. “Ten dollar!” she finally concluded. That couldn’t be true. Could she even count yet?
          “Here is three hundred dollars for you. Please put it away. Yes, just like that. Give it to your mom. How many weeks of school do you owe me?”
          “Thirty!” Chea fired back brightly.
          She knew how to count all right.
          “Correct. Bright girl! Give away all these roses to the tourists and go home, okay?” Linda hugged her and let her go.
Could it be true that people lived on so little money here?
          “How can people live on ten bucks a week?” I asked when Chea left.
“They don’t. That’s just how much she’s been making selling flowers during school.”
Made sense.
The waitress, Darany, recommended The Garden Village Guest House right off Sivatha Road, in close proximity to Sok San Palace and the famous Old Market.
The place was geared toward budget-conscious travelers, which both Linda and I preferred to be at the moment, leaning toward a great backpacker atmosphere and friendly, informal staff to the stiff luxury of the Sheraton. Friendliness. What else do weary travelers need? That and the all-day fifty-cent-draught beer on the rooftop terrace. Unpretentious, to be sure, but not dinky, the place was three stories. Our room was nice, full of flowers. We found the restaurant to be rather decent, too. A buck a day each got us “grandma” bikes to roll around town on.
After a fun-filled day at balmy Siem Reap, a sudden knock on our hotel door distracted me from from a long-awaited shower. It was a hotel messenger with a note. A cab was waiting for us outside.

38
Our instructions were to check out of the Garden Village, collect all our meager belongings and get into the cab.
The cabby, a Cambodian of undeterminable age, took us to a nice part of town, Psar Leu, where nightlife was in the process of unfolding. The scene already looked promising. We stopped by a dignified plaque with the English writing “Buddhist Literature Research Center Kingdom of Cambodia” by the entrance. This center occupied a part of the first floor in a three-story building. The rest of the building was taken by a hotel, the Khmer Princess Inn, with a restaurant on the first floor right next to the hotel lobby. The center, hotel and the restaurant all had separate entrances.
The driver ushered us into the hotel lobby to the check-in counter and promptly disappeared without getting paid. The clerk greeted us with a cheerful, “Mister and Missis Harris! Well, hello! Welcome to Khmer Princess Inn. You’re all checked in already. Room 203.”
The alert clerk’s eyes quickly checked us out. A security pro. I was getting used to this.
The clerk yelled into the open door of an office behind him, “Ismail, take our guests and their luggage to Room 203, please. Here is the key.”
A kid, younger than me, not an oriental, must really be an Arab, took our suitcase and walked us to the elevator. We waited for a while for the decrepit elevator to arrive.
“Two-oh-three’s on the second floor, right?” I asked. “That’s okay, we can walk.”
“Don’t worry, you will,” Ismail answered misteriously.
“Wha. . .” I started, but Linda’s shove shut me up.
The elevator arrived. We walked into the cabin. The bellboy clicked something behind the handrail, exposing a fingerprint reader. He pressed his thumb to the reader briefly. Unexpectedly, the entire back wall of the elevator slid aside, revealing a corridor that ended with a staircase. I immediately spotted two cameras on the ceiling, one pointed at the elevator and the other at the stairway. We walked out of the elevator, the wall slid closed behind us, and the elevator started up slowly without us, clinking and clanking.
We took the stairs down a couple of levels and found ourselves in a large dining room with rows of tables and serving lines.
Liran greeted us there as old friends.
“What is this place?” I asked.
“This is the School. I’m the Security Chief here.”
“I feel secure already,” Linda exclaimed, beaming.
Liran grinned back at her.
“A school?” I asked.
“Yes, we call this place the School.” Liran smiled. “Not ‘a school’, “The School.’ And capitalized.”
“The School? Peterson is the Teacher then?”
“You got it. I need to brief you on something. Have a seat.”
We sat down at a table. There were no people in the dining hall now as it was late already.
 “This location is a secret. The whereabouts of the Teacher is a secret. No ‘need-to-know basis,’ no if’s or but’s, no options. This is always a secret. You cannot disclose it to anybody, regardless if you think they already know, or they don’t care, or whatever. So keep your mouths shut about this place—always. No exceptions. People’s lives depend on it. Do you understand?”
We nodded. Sounded a bit overdone to me.
“You know why that is?” Liran asked.
“Why?”
“Because his work is too important and too dangerous. We don’t want any incidents. He does have powerful enemies, like the Guards and even the Priests. Norm knows what I’m talking about.”
I nodded. “We met two of the Priests. Complete lunatics. Although they didn’t seem to be a threat to Brell, I mean the Amibrotos. They couldn’t care less.”
“That might not be a true statement at all.” The genuine concern in Liran’s eyes made my stomach tighten.
“You know what they’re up to?” Liran asked us.
“They’re running a racket here on P-3, right?” I replied.
“Right. So you think they’d want the Baltizor Confederate High Command to find out and send a mission here to extract them? The Teacher is setting spirits free. These people could talk. See the connection? But, listen. Even if those idiots don’t care today, what if they changed their minds tomorrow? They are complete psychos. Do you think they’d hesitate to wipe us all out, if they decided to? You’ve met Roberts and O’Hara. Nobody wants to bet everything on their good graces, right?”
Made perfect sense to me. The words “good graces” and “Roberts and O’Hara” didn’t even belong in the same sentence.
“Hey, when can I see Brell?” I asked.
“All in good time,” Liran replied evenly.
“Anything else we should know?” Linda asked.
“Any space in the School is open to you. You are free to explore anything you want, provided the doors into those spaces are unlocked. But,” Liran said, raising his finger and eyebrows, “do not try to open any locked doors. You will find all the doors unlocked, except for a couple of emergency exits and the rooms with lessons in progress—simply not to disturb the parishioners as they go through their lessons. A lesson is really a spiritual therapy session. It is strictly between the Teacher or an Assistant and the parishioner or a seeker.”
“So there are parishioners and there are seekers? Two different types of visitors?” Linda asked.
“Yes, you, for example, are not parishioners, are you?”
“What would we have to do to officially enter the flock?” I joined in.
“Fifty thousand US dollars a year and a full background and security clearance, among other things.”
I whistled. Spiritual healing didn’t come cheap. I supposed people wouldn’t join if they weren’t getting enough benefits from this to justify the expense. Intriguing.
Liran showed us around a bit and then escorted us personally to our room 203 on the hotel’s second floor.
“Aren’t you worried about hotel staff blowing your cover?” I asked Liran.
“Joking now? Did you really believe this was a normal hotel? These are all our facilities. The hotel, the restaurant, the Buddhist Center—all just a cover. The entire building is ours. Nobody is ever allowed in this hotel except our staff, parishioners and qualified seekers, like you. The restaurant is open to the general public only sometimes and only by reservation. The Buddhist Center conducts lectures and seminars once in a while as a cover and also to contribute to Buddhism. We like Buddhism. It has a lot of truth to it. So we help them in our own way. But this whole place is just us.”
“Got it now, thanks. So Ismail and the clerk are members of the Church too?” I couldn’t believe it.
“Absolutely. Not just any members. My boys, the security staff.”
“You guys used to be the MPs, right?”
“Not all of us, but there are also other people in security here who were not the MPs or the A5B,” Liran explained.
They trusted one-life convicts with security. Unbelievable.
Room 203 wasn’t half bad. Nice size, a fully stocked fridge, a TV, good-sized bathroom with a large shower. We tested the shower immediately. Good news—plenty of room for two. We always liked to shower together. The bed was next in line to be tested. It turned out to be perfect as well.

39
Next morning, early, we were sitting in the same dining hall on Level Minus Two, as it was called here, a rather large and pleasant hall that could comfortably fit a couple hundred diners, none too flashy but tasteful and well kept. The disco ball, strobe lights, and colored stage lights under the high, black-painted ceiling indicated that the dining room was occasionally used for parties. Liran, Linda, and I had coffee with pastries. I also had eggs Benedict and Linda had a fruit salad. The food was good. The breakfast was served buffet-style, no waiters.
“If everything is free here, do you guys survive only on membership fees?” I asked Liran.
“Everything’s free, even the vending machines, but only after you’ve paid the membership fee, as you said. Seekers do not pay membership fees but they pay for their services in advance, for any courses or lessons. An average visitor, who isn’t a member, prepays at least five grand for a week’s visit here.”
It didn’t sit well with me. “Safe to say, this is only for the filthy rich, like us, right, Linda? Most other people are struggling to float, they can’t afford any of this.”
Liran shook his head. “Yes and no. You see, guys, lessons improve abilities. These people are making tons more money now than they used to. The more lessons you go through, the more money you make. It’s not all about happiness and freedom. It is also an investment. Any other questions?”
“When can we see Brell?” I asked.
“When he wants to see you, that’s when,” Liran replied.
Made sense.
“Okay. What’s an Assistant?” I asked.
“Teacher’s Assistant,” Liran replied casually, sipping his coffee. “There is only one Teacher but he’s trained hundreds of Assistants. Some of them work with us here at the School, taking care of the parishioners and the seekers. Most are spread all over the world, some running their private practices.”
The dining room started filling up with the breakfast crowd. Although no longer hungry, out of curiosity we lined up at the buffet serving line behind an odd, constantly arguing couple. A pleasant, middle-aged, chubby Indian woman, wrapped in a red sari, was on a polite, yet passionate offensive against her opponent, a scrawny blond teenager with acne and a huge Adam’s apple. I listened in.
“No, no, no, Kevin, please,” the Indian woman vehemently insisted with a lilt. “You have to take responsibility for your negligence and short-sightedness. You must!”
“I am taking responsibility. Please stop making a scene. I agree with everything you say.” The youngster was obviously uncomfortable, glancing around nervously.
“No, you’re brushing me off, Kevin. I do not feel acknowledged in my grievances.”
“Daevika, please stop. People are looking at us. Listen, you know my strategy was the war of attrition. I was the supporter of Maximus, I really was. But that’s not how the Senate saw it. Oh, no, not at all. I was dead against the frontal attack at Cannae, dead against, and said so many times in the Senate. Especially after Hannibal pulverized us at Trebia. So? Did anybody listen?”
“You see what you’re doing? You’re still rationalizing. That’s not taking responsibility, Kevin.”
The kid, Kevin, shook his head in frustration.
Several other attendees listened in with interest. Nobody interfered.
“Yes, excuses and explanations,” the Indian woman continued. “It’s all their fault. But you were in charge at Cannae. You. I lost half of my legion, over two thousand men—butchered by the cursed Nubians. Butchered! Where were you? You ran away to escape capture!”
“You are the one not taking responsibility, Daevika. You got half of your legion killed off and now you’re blaming me? Where were you as the legion commander?”
“Why did you choose to fight on the open ground against much stronger Carthaginians’ cavalry? And didn’t you see the diagonal echelon formation in their front center? They were strengthening the flanks. The flanks! Why? Did you think of that? Such incompetence! This is completely unacceptable, Council Varro.”
“Leave me alone. I’m not Council Varro.”
“Yes, you are!”
“This boy is Council Varro,” I heard an elderly gentleman explaining with a British accent—way too loud—to an elderly lady seated at a table. “She lost half of her legion because of him.”
“What Varro? The Roman Varro? That pompous idiot?” the old lady attempted to clarify at the top of her lungs. “My God, did we rim that wonker’s arse at Cannae!”
Both Kevin and Daevika stared at the old lady.
“Pardon me,” I politely interjected. This was getting out of hand. “Are you talking about a Roman battle from long ago?”
“Very long ago,” Kevin agreed vigorously. “Some twenty-five hundred years ago.”
“No, more like twenty-three hundred,” insisted Daevika.
“Well, not all that recently?” I offered.
“No, not very recently,” agreed Daevika, simmering down. “I dug up the whole thing in my last lesson and recognized Kevin as our top general. It’s upsetting, you know? Damn Nubians. So much suffering. We outnumbered Hannibal at first. Our advantage in numbers was lost because of his—she pointed at Kevin with her righteously accusing finger—incompetence. Hannibal was a master of double-envelopment, you know? The pincer maneuver?”
“And may I ask about you?” I inquired politely.
“Me?”
“Yes, you. Have you ever made a mistake? Seeing how angry you are, I just thought I’d ask. How wonderful to meet a person who never made a mistake in millions of years.”
“The reason I’m angry is not because of his past mistakes but his constant excuses right now.”
“I get it. Undoubtedly, Kevin will burn in hell for this. Fire and brimstone, rest assured. Getting wiped out by the enemy must have been very frustrating for you.”
“Frustrating?” Kevin exclaimed. “Talk about frustrating! You don’t even begin to understand the politics behind it. I was framed and used as a scapegoat by the Senate. Did you know that?”
“Excuses again,” Daevika snapped back. “You should be ashamed of yourself.”
“Enough!” Liran ordered in a firm tone of voice. “We all fight our own battles, Daevika. You think it was easy for Council Varro to deal with the Senate? Look me in the eye and swear that you’d do better.”
Daevika looked away. Kevin quietly loaded up his plate.
The two shared a knowing glance. They knew they were both calpable in the death of the army. Silence enveloped them both, their secret uniting them now and forever, as secrets always do.
Can’t say I’d often heard such animated discussions about the past. We were usually a lot more relaxed about these things. There were always wars. Somebody always won, somebody lost. People got killed all the time in great numbers, both the winners and the losers. Romans got wiped out because of some strategic error, so what? Was it important to anybody now? Apparently so.
Linda followed the conversation with a scowl of doubt on her face.
“Picky, do you think what they are discussing really happened?” she whispered to me.
“I’m sure it did, hon,” I replied. “They couldn’t have invented the same event from two different perspectives.”
“And they wouldn’t be so invested in this argument, either,” Linda agreed.
The most fascinating part of the exchange we’d just witnessed was that the local one-lifers were getting their memories restored. Or was it an anomaly? An isolated occurrence? Could Linda be helped? Never heard of any such possibility before. It was frightening to get my hopes up so high.
The other notable peculiarity was that the discussion took place at a public gathering. The participants freely discussed these things with no concern for being immediately shipped to the nearest funny farm.
I was so fascinated with the argument that I almost missed the other important part of the presentation: the food. Boy, it was a good breakfast! Too bad we weren’t very hungry.

40
General Brell in his present incarnation looked like a retired, wealthy businessman. A lean, medium height, healthy-looking gentleman in his early seventies, Brell was cleanly shaven and wore clothing that looked expensive. Way above my pay grade, the Suede Parigi shoes by Salvatore Ferragamo were worn but clean. And Brell looked perfectly sane to me, as expected.
We visited him at his office on Level Minus Three. The huge desk had a neat stack of folders and a glass with pens and pencils. Bookcases full of books lined the office walls. The portarait of Mozart was an unexpected addition to the décor.
Brell’s baby-blue eyes were calm, kind and absolutely relentless. If I looked straight into his eyes, I had to fight the urge to break down on the spot, drop to my knees and babble out everything I ever did that I didn’t feel good about, including stealing pocket change from my mom at the age of ten in Modesto, or accidentally blowing up a space freighter with the entire crew as a lowly engine room hand fifteen and a half million years ago just off Alpha Psamatei.
The most remarkable thing about Brell was his presence. When he stood next to me, boy, I knew it. It felt kind of like swallowing a huge balloon. Great space opened up in me, creating calmness and strength within me, which was me. My breath caught, my stomach tightened, as if I were suspended in the infinite vastness of space. Imagine hanging in the middle of limitless nothingness. How did he do it? Only the truly great could simply yank you up to their level. That kind of an experience causes your belly to tighten, and you get kind of giddy, like vertigo. In a word, WOW!
“Good afternoon, General, sir,” I barked involuntarily, jumping up from my chair when I felt that familiar explosive expansion of my space.
“Grach?” Brell smiled calmly. “Good to see you, boy.”
He knew my name. How flattering! I felt truly pleased. We shook hands. I sat down.
“And you.” He turned to Linda. “Heard a lot about you, my dear.”
Linda looked at him wide-eyed. Suddenly she smiled, tears streaming down her face.
“Everything will be okay, right, sir? I really feel it now. It will be all right.” Linda sobbed and unexpectedly bolted out of the chair, ran up to Brell and gave him a hug.
Brell put his arm around her gently, a relaxed smile on his face. “You’re a lovely being, Linda. Just want to hug her all the time, don’t you?” He was talking to me now.
“Yeah, we smooch a lot,” I confirmed, smiling.
Linda laughed.
I felt increasingly elated for no apparent reason. “I didn’t expect you’d know me, sir, or recognize me even if you did. I was a lowly nobody.” I couldn’t wipe the silly smile off my face. All the problems vanished. I felt awesome. How did the old man do it?
“There is no such thing as a nobody, Grach. Everybody is somebody. But you know that already. You’re just being coy with me.” He chuckled.
I couldn’t believe we were sitting in his office—the General and I.
“Actually, I do remember you, and I did recognize you, Grach. Do you prefer Grach or Norman or some other name?” Brell asked me.
“I prefer Norman, sir.”
“Sure. Call me Bob, okay?”
“Okay, sir.”
“Okay, Bob,” Brell corrected me with a smile.
“Okay, Bob.”
“Good.” Brell looked into my eyes. My breath caught again. I coughed. “I noticed you a long time ago, Norman. You are a lot smarter, a lot better and a lot stronger than you let on. And a lot more responsible than you like to admit.”
Responsible? Who, me? Or some other Grach?
Brell’s eyes crinkled in a warm smile that made me feel even better, if that was even possible. “Yes, you. But most importantly, you’re quite literally unstoppable, if you decide to be.”
Unstoppable? Who, me? I thought I was depressed and introverted.
“That’s why I noticed you. And I really like Linda—a clean, lovely spirit. I’m happy the two of you stopped by. Thank you very much.”
“Well, we haven’t just stopped by. The Guards sent me, actually, sir. I mean, Bob,” I replied, still grinning. “They want to talk to you. I’m supposed to convince you to hear them out. I think they want you to leave this place forever.”
“I know. They’ve been trying to get rid of me for a long time. I’m not going anywhere. My work’s too important.”
“I don’t get why they keep you alive.”
“They bumped me off on several occasions in the past. It never did them any good. They never succeeded in brainwashing me, either. Their thought injections are a joke. They have as much power as you grant them, and not a Joule more. That’s all they got on you, remember that.” Bob peered into my eyes intently.
 I kept silent. He continued, “Things have changed now. Not only did they fail to kill me on several occasions when they caught up with me, but they even protected me a few years back. Long story. But, yes, they do keep me alive now as their new strategy. This way they can track me. With a body, I can be identified and pinned down to a location. If I didn’t have a body right now, who knows where I’d turn up. This way they at least have a chance of keeping an eye on me. Make sense?”
“I got it. You’re more dangerous to them dead than alive.”
“That seems to be their view at the moment. Things could change fast. Do you know why they want me out of here?”
“Because you’re wanted for court-martial?”
“Nonsense. They couldn’t care less. They want me out or at least cooperating, because I set people free. That’s what we do here at this facility. This planet, however, is a—what?”
“A prison,” I replied.
“Exactly.” He nodded. “I’ve been plotting the map out of here for a very long time, the way to free the convicts, but I’ve only had occasional success till recently. I do get stable and consistent results now, albeit still a slow process.”
“With all respect, sir, I mean Bob, you setting the convicts free. . . How many of them did you free all the way out of here so far, Bob?”
“Over three thousand.”
I whistled softly. “Does it bother you that these criminals had been duly convicted in the court of law? I can see how the Guards may feel a little peeved about you unleashing onto the society convicted criminals, found unfit to live among people by a court of law. Just saying.”
“That’s assuming the duly convened court divvies out real justice,” Linda interjected, still grinning, although the grin was now incongruent with the discussion. “Do they?” Linda stared at Bob with the wide-eyed expectation of a little kid on Santa Claus’s lap in a mall.
Bob nodded to Linda fondly with a calm smile and continued, “Justice is the way societies defend thedmselves. It may not look like justice to you. It is what it is, and so here we all are. No need to dwell on it.
Okay. Let’s consider rehabilitation now. I should probably explain the process of freeing a being. The Guards pretend not to understand it despite the briefings. You see, they go by the book—or they try to—and that book happens to omit any mention of any convicts ever getting rehabilitated and released. Nobody is supposedly getting out of here, ever. That’s their take on the book.”
Seemed about right, but Brell made it sound as if it wasn’t. Nobody ever walked off the forever-dead sentence; everybody knew that. There was no possibility of release with this verdict.
“They are mistaken about their own regulations. There is an unstated but obvious release provision.”
“How?”
“Look, the protective screens that hold the prisoners in only block out mental mass. By that I mean thoughts, pictures, decisions, identities, stuff like that.”
“Right.” I nodded.
“Hang-ups, losses and failures, self-inflicted limitations, the socially imposed idiocies we live by, anything we protest against—our entire mental makeover. These things have mass, electrical charge and wavelength. That is how they keep you here. You carry the mass with you and they found a way to stop the mass with the force field. They don’t keep you, the spirit, the thought entity, here. You, as a spirit, inherently have no mass or charge—so nobody can possibly hold you anywhere. It is impossible to contain you, do you understand? The screens only work to keep your mental mass here, but since we are indelibly attached to our mental mass, we can’t get out. Screens can’t hold spirits with no mental mass. Neither do the screens affect beings with all their mental mass intact traveling in a spaceship, for example. Otherwise, the Guards couldn’t bring in the supplies and replacement troops. The hull of the spaceship is sufficiently impenetrable for the containment field. So this field doesn’t make Earth much of a prison.
Whoever set up this system didn’t object to prisoners leaving, but only if they were advanced enough to leave—advanced spiritually or technologically. In other words, you reach a certain level in your development and you’r considered rehabilitated. You can go. Nobody actually gives you your freedom back; you simply are free at that point. That’s the idea. If you can leave, you are rehabilitated. If you are rehabilitated, you can leave. The letter of the law, on the other hand, is vague. But the spirit of the law is clear enough, because protective screens, by design, stop working on you at some point. That’s their way of saying ‘you’re free’, you see?”
“Can I ask a question, Bob?”
He nodded.
“You mentioned to be free a person has to become spiritually or technologically advanced. I don’t see any connection between the two. Actually, it seems the more we gain technologically, the more we lose spiritually,” I objected.
“True,” Bob readily agreed. “That is what’s happening here and now. But if a society does develop enough technology for interstellar travel without destroying itself in the process with pollution, overpopulation, lack of resources or nuclear wars, it’d be all right. They must’ve worked something out or they would’ve perished at some point along the line. Makes sense?”
Linda and I nodded.
“Got it now,” I said. “So that’s what’s it’s all about—rehabilitating convicts. Or freeing them?”
“Same thing, actually.” Bob nodded. “Rehabilitating means freeing. Freeing means rehabilitating. The process of rehabilitation progressively frees them. Nobody, except you, can give you your freedom anyway—you see that? If you’re a slave to your own phobias, illnesses and harmful attitudes, you won’t be free no matter where you go. You’ll carry those with you. Only if you get rehabilitated, can you be free.”
“But technically speaking, how would you accomplish this rehabilitation? What would you need to do?” Linda asked.
“Technically, the problem has always been clear.” Bob got up, adjusted his shirt and walked around the office. I liked watching him walk, talk—anything really. Linda also followed him with luminous eyes. She was clearly happy to be here.
“The protective screening is simply designed to block mental mass, which is the extraneous baggage we all acquire through trillions of years, for fun at first but then, falling into the ever deepening state of degradation, we forget why. Neither do we remember how to control it or discard it. All the pictures in your mind are mental mass. Socially induced goals and desires, upsets, losses, pains, conflicting attitudes, problems, hates, confusions, phobias—all of these are created as energy-based pictures, the mental mass. They keep you here.”
“Don’t we always think in pictures? How else?” I asked.
“Conceptual thinking. Instantaneous, crystal clear, creative and effortless thinking is always conceptual—no pictures. Creative people, like artists or writers, use conceptual thinking. This ability to deal only in concepts can be rehabilitated. Short of that rehabilitation, beings are compulsively attached to their pictures and other mental masses and so suffer from a multitude of illnesses and problems. All beings anywhere, and all convicts on P-3, obsessively and unknowingly create mental mass and then hold on to it. Just a part of being alive. That imprisons them on many different levels no matter where they are. Right? I mean, they don’t have to be in prison to be perpetually imprisoned. So in a way we all need freeing. Here, there, anywhere. See that?”
“Right,” I agreed. “The task of freeing them seems impossible so far.”
“Theoretically, the solution is easy, actually. If you are creating and holding on to the mental masses unknowingly and obsessively, all you have to do is start controlling this process to enable you to stop doing it at will.”
“How do you do that?” I asked, expecting a revelation.
Bob shrugged. “The basic idea was to take each and every line of obsessive behavior, such as relationship problems or fear of heights, for example, or hang-ups on any subject, like money, sex, or spiders, whatever. Every single separate line has to be isolated and first cleaned up of misdeeds, so the subject gains the ability to take ownership of it, and then the subject consciously creates and un-creates the same or similar pictures, problems, fears or hates, in other words, masses, until the process is no longer automatic. Thus, the subject restores the ability to control the process.”
“Cool!” Linda clapped her hands.
Bob nodded with a smile. “Remarkable results, yes. Therapy of this kind brings people to entirely new levels of health and abilities. However, in terms of dropping all the masses, it’s proven a failure. People never un-create all their masses. Then, given a bit of time, they wrap themselves in new masses, partially nullifying the therapy and reverting to an improved version of their normal human self. You can make better humans that way but you can’t set them free.”
“But you did find the solution, right?” Linda asked with eager anticipation. “Obviously, since you set thousands of people free.”
Bob nodded amicably. “Based on my research, I finally concluded that the solution was in disregarding the mental masses entirely and working only on elevating people spiritually, increasing their spiritual awareness and abilities to such a level that they gain control of any and all energy manifestations, especially those of their own manufacture, such as, but not limited to, the mental mass.”
I didn’t get it. “Bob, didn’t you say energy manifestations? First, we were talking about mass, then energy. Is mass and energy the same thing?”
“Or, rather, mass is subordinate to energy? Matter is derived from energy?” Linda asked, totally spot-on.
Bob nodded to Linda kindly again. “There is only energy, nothing else, only vibration. As you correctly observed, Linda, mass is an energy manifestation—solidified energy, so to speak. Look at quantum physics with its wave functions. Think about the concept of the wave characteristics of matter. Those are energy characteristics of matter. An electron has a wavelength, obviously, since it is energy. But an electron also has mass, obviously, since it’s a particle of matter. So is it energy or matter? It’s both. It is a transition point. I didn’t invent any of this. This has been known here on Earth for over a hundred years. Matter is a form of energy.”
“I see now. So you bring people up to the point where they simply un-create all their masses at will?” I asked.
“I bring them up to the level where they are free. They can un-create any energy at will, or they can create any energy at will—any energy they want. They may or may not choose to shed all their masses; they may or may not choose to penetrate the screen. They can do whatever they choose, they are free.”
I heard every word Bob said, but it didn’t make much sense to me. How could energy or matter be created? Out of what? What about the law of conservation of energy that states that energy can only be changed from one form into another but never created or destroyed? Conservation of energy, everybody knows that. I asked Brell.
“That is in a closed system, Norman. The law of conservation of energy is not an absolute law. It is only applicable to a closed system.”
“Isn’t our system a closed system?”
“No, it is a wide open system. Consider this example.” Bob chuckled. “You plant a pine nut no larger than a fingernail on your pinky and get a pine tree forty feet high that weighs twenty thousand pounds. Where did the matter come from?”
“Water?” I offered.
“Nope. You can dry the wood bone-dry but a large pine tree will still weigh many tons.”
“Photosynthesis?” Linda asked.
“Light? Good. Light is energy. What about heat?” Bob asked.
Linda and I nodded. I could see now what he was getting at: the energy of the sun. We had a constant influx of solar energy into our system.
Bob continued. “All of the above and nutrients too, but at the core of the phenomenon of creating a pine tree is the new energy we constantly receive from the sun. Our system is not a closed system on that level.”
“Wow!” I breathed out.
“You think this is a ‘wow’?” Bob chuckled again. “Don’t get me wrong, sun is important. All life on Earth depends on it. But sun is just a puny little candle in comparison to—what?”
Neither one of us had the answer.
“The power of thought, that’s what.” Bob looked straight into my eyes again, smiling. “I envy the two of you. You are about to uncover the key mystery of the universe.”
Linda and I glanced at each other. I felt a bit silly as I still wasn’t getting it, but Linda’s luminous gaze betrayed the intensity of her cognitive processes at the moment.
Generall Brell perched on the corner of the desk and peered at us, squinting. “You don’t know your power, kids. You’re formidable, all-commanding energy entities. You create energy by thought.” Bob added with a smile, “You do it all the time.”
“That’s the mystery of the universe?” I asked, incredulous. First, it didn’t even make sense. Second, I didn’t get it anyway. Create energy out of what?
“How do we create energy by thought? Out of what?” I asked.
“Well, Norman, you tell me. Close your eyes.”
I closed my eyes.
“Look at Linda in your mind.”
I imagined Linda. “Yes, I see her.”
“Out of what did you create that picture of Linda?”
“That’s silly. It’s just a memory.”
“You mean you didn’t create it?”
“Of course not.”
“Okay, do you still see Linda?”
I nodded.
“What’s she wearing?”
“A business suit.”
“What color?”
“Kind of dark blue.”
“Turn it pink.”
I turned it pink and told Bob I did it.
“Good. See Linda in the pink business suit? That picture is energy. You created it. Out of what? Don’t tell me you remember ever seeing Linda in a pink business suit. This isn’t a memory.”
“Well. . .”
“Okay. Now sprinkle white polka dots on that pink suit and turn Linda’s skin green, except for her nose, which should be large and bright red now with lots of long whiskers like a cat, please.”
Linda giggled.
“Done. Ha-ha-ha, a gremlin!”
“Now hang Linda upside down.”
“And the skirt? Would the skirt stay down or go up? I mean if I dangle her upside down. . .”
“Norman!” Linda snapped.
“Oh, you had her in a skirt? I get it. You’re right,” I heard Bob’s voice. “Replace that skirt with a pair of pink tight-fitting pants with white polka dots.”
“Like skinny jeans?”
“Sure, pink skinny jeans will do.”
I opened my eyes and stared at Bob.
“But that’s just imagination.” I shrugged, no longer sure.
“Imagination, thoughts, memories—same energy. You think, you create. You created Linda in your mind. You create always. Nonstop. Obsessively. Everything you’ve got and don’t, everything you are and aren’t, everything you consider good or bad about you, you brought it all into being, you created it all. ALL of it. You done it, boy. Good things in life, bad things, successes, failures, love, fear, divorces, injustice, upsets, happiness, misery, accidents, death, pain, pleasure, luck—create, create, create—all by thought.”
I scratched the back of my head, feeling uncomfortable. General Brell noticed.
“Listen and understand what I’m saying. No need to agree or disagree. Just hear me out. ‘Life is a mirror’, remember, Ernest Holmes?”
I shook my head.
“I remember,” Linda raised her hand. “He was a philosopher, died a long time ago.”
“Yes, Ernest is one of my brightest Assistants.”
“You said ‘is’. Is he still around? Linda said he died,” I interjected.
“You mean is he still alive as Ernest Holmes? No, he died as Ernest Holmes many years ago. But he is alive and well and is still one of my Assistants, he is still a he but his name now is not Ernest Holmes now. You know how that goes.”
Yes, indeed, I knew how that went.
“In any case,” Bob continued, “you throw a thought vibration out there, and the universe, which is 100 percent energetic and has absolutely nothing else in it but energy, matches that vibration and throws it back at you. That’s how you create your life. Vibrations always do that, kind of like a tuning fork. You know how the tuning forks work? You strike a tuning fork and it creates a sound, a vibration. M-m-m-m-m. You know? Another tuning fork in its vicinity will start vibrating all by itself, exactly matching and returning the originally emitted frequency, m-m-m-m-m. See?”
Holy cow.
“So we’re pulling into our lives everything we want?”
“You pull into your life whatever you vibrate—whatever you think. Want or don’t want is irrelevant. You want something, you think about it, and you pull it in. Or you might be really worried about getting something, like a disease or an accident, or a circumstance in life that is truly objectionable to you, and so you keep thinking about how much you don’t want it—bam, you got it. You pull in what you think. You trust people, and people in your life are trustworthy. You’re always worried about getting stung by bees, and you get stung by bees. It’s not what you want, it’s what you keep thinking about. Got it?”
I nodded. “So if I worry about getting something, I’m going to get it?”
“A definite yes on that—to one degree or another. There are other factors there. For example, some of your thoughts are contradictory and cancel out each other. Other valid factors are how often you think about something and with what emotional intensity. So there is a bit more to all this.” Bob peered intently into my eyes. “You understand now?”
“Yes, sir. . . Bob. I get it.”
It occurred to me that that’s how Linda and I periodically found each other in this great universe despite all odds. That was the intention that was King. Linda glanced at me with misty eyes and cradled my hand in both of hers. I guess she had the same thought.
Bob continued. “One’s ability to create and exert control over the process of creation can be improved through a form of spiritual therapy I developed and also by drilling, like any other skill. And, of course, creation and un-creation is basically the same process of harnessing energy. Get it?”
Bob suddenly turned around and with an open hand made a slight throwing motion at the farthest wall. A ball of crackling electricity about the size of a baseball suddenly materialized in the air and splattered against the wall with a pop. The lightning vanished in a puff of smoke, leaving a grey smudge on the stark whiteness of the wall.

41
          “How was your lesson?” I asked Linda a couple of days later. She’d received several sessions by then.
          “Wonderful!” Linda ran up to me and hung on my neck, covering my face with little kisses. “I feel so wonderful, Picky.”
          I pressed her body to mine. What a delight! I felt pretty damn awesome myself. I was not receiving any formal lessons, but Bob assigned an Assistant to me, a middle-aged bespectacled lady by the name Grace with short brown hair, always dressed in jeans and a colored T-shirts. She supervised me through some fun drills.
          “Why is Linda getting the lessons and I don’t?” I asked Grace.
          “Linda is addressing her artificial memory blocks. There is nothing wrong with your memory. Bob just wanted to help you gain a foothold in the basics of being truly you, a thought-based energy unit, a spirit.”
“Okay, got it.” I didn’t really get it, but if Bob wanted me to do these drills, I sure as hell wasn’t going to object.
The idiotically simple first drill blew my mind. I was supposed to find one hundred similarities and one hundred differences between two identical five-riel Cambodian coins. And let me tell you, it was rough at first to find differences. The damn coins looked exactly the same. Grace kept me at it calmly but insistently. By the time I crested about eighty similarities and differences, I could crank them out ra-ta-ta-tat. I coulld’ve kept going after the hundred. So many tiny nicks and scratches and minute discolorations. What do you know, these two coins were really very, very similar and very, very different at the same time.
Grace congratulated me on completing my first drill and told me to go enjoy the new world.
I strolled around the place with my eyes wide open, noticing for the first time the myriad of similarities, differences and peculiarities of things. The world acquired a whole new depth and dimension. I welcomed differences now, as they and they alone gave texture to the world, making it a rich and interesting place. Like differences between people, for example, all the different looks and different viewpoints. Cool!
          The next drill Bob wanted me to do was simply observing people, which I ended up doing for many hours, running occasionally back to the Assistants, yelling, “I got it! I got it! People are all similar but different.” Or, “People are good. They’re all good people deep down. They all want the same thing, they all want to be happy and make somebody else happy, right?”
          “Great,” Grace would reply with a smile. “Excellent! Please continue the drill just a little bit longer.”
          Frustrated, I hung around the dining room, the library and the various promenades, observing people. I even ventured outside and walked around town. I couldn’t get the point of this drill. People were doing what they did, being what they were—similar and different, and good.
          And then it struck me. I loved these people. I loved their similarities and their differences; I loved them all. Tall, short, young, old, fat, skinny, dressed in many different ways, good looking and not so much—I loved them. They were all my people. I felt unity with all the people in the entire world and beyond. Every single person anywhere was truly one of my people, and I was, always had been, and always would be one of theirs.
          “Congratulations on completing this drill, Norman,” the Assistant acknowledged my achievement with a smile after my ecstatic outpouring subsided to a dull roar. “So, if you feel depressed and alone and find the world to be a cynical and dangerous place where no one has your back, what does that tell you?”
“That I strayed too far over into the left field?”
“Exactly. First, you’d have to realize that you have strayed off the track. Not them, not the Republicans or Democrats, not God, not your boss or your wife. No. You. That realization is the vital first step. Without it, there is no hope of ever finding the way back. So what would that first step call for? What would you do? Give me an idea.”
“So I guess I’d stop committing whatever misdeeds, stop explaining my transgressions away, right?”
“You tell me.”
“That rings true to me.”
“Excellent. Yes, get a handle on your responsibility for your own actions. Otherwise, the world around you will continue being a lonely, menacing and hateful place. You are a thought-based entity, so when you start improving, the whole world starts improving. Okay?”
“Yes, I got it.”
“Good. The subsequent steps will become clear as you progress. Very good then. Ready for the next drill or would you like some time to enjoy your realizations?”
“No-no, thanks, let’s keep going.” I was eager to learn now. I had already understood that this type of learning couldn’t have been done by instruction. It could only be learned from personal experience and contemplation. What I was learning here was priceless—and eternally timeless.
“All right. Do this exercise today. Find a quiet space and contemplate the notion of unconditional love.”
Unconditional love? That was easy. I already felt love for everybody anyway. Wait, everybody? Like General Roberts? Or Lt. Adams? What about Muslim extremists and terrorists? What about robbers, murderers, drug pushers, child molesters, ruthless corporate thugs, perverts, rapists, drug dealers? What about conmen and swindlers? What about fascists and communists? What about the most heinous creatures of them all—slow drivers in the left lane? Just kidding. Or was I?
I had just thought I loved everybody. That “everybody” turned out to have been an amorphous nonexistent, imaginary and even hallucinatory entity, kind of a billion-headed octopus exuding love. It simply didn’t exist. I actually hated billions of people—possibly as much as half of humanity or at least a significant portion.
How did Jesus manage to love everybody? Didn’t he wash some homeless guy’s feet? Didn’t he attend to the thief dying next to him on the cross? Didn’t he make a point of living the life of unconditional love? How did he do it? And why? He knew something I didn’t. What did he know? Would I have to be a Christian to see it? No, that didn’t ring true at all. Nothing Bob talked about had anything to do with any religion, including Christianity.
It wasn’t fast and it sure didn’t come easy, but I finally realized that there was a higher plane for all of us, the plane of the spirit, where it was possible to love all beings—love them without necessarily condoning, liking or even judging their actions. All beings were potentially and basically good, clean and loving but, in our current state, confused. We all managed to screw ourselves up so much that none of us behaved like the angels that we truly were. However, potentially and in great many aspects of our lives, we were angels. What was that if not a cosmic realization? A whole new beautiful world opened up for me, the world of unconditional love, the world worth living in, the world of confused almost-angels.
Did I suddenly sprout wings and turn into Jesus with not a blemish on my entire being? Of course not. But I did become better, I evolved; and, most importantly, I found out exactly which way was up. Not a small thing by any measure.
The next drill was to find the origin of all the emotions that I considered bad or negative, the opposite side of the emotional spectrum from unconditional love. I was supposed to find the basis and the common denominator of all such negative emotions.
What could it be, the common denominator of all negative emotions? Hate, fear, regret, grief, anger, hopelessness, blame, numbness, anxiety, hostility—on and on. Too complicated, too many variables.
Well, to simplify, if unconditional love occupies the extreme point of the spectrum’s positive side, what would be its opposite? Hate, of course. The love-hate dichotomy. Everybody knows that love and hate are the opposites. I ran back to the Assistant with that.
“We are not talking about love here. The assignment referred to unconditional love, not just love,” Grace reiterated.
“Is there a big difference?”
“Let’s see. Do you love French fries?”
“Well, kind of. So?”
“Do you love French fries burnt to a crisp, too? What about unsalted or over-salted? What about undercooked French fries? Do you love McDonald’s French fries the same as those from a good restaurant?”
“I don’t see. . .”
“So you don’t love French fries unconditionally, do you? But you do love French fries?”
“Sorry, but that’s a silly example. What about real love, like love for a woman?”
“With the 50 percent divorce rate? That love’s about as far from unconditional as it could possibly get. Love between the sexes is extremely conditional. The margin of acceptance can be razor-thin. Like, ‘honey, I love you dearly, but you leave that toothpaste uncapped one more time and we’re through forever’ kind of razor-thin. Marital love is a wonderful example of how far from unconditional love can be and usually is.”
That didn’t particularly resonate with me regarding Linda, but I did see the point.
“Love and hate aren’t a dichotomy,” Grace continued patiently. “Or, rather, it depends on the definition of love. You see, we’d have to define love first. It’s complicated. But safe to say that conditional or not, love and hate are a true dichotomy only in poetry, not in real life. Sometimes they’re right next to each other. Senselessly in love one minute, hate each other the next? Think.”
I thought. It had always been my deep conviction that thinking was overrated. Now I saw that sometimes it had to be done and that was okay.
“That’s not the point, though,” the Assistant kept on. “Let’s get back to the subject. In the case of hate, would you be able to ask ‘why’? Why does this person hate that person? Why do I hate cottage cheese? Why do some people hate spiders? Or darkness? Or the color blue? Why? Could you pose such a question regarding hate?”
“Sure. I can always ask why.” I didn’t get the point.
“What I mean is, are there deeper causes for hate? Can we dig deeper and find what hate is based on?”
“I see.”
“Keep digging. We’re interested in the irreducible bottom of all this. Hate is not the extreme lowest emotional point; it’s an intermediate point that has a deeper root. Got it? Go, find the root. Good luck!”
Right. That was true. Hate couldn’t be the lowest common denominator of all negative emotions, if it could be traced even further down to its deeper roots. So much for the love-hate dichotomy.
Why do we hate some people? Because they hurt us, or those people with whom we associate ourselves. Or they pose a hypothetic threat. They may simply fall into a category of people who are generally perceived as harmful or dangerous in some way. We may simply not understand them and consider them very different from us and a possible threat. So we group ourselves together with those people whom we are not scared of. We are threatened or hurt by those other people, who scare the hell out of us. Therefore, we hate them. Was fear at the bottom of this?
Let’s say I hated cottage cheese. Why? It made me want to puke—or it might have possibly caused a gag reaction. I didn’t want to experience that sensation. I hated it. Or I was afraid of it—same emotion, different words.
Without fear, there wouldn’t be any hate. So at the root of hate is fear? Nonsense. What about a couple mid-divorce? Let’s take the husband. Let’s say he hates the wife. That’s hate. He isn’t afraid of her, right? Well, come to think of it, he is. In his mind, she is hurting him and, really, she is. He is afraid of being hurt. But he hurts her, too. Wait, and he is also afraid of hurting her! Definitely. I knew the feeling. He is afraid of being hurt and of hurting her, causing her pain. That’s not hate. He is worried about her. Why would he be scared of hurting her? Could it be that our true nature is love, even when hating someone, we still love them and want to protect them, even if from ourselves? Not really? A bit of a stretch? Spot-on? Anyway, he, the husband, is afraid and therefore, he hates her. His hate is a pretense, a masquerade, an attempt to look stronger. That’s all hate is, a pretense and an attempt to look stronger.
Fear emerged as the common denominator for hate and anger.
What about states like dejection, depression, grief? Easily enough, I traced all of them to fear—fear of pain, fear of loss, fear of failure, fear of others’ judgment, fear of not fitting in, fear of the unknown—in a word, FEAR.
I got it! The opposite of unconditional love was fear. What do you know? Another earth-shattering realization. And all these other emotions were in reality dressed up fear, a disguise. There were no true emotions in the world, basically and fundamentally, except fear and unconditional love. Another biggie—bam!
Complete unconditional love (full understanding) simply meant the absence of ALL fear. And a state of being utterly terrified was simply a condition of total absence of ALL unconditional love and understanding. In terms of understanding, fear simply meant the abselnce of understanding. I let that sink in. Fear = no understanding. Understanding = no fear = unconditional love. Bang!
Zing-zang. Like a rheostat. You increase unconditional love; you automatically reduce fear (and hate, grief, resentment, worries and all that)  by the same amount. And vice-versa. More acceptance, love and understanding in life—automatically less fear, less worries, less losses, less unhappiness, more happiness. Holly Jesus and Mosses.
After a good pat on the back and a nice talk, Grace gave me the next drill.
“Now that you know what these things are, here is what I want you to do: breathe in the white, beautiful light of unconditional love, hold it inside you for a few moments, let it permeate your entire body, entire being, then breathe out black smoke of fear. Create an image in your mind of unconditional love flowing into the body when you breathe in. It saturates your entire body as a gentle white glow, and fear leaves your body as black smoke, dissipating and completely vanishing high up in the stratosphere. Do this exercise till done.”
I was done in twenty minutes. I never felt so clean and happy in my life.
How much had I achieved in just—what? Three days? Four days? I lost track. I felt boundless gratitude and awe toward Brell.
The Assistant insisted that I take the rest of the day off to enjoy my state of utter cleanliness and happiness. It turned out Linda was also flying high with her own achievements and had some time off. We spent the rest of the day dining and luxuriating together, surrounded by all these people we loved—our good friends, whom we barely knew at best, and for the most part, had never seen before. We loved them all. That was the life worth living!
Linda was ecstatically happy for me. She too was nearing the end of her program. She’d cleaned up many upsets and problems of this life and tackled the source of amnesia, the thought injection. She could now remember parts of many lifetimes and incidents from her past.
“Picky, is our entire past totally terrible, nothing but war and death? That’s what I keep remembering. Nothing good whatsoever.” Linda pouted.
“Well, in my experience, yes, mostly wars, but a little bit of good stuff here and there, too. Good stuff is mostly related to family life and creative endeavors, in my experience. Everything else is unremarkable at best.”
“The good thing about all these never-ending wars, is I regained experience, I know stuff, I feel ready to fight, I feel competent,” Linda explained.
“Yeap, gazillions of years of fighting experience will do that to you.”
Next day turned out to be our last full day at the School. My last drill was to forgive each of the people who had done me wrong, starting with myself. That felt liberating when I finally mastered it. Letting go didn’t come easy at first.
Linda was beaming with happiness, having completed her program. She hung on my neck squealing, “I’m so happy-y-y!”
Turned out she remembered fourteen of our lifetimes together, while I only remembered twelve. One of them counted as my two to her one. So, effectively, I was three lifetimes short. The happy reconciliation of our memories took a couple of hours, punctuated by liberal smooching. One interesting peculiarity of our track together that I isolated in light of my newly acquired wisdom, was that I never blamed Linda for anything bad that ever happened to me personally. Something there to ponder.
“What did those Murabian creeps nail you for?” I asked.
“Oh, yes, I know exactly what I did to get here.” Linda’s face hardened. “Protested against the forever-dead sentence, what else? We demanded to either abolish it or at least reform the law to include the rehabilitation and release for good behavior.”
She’d said “we.” That immediately implied a conspiracy. I envisioned a host of criminal charges stemming from that alone. Crazy? Stupid? Careless? Brave? Decent? Noble? All of the above.
“That wasn’t very conformant of you, was it?”
“Not very, not at first, but then we started fighting for real.”
“No kidding? Literally fighting?” If they actually took up arms against the authorities, they’d be raking up a list of offenses about a mile long, most of them potent enough to land them here.
“Yes, we tried it nice and proper at first but didn’t get anywhere. Counselors talked to us, periods of rest at nice retreats, then the house arrests, then mental institutions and mandatory drugs and hypnotic adjustments. Then one night we blew up a thought injection station. The facility was supposed to be empty at night, but it wasn’t. Somebody was killed, somebody else got hurt. That was that.”
I’d never had the balls to fight the authorities. Linda did. I looked at her with new eyes—yet again.
General Brell sent for us in the afternoon to let us know that we were done here.
We thanked him. I didn’t actually know any words that would express the depth of gratitude I felt. How do you even begin to express that much gratitude?
“Be good.” He slapped me on the back in parting. “That’s your payment to me. Do the right thing. You know how to distinguish right from wrong?”
“How?”
“Exactly. Don’t pretend you don’t know. You know what’s right and what’s wrong. Go with your knowing. Don’t compromise with yourself.”
I nodded.
“Another thing. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Be agreeable with people. They’re overwhelmed already. They are not brave or strong despite the appearances. You have to really get it. You fighting them, stopping them, invading them, invalidating them makes them even weaker. Your support makes them stronger, remember that.”

42
The world outside assailed our ears with ecstatic shrieking of children, smiling faces, multilingual ambience of happy chatter, honking of horns and the general din characteristic to a densely populated hub of happy humanity.
“Let’s walk,” Linda proposed, as we joined the throng of gawkers. “I feel so good.”
“Well, you found eternity. Damn huge!”
“Not just any eternity, Picky, ‘my’ eternity.” Linda was positively flying. “I know who I am. I know you. I know us. I am me.”
The smile on my face and the happiness I felt were positively unshakable as we walked down that happy street in Cambodia, Linda’s soft, warm hand in mine.
A van suddenly swung at us, brakes screeching. In an instant, we were surrounded by five armed, masked assailants, dressed in battle black, lovingly decorated with every possible lethal GI Joe bullshit ding-dong under the sun.
I felt my unshakable happiness being brutally stirred, shaken and spilled out into the gutter.
US Special Forces? Locals? Machine guns stared me in the face once again. I noticed the one closest to me was the Czech EVO-3 Scorpion, so these were possibly not US Special Forces. Mercs?
“Get into the van,” one of them commanded in perfectly good American English.
“What do you want from us?” I blurted out, warding the assailant off with a gesture.
The switch from the recent sense of elation to the unfolding threat was so instantaneous that I failed to accept it at first. Not so with Linda. Before I had my moment to process what was happening, Linda was already in action. She kicked the assailant closest to her in the side of his knee, throwing him off balance, pulled out the safety pin from a grenade on his vest and pushed him hard toward the van. He tumbled inside headfirst, legs kicking.
“Grenade!” somebody yelled. The assailants scattered. We all hit the warm asphalt, as the grenade explosion sent pieces of Kevlar and body parts flying.
Did my Linda just do that?
Several shots rang above my head, loud in the deafening after-silence of the grenade explosion. Are we dead yet? No bullets hit my body. I ventured a peek at the surroundings and quickly wished I hadn’t. A couple of excessively beefy guys were casually holstering their guns as they strolled to an idling car double-parked next to the van, stepping over our assailants’ dead bodies.
One of them beckoned to me, big guy, blond. That son of a bitch of the month!
“Listen,” I told Linda, who was getting up, swaying her head gingerly, probably trying to shake the ringing out of her ears. Good luck with that.
“Hon, later we should probably have a talk about jumping five armed men, okay?” Linda nodded, very serious. “But not now. Look who’s here.” I pointed at Alesh.
Linda took one glance and froze.
“Alesh,” she breathed out, grabbing my sleeve. “It was all a setup, wasn’t it?” Then a bit hysterical, louder, “I’m asking, was it all a setup?”
“Dunno. Let’s go ask ’im,” I proposed, shrugging. No sense avoiding Alesh now.
“Small world, hah, Alesh?” I greeted him. “You girls come here often?”
“Get in, you bums,” Alesh grumbled, holding the back door for us.
We complied. What else could I do, make a scene?
Some other Tiny I’d never met was driving. Alesh gave me one of his long stares from the passenger’s seat, yet this time an oddly amicable one.
“Meet Bruno. Bruno, meet Norman and Linda,” he finally said.
“Pleasure,” I mumbled.
Bruno ignored the entire introduction.
Alesh kept staring at us. The amusement in his eyes was mixed with a tad of affection. “You guys are too much,” he finally uttered, shaking his head as if in disbelief. That chatterbox.
“I know, Alesh, we love you too,” Linda assured him.
“Wha-a-at?” he responded in confusion.
“Never mind. Did you set us up?” I asked.
“I saved your butts just now. You must’ve noticed,” Alesh replied, stretching lazily in his seat.
“And?”
“And, yeah, that’s why they’re still attached to your ears,” Alesh explained. “Your butts, I mean.” Wow, a joke. 
I didn’t laugh. “What I’m referring to here is you let us escape in Manila, so we led you to Brell. That was the plan from the get-go, right?”
“The mission was to find Brell,” Alesh explained patiently.
“What for?” Linda asked.
Alesh didn’t answer. I knew he wouldn’t. Data regarding an ongoing mission wouldn’t be given to those not privy to it—need-to-know basis. We didn’t need to know.
“We do need to know, Alesh,” I insisted. “But you don’t have to tell me. I know already. You guys wanna do things by the book, right? That’s all you want.”
“What are you talking about?” Alesh turned to me, squinting suspiciously.
“What the old man’s saying is the convicts’ release contingency is built into your regulations, but you’re too dumb to read it right. You’re so dumb.”
“And you’re not playing by the book, either,” Linda interrupted. “Are you even allowed to interfere with human affairs at all?”
“What? How did we interfere?” Alesh turned around and stared at her now.
“Stop asking ‘what’ all the time like an idiot. You heard me. You’re messing with us and Brell and his church. Are you legally allowed to do that?” Linda repeated coldly.
Alesh grumbled something about not messing with Brell at all and turned away.
Bruno stayed out of this conversation all together, scawling in morbid silence. 
“Is it or is it not a part of our forever-dead sentence to have you, the Guards, actively interfering with the population? Actually preventing, yes, preventing our rehabilitation and release? Can you legally do that? Do you want me to tell you the right answer?” Linda was pissed now. I knew why. This was her fight. I could also see why Stan would want to find Brell, since he had everything to do with criminal rehabilitation and release—something Stan had no idea about. 
We entered International Highway 6, heading west, toward Thailand. 
Alesh started muttering something in response to Linda’s accusations but stopped abruptly at the sight of a large armored military truck bristling with antennas, rumbling past us back toward the city. It was closely followed by two school buses, painted in military green, stuffed with soldiers in green Kevlar.
My heart fell. We must’ve led not only Gurads to Brell. Damn!
“Is this your doing?” I yelled to Alesh and smashed my fist into Bruno’s neck. “You turn around right now, Bruno!”
To my surprise, Bruno actually complied. Two meatheads exchanged a quick glance. Without a word, Bruno stopped the car on the side of the road next to a plowed field. Alesh went to the trunk and came back with an armful of automatic weapons. I got an AK, my favorite, and a spare clip. Linda got a MAC 10. We were eastbound in no time.
“I want my Nighthawk back,” I told Alesh.
He handed me the nickel gun. I liked guns. Guns calmed me down.
At Brell’s compound, the battle roared full swing by the time we arrived. Gunfire and explosions from inside the building now dominated the docile tourist town morning. A dozen dead bodies littered the pavement outside the Buddhist Center entrance—civilians and soldiers. Three police cars blocked the traffic. Cops were sitting it out behind their cars with their M-16s ready. The armored C2, Command and Control, truck was parked in front of the building, its door open. Several Cambodian soldiers ran past us on their way to the building. The cops yelled at us to leave.
“Cambodian Special Forces. Paratroopers.” Alesh pointed. “See the insignia?”
Damn Priests.
Without any warning—yet again—Linda opened fire at the soldiers only a few steps away. We were in the open. No cover. Later, not right now, I should probably have a talk with Linda about starting a shoot-out willy-nilly with a vastly superior force of heavily armed, Kevlar-clad paratroopers.
Alesh and his friend opened up on the cops. I tore a couple of grenades off a dead soldier’s vest and ran toward the truck’s open door. A couple of bullets struck the armor near me. There we go again. A Cambodian commando suddenly appeared in the door, reaching for the handle to slam the door shut. He should’ve thought about that earlier. Seeing me, he reached for his gun. I fired my Nighthawk straight into his forehead. The force of the shot at such a close range sent his body flying backward. I tossed the two grenades inside and shut the armored door. The truck rocked with the explosions, smoke bellowing out from the small open windows. 
Three additional police cars swung in with sirens blaring. Siem Reap, not a major metropolis, must have had their entire police force here—unfortunately for them. From the rooftop, cracking sniper fire briefly joined in the cacophony. The battle was over in a jiff, ushering the momentarily ear-splitting silence. A lot more dead bodies now littered the street. The scene of carnage was augmented by a couple of burning police cars and the smoking C2 truck.
Fittingly, I’d just gotten through learning to love all people unconditionally. Could I have loved them and killed them anyway? Bullshit. How would I stop fighting wars? How would I get off this wretched merry-go-round? This wasn’t the time to ponder the matter. Never time to ponder anything. I always leave pondering for later but later never comes.
Meanwhile, I had an emergency to attend to, do some more killing as usual—the irony. We ran into the building through the Buddhist Center entrance, filled with acrid smoke, nearly colliding in the lobby with half a dozen paratroopers hurriedly scattering out of the building. Leaving so soon? Alesh and Bruno engaged most of them. Linda greeted one with a good, solid kick in the groin, which sent them both tumbling. The eyes of the one rushing me locked on mine. As if in slow motion, I saw his gun swinging into position and his finger tightening on the trigger. The gun came to life just as I dove under it and slid toward him on the floor, feet first, kicking his feet from under him. The soldier lost his balance and hit the floor. The fight was brief. I cut his throat with his own knife.
Linda and the meatheads faired similarly well.
Numerous dead bodies could be seen everywhere in the lobby, some civilian parishioners as well but mostly the paratroopers. I caught Bruno thoughtfully examining a dead body that was burnt to a crisp. I bet I knew how that happened. These grunts sure picked a wrong denomination to piss off this morning. Judging by the ensuing silence, I’d say the entire attack team was wiped out, two busses-full and a command truck by yours truly. I reminded myself that this was a damn tragedy, a war, but still. . . Was anybody keeping score?  
Deeper inside the building the ugly reminders of the recent battle stared at us from everywhere—bullet-ridden walls and furniture, dead bodies, smoke-filled hallways, wounded, screams of pain, blood.
We pushed our way through the throng of evacuating parishioners, most of them devoid of any luggage to blend easier with the tourists outside. Forced to run for their lives. For what crime? Nonconformity with the prevailing party line as dictated by the Priests. Nailed for nonconformity again.
The Minus Two level presented a scene of orderly desperation: people carrying stacks of folders, computers and laptops from the offices down the hallway to a room with a sign “Archives” on the wide open steel door. About a dozen armed militia under Daevika’s command were clearing the corridors of dead bodies, most but not all of them soldiers, piling them in the dining room. A parishioner’s body was being laid out on a table, attended by crying family members. Wounded were carried out of the building, probably to be loaded into vans and cars outside.
We ran into Liran, who threw a surprised look at the two Guards briefly (but not as surprised as I would expect), then turned to me with a smile. I smiled right back.
“Why did you return? Go, guys, go,” Liran insisted. “They’ll be back soon enough, man, a lot more of them. Take Linda and the meatheads and go. Evacuate!”
“We’re here to help,” Alesh interjected calmly. “Tell us what to do. And don’t call me a ‘meathead’.”
“Sorry, man,” Liran replied, furrowing his brow and staring at Alesh and Bruno dubiously.
“Help carry folders and computers to the archives storage. That’s most important right now.”
“Liran, where is the Amibrotos?” Linda asked.
“He’s evacuated, gone and safe. Don’t worry.”
“What about Grace, the Assistant who looked after me?” I asked.
 “Dead. Sorry. Their position was overrun. On the other side of the conference room. Steven, her husband, too.”
Damn these stupid wars. I felt ashamed of myself for wanting to keep score.
“What about setting up defenses?” I asked. Carrying folders to the storage didn’t seem like a worthwhile task to me right then.
“Daevika’s team will take care of that,” Liran replied. “We have to destroy the records.”
“Daevika!” he yelled. “Get set up here. I want the 50-cal in corridor C, seal off corridor D and the passage through the conference room.”
Plump and pleasant Daevika, wrapped in a bright yellow sari, didn’t look anything like a military commander.
 “Yes, sir. Brenda!” Daevika nodded, already pointing the big gun position to the gunner, a middle-aged, about three hundred-pound black mama, belted with webbing, adorned like a Christmas tree with spare 50-cal clips and other ammunition.
“Kevin!” Daevika yelled. “Help Brenda set up, then stay with her as her Second, clear?”
Young Kevin, formerly known as Council Varro, smeared in soot and blood, appeared from nowhere, carrying an AR-15 awkwardly. He nodded his eager agreement, his incredible Adam’s apple in constant motion in his throat.
Liran smiled at the machine gun lady. “How’s it going, Brenda? Ready to do it again?”
“These bastards—they can kiss my ass.” Brenda smiled back. “My entire ass,” she added weightily, raising an eyebrow. We all chuckled.
We joined the thin human chain, organized to channel all the folders, records, and computers into the storage room.
“What’s with that storage room?” I asked Liran. “That steel door is not gonna hold off the paratroopers for long.”
“It’s an incinerator,” Liran explained hurriedly. “We’ll load up the stuff and burn it.”
We worked in silence for a bit, passing stacks of folders, notebooks, laptops and such toward the incinerator. Lessons notes, observations, the followers’ personal information, administrative notes, and sales receipts—you name it—all records were being destroyed.
The crossflow of evacuees interfered with the chain operation. Suddenly an even bigger disruption hit us: people running in the opposite direction.
“Soldiers!” Somebody’s high-pitched shriek threw my concentration.
Above us, I could hear renewed sounds of battle.
“Ismail, get your snipers off the roof and beef up Daevika’s team, you hear?” Liran yelled into his radio. “All we need is five more minutes. Then pull out to Minus Three, Exit Beta.” The radio crackled something back to Liran’s satisfaction.
The last of the folders and a laptop were thrown into the incinerator. “Stay clear!” Liran yelled and hit the big red button next to the steel door. A siren blared and the door slid shut. Fire roared from inside the storage room.
“That’s that,” Liran said.
A crowd of parishioners and staff, both armed and unarmed, now filled the corridor.
“Listen up! Everybody, move to Exit Beta. Alpha is sealed already. Orderly moving to Beta now. Staff members, take charge! Move-move!”
The shooting on the level above us intensified. I clearly discerned the booming staccato of the 50-cal. Go Brenda!
“Linda, I’m going back to help Daevika. You guys stay here,” I yelled, already rushing upstairs, noticing that both Guards and Linda stayed with me.
“We’ll hold the door open for you guys as long as we can, but then we’ll seal it,” the big Israeli yelled after us. “So hurry the fuck up.”
We emerged into Hell, the ripped into shreds reality of the supernatural. Lit by only a few red emergency lights, the place was almost totally dark, full of reddish smoke and deafening shooting, screams of pain and explosions from both right and left. The overpowering stench of gunpowder, blood and burnt flesh in the closed space hit us with the force of a fly swatter hitting a fly.
Lyrics aside and judging by the sounds of gunfire, both corridors were under attack, not just one. The attempts to seal the left corridor as Liran ordered must have failed, making this position indefensible. The breach was imminent, in other words, and very soon.
Daevika knew that. “Fall back to the stairwell. Smoke grenades, go! Second Fire Team! Brenda, Kevin, what did I just say? I said right now, I meant right now!” I heard Daevika’s lilting orders to her team from my right. The 50-cal fire stopped.
A few members of Daevika’s team, shocked into the kind of jumpy listlessness you sometimes see on a battlefield, emerged from the right hallway and started taking position in the stairwell next to us. The team was trying to pull out while still engaged with the enemy. That didn’t go well. The contact had to be broken first. The thunder of intense fire also continued from the left corridor. The pinned down team there was obviously unable to extricate itself either. I rushed to the left with Linda and the two Tinies.
Staccato greeted us as we turned the corner. Amid intense gunfire, the two remaining defenders were firing down the gloomy hallway from the office doorways. The advancing attackers’ menacing shadows vaguely showed in the semi-darkness through red smoke.
This position was hopeless. In a few seconds, the soldiers would advance to within a grenade’s throw, and we’d all be dead. Linda joined in with her MAC 10. Bruno and Alesh fumbled with small, flat devices, like hockey pucks, that they extracted from their pockets. They tossed these grenades far down the hallway, yelled “get down!” and immediately hit the floor, covering their heads. Judging by their actions, these weren’t ordinary grenades. Oh, shit!
“Get down!” with a kick I swept Linda’s feet from under her and tumbled on top, covering her head and chest with my body.
Two explosions that followed could only be described as tremendous. A huge concussion, followed by an enormous fireball, roared down the hallway over us like a terrifying freight train, singeing the hair on the back of my head and for a second pulling all the air out from my lungs.
Man, I have to get me some of these!
Fire sucked itself out with a whoosh. The hallway turned absolutely quiet. The only gunfire we heard now was from the other hallway, held by the rest of Daevika’s contingent. Brutal, yet effective, just like everything else the Guards did.
We rushed back, joined by the two surviving members of Daevika’s team, jumping over several dead bodies of their fallen comrades.
Meanwhile, Daevika did all she could to extricate her troops from the gunfight to retreat and save the team but didn’t have enough firepower or enough room to maneuver. The Cambodians were too close, too determined, too numerous.
“You got more of those pucks?” I yelled to Alesh. He shook his head.
“C’mon.” He simply ran toward the enemy, shooting and ignoring a bullet, which immediately slapped his massive shoulder.
Bruno, Linda, and I joined Alesh. With the four of us laying suppressive fire and keeping the attackers at bay for a few long seconds, the remnants of Daevika’s team managed to extricate themselves.
Except Daevika.
“Go, Norman! I’ll hold them off.” I heard her voice from behind and turned around just in time to see Daevika a few steps behind me, running head first into a bullet, her face strangely distorted at the instant of impact. Her body, draped in a very dirty, yellow sari, collapsed at my feet.
Brave heart Daevika, you died well. See you again sometime.
“Grenade!” Bruno yelled. All four of us ran a few steps back and hit the floor as a grenade exploded behind us. Time to go. Seriously.
Linda tried to drag Daevika’s body with us.
“Leave her,” I ordered in passing. “She’s dead. Run!”
The explosion of the second grenade knocked out Alesh. Linda and I dragged him to safety, straining beyond our physical capabilities as Bruno covered us from behind an overturned vending machine. Alesh weighed at least half a ton, I swear. Inexplicably, we made it to the stairwell, where Bruno stubbed Alesh in the chest with a small dart he extracted from a cheap first aid box in his pocket. Alesh immediately came around, caughing.
“Are we dead yet?” Alesh asked.
“Yes,” Bruno replied sourly.
We cought up with the Brenda-Kevin team and half a dozen militia covering the Guards’ retreat. Exhausted and bloodied, down the stairs we all ran to Level Minus Three, Exit Beta.

43
“Where’s Daevika?” Kevin’s high-pitched terror instantaneously permeated the hall.
“She’s dead,” I replied. “You can’t help ’er now. Take us to Beta.”
“No, she can’t be dead, don’t you understand?” Kevin dashed back toward the stairwell, but Linda tackled him with an umph, pinning his body against the wall with all her weight.
“No, stay here, Kevin, she’s dead,” Linda yelled, struggling with Kevin.
“Let ’im go,” I ordered Linda.
Not sure what she heard in my voice, but after a few seconds of indecision Linda let Kevin go. She stared hard into my face. Kevin ran back upstairs yelling, “Daevika, hang on, I’m coming!”
His voice was suddenly drowned out by the stream of machine gun fire. Linda kept staring into my eyes. Then she turned away.
An elderly church security officer was nervously rigging a hefty stack of C-4 explosives to booby trap the stairwell entrance door to Minus Three.
“Get out!” I yelled to him. “They’re right behind us!”
“This’ll hold ’em for a bit. You guys take this corridor to Beta right across the library on your left. Go-go-go!” he yelled, pointing.
Bringing up the rear, I had only taken a few steps down the corridor when a sudden powerful explosion from behind knocked me down like a sledge hammer, reducing my world to deafening whistling. My head suddenly felt as if stuffed with cotton.
I strained to penetrate the whistling greyness in my mind, visions of Linda, Daevika in her yellow sari, and my smiling mother with a glass of wine in her hand jumping around in the fiery halo. I willed myself to focus, banishing the ghosts. My vision returned—partially, slowly. I tasted blood, lots of it. There was not a sound in the world except for a constant, shrill whistling in my ears.
                    Turning my head slowly and painfully toward the door, I saw through the smoke a gaping hole in the wall and several mangled bodies beyond it. With effort, I turned and stared at the smoldering chunk of horror thrown next to me, which up till a second ago had been the security officer’s body.
Since I could not immediately locate my AK, I reached for the handgun, grateful for the reassurance the rubber grip offered. Turning around, much easier now, I felt my strength slowly returning—not my hearing yet—and saw Alesh, unsteadily rocking on his heels, taking position further down the hallway. I felt a pull and a tug. Linda was dragging me away from the attackers, her face strained with exertion. Blood mixed with sweat ran down her cheek, adding more stains to her already dirty designer blouse we’d bought for her at—wherever the hell that store was. I tried to get up or at least assist her in some way but couldn’t coordinate my movements to be of any use. Bruno, baring his teeth in an insane scowl, unsteadily braced himself against a door opening, reloading his AR-15 to cover our retreat. His lips moved. I couldn’t hear any sounds coming out of his mouth, but the gist of his communication was clear. He wanted us to follow Alesh—and quick.
Painfully, I got up on all fours first and leaning heavily on Linda’s shoulder, waddled slowly past him down the corridor, grateful for Linda’s arm around my back. Both Bruno and Alesh opened up at the attackers, covering our retreat.
Brenda set up her .50 behind a pile of office furniture, obstructing the hallway in front of us. Suddenly her gun came to life. Linda and I scattered to the wall and hit the floor.
                    The sounds of the battle hit hard, smothered to a degree by the continuous whistling in my ears and throbbing in my skull.
Brenda and a couple of Liran’s security guards were covering the hallway, assisted by Bruno and Alesh, presently retreating leapfrog style along the wall, covering each other. I saw the dark shapes of Cambodian soldiers behind them in the smoke, being picked out one by one by our fire. Linda and I joined in from the floor, sniping at the shapes. I still couldn’t get my shaking hands under control but the action of shooting felt good. Blood ran profusely from my nose; warm, sticky blood now covering my entire chin and the front of my t-shirt.
Stomping past me like an alarmed buffalo, Bruno stopped long enough to grab me off the floor. Safely but painfully squeezed under his enormous arm, I made it into the door across the hallway from the library—a broom closet, as it were, with a secret door opening in the back wall, leading to another staircase.
“Linda,” I croaked.
“Right behind us. Alesh is taking care of her,” Bruno replied without the usual scowl.
A sudden grenade explosion back in the hallway ripped through the staccato of the small arms fire.
“Linda!” I yelled, terrified now.
Alesh appeared in the closet door carrying Linda in his arms.
“She’s okay. Just a concussion. . . her own grenade. . . too close,” Alesh strained to explain through blood in his mouth and heavy and shallow breathing. “Let’s go.”
I craned my neck in time to see the ample shape of Brenda moving swiftly toward us, dodging bullets and firing her handgun rapid fire in the direction of the attackers. After a long, agonizing second she made it inside the closet unscathed with a triumphant yell, “That’s what I’m talking about! My entire ass!”

44
A narrow spiral staircase brought us down to a large, empty, smoke-filled chamber with an entrance into a low tunnel. At the entrance to the tunnel, sweaty Liran, his right arm in a makeshift sling now, threw a few more smoke grenades with his left hand into the chamber and impatiently waved for us to hurry up.
“Any stragglers behind you?” he asked, patting me on the shoulder.
“Nobody,” Brenda replied squeezing past him followed by Bruno and me.
“Daevika? Kevin? Anybody else?” Liran asked, lingering.
“Gone,” I replied. “Dead.”
Liran shook his head. “Dafuk barosh,” he swore in Hebrew, then yelled “Sealing Exit Beta!”
The attackers’ dark shapes started pouring into the smoke-filled chamber. Liran shoved Bruno farther in and punched a large red button inside the tunnel with the heel of his palm. Red light flashed, betraying our position in the smoke-filled room. Steel door came down, shutting off the tunnel. A hailstorm of bullets slapped the armored door just as a powerful explosion in the entry chamber rocked the tunnel. The whole structure must’ve collapsed outside the steel tunnel door, burying all the surviving attackers and who knows whom else under the rubble. The last exit was now sealed.
The tunnel was hot and low. In my present condition, it seemed excruciatingly long. Endless. In reality, it was probably no longer than a quarter of a mile, but it felt like many miles. Bruno in front of me labored for breath, bent in half. The earthen walls and tunnel ceiling oppressed the hell out of me too, although I didn’t have to bend that low.
We finally reached our destination, which surprisingly turned out to be a wine basement separated from the tunnel once again by a steel door. Liran punched the red button inside the basement. The steel door plunged down like a ton of bricks. The ground trembled from a series of distant explosions that must have obliterated the tunnel we’d just taken.
The School was gone. How much of a problem did this calamity really present to Brell and the movement? Not all that much, I supposed, on a cosmic scale. Not the end of the world, as Bill Hall would probably characterize it. But pretty damn devestating, to say the least.
We emerged from the basement into a Buddhist temple or Wat, in Khmer, the language of Cambodia. This particular Wat greeted us with a large, cheerful sign “PLEASE KNEEL DOWN”, set up by the altar. To my astonishment, Liran and Brenda immediately dropped to their knees and bowed low. Linda, still disoriented, seconded their motion, followed by me and even the two Guards, Alesh and Bruno. Our huge bloodied-up friends seemed otherwise unfazed except for heavy breathing.
 A crowd of very dirty, exhausted people of all ages, some injured and shocked by their recent experiences, had assembled on the grass in the back of the Wat.
Linda vomited all over a statue at the edge of the backyard’s lawn. I followed suit. Must be concussions. We needed some peace and quiet.
“Sorry,” Linda apologized awkwardly to a monk rushing by with a stack of towels. He nodded absentmindedly, too busy to care.
“We just sent out our school bus with thirty-one amibrotos,” an older monk explained to Liran calmly when we returned to the group. He called all parishioners amibrotos, the “immortals”. He knew the truth.
“To Sihanoukville?” Liran specified.
The priest nodded. “It’s a small bus. We also have a van that can fit twelve, at most fourteen.”
“Okay, thank you, Sang An. God bless you!”
“God is within you, my brother,” the priest replied with a smile. “You bless me?”
“I bless you.” Liran nodded, grinning tiredly.
“Got to love Buddhists.” He turned to me, nursing his bloodied arm.
“Hey, listen up,” Liran addressed the survivors in the garden. “Wash up first—quickly. The priest, his name is An, will show you where. Then, help anybody unable to walk or too banged up, to the van. It only holds twelve, maybe fourteen. The rest will walk out the front door calmly and keep on walking. So you got to look okay to blend in. Questions?”
“You’re not going with them,” Alesh announced to Linda and me. “Too dangerous. We’ll follow our own protocols.”
I turned to Alesh. “Hey, listen, thanks and all that but I won’t leave the guys.”
“I wasn’t asking you, I was telling you,” the big guy mumbled in my general direction through clenched teeth, just as Bruno fished out a bullet from the bloody hole in his shoulder with a pair of rusty pliers they must’ve found in the basement. Out of respect for these two meatheads, I let the brusque remark slide. The fearless bastards saved both my and Linda’s butts today at least twice each. And of course, we pulled Alesh out of the fire, too, and that felt good.
“Could these people join us, please?” Linda asked Alesh. “They’re all in danger.”
“Can’t do that.” Alesh winced. Bruno sprayed the open wound with something foul smelling from a small, silvery spray-tube. The green aerosol bubbled on contact with the blood and skin and immediately solidified into an elastic bright yellow layer, which sealed the wound.
Alesh moved his arm gingerly and nodded his approval. The two Guards changed places. With a grunt, Bruno exposed the wound on his side to Alesh’s not-too-gentle ministrations.
Between Linda and me, we had two concussions. But in my opinion, hers was worse as evidenced by her different-sized pupils. A big bloody gash on Linda’s side and a few scratches on her face did not look good, either. Of course, I couldn’t see myself. I probably looked pretty banged up too. The green spray was good, but it would not help Linda with all her injuries. She needed rest.
“Linda needs rest. Could she crash in the basement for right now, you think?” I asked Alesh, circumventing his orders. I knew I couldn’t leave Liran and all the parishioners. But first I had to take care of Linda.
Alesh stared at Linda. “Headache?” he asked.
Linda nodded.
“Vomited?”
“I did,” Linda admitted with a sigh.
“And you?” Alesh pointed at me accusingly.
“Me too. Just to keep her company.”
Alesh stared, considering his options. Bruno shook his head and mumbled something insulting. I thought I heard the word “stupid” mixed in somewhere in that short tirade.
“I have a medicine for you.” Alesh handed me a tiny capsule that he pulled out of a cheap plastic first-aid kit. “Here. Squeeze between two fingers and sniff. Then give it to Linda.”
I knew Murabian medicine might help. I figured I’d try it and go join Liran. I sniffed and handed the smashed capsule to Linda.
Ah-h-h-h. Now, here’s a nice smell. Kind of like butterscotch candy with an extra generous helping of vanilla and a tinge of something else equally good. Probably doesn’t get any better—as smells go. Pondering the smell felt good. Made perfect sense—it was a very good smell. Interesting smell, too, with a visual aspect to it—a beautiful kaleidoscope-like aspect. I slid down to the ground, stretching comfortably. Yeah, there sure was a lot to be said in favor of assuming a prone position over, say, a vertical one, as an example. Definitely something there to contemplate.
Slowly and gracefully, Linda slid to the ground next to me, a silly smile on her face, eyes completely glazed over.
“Hi, Linda.” I smiled.
Linda’s eyes closed but the smile remained.
We’ve been drugged, was the last thought through my mind, as I attempted unsuccessfully to reach for my gun.

45
          “I’m starving.” Linda’s happy voice was the first sound that snaked its way into my drugged consciousness. Good. I would’ve chosen that to be the first sound, given a choice. Squinting at my surroundings, I realized I was reclined on one of the enormous armchairs of the Guards’ Lear jet. Stan must have sent for us.
          Expectations to the contrary, I actually felt great.
          “Picky, yellow face, you’re up!” Linda was beaming. I wasn’t the only one feeling pretty damn good around here. Why did she call me a yellow face?
          As I glanced at her, I was startled by a wide yellow smudge above her right eyebrow and another one on her chin. I supposed I didn’t look any better.
          Alesh and Bruno watched the two of us impassively, nursing a couple of beers.
          “Should I shoot you?” I asked Alesh. “Or thank you? Or both?”
          “I have your gun,” Alesh replied curtly. Always to the point.
          “That means you should thank him,” explained Linda with a giggle. “Since you can’t shoot ’im, right?”
          Linda walked over to Alesh unsteadily, cradled his huge head in her arms and kissed him on the lips. “Thank you, Alesh,” she said, smiling.
          Alesh turned scarlet. Bruno stared at the exchange with a mixed expression of his usual sourness and utter astonishment at the same time. Then he smiled at Linda, most uncharacteristically. Linda attempted walked over to him, but he waved her off.
“Thank you, Bruno,” Linda said from a safe distance.
          “You’re welcome,” mumbled Bruno, suppressing a smile.
          “Hey, knock off the kissing immediately!” I yelled, waving my arms in the air.
“Honey, I’m hungry-y,” Linda sang in my direction.
          “Here.” Bruno threw a couple of small bags of Doritos in our direction. I noticed his face was calm and relaxed. The meatheads did not seem to have anywhere near enough affection in their lives. Work, work, work.
          M-m-m. Doritos hit the spot.
          “Anything else decent to eat?” I asked.
          “The maid’s off today,” Bruno grumbled, back to his usual self. “Deal with it.”
          “What’s the date today?” Linda asked.
          “January 17.” Bruno yawned. I stared. “It’s complicated,” he added.
          It must’ve been. “We were out for three days?” I asked, reeling and giddy.
          “More like eighteen hours.”
          Only eighteen hours? Boy, was I confused. “What happened yesterday?”
          “Nothing interesting.” Alesh shrugged. “Hey, listen, you guys, we have a stocked fridge here. Help yourselves.”
          We ate. Then I did my favorite breathing exercise. In comes the white light of unconditional love and out goes the blackness of fear. Had a rough go of it after killing a large number of innocent paratroopers and cops recently. True, they didn’t seem innocent at the time—what with all the guns and shooting, but I knew better.
Soldiers are nearly always clueless about what is really going on—the unwitting pawns in somebody’s game. Always doing somebody else’s killing and dying. And even proud of it! They are not players, they are pawns. Players play the games. They win, they lose, they like it, they don’t like it, they know what the game is about, they change the game—they have a choice. Soldiers, the pawns, think they know but they don’t. Players play games. Soldiers get killed.
The way up was clearly marked in my mind—toward tolerance and understanding, away from soldiering—if that direction was even open to me, the eternal soldier—the eternal stupid, suicidal and depressed soldier.
The jet had to refuel a few times on the way back. Otherwise, the trip was uneventful.

46
          “Brell and I need to talk.” Stan looked concerned. “I don’t get what happened. Why the hit in Siem Reap? Why? We had ’im.”
          We?
          His office looked the same as we left it—huge desk cluttered with papers, a computer, filing cabinets, photographs and awards on the wood-paneled walls.
          The momentous reunion between us had fizzled out pretty quickly a minute ago. Stan greeted us with a smile and a slap on the back.
          “So where is all your money?” he asked, gloating just a little bit.
          “We lost it,” I replied. “Thanks for sending the jet for us.”
          “Ah, that’s nothing,” Stan waved his hand dismissively. “Yellow looks good on you, guys,” he added on his way to his chair at the computer.
          “Thank you,” Linda replied politely.
          We settled down.
          Stan nodded, no longer smiling, all business now.
“You know the scoop on Brell,” Stan stated. “He’s getting people out which is against the law.”
          “There aren’t any special release laws,” Linda objected. “The convicts may leave any time, if they can. That’s the entire law. If they’ve left, the discharge is legal. You just hate to see people go free.” Linda’s tone turned cold and accusing, even hateful.
“They don’t understand their own laws and job descriptions,” I ventured, turning to Linda. “They’re clueless here.”
“Yes,” Linda agreed. “Just grunts.”
          Stan stared hard at both of us. Then his face softened. He got up with a sigh and walked around the office.
          “We aren’t dealing with an insignificant personal matter here,” he said. “We’re sorting out the Imperial Law right now, you understand? We’re employed by the Department of Corrections. We’re not free to do whatever we think is nice. It’s a job. We uphold the law.”
          “But you don’t know what it is.” I finished Stan’s thought for him.
          “We’re not sure about this particular point, correct, ‘cause it never came up before.” Stan nodded his agreement. “I mean never came up in hundreds of thousands of years, as far as I know. Can you understand my position here?”
“You’re full of shit, Stan, and you know it,” I retorted. “Brell talked to you for ages till he was blue in his face. Never came up before in hundreds of thousands of years? You simply never did anything about it before.”
“Brell is an inmate. Inmate! Am I supposed to take my orders from inmates now?” Stan waved me off with a snort. “What am I supposed to do? That’s ridiculous. We have to find out through our proper chain of command, not from the prisoners like you or Brell.”
“So why haven’t you found out yet?” Linda bristled.
Stan ignored her.
“Didn’t my boys help you defend that crazy school?”
          “Yes, thank you for that.” I meant it.
          Stan nodded. “The bottom line is, I can’t release the prisoners until I get this point clarified through proper channels, understood? All I can do now is clarify it and I’m doing that. Meanwhile, I’m helping to preserve the operation in case it turns out to be valid and acceptable.”
          “How long will that clarification through proper channels take?” Linda asked.
          “If they don’t have any further questions and give me a straight answer? Six years—maybe. Give or take.”
          “Maybe? Give or take?” Linda was furious again.
          “Look, you too, you got this freedom bug up your ass, but you got to think it through. There isn’t even any way to actually release anybody from here. How are we going to get them to Murabi a hundred light years away? Or you just release them into the open space? Our transport is not rated as a passanger vessel and the schedule is infrequent, usually every twenty five Earth years. There are receivers here but no transmitters on this planet. Nobody is supposed to be released that’s why.”  
          “You understand that you are not releasing the prisoners, right?” Speaking to Stan, I leaned over to Linda on my right and put my arm around her waist, feeling her body relaxing a bit. “Convicts ascend to a spiritual level where they’re no longer criminal. They literally turn into saints. At that very high level of consciousness, they can freely move in a disembodied state through the protective force field. They decide if they want to stay or go. That’s why it’s called freedom. It’s no longer up to you,” I explained. “It’s up to them. So you personally or any of your subordinates are not releasing anybody, you see that?”
          “Bullshit! People get convicted by a duly convened court of law and if they are to be released, I have to get the release authorization through the proper. . .” Stan started, shaking his head.
This wasn’t going anywhere. Plus, in my opinion, we were focusing on the wrong issue.
          “Stan, I’m afraid we’re not focusing on the right issue here,” I interrupted. “The real problem is not Brell at all. The real problem is the Priests.”
          Stan leaned back with a hearty laugh. “Good job, Norm. A subtle subterfuge. A very small change of subject.” He showed with his thumb and index finger how small that change of subject really was. About half an inch. “You thought I wouldn’t notice? Admit it, did you?”
          “I mean it, Stan. Leave the School alone, it’s nothing to you in comparison to the Priests.”
          “Since when are the Priests so important all of a sudden?” Stan asked with a tad more interest. Good. Warming up to the subject.
          “Since they took over Earth.” I didn’t hold back the drama.
          “Oh, they did, did they?” He wasn’t taking it seriously enough yet.
          “What? You didn’t know they hijacked the planet from under you?” Linda suddenly inquired, her sarcasm oozing out most uncharacteristically. I knew why. She’d fought this system and ended up forever-dead for it. It was her fight. This was exactly it. “You don’t know your own laws, either. You don’t know shit—the Switkowski Trucking yahoos. What a bunch of clowns!” Linda’s derisive laughter failed to impress Stan a whole lot, although his large face did tighten up a bit.
          Later, I should probably have a talk with Linda about pissing off the Commanding Officer of the Guards and calling him a yahoo and a clown. Although, admittedly, that was a step up from shooting him in the ass.
          “You want a gun to shoot me in the ass?” Stan suddenly asked, smiling.
          “Yes!” Linda jumped off her chair. “Give it to me and turn around, you big Chewbacca.”
          “Sit!” Stan ordered, still amused. I guessed his question to Linda was largely rhetorical. Then to me, “What’s the situation with the Priests?”
          “The Priests no longer protect Brell,” I started.
          “I know that,” Stan interrupted with a shrug.
How did he know that?
          “They hold Earth by the balls now. They and their people directly control all the planet’s finances, communications, media, pharmaceuticals, most of the food, healthcare and oil. Indirectly, they pull all the strings, legal and illicit, regarding drugs, trade, military, you name it. They instigate and bring to the desired conclusion all major armed conflicts. They run the planet.”
          “Why is it important to me? We let the kids play without parental supervision here.”
          “Well, for one, they mess with our rehabilitation and release,” Linda interjected.
          Stan shrugged.
“Think, Stan.” I took over again. “Why would they want to find your transport so badly? You think they’re jumping up and down trying to leave this gig and return to Baltizor? You think they’re crazy?”
          “Well, I could come up with a number of possible reasons,” Stan started, leaning back in his chair and looking up at the ceiling, furrowing his eyebrow thoughtfully.
          “Who ordered the hit on the School in Cambodia?” I interrupted.
          “Roberts. The use of Special Forces was a dead giveaway. So? Why the hit?”
          “Aha! For the same reason they want the transport.” I raised my finger significantly. “To destroy all means of escape. They only want your transport to destroy it.”
          “They are sealing off the planet to prevent any leaks. They’re making sure nobody leaves and nobody talks, including the church parishioners, Bob, and even you and the boys,” Linda finished for me. “They will kill you.”
          “Just to keep the lid on,” I agreed.
          “That’s ridiculous.” Stan waved us off breezily. “They’d set off all kinds of alarms back home at the Department by interrupting our routine report lines. They can’t falsify or duplicate the protocols. They have no idea what the protocols are.”
          “Unless they turned a bunch of your guys and kept them alive and well specifically to make things appear normal.”
          Stan seemed less sure now.
“Do they know the twenty on this base? Honest now.” Stan peered at us intently.
          “Not from us,” I replied.
          “They don’t have the location,” Linda confirmed. “Or we’d all be dead already.”
Still with a skeptical half-smile, yet furrowing his brow in concern, Stan pressed the intercom button.
“Klimek, get me. . .”
His son’s huge, shaggy head appeared in the door.
          “Yes?”
          “Damn. Never mind. E-mail me all you can find on the Priests.”
“Wha . . .?” Klimek didn’t seem to be in any great hurry to comply.
“On the double!” Stan roared.
          The head disappeared so fast, as if somebody had yanked Klimek back into the hallway by his hair.
          “How long have you known? What else do you know? Are you two hiding anything?”
          “Hey, slow down, man,” I interjected. “We’re on your side, remember? We’re on the same side.”
          “Yeah, okay,” Stan agreed reluctantly, not fully convinced. “So what’s the scoop?”
          “That’s just it. They’re trying to lay their hands on your transport to destroy it and take over your base. Then they’d probably want to take some of your guys alive to turn as many of you as they can and kill the rest,” I explained.
          “Then they’d take over the operation and the report line, using some of your guys,” Linda added.
          Stan was still dubious. “No, listen, that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Killing us is pointless. We’d remember what happened next lifetime. We’re not cons. We’d get back at them sooner or later.”
          I shrugged. “Don’t flatter yourself. As long as protective screens are up and Brell’s out of commission, that’s all irrelevant.”
          “They’d easily keep it up for quite a while.” Linda nodded.
          Something must’ve come in by e-mail. Stan peered intently into his screen, scrolling down some document. Then another. Then another.
          “Klimek! Go through. . .” he yelled in the direction of the door.
          “What?” His son’s voice on the intercom interrupted Stan mid-sentence.
          “Damn,” Stan muttered under his breath, shaking his head in frustration. Then into the intercom, “Klimek, go through our archives and get me the protoplasmic signatures of the Rockefellers, Rothschilds, World Bank, some top NATO generals, and a dozen of the CEO’s of the largest corporations in the US and elsewhere at random—you pick which. Mark Top Priority. Go. No, wait! Get Radovan in here on the double.”
          “My Internal Security Chief. Bright kid,” Stan explained to us.
          The “bright kid” turned out to be a well-groomed, bespectacled, older meathead with a prominent male-pattern baldness in full bloom. Unlike the rest of the Guards, normally attired in work boots and sloppy blue bib overalls over grungy T-shirts, Radovan was wearing expensive-looking brown shoes, well-pressed khaki slacks and a light blue shirt, which made him resemble a Farmers Insurance agent who went to the gym a lot. A whole lot.
          Stone-faced, Radovan listened to Stan without interruptions.
          “We can’t defend against a full-scale ground attack,” was his verdict. “We’re good on air defense but not ground. We need a contingency plan. We should probably start thinking about terminations and relocating the base.”
          “Terminations? Kill Roberts and his buddies? Relocate the base? Are you out of your frigging mind?” Stan shook his head. “Takes too long. Preps take way too long, you know.” He was scrolling through reports that had started coming in from Klimek, probably the archives. “Yeah, Rockefeller, World Bank, B of A, WHO, American Express, the FDA, the Petroleum Association, the damned Teamsters, fucking Monsanto. . .”
          Stan scratched his head thoughtfully and pushed the intercom button.
“Klimek, send out Red Alert to all personnel, Code—whatever the fuck—one-one-one-one, eleven-eleven, highest danger,” he had started speaking into the device on his desk, when his son’s huge head popped into the door.
“What?” Klimek asked.
“Man!” Stan flailed his hands in frustration. “Klimek, if you look real carefully, there is a small thingy on your desk, just like this one over here. See?” He pointed at his intercom. “When I push the button here, you can hear me wa-ay out there. Isn’t it fun? Try it. Later! Not now!”
“Okay.” Klimek disappeared.
“Wait!” Stan pounded the desk with his fist, shaking with rage and muttering something foul. “I said later. Come back, you idiot. You’re already here!”
Klimek’s head popped back in. “First of all, just so you know, I’m not an idiot. I’m an MIT graduate.”
“I don’t give a shit!” Stan bellowed.
“Second, you told me to use the intercom. So make up your own fucking mind, okay?” Klimek’s head disappeared.
“. . . shoulda done an abortion . . .” I thought I discerned among Stan’s indistinct frustrated mutter.
Linda and I exchanged embarrassed glances. The gamut of emotions played out on the Security Chief’s face at the unfolding interchange rivaled that of a Sphinx—the stone, third millennia BC Egyptian drama queen.
“Yes, okay, let’s use the intercom,” Stan spoke to the closed door with a groan, as Klimek had already left.
Red in the face and cussing under his breath, Stan pushed the intercom button again, “Klimek!”
“You’re the boss, sure,” Klimek replied, sticking his head into the room again. “You wanna yell like a caveman instead of using the intercom? Who am I to. . .?”
A stapler, catapulted by Stan’s considerable horse-powerage, smashed against the doorframe with a loud bang, just as Klimek’s head prudently disappeared. Splinters of the doorframe and mangled parts of the stapler shot in all directions like shrapnel.
“I tend to agree that we should alert all personnel immediately,” Radovan uttered thoughtfully, brushing a stray staple off his knee. “We should also mobilize the A5B. Let’s see, who else. . .”
“Why the A5B?” Stan stared at Radovan, still breathing heavily but calming down.
“They have a huge stake in this,” Radovan explained. “Right?” Both meatheads looked at Linda and me now.
“You want us to fight on your side? Just wanna make sure I’m hearing correctly, because when time comes, Linda and I both go bye-bye together.” I waved my hand goodbye. “As you well understand. You know what I want.”
          “Our side? Are you nuts? It’s your side! You wanna have a chance to fly the fuck out of here in my transport?” Stan mimicked my bye-bye wave. “If the answer is yes, you guys will have to fight.”
          Linda and I exchanged glances. I nodded. I’d just committed what was left of the Battalion to a battle against an overwhelming enemy. Was there another choice? And who was I to make such decisions? Indeed, who was I? People kept asking me that question ever since the whole mess started.
          “What if we took off on your ship immediately to warn the Baltizor High Command? I mean, like right now?” I asked but I already knew the answer.
          “Forget it.” Stan cut me off. “We’d all be dead by the time you finished your Cheerios tomorrow morning. You’re staying and you’re contributing and taking part, you hear?”
          “And Roberts and the DOD?” I asked.
          “We’ll deal with them, time permitting,” Stan dropped off-handedly, peering into the computer again. “Radovan, you know what to do. Take ’em both out if you can do it without too much hustle. We got other things to do, too.”



PART 3
BEING

47
          At the desk Stan assigned to us in their accounting office, across the room from Zhdana, Stan’s wife, Linda and I sifted through the A5B files under Zhdana’s watchful eye. A handsome woman—smart, blond and large. Well-dressed compared to Stan. Everybody was well-dressed compared to Stan. Zhdana kept glancing in our direction while typing on her computer.
“Picky, Stan wants to assassinate O’Hara and Roberts, right?” Linda asked.
“M-h-m.” I nodded, busy going through the folders of my Battalion comrades, jotting down their contact information and searching out any clues for which ones had already been recruited by the Priests. Through their spies, the Priests would undoubtedly find us here the minute we started assembling the guys to this base. Unless we succeeded in weeding out the spies. How could I know by looking through the folders? I couldn’t. Then we would have to get the hell out of here very fast.
“So, is it acceptable, you know, from the viewpoint of ethics?” she blurted out.
To her it obviously wasn’t or she wouldn’t be asking.
“Is it?” I batted right back, glancing at her bewildered face.
Linda thought, then let out a sigh and nodded her head, looking unhappy. “So ‘Thy shall not murder’ is a bunch of bologna?”
“Well. . .” I really didn’t want to dwell on those matters right now; time comes when one must do what has to be done for the common good. “I guess it depends on the definition of ‘shall’, you know? Sometimes you shall not but you really must, I guess.”
Linda gave me a long glance and pursued this matter no further, probably sensing my reluctance to continue.    
“So how does that work?” she asked, changing the subject slightly. “They remember everything when they die. So they’d just get other bodies and be right back fighting us, right?”
          “Who, Roberts and O’Hara? Not right away. Grown bodies are all taken already. Doesn’t work that way. Have to get in at birth or right before or right after. Otherwise, you’re screwed.”
“No exceptions?” Linda kept on.
“Well, sure. Sometimes after a real bad trauma or something, the person leaves the dying body when its still alive, you know, and the body’s up for grabs. Somebody may grab it and fix it up. It has happened. If the body survives with another spirit in it, you get what’s known as a total amnesia case. The new guy has no clue what’s been happening in that body’s life, doesn’t know any of the people around or any events. See? He just got there.”
          “So that’s amnesia,” Linda exclaimed.
          I nodded. “A cool movie idea. But you know, such cases are about one in a zillion. Pretty much never happens. Either the dying bodies die or the true owners return. And who wants somebody else’s dying body anyway?”
          “So if Roberts kicks the bucket, he’d have to find a newborn and start from scratch?” Linda asked.
          “That’s right. Diapers and all. We’d be free of the jerk for many years. Plenty of time to warn the Baltizor High Command and get the Fact Finding mission here and that’d be that.”
          “If they could deploy a mission that easily, your Command, why haven’t they done so in five thousand years?”
          Once again, I was struck by Linda’s power of observation.
          “Good question, hon. I don’t know the answer. They may have liked us being out of the way.”
          “They didn’t want you back?” Linda was genuinely surprised.
          “Not me so much. They don’t care about any of us grunts. But Brell—maybe.”
          “So Bob’s in danger then?”
          “Don’t worry about Bob. He can take care of himself.” That was true, Bob really could.
          “Okay. Well, then, they’d extract all of these Priests from here?”
          “Enough to disrupt the operation. Even a good slap on a wrist would do it. The crims would start behaving. You know why?”
          “Why?”
          “The forever-dead sentence. Nobody wants that.”
          “I agree.” Linda nodded. “Nobody wants that sentence. Nobody deserves it, either. From an immortal and powerful spirit, they turn you into a monkey. That punishment is really unjust for any crime.”
          “Not even Roberts deserves this?” Linda’s depth of compassion surprised me all over again. She never ceased to amaze me.
          Linda shook her head. “Nobody.”

48
          The eclectic A5B crowd trickled in to Siletz, people of all ages, races, genders. Nobody in their right mind would call the congregation troops. Tourists—maybe. Good. Keeping low profile was essential. However, upon a closer examination these tourists had a rather un-touristy air about them. Grasping, penetrating eyes, perhaps, the alertness, seriousness, a sense of purpose, a sense of discipline, excitement. These people were not here for sightseeing, regardless of their age or gender.
Too bad they didn’t pay much attention to the scenery. The place was gorgeous.
The 3,700-acre Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians reservation in Oregon was, in a word, a forest, or in two words, a primordial forest. Primordial forested hills, rather. Other spot-on nouns, such as thicket, timberland, woodland, even jungle would also do fine. Proliferation of life. Abundance of small streams, creeks, rivers, rivulets, waterfalls, lakes and puddles. Currently in January, it was too cold for the vegetation, and the trees were mostly bare, except for the evergreens.
In the summertime, I could easily imagine this place being described as green, emerald, iridescent, lush and verdant. With an annual rainfall of about seven inches per month, the vegetation here was thriving. The place was wet.
Radovan greeted the arrivals personally at the tribal conference hall he had rented for a couple of days. His to-the-point briefings focused on the Base security procedures, approximate departure schedule and various don’ts. The arrivals had to give up their cell phones, pads, tablets and laptops and subject themselves to electronic scanning and a strip search. Only then were they escorted inside the hill, located about a mile south of the tribal housing structures on the town’s eastern outskirts. There they were briefed on the military action protocol, issued their body armor suits and weapons and assigned the locations of assembly in the event of an attack on the Base.
I had a great idea all of a sudden, “Hey, why don’t I invite Eugene and his boys here? What do you think?” I prodded Linda on her side.
“Why would he want to come here?” Linda asked.
I already made up my mind. “Let’s see if he would or wouldn’t,” I said dialing Eugene’s black phone from one of the Guards phones, untraceable, of course.
“Hey, Eugene, how’re you doing?”
“Norman? What the hell, man? How are you still alive? Happy to hear your voice!” Eugene replied.
“Likewise, my friend. Just thought I give you a call and ask you for the million you shorted me on.”
“Oh, yeah! I meant to give it to you. I have it right here in my office, come on over and pick it up.”
“No, I tell you what, keep it. I mean it. Just keep it. I need a small favor instead. You’ll like it.”
“What now? Last time you got me tangling with the White House.”
I decided to ignore the White House rebuke.
“You know how you kept asking me who I really was?”
“Yeah, yeah.”
“Well, I can’t tell you who I am, but I ain’t a lab clerk.”
“No! Shocking. And all this time. . . What are you, a cop of some sort?”
“Kind of. Can you keep a secret?”
“What do you think, Norm? Can I keep a secret?”
“Yeah, okay. The Pentagon and Special Forces, among many other things, have been hijacked by a group of very smart and dedicated assholes, who are after a super-secret NSA space ship prototype. The spaceship is hidden here in the woods. I can’t reveal all the details, but if they succeed, the life as we know it is over.”
“So why am I talking to you? I should be talking to them.”
“They don’t need you. They despise your kind. Life as we know it will be over. That includes you. That’s who I’ve been fighting with. Linda and I and a bunch of other guys are right now in the woods in Oregon, setting up for a fight. Are you in?”
“Well, personally I don’t believe a word you said. By the way, Norm, what phone are you calling me from? My guys have been trying to trace it, but it just doesn’t exist. Nothing there. Way better than my black phone. What is this technology?”
“NSA, man, top secret. I wasn’t joking about any of it.”
“So I run to you with a million bucks, is that it?”          
“Keep the million, I told you that. Do whatever you want, Eugene. These are bad people. You got kids, you’re a good guy, so I thought you’d want to help, that’s all.”
“Who good? Me good? Are you crazy? You know what I do for a living?” Eugene laughed.
“I met Clara, Aunt Rosa, your kids.”
“Oleg, too, don’t forget hm,” Eugene reminded me, puffing in frastration a little bit.
I continued, “I know you have excellent health plan for your boys, including dental and child care. You can’t fool me. You’re a good guy, Eugene. Deep down. Shocking, I know. What do you say?” 
“Where at in Oregon?” Eugene asked after a lengthy pause.
I gave him the address and said goodbye.
“He’ll never come here. He’s a mafia boss. Hello?” Linda knocked on my head.
“Hello, who is thre?” I replied, looking up. Linda chuckled. Truth of the matter was I liked Eugene and his Adidas-clad band of sour-disposed hooligans. I wanted therm to do the right thing. Not even to mention the million dolllars he owed me.       
Linda and I also got the body armor, a full-body suit, kind of sleek and shiny to deflect energy streams but soft to the touch.
“Guaranteed to stop any bullet,” Radovan assured us. That’s what I was talking about. The polymeric armor only about a millimeter thick that could stop any bullet.
Stan’s mechanics were busy getting the transport ready for take-off after it’d been parked for many years.
The plan worked out with Stan and Radovan included radio surveillance of the nearby National Guard stations in Newport and in LIncoln up the road. We expected an attack by Special Forces with the National Guard pulled in for mission support and containment. In addition to the radio eavesdropping, Stan also initiated the Base air-defense system. The airspace around the Base was constantly scanned for threats.
Linda and I were busy readying the Base weapons arsenal for action. Several hundred assault rifles and other assorted goodies felt mighty reassuring. Linda echoed my sentiments as always.
“Hey, Picky,” she said, cradling a freshly cleaned 50-cal in her arms. “You know, this is a whole lot of firepower. Makes me feel better.”
“Yeah,” I replied, smiling inside at how in sync we were, as usual. “I was thinking the same thing, hon,” I told her gently. I wanted to kiss her, but clearly this wasn’t the time. Or was it? With the upcoming battle and all. Maybe this was precisely the right time. Or, rather, any time was the right time.
A sudden scream of the siren ripped through the Base, startling the living crap out of me. With a yelp, Linda dropped the 50-cal on her foot. More screaming. Too much screaming. I tried to decipher the PA announcement over all the screaming but either it was in Polish, or I naturally couldn’t understand a word even if it were in plain English—I have a track on that with the PA systems, so nothing unusual about that, either. One thing was clear: we were under attack.
“Air Force,” a curt explanation from a Guard running by checked us in place. No sense running out now. The best place to sit out an air attack was inside the Guards’ Base, protected by their air-defense system—impenetrable by any extant Earth weaponry, as per Stan.
The ground trembled from a multitude of distant, powerful explosions. What about the residents of Siletz? The sitting ducks. Damn Roberts. I had to talk to Stan.
“We should’ve evacuated the town,” Linda yelled, running after me through the Base’s concrete corridors. “We’re killing them all!”
“We couldn’t evacuate them, Linda, so stop it,” I snapped at her, snapping at myself, really. I too wished we had evacuated the Indians. But I knew we couldn’t afford to blow our cover. Now it was blown anyway. Honestly, we’d expected precisely that.
The base air defenses were silent under the bombardment. Every instant of unabated carnage meant more suffering and death for unsuspecting civilians, including Tolowa people, the tourists and whoever else happened to be around.
We found Stan at the Command Center, as expected, at a computer console, giving incomprehensible orders in a brisk and competent manner. He was cleanly shaven and wore a battle armor suit. A glance around confirmed that all meatheads had shaved and changed from their sloppy overalls into rather spiffy military uniforms.
“Stan, why aren’t the defenses deployed?” I asked with urgency. “Don’t you get it? You waiting things out here means everybody’s getting butchered out there.”
“Don’t you care?” Linda was on the verge of crying now.
“Chill out, you two.” Stan took a moment from his computer to wave us off. “We open fire only when all of the attacking crafts are within range. We take them all out. That’s how we do it. Nobody gets out.”
“But. . .” I started.
“Dismissed!” Stan barked and went right back to his work. About a dozen meatheads manned the workstations, exchanging curt reports and acknowledgements. Sure looked like a military. I thought they were just prison Guards. Then I remembered that these prison Guards, outnumbered about seventy to one, wiped us all out five thousand years ago. Way too rich for the ordinary prison Guards.
A giant computer screen on the wall showed at least half a dozen of the B-52s pounding the reservation only about a quarter of a mile away. Suddenly a group of other, smaller and faster, bombers joined in. As the camera rotated, I saw a whole lot more bombers out there.
Such firepower. I felt mesmerized.
Linda also stared at the screen as if hypnotized, tears streaming down her face. I put my arm around her. She leaned in to me as always.
“B-1B Lancers,” Stan explained, pointing at the smaller planes without looking at me.
A report from one of his men caused Stan to frown.
“They’re all in. Okay, let’s do it,” he nodded to us. Stan yelled a command to his staff, which immediately set them into frantic action. Several dark, smaller computer screens next to the large display on the wall immediately came to life, showing a whole lot of circles, ovals and a streaming line of text or numbers.
Loud whining and trembling of the floor under our feet that immediately followed spelled the end of the Air Force attack. Next instant, all the attack aircrafts on the screen in front of me began exploding in rapid succession. In a few seconds, the B-52s and B-1Bs were all gone. The battle was over. No chance for the pilots and crew to retreat, fight back or bail out. I hated that about the meatheads. Just like they took us out in the Andes. They left no chances.
“I hate you,” I told Stan and meant it.
He didn’t answer.
“What’s your rank?” I asked.
“Equivalent to your colonel,” Stan replied absentmindedly, pointing at three green rhombs sewn on his chest and went back to work.
Figures. Never liked officers.

49
Choppers slinking in and hugging the ground seemed to have covered the entire video screen like an advancing swarm of weird, menacing bugs. CH-47 Chinook troops transport helicopters mainly, those big, double rotor ones, and some UH-60 Blackhawk choppers, made famous by the movie Blackhawk Down, too. The Base air defenses were silent again.
“Coming in from the northwest, behind the hills, must be from Lincoln City,” Stan explained, staring at the battery of surveillance monitors. “Can’t take ’em out.”
The Rangers deployed out of sight and immediately flooded toward the city, hundreds of them.
Since the base air defenses had proven to be impenetrable, as expected, we were up for a ground assault.
 “What the . . .?” I started but stopped, as I noticed a crowd of locals getting ready to ambush the advancing Rangers with shotguns and hunting rifles, pitchforks, baseball bats and shovels.
‘Help them!” Linda yelled to Stan.
“Not much I can do. Let’s see if Radovan…” Stan discussed something on his radio.
“Wait…” Linda pointed at one of the screens.
An entire pissed off looking sports team, uniformly dressed in dark-blue Addidas suites, joined the locals out of nowhere, brandishing automatic weapons. Each member of the team also had a sniper rifle slung behind their backs. Eugene looked like a chubby, middle aged coach next to his dozen men.
“Look!” I yelled to Stan, pointing at Eugene. “The Russians!”
“I can’t believe it,” Linda slapped her knee.
“Frends of yours?” Stan asked.
“Yeah, we’re like this,” I crossed my fingers. “Although they did try to kill us several times very recently.”
“Doesn’t surprise me,” Stan shrugged. “Look here, you two. Radovan is pulling in here and here to support the militia attack. We should use the momentum to our advantage.” He pointed locations west-northwest of the Base at the map on the wall.
“Thank you.” Linda replied, glued to the screen.
The locals made contact. Rangers, expecting no serious opposition from the poorly equipped militia, had been bitterly disappointed. Assisted by the Russians and by a small contingent of meatheads, the locals hit the Rangers hard.
Unfortunately, the fierce battle that ensued did not last long. Even reinforced by as many as maybe sixty professional soldiers, the militia was still no match to several hundred Rangers. I saw the Guards disengage and retreat early, the Russians lingered, then moved back and disappeared in the woods. 
A goddamn tragedy. Having thrown back and dispersed the opposition, the Rangers quickly regrouped for an attack when they were met with skillful sniper fire. I understood where the Ruissians disappeared to. They simply took sniping positions in the woods. The Rangers stopped and took cover—was probably the right thing to do to get their bearings and regroup after the fight.
Rangers’ mortars opened up briefly from behind the hill, pammeling the snipers’ position. Then things went quiet again. 
Linda gasped in horror, pointing at the aftermath of the bombardment of Siletz and the reservation on the monitors. Almost despite myself, my attention was riveted to the snippets of carnage picked off by the cameras. Streets littered with dead bodies, both human and livestock, construction debris, destroyed household furniture and kitchen appliances—everything strewn everywhere. An old woman was pulling a body from under a collapsed house wall. I noticed a small boy with a bloody mess where his right arm used to be cradling the head of a dead German shepherd with his remaining arm. Then he collapsed on top of his dog. Immortal or not, one can never get used to this. I didn’t see any houses still standing on any of the screens, except for the Tribal Community Center, a concrete structure. Some of the bomb craters seemed to be at least fifty feet deep—the Bunker Busters. They were trying to locate and destroy the Base. Siletz destruction was complete.
“What’s this?” Linda asked. A long line of tough-looking Army trucks and Humvees lumbered north on Siletz Highway, entering the city from the other side.
“From south?” Stan asked. “The National Guard from Newport.” He sounded calm.
Must be a whole battalion here, about four hundred men. Or more.
“Stan, we must be up against at least four hundred National Guardsmen here plus maybe six hundred Rangers or more, and they are coming at us from both north and south. Must be close to a thousand heavily armed troops after our collective ass. I’m talking Humvees and mortars, too. What are we gonna do?” I must have failed to sound as casually professional as intended, given away by the trembling, slightly hysterical inflections in my voice. I knew a bad situation when I saw one. This situation was bad.
“When will the spaceship be ready to leave?” Linda asked.
“In about four hours or so,” Stan said, unperturbed as ever. Sometimes I really wanted to strangle the bastard.
“You know, we can’t hold them off for four hours, right?” I asked. “We can’t even hold them off for one hour!”
“Oh, relax.” Stan shrugged me off, smirking. “Go fix yourself a sandwich or something.”
Ouch.
“A what?”
“A sandwich, Picky,” Linda helped.
“I heard ’im!” I snapped. She must have told him about the origins of my nickname. Great. “A little humor in the face of mortal danger here? A little bravado?”
Linda grinned bravely, although I did detect fear in her eyes.
“Keep watching.” Stan nodded at the screen. “We know how to do this. The situation is difficult but not hopeless. So relax.”
They mined the damn road, Route 229. Dah. Of course. What would I have done?
“Watch.” I turned to Linda, pointing at the monitor. “It’s gonna blow. Right, Stan?”
“Wrong,” Stan replied curtly and pointed at other monitors. “Look here,” he said, pointing at another screen.
About a hundred Guards were lying in ambush a few blocks ahead of the National Guard, among the Swan and Gaither Street ruins and the surrounding forested areas, according to the map superimposed on the monitor. The Guards’ weapons did not look anything like machine guns. The funnel-shaped deflectors and massive coil chambers were a dead giveaway. Ray guns. They wore them like long motorcycle gloves, reaching to the elbow. “What happened to keeping your cover and using only weapons of the era?” I asked Stan.
“What, ARs and AKs and all that other chicken shit? No. I got a job to do here.”
Yes, I remembered. The Guards—always efficient to the hilt. That felt strangely comforting under the circumstances.
“Look,” Linda exclaimed, pointing at the screen.
A bloodied, banged up cop emerged from the smoke of widespread fires and stepped in front of the leading National Guards’ Humvee, raising his right hand in the universal police “Halt” gesture. One cop trying to stop hundreds of troops. They’d just mow him under. They’d never stop.
The Humvees stopped.
A small crowd of military personnel surrounded the bleeding, agitated cop, who kept yelling at them, pointing at all the destruction around him. The soldiers were looking around, taking in the horror. An Army medic ran up to the cop in an attempt to minister to his wounds, but the cop pushed him away, yelling and jabbing his finger in the direction of the dead bodies and destroyed houses and then north, toward the recent battle between the Rangers and the locals.
The thinned down Russian sports team emerged from the woods, carrying two wounded. They stopped near the Humvees. A medic immediately ran to them to attend to the wounded.
The cop’s message was clear. He wanted to commandeer the Army battalion to defend what was left of the reservation against the inbound Special Forces.
Would the National Guard fight off the Special Forces so we didn’t have to? Linda threw a quick, hopeful glance at me. I threw a quick, hopeful glance at Stan. Stan made a skeptical face.
“A National Guard contingent won’t stop the Rangers battalion almost double their size. It won’t happen.” Stan pointed at a screen showing hundreds of extremely efficient-looking commandos, who, having overrun the locals and cleared out the snipers, had resumed their advance toward the National Guard battalion, hugging any cover, relentlessly flowing forward. The intention was obviously to unite forces.
A panoramic sweep of the camera revealed another force rapidly deploying against the Rangers—men and women of all ages and body types and sizes, wearing ill-fitting Guards’ armor—all marked with composure and united in a common purpose. The Fifth Battalion, or rather what was left of it.
“Linda, I’m going out to help my guys. You stay here,” I said, getting up. Time to kick ass.
“Wait up, I’m coming too,” Linda replied as I knew she would. I also knew that arguing was pointless. She wanted to be with me. She wanted to help. I tried to diuade her anyway.
“It’s not your war, hon. Stay safe, would you? For my sake?” I was begging now.
“Don’t be silly, of course it’s my war. It’s our war. C’mon,” Linda yelled on her way out, her hoop earrings swaying resolutely. She headed straight for the arsenal—the weapons station.
My heart squeezed with endless appreciation for her.
“I love you,” I said.
There should have been better words to describe my feelings toward this being, shouldn’t there? In the entire vastness of the English language, all I managed to find for her now was that trite “I love you,” but I did imbue it with a lot of feeling. At least I really tried.
“Very good, hon.” She nodded absentmindedly, checking a Scorpion machine gun. “I’ll get some grenades, you get some of those directional mines, you know, good for ambush?”
“Claymores?”
“A-ha. Get a few.”
“How are you planning to ambush the Rangers?” I still couldn’t get used to her newly found soldiering abilities. I’d imagine claymores were a bitch to drag around, and honestly, I doubted we’d manage to ambush the Rangers anyway.
“Less talkie, more doie. Chop-chop,” Linda replied unexpectedly, waving me off with an impatient glance. “Stop stalling, will you?”
Now I knew who was in charge between the two of us. It sure wasn’t me. Made sense, actually.

50
 The National Guard battalion, confronted with the carnage and swayed by the Siletz cop and the Russians, attempted to stop the Rangers. The Rangers engaged with the National Guard around the intersection of Routes 410 and 229. National Guard Humvees advanced, pushing the Rangers back toward the ruins of college buildings where the Rangers held their ground, despite being semi-encircled and out-gunned by the National Guard on the south, the Guards in the center or southeast and the contingent of the A5B fighters on the east. That was mainly true—theoretically. In reality, our coalition troops were somewhat intermingled.
A sizeable crowd of the locals, mostly women, loosely united under the leadership of their only surviving policeman, was assembling to the right of our position with the A5B, now augmented with more local survivors. I noticed that many of the locals now carried machine guns and even RPGs, which they must have scavenged on the battlefield.
We were directed to our position across the street from the Rangers’ position. Linda and I opened up on the Rangers, holed in behind charred remnants of cinder block wall. A couple of Native American women on my right were using their hunting rifles most skillfully. There was a lot of shooting. Generally, I’d say everybody was pinned down now—us, the Rangers, everybody.
Explosions boomed to my left among the National Guard positions—mortar fire. Too bad the Rangers’ mortars were set up on the other side of the hill, where we could not reach them. They’d targeted the Humvees, no doubt. Mortar fire intensified. The bombardment hell on my left reached unbearable intensity and stopped abruptly.
Rangers attacked us on my right, advancing fast against the positions held mainly by the A5B and the locals. A quick look to my left confirmed my suspicion that Army 50-cals, mounted on Humvees—or whatever was left of them after the mortar fire, didn’t have a clear shot to support my guys and the Indians. The Humvees would have to advance toward the college quite a bit to gain the position from which to cover the locals.
I always knew communications were important in combat. But I forgot just how important. Our alliance consisted of four completely independent contingents, intermingled to a degree but totally uncoordinated. Rangers, on the other hand, were perfectly coordinated.
We seemed to have lost momentum now with the right flank giving way and National Guard pommeled by mortar fire.
Where was the Rangers’ C2, Command and Control Center? In the warehouse ruins now, across the street from college, most likely. Worth checking into. The most viable option to push forward was the National Guard. I needed to get motorized.
“Come on, Linda!”
We ran to our left, staying behind the ruins, burning cars and other debris, dodging bullets.
The National Guard’s position was in shambles after the recent attack: strewn with bodies, vehicles on fire all around us.
“Who’s in charge here?” I ran up to a medic, bandaging a soldier’s leg.
“Major Fioretti.” He nodded in the direction of a group of soldiers crowding around a pile of weapons and ammo being salvaged from the damaged Humvees.
“Major!”
The soldier who turned his head, must have been Fioretti, was balding, short and thick around the waist. Major looked more like an Italian shopkeeper from Brooklyn than a battalion commander—except for his composure and the relaxed familiarity with which he held his assault rifle.
“Who are you? Spooks?” Major stared at me and at Linda and back at me again. “What the fuck is going on here? What’s going on, I’m asking? And what are those fucking Star Wars flashes?”
He was obviously referring to the Guards’ energy weapons.
“Get a grip, Major!” I stared hard into his eyes. “You are the Commanding Officer here. They look up to you. So knock off the hysterics, okay?”
“Who are you?” Major asked in a calmer voice now. “Your names. Credentials.”
“Why? You want to check us on Yelp?” Linda asked. Major’s head snapped in her direction. His squinted, his stare was ripe with hostility.
“CIA, FBI? Yeah, whatever. Fucking spooks.” Major shook his head. “What’s going on with killing the civilians? What’s with the Star Wars? Fucking CIA and their secret shit!”
“NSA,” I replied weightily.
“Fuckers all the same. Is that your doing?” he yelled again, jabbing in the Rangers’ general direction.
“No, it isn’t,” I replied. “We’re on your side. Obviously. We’re here with you and not there with them.”
Major mellowed a tiny bit. “Tell me what’s going on. We’re killing fucking Rangers here, United States fucking Army. And they’re killing us. Look at this.” He pointed at the burning Humvees and dead bodies around us. “What’s going on, you two?”
Linda and I exchanged quick glances.
“What do you think is going on?” I asked.
“No fucking idea.” Major rubbed the short stubble around the fringes of his head. “All’s I know I disobeyed a direct order, and now I’m getting murdered by our own frigging troops.”
“Did you query your orders?”
“Yes, I did. I was told the shit’s rolling down all the way from the DOD. An ‘anti-terrorists’ op.”
Sad, I nodded.
“I suppose you didn’t buy the terrorist angle, then?” Linda asked.
“Gimme a break.” Fioretti shook his head. “The entire Siletz Reservation? Everyone’s a friggin terrorist, including even tourists and campers and any stray car passing by on the highway? Not a chance.”
I looked around. Soldiers were laying out their dead alongside a wall in rows. Medics were helping the wounded. They’d taken quite a hit here. National Guard pummeled by the Army Rangers. Fucking Roberts. I did not see the Russians.
“What happened to some guys in sports suits?” I asked Fioretti.
“They got bandaged up and disappeared during the mortar attack,” he replied. “They refused to tell me who they were too. They sure sounded like Russians. Are you guys together?”
“Yeap, they’re with us,” Linda assured him.
“You know you’ll have to move forward to the college? Your right flank is compromised, Major, got to do something.”
 Major threw an incinerating look at me. “You order me now? I want in on this shit. I wanna know what’s going on,” Major repeated curtly. He nodded in the direction of his casualties. “Have they all gone nuts over at the Pentagon?”
“Pentagon’s been hijacked,” Linda said. “The DOD is an imposter.”
“General O’Hara? Are you crazy? And you still didn’t show me any IDs.”
“We will not show you any IDs,” Linda assured him coldly. “Deal with it.”
“O’Hara, Roberts, we don’t know who else but definitely others,” I confirmed. “They are after a top secret NSA spaceship prototype, hidden in a secret bunker about two miles east of here. Long story. That’s what this is all about.”
“A spaceship in a bunker?” Fioretti asked suspiciously.
“A prototype of a spaceship,” Linda said.
“There’s shit happening that you don’t know about and better not find out.” I stared straight into Major’s eyes, unblinking.
Fioretti averted his stare and scratched his head.
“Roberts is running this op. He’s here somewhere,” Fioretti noted thoughtfully.
Roberts was here. I caught Linda’s worried glance. The news did not make either of us happy.
“Makes sense actually,” Fioretti continued calmly now. “That explains the bunker busters and that whole Air Force mess.”
“Exactly, Major. Air Force failed. That’s why we are dealing with this now.” I pointed at the Rangers’ positions.
“Well, no idea what to believe.” Major shook his head.
“Look around you. Don’t listen to us, just look at the civilian casualties.”
Fioretti kept shaking his head. “Getting creamed by our own troops. Are you two on the level? Is this the truth?” He jubbed a fat finger into my face.
“Not all of it,” I assured him.
“An acceptable version of the truth.” Linda nodded.
“We told you what we could.” I shrugged. “Need to get going there, Major.”
“They’ll drag and quarter me for this,” Major said with a sigh, wiping his forehead with a dirty chubby hand.
“Hey, listen, whatever that’s worth, to me you are honestly and truly a full four-star general. You got brains and you got balls. My hat’s off to you, Fioretti, forever and ever. Thank you.” I slapped Major on the shoulder.
“Yeah, well, shit, all right then.” Fioretty mumbled, astonished by what I just said.
 “You are the only hope we’ve got,” Linda confirmed.

51
“Hey, somebody get on that fifty, right now!” the Humvee driver, Corporal Miller, yelled from the top of his lungs to make himself heard over the booming cacophony of the battle.
The machine gunner lay prostrate on the floor of the vehicle with a large, smoldering hole right above the edge of his Kevlar vest. Linda was busy firing her Scorpion through her gun port—and so was Major Fioretti.
I hurriedly took position in the turret, caught in my sight some movement across the street and squeezed the trigger. The heavy gun came to life most satisfyingly for a few seconds and then--
                    The world stopped.
The explosion ripped a large hole in the Humvee’s driver’s side. First thing I saw when I came around was Corporal Miller slumped at the wheel—his blood, mixed with tissue fragments, was all around the cockpit now.
There we go, that familiar taste of blood and shrill whistling in my ears.
Major was trying to get out of the vehicle. The way he acted, he looked a bit like a turtle on its back—he didn’t seem to be able to coordinate his movements very well. Linda was also getting out listlessly. She looked back at me and said something.
                    I couldn’t see well. I tried to focus, and then realized that I simply had blood in my eyes. I wiped the blood off and blinked a few times. Vision returned—for the most part.
                    I squinted through the shattered windshield in time to catch movement straight ahead. Long muzzle flashes. Multiple points. I turned toward Linda, much easier now, feeling my strength returning. Still groggy, she was climbing out of the destroyed Humvee’s back seat, dragging her machine gun behind her. Linda looked at me with a smile on her bloodied face. Her lips moved again. No idea what she was saying. I smiled back. We were alive. I liked that a whole lot.
                    What was left of the Humvee shook. I recognized the powerful frame of Corporal Kozlovsky, whom I met earlier. He was yanking the door on my side. A bullet hit Kozlovsky’s Kevlar-clad chest, propelling his body backward. The big guy rocked back but otherwise ignored it. The door must have been jammed by the explosion. I rammed into it with my shoulder from inside. Pain shot through my body, clearing my head a little. The door gave with a screech. I heard that screech. Good news.
                    The battle sounds suddenly returned. Several National Guards were already laying suppressive fire cover to get us out. I also heard the characteristic pops of rifle-mounted grenade launchers laying out smoke cover for our evacuation from the busted Humvee. Kozlovsky half-dragged me away from the vehicle toward the second Humvee, a couple more men rushing in to help.
                    I freed myself from Kozlovsky’s grip in a sudden panic. I did not see Linda. Relieved, I saw her and the Major right behind us. I let them pass me to cover Linda’s back. A bullet pounded Major on the back in a puff of dust, knocking him off his feet. Thank God for Kevlar. Loud rapport of at least two 50-caliber machine guns on other Humvees nearby, aggravated by the cascade of M16s and AR’s, reverberated painfully through my skull. The unit opened up in earnest, the RPG’s, more guns joined in, adding to the cacophony, punctuated now also by the crisp snapping sounds of at least two M82s, the large caliber sniper rifles. I wondered how effective the snipers would be in this smoke.
                    “Where’s my gun?” I croaked. Somebody thrusted an assault rifle into my hands.
                    Attacking the dug-in Rangers full on did not seem right. In my endless, quilted past, I usually dwelled in recon units or with commando hit squads, in the artillery or air force, doing my killing in stealth or from afar. Running smack into the hailstorm of bullets would never be my cup of tea by choice, except this time it had to be. We ripped through bullets and explosions toward the other side of the street held by the Rangers, firing at the muzzle flashes among the smoldering ruins up ahead, covering each other, Linda and I shoulder to shoulder. The Rangers dug in behind a stone wall up ahead with a .50-cal gun. We slid into a bomb crater amid the asphalt upturned by explosions, pinned down in the open, returning fire, bullets whistling all around. With a loud boom, a fiery comet suddenly lit up the darkening sky. The missile rammed into the remnants of a stone wall harboring the machine gun nest in front of us, obliterating the entire structure.
                    “A Hellfire missile!” a soldier next to us shouted, grinning happily, jabbing back toward the main National Guard positions behind us with his thumb. I glanced back in time to see a wave of National Guard soldiers clearing the smoking ruins behind us and running toward and past us, shooting at the ruins ahead. I saw only two Humvees among the attackers. Most of the vehicles must have been destroyed, but we were on the attack again.
                    Linda went through some dead soldier’s bags and came up with four clips. She tossed two of them to me with a grin. I nodded my thanks. Things were looking up again.
                    The Rangers unleashed hell on us. The intensity and accuracy of their fire was devastating. The National Guard attack fizzled. We retreated, suffering heavy losses. Staggering losses. People dropped dead all around me as I covered Linda’s retreat. In the midst of my recent concussion, worsened by extreme stimuli and terror, I suddenly recognized the familiar ping of understanding that I was about to die. “Linda!” I yelled, searching for her with my eyes. I found her prostrate on the ground about twenty feet to my rear.
                    “Linda!” I yelled again. As I approached her, running, I saw what looked like a large smudge in the back of her armor.
                    “Linda.” I turned her to face me, ignoring the bullets. She opened her eyes.
“Picky, let’s leave this party now, okay?” Linda mumbled weakly.
                    “Sure thing, hon, should we just order a takeout and stay home then?” I cradled her head in my arms. She nodded with a weak giggle.
                    With Linda in my arms, I crossed the remainder of the way to the relative safety of a pickup truck, squashed by a fallen electrical pole. There I took a better look at Linda’s back. The bullet didn’t penetrate.
                    “Did it go through? Am I dying?” Linda asked quietly.
                    “No, it didn’t go through and yes, you’re dying. You’ll be dead in seventy years.” I slapped Linda on the butt, grinning.
                    Linda got up on all fours, whimpering.
                    “I think all my ribs are broken,” she said.
                    I didn’t reply, firing from my new position at the muzzle flashes and moving shadows across the street. Linda joined me, shooting short bursts. A National Guard soldier jumped into safety next to us and immediately slumped sideways, a bleeding hole in his forehead. Another soldier hit the dirt dead next to our cover. A sniper.
                    Another sniper shot bored the body of the pick up truck next to Linda. Too close. We were pinned down.
                    I dry crack of a high-power sniper rifle behind me attracted my attention. Then another one. I turned in time to see a Russian slinking in the ruins. The Rangers sniper across the street stopped firing at us. 
                    Movement across the street, however, intensified momentarily in preparation for something. Now, with the Rangers sniper taken out, I did not intend to stick around to find out what the Rangers were up to.
                    “Linda, run!” I yelled, grabbing her arm.
                    The salvo of their mortars, fortified by shoulder-launched missiles and rocket-propelled grenades rocked the entire neighborhood, throwing the debris and bodies in the air, scattering the National Guard troops. The Rangers’ machine gun fire and the booming of the .50-cals intensified.
                    Together we ran away from the truck, which promptly took a hit and exploded behind our backs. We ran from the Rangers, looking for a better cover. Wood-frame houses and barns didn’t offer a lot of protection.
                    I hit the dirt behind a horse trough in what used to be somebody’s backyard, Linda next to me. Bullets splashed into the water harmlessly or kicked the wooden sides of the trough.
                    “Where to?” Linda asked, panting and holding her ribs. I really wished I could get her away from all this. Too late now.
                    “Remember we saw a concrete building on the monitor in Stan’s office? What was it, a community center or something?”
                    “The Tribal Center,” Linda confirmed. “I think it’s that way.” She pointed northeast, more or less in the direction of the Base, which was more due east.
                    “Okay, let’s go.”
                    We moved swiftly through the ruins with the retreating and majorly decimated National Guard unit, leapfrogging in the general direction of the Tribal Center and covering each other. The Rangers seemed unstoppable. They plowed right over any points of resistance that we managed to put up. Our advantage in numbers was long gone. We were running for our lives now. The rapid energy weapons flashes and explosions from our right, approximately in line with our receding position, spelled similar trouble for the A5B fighters and the two Guards’ contingents. Our entire front was being pushed back toward the Base.
                    We hit the dirt behind a pile of firewood to lay our share of fire cover for the retreat. From our new position we saw Rangers advancing across the yard of a ranch house, shooting somewhere to our right where several National Guard soldiers were trying to make a stand behind some tractors next to a barn. Both Linda and I opened fire at the exposed Rangers, taking out four of them. The rest scattered for cover. A hailstorm of bullets immediately hit the firewood, forcing us to run. An RPG round struck the stack of firewood in our wake, sending splinters through the air like shrapnel. Fire suddenly intensified. I stole a glance back to a shocking site of two Russians coming out of the woods and hosing the remaining Rangers with their AKs.
                    Exhausted and bloodied, we reached the Tribal Center, a two-story concrete building. One corner of the massive wooden roof collapsed, taking down with it a concrete pillar.There was also a large hole in the middle of the roof, the result of a direct hit by a bomb or a missile, which must have broken through the roof and exploded on the second floor, bringing a part of it down as well. The whole building now seemed to be supported by three remaining concrete pillars. A plan congealed in my mind.
                    The National Guard troops and the local fighters kept pouring in, carrying the wounded. I saw a Russian and a Nation Guardsman dragging in an uncounscious local. The wounded did not look good.
                    “Who’s in charge?” I yelled to a soldier running by, straining under the weight of an ammunition case he was carrying.
                    “Lieutenant Peterson.” He nodded toward a small contingent taking position by the windows.
                    Peterson was a young kid busy directing the set up of defenses, yelling in all directions at once.
                    “I have a plan,” I told Peterson. Wisps of sweaty blond hair stuck out from under his helmet. Could be ROTC, a recent college grad.
                    “Who are you?” he asked, annoyed by the interruption. “No, no, can’t deal with the civilians right now.” He shook his head. “Huang,” he yelled to an Asian-looking soldier. “Take care of the civilians.”
                    “We’re not civilians. Huang, as you were!” I replied. Huang shrugged and went back to laying out his grenades in preparation for the upcoming attack. The Peterson kid stared at me.
                    “Where’s Fioretti?” I asked.
                    “KIA.”
                    Lieutenant’s emotionless reply dropped on my head like a brick.
                    “Are you the spooks with the NSA spaceship?” Peterson asked.
                    “Who we are is on a need to know basis,” Linda told him weightily.
                    The NSA spaceship. Fioretti briefed his troops. That’s how legends are made, I thought with a ting of pride, I have to admit.
                    “What do you want?” Peterson removed his helmet and made a decent attempt to wipe sweat mixed with soot and blood off his forehead with a very dirty hand, but only succeeded in smearing it all over his face.
                    “Listen up, Peterson.” I raised my voice to counter the suddenly renewed noise.
                    “Yeah, I’m listening,” Peterson shouted back to me over the firefight’s renewed staccato.
                    “We have four Claymores here.” I showed him the bag. “You draw them into the building and blow those three remaining concrete columns. Look, that one, there and there.” I pointed. Lieutenant looked. “That’ll bring most of the building down on their heads. We could probably take out a platoon’s worth that way. Or more. Set up your .50-cals in the back to catch any survivors on their way out.”
                    “Kozlovsky!” Peterson yelled over his shoulder after only a moment of consideration. Hewas fast. The kid was no novice in a firefight. Corporal Kozlovsky’s large frame materialized behind him. I nodded to the big corporal with a grin, happy to see him alive. He replied in kind, slapping Linda on the back. She yelled in pain and recoiled to Kozlovsky’s dismay.
                    “Help. . .” he started giving his order to Kozlovsky, then stopped and turned to face me again. “What’s your name again?”                    
                    “Call me Norman,” I yelled back. “This is Linda.”
                    “Okay, so get four Claymores from Norman. Set them up at the pillars, that one and that one. Use two Claymores on each.” He pointed. “Then find whatever you can to blow the third one. Don’t worry too much, it may collapse all by itself if the others are blown. Set it up and wait for instructions.”
                    Kozlovsky nodded, taking the bag with the four Claymores from me. I was happy to see the heavy bag go.
                    About a hundred National Guard troops and locals were defending the building. Rangers, at a disadvantage now, attacked full on in the gathering darkness, suffering losses but not about to be stopped. Seeing the quickly mounting numbers of the defenders’ losses, I figured it was time to open the trap with no further delays.
                    “Ready?” I asked Peterson, who was directing the evacuation of the wounded.
                    “The charges are set,” Kozlovsky reported.
                    “Ready,” Peterson confirmed.
                    “Let ’em in now!” I yelled to Lieutenant.
                    “Retreat!” Peterson yelled, just as we started taking fire from the roof through the huge hole. Rangers had found their way up on top. Good. The more, the merrier.
                    The retreating National Guard were digging in across the street now to engage the attackers, who poured into the building. In retreating across the square away from the building, we had to cross a shallow fountain. Linda, running in front of me, cleared it fine, but I stumbled over the low fountain wall and fell inside, headfirst, into four inches of water. No chance of making it across with the pursuers so close behind. I took cover behind the fountain wall and opened fire. After a long second, another machine gun joined mine. Linda had come back for me. She’d made me proud once again.
                    “Are you crazy, coming back here?” I yelled to her over the din.
                    “Yes, I am,” she yelled back, grinning. “Crazy about you!”
                    Deafening explosions and the collapse of the building sent large chunks of concrete flying through the air over us, some landing in the fountain, splashing me with water. The Tribal Center’s roof collapsed, dislodging a dense cloud of dust. The surroundings turned dark. I could hardly breathe.
                    Coughing, I looked around in search of Linda. My heart stopped. A few feet away, Linda was on her back in shallow water, covered with cement dust and soot, unconscious but breathing. A jagged chunk of concrete the size of a large suitcase smashed her left leg below the knee. She could’ve fainted from shock, I thought. A large bloody gash on her head further explained the unconsciousness. I jumped up and grabbed a good hold of the concrete. Heave! It did not budge. Heave! Nothing. Huge mother, I panicked, butting into the concrete with my shoulder. Linda’s blood was spreading into the water.
                    The firefight, stunted by the explosions, resumed as the surviving Rangers tried to escape from the collapsed building. In the darkness, through a thick cloud of dust, the attackers and the defenders were shooting up a storm—blindly. Linda and I were pinned down amid the cross-fire from both sides.
                    First thing’s first. Gently, I put some debris, thrown into the fountain by explosion, under Linda’s head. I also turned her head to the side as much as I could and rearranged her tongue in her mouth so she wouldn’t choke on it.
                    My quick assessment of the situation brought me no joy whatsoever. I could not free Linda from under the concrete, so we were both here to stay. But even if I succeeded in getting the concrete off her, the leg was definitely shattered, so I would have to carry her, which, under the circumstances, would still mean death for both of us.
                    A Ranger stumbled over the fountain wall in the dusty darkness, spitting and cussing next to Linda. I shot him in the head. Another Ranger cleared the fountain wall a bit to my left and fell in dead, killed by a blind bullet from across the street. Then two more on my right and my left. The fountain was filling up with bodies, most of them dead. Linda was still unconscious. I shook her a bit, kissed her lips lightly—that supposedly worked for Prince Charming in the fairy tale—no response.
                    Taking a chance, I peeked over the fountain wall just in time to see a Ranger almost upon me, ready to jump over the short wall. I took him out with a shot in the leg and then a head shot with my Nighthawk. Then I shot another one, coming at me fast from the dense dust cloud. Our eyes met right before my bullet hit him. Normally I hated that, but now I didn’t care.
                    The sudden silence in our immediate vicinity was a huge relief. It could signify a number of things, most of them favorable. I peeked over the wall again. Clear.
                    In the issuing silence, the sounds of battle to our right came to the foreground. The Rangers’ main thrust shifted to the right, as they must have been consolidating their forces after their defeat at the Tribal Center. We could possibly be rescued now.
                    “Hey, help!” I yelled. “Over here! Help! Help!”
                    No response. I yelled again. Nothing. The defenders must have fallen back toward the Base, consolidating their own forces and regrouping.
                    Sooner or later the Rangers would be back for their wounded or for a number of other reasons.
                    So, here we died. The last stand. Why did I always die in ugly places, such as this disgusting fountain full of dead bodies? Crawling around in filthy, bloody water, I appropriated four spare AR-15 clips and half a dozen grenades. Linda’s half-full Scorpion with two extra clips completed our arsenal. I had more weaponry than I could possibly use in the time I had left in this lifetime. With nobody covering my back or flanks, we were not going to last long here, maybe about half a minute. Thirty seconds. Tick-tock.
          I dragged one of the dead bodies onto the wall in front of me to use as a shield, increasing the height of the rampart to raise my head higher and widen my field of vision.
Linda was still unconscious. Just as well, although it would have been awesome to tell her I loved her right about now, but of course she already knew that, so not that big of a deal. I kissed Linda goodbye. Would be nice to say goodbye also to Mom but that too was optional. I ran my fingers through Linda’s hair. Had I not dragged her into this. . .  Ah, what was the point of thinking that now?
          The sound of heavy boots over rabble-covered asphalt gave away the approaching Rangers. About a dozen. I opened up at them, getting one in the head. The Rangers scattered for cover and quickly returned fire. Here we go. It’d be fast. Hate long goodbyes anyway.
          Keeping the Rangers at bay, I watched my flanks. I had to keep my peripheral vision sharp even as I was fighting multiple threats right in front of me. The ones who’d go around, whom I wouldn’t see coming, were the ones to watch for.
          One of the enemies was thrown back by my bullet that hit him in his Kevlar. I scored a hit in his lower abdomen before he got up. Dead or alive, he was no longer a threat. About time they started trying to get behind me, probably one on the right, one on the left. I dropped the one who made it all the way to my right with a Kevlar shot. But I lost the battle to the one on the left by a fraction of a second. My AR-15 burst went true, taking half of his head off, while his bullet hit me somewhere below my left armpit, definitely a good spot to shoot somebody through the heart. The Guard’s armor held again, but the impact nearly stopped my heart. I jumped up momentarily, fighting for a breath, and was immediately struck in the chest and abdomen by a hailstorm of bullets. My mind exploded with pain. Everything went dark.

52
I couldn’t have been out long because when some vestiges of consciousness returned, I surprisingly found myself still alive. Or was I simply delirious? Possibly still unconscious, I thought weakly, observing the out-of-focus towering shapes of several giants walking calmly toward me through the murky fountain water and then past me, their weapons spewing raw energy of lightning at my enemies. One of the giants returned after a long minute and bent down to me. His face came into focus. I’ll be damned, that motherfucker of the month again! I must really be delirious.
“Medic!” Alesh yelled to one of his guys, who was carrying a large, slick plastic case on his back.
The beefy meathead ran up to us, sloshing in the shallow water, with something that looked like a smart phone and ran it over my body quickly, peering into a tiny monitor in his other hand.
“Linda,” I croaked. “Help Linda.”
“Five broken ribs, bruised liver, spleen and stomach, some internal swelling, blood in the lungs, some other minor hemorrhaging here and there and a few other dings,” he reported to Alesh.
“What does that mean?” asked Alesh.
The medic grinned. “Healthy as a horse.”
I stared at the clown, fighting for breath through excruciating pain.
“You’re okay. We’ll fix you up,” Alesh explained to me, unsmiling as usual.
The medic nodded his agreement, taking off his slick and shiny yellow backpack.
“Linda,” I croaked again, straining to turn.
Alesh helped me turn my head. The Guards had already taken the chunk of concrete off her leg and were now carefully removing her body from the fountain.
“Help her first,” I told Alesh. He shook his head and started to object, probably referring to his orders, but changed his mind mid-sentence and nodded, waving the medic off to Linda.
The medic quickly gave me an injection. “Take him out slowly, support the torso,” he instructed in parting.
With help from two other meatheads, Alesh carried me out of the fountain slowly, all of them supporting my body. A wall of pain threatened to overwhelm me, but I fought back the unconsciousness. I had to make sure Linda was all right first.
They put me down in such a way that I could see Linda. The medic was scanning her body now. Linda was still unconscious.
From his strange-looking backpack, the medic removed a black cubic device the size of a small printer. His hand-held scanner monitor fit into a niche on that device with an audible click. The medic then inserted what looked like a yellow brick into another niche and turned the thing on. The device hummed quietly for a few seconds, and then a thin molded cast of Linda’s leg, split alongside, started emerging from it, while medic kept working on Linda, cleaning and spraying her wounds and giving her injections. The medic then pulled out a roll of what looked like a wide rubber band from his bag and started attaching it to the inside of the open yellow cast. With my confidence in Linda’s future restored, I blissfully passed out.

53
                    I came around feeling generally much better with very little pain left. I was high. I knew I must have been drugged with painkillers. Carried by a Guard, I saw Linda right next to me. She was also being carried like a child, cradled in some Guard’s arms. She was conscious but severely drugged, looking at me with blank eyes, not really seeing. I reached for her hand and took it into mine. Surprisingly, she squeezed my hand slightly.
                    The street was cleared of the attackers by the Guards. Not much was left of the houses and barns that belonged to people, to the families, who had lived here just a few hours ago without even the slightest suspicion clouding their day. Now most of these people were dead and their property destroyed—by whom? The Priests and their cronies had a lot to do with it. However, the Rangers and the Air Force were the ones who actually did the killing and destroying. Having a chance to disobey their orders and save thousands of innocent lives, they chose the easy path of obedience to their orders, no matter how stupid and vicious. Blind compliance sucks, I thought, as I was carried through the ruins. How unmilitary of me. I liked that.
                    “Hey, Alesh, put me down, I can walk,” I protested.
                    He stood me up. I felt woozy but relatively stable.
                    Startled, I realized that the entire upper half of my body was enclosed in a yellow cast, similar to the one on Linda’s leg. It was not too tight and it seemed to expand and contract with my breathing, offering constant support all around, but it felt prickly and uncomfortable and itched like hell.
                    “Hey, something must’ve gotten inside the cast here,” I complained to the medic, who was adjusting wires on a small yellow box, plugged into Linda’s cast. He then slapped the box onto her cast and it held. Must be magnetic, I thought.
                    Linda was more awake now. She smiled at me and squeezed my hand harder. I smiled back.
                    “Don’t worry about the prickly sensation, that’s all right,” the medic assured me. “Those are small needles that inject you with tiny quantities of pain killers, nourishment, antibiotics and fluids. See this box?” he removed a yellow box, similar to Linda’s, from my cast so I could see it.
                    I nodded.
                    “That’s the computer and the twenty-four-hour supply of the medications.”
                    “What happens after twenty-four hours?” I asked.
                    “Depends,” the Guard replied with a shrug.
                    “Well, thank you very much for all you did.”
                    He waved back.
                    “What happened there at the fountain?” Linda asked me weakly, pointing at the Guards and our encased bodies.
                    “Nothing much. A little this, a little that. Alesh and the boys dropped by, we had some laughs.” I smiled reassuringly.
                    “Is that why you’re all bandanged up?” Linda gave me one of her adoring looks. We looked into each other’s eyes, grinning.
                    “The thing is itchy,” I complained.
                    “I’ll scratch yours, if you scratch mine,” Linda offered with a grin.
                    “I’ll scratch yours any day and at least tywice on SDundays,” I assured her.
                    “I probably look like hell,” Linda said.
                    “I like Hell already! If hell looks like you, I want it!”
                    Linda grinned again, staring at me with misty eyes.
                    “What’s that?” Linda, suddenly serious, asked, pointing at a commotion on the edge of the forest next to a burnt-out house.                    
                    “Locals are finishing off the wounded,” Alesh explained calmly. “With shovels,” he added.                    
                    Several women of all ages were hacking at a Ranger’s body on the ground with shovels. Linda gasped and almost fell down. I held her up. The motion and exertion hurt like hell.
                    “Stop them, it’s not okay,” I begged Alesh. He shook his head.
                    “Hey, somebody, stop them,” I yelled to the other Guards. They ignored me.
                    I know, karma is a bitch, but maybe this time, just once. . .
                    We came closer. “Fu-u-u-u-u-ck!” was the only thing I could think of saying. The decapitated and mutilated body on the ground, hacked with shovels, presented quite an eyeful.
                    Linda gasped in horror and squeezed my hand hard. Did she have to come around so soon? Wouldn’t be bad at all if she hadn’t seen this.
                    The local ladies were panting heavily, wiping sweat off their brows, leaving the scene of carnage, probably in search of other wounded to kill.
                    “We saw some locals hacking somebody on the way over to get you, too,” Alesh said impassively.
                    “And you didn’t stop them? How is that okay? Do I do that? Do you do that? Soldiers don’t deserve to die that way.”
                    “Oh, they don’t?” Alesh stated with a bit more passion than he normally exhibited. “What about these people who lived here? You think the locals deserved what they got here today? As far as I’m concerned, these women can do to these assholes whatever the fuck they want.”
                    I shut up. Complicated. Linda and I exchanged glances.
                    “By the way, why did you come for me?” I asked Alesh in a couple of minutes, when I’d calmed down. I was wobbling alongside the Guards painfully.
                    “We don’t leave our people behind,” Alesh explained simply, unperturbed again.
                    “How am I one of your people all of a sudden?” Being considered one of their people felt pleasing to me but didn’t make much sense, considering I was an inmate and they were the jailers.
                    “Stan said you are one of us, so you are. Stan sent you on a mission with us, right? He dispatched me and Bruno to cover your ass in Cambodia, right? You warned us about the Priests’ attack, right? You’re one of us.”
                    “And Linda?” I asked.
                    “Yeah, she too. You both.”
                    Whew. Linda was safe now.
                    “But how did you know where I was?” I pressed further, tremendously relieved and a little flattered.
                    Alesh ignored my question.
                    “Same way you tracked me in Siem Reap?” The sudden realization was unsettling. “Did you implant me with a tracker?”
                    “Stan had a beacon solution injected in you after he beat your ass,” Alesh finally replied impassively.
                    “Beat my ass? You sure it was my ass that got beaten? Anyway, did he plant something under the skin or something? What’s a beacon solution? No wait. How could that be? I was scanned for electronics by Liran, first in Manila and then in Siem Reap.”
                    “No electronics.” Alesh shook his head. “We injected some shit into your blood, so it shows on our monitors now.”
                    “Linda too?” I asked.
                    “No, just you.”
                    “Can you take it out? Does it biodegrade? Do I piss it out?”
                    “No, man, that’s it for life.” Alesh shook his head.
                    “You can’t undo it? Is it harmful to his health?” Linda suddenly asked, alarmed. It felt encouraging knowing that Linda, for one, believed I had a long enough life ahead of me to worry about the blood thing, despite our current predicament.
                    “Don’t worry,” Alesh told Linda with uncharacteristic warmth in his voice. “We all had that solution injected, so it can’t be that bad. Just modifies the hemoglobin a bit. I heard it even makes the blood a little more oxygen-efficient. So it’s actually good for you. So don’t worry.” I really appreciated the super-long tirade that Alesh mastered on Linda’s behalf.
                    So my blood was now a beacon. Supposedly I ought to have been grateful to Stan. It saved both of our lives yet again.

54
                    The battle was now raging on the approaches to the hill housing the space transport and most of the Base. Rangers were good. Despite being outnumbered two to one at the onset, they’d pushed us back for a couple of miles and reached the Base.
                    The Base entrance was made to look like a farmhouse with yellow lap siding, white picket fence and white trim and window shutters. White curtains and potted plants in the windows added to the fake charm. Behind the cheerful exterior, the insides of the gateway were all grey concrete. The attackers seemed to have broken our defenses as evidenced by shooting inside the gateway structure.
                    “Come on,” Alesh urged other Guards, eager to join the battle, which we were observing from behind an overturned eighteen-wheeler a couple hundred yards away. “You two stay here. Your armor is not battle-worthy. Too dangerous.”
                    Right. As if having the armor fully intact improved things a whole lot. When bullets hit your body full force, it hurt like hell—and I had a busted spleen and all kinds of internal hemereging to show for it.
                    “Wait!” I urged. “Let’s enter the hill from the other side and surprise the bastards.”
                    “Only one entrance to this hill,” Alesh replied. “Other entrances to the Base are too far from here.”
                    “No, I know another entrance, let me show you. Come on, this way.” I pointed. Alesh gave me a dubious look.
                    “Yes, we found a large drainage pipe over that way.” Linda also pointed to where the pipe was.
                    “How did you find it?” one of the Guards asked Linda. “When?”
                    “She’s super smart. If something’s there, she’ll find it,” I assured him. The Guard shrugged and started walking in the direction indicated.
                    “Okay.” Alesh nodded. “We’ll find it. You two stay here.”
                    The Guard who carried Linda stood her on the ground carefully next to me. She stayed up, holding on to me.
                    “Coming with you. We’re okay,” I assured Alesh.
                    “You’ll slow us down,” Alesh insisted.
                    “Deal with it,” I said.
                    Alesh’s face hardened.
                    “We can lead you to the drainage pipe. You don’t have time to look for it in the dark,” Linda interjected hurriedly, squeezing my hand.
                    Alesh shrugged and started walking.
                    Avoiding the lighted areas, we skirted the battle at the Base entrance. The intensity of energy weapons flashes indicated that many Guards were now engaged in the fight—except they seemed to be fighting among themselves. With a sinking heart, I realized that some of those weapons were being wielded by the Special Forces now, tired of the Guards being impervious to their bullets. They picked the weapons off the dead and figured out how to use them. Damn Rangers, I thought with respect tinged with apprehension. I really wouldn’t want to mess with these guys unless I absolutely had to. Such ingenuity, skill and dedication wasted on the lunatics in Pentagon. Tragic.
                    Linda was reclining again in the arms of one of the Guards, her arm around his neck for support. I suspected the Guard simply enjoyed carrying her around, his paw all over her butt. That made me feel peeved. Or was it just drugs?
                    We found the drainage pipe in the darkness. No small feat under the circumstances.
                    Slanted upward and no more than thirty inches in diameter, the pipe presented quite a challenge. The Guards barely fit inside and moved with difficulty. Linda and I had to crawl, which was very painful. The prickliness in my cast intensified, the computer compensating for the added aggravation. In addition to feeling strong pain, I also felt buzzed and woozy.
                    Panting and slipping, our party ascended ever deeper into the hill for maybe twenty minutes until we emerged into a large chamber with a five-foot pipe leading into it from above and three smaller pipes leading aside and down. One of the smaller pipes was the one we had just climbed to get here. Sparse glow of a single bulb high up on the wall illuminated the chamber. A steel vertical ladder led from the chamber up to a round manhole cover in the ceiling at least twelve feet up.
                    One of the Guards climbed the ladder, pushed the manhole cover aside and peered out. I heard the quickly intensifying sounds of a battle up on top.
                    The Guard said something incomprehensible but alarming, as evidenced by the other Guards’ sudden agitation. I nudged Alesh in the shoulder for an explanation.
                    “The hangar,” he explained, rattled, no longer impassive. This was bad. The enemy had reached the spaceship.
                    “Where the spaceship is parked?” I asked with a knot in my stomach.
                    “Yeah.” Alesh nodded significantly and walked to the ladder presently being climbed by another Guard.
                    “You don’t have to enjoy yourself so much,” I told Linda. The Guard carrying her was pushing her up the vertical ladder ahead of himself just as the open palm of his hand on Linda’s butt seemed to have slipped a bit too far forward between her legs.
                    “I don’t?” Linda squeezed out through clenched teeth, her face contorted in pain. “Robert, my leg, my leg!” Only then did I notice that Linda’s crashed leg was now turned and squeezed between the Guard’s body and the ladder. The Guard, Robert, hurriedly adjusted her leg while holding on himself and supporting Linda, who clung to the ladder with both hands, wriggling to find a perch with the foot of her good leg. Another Guard’s head and one arm appeared in the manhole. Silently, he grabbed Linda by the collar and effortlessly pulled her up through the manhole.
                    “Dumb fuck,” Robert told me from the top of the ladder a bit too loudly—to make himself heard over the racket of the firefight up above. How could I have let jealousy overtake me, especially at a time like this? How could I insult Linda? Right he was. Must be the drugs. I felt utterly ashamed of myself. My ears burned.
                    “Sorry, man,” I blurted, but Robert was already up through the manhole.
                    I climbed the ladder, gasping in pain and delirious from the increasing dosages of the drugs.
                    Upside, I found myself in a utility room of a huge hangar that I saw through the open door. The hungar was occupied mostly by an ugly, clumpy, brick-like, beat-up space freighter. Once painted dark mustard color, the transport now seemed simply dirty. The towering spaceship reached almost all the way to the hangar’s brightly lit flat ceiling at least a couple hundred feet up. Faded writing and markings on the hull did make some sense after a short pause. Standard. Yes, yes, I used to know Standard quite well.
                    We’d been dying to find this bucket of bolts for five thousand years and here it was. Somehow, finding it did not feel as exciting as I thought it would.
                    The firefight in the hangar intensified.
                    Our team was staging in the safety of a utility room.
                    “You two stay here,” Alesh ordered, replacing a power pack in his ray gun. “This time I mean it.”
                    The Guards filed out.
                    “I apologize for being jealous down there,” I told Linda, feeling extremely contrite.
                    “Are you crazy?” Linda yelled, startling me with her reaction. “Get your shit together, Norman. Right now!” Linda’s face contorted in anger unlike I had ever seen in her. “You get jealous, you apologize—knock it off! What you should be doing right now is getting out there and helping the guys save the ship. Move it!”
                    “No need to yell, Linda” I snapped. “You know what, screw you. You move it!”
                    I walked out of that utility room alone, leaving Linda behind.

55
                    The great vastness of the hangar was alight with gunfire, grenade explosions and energy weapons discharges. The first thing I saw as I took cover behind a small forklift to assess the situation, was the dead body of Robert, a bayonet handle protruding from his chest,  and a Ranger’s dead, mangled body next to him. The Guards’ armor could stop a bullet but not a blade. I really wished for a chance to apologize to Robert for being so stupid. Too late now. I felt terminally dumb. No time to dwell on it.
                    Slinking along the wall and stepping over several more dead bodies, I entered an opening, the site of an ongoing firefight. A Ranger behind a large spool of cable was firing toward the space freighter at somebody I could not see. He presented a good target. I took him out with a short burst. That immediately made me a target. I hobbled out of there fast into the cover of the hulking spaceship landing gear—landing gear number one, as it were, according to the faded Standard numeral ‘1’ marker.
                    Behind the components of the extended landing gear, I joined two National Guard soldiers and several other defenders, including an Addidas-clad Russian and two Guards, firing at the Rangers from the cover of the huge freighter’s nozzle and other protruding parts and scattered equipment. The Rangers, fewer in numbers, were deadly accurate. Taking part in the firefight from behind a tangle of hoses and wires for a minute, I decided that I could possibly dislodge two Rangers holed in behind some crate.
                    “Hey, any grenades?” I yelled to the Russian, as he was the closest to me on my left.
                    He shook his head.
                    A large red fire extinguisher hung on the wall about forty feet away from my position. “Cover me!” I yelled again and wobbled as quickly as I could toward the wall, dodging bullets. Everything hurt and my head spun from all the drugs, but I made it to the wall and tossed the fire extinguisher toward the back of the crate used as a cover by the two Rangers. The Russian shot the fire extinguisher. It exploded, throwing both Rangers out of their nest. They both died instantaneously in a hailstorm of bullets and energy flashes. I hobbled back to my cover. Another Ranger, overzealous in his attempt to avenge the other two, jumped in the open from behind a pickup truck, hosed down a position to my right and immediately collapsed, almost cut in half by a ray gun blast. I glanced to my right to find my National Guard neighbor also dead, slumped against the landing gear hydraulics.
                    With the Rangers’ attack deflated in my location, the defenders counter-attacked, sending the remaining Rangers running out of the hangar pursued by the motley crew of the locals, armor-clad Guards, A5B and the soldiers.
                    Keeping close to the huge nozzle, I circled the other landing gear to see how we’d fared there. Emerging quietly from the mess of hoses and wires, I saw Roberts—His Holy Excellence himself—among several Rangers, setting up C-4 charges at the landing gear number two. The Rangers held back the Base defenders positioned along the wall. A couple of bricks of of C-4 would never make a dent in the ship itself, but the damage the landing gear chassis could be sufficient to postpone the take-off. Some delay in our departure was probably all Roberts was after at the moment. The transport’s exact location was now known; it could be taken out by subsequent attacks. I remembered what he said about being able to commandeer a hundred thousand troops in the name of national security.
                    I fired at Roberts but missed, attracting a firestorm in my direction. I dove, pressing into the concrete floor in a fetal position behind something too small to serve as a cover, my consciousness tittering at the edge. The pain was truly overwhelming. I didn’t think the pain killer dosage the medic had given me for the next twenty-four hours was sufficient to keep up with my exploits here. The idea was probably to lay in bed quietly for twenty-four hours instead of doing this. Whatever.
                    The firestorm suddenly shifted away from me. I looked up in time to see Stan attacking the Rangers with Klimek and two other Guards, followed by half a dozen Native Americans and a Russian right behind him. They used the diversion I created to attack. About a dozen Guards—Alesh and Bruno among them—plus A5B, more Russians, the locals and two Army soldiers were attacking further along the landing gear number two.
                    My AR-15 was empty, so I tackled Roberts who’d just finished setting up the charges. The fight with Roberts was over in under a second—must have been my personal worst ever. He greeted me with a straight torso kick, and my world exploded with unbearable pain. I collapsed, screaming. Roberts laughed. He must have known what that dinged-up, dirty, yellow cast around my chest and abdomen signified.
                    With the last shreds of consciousness, I willed myself to get up but only made it to a squatting position. Roberts, still laughing, pulled out a gun and pointed it at my head. “Like I said, a worthless pipsqueak,” he said, scowling just as Stan tackled him. They both tumbled but jumped right back on their feet. Roberts punched Stan in the nose, hard. Stan missed the punch. He moved uncharacteristically slow. The steel handle of a commando knife, sunk to its hilt in his side must have been the reason. Stan connected on second attempt, throwing Roberts against the landing gear. They both dove for weapons. Roberts retrieved his handgun that he’d dropped, and Stan grabbed my empty AR-15 from the floor. They pointed the weapons at each other and fired simultaneously.
                    “No,” I croaked, trying with awkward desperation to pull my Nighthawk out, fighting through the unreal pain and drug-induced confusion. I couldn’t get myself coordinated for the life of me. “No!”
                    They took their shots. Stan, shot in his bullet-proof chest, fell backwards under the force of the bullet. Roberts now knew that Stan’s gun wasn’t loaded. He leveled his Glock deliberately with Stan’s forehead. Stan started getting up, staring straight into Roberts’ eyes. A large shape of Klimek suddenly dashed in front of his father. Roberts’s bullet hit Klimek in the chest and made him stumble backward, throwing Stan off his feet again. Roberts’s second bullet hit Klimek between the eyes. His dead body collapsed next to me, his head turned my way, unseeing eyes locked on mine. Roberts’s third bullet was aimed at the spot where Stan was a second ago, before Klimek knocked him down.
                    I finally got my Nighthawk out but my shot went wide. My hands were shaking too much and I couldn’t see straight. A shot from somewhere to my right clipped Roberts’s ankle, sending his body headfirst into the landing gear component. He hit the steel hard but grabbed on and remained on his feet, blood oozing down his face. I shot him again, this time more successfully, hitting him in the leg. Roberts fell but immediately rolled despite the wound and fired at me and at somebody else to my right. My shoulder was hit, no longer protected now by the armor, but I didn’t feel a thing. I stole a glance to my right in time to see Linda in a fetal position on the floor holding her belly. Stan lunged past me. More soldiers joined in, both the Rangers to help Roberts and National Guard. The shooting intensified. I jumped on top of Linda, protecting her with my body.
                    The shooting finally stopped.
                    “Let me see,” I asked Linda quietly. She allowed me to look. The bullet did not penetrate the armor. They never do. Linda’s face was grey. She must have bitten her lip and now blood was running down her chin. I knew how she felt.
                    “They’ll fix you right up, hon,” I assured her. “What took you so long?”
                    “I was looking for you all over the place,” Linda explained with not a trace of make-wrong. I kissed her on the cheek. I was such an idiot.
                    Getting off that floor was the hardest thing I’d experienced in a very long time. No idea what other bones were now broken in my body or how the bullet in my shoulder affected me, but it all hurt like hell. Linda also managed to get up. We held on to each other.
                    “Can we go home now?” Linda asked, leaning into my chest.
                   

56
                    The medic dug out a bullet from my shoulder. I was exhausted to the point of no longer caring. I ignored pain. I lost track of the damage. He also replaced the medication packs on both mine and Linda’s casts. That made me feel better fast. Feeling extremely weak but otherwise relatively decent, I sat with Linda on some crates next to the freighter, watching Stan and his wife Zhdana kneeled over the dead body of their son. The place was destroyed, dead bodies everywhere. Apparently, there were no captured Rangers except Roberts. I found it very hard to believe that the entire Rangers battalion was a clean wipeout with no prisoners or wounded, but I had no strength to investigate the atrocities.
                    “Fuck you! You’re all dead!” Roberts yelled at the Guards, who were dragging him out of the hangar.
                    I got up with Linda’s help.
                    “Where are you taking him?” I asked, approaching the group.
                    “Throwing him out to the locals,” a Guard explained. “Stan’s order.”
                    That explained the absence of prisoners or wounded.
                    “You!” Roberts yelled, staring at me now. “Pipsqueak, you think I’m afraid of their shovels? Will give me more to bitch about later. You watch your back, you and your bitch here. Time comes, I’ll find you both!”
                    I pulled out my Nighthawk and shot him in the forehead. The Guards dropped Roberts’s dead body on the floor.
                    “Hey,” one of them yelled at me. “Stan’s order!”
                    I ignored him. Soldiers didn’t deserve to die by shovels, even Roberts. Executing an enemy soldier was acceptable but not with shovels.
                    The place was being rigged for obliteration. Guards were setting up charges. Stan ordered the Base completely destroyed.
                    Eugene and one other Russian, both bandaged and bloodied, were walking slowly searching among the dead, their sniper rifles still slung behind their backs together with their folded stock AKs.
                    “Eugene!” I yelled—as loud and happy as I could master under the circumstances.
                    “Have you seen any of my guys?” Eugene asked with no preambles. He looked exhausted.
                    “No, man. Thank you for your service. Your country won’t forget you.” I replied.
                    He just waved me off. I kept staring at the Russians as they moved away. I knew I’d never see them again.
                    Eugene suddenly turned around, “Hey, Norm! Don’t call me ever again, if you need something. Call somebody else. Okay?”
                    “Okay, man, you got it!”
                    Eugene waved his goodbye. I waved back.  
                    Over sixty people, including Linda and I, lined up in front of the freighter’s airlock, ready to board. All tired and bloodied, exhausted, most of us wounded, the crowd consisted of the surviving Guards and the A5B and a few Native Americans. I also saw one of the Russian Clydesdales, wearing a Rangers’ Kevlar and a helmet over his Addidas jacket. Nobody seemed to give a hoot about a few of the locals and a Russian boarding the space transport bound for one of Baltizor worlds.
                    Guards’ presence on Earth was over for now. The prison facility was off line, protective field generators down.
                    “You’ll like Baltizor, I promise,” I assured Linda.
                    “I know, Picky, I know.” Linda put her head on my shoulder and started crying. My heart sunk. She turned to face me, took my face in her hands and covered it with little kisses.
                    “What is it, honey?” I breathed out almost inaudibly, feeling like crying myself.
                    “I’m not coming with you, Norman,” she finally said.
                    I knew she’d say that. Deep down inside I always knew she wouldn’t leave.
                    “After everything we’ve been through?” I asked. “Are you sure? Back into the same snakepit again?”
                    “I can’t leave my people, my family—my everything. I won’t run away, Picky. I want to help here. I’ll find Bob and join the School.” Linda looked deep into my eyes. I knew her decision was final. Teardrops rolled down her face.
                    “Thank you for everything.” She smiled through tears. “We’ll meet again someday. We always do.”
                    “I’ll try to be tall, dark and handsome next time.” I promised.
                    She smiled.
                    The line moved as we began boarding the freighter. The stupid five-thousand-year long mission was finally over. I stared into Linda’s eyes.
                    “Hey, Norm, time to go,” one of the A5B guys yelled to me. We were holding the line now.
                    “Can’t come, fellas,” I replied, lost in Linda’s eyes, grinning now. “My girlfriend won’t let me.”


57
                    About time for a new mission. I was tired of the old one anyway.
                    I gazed at the beautiful sky and the rising sun out the window of Stan’s Lear jet, Linda’s hand in mine.
                    “Wasn’t that old Indian wonderful?” Linda asked.
                    He sure was. “God wakes up after a long sleep. He yawns. He reaches for the stars,” the old Tolowa Indian had said. The space freighter took off right as we gathered on the forest clearing, a quarter of a mile away from the Base among a small crowd of locals, waiting for the Base to be exploded. There we beheld the majestic sight of the top of the hill opening up in the murky white of dawn. The spaceship blasted out into the sky, then seemed to have paused way up high and took off like a lightning from there.
                    That is when the old Indian said it. “God wakes up after a long sleep. He yawns. He reaches for the stars.”
                    Yes, God sure does reach for the stars. But he has got to wake up first.
                    Linda and I were now aboard one of Stan’s Leer jets, lost comfortably in the huge arm chairs.
                    “Can’t reach for the stars unless you wake up,” I told Linda. She nodded, grinning from her seat, probably remembering her lessons at the School in Cambodia. I grinned right back, lost in her happy eyes.
                    “Waking up is fun,” she replied softly, caressing my hand.
                    “Don’t waste your time on poetry, you two. Are you all done with your mission briefing?” Stan asked from his seat, working away on his laptop, his wife, Zhdana, crestfallen after the loss of her son, next to him.
                    “Spot-check in five minutes,” he added.
                    “I have this terrible pain in my ass, Stan,” I replied lazily. “Any idea who that might be?”
                    Linda laughed, and then coughed uncomfortably, probably remembered certain things in regards to that particular part of Stan’s body. She averted her eyes full of mischief.
                    I felt good, relaxed. My new medication pack worked fine and the cast no longer itched all that much. Or was I simply getting used to it?
                    On our way to Manila again, looking for Brell to join his School and help him set people free. Liran and the guys would be happy to see us; I knew that. The anticipation made me smile.
                    “Alesh, do you have any special wish in your new life now?” Linda asked.
                    “Gonna find me a girlfriend,” Alesh replied from his seat, staring at the ceiling dreamily. “A big one.”
                    “Good,” Zhdana, nodded approvingly from her seat.
                    “How big?” I asked.
                    Alesh spread his hands about four feet apart. “About this big.”
                    “Caramel like Linda?” I inquired.
                    “Maybe.” Alesh nodded, blushing and uneasy now.
                    Linda and I chuckled. “That’ll be easy,” Linda assured Alesh with an affectionate smile. “Any girl of any size and color would love you. You just have to refrain from killing people long enough for her to get to know you.”
                    Alesh smiled back, recovering after my question but still a little red in the face. “I carry out my missions, that’s all,” he explained. “I like missions.”
                    “That’ll be fine then,” Linda assured him.
                    “I also like this mission in particular.” I nodded toward a couople of cardboard bankers boxes filled with packs of one hundred-dollar bills. Maybe a couple-three million dollars’ worth. Give or take.
                    “I have money in accounts all over the world, too,” Stan explained. “We won’t starve, that’s for sure. And Brell will be even happier to see us with all the money. Have to nail that criminal rehab thing he is doing, put it under Murabi crawn, make it a safe and organized activity.”
                    Linda squeezed my hand, grinning happily. I loved it, too.
                    “There is nothing like a well-financed and interesting mission that really helps people, is there?” I asked Alesh and nearly jumped off my seat. Here it was! I’d suddenly got it. All I was looking for was a mission that helped people—preferrably interesting and well-financed, but not necessarily. The mission all by itself would provide the purpose and activities that made one’s life. Wow! Hey, Bill, I think I got a boat to float!
                    “Sure, the best,” Alesh agreed, nodding. “Love this planet, man. It’s ca-a-a-razy!”
                    Together we gazed at the sunrise through the airplane window, smiling, Linda’s hand in mine, welcoming the arrival of a new day, a new page in the Book of Life, a new glorious chapter of life on planet P-3.
                    New Sun was rising over Earth.
           
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