Author: Neil Ostroff PM
On the day we're born we're all destined to die. But what lies after?Rated: Fiction K+ - English - Supernatural/Suspense - Words: 31,140 - Published: 02-14-13 - Status: Complete - id: 3100954
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
"Time of death," said a tall man dressed in surgical attire. He had cotton-colored hair, a snowy white moustache, and a long beard. "1:17 P.M."
For a moment, I didn't know where I was. Then it dawned on me. I'm in a hospital emergency room. Something terrible must have happened.
"This doesn't make sense," replied a woman, who was also dressed in surgical attire. "I can't find anything wrong with him. There's no medical explanation. A fifteen-year-old boy shouldn't have just died like that."
The woman leaned over and checked my neck for a pulse. Penlight illuminated my right eye and then my left. A stethoscope pressed against my chest.
She shook her head. "Nothing. No vitals at all."
Panic hit. I tried with all my might to speak. I tried to move my arms. I tried to get someone's attention. I tried to scream; I'm alive! I'm alive! I can hear you! I can see you! But no breath passed through my vocal chords. My body wouldn't respond to my mind's commands. I lay there helpless, a paralyzed shell.
The woman turned around to look at the heart monitor. Hastily, the tall man withdrew a golf ball-size crystal from his front pocket and circled it above my chest. Blue light flashed from the crystal's center. The tall man quickly stashed it away. Despite being in a bright, sterile room, snake-like bands of black shadow burst from the walls and dropped to the floor. The woman was busy adjusting the equipment and didn't notice as the bands whipped up my body and tunneled into my ears, nose, and mouth.
My vision dimmed. My thinking clouded. Scenes of my life suddenly appeared in front of me as if I were standing on the sidelines observing. Everything I'd ever done played like a movie in fast-forward: standing in my crib, learning to walk, to ride my bike, my first day at Whitmore Elementary School, fishing with dad at the pier, my freshman prom with Sarah, getting my learner's permit last month. The visions ended with me collapsing on the lawn earlier today and Sarah running toward me with a look of horror on her face.
I was suddenly back on the hospital gurney. I felt light, floaty. I lifted upward toward the ceiling, an exact copy of my physical made of cloud. I turned my head and looked down at my body. My mortal eyes were glazed and half-lidded. My face was the color of cream. A luminous cord the width of a shoelace stretched from my human head into the back of my spirit head.
Something popped inside my skull. The connecting cord turned to sparkle. I started to drift away from my body toward the other side of the room.
"I'll notify those in the visitor's lounge that the patient passed away," the tall man said. "The mother, and I believe, the patient's girlfriend, are in there."
The woman's face looked almost as pale as mine on the gurney.
"I don't understand," she said, as she peeled off a latex glove. "This boy was in perfect health!"
Sound disappeared. I shot upward through a spinning vortex of stars. I stopped and suddenly my world was bright and filled with pain, as if my skin had caught fire. I found myself standing on the front porch of my house. Shafts of sunlight were beating down from the clear blue sky. I grabbed at the doorknob and in my frenzy the momentum carried me forward through the solid wood and into the foyer. I tripped and nearly fell. Sunlight beamed from the windows like lasers.
Panicked to find relief from the burning, I ran across the hallway through the closed basement door and down the steps into the dark, cool cellar. Filamentous illumination drifted off my spirit body. I scratched my arm and my fingertips raked along what felt like real skin. I patted my chest and thighs, they were solid. All of my memories, dreams, and hopes were intact. I was an identical blueprint of my former self.
Wonder replaced my shock at the full and total realization that I was no longer living.
I went back up the steps and pushed my head through the closed door. The sun had set and the house was dark, except for the kitchen. The wall clock showed 8:45 P.M. Hours had passed in what I perceived as seconds.
I stepped all the way through the door, looked for my reflection in the windows, and saw none. The curtains didn't stir as I reached to brush them. The carpet didn't scrunch under my feet.
I headed into the kitchen. Glow cast by the overhead fluorescents heated my spirit flesh, but the discomfort was bearable. Ma sat at the table wearing her ratty blue robe. Her face looked chalky and devastated. Bone-white fingers gripped her coffee mug.
"Ma," I said.
She didn't respond, just stared ahead in a stupor.
Her lips contorted with grief.
"My husband and my son," she muttered to the silence. "Both gone on the same day. Why? Why has this happened?"
She started to sob.
I stood in absolute shock. It had been two years since a stroke had left my father in a coma and needing constant care at Pine Brook Nursing Home. Ma and I did our best to keep him cared for and comfortable. I even got a before-school job at Pine Brook cooking breakfast three mornings a week so I could spend time with him, arriving early and talking to him before my shift started, hoping by some miracle that he'd respond. Say something to me. Anything. He never did.
Ma dabbed at her eyes, raised the mug, sipped, and then set it, hands trembling, back onto the table. I reached around to hug her, but my arms passed through her body. I felt so alive… I momentarily forgot that I wasn't.
"I'll be right back," I said into her ear.
I turned and walked through the drywall, through the insulation and vinyl siding, and into the night. Moonshine silvered the neighborhood. Crickets chirped. Moths fluttered dizzyingly and bumped the back porch light. A car droned down the street.
The world was as it should be.
When I stepped back through the wall, 10:30 P.M. beamed from the stove's clock and Ma's sobs emanated from upstairs.
"You're coming with me," said a gravelly voice. "Your time on the Earthlevel is completed."
I spun around. A cloudy essence of purple ectoplasm materialized in front of me. The shape fluctuated and then solidified into a gargoyle-like creature about the size of a man, with pointed ears, two horns on its head and one on its chin, and a wild mop of dirt and bug infested black hair. Hawk-like talons replaced hands and feet, and a long, serpentine tail coiled around one of its two antelope-like legs. Leathery wings were folded against its back. It wore a green tunic.
I backpedaled in bewilderment, stumbled over my own feather-light feet, and fell through the linoleum floor, catching between the levels of the house. When I pushed down to get unstuck, my hands passed through leaving me dangling from the basement ceiling like a person clamped in a stockade. Currents of prickly energy fizzled through my muscles.
The creature grabbed the back of my neck and lifted me up. The tingling feeling increased. My extremities numbed. Fear stabbed at my gut.
"What's happening to me?" I screamed.
"Your soul exists at a certain frequency which allows you to bond with a flesh-and-blood mechanism," the creature replied calmly. "Death is no more than a changing of that frequency, a shifting to a higher wavelength, one that no longer adheres to mortality. The rapid playback of your life was to imprint your identity upon your consciousness, to etch your human experiences into your reasoning so you won't enter the Realmlevels in a state of confusion. The full realization of being dead can sometimes shock a soul into nothingness."
My thoughts turned somersaults. "Who are you?"
"I am Methusula, your guide into the Realmlevels."
The tingling faded and with its departure came lightheadedness. I turned to look up the stairs toward Ma's bedroom, feeling the need to somehow protect her from this monster.
"Unfortunately, human emotions and attachments don't die along with the body," the creature said. "A grieving loved one often makes it difficult to move forward. The transition into the Realmlevels will be easier if you give yourself emotional permission to leave."
I looked briefly at a framed photograph of Dad standing at the end of pier 16 and pulling against a strained fishing rod. Memories of that trip bobbed into my mind. It had been a perfect day; perfect weather. The fishing was great. It was also the first time I ever saw Sarah and fell immediately and hopelessly in love with her.
Methusula clamped my arm, flapped his wings, and pulled me up through the ceiling, passed my bedroom on the second floor, and onto the roof. It felt as if we'd flown through air.
"We must transition before the sun rises," Methusula said, gazing toward the eastern horizon. "Earthlevel light interacts harshly with the soul."
He faced me and his sight roved up and down. "The soul possesses the ability to create accessories it desires for the body."
I looked down. With all the transition I'd been through I hadn't even realized I was naked.
For some reason, my first thought was my blue school gym shorts and white t-shirt. They immediately materialized on me. Then I thought about my gray sweat suit. That materialized. Then I thought about blue jeans and my tie-dye T-shirt. They appeared. I decided to stay with that.
"Prepare yourself," Methusula said, and raised his arms. "Your eternal journey begins now!"
There was no time to be afraid or question what was happening. Air exploded in a rainbow hue of arcs. Structures of the world blended into each other. Pressure soared in my head. White sparks burst from my pores and spun around me.
Suddenly, I was immersed in chilly water being pulled along with a strong, silty current. The liquid was silent and dark; a deep, empty, obscurity that conveyed feelings of infinite space and distance. I didn't need to breath.
A hole opened beneath me and I fell from the bottom of the sea through the dirt-colored sky of another world.
Before I could think clearly, I smacked hard onto parched earth, but felt no pain from the impact. I got up slowly, a little scared and fully confused. Deep, ancient rifts cut around serrated rock. Methusula stood a few feet away.
"Where…" I gasped. Heat was dry and foul and beat against my face like flame. "Where am I?"
"Realmlevel One," Methusula replied. "I will escort you to your section where you will begin punishment and serve your sentence of torture."
"Whoa!" I held up my hands and backed away. "Did you say torture? Have I done something wrong?"
"You know your crimes against the Rules of the Source."
"Every detail of your mortal life is listed in the Accounts book. Credit Keepers have assigned your rank and position. Your fate is sealed. Your credits assessed. The punishment fitting."
"What are you talking about?"
"Each soul is born with an equal amount of good and evil inside them. Based upon the evil deeds they had done in their mortal lives, divided by how long they were mortal, and then subtracted by the number of good deeds they partook in, that quantity then grades placement among the Realmlevels. The soul is classified and assigned a position according to how well it lived by the Rules of the Source while mortal. You must serve a minimum of one thousand years of torture before a review of your circumstance is possible."
"You've got it wrong!" Fear fully encompassed me as I realized the seriousness of the situation. "I'm only seventeen! What could I have done?"
"It makes no difference. I have my assignment from the Credit Keepers. That is all I am concern with."
"This is a mistake!" I stated.
Methusula flicked his tail. "There are no mistakes here."
"I won't go with you!"
"Then you will end."
"Check that Accounts book! I know it's wrong! I know who I am! I deserve a chance!"
"You deserve nothing!"
"Please! Check the book!"
Steam ejected from Methusula's nostrils. He stepped close and growled. "If this is some sort of trick for better placement, I will personally oversee your torture."
He cupped his talons over my ears. Energy surged through my skull as if I'd stuck my finger into an electrical socket. My entire life flashed before me again, but with one difference. The last image is of me on my back with my eyes closed in the hospital morgue.
Methusula lowered his talons and crinkled his already crinkly brow. He appeared perplexed.
"Your soul is not listed in the accounts book. Yet, someone has severed your astral cord? This is not possible. Who could have done such a thing without Credit Keeper knowledge and clearance?"
"What does this mean?"
"It means…" Methusula scratched the horn at the end of his chin. "You are not supposed to be here."
I went dizzy with relief at the sudden hope of being reunited with my body.
"I knew this was a mistake!" I stated. "I knew I was right! How soon do I get my life back?"
Methusula stood looking stunned. "It is not that simple. The astral cord is the umbilical that connects a soul to its human mechanism. Once severed, all that was your former mortality is gone. Only the Source can repair such damage."
"Then contact the Source!"
Methusula's tail coiled around his leg. "No soul may ever meet with the Source. Its power is too great. If you even stood near the Source your feeble mind would short circuit and you would end. We will ask for council with Realmlevel ruler Demiana. She will decide your fate."Chapter 4
Our surroundings changed like the turning of a camera slide. We appeared atop an immense summit that jutted hundreds of feet above the ground. Geysers spewed fire from below. Ahead, a monumental six-sided pyramid rose into the sky like a mountain of polished coal.
"That is Demiana's cathedral," Methusula said. "It is the pinnacle of power on this Realmlevel."
Methusula grabbed my waist, spread his wings, and jumped into the sky with a whooshing flap. We glided over the blistered terrain and landed in front of a path carved through a sheer granite cliff.
Something peeked from behind a rock and then scurried out. It stopped in front of us and stared. The thing looked as if it may have been a human once, but was now so gaunt its bones poked through its skin. Its emaciated face stared at us with curious eyes while its teeth showed in a permanent skull-like grin. A battered loincloth covered portions of its wasted anatomy.
I hid my revulsion and steadied my nerves.
"What is it?" I whispered.
"A punishment," Methsusula replied. "An inhabitant of Realmlevel One who has been banished to the wasteland because of breaking the Rules of the Source while mortal."
"What does it want?"
"Nothing from you. This punishment is not fully aware, nor does it care of your presence, only mine. It is waiting for Demiana to give it a moment of her valuable time. Only then can it try to explain and justify its motives for behaving the way it did as a human. This is the only way to qualify for better placement among the Realmlevels."
Another punishment darted across the path, stopped in front of us, and stared.
"Be gone!" Methusula barked, and the punishments scurried off. He turned to me. "We are a priority. I can take you directly to Demiana without having to stand in the eternal line."
I followed Methusula down the path and across a thin, rope bridge suspended over a wide and extraordinarily deep fissure. Thousands of Realmlevel inhabitants: punishments, humans of all races and ages, and creatures like Methusula, stood in a lengthy, twisting, single file line waiting to enter the cathedral.
Methusula led me around a huge, bloodstained boulder. I jumped back. Two snarling Dobermans with glowing red eyes sprung from a thin opening in the sheer pyramid wall and positioned themselves between us and that opening. Each dog was as tall as a horse and as broad as an elephant. White drool leaked from their jaws in ropy strings as they growled warnings for us to take heed.
Methusula stepped forward boldly. His ears flattened, he opened his mouth, and a long, blue, forked tongue wiggled with a blood-curdling hiss. Both dogs immediately dropped their tails between their legs and hunched down, whimpering. Methusula patted the scruff around their necks and then ushered me forward.
Four human skeletons stepped out and stood on either side of the narrow passageway. They bowed (their bones clicked as they did so) to Methusula and myself as we entered.
"Why does Demiana make it so difficult to see her?" I asked.
"Conspiracy runs rampant in the Lower Realmlevels," Methusula replied. "She must carefully screen and review each case brought to her to make sure there is no dissention. Realmlevel One ruler is not a permanent job for the office-holder."
"How did Demiana become ruler?"
Methusula stopped, turned, and looked me in the eyes.
"To inquire about such things guarantees a span of torture."
A door opened ahead of us and bluish light flooded the passageway. Methusula ushered me into a palatial room with a sprawling, ornately colored, stained-glass, pentagram ceiling. Antique torches blazed with flickering radiance from carved-out holes in the walls. Air smelled a mixture of boiled cabbage and raw onion.
Afterlife residents of all types waited single file in a seemingly endless line that continued out another passageway.
"Stay here," Methusula said.
He turned quickly and advanced down the hallway.
"You!" someone called from the line. "I have been waiting to speak with Demiana for two thousand years! But you are entering through the privileged. Please, take me with you! Let me speak my case!"
Lightning bolted from the ceiling and a sparrow-size demon appeared out of a puff of smoke.
"No!" the someone cried, as the tiny demon floated closer. "Please let me speak with Demiana! I have paid for my crimes! I am deserving of an appointment!"
The someone backed out of position with slow movements of fear. "Please! I… I have done nothing wrong! I—"
The someone's voice muted, but its mouth kept moving, forming silent words that stretched into silent screams as the demon's small, bony hand reached out and touched him causing him to burst into a shower of sparks that sank into the floor. Those in line stood stoic as statues, unmoved by the scene.
The demon vanished in a second puff of smoke.
"No talking in line," said a woman's voice. "And if you break the rules, nonexistence."
I turned my head. A shapely girl with long, radiant blond hair and wearing a flowing gray robe walked toward me. Her face was pretty, with hazel eyes in perfect proportion to her small nose and full lips. Her skin was smooth and peach-colored.
"Total and utter ending," she added. "I am Biya, Demiana's servant. You haven't been shocked by the transfer out of mortality have you? You have come to accept this as your new reality, correct?"
A million questions ricocheted in my mind.
"Yes or no!"
I hesitated. "Yes."
"Good! This will save time. Methusula has informed me of your situation, and I agree it is a tragic one. Someone manipulated your credits, though the mere thought of it is almost inconceivable, and the accounts department ordered the shadows to take you. Unfortunately, the astral cord connecting you to your mortal mechanism was severed and only the Source can repair such damage."
She straightened her posture and looked me fiercely in the eyes. "You don't know how lucky you are, soul. This incident may qualify you for entrance into the Uppers." Her expression softened. "Congratulations. Not many get such an opportunity."
"I don't understand? I'm lucky?"
"The Uppers is not a place so much as a state of existing. A paradise so outstanding only the purest of heart and most gifted may inhabit it. Unlike Realmlevels whose depth and dimension are infinite, the Barrier Ocean encircles and borders the Uppers. Only a limited amount of souls may enter at a time. Being sent there is a gift beyond understanding."
"It's not life," I retorted.
"No, it is not life," Biya agreed, and seemed miffed at my comment. "Your mortality is over! Accept!"
She turned and walked quickly down the passageway.
"We must hurry," she said. "Demiana has entered her chambers. She must not be kept waiting."
We continued down a long, torch-lit hallway with a high cylindrical ceiling. The floor was a patchwork of white and black marble tiles. Every few yards, a huge copper statue of a gargoyle or a demon rose from the ground like a tree. Pictures of violent acts adorned the stone walls. Scenes of hangings and witch burnings. Portraits of slavery and sculptures of war. Image after image of the cruelty humans inflict upon each another.
"If Demiana feels you have been robbed of a significant portion of your Earthlevel experience she may credit you the difference," Biya said. "We must convince her of that or she will keep you for herself."
"You took away my life by mistake and now expect me to plead my case to be sent somewhere that isn't my home?"
Biya nodded. "That is how things are done."
"I'm not a piece of merchandise!"
"But, you are," she countered. "Your spirit, your soul, the conscious thing that now stands before me can only be formed through the physical union of at least one mortal partner. Not even the Source has the power to create the sentient beings that humans have evolved into. Souls are the worker bees of the afterlife. A precious commodity sought after by all Realmlevel rulers."
"Mortality is but one celestial chain-link. Each individual energy interconnects and interacts with the next forming an almost infinite cosmic net. If this human energy disappears, individuality of all souls will be lost. Souls will turn into thoughtless masses of electrical energy that can be molded into whatever a Realmlevel ruler requires: slaves, workers, armies of mindless drones."
Heraldic trumpets blared in the distance.
Biya grasped my hand and pulled me forward. "Demiana must not be kept waiting."
We quickened our pace and reached a wall of red fabric. Biya raised her right hand and bowed. The fabric split down the middle and opened into a large, dimly lit chamber with high, gloss-black walls that soared to the ceiling. A fine, grainy mist hovered in putrid smelling air.
On a throne made of human bones and skulls sat a spindly woman with an angular face, long nose, straight black hair, and hideous misshapen lips. A black shawl fastened around her neck covered from her shoulders to her feet. She looked like a witch straight from a Disney movie.
"What have we here?" she inquired. "A special case?"
"My Lord, Demiana," Biya said, meekly. "This soul is not listed in the accounts book. Yet, he was cut from the living. His death is a mistake."
"Impossible!" Demiana bellowed. "There are no mistakes here! There must be an explanation?"
A centipede-like creature scurried across the throne's arm rest and disappeared into the eye socket of a skull.
"There is none," Biya stressed and dipped into a curtsy. "If you will allow me to relay the situation, I think you will agree."
"Very well." Demiana leaned forward. "Go ahead, servant."
Biya lowered her head. Thought waves flowed from her mind into Demiana's head. I saw them; thin streams of quivering air. They exuded warmth.
"This situation is indeed unique," Demiana said, and the thought waves stopped. "Tell me soul, do you believe you would have reduced your credits enough to enter the Uppers given the time you were supposed to have lived on the Earthlevel?"
I looked with confusion to Biya. She nodded, and nudged me to take a step forward.
"I… I guess so," I said.
"And how would you have accomplished this objective?"
I shook my head. "I don't know. Look, I just want—"
"Silence!" Demiana roared, and the room's foundation shook. "You are in no position to want for anything! You are one of a trillion-billion souls, do you understand? You are nothing! Meaningless! A speck of sand on an endless beach!"
Biya pushed hard on my shoulder and pressured me to kneel.
"Forgive him, my Lord," Biya said. "This soul has reason to question. This soul has reason to be confused. This is a mistake of unprecedented magnitude."
Demiana leaned back against her throne. "Of that, I agree. I will investigate this matter further and send a messenger with my decision on placement."
She snapped her fingers and Methusula appeared in a flash of smoke.
"Escort this soul from my cathedral," she said. "I leave it in your care, Methusula. The soul may wander freely through the wastelands but may not interact with punishments."
Methusula bunched the muscles in his shoulders and bowed with exaggerated solemnity.
"As you command, my Lord." he said, keeping his head down as he grabbed my arm and backed away.
Demiana leered at me. "You would do best to keep your attitude in check, petty soul, and accept what is."
Biya and Methusula walked on either side of me down a long, vacant hallway illuminated by brightly burning torches. Colorful tapestries hung from the walls. Biya leaned around me to speak to Methusula.
"We must move quickly," she whispered. "I fear Demiana may uncover our plans." She tipped her head in my direction. "This soul is our only chance."
"What about the other?" Methusula asked. "The chosen one?"
"There isn't time to wait for the life and death of the chosen one. We cannot risk tampering with the Credit Keepers again. We have already aroused too much suspicion."
"Very well, I will inform Zued that we are proceeding accordingly."
We stopped in front of an archway leading to the filthy landscape outside. Biya put her hand against my cheek and looked at me the way a mother looks at her child.
"Learn from Methusula," she said. "You are here for a great purpose."
A flash of blue light and she and the cathedral popped into a snowfall of sparkle that evaporated into the bank of a wide, slow churning river. Gobs of sewage flowed with the current which emptied about a hundred yards down into a vast gray ocean. Small wavelets chewed methodically at the charcoal-colored shoreline. Bare-limbed thorn trees hunched along its banks.
"This is the Barrier Ocean," Methusula said. "The dividing space between the Realmlevels. It is impossible for a Realmlevel ruler to monitor us here, except for the Source. And that is highly unlikely. The Source has limitless dimensions on which It overseas."
A corpse bobbed belly-up in the water and caught my attention. The remnants of military camos hung on the body. I stepped to the bank, leaned down, and cautiously examined the man's face. I leaned closer. Something about the eyes. The nose. The structure of his chin. His features appeared remarkably like my own.
I leaned closer.
Too much like my own.
The eyes blinked.
I reeled back from the waterline, slipped, and fell on my behind. Methusula stepped beside me. The body continued downstream with the current and flushed into the ocean.
"That looked like me!" I stated, and scrambled to my feet. "That looked like my face!"
Methusula closed his eyes. My brain itched inside my skull. I felt heat and saw quivering lines of energy flow from his head into mine. A force pulled thoughts from my mind. Questions went and answers replaced them:
Was that me in the river? It was not the true body of the soul that now stands before me.
What does that mean? Your real Earthlevel mother bore several souls.
My feelings suddenly switched to Ma. How is she? Your Earthlevel loved ones are in trouble, but not because of your death. All humanity is in danger of ending.
From what? That will be answered at the appropriate time. We don't want Demiana probing your mind for information.
Is my father here? Your birth-father does not reside on this Realmlevel.
What's going to happen to me? Demiana will examine what could have brought you here but she hasn't the resources to delve deep enough to uncover the truth. Fearing an inquiry from the Source, she will be left with no choice but to hand you over to the Uppers. The Uppers has a gateway that runs to the Earthlevel. If we succeed in sending you through, there is a chance we can stop the events in motion.
You're sending me home? Not the home you know.
Why is this happening to me? At the exact moment your astral cord was severed your soul piggybacked onto the soul of another whose celestial signature exactly matched your own, a soul we've been hiding inside the empty mechanism of your birth-father.
Incredulity traveled through my system.
Dad's body was a storage container? Yes.
For who? Your twin brother.
"I don't have a brother," I said out loud.
Methusula opened his eyes and the brain-itching sensation stopped. Heat dissipated.
"There was more to your mortal life than you know," he said, and scratched a tiny parasitic creature off his chin horn.
"If I have a brother, what happened to him?"
"I cannot give you an answer, for I do not know. His soul was weighted with many credits, including your own."
"And your birth-father's. Sacrifices had to be made. Willing sacrifices."
A shiver raced down my spine. I stared at the shoreline. Clumps of brown-gray algae bobbed at the edges of the water. Tiny, grotesque crab-like creatures scuttled into the swell, nipped off pieces, and consumed them.
Methusula said, "You are one of a very few souls who have the ability to clearly and decisively change the course of the Source's creation. We've made every effort to be certain you would be prepared."
"Prepared for what?"
Lightning fractured the sky, followed by a boom of thunder. In an instant, our surroundings changed from decrepit waterfront into parched desert. A sun-bleached sky baked oppressively from above. Dried cacti grew sporadically in place of trees. I was alone.
A short, thin man appeared through the heat blur as a watery, double-sided image. He advanced toward me with slow steps. A charred military uniform blackened with soot hung from his burnt shoulders.
"Regiment thirty-four needs backup, sir," he said, his eyes wide and dazed. "Vaccine is useless against TC3. General Tekla's insurgency obliterated our support tanks. Spray guns mowed down the A.N.'s entire first line at Amman. Sir, do you understand our situation? We've lost the battle!"
"I'm… I'm not in the military," I replied.
The soldier's expression dulled, as if he'd suddenly come under mind control. His pupils dilated until they blackened his entire eye socket.
"Six months ago," his words came stoic and in monotone. "General Tekla united the leaders of three terrorist organizations. These organizations will now meet and travel to America where they will plan the extermination of mankind. Today, an American city was hit with massive doses of TC3, a newly enhance chemical exterminate. A nuclear detonation destroyed the civilian militia's ability to retaliate. My unit was sent… "
The soldier's words trailed off and his eyes closed. Thin streams of quivering thought waves flowed from his head into my own. Visions of houses burning in a huge inferno filled my mind. I saw my neighborhood engulfed in a sea of flame; heard a thousand agonized screams.
"Enough!" I shouted, and grabbed hold of the young man's shoulders.
I felt bare bone.
The soldier's eyes fluttered open and the thought waves stopped. His head bobbed and his eyes rolled up. His body went limp in my grip, turned into sand, and sifted through my fingers to the ground. A terrifying roar arrived on a sudden, hot wind. The roar stopped, and for a moment it was quiet and calm.
Then the roar started again, this time in waves that reverberated deafeningly across the landscape. The sky filled with dark specks, which, as they got closer, I saw were people. Men, women, and children fell around me like a hard, driving rain and dissolved into the earth as they hit.
The thunderstorm of bodies lasted for a few seconds and then stopped. Black shadows bloomed from the earth, coiled around my ankles, and flowed up my thighs, torso, over my face, and into my nose and mouth. In the blink of an eye, they pulled me down into the sand and into the sky of another world.Chapter 8
Oven-hot air washed over me tossing odors of a giant toilet that had never been flushed. I fell atop another flat rock high above a baking landscape steaming with lava flows. Again, I felt no pain from the impact and slowly crawled to my feet wondering where I was.
A huge throne constructed entirely of human skulls materialized ahead of me. Several rat-like creatures, the size of large Dobermans were lying across a black marble base. Their muscles rippled under their mangy fur as they sat up at attention at my sudden presence.
"You," a voice gurred. A figure materialized in the seat, its face hidden in the voluminous hood of a flowing black robe. "Someone just used an incoming soul to pass you Earthlevel information. I want to know why?"
I mustered my courage at this strange being. "I don't know what you're talking about. Who are you?"
"I am Thanatos!" the creature bellowed. "Lord and ruler of Realmlevel Two!"
The hood fell back revealing a black bearded, anvil-shaped, reptilian face. Silvery scales covered the creature's cheeks, forehead, and forearms, except for its wrists, which smoothed into terrifying, six-finger talons. Its eyes were vivid yellow and cobra-like.
I instinctively looked for a way to escape. A place to run. There was no where to go.
"What am I doing here?" I questioned, bodaciously.
"I know about the impossible mistake the Credit Keepers have made regarding your mortal life," Thanatos said. "Someone from the Uppers tricked the Credit Keepers and they ordered the shadows to severe your astral cord prematurely." Blue veins bulged and pulsed from his exposed skin. "Tell me why!"
"I don't know anything!" I stated. "Nothing!"
The corners of his mouth rose in hooks of amusement. Lengthy fangs gleamed as a lightening bolt zigzagged overhead.
"I believe you," he said. "But I also believe you will know something… soon."
An orb of fire burst behind the throne and sprayed the area with orange light. Thanatos appeared by my side and spoke into my ear with hot, sour breath.
"Methusula and Biya think they can outsmart Demiana by misleading her into sending you to the Uppers? Tell me when you know your purpose in their scheme or I will make certain you suffer in pain for all eternity!"
I stood my ground and kept my mouth shut. Storms of thick, reddish clouds boiled around us.
"Betray the Lower Realmlevels!" Thanatos added. "And you will regret it for all eternity."
Thunder clapped. The rat-like creatures scurried off and dove headfirst into a pool of steaming lava.
"Give this message to Zued if you actually do make it to the Uppers," Thanatos said. "It is mankind who is destroying themselves. Realmlevel rulers are not the cause. The Uppers have failed to instill humanity with the Rules of the Source. It is inevitable negativity and evil would conquer."
The sky splintered with brilliant streams of white light. I became one with the light and lost consciousness.
I came aware at the edge of the Barrier Ocean. Gobs of coagulated muck festered in the surf. I turned my head. Punishments gawked at me and then scurried across the landscape like startled mice.
I closed my eyes and Sarah drifted into my mind. My thoughts supplied her picture: the way her silky blond hair glistened in the sunlight and complimented a face more beautiful than any I had ever seen: butterfly eyelashes, an Irish nose; a model's high cheeks. I imagined her lips kissing mine and could almost taste her cherry-flavored lipstick. I longed to be alive and go fishing with my friends, play games on my iphone, hang out at Dino's Pizzeria on Friday nights.
Shadows rose from the dunes, flew toward me, and hooked into my arms and legs with razor-sharp suction. Pain! Like a spike driven through my forehead, stabbed into my brain. I screamed and struggled uselessly against the formless.
Shadows dragged me across the sand to a crevice that cut deep into the earth and tossed me into it. I closed my eyes and tumbled through the air expecting to splatter at any moment. Instead, the falling sensation slowed and then ceased. Hurt disappeared. My body up-righted and my feet stood on solid ground. I opened my eyes. I was in Demiana's cathedral.
"Trying to enter the Earthlevel on your own is a great offense!" her voice boomed. She appeared suddenly in front of me. "Where is Methusula? Where is that useless piece of rubbish? He should have stopped you!"
Methusula appeared in a puff of smoke. He unfolded his wings, dropped to his knees, and lowered his chin-horn to the floor.
"Forgive me, my Lord," he groveled. "I was tending to matters of a different kind."
"What is more important than my directives? You will be punished severely for this lapse of—"
"It's my fault," I interrupted. "Methusula didn't—"
The cathedral quaked.
"Do not interfere, soul!"
"My Lord," Methusula said, and he crawled toward her on his talons and knees. "I beg your forgiveness."
He raised his head and licked Demiana's feet. His long, forked tongue dabbed at each toe with a chameleon's precision.
"Enough!" Demiana stated. "Tell me what has kept you from your duties."
Methusula looked up and said, "Gabriel is considering petitioning the Source for an inquiry into this soul."
A pillar of fire exploded above her head and billowed across the ceiling. The cathedral quaked harder.
"How dare Gabriel interfere with my Realmlevel!"
"It is best to rid yourself of this soul," Methusula advised. "You do not want the Uppers, nor the Credit Keepers to examine your practices."
"What have you thought about my practices?" she roared. "I rule my realm as I please!"
Methusula appeared to sink into himself. Demiana stood with a look of hate in her eyes.
"Perhaps, you are correct," she said after a moment's consideration. She took a step toward me. "I still haven't determined why you were cut from the living. Since the Uppers are now involved…" Her face grimaced. "I cannot banish you to punishment without drawing an inquiry. You will remain on my Realmlevel until I receive word from Gabriel regarding your position. Be forewarned soul, thought-traveling to the mortal without Credit Keeper clearance is a serious offense. Attempt it again and I'll leave you with torture-guards for a span."
Methusula clamped his talon over my mouth and signaled for me to bow. We both did, and then we retreated from the chamber down the long tapestry-lined hallway toward Biya, who was heading with a quick pace in the opposite direction; her face rigid, her expression blank.
"Do not speak to her," Methusula whispered. "She must attend to Demiana's needs."
Biya passed us without a single gesture of acknowledgement, her hourglass body clearly visible beneath the sheer fabric of her gray robe.Chapter 10
A bright flash of light and we were back at the desert. Three skeleton punishments scuttled behind boulders to hide from us.
"There is so much suffering here," I said. "Have these people done such horrible things in their mortal lives to deserve treatment like this?"
"Demiana oversees as she pleases," Methusula replied. "Many in the Uppers believe her brutality is unwarranted and that she is acquiring souls unlawfully. This is why she fears an inquiry. Her ambitions rise above being a Realmlevel ruler."
"What else is there?"
Methusula stared at me. His pupils thinned, like a cat's.
"Immortality," he said. "Without the threat of nonexistence Demiana could rule Realmlevel One as she pleased with absolutely no consequences for her actions. Billions of souls would satisfy her every whim for eternity. That's quite a prize. With immortality comes inconceivable power."
My mind rolled with confusion. "Aren't we all immortal? I mean… If I'm dead, how can I die again?"
"There is a difference between the afterlife and nonexistence. Only the Source can grant immortality. And the Source has only ever granted one request in all the span of creation."
Methusula averted his gaze to the volcanoes erupting and spewing lava high into the air in the distance. "Lucifer."
I shifted uncomfortably. "He really exists?"
"Lucifer is the most powerful entity in creation besides the Source. Lucifer wishes to gain authority over all the Realmlevels and completely control the souls of mortal man. Only this way can he become more powerful than the Source. This is why you are here. Why we risked everything to have you ready."
"Ready for what?"
Methusula sniffed the air and twitched his ears. "To stop the Worldling. To halt mortal and celestial apocalypse."
My insides knotted. "I don't understand?"
"The Worldling is not human and not an immortal. It is a hybrid no different in appearance than an ordinary man, but its soul is connected directly to the Lower Realmlevels, bypassing the Credit Keepers. This attachment gives it extraordinary power and influence over mortals. It is far more brilliant and manipulative, and ages ten times slower."
"You said in Demiana's cathedral that there wasn't time to wait for the chosen one. That I'm not really it."
"We believe Lucifer is planning to invade the Uppers using the collective energy from an army composed of billions of human souls. Souls he will collect at the moment mortals destroy themselves. If this happens, all souls no matter what their credits will suffer eternally."
"That doesn't answer my question," I said. "Why'd you pick me?"
"We didn't pick you," Methusula replied, and ruffled his wings in dramatic fashion. "We created you."
I took an inrush of breath. The first unintentional breath I'd taken since arriving in Realmlevel One. "What are you saying?"
"Biya and I have controlled your mortal life since the spark of your conception. Everything about you; your likes and dislikes, your personality, your disposition, your acceptance and adaptability to new and unpredictable situations; your intelligence, even your choice of mate, has been carefully monitored by us. You are a designed soul. A soldier of the afterlife."
Heat rose in my cheeks. "Impossible! My choices are my own! They've always been! No one could have made up my feelings! I am my own person! I lived my own life!"
Thoughts brought Sarah into my mind. The first time I saw her; the day I looked passed the bait shop and she was standing on the end of the pier fishing beside her father. The morning was perfect, warm by March standards, with a slight, salty breeze. Her love-at-first-sight expression when she happened to look over and catch my gaze; an instant, giddy infusion of emotion; a true psychic connection for both of us.
Or was it?
Had she come randomly into my life? Or had she been purposely placed?
"Don't taunt your mind with the riddle of how you came into being," Methusula said. "Accept what you are. It had to be this way if we are to be successful."
Anger flooded my veins. "My whole life has been a game?"
"Not a game," Methusula replied. "Training. Preparation for this time after you lived. We required a soul who could muster courage during the bleakest circumstances, accept challenge with strength and confidence; a soul who could achieve the impossible."
"And you think that's me?"
"We know it's you."
I was dizzy with disbelief and questions. Yet, deep down, I did feel an, instinctive, ingrained confidence. Something inside me accepted this information as undeniably true. My mind had no immediate argument. I looked to the endless, fiery horizon. A creature similar in appearance to Methusula soared through the sky and then dipped from sight.
"You still haven't told me what purpose any of this serves," I said. "Why my life's been manipulated like it has?"
Methusula stood silent for a moment. When he spoke, his voice was stern and serious.
"We underestimated the Worldling's progress. We believed we had Earthlevel decades to prepare for the uprising. We were wrong. The Worldling has accumulated the resources necessary to destroy humanity much sooner than anticipated. He calls it the New Revolution. Your offspring, your son, the product of you and Sarah, was to be the most powerful soul ever brought into existence; the savior of mankind; the true Messiah. Perhaps, even a future Realmlevel ruler. He would have easily stopped the New Revolution if we had the time to train him… if we had the time to wait for him to be born."
I stood stiff with incredulity. "My… our son? I was going to have a son?"
"Understand how brief a human life span is," Methusula said. "How meaningless the events on the Earthlevel are compared to what lies ahead for eternity. Your potential in this existence far exceeds any possible mortal accomplishments. What's happening here and now is far more important."
"Why are you involved?" I questioned. "You're Demiana's servant."
"The conspiracy we have uncovered, if they are successful, will alter creation and rock the foundation of existence. The afterlife will be forever tainted with Lucifer's rule. There is a group of us that cannot let that happen! Cannot let humankind disappear! Cannot let the dimension fall to evil!"
I leaned against a boulder and dropped my head into my hands. "This is so much drama. It so complicated. I don't think I can handle this."
"Do not take lightly the abilities we have placed inside you," Methusula said. "You are more prepared for this role than you are aware. You can become another person and save mankind. Those of us involved made certain."
I looked up. "Become another person? Who?"
A sudden squall blew up a whirlwind of sand. Lightning crisscrossed an encroaching fortress of rolling clouds. Thunder boomed. Methusula gazed up and his ears wiggled like tiny radar dishes.
"Demiana's answer approaches!" he said, over the growing wind.
"Who am I going to become?" I asked again.
Methusula unfolded his wings and with a single mighty swoop rose into the sky and disappeared. Hurricane force gusts pushed against me until I had to crouch to keep from falling down. Particles blasted at my face and arms. I pulled up the neckline of my shirt to cover my nose and mouth and became engulfed in a swirling whirlwind.
A burst of light and the scenery switched.
I stood at the top of a high mountain peak with a gargoyle about half my size slouched against a rock. The gargoyle was grimacing and puffing on a long, brown cigar. Chalky smoke sifted in and out of its oversized nostrils. Huge, lidless eyes shone a sickly yellow. Thick, blue liquid dripped from the corner of one of them.
The gargoyle twisted its snout in an awkward look of finality and distaste and sucked deeply on the cigar.
"Soul," it spoke with a guttural voice, letting out the smoke. "Forty million human corpses are consigned to rot in the ground each Earthlevel year. Seventy-seven percent of their souls come to the Lower Realmlevels to serve spans of punishment. You are different from all of them. You have no credits to grade your mortal behavior. There is no listing of your life in the Accounts book. Rather than my Lord Demiana waste more time on you, she has decided to hand you over to the Uppers and be done with it." The gargoyle sneered, inhaled another long drag, and muttered under its breath. "Lucky soul."
Light exploded from the sky and shone down with an intensity that brought instant peace to my body. I went limp. A forceful wind whisked me up toward a whirling tunnel of harmonious radiance. An awesome, warm-blanket calm enveloped me. Everything went impossibly, brilliantly bright, and then cleared slowly, like evaporating fog.
The ocean that appeared was not like the one bordering the Lower Realmlevels. This water was shades of aquamarine, luminous and alluring, rolling in lazy wavelets. Palm trees bent heavily with coconuts dotted a shoreline of golden sand. Behind me, lofty maple and pine trees shaded a profusion of exotic flowering shrubs and plants growing along a softly chuckling stream. A warm breeze, charged with the clean, sweet scent of lilac blossoms poured over my face.
I felt a sudden, great presence.
A young woman bathed in pastoral luminescence appeared wearing a flowing white robe and crystal slippers. Her movements caused multi-colored sparkles to radiate from her body. The woman's golden hair was silky, drawn back and tied in a tight bun. Her skin was bronze and smooth; her features sharp, beautiful, projecting wisdom well beyond her apparent youth.
"I am Gabriel," she said. A thin smile softened the angles of her face. "Welcome to the Uppers."
I looked down at the mist swirling playfully at my feet.
"Is… is this heaven?" I asked.
"You can call it that if the term comforts you," Gabriel replied. She took my hand and stared at me with hypnotic eyes; eyes the color of glacial ice. "The aura surrounding a human body records everything for the Credit Keepers. Part of the life reflection you had when the shadows severed your astral cord was your aura being taken from you and analyzed. This is the reason we provided you with mortal experiences that would keep your true nature hidden and neutral."
My head swam with confusion. "What's my true nature?"
Gabriel clasped my hand and led me away from the ocean through a thick bank of rolling vapor.
"We were able to get you here by manipulating your aura with another and then transferring your credits and sending your two souls through the celestial barrier together," she said. "It was a difficult and dangerous process."
The haze cleared into a vibrant, awe-inspiring landscape of crystal-white mountain peaks dotted halfway with evergreens and foliage bursting with indescribable colors and beauty. The sky; brilliant, clear, and robin's-egg blue, radiated glassy sunshine.
"When creation blossomed, the Source constructed a special area for those exemplary souls who lived by His expectations, His rules. Humans who live by the Rules of the Source earn the right to exist in the afterlife in the manner most pleasing to them."
We were standing on a sloping meadow of lush grass. Gentle breezes moved through a grove of white birch trees which swayed in the updraft.
"I know this place," I said, feeling suddenly starry-eyed and filled with child-like wonder. "It's the view from my grandfather's cabin."
"The Uppers is an imagination charged metaphysical landscape where each soul chooses what it wants to experience. A universe designed from the things that caused you the most happiness while mortal. Deeply held desires form the molds for visible manifestations."
I turned my head. Set on a high plateau of rolling lawn, grandpa's hunting cabin stood in all its weathered glory, every detail exact: the warped shutter hanging on a rusty hinge from the porch window, the frayed welcome mat at front of the door, the scraggly rose bush he never trimmed.
Movement attracted my attention. Something speeding toward us in the distance, fading in and out, solidifying as it came within a hundred yards. My heart swelled with joy. Dodger, the German shepherd I'd owned as a boy sprinted toward me barking excited yaps. He jumped up and licked at my face with his long, wet tongue. I hugged him, smelled his fur, heard his happy whimpers, and sensed a canine joy. He was real in every definition of the word. I couldn't believe it.
Dodger wriggled out of my arms, tore off down the slope, and disappeared; but the emotion of having held him stayed with me.
"Only souls who follow the Rules of the Source are given the opportunity to exist forever in paradise," Gabriel said. "This is the reason Lower Realmlevel inhabitants feel so much hatred and spread evil throughout the Earthlevel. They are jealous of the souls who may enter here."
I reached out and plucked a birch leaf. As I took it from the branch another identical one appeared in its place.
"Long ago," Gabriel continued, "Lucifer ruled existence alongside the Source nearly as equals. When the Source introduced the entity called human, Lucifer grew jealous of these lower beings that could create through their own mortal union something the Source nor Lucifer could not. A self-actualized life force; a soul; a conscious being that understood its predisposed limits and could evolve beyond them. Lucifer saw threat in the souls of humankind and challenged the Source for control of the Uppers so he could rule over them. The ensuing battle was fierce and raged for millennia. Lucifer grew weak, and he and his demons were banished forever into the dark leftover of creation, Realmlevel Three. A place so sinister and wicked, only incurable, wholly evil souls are deported there. Lucifer and his demons have remained in Realmlevel Three, sealed, and plotting their vengeance against the Source and all mankind. A vengeance that is about to erupt."
Gabriel waved her hand and the whole scene melted into a colored kaleidoscope that reformed into an immense crystalline palace of sparkling, supernal beauty. Balls of bright light floated like dandelion puffs around soaring, empirical steeples. Across emerald grounds stood magnificent geomorphic fountains bubbling glacial-clear water.
Unlike the single line at Demiana's cathedral, paths leading into the structure crisscrossed from every direction. Hundreds of glimmering beings busy with activity were coming and going like long trails of glowworms. A delightful flower-scented breeze felt warm and inviting.
"The Uppers is woven from the material of which righteous mortal thoughts consist," Gabriel said. "Human dreams are the thread that weaves the fabric. As mortal science unwraps more and more of the Source's biological puzzles, spirituality and His Rules are being tossed aside. Knowledge not intended for humanity has caused morals and respect for the Rules of the Source to deteriorate. Without acquired wisdom, power gained by this knowledge turns mortals arrogant. Evil flourishes in an environment such as this."
She motioned for me to go forward without her. "We are all making the greatest sacrifices for the good of mankind. You will now speak with Zued. He will implement the final phase of your conditioning and send you back into the mortal."Chapter 12
I materialized inside an immense, ornately decorated room whose high shimmering walls created the illusion of vertical water. Exotic incense and perfumes drifted into my nostrils. Flute music played in soft harmony along with an invisible choir.
A tall man with cotton-colored hair, a snowy white moustache, and a long flowing beard, stepped toward me. He was dressed in a white robe. I immediately recognized him as the man from the hospital who had summoned the shadows and taken my life.
"You?" I gasped.
"I am Zued."
"You killed me!"
"I had to make certain the doctor couldn't revive you," he said, unapologetically. "She was very skilled at her profession. Let us proceed with your journey. Time is of the essence."
"Hold on!" I said. "I need to get a handle on this. You're the one who tricked the Credit Keeper's? You're the one who cut my astral cord? You manipulated my life and then took it from me?"
"It was necessary. Please, we must continue with the process."
"That's your explanation? Necessity? Everyone's been telling me who I am, and how special I am, but no one's told me what I'm supposed to do! Why I'm here? Why this is happening to me?"
I breathed unnecessarily in great gusts of frustration and anger.
Zued stroked his beard contemplatively. "We feared Lucifer might probe your mind, this is why your true purpose has remained secret. Your reactions to your situation had to be real. Lucifer would know if you were faking."
"What you don't know about what's happened to the Earthlevel. Things are not the same as when you left. Time flows differently in the Realmlevels where the physics of the Earthlevel do not apply. It is not measured by the position of the stars and sun. Minutes here can be days, weeks, or even years on the Earthlevel, depending on your placement."
"How long has it been?" I asked. "Since you took my life?"
Zued clasped his hands and straightened his shoulders. "Seven Earthlevel years have passed since the severing of your astral cord."
My knees weakened. Memories of my life played vividly in my mind. I could easily picture Ma's purple geraniums flourishing on the windowsill in the den, smell Sarah's Teen Spirit perfume as we'd head out to the movies; savor the sweet scents of cooking large amounts of eggs and sausage for the patients at Pine Brook.
"Seven years," I muttered again, feeling a queer revulsion at my own momentary thought: My physical body must have decayed years ago.
Zued continued. "Forced by widespread and rampant terrorism led by the Worldling, governments have united into one global community called the Alliance of Nations. The Alliance of Nations or A.N. as it is known is a fair, democratic governing body composed of the top officials from each nation."
"Who is the Worldling?" I asked.
"He goes by the name Breck. Over the years, he fathered five children to five different women living in strategic areas around the globe. He raised and trained four of his children to be leaders of terrorist forces. The other, the youngest of the siblings, became a military scientist, a genius at meteorology and predicting weather patterns. Patterns that will help the Worldling use chemical weapons to exterminate mankind. "
Zued stepped close and looked me in the eyes. "The reason you are here, the reason we have manipulated your life and experiences, is because you are that fifth child. The Worldling is your real father."
I felt my eyes widen my head get dizzy. "What are you saying?"
"Your real mother was a woman deeply connected with a terrorist group called the People's Revolutionary Army. Your soul was taken from the baby inside her and put into the American birth-mother who carried your human mechanism to term."
My mind twirled. "What are you telling me? Ma isn't my mother? My father isn't my father? I'm not even the person I was?"
"The union between your mother and your father created the body, but not the soul that is your true essence."
"The Lower Realmlevels."
I stood stunned. My head thumped with a sudden and unnecessary beating heart. I couldn't speak. I couldn't think. Everything I thought I knew, that I believed was real, had been destroyed. My whole being crashed in. My reality got twisted, chewed up, and spit out.
And then slowly, I found my voice. It came as a whisper.
"What am I?"
"You are a half-mortal, half-celestial entity. A superhero of the afterlife molded and conditioned by the Uppers, yet manufactured from the darkest depths of evil. Only this way could you inherit the power needed to defeat the Worldling. We hid your true essence by raising the human-you surrounded with goodness. But be warned, evil will grow stronger inside you the more you encounter it. Learn to control the power and not let it overcome your sensibilities."
Shock numbed any response. My jaw hung open.
"As humanity edges toward the apocalypse," Zued continued. "The Worldling has contacted his children and combined their armies to bring about the final hour. He used the great material wealth he had acquired through military patents to develop his own high performance guns and chemical weapons of mass destruction. He financed the stockpiling of these munitions into key positions and plans on releasing them all at once in a grand extermination of humanity. Your sole purpose is to stop this from happening."
"How am I going to do that?"
A blue, basketball-size orb whisked into the room and hovered above my head.
"I am granting you temporary enlightenment," Zued said. "The pure power of good energy. Until you learn to harness the evil energy within you, enlightenment will allow you to live again as a mortal, but with immortal abilities. Powers more advanced than any human. It is necessary to give you every advantage to ease you into the transition of the host mechanism."
"What kind of powers?"
"You will experience the new-life revelations we programmed into your mind. Then you will understand."
Zued lowered his hand and fished out a multi-faceted, golf ball-sized crystal from the folds of his robe. The crystal shimmered in his hand. The blue orb above my head brightened and a crack slid across its middle. White sparkles trickled out and fell around me like electrically charged snowflakes. Currents of prickly energy fizzled through my body.
"Your soul is attuning to the mortal mechanism we've provided," Zued said. "You will be resurrected and returned to the vibrant play of life."
The crystal blazed into a tiny star. Panic welled up.
"Who will I be?" I asked, as the sound of the ocean filled my ears.
"The mechanism you will enter is that of your true self. The body you were supposed to have grown up in now seven years older than when your host mechanism died."
The blue orb opened like a split egg and coated me in a blanket of fine sparkling powder. My skin flared with pins and needles. White noise grew to deafening levels.
A sudden, piercing migraine squeezed my mind. Dizziness attacked. My individual make-up burst and became a cloud of conscious energy that drew downward into a funnel. Scenes of another person's life unraveled like watching a stranger's home movie.
The baby's first year in the crib, learning to walk, and then going to a special nursery school for intellectually advanced toddlers. Transferring to an army base and being educated in the military. The assassination of his mother.
Images popped like flashbulbs. Recollections of this other person's life wouldn't stop.
Placed in accelerated math and meteorology programs. Intense training in the Nevada desert. Meeting Breck. Breck's military patents and the sudden influx of billions of dollars. Development of the spray gun, a weapon that uses compressed air instead of gunpowder and can fire dozens of deadly steel darts a second with no wear on the weapon or its components. The discovery of TC3, a chemical exterminate that kills all life within seconds of inhaling it. The collaboration with Breck on the extermination of present culture and the formation of a new dictatorial society with him as leader.
Scenes slowed and the rapid playback whirled to the moment this other life, who was now a seasoned, young commander, was shot and killed in a dingy hotel room by soldiers from his own army.
With a tremendous slap, I fell into a body with such force that I rebounded half out and then bungeed back in. Every muscle in this physical jerked into gear. Cells fired. I drew a breath that inflated an unfamiliar chest and then coughed causing mattress springs to squeak. Tangy odors of spilled blood and gunpowder wormed into my nostrils.
After a momentary pause of disorientation, I slowly opened mortal eyes.Chapter 13
A fan shushed overhead. I inhaled again and felt warm, dry air pass down into my lungs. Astounded, I lifted my right arm and felt a sheet slide forward along human skin. I looked at large, calloused hands that weren't my own, and hairy, suntanned arms I didn't recognize. I was wearing gray army boxer shorts and a white T-shirt soaked with blood. There were two holes in the T-shirt, one at about the heart and the other at my belly. The mattress I was lying on was lumped out of shape by violence.
I ran a parched tongue over cracked, dry lips, sat up slowly, and surveyed my surroundings. Tendons in the back of my neck felt like steel pipes.
The room was scant, square, and poorly furnished, with a single bed, a small bureau, and a couple of rickety chairs. Pinkish afterglow of sunset cast a faint light that stung my face like a mild burn. Shadows tattooed grotesque shapes on the bare plaster walls.
I slid from the bed and stumbled to the window on legs longer than what I was used to using. A neon sign written in what looked like Arabic lit the alleyway alongside the building. I wondered what it said. Instantly, the translation entered into my head. Best food in Basra. My mind gave me the name of the country that housed the city. Iraq.
I jumped at a knock on the door.
"Who is it?" My voice sounded low and grating, distinctly different from my normal tone.
The door opened and a woman dressed in a white sari drifted into the room. The door shut behind her as if an invisible hand had pushed it.
"The process is a success," the woman said. Hazel eyes stared at me through a thin slit in her veil. "The mechanism is yours."
"Biya?" I whispered. "That you?"
"It is." Her eyes flashed to my wounds. "Quickly, use your enlightenment to heal those before the others come."
I looked down at the gnarled holes in my flesh.
"Enlightenment gives your thoughts extraordinary power to manipulate the forces of the universe. Physical law has no boundaries for you. No longer set limits on what you believe is possible. You are not limited by a fixed world."
I imagined the damage healed; imagined my clothes clean; imagined this body in tip-top shape. All of a sudden, the spilt blood drained in reverse from the sheets back into the holes in this body and into the veins, and just like that the injuries sealed up and disappeared. The skin smoothed. Not even a scar.
I stood amazed and fingered where the wounds had been.
"Your first contact on the Earthlevel will be General Mohammed Lebendorff Tekla," Biya said. "Open your mind to the reality of the present and who you are."
I raised my head. "Who am I?"
"Commander of all overseas weather operations for the Worlding's armies," Biya replied. "You are the man who will tell Breck when the winds are right to release the TC3. You are to meet with Breck's generals and then fly to America, where you are expected to present Breck with the precise coordinates. General Lebendorf Tekla's infantry unit is your first stop."
I paused, trying to process the influx of information. "How do I get there?"
"You are already intertwined in the reality of the Earthlevel. They will come seeking you."
"Now. Stay aware of your surroundings and act appropriately to the conditions. The body you are in will not regulate changes in the environment. You will not sweat if it's hot and your teeth will not chatter if it's cold." She turned toward the door. "It is extremely risky and difficult to meet with you again lest I summon Lower Realmlevel or Credit Keeper attention. You will not see me again. Good luck."
I wanted to say something more, ask her to help me understand what I was supposed to do? How I could achieve success? How long I was going to be in this body? But the order of relevant questions got jumbled inside my head.
"Is it possible to contact my girlfriend Sarah or my mom?" I asked.
"They wouldn't know you," she replied, and turned translucent. "You have previewed the life of the identity you now occupy. Play the role you were supposed to have been born into." She faded as footsteps clopped outside the door. "Fulfill your destiny."
Four uniformed soldiers burst into the room, grabbed me, threw me onto the bed, and restrained my hands behind my back. One did a quick check out the window. Another aimed what looked like a miniature machine gun with a thin, pencil-like barrel.
The soldier aiming the machine gun shouted at me in Arabic. The words formed into syllables I immediately understood; "Don't move, Commander!"
All at once, as if a computer program had triggered on inside my brain, I became the Commander, a young, highly influential member of the Worldling's army. Authority surged into my former fifteen-year-old persona. Confidence swelled. Understanding of my true nature, my true intellect, and my true celestial power, illuminated my mind.
Suddenly, I was conscious of the thoughts of the soldier aiming the weapon. He was the leader of the group and shocked that I was alive. A separate faction had informed him that I'd been assassinated. He and his group were sent in to secure the scene and clean up the mess.
The leader motioned two other soldiers to frisk me and their hands roughed my body. After a moment, one of the soldiers said, "clean" and the hands released.
"I apologize, Commander," the leader said, his hand still gripping his weapon. "We had to make certain you weren't wired. We heard shots. There's rumor of an assassination plot."
I knew it was a lie. They had frisked me to see if I had injuries.
"I understand," I replied, and the words came out in Arabic.
I looked to the leader's lapel and my mind instantly translated his double falcon insignia.
"Sergeant," I said. "What are you doing here?"
"General Tekla's orders are for us to escort you to the base, sir. If you would dress we can be on our way."
I walked to the closet and pulled open the door. Camos and a flak jacket hung from a hook inside.
"Leave while I change," I said.
"I cannot let you out of my sight if I feel there is a threat," the sergeant replied.
I raised an eyebrow. "Is there a threat so immediate that I can't have a moment of privacy?"
The sergeant did not reply.
I withdrew my uniform and stepped in front of the mirror. A form displaying a double exposed image reflected in the cracked glass. Beneath a bush of curly black hair, my own face transposed over one a little older and with a complexion like he'd spent years beneath the sun. I put on the uniform, which was tailored to fit me perfectly, and shut the closet door, hoping the others could not witness this specter.
"I've been out of touch for the last few days," I said. "Update me on our current situation."
"That's classified information, Commander. This room could be bugged."
"I'm not asking," I said.
"I'll order you if I have too."
The sergeant stiffened and his hand went to his temple in a rigid salute. "Yes, sir." He cleared his throat. "Sir, from what I know, General Tekla finished his videoconference with the other generals, who delivered Breck's demands to the Alliance of Nations. Latest intelligence indicates the collective governments of the world have stoutly rejected them. A.N. forces are massing along Algeria, Libya and Egypt. Turkey has become a hotbed of A.N. intelligence and activity, and Cyprus has all but become a base for A.N. operations. We've lost two battalions in India and China, and Saudi Arabia has completely closed its borders to allow A.N. training exercises. However, our troops were able to bury large quantities of TC3 in the area before this occurred and we are confident we can wipe out most of these forces before we proceed with the offensive. America is still under our control and Breck is safe."
"Thank you, sergeant," I said, and my belly swirled with disgusted at the state of the world. "I'm ready to go."
The sergeant saluted, and I perceived psychically his contempt of me.
As we headed out, I grabbed a matchbook off the shelf. Imprinted in gold lettering on the front cover was the name, Lotus Hotel. I dropped it into the camo's front pocket.Chapter 15
Soldiers circled me protectively as we hurried through the hotel lobby, out a side door, and into the back alley. Heat of the day laid heavy on the street. The remaining hints of sunlight burned but I kept the expression of discomfort from showing on my face.
Two soldiers ran ahead and flanked our position. I was hurried into the back of one of several armored half-track vehicles. The interior was filthy, colorless and held the pronounced odor of sweat and leaking diesel fuel. I sat down and strapped myself to the vehicle.
Soldiers did a quick recon of the area and then jumped in and closed the hatch, sealing us inside. Their faces were drenched in perspiration, their uniforms a patchwork of wet spots. Their eyes lingered on me and I immediately realized why I sensed dismay from them. I wasn't sweating.
With a thought, beads of perspiration broke across on my forehead. Trickles seeped from my temples and crawled down my back and front. Wet areas appeared under my armpits. The soldier's bewilderment faded and they went back to their duties.
The half-track lurched forward with a churning roar from the engine.
"Commander," one of the younger soldiers said, and brushed sweat-soaked strands of hair from his face.
I looked to the young soldier's lapel and deciphered his bar insignia.
"Yes, corporal," I replied.
"I'm with intelligence. I'm here to brief you."
My mind automatically interpreted the motivations of the intelligence officer. My understanding of his character became clear. He felt a deep commitment to the generals and an almost God-like admiration for Breck.
"Sir," he began. "Our computer techs have secured a new A.N. internet code. We now have the ability to intercept A.N. satellite transmissions and decipher them. In the next few days, the A.N. are planning simultaneous nuclear attacks on our South African and Australian positions. The A.N are also planning air and ground assaults against our positions in Quebec, as well as our compounds here in the Middle East and Asia. General Tekla has ordered global readiness for our troops, and Generals' Assad, Vennum, and Ram are awaiting the trajectory calculations you made in Basra. You will meet with them at the compound and then fly to America to coordinate—"
A loud explosion shook the Desert Hugger and the air crackled with the report of gunshots and the sound of compressed air releasing.
"Snipers!" a voice shouted from the front.
The Desert Hugger skidded to a stop and threw us against our harnesses. Quarter-sized holes opened up in the metal sides. A bullet whisked passed my face and lodged in a steel ammunition box.
"They're using armor-piercing!" one of the soldiers screamed.
Ricocheting bullets pinged through the interior and turned fragments of steel into tiny flying daggers. Men were bleeding and moaning. The young corporal with whom I had just conversed was slung forward in his harness: I saw the silver copy of the corporal's soul rise out of him exact in every detail except for the foot or so of severed astral cord flailing out the back of its head. The corporal's soul looked at me wide-eyed and confused.
Another explosion rocked the Desert Hugger. Concussion blew open the back hatch where a soldier wearing a uniform colored with tan and brown spots with a picture of a globe on its sleeve and the letters A.N. stitched in black underneath; stood aiming a machine gun. His face appeared ghostly pale in the backwash illumination from the headlights of an A.N. jeep.
My mind expanded with profound clarity. In an instant, I knew everything about the A.N. soldier in front of me. This frightened man was born and raised in rural Pennsylvania. Created by the union of mortals Margaret and Roger Colton, the soldier had excelled at sports and academics in middle and high school. He was accepted into Penn State University on a scholarship, but joined the military after a turbulent breakup with his high school sweetheart with whom he still had strong feelings. Soon after, he met a young woman, and soon after that, they married. Their daughter, Jessica, came thirteen months later. The A.N. soldier had arrived at this point in his life through a series of high-risk assignments and hard-earned promotions. Chosen by his superiors for his skill and unadulterated courage at carrying out dangerous missions, his original assignment was as security for the Iraqi embassy, but he had been recruited especially for this attempt at capturing me. His squad was to take me alive, if possible, so I could face trial for crimes against humanity. Though, standing there, seeing me, the soldier was now having second thoughts about his directive. He wanted to kill me on the spot. He believed the world would be better off if I was dead.
"Raise your hands!" the A.N. soldier screamed, in a panicky mixture of Arabic and English. The whites of his eyes showed along with his terror. He looked fearfully from side to side and across the arid desolation. He shook his weapon at us. "All of you! Hands up!"
His emotions throbbed with indecision. He raised his rifle and aimed at me.
"Hands up!" he said, breath rasping.
I slowly raised them.
I sensed the presence of two soldiers lurking around the other side of the Desert Hugger. They were focused on one thing, killing the A.N soldier. The A.N. soldier didn't realize the danger. His thoughts were drowned in the desire to fire upon me.
His eyes registered movement. Extreme uncertainty washed over him. In that brief second, the A.N. soldier knew he'd made a fatal error in judgment. A strangling rush of terror seized him as the soldiers rounded the Desert Hugger. He swung his barrel to the side a millisecond too late.
Bursts of compressed air assaulted my ears. The A.N. soldier's body danced from the impacts of dozens of tiny darts and then dropped to the sand.
One of Tekla's soldiers stepped up to the dying man.
"Who sent you?" he demanded, and kicked the soldier's side. "Whose authority are you under? Who tipped you off about this route?"
The A.N. soldier's lips moved silently but no words came. His luminescent soul rose from its body feet first still attached to the physical by the astral cord. I picked up the last of his fleeting mortal thoughts. They were of his wife and daughter; having breakfast with them on the patio on a warm, sunny, summer morning.
One of Tekla's soldiers put his boot to the A.N. soldier's chest, aimed his spray gun and pulled the trigger. The astral cord connecting the living to the non-living dissipated into sparkle.
Black shadows sprung from the earth, wrapped around the stunned, luminescent figure, and quickly pulled him into the ground. More shadows flew out, attached themselves to the other dead soldier's souls, and pulled them into the earth. A shadow flew into the Desert Hugger, engulfed the intelligence officer's soul, and dropped through the floor.
The back hatch slammed shut. The vehicle jerked forward and we were off again at high speed.
"Are you hurt, Commander?" a private asked me, as he moved from the front of the vehicle to the back.
I sensed a dim hope from him that I was. A hope that I'd die, and this mission would be over, and he could go home to his family and see his children.
"No." I patted myself and felt a hole in the fabric of my flak jacket. "I'm fine."
The private sighed with staged relief. "Good."
He checked the pulse of the dead corporal and of another soldier sprawled on the floor unconscious and leaking blood.
"He's alive," I said, and pointed to the unconscious man, knowing his soul had not left his body.
The private focused his attention on the injured soldier. I poked my index finger deep into my chest cavity and felt a small metal fragment next to a cold, tight mass of non-beating heart muscle.
"Damn Alliance of Nations," the private mumbled. He shook his head and cursed under his breath. "Tazul was a good friend and a respectable soldier."
He grabbed the injured soldier's shoulders, turned him on his side, and examined the wound from a different angle. I meanwhile focused my attention on my chest and healing my own injury. My thoughts caused my muscles to push the bullet from my thorax and out my cracked ribcage. It fell to the floor with a hollow clink sound. No one noticed above the steady rumble of the diesel engine.Chapter 16
Night chilled the air. Those in the Desert Hugger with me had stopped perspiring. I halted my own sweat with a thought.
After a few minutes, the Desert Hugger slowed to a stop. A soldier from the front hopped out, walked around, and opened the back hatch. Sprawling desert landscape glowed like ivory in the pale moonlight. Silhouettes of jagged mountains lined the horizon.
"Why are we stopping?" I asked the soldier beside me.
Another soldier, an older sergeant riding in a different Desert Hugger, came over, pulled the two gravely wounded men from the back, and dropped them onto the sand. He rubbed his hands together feeling satisfied at his own callousness and started back to his vehicle.
"Stop!" I said. "The man on the left is still alive."
The sergeant turned. The expression on his face was hard and unyielding.
"I know that, Commander," he replied, matter-of-factly. "The future race must arise with no contaminants; no wounded, no handicapped. Those are Breck's exact words. His own decree."
"Retrieve that man, sergeant," I said.
"With all due respect, Commander, just because you can speak our language doesn't mean you are in our army. You're barely old enough to remember the start of this war. Your rank was bestowed upon you because of your association with Breck. It hasn't been earned in battle, as mine. You haven't looked the enemy in the eye, as I have."
I gazed at the sergeant and felt the icy thoughts in his mind. He hated me.
"Obey my orders," I said. "Or I'll have you shot for treason."
The sergeant waved off the driver of his own vehicle, turned and hopped up inside our Desert Hugger. The private closed the hatch and we accelerated.
"Did you hear me?" I asked, testing the full authority of my rank. "Retrieve that soldier or I'll leave you here to rot in the desert."
The sergeant's face reddened. He straightened his shoulders and gritted his teeth. A few tense seconds passed.
"Last chance, sergeant," I said, and stood up. "Retrieve that man."
The sergeant weighed his options. Oppose me and face execution. Or comply and go against Breck's ideologies."
He flashed a salute. "Yes sir!"
He stormed to the front of the vehicle. The Desert Hugger turned sharply, accelerated, and then stopped hard. The back hatched sprung open.
The corporal lay twisted unnaturally in the sand. His soul hovered half-in and half-out of its body still attached by the astral cord. The sergeant and another soldier grabbed under the corporal's arms and yanked him up. The corporal's soul retreated back into the flesh.
Rage steamed from the sergeant and blew through my senses like a toxic wind. Before I could react, the sergeant pulled a spray pistol from his holster and unloaded into the corporal. The corporal's soul blew out from its body, bounced across the sand, and then floundered briefly, like a fish out of water.
The hot breeze increased. An evil, celestial wind the others didn't notice. Shadows emerged from rifts in the surrounding sand, coiled around the corporal's soul, and sunk with it into the earth.
Calm returned. The sergeant and the other soldier climbed back into our vehicle.
"I will mention this insubordination to the general," I said. "You will be disciplined accordingly."
"Doing what I felt was my duty according to Breck's orders, sir," the sergeant replied, with a hard salute. "Breck is my only supreme officer. I pledge total allegiance to him and to him only! You can tell that to the general."
He closed the back hatch, and a few seconds later the Desert Hugger lurched forward and we were off again at high speed.
We drove for hours through flat and then hilly terrain until we reached a checkpoint. I went to the front and looked out the inch-thick windshield. A helicopter came in low over the mountains, inspecting us, blades whumping and stirring up sand. Beyond, a string of half-track headlights moved horizontally across the horizon.
I got out and peered along the high mountain walls. Dozens of soldiers manning large, anti-aircraft weapons were perched in caves and crevices. Even from this distance, I sensed a hodgepodge of emotions emanating from these men and women, ranging from mistrust, to unease, to outright fear for their lives. They were not hardened killing machines on that ridge, but terrified human beings draped in soldier's uniforms. Despite years of training and brainwashing they were sick with anxiety at the prospect of death and just wanted to go home.
The sergeant stepped beside me.
"We are ready to proceed," he said.
"What's the security level of this facility?" I asked.
"The sergeant pointed toward the hills and said; "Fifty-three Howitzer spray guns along the perimeter are adequate defense against anything the A.N. throws at us on the ground. And thanks to Breck's financing, the base is now protected by XK2 high definition camouflage radar. No A.N. device can pick up the whereabouts of this camp unless they are flying directly on top of us, which would be quite a trick without alerting our seven mobile anti-aircraft eliminators."
"Double security along the perimeter!" I said, once again testing the limits of my authority. "And I want two squads of recon patrolling outside the grid."
"I assure you that is totally unnecessary, Commander," he replied, with a smarmy smile.
He patted my shoulder as if we were old friends; I sensed from him only hatred of me.
"You are young and new to this war," he added. "You don't fully understand—"
I brushed away his hand. "Patronize me and I'll have you thrown into the stockade! Carry out my orders!"
His smile melted and he saluted. "Yes sir!"
I got back into the Desert Hugger just as the sun crested the eastern horizon. I wanted to survey the installation's layout despite the stinging dawn light, so I bit my lip against the pain and stepped up front into the seat beside the driver. The checkpoint guards waved us through and we entered the compound.
Rows of soldiers advanced in formation across the north end of the camp, their heads protected beneath scuffed gray helmets. Dozens more stretched out in long, marching columns at the south. Massive generators hummed and pumped compressed air into hundreds of individual scuba-size tanks. Soldiers were taking these tanks and loading them into huge transport vehicles.
We pulled up to a metal gate guarded by three heavily armed soldiers. They performed another security check before opening a second gate, which was woven from a strange, phosphorescent green, tube-like material. Jumbled razor wire bordered the top.
Ahead, peach-colored army tents blended in with the sand and lined the perimeter of an immense airfield studded with warplanes and interspersed with huge, long nozzle gun turrets aimed at the sky. Silhouettes of vehicles full of men dotted the landscape. Several tunnels bore into the steep mountainside.
We pulled in front of an earthen bunker. I squinted against the sun which now struck brutally through the Desert Hugger's windows. The burning sensation was nearly unbearable and I was having a hard time not letting it show in my expression. In reality, nothing was happening to my physical; the agony was entirely celestial. I hesitated, and then opened the door and got out from under the protection of the Desert Hugger's roof.
My exposed skin exploded with a new degree of pain. I wanted to cry out like a child and run screaming for the shade of the bunker; but all I could do was grip my hands into fists and step a little more quickly than the others toward the guarded door.
"Commander," the guard greeted, and saluted me. "Welcome to Camp Destiny, sir."
The three-second wait I endured while he typed the entrance code into the wall monitor was excruciating.
The door opened and I hurried inside. Artificial light coming from phosphorescent bulbs was as refreshing as stepping into a cool shower. With the pain gone, my clarity returned.
Armed guards guided me down a stairway and through a long declining hallway that gently leveled and ended at a steel door. A green light flashed above, and the heavy click of an unlocking deadbolt echoed through the long, enclosed space and caused dust to stir.
The door swung open automatically.Chapter 18
I stepped into a small control center crowded with unfamiliar gadgets, laptop computers, and disheveled boxes of paper. High officials crowded around a table covered with maps. The men stopped talking when I entered, saluted hurriedly, and then went back to their work in silence. These men were easy to read, with emotions simmering precipitously on the surface of their minds. I sensed from them what the sergeant in the Desert Hugger had said; that I hadn't earned this rank of Commander. I hadn't earned their respect. They didn't trust me or my association with Breck.
"Welcome, Commander," said a silver-hair Iraqi major with tobacco-colored skin. His mouth arched between a friendly grin and a sneer. "I'm Major Bala."
Hatred flew from his thoughts and slapped my mind. I instantly knew he was the man who had ordered my assassination in the dingy hotel room in Basra, and he was stunned and angered that I was still alive.
He came around to meet me with an extended hand. We shook.
"Heard you had a bit of trouble along the way," Major Bala said, trying his best to sound concerned, though I sensed from him that he also knew about the ambush, and that he was the one who had leaked information on my whereabouts to the A.N. when he'd heard I'd survived the first assassination attempt.
"Three men died," I replied. "That's more than a little trouble."
"Three men in your vehicle?" His voice was harsher and less controlled.
"Yes. I am one of only two survivors."
Eyes in the room darted between each other. Beads of sweat shown on Major Bala's forehead. He seemed in shock.
"Incredible luck," he whispered, more to himself than to me. He was visibly tense, his face long with disbelief.
"You appear disappointed?" I said.
Major Bala met my comment with a challenging stare. "Not at all, Commander."
"Commander!" another major said, and stepped between us. He shoved a file of papers at me. "When Breck orders the release of TC3 our losses are calculated at fifty-seven percent as opposed to the seventy-five percent projected world losses. That leaves enough of the population for sufficient gene pools to continue the New Revolution, providing the remaining populace submits to Breck's rule."
I stayed silent for a moment gathering words. Seeds of information germinated in my mind. Statistics came into my head as if I'd been studying them my whole life. I took the hotel matches from my shirt pocket, lit one, and touched the tiny orange flame to the corner of the reports. The major dropped them to the floor as they burned.
"These reports are bogus," I said, and watched the small fire swallow the paper. "Breck wants ninety-eight percent of the New Revolution surviving and ninety-five percent of the world population wiped out. Five percent still leaves a sufficient gene pool for a future workforce without insurgency. With your twenty-five percent calculations we could be looking at a long civil war."
"That's five billion civilians dead!" Major Bala exclaimed, enraged past all caution. "You're mad! The whole bunch of you young general's are mad!" His voice took on a hard edge. "And you're a pawn, Commander! A young pawn dressed up pretty in a military uniform! You don't know the scope of what you're doing!"
I felt not anger, but identification with him and his objections, though I couldn't let it show.
Major Bala launched at me, swung his fist, and connected under my chin. There was no pain, but the force of impact sent me sprawling backward into the corner of a desk. Piles of papers fell off and spread across the dirt floor. My body reacted automatically, as if a machine inside me had switched on. My hand shot up and in one quick motion, grabbed Major Bala's hand, twisted until the bottom of his wrist faced the ceiling, and then forced him to collapse forward against a desk. I made a tiny rivulet of blood trickle from the corner of my mouth for theatrics.
Another major started toward me, but then thought better of it. I sensed his anger and violence, and then his fear of repercussion. After a moment, I let go of Major Bala. He snapped up with a pained look on his face and immediately puffed his chest.
"In the beginning we had reasons for the bloodshed," he said, speaking through clenched teeth and panting, while rubbing his wrist. "We were an oppressed, fearful people under the rule of a barbarian dictator. Breck has turned the struggle for our homeland into the apocalypse. Breck has no plans to evacuate us from this base. What's the difference whether I die now or I wait for the A.N. to bomb us into oblivion? This bunker is my grave! It is all of our graves!"
"Take the Major to the brig!" I ordered.
Fear laced the air. Most of the soldiers were thinking about what Major Bala had just said. They hadn't fully fathomed what the New Revolution was intending to achieve until that moment. These soldiers didn't want to sacrifice their lives for a paradise they would never see.
"Lieutenant," I said, to the guard. "Did you hear me? Take the Major to the brig."
Everyone immediately focused their attention on the tasks they'd been performing. The lieutenant was mute with contempt, fighting the urge to whip out his spray pistol and blow a hundred holes into me, weighing the consequences of his actions; death now by firing squad or death later by A.N. forces or drifting clouds of TC3?
"Yes, Commander," the lieutenant responded, and his face kept a challenging expression. He unholstered his spray gun and aimed it at Major Bala. "Let's go, sir."
Major Bala turned indignantly.
"I'll see you in Hell, Commander!" he stated.
He didn't know how right he was, I thought, with a measure of discontent.
They exited the room and another door opened causing a blast of bitter air to sweep through. A large, bull-shouldered Egyptian man about the same age and body type as the one I occupied, and wearing camos, oversized black army boots, and a long band of spray darts around his neck, marched through the doorway. Tufts of jet-black hair sprouted from beneath a scarlet turban. A scruffy moustache and beard circled his mouth. I sensed nothing from him. No emotions. No mortal energy. No life force. It was as if he didn't exist at all.
"General Tekla," a major said, and forced a respectful salute. "We weren't expecting you."
"Why is Major Bala being escorted to the holding cells?" Tekla asked.
"Insubordination," I replied.
Tekla spun his head in my direction, fully noticing me. His sun-weathered features creased into a good-natured grin. His eyes were steely gray and unreadable.
"He slugged me," I added, and wiped the blood from my mouth with the back of my hand.
"Welcome back, my friend!" Tekla stepped forward, gripped my shoulders, and kissed each of my cheeks. "I didn't recognize you. You certainly have grown into a strapping soldier. How is Breck? Is he as excited as I as we approach the glorious day?"
"Breck is doing well," I replied. "As you are, I hope."
"Yes, yes, sorry we had to go through such primitive methods to get you here. The A.N. are everywhere these days. I will reprimand those who lost courage during your unfortunate encounter."
I glanced around the room at the soldiers with their heads buried in their work.
"Don't blame the men," I said. "Fear of the unknown sometimes manifests itself in un-soldier-like ways. Could we proceed? I'm anxious to continue my journey."
"We have time my friend. The Stealth Lear is still being prepped for flight." Tekla opened the side door revealing a series of poorly lit earthen hallways. "Come, I will take you to my quarters and bring you up to date on all that's happened since you left America."
He gestured me forward and I sensed the soldiers in the room begin to settle at our leaving.Chapter 19
General Tekla took me down a long passageway that led into a small room. A single, medium-watt fluorescent light dangled haphazardly from the ceiling causing a glow that faintly irritated my skin. His quarters were not what I had expected and nowhere near par to a man of his supposed military status. A small table and chair were in the corner beside a cot.
Tekla stepped beside the table, took out a fuel tin, lit it, and fixed a kettle of tea. He poured and handed me a cup. Steam swirled across the liquid's auburn surface like the landscape of Realmlevel Two.
"Many lives were lost and millions of dollars spent to bring you here," he said. "Have you finished the contingency plan on how to best eliminate the populations of the Alliance of Nations?"
I sat silent for a moment not knowing how to respond. But then, my mind switched on and answers came, implanted into this brain by its former occupant.
"My numbers concerning the position and quantity of the TC3 are complete," I said. "But there are variables we must take into account, wind and jet stream being two of the more critical. A five mile-per-hour change in either direction and we're looking at two of our divisions completely wiped out. That could seriously affect our advantage."
"We could lose a continent."
Tekla withdrew a cigarette, scratched a match against the wall, and lit the tip.
He squinted. "The time of judgment is near, my friend. The Alliance of Nations has refused Breck's demands and is in the midst of issuing a worldwide campaign against us. They don't believe we have the means to deliver the TC3 and are preparing nuclear attacks to wipe out our training camps here and in New Zealand. I have arranged for us to meet with the leaders of Breck's other forces." He tapped ash to the floor. "We have distributed enough TC3 to wipe out most of the populations of Asia, Europe, and a small section of Africa. This leaves Australia, Russia and South America open for retaliatory attack. We need ground divisions to prevent this from happening. Breck must commit more resources."
"The question we face," I said. "Is not if we need more equipment, it's are your soldiers willing to press the buttons? Are they willing to commit their lives to this cause? There's a psychological factor that we must consider. Are you sure these men are mentally strong enough to handle this responsibility?"
Tekla's forehead narrowed. "My men are loyal till the end, Commander. The A.N. will crumble." He dragged from his cigarette. "You must be tired after your long journey? I'll show you to quarters. You can rest before we begin the second leg of your trek."
The accommodation to which I was escorted was a suffocating square of cinderblocks with barely enough room for a cot and a small table. The air had an old, stale quality, as if it hadn't circulated in a long time. I ran my hand along the rough wall and then sat down on the side of the cot. I took off my flak jacket and stared at the bullet hole in the upper left side.
Not needing sleep, I felt anxious. I wanted to explore. It was the only way of figuring out what was going on. But how could I? What excuse could I give for roaming the bunker? Simply bolstering my authority wouldn't be enough to convince the already leery men.
If I was invisible I could go anywhere, I thought.
My body disappeared beneath me. I sat a moment, stunned at my transparency, and then raised my hand to my face and saw nothing.
"Amazing," I said aloud.
I hopped off the cot. There was disruption in the sand floor where my feet should've been. I walked toward the wall expecting to go right through and banged into it. Although I was invisible, my mortal form still held mass. I stepped to the door and pushed it open. The passageway was empty.
Glowing oil lanterns lit the way as I wandered through the perpetual gloom of the underground complex. I rounded a bend and saw a door with a bed roster nailed to the wood. The door was locked, but with a thought of unlock, the deadbolt clicked and the door swung open obligingly. Slivers of ambient light penetrated the room. I poked my head in to look.
About two dozen soldiers slept side-by-side on cots barely large enough to hold their bodies. Souls of the sleeping occupants hovered a few feet above each soldier connected by the astral cords. The room was so packed that to move around without climbing over the men was impossible.
My eyesight picked up a small logbook on the far side of the room. To reach it, I'd have to maneuver through the obstacle course of cots, swaying astral cords, and suspended souls. It was impossible unless I floated up above everything.
That thought caused my legs to rise off the floor and continue up until the top of my head touched the ceiling. I rotated horizontally and faced the ground. Not knowing how to move, I doggie-paddled through the air toward the desk.
I drifted to the left, tried to compensate, and accidentally bumped a soul.
At our touch, the celestial being's eyes popped open. It saw me, or saw a distorted image of me, and its face transformed into one of emancipated terror. It plunged back into the occupant in the cot.
The soldier in the cot screamed and sat upright. About a third of the souls recoiled back into their host bodies jarring their physical mechanisms. A few soldiers opened their eyes.
"What is it?" whispered someone from several cots down.
"My dream… " The soldier's voice trembled. He flung his legs over the edge of the bunk and dropped his head into his hands. "I saw… I saw the Commander."
"The Commander's here," said a different soldier laying a few cots down. "Didn't you know? He came in a couple of hours ago. He's ordered security doubled. We have to pull extra duty in thirty minutes because of him."
The soldier fought against paralyzing terror. "It can't be!"
He leaned his head back and looked up, seeing right through me. His thoughts said my presence at the base was impossible. He had been in the dingy hotel room and saw the bullet holes in my body and the blood. He'd watched my eyes glaze over and my breathing stop.
More souls re-entered their host bodies and two other soldiers sat up.
"What's got you so ramped?" one of them asked. "The Commander's only here for a few hours. He'll be gone before our next shift is over."
"It's impossible!" the soldier stated, his face wide-eyed and rictus with horror. "You don't understand!"
"The Commander can't be alive! I saw him dead!"
"Shh," several soldiers hissed.
"You want an officer to hear you talk this way?" another soldier questioned. "You'd be in front of a firing squad before morning."
The soldier sobbed into his hands. I zeroed my sight on the notebook and willed the pages to turn. The notebook contained a list of arriving and departing dignitaries. The names meant nothing. But in one of the margins someone had scrawled; keep Major Bala away from the Commander.
Security guards entered. They grabbed the soldier whose soul I'd bumped and dragged him weeping from the room. The other soldiers laid back down and kept their mouths shut.
I pulled myself along the ceiling like a gecko, went into the passageway, and then climbed down the wall. I continued walking along the underground trenches.
A strange, far-off consciousness invaded my senses, as if someone or something from outside this reality was here. An inner feeling was telling me to seek it out. The feeling grew stronger as I approached a door guarded by two soldiers.
I hit the wood with a hard, quick knock. The sound startled the men and they jumped to attention.
"What was that?" one whispered to the other.
"I don't know."
Open the door, my mind whispered into theirs. They looked at each other. I picked up on their bewilderment. One drew his weapon while the other unlocked and slowly pushed open the door. I poked my head around him.
Tekla lay stiff and unresponsive on a cot in the corner, his astral cord taut and glowing red stuck straight into the ground. The soldiers didn't see what I could, and after a few seconds, they backed away and shut the door nearly smashing my face.
"What do you think that was?" one asked.
"I don't know, but the general is asleep and I don't want to disturb him."
I sensed confusion and fear from both of them and hurried back to my room, thought myself visible, and rematerialized.
"Commander!" someone called from the hallway. "General Tekla wishes to speak with you."
I opened the door, greeted a soldier who looked about the age of an elementary school student, and walked with him down the hallway into the main bunker. General Tekla sat at a table constructed from old ammunition boxes. The latest tactical information was spread out in front of him. A few soldiers were packing equipment. A few more were checking gauges on several huge compressor tanks. Unease drifted from the people in the room like dirty smoke.
"Things are going according to Breck's plans," Tekla said. "The A.N. rejected our demands and last night another four of their infantries were mobilized along the borders of Jordan and Syria, just as Breck had predicted. We stored extra TC3 in those bunkers for just such a scenario." He turned to me with a rubbery grin on his face and patted my shoulder. "Brilliant calculations for their placement on your part, Commander."
I felt sick to my stomach. Tekla returned his attention to his papers.
"We are meeting generals' Assad, Vennum, and Ram later tonight at Assad's compound," he said. "We will take a Stealth Lear from there to America."
"What about us, sir?" the young soldier asked. "What will happen to us?"
Tekla straightened his shoulders and looked about the room. Many of the soldiers had stopped what they were doing and were staring at him, their minds a synapse of activity. Several thought of going AWOL. Some were considering surrendering to the A.N. forces. Some were planning suicide. And one or two had strong considerations to assassinate us right there.
Tekla's expression remained stoic. I tried my hardest to listen in on his thoughts but could not penetrate his superior mind-shield.
"Those of you who are hesitant in this time of great and immeasurable change are free to go," he announced. "Free to head out into the unknown and choose a new fate. Those who are ready and willing to make the ultimate sacrifice will be rewarded forever in the hereafter."
A few soldiers stirred, looked down the passageway, and then thought better of the idea knowing they would never survive in the surrounding desert. The rest continued their duties solemnly.
I stepped behind a young lieutenant who was tapping at a computer keyboard. His thoughts overflowed with massive death counts, obliterated cities, and streets littered with dead. The young lieutenant swiveled in his chair so I could observe the screen.
"These are the latest intelligence reports, sir," he said. "A.N. forces have been spotted massing along the Syrian border by Damascus and on the other side of the Suez Canal. Six A.N. aircraft carriers have dispatched to the Mediterranean and several regiments are practicing invasion maneuvers with the Mossad along the West Bank in Israel. American Nuclear Alert has been set at Defcon one. Russia and England have vowed to destroy our ability and means to deliver the TC3. China and Australia have issued gas masks to millions of civilians. Korea has threatened nuclear retaliatory strikes against our positions if they receive any reports in their country of death by TC3."
I stepped toward the door feeling disgusted and sad at what the world had become; knowing it was not the people's fault. This was the work of Lucifer.
"Commander," Tekla said. "We'll be mobile in a few hours. Would you like something to eat? You haven't had a thing since you arrived."
"No," I replied. "I'll eat when we we're safely in America."Chapter 22
I was sitting on the side of my cot back at my bunker staring up at the myriad of cracks in the thick concrete blocks when information suddenly flowed into my head as if someone were standing beside me speaking directly into my ear.
Breck wants the A.N. to attack first so they will destroy all of his forces. He wants them dead. Then he will detonate the TC3 from controls at his bunker terminating the remainder of the world's population. Breck has no desire to rule the Earthlevel when the afterlife promises him much greater rewards if he provides the Lower Realmlevels with souls. His ultimate goal is to wipe out humanity. One hundred percent losses on both sides…
"…adding an enormous amount of power to Lucifer and Realmlevel Three."
I jumped up and spun around, nearly stumbling in my thick-soled boots. Biya stood by the door bathed in a bluish, shadow-less, neon glow. Her feet stood on a cushion of air a few inches above the dirty floor. Her face looked clean, sparkling, and innocent, radiantly beautiful in these dismal surroundings.
She floated toward me. "I have little time before the Credit Keepers realize I've left Realmlevel One without permission. Listen carefully to what I say. The Worldling's soul is in the Lower Realmlevels as we speak. For reasons we have yet to uncover, Thanatos has traveled to Realmlevel One and is meeting with Demiana. It appears the Lower Realmlevel rulers have united in their rebellion against the Source. The Source may not have the power to stop such a union. You cannot let the Worldling eliminate mankind! Be courageous as the time of action draws—"
A sudden, pained expression flashed across her face. Her form turned one-dimensional and whipped into the ground like slurped spaghetti.
"Commander," a soldier said, as he opened the door. "General Tekla wishes your presence at the tarmac."
I sensed a feeling of imminent doom in the soldier's emotions.
"Next time knock," I scolded.
We marched up the passageway and onto the base, which thankfully, was under the cover of night. A barely visible grid of red laser beams crisscrossed about twenty feet above my head. The mountains appeared quiet, but my enlightened vision saw hundreds of armed soldiers positioned on the rocks and in caves and crevices.
No sooner had I stepped toward the motor pool when a caravan of Desert Huggers approached from the far side of the base. Five armed soldiers jumped from the vehicles before the vehicles had fully stopped and surrounded me as if I might run. Their emotions were highly charged with the knowledge of coming war.
I also sensed another presence, something otherworldly and cold; something composed of pure evil. The soldiers ushered me into the back of one of the Desert Huggers. Tekla was already there and hastily typing into a laptop computer.
"We received word of an A.N. interception force scrambling south of Cairo," he said. "They're planning to strike this compound within the hour. We're heading out."
"What about the men?" I asked. "Shouldn't you order them to evacuate?"
Tekla looked up at me with an odd expression on his face. "You're concerned about the fate of a few thousand soldiers when we're about to annihilate billions?"
The Desert Hugger lurched forward. I stumbled from the momentum into a steel chair and fastened the shoulder harness.
"Not at all, general," I replied, and resumed the guise of my persona. "Just curious."
"Let me assure you each man knows Breck's teachings. They are prepared to die for him, as I am. Are you?"
"You know the depth of my commitment."
Tekla's face froze in a strange, emotionless poise, and a trance-like veil fell over his eyes. I sensed Demiana's presence. Then I saw her… her face mirrored over Tekla's own the way a double exposed photograph captures two images in one. She scowled as her ghostly eyes roamed over me. Tekla stared straight ahead.
"I know who you are," Tekla/Demiana said into my mind. "You're the soul with no credits."
Her image faded and Tekla returned to life.
"Everyone down!" soldier's in the front shouted. "Snipers!"
The Desert Hugger slid to a hard stop and threw us against our harnesses. Jets of air followed by more jets of air ripped through the night. I sensed not A.N. troops trying to kill us, but a group of Tekla's own men.
Three soldiers in our Desert Hugger kicked open the back hatch and jumped out. Two blew apart as their boots hit the sand, victims of a hastily placed landmine. Their disoriented souls stood in dazed bewilderment. The third soldier opened fire with blasts of dart-laced air.
Tekla's head snapped back, his mouth opened and then widened grotesquely, like a snake unhinging its jaw to swallow a large meal. Demiana's ghost jetted from his esophagus, flew to the souls, grabbed them, turned to gaze at me a moment, and then sank into the sand pulling the souls along with her.
"Report!" Tekla yelled into a watch-like device on his wrist. "Who's responsible?"
"The men in transport one, sir," a voice returned. "Transport one is destroyed. Nine dead. Transport three has some minor damage, as does yours."
"Traitors," Tekla growled. He glared at me. "It's bad enough we have to contend with the rest of the world, but when fear turns our own people against us…" He raised his wrist to his lips. "Leave the dead! Assassinate the injured! Let's move out!"
"We need a minute to patch a hose, sir."
"Make it quick!" Tekla said. "We're sitting ducks out here!"
I heard the pleading cries of several soldiers in the background, then quick hisses of compressed air, and then silence. Black shadows whipped across the sand.
The third soldier in our group came limping back to our vehicle. His left leg looked as if it had mangled free from a steel-tooth bear trap. An ammunition belt was twisted and tied as a crude tourniquet around his upper thigh.
"Why have you returned to the vehicle?" Tekla asked. "You are wounded. Close the hatch, soldier."
"General, please!" the third soldier sobbed. Despair emanating from him was almost as powerful as the surrounding stink of blood and death. Terrible fear pulsed synchronous with his beating heart. "It's a leg wound! I'm with intelligence! I can still perform my duties!"
"You know Breck's teachings," Tekla said. "Weakness is the loose thread that unravels the strength of the rope. The lame have no place in the future. Accept your fate."
"Please sir, I have served loyally for three years!" The third soldier's voice constricted with anguish and he could barely speak. He bawled into his hands. "I can still serve!"
"General," came a voice over Tekla's wrist radio. "The repair is complete. We are ready to continue."
Tekla paused, stroked his beard, and then waved the injured man to come aboard. The third soldier's ill-fated mood buoyed as he grabbed at the handholds.
In one quick motion that I didn't anticipate or expect, Tekla whipped up a tiny spray pistol from a holster on his belt and blew a half a dozen pin-sized holes into the young man's chest. The soldier's body dropped out of the vehicle and onto the sand while his bewildered soul held in the same climbing position.
Shadows emerged, engulfed the soul, and dragged it down.
A young corporal stepped over, kicked the third soldier's body aside, hopped in, saluted us, and then shut the back hatch. The Desert Hugger lurched forward and we were off again at high speed.Chapter 24
"You're not sweating, Commander," the corporal observed.
Perspiration slicked the corporal's skin and his suspicion of my physical appearance immediately fouled the air. We'd been driving for hours and with no windows to judge the time I realized that I'd forgotten to adjust my external appearance to the environment outside. I must have looked cool and dry in the mid-morning heat that had caused the interior of the Desert Hugger to become a blazing sauna.
Tekla looked up from his laptop, his face shiny with sweat.
"The corporal's right," Tekla said. "It's got to be over a hundred and ten in here. How is it possible that you're not sweating?"
"As you know, general," I replied, and my thoughts caused small wet stains to suddenly appear under my arms and along my back. "I trained for a time in the Nevada desert. I'm used to the heat. But I will have a drink."
The corporal reached for a canteen to give me. Tekla's sight fixed on my shirt and my perspiration theatrics. I'd been too late for visual effects.
"This is peculiar indeed," Tekla said. "A moment ago your uniform was dry." He eyed me suspiciously. "What's going on, Commander? Are you taking something to lower your metabolism? Something Breck has invented that could also benefit the rest of us?"
"Of course not!" I replied.
The corporal refrained from handing me the canteen. He looked to Tekla for instruction. Tekla kept his gaze on me.
I focused my concentration; projected my thoughts onto the corporal.
Nothing is unusual, everything is fine.
I repeated the words over and over in my mind, blocking out everything else.
Nothing is unusual, everything is fine. Nothing is unusual, everything is fine.
All distrust of me banished from the corporal's thoughts. He scowled, tried to remember why he was still holding the canteen, and then handed it to me. I shifted my concentration to Tekla.
Nothing is unusual, everything is fine.
Tekla was unaffected by my mind manipulation.
"Something's not right," he said. "Commander, I still don't understand why—"
"Enough of this suspicion!" I barked, and forced down a mouthful of hot, aluminum-tasting water. "If anyone should be cautious about anything, it is I toward you!" I pushed the canteen back into the corporal's hands. "It is your men who have tried to assassinate me! Twice!"
Tekla's expression softened, but there was still a glazed look of skepticism in his eyes, a look that said he knew I wasn't being honest with him.
"My apologies," he said stiffly, and his attention returned to the laptop.
I re-centered on the corporal, who appeared to have gone into a zombie-like state.
Go to the front! Go to the front!
The corporal no longer responded to my control. Something had taken over his mind. His barren eyes shifted to the canteen. He slid it into the pouch attached to his belt and stared down at the dusty floor, grinning absently, and breathing in quick-winded huffs.
For a moment, I saw Demiana's face transposed over his.
The Desert Hugger braked and the back hatch flung open. Tekla took his laptop computer and stepped out. I followed. We were parked in an underground bunker. To our left, a group of soldiers stood guard holding long-nozzle spray guns. To our right, a group of high officials stepped forward and greeted us with salutes. My hand swept up and I saluted back.
"General Tekla," greeted an anxious official, who I sensed was one of the lucky ones who would be aboard the Stealth Lear with us and escape almost certain death. "Commander. We're glad to see you. The country is swarming with A.N. We've lost three divisions already. The other generals are in the operations room awaiting your arrival. The Stealth Lear is being prepped for flight."
Armed soldiers along with the high officials escorted us down a narrow, softly lit tunnel that led into an earthen bunker much like the one we had left. I sensed dread from the soldiers we passed along the route. They were all dead men and they knew it.
We stepped into a sparse, cinderblock room. A door on the other side opened and two men and one woman came out. Each slightly resembled the other. I sensed no emotions from these people. No essence of being. No life energy. It was as if they didn't exist as humans. As if they were machines.
"Welcome General Tekla," the woman greeted and stepped forward to shake his hand. She turned her head and her dark eyes connected with mine. "Commander, it is good to finally meet you in person. Breck praises your talents often. I am General Sira Assad. To my right is General Jasbir Vennum. And this is General Sobha Ram. We hope your drive was not a difficult one."
"We encountered some resistance," Tekla said, with bitterness. "Your soldiers were supposed to have secured the route, Assad. You were supposed to give me your best men. If those were it, I would not want to go into battle with you."
"My army is the most dedicated, highly trained group of men and women in the world!" Assad returned fiercely, and her expression lost its prior grace. "The incident was not the result of my incompetence! Your soldiers should be more alert!"
"That's ridiculous! How could my men know your men would mutiny? Your jealousy of my accomplishments is still as apparent as your lack of discipline with your army! You aren't qualified to rule beside Breck!"
Assad straightened her shoulders and puffed her chest. "You have truly lost your mind, Tekla! You still believe Breck will choose you over me to govern the world? Give up your foolish dream! I will be queen of the New Revolution! You are merely a rook!"
Tekla's eyes boiled with rage. "I am the one Breck entrusted to manufacture the vast quantity of TC3 needed to guarantee success! My men built the spray guns he blueprinted! Breck trusts me most! If it were not for my army setting you free, you'd still be rotting in that military prison in Jakarta. You're confusing your usefulness as an operative with delusions of grandeur."
Assad flushed with fury. "How dare you insult me in front of the Commander!"
"Enough!" Vennum interrupted. "This bickering between us serves no purpose. We must work together for the New Revolution."
"Don't lecture me about teamwork, Vennum," Tekla responded. "Your bull-headedness has cost the lives of many of my most valued and trusted men."
"Still angry about the ambush in Mexico City?" Vennum replied. "Tekla you lament about a past that cannot be changed. Let it go."
Ram stepped between them. "We are not here to talk about the accomplishments… " He swung his head in Tekla's direction. "Or failures… of one another. There is a greater task that requires our full cooperation. The New Revolution. And it begins in America."
"Once again you prove the rational one, Ram," Tekla said. His eyes darted back and forth between Vennum and Assad, and he smiled condescendingly. "Let's put our differences aside, shall we? We have a greater mission."
Tekla stepped to a scuffed oak desk and flipped open his laptop computer. "This is the latest satellite information on A.N. troop movement gathered before we left bunker sixty-three. Vennum, are your soldiers in the positions Breck and I discussed?"
"Of course," Vennum said. "My forces are always ready to carry out my orders. They understand the meaning of discipline."
"And terror," Assad chimed. "Your disciplinary tactics among your men are well known. You would kill your own family if they didn't follow your orders."
"I do what is necessary to maintain absolute obedience."
Assad chuckled. "You've probably killed more of your own men than the A.N.!"
"How dare you— "
"Enough!" Tekla interjected. "Or I'll relieve you both."
"You don't have any authority over us," Assad sneered. "We are all equal in rank." She looked over at me. "Except for the Commander, of course."
"How long until we can network the proper coordinates and set the quantity of TC3 according to climatic conditions?" Tekla asked.
"Depends on how fast my people can make the changes," Ram replied. He faced me. "I'm certain it won't take long once we have your calculations, Commander."
"I'll have them at the hour of execution," I said. "It's the only way to maximize the release according to the most current weather and wind conditions."
"We'll be at Breck's fortress by then," Assad said. She drew closer to me and squinted alluringly. "What's it like, Commander? Is Breck's fortress as spectacular as I've been told?"
I searched my mind for a mental photograph, an image, something to relate to her. Nothing about Breck's fortress came up. These eyes had never seen it.
"It's been a while since I was there," I replied. "But it is truly a wonder."
Vennum smiled, opened his canteen, and raised it into the air.
"A toast," he said. "God took six days to create the world and we are reclaiming it in one." He took a deep slug that spilled over his cheeks. "Send that as our final message to the A.N."
Tekla nodded and looked down at the laptop.
"Our route is secure and we are ready to go," he said. "Shall we advance to the Stealth Lear?"
Vennum and Ram nodded. Assad stole another glance my way.
"I must show the Commander the facilities first," she said, and her lips arched into a smile. "So he can tell Breck how well we've spent his money."
"You have ten minutes, Assad," Ram said. He checked his wrist for the time. "We will reconvene at the hanger at O800."
We saluted and I followed Assad into the hallway.
"Isn't it wonderful!" she stated. Her face beamed with child-like exuberance as she led me down the dirt tunnel. "More will die in a single minute than in all wars ever fought and there's nothing the world can do to thwart our efforts. Those left in the madness will beg us to help them. A new civilization will bloom from the ashes. Breck will become the closest thing to a God that has ever walked the planet. What a glorious paradise Earth will become."
She stopped in the middle of the hallway and turned. Her eyes held mine, seeming to drink them in.
"I know what your education was like, Commander, your military training. I know how hard you've worked to acquire your position with Breck at such a young age. I'm sure you've sacrificed a lot to get where you are." She ran a finger down my chest and I twitched at the shock of her touch. "Sacrificed things a growing boy shouldn't."
She reached up and touched my cheek, gently tracing the line of my jaw. "Tell Breck good things about me, Commander." Her tongue swept over her lips. "And I'll make it worth your while."
The Stealth Lear was an amazing piece of machinery, a flying wing that sliced through the atmosphere at an altitude of 65,000 feet. A small nuclear reactor powered dual turbo engines and propelled the craft at speeds reaching six thousand miles per hour.
The interior was surprisingly sparse and spacious. Twenty oversized seats fit into a fuselage that could easily hold twice that many. Each seat came equipped with a computer, a fold down desk, and a bulletproof tarp; the latter of which was pulled down in case of hostilities.
We were in the air no more than an hour when the stealth began a steep descent, dropping as if a giant hand was pushing it down. I was glad we were landing. Sunlight had been increasing in painful intensity as it brightened the western sky.
"Tighten your seatbelts," the pilot said over the intercom "There will be some jerky turbulence as we descend through an opening in the force field."
G-forces pushed against us as we flew toward the earth at tremendous speed. As we passed through the milky cloud layer I was shocked at the enormity of what came into view. Breck's fortress looked like a monumental chunk of steel that had been laid between two jagged mountains. The airstrip, a black line drawn along the north side, barely marked the halfway point of the fortress's length.
As we dove closer more detail came into focus. No windows, but a long glass strip in the middle of the roof allowing for natural sunlight to enter. Soldiers were dug in reinforced trenches around the building and staked out in the mountains. Soldiers were on the roof and in bunkers outside the perimeter.
The jet shook violently, then just as suddenly, we leveled and came in for a smooth landing. Dozens of huge, ground-mounted spray guns kept aim on us as the Lear taxied down the runway and turned toward a mammoth hanger. A massive door lifted and the jet entered.
The engine shut down, the hanger door lowered, and we were left in a dimly lit silence that lasted for several seconds. The Lear's cabin door opened. Soldiers rushed in and pointed spray guns at us.
"Nobody move!" they hollered. "Stay where you are!"
"How dare you treat us like this!" Assad barked. "Do you know who we are? I demand to see Breck this instant!"
The soldiers' facial expressions remained stern and unflinching.
"Still the feisty little girl I remember," came a voice rich and resonant with authority. "My feisty little girl."
A profound, overpowering sense of evil energy rippled through me. It flipped my stomach as if I'd dropped down a hill on a rollercoaster. A tall, trim, and neatly groomed man entered the cabin. He wore a well-tailored jacket over a pressed white shirt. His face was square-jawed and handsome. An abundance of black hair flowed across his scalp.
I lowered my eyes so no one saw my reflexive look of contempt.
"Breck," Assad cooed. "It is truly an honor to see you again."
"I'm glad you all made it safely," Breck said. "These are times of great and immeasurable change, and change brings with it unpredictability."
He looked over at me and exuberance sparked in his eyes.
"Commander!" he greeted. "Good to see you!"
I straightened my shoulders and we shook. Static electricity jumped between our hands and made an audible pop sound.
"You've grown into a strapping young man and a brilliant scientist," Breck said. "I am very proud. I trust your coordinates are ready?"
"Of course, sir," I said.
"Good. We welcome in the New Revolution in twelve hours. Until then, please enjoy my accommodations."
"I have questions!" Assad said. "I've risked too much on promises."
"Your inquiries are justified," Breck replied. "Ask away."
"What am I getting out of this alliance?" she asked. "What are we all getting out of this?"
Breck chuckled. "You, Vennum, Tekla, and Ram are going to divide the continents of the world equally, of course. I along with the Commander will rule."
"Equal!" Assad shrieked. "These three deserve much less than I! I have proven loyalty the most!"
"How dare you be so bold as to suggest such a thing!" Tekla fired back. "My armies have made the most sacrifices! I am entitled to more!"
"The Commander will not rule over me!" Vennum interjected. "No one who hasn't fought in battle will rule over me!"
Breck held up a silencing hand. "You bicker like siblings!" He laughed at his own remark and then got dead serious. "My decision is final!"
A cold evil suddenly filtered into the room, as if the celestial barrier had cracked and the Lower Realmlevels were seeping into this world. Assad's facial features blurred and I saw Demiana's faint image superimpose over her own. Her ghostly eyes widened as she took notice of my presence, and then her image faded.
"Come, Commander," Breck said. "We have much to discuss about the future."
The other Generals' angry stares burned into me.
"I must decline the offer," I said. "If you want the calculations at the top of the hour then I have to closely monitor the current winds."
"Your commitment to the New Revolution is admirable." Breck turned toward the other generals. "We will reconvene in two hours and begin the launch and assault sequences. Soldiers will show you to quarters."
I was led into a room as spacious as an apartment with all the lavish amenities: a huge mahogany desk, three computers, a leather couch, a marble bathroom with Jacuzzi tub, and a massive flat-screen television. I sat on the side of a huge canopy bed draped with silk linens and stared at the Salvador Dali painting hanging on the wall.
Biya appeared, bathed in blue light. The sight of her startled me.
"The moment has come to put an end to the Worldling's reign," she said. "The Lower Realmlevels know you're here! You must take risks! Use your enlightenment! Use your astral power! You must stop the apacolypse!"
"Self-preservation is an inherit instinct in mortals. You are not mortal! Objects are not barriers including the body you inhabit."
"What does that mean?"
The light surrounding her dimmed.
"Biya, wait!" I exclaimed. "What should I do?"
"Act!" she stated, her voice a fading echo as her particles fizzled away.
A knock rapped at the door. The handle jiggled and then opened. Assad appeared at the entrance.
"I'm very busy, general," I said. "Please come back later."
"Commander," she said softly. "Call me Sira."
She stepped into the room, headed toward me, and then stopped. A veil-like trance washed over her seductive expression. Green mist enveloped her head. Her flesh bubbled and swelled and her facial features changed, molding grotesquely into those of Demiana.
"What a fine creature this half-mortal mechanism is," Demiana said, channeling her voice through Assad's vocal cords. "Tell me soul, do your reinstated mortal urges control your actions and behaviors like a real, living, breathing human male?"
A sudden, strong, artificial sexual desire swelled inside me; an all-encompassing, primal, mating hunger; powerful lust that clouded my thinking.
"Love me," she purred. "I can give you delights of the flesh that no mortal can."
Three naked girls appeared from thin air. Long blonde hair fell around attractive, fawn-like faces. They made beckoning motions with their hands.
"Like what you see?" Demiana asked. "Or are these mechanisms more your pleasure?"
The girls' faces and bodies bubbled and smoothed, and changed into Sarah. Three identical Sarah's.
"Go ahead. Sample them. They were taught their sexual trades in the perverted dungeons of Realmlevel Two."
Urges came on stronger. Thunderous waves of desire. I swallowed the sting of arousal and resisted the overpowering want to touch them. I thought myself in control of my emotions, thought myself stronger than the counterfeit passion, thought of my placement in the afterlife and my mission to save humanity.
"And what price will I pay for making love to your demons?" I asked. "Endless suffering in Realmlevel Two?"
"The Rules of the Source do not apply to you or to them. You are free to do what you please. Come," she beckoned. "Experience gratification beyond your wildest desires."
Deep, angst-filled lust burned within me.
Assad shrugged out of her uniform and let it drop to the ground. A fine sheet of auburn hair fell to her shoulders. Her skin smoothed, molded, and morphed into a fourth Sarah.
"Make love to me," she cooed. "And you will have everything you ever desired. Every mortal fantasy you ever conjured can be yours for eternity. Cast aside this task the Uppers has bestowed upon you and join the Lower Realmlevels. Join forever."
I felt myself step toward the girls. My whole body throbbed.
"Join with us forever," the Sarah's squealed.
I reached out to touch one's soft, pearly shoulder. She licked her full lips with a gray tongue and showed long, needle-like teeth in her smile. Her gums were black.
"No!" I jerked my hand away and stepped back. "I will not agree to any deal offered by Lucifer!"
"It is not Lucifer who offers this ecstasy," one of the Sarah's said. "It never was."
I stepped back further and bumped against the bed. "If not Lucifer, then who?"
"You'd be a fool to turn us down," a different Sarah said. "The Uppers cannot provide for you the primal fulfillment the Lower Realmlevels can. Turn your back on the Source and the putrid purity of the Uppers. Give in to your true evil nature."
I stood firm.
"Leave me!" I stated.
"You have no concept of what you're giving up."
All four Sarah's scowled. My artificial arousal waned.
"You will regret this refusal for all eternity," they said in unison.
Three Sarah's disappeared. Sarah/Demiana morphed back into Assad. She picked up her uniform and walked from the room holding the fabric against her naked body.
A deeper chill swept through the bunker. I sensed a powerful evil approach.
Breck entered my room flanked by Tekla and four armed soldiers. The soldiers' thoughts were dark and hate-filled. They wanted me dead.
"Commander!" Breck said. "This thumb drive was found hidden in the computer room. It contains the formula for TC3; how to manufacture the antidote in large quantities; locations of our agents; key troop positions; numbers of spray guns manufactured in the last year. Information which our tracer programs indicate you have been accessing and sending to the A.N.." His eyes narrowed. "Explain this!"
The soldiers aimed their spray guns at my chest.
"You're accusing me of sabotage?" I said, and forced my voice to stay calm and level. "Why would I want to stop the New Revolution?"
"Perhaps the A.N. has made you an offer you can't refuse?"
"This is crazy!" I retorted.
"Facts don't lie!" Breck stated. "We have video of you downloading the information."
Panic set in.
"I'm being set up! The surveillance tape was doctored!" I turned an accusatory eye toward Tekla. "There are those who wish to gain my position."
Tekla's lips kept the slightest curve of a smile. I could tell by pure intuition that he had something to do with this.
"We have known of your deception for some time," Tekla said. "I orchestrated your assassination in Basra and my sources assured me that you were terminated. I must say I was quite surprised when I got word that you were still on your way. Your recuperative abilities certainly are amazing."
"Since General Tekla was unsuccessful at his task," Breck interjected, and flashed Tekla a disappointed look. "I figured I'd bring you here and do it myself. What better way to know that you are truly dead."
Roots of fear dug deep. I was scared. Not to die, I was a pro at that experience, but because I saw no way to defeat Breck. No way to stop the extermination of humankind, even with all my enlightened power.
"You're making a grave error in judgment!" I said. "I'm your ally!"
"Sometimes the best allies become the most treacherous enemies." Breck clamped his hand around the thumb drive. "Your calculations would have spread TC3 over eighty percent of our armies and almost nothing on the A.N.. Had we used them, you would have ended the New Revolution before it began. That was your plan all along, wasn't it, Commander? You may be young, but your cunning is old and polished."
"This is outrageous!"
"Deception is an art form," Breck said. "And you have mastered it."
He motioned the soldiers to seize me. They moved quickly and twisted my arms behind my back.
"You're making a mistake!" I stated, as they pushed me forward.
Release me! Release me! Release me!
I tried desperately to affect the soldier's thoughts as they hustled me down the long, ornate central hallway, through a door, and then down an earthen tunnel reeking of fresh mud.
I focused harder: Release me! Release me! Release me!
I had no effect. The Lower Realmlevels were taking control. I felt weak, debilitated, and heavy, as if my veins were filling with lead.
We approached a steel door.
"Inside!" a soldier ordered and shoved me from behind.
I fell onto a cement slab in a small, square cell. A putrid hole in the ground served as the toilet. The door slammed shut. I felt very weak, in a dull spent way.
Two shining, sky-blue orbs appeared at the top corner of the cell. They pulsed with brightness and formed into Gabriel and Methusula.
"There is no time to waste!" Methusula stated. "You must eliminate the Worldling now!"
I stood uneasily on rubbery legs. "I… I can't. I'm… I'm so tired. I'm so faint."
Gabriel's glowing hand reached out, lifted my chin, and studied my eyes.
"Your temporary enlightenment is expiring," she said. "If you do not act now billions of souls will suffer eternally."
Gabriel's form grew hazy and she reached out to Methusula, who was also growing hazy, to steady herself. I vaguely sensed the approach of several soldiers.
"Men are coming to end your mortality," Gabriel said. "Once your soul is released it will be impossible to place you into another mechanism in time. We will have lost."
They both disappeared. The door to my cell burst open. Two guards rushed in, pulled me up, and handcuffed me. I tried to wrench my arms free but had little energy to resist. My ability to read minds switched off and the last of my strength drained. My extremities loosened and became hard to control. My senses muffled. My body numbed.
They dragged me up the hallway and out to a mass of soldiers standing in tight formation across the compound. The sun peeked over the horizon but the rays no longer burned. My thoughts came in heavy rolls. My hands and feet felt like dead pieces of wood. Breck appeared before my wasted eyesight as a mass of moving shape and color. I barely felt the impact from a smack across my face, but I stumbled from the force and toppled to the dirt.
"Bring on the New Revolution!" Breck hollered, and raised his right arm. "Long live the New Revolution!"
Voices jeered and rose in adulation. Someone pulled me to my feet.
Green celestial light flashed in the crowd. I concentrated on clearing my eyesight and saw Demiana nestled among the soldiers. Her horrid face was smiling grotesquely.
Breck swung a baton and smashed it against my shoulder. Bones splintered but I felt no pain. My left arm fell useless at my side.
"Let this be an example to those who have thought against me!" he stated. "The New Revolution cannot be stopped!"
"New Revolution! New Revolution! New Revolution," the crowd chanted.
"Execute the Commander for the crime of treason!" Breck bellowed.
"No," I groaned, and struggled to make my vocal cords push out the word.
Several soldiers raised their spray guns and aimed at me. In that instant, it came to me what I had to do. Summoning all my remaining strength; every last ounce of mental, physical, and astral energy, I willed myself invisible and disappeared in front of the group.
The crowd gasped collectively.
With a thought, the handcuffs turned brittle and crumbled off my wrists. I stumbled to Breck, grabbed his spray gun from its holster, lifted my good arm, and put the nozzle to his temple. My energy exhausted, I reappeared and saw Demiana in the front row. Her expression had changed from satisfaction to pure rage.
For a moment, the entire courtyard hushed, silent as night after a freshly fallen snow. Then I heard a loud burst of air and felt the hot, tickly pressures of steel darts swimming through my thorax and abdomen. My grip on the spray gun loosened. My head throbbed, making it difficult to think. My soul began to disengage from the motor skills of this body.
Demiana floated above the crowd, eyes blazing with vindication, a renewed smile on her face. I concentrated every drop of mortal energy on my desensitized index finger, every last bit of mortal life I had left; and started a slow, even squeeze. A second later, the trigger caught.
Breck's head exploded into red sparkles. His black astral cord whipped and constricted around his upper torso like a frenzied snake and then dissipated. His mortal body dropped to the ground.
Spray darts tore through me. The pistol slipped from my fingers. Whatever still attached me to the Commander unhooked and the anchor of his flesh slid off like a heavy winter coat.
The inert body of the Commander fell still and silent beside Breck.
A seemingly infinite tunnel lined with glittering stars opened in the sky. A warm breeze lifted me toward it. But then, black shadows bloomed from the asphalt and wrapped around my legs. They yanked me down away from the tunnel. I struggled against them with no hope of escape. It was like trying to fight the wind.
The last thing I saw before I disappeared into the ground was Demiana floating above the stunned crowd, her face brimming with fury.
Then the sensation of free-fall into dark water.
Disembodied hands grabbed me from the current and pulled me onto solid ground. Everything brightened and I was standing in the middle of an endless field of golden wheat. Sunlight beamed down painlessly and eased the roar-rumble in my head.
I took notice of my surroundings. No insects. No birds. And although I felt a slight wind there was no whispering sound associated with it.
Far in the distance, a black speck shimmered on the horizon. The speck moved forward, not like it was walking, but as though it were shifting in fifty-foot increments, leaping the distances in the space of a blink. Two blinks later, a young man appeared about twenty yards away and started walking toward me. Astonishment blew through my senses. The young man looked just like me.
I knew in an instant who he was.
"Greetings," he said, as he drew closer. "My brother."
"You're my twin," I replied. "You sacrificed your mortality for this cause."
"All the credits you and your birth-father accumulated had to go somewhere," he said. "Unfortunately, that meant a one way ticket to Realmlevel Three for me."
"Is this where I am? Realmlevel Three?"
"We are at a crossroads, you might say. A meeting place prior to actually being in Realmlevel Three."
"Am I a prisoner?"
"Certainly not. You are much too powerful for any Realmlevel ruler to keep you imprisoned. You are here so we can discuss."
My brother looked around with a rueful smile.
"You were not born to be the son of a schoolteacher dad and a stay-at-home-mom," he added. "The celestial created you to be the savior of mankind. The evil inside you is more powerful than any other non-deity, yet you failed miserably to save the Earthlevel."
"I tried!" I stated.
"It wasn't enough! Now the Uppers will fall and the structure of the afterlife will dissolve!"
"I must speak with Zued! We can't give up!"
"The Uppers is no concern of mine, nor should it be of yours," he said, and a bolt of lightning forked across the smeared, gray sky. "I will exist forever here on Realmlevel Three. If you choose, you may stay with me and we can spend eternity together as brothers."
"I have to save the Uppers!"
"Let the Uppers disappear. Your perception of Realmlevel Three is based on fears taught to you by mortals. I have been to the Uppers, and they will never reveal the truth about Realmlevel Three. Here, you can spend eternity living your deepest emotional and physical desires with absolutely no recourse or repercussions for your actions. Eternal gluttony. Why pass that up?"
"At the price of eternal damnation? No thanks."
"How virtuous you are, brother. What will damnation matter when all of existence will be damned?"
"Put me back at the Uppers!"
My brother sighed and looked to the sky. Air turned dank and heavy; gluey.
"I cannot force him to stay," my brother said. "He is too powerful."
The illusion of the wheat field shattered as if someone had thrown a rock through a glass image, and the true landscape surrounding us materialized from the fragments. Corpses hung on jagged rocks. Grotesque, child-size demon creatures laughed and cut at the dangling bodies with small knives. Great winged creatures glided through the stormy sky. My feet were sunk up to my ankles in a film of sticky, maggot-infested goop that blanketed the ground. Small explosions of fire burst into the air and then just as quickly burned out.
My brother's pupils turned thin and feline. His eyebrows thickened with mangy black hair. His skin stretched. His belly expanded like the abdomen of a feeding mosquito and then burst in a huge spray of muck and guts.
A great, raw-boned, macro-cephalic head and huge reptilian torso on bull hindquarters stepped from the wrinkled flesh. The creature's fingernails were as long as swords, its hooves as large as trucks. Massive ram's horns the size of trees curled out the top of its skull.
"Bow before me, soul!" the creature bellowed, standing to an immense height. A long, whip-like tail with a spearhead tip flicked between its legs. "I am Lucifer!"
I nearly froze, stunned by the awesome size of the manifestation, the core of evil in the universe.
"I will never bow to you!" I stated, though I couldn't keep the tremor from my voice. "The war you tried to start is over! Your Worlding is dead! I killed him!"
Lucifer leaned his head back and laughed like thunder. The air rippled with tremendous vibration causing two flying creatures to lose their momentum. They tumbled chaotically from the sky and slapped against the muck.
"I have little desire to rule that insignificant birthing Earthlevel!" Lucifer said. "I care nothing if humanity stays or disappears!"
My stomach sunk. "Lies! You're trying to trick me! You started the war!"
A ball of combustion flew across my shoulder and exploded into a shower of yellow sparks.
"How appropriate the Uppers have made such a monumental mistake," Lucifer said. "Humanity has reached their ugliest depths and the Uppers immediately suspect me of turning them evil."
He grabbed a flying creature from the muck, slit open its middle with a flick of his fingernail, and slurped out the insides. Shrieks of pain tore from the creature's throat.
"Mortals turned themselves evil!" Lucifer stated, and licked the sides of his face with a long, forked tongue. "Greed and superficial desires have tainted their evolution. I had nothing to do with it."
His nostrils flared and he snorted green smoke. "The Worldling is not of my making. He is the child of the union between Thanatos and Demiana."
Disbelief traveled through my veins. "Lies! From the father of lies!"
"I speak the truth," Lucifer growled. "They are your grandparents. Thanatos despises you because he fears your power. The power of pure evil."
My identity shattered. My thoughts spun. I didn't know who I was or my place in the universe. I stepped back and my feet disrupted the muck with a wet, sucking sound.
"I know who I am!" I stated. "I'm a human being! Do you hear me? A human being!"
"Go back to the Uppers," Lucifer said, and more green smoke rolled from his nostrils. "And you will see how human you are."
In the blink of an eye, I was through the Barrier Ocean and standing on a beach overlooking sapphire-colored water. My surroundings changed again, and I found myself in a great garden brimming with exotic foliage. I noticed the flowers, intricate patterns of radiant color atop vibrant green stalks.
Gabriel appeared before me as a luminescent ghost, her face crestfallen.
"It is Thanatos and Demiana, not Lucifer, who wish to gain control of the Earthlevel," she said. "We have made a fatal error. We have no defenses against the amount of souls in Realmlevel One and Two combined. We are doomed."
"Isn't there anything we can do?" I asked, with exasperation.
"Our only chance against certain defeat is to return to the Earthlevel and stop the Worldling's children from continuing with the apocalypse and adding that many more billions of souls."
"I thought it was impossible for me to go back?"
"There is a way," she said. "Realmlevels align in times of great mortal loss, such as disease, famine, and war. For a brief time, the Barrier Ocean becomes thin enough to penetrate without Credit Keeper clearance. But to do so is one of the worst offenses against the Rules of the Source."
"But there hasn't been any great human loss," I said. "I stopped it! I killed the Worldling!"
"TC3 was released in the Quebec, Canada province, and the cities of New York and Philadelphia after it was learned the Worldling was assassinated. The Lower Realmlevels will collect more than seventeen million souls but there is still time to save billions."
My stomach clenched.
"Sarah and Ma live in Philadelphia," I said, and lowered my head into my hands. "Everyone… gone. How can the Source allow such destruction? We're Its creation!"
"The Source is all-powerful and cannot fully appreciate the potential of each individual mortal. The dissolution of mankind is another turn of evolution, like the extinction of the dinosaurs, or when the population of Mars incinerated themselves."
A man appeared at the far end of the beach. He started toward me. As he got closer, I recognized the face of my father. Emotion poured through me. I could barely contain my tears. He was dressed as I had often seen him most comfortable in life, wearing a button-down flannel and worn-out jeans.
"Hello, son," he said casually, as he approached. "You must know Zued went through great pains in allowing us to meet. It was never supposed to happen, but due to the circumstances we all thought it best that we explain ourselves."
Shock froze my system. I stood stiff as a statue. "Is it really you?"
My father smiled. "It's me. I know what Zued and the others did is confusing but it was necessary to make you as powerful an entity as possible. Though my DNA did not create your soul, we still had some great times together."
I smiled reflexively as I remembered my childhood. I also knew that it had all been fabricated; my whole life someone else's play. And dad had been a part of that. I should hate him for it, but at the moment, the emotion of seeing him canceled out the anger. It gave me comfort.
"I want you to understand something," he said. "I voluntarily gave up my mortality for the good of humanity. The Uppers wouldn't have had a chance against the Worlding without our sacrifices. Going into a coma was the only way to store your brother's soul without it being detected. Sending the two of you through the Barrier Ocean together was the only possible way of tricking the Credit Keepers. Everything we've done was geared for your success. Unfortunately, things haven't gone as planned."
"I'm sorry," I said. "I failed."
He looked at me with an expression of pride. "I know you did your best. Just like I knew you'd take care of your Ma after I was gone and that the two of you would be okay until Methusula came for you."
Suddenly, my birth-father's form was hardly more visible than a puff of smoke.
His face bunched with concern and then he disappeared and Gabriel appeared in his place.
"We must go!" Gabriel stated. "Evil is breaking into the Uppers! It is no longer safe here!"
Two white, feathered wings unfolded from her back. She grabbed around my waist and with a strong beat we rose into the air.
The sky glowed with a reddish haze as if a thunderous fire burned unseen in the distance. We glided high above mountains of cottony clouds. Gabriel's grip on me tightened. She closed her wings, turned, and dove straight down.
We flew at incredible speed, hit lukewarm water, and continued deep into a swirling abyss. Light disappeared and sound muffled into silence. We let the current drag us until the water turned frigid and full of silt.
Explosions sounded. The rat-tat-tat of heavy machine gun fire and bursts of compressed air grew more pronounced. A hole opened beneath us and we dropped from the bottom of the ocean into the evening sky, which was a toxic stew of chemicals and smoke. We tumbled through the air toward battle-scarred landscape.
Gabriel grabbed me, flapped her wings, and we touched down softly in front of a machine gunner positioned in a small dugout behind Breck's fortress. We were invisible to him. The young gunner's face was charred and blackened. His eyes were huge zeros of fear. Sweat rolled down his cheeks.
About a dozen flares turned the night orange and illuminated a grim scene; soldiers scrambling between trenches, muzzles flashing; slugs whumping into the dirt. Moans and screams of the dying were momentarily drowned as the young gunner pulled the trigger and his spray gun bucked from a strong release of compressed air. A solid stream of white tracer darts stabbed through Gabriel and myself and continued into the darkness.
"If humans only knew how precious mortality is," Gabriel said. "They would not be so willing to sacrifice it for war."
An explosion blew apart the entrenchment in a shower of sparks and flame. The young gunner's bewildered soul stood in the middle of the destruction and stared down at its glowing hands. Almost immediately, thick, eel-like, blood-colored bands slithered from the soil. They coiled around the young gunner's soul and pulled it into the sand.
"Collectors," Gabriel said ominously.
"I've seen them before," I replied.
"Not these. You have seen Shadows. Shadows are controlled by the Credit Keepers. Collectors are anti-life creatures created in Realmlevel Two. Lower Realmlevel rulers use Collectors to capture souls that don't legally belong to them. They appear most often in times of famine and war and chaos."
Shouts broke out as men dodged bullets and spray darts. Gabriel picked me up and we flew toward the compound. Men were racing around frantic to find shelter from the assault. Some were trying to dig trenches into the soil with their helmets. Others were crawling up behind fallen men and using their bodies as shields. Breck's fortress was in shambles.
We landed outside a crushed wall.
"The generals are commencing with the apocalypse!" Gabriel said. "You must stop them now!"
"Use the power you were forged from! Use the power of evil!"
Bombs exploded. Guns hammered. Blasts sheared the masonry off nearby structures. The land rattled with the sounds of battle and the screams of dying men. Collectors rose from the ground like sea worms, grabbed souls, and lowered.
We hurried passed soldiers huddled behind burned bushes along what used to be the mosaic-tile front walkway. Several more soldiers had gathered, drawn-faced and weeping, around the relative safety of the stone retaining walls.
Gabriel took my arm and we rose a few inches off the dirt, floated through a concrete barrier, and then down a long hallway leading into a large area. Computers and communications equipment littered the room. Assad, Vennum, Ram and Tekla were huddled around a steel desk with a cluttered mass of papers strewn haphazardly beside several laptop computers.
"Are the American segments in position?" Tekla asked.
He turned toward Gabriel and myself, as if he'd noticed us standing there; he hadn't. Another soldier had entered the room behind us.
"Yes," the soldier replied. "American, European, and Far East teams are in position."
An explosion boomed overhead. The wreckage of the room shuddered from impact. Drywall and paint chips rained from the ceiling.
"There's more," the soldier continued, his voice trembling. "We've lost contact with three teams in Australia and we know the teams in Africa and South America are wiped out."
Another detonation shook the floor. Large cracks wormed up the walls.
"Dammit!" Assad slammed her fist on the table. "Breck never prepared us for this scenario! What do we do?"
"We order the worldwide release of TC3," Tekla answered, his face raddled with demented passion. "Including the stockpile we have here. We'll be protected in the safe room."
"Without the proper coordinates the casualties to our own armies here and abroad will be horrendous!" Vennum stated, his eyes hard and empty. "I have no desire to rule over a mountain of dead men!"
"I agree," Ram said. "We could be trapped for weeks if we set off TC3 this close! We don't have supplies! We'd starve to death! I believe… I believe surrender is in order."
Two explosions went off almost simultaneously. Lights flickered and a large chunk of ceiling crashed to the ground. Machine guns opened up outside followed by the long hiss sound of compressed air releasing.
"I will never surrender!" Tekla shouted. "Either we set off the TC3 or we put spray guns to our heads!"
Assad exchanged a quick glance with Vennum.
"He's right," she said, and crossed her arms. "We must release everything we have, whatever the consequences. It's the only option."
The bunker shook again and through the ensuing dust I saw Tekla switch on a computer while Ram unlocked a cabinet and withdrew a small, steel box. Vennum used a different key to unlock it. He pulled out a gold computer disk.
"Who has the codes?" Tekla asked.
Ram took out a small palm computer and handed it to Tekla.
"We're out of time!" Gabriel said to me. "Stop them! Stop them now!"
I concentrated on forming myself solid and lurched toward the four generals as they stood hunched around the computer screen. It didn't work and I fell through them and landed facedown on the floor.
Evil iciness blew into the room. I scrambled to my feet. Assad straightened and spun around. Demiana's angry features transposed over hers.
"I thought I sensed you, Gabriel!" Assad/Demiana said.
The other generals turned their heads.
"Assad, who are you talking to?" Vennum asked. "We must work together to program the final codes before the safeguard in the system goes offline."
"How dare you bypass the Credit Keepers!" Assad/Demiana scathed. She stepped toward me. "And you, soul, I thought you'd be enjoying the delights of Realmlevel Three. That's why I sent you there. Foolish to risk nonexistence when you have been welcomed by Lucifer and all of Realmlevel Three's delights."
"Assad!" Ram shouted. "Have you gone mad? Who are you talking to? We are wasting valuable seconds! You're letting the New Revolution slip away!"
Assad grabbed her spray pistol, spun around, and pulled the trigger. The bodies of Vennum and Ram danced grotesquely from dart impacts and then collapsed to the floor. Their black souls stood beside the computer and stared at Gabriel and myself before melting into the floor without the aid of shadows or collectors.
"Ignorant mortal mechanisms," Assad/Demiana growled.
"Sira, what have you done?" Tekla gasped, his eyes bulging with shock.
She turned and waved the pistol at him. "Finish entering the codes! This mortal's authorization number is 2153480967."
"I don't understand!" Tekla stated. "We have the world!"
"I need souls! Not mortals!"
I moved forward to stop Tekla from hitting the codes into the keyboard and Assad/Demiana fired a burst at me. The darts flew through my image and smashed against the walls.
"I'm working as fast as the system will allow!" Tekla exclaimed. He type quickly and then stepped away from the screen. "The TC3 is ready."
"Your work on the Earthlevel is appreciated, soul," Assad/Demiana said. "You will be rewarded in the afterlife."
She raised the pistol and sprayed. Tekla's black soul tumbled across the floor and dissolved.
Explosions ripped overhead and shook the building. Assad/Demiana stepped toward the computer and reached out to press the ENTER key. Rage surged through me and with it came energy and power. The upper half of my body turned solid. I grabbed Assad/Demiana's wrist, flung it away from the button, and pushed her back from the screen.
"Foolish soul!" she stated. "I will torture you for all eternity!"
I grabbed Ram's spray gun and aimed at Assad/Demiana's chest.
I stood between her and the computer and pressed the trigger. There was only a click sound. No blast of air from the barrel. The cartridge was empty. Disbelief quelled my rage and my torso lost materiality. The spray gun fell to the floor.
She lurched through me and barreled toward the computer. Her fingertip barely brushed the keyboard when I heard a burst of compressed air and saw Assad's soul fly out of her body and disappear into the wall. Demiana yowled like a cat and vanished as Assad's mortal body went down.
Something metal hit the floor.
I spun around.
On the tiles where Gabriel had stood was a spray pistol. Tekla's holster was empty.
I went to the computer, looked at the screen, and felt my jaw drop.
TC3 had released.
The bunker rocked from a bomb. Huge pieces of falling debris slammed into the floor. A series of explosions ripped through the air. Sheets of flame engulfed the sky. Another blast tore through the fortress walls, crumbled the ceiling, and sent a massive cloud of sooty smoke rushing toward me.
I wanted out of there.
With a flash, I found myself at the shores of the Barrier Ocean. The water had turned crusty and brown; the color of a scab. Waves gnawed at the beach leaving a toxic froth. Thousands of punishment-skeletons rose from the surf, ignored me, and began a slow march inland. Glowing white orbs appeared overhead, soared down at incredible speeds, and rammed into the skeletons, driving them back into the sea.
"Corpuscles," a voice said.
I spun my head. Biya stood behind me, her features looking solemn and deeply disturbed.
"They are the guardians of the Uppers," she added. "Entities born only of soul and never going through a mortal phase. If they've been summoned it means the Uppers are in dire trouble."
"Where did all these punishments come from?" I asked.
She shook her head in resignation. "These are the souls of the recent dead. Too many to sort by the Credit Keepers, they've been transformed into Thanatos and Demiana's army."
"Where's Gabriel?" I asked.
Biya watched the battle with an increasingly worried look. "Gabriel was punished for entering the Earthlevel without Credit Keeper clearance. She no longer exists."
Anger flowed into me and with it came a surge of power. "They eliminated her for trying to save billions?"
"It doesn't matter the reason, she broke the Rules of the Source. The Credit Keepers must follow the laws of penance."
"I can't believe this is happening!"
Gabriel gazed at the stream of punishments marching steadily forward. Corpuscles flew like schools of pearls and attacked.
"What if the Corpuscles can't hold off the advance?" I asked.
"Then the Uppers become a part of the Lower Realmlevels. All souls will be forever enslaved to Thanatos and Demiana. Humanity won't have a place in the afterlife except to serve them."
I looked at the ensuing struggle on the beach. Punishments advanced in droves. Those defeated floated atop the water like broken white sticks. Tens of thousands of Corpuscles whisked through the sky and several thousand more lay gray and flattened on the sand.
"If punishments reach the temple we must abandon the Uppers," Biya said. "That will signal the beginning of the end."
"The Source would let that happen?" I questioned. "Let the Uppers be destroyed?"
"The Source is a magnificent scientist and we are merely Its experiment. If the experiment goes wrong a scientist does not try to fix it. He starts anew with lessons learned from the previous."
"Where will we go?"
"To the Earthlevel. To wander the wastelands forever."
"Isn't there anything we can do?"
Biya shook her head. "Thanatos's army has broken a pathway from the Lower Realmlevels to the shores of the Uppers. Unless it can be closed and sealed we can do nothing but hope the Corpuscles exhaust the supply of punishments before they are exhausted themselves."
The Uppers brilliant blueberry sky began to darken. Warm shore breezes tossed the stench of the Lower Realmlevels. I wracked my brain for a solution. Some way I could put a stop to this genocide of creation. I watched punishments struggle to the beachhead and make it all the way to the edge of the Uppers' paradise before Corpuscles smashed them back. Hundreds of individual battles rolled in front of me. Punishments kept coming. There appeared to be fewer Corpuscles.
"What do you think is happening at the Lower Realmlevels right now?" I asked.
"Probably nothing," Biya replied. "Thanatos and Demiana's armies are here."
"We must go there while their defenses are down."
Biya put a hand on my shoulder. "A noble thought but we wouldn't have a chance. Evil in an evil place is tremendously more powerful than what we can do."
"But I was born evil!" I stated. "I have power!"
"Until you learn to control that power you would be little more than a nuisance to the demons who protect its shores. It would be suicide to your existence. You will end."
"Then I'll end fighting!" I stated.
I ran toward the turbulent surf before Biya could stop me. Waves of bones and deflated masses of jellyfish-like Corpuscles crashed against the shoreline as I dove into an oncoming swell. I swam down fast, deep into the abyss, fueled by my determination and anger.
Liquid turned to sludge. Thousands of tiny stingers attached to my skin. Pain burned through me. My muscles tightened. I couldn't move.
A giant hand grabbed my torso, pulled me from the muck, and whisked me across the red clay surface of Realmlevel Two. I smashed against the base of a sheer cliff. The pointed end of a rock protruded from my chest and pinned me against the stone. I lay nearly immobilized, racked with a new dimension of hurt.
I grit my teeth, put my arms behind my back, and pushed against the rock with my palms. Slowly, the rock dislodged as my body moved forward.
A massive fist pounded me to the ground. Everything that held me together; celestial bone, flesh, and tendon, was instantly broken. Awareness faded in and out but would not allow me the relief of unconsciousness.
"You have no idea the force with which you have made war!" Thanatos bellowed. "You are nothing compared to my awesome power!"
A heavy foot pressed on my shoulders. Sharp talons dug into my back grinding the already crushed bone.
"You are mine for eternity," Thanatos whispered into my ear.
His hot breath scorched my neck.Chapter 33
"Leave this soul alone," I heard Demiana say. "This soul has great power and could be a significant ally if he so chooses."
"His powers are underdeveloped and undisciplined," Thanatos hissed, and stepped off my back. "He is more nuisance than worth the effort."
"This soul has seen the Uppers," Demiana countered. "He can guide us."
"Your attachment to this soul is humanistic. I warn you, do not let emotion intrude upon your rule."
"And you do not supercede my rule!"
Thanatos growled his displeasure.
"To your feet, soul!" Thanatos ordered. "Heal yourself!"
I concentrated on my body regenerating and wobbled to a standing position. The pain faded, my insides mended, and my energy came flowing back.
Demiana drifted close to me. Her body odor soured the air.
"The old ways of ruling the afterlife are over," she said. "The Source is gone and the Credit Keepers and their primitive system of classification are defeated. We will allow souls into the Uppers without a strict moral code. With the Earthlevel emptied, every soul will be allowed to exist in the afterlife free of repentance as long as they follow our rules. It will be glorious."
"And what will your rules be?"
"Simple," Demiana said. "Souls will serve our every whim with pure devotion for all eternity. Dissention in any form will be punishable by nonexistence."
"It's not the way the way it's supposed to be!" I stated. "There must be mortality! There must be continuation of life!"
"Life is no more," Thanatos replied. "The brief mortal condition with all its misery is not worth saving."
"Having never been mortal, how would you know?"
"I was mortal," Demiana interjected. "Hundreds of years before you existed. I was a healer, a gifted doctor who saved the lives of dozens of sick. For that, they called me a witch and burned me at the stake. And then I arrived on Realmlevel One and the Realmlevel ruler sentenced me to serve as his personal mistress. That fool! I ended him with the help of a potion Thanatos concocted in Realmlevel Two!"
"Enough talk!" Thanatos said. "You soul, are an insignificant speck amidst the unimaginable vastness of the Realmlevel's. I do not agree with Demiana in keeping you around. I banish you to my deepest dungeons to serve a span of torture until this war is over. Then we will decide what to do with you."
Collectors slithered from the contours of the rocky landscape, wrapped around my waist, and slid into my eye sockets, nose and throat, moving from nerve center to nerve center. I tried to fight back, but the sensation of hurt constricted my chest and sucked my energy.
Fear blew over me. I imagined myself back home. It's Saturday morning and I'm waiting for Ma to finish scrambling eggs. In my mind, I pictured the tan refrigerator and silver sink. I saw the Sunday newspaper spread out in front of me. I thought about Sarah, about all the good times we had.
I was being dragged down into the clay surface. I panicked, and a powerful wave of dark energy traveled through my system, like I'd downed twenty energy drinks in one swallow.
"Realmlevel Three!" I screamed, and concentrated as hard as I could on the flaming environment. "Brother, save me!"
A sudden flash and the Collectors blew out of my body. Everything around me disappeared.
I stood inside a gushing wall of flame but felt no pain. Outside the fiery enclosure, Lucifer appeared as a great crimson beast of unbelievable size, a moving mountain, with eyes like skyscrapers and a mouth as large as a canyon.
The ring of fire extinguished. My brother materialized beside me. He looked very pleased.
"Welcome home," he said. "This is where you belong."
"Thanatos and Demiana have taken control of the Uppers!" I stated. "We have to stop them!"
Laughter ripped from my brother's throat. "That is no concern of ours. This is our Realmlevel."
A great clap of thunder resonated through the air and the sky filled with floating punishments. Millions of them spread across the atmosphere like a star-filled galaxy. Thanatos hovered in the front of the massive army, his long, raven-black cape billowing behind him like a giant wing.
"How dare you intrude here!" Lucifer roared. "Return to Realmlevel Two at once, lest I unleash my wrath!"
"There is change in the afterlife," Thanatos spoke. "No longer will Credit Keepers assign positions for souls. I will make the decisions! All souls belong to me! Relinquish your authority and I will not banish you to the empty landscapes of the wasted Earthlevel."
Lucifer's walloping eyes sparkled with fury. "Thanatos, I turned my back to your game of extinction. You may have the Uppers, and you can take the filthy, blighted Earthlevel, but leave my Realmlevel at once!"
"All Levels belong to me now!"
"You misjudge my power!"
"You misjudge mine!"
Lucifer waved his great hand. Nothing happened. A look of astonishment swept over his monstrous face. Thanatos yowled out a roll of vicious laughter.
"The combined celestial strength of these souls has given me power beyond your own," Thanatos said, triumphantly. "Beyond the Source! Demiana and I will soon have complete control of the Uppers. Give Realmlevel Three to me willingly and I will spare your existence."
"Foolish Realmlevel ruler!" Lucifer bellowed.
"Bow before me!" Thanatos ordered. "I am the new supreme Realmlevel ruler! I am greater than the Source!"
"Never!" Lucifer roared.
Thanatos lurched forward, meteors of fire streamed from his open palms. It impacted on Lucifer's chest and tore apart his right shoulder. One hit my brother and he disintegrated. Lucifer staggered backward, looked down at the damage, and mended the wound.
Lucifer shrieked, and tens of thousands of Collectors rose from the muck like an auburn wave of locusts taking flight. Thanatos looked defiant. His army of punishments swelled forward.
"Destroy!" Thanatos hollered.
Collectors bashed through the first wave of punishments and flew toward Thanatos. He flicked them away as if they were harmless sheets of paper. Thanatos fired another blast and hit Lucifer in the belly. Lucifer stumbled backward and smashed against the jagged earth. The landscape shook.
Thanatos fired again, and again, and again, blowing pieces of Lucifer into astral confetti. Lucifer lay, groggy and defeated his healing powers slow to mend. The army of punishments surged ahead and streamed toward me.
Fear gripped me. But with that fear piggybacked a great, sudden influx of power. Dark, encompassing energy poured through my veins like lit kerosene, igniting a potent force beyond description.
"Bow before me, residents of Realmlevel Three!" Thanatos roared, his voice shaking the foundation of creation. He looked to the sky and screamed across the Realmlevel; "I am the supreme ruler of the afterlife!"
The evil my soul had been forged from exploded into the moment and surged into my presence. Obscenely ugly and hate-filled substance of wickedness coursed through my bloodstream and collected in my palms. Every fiber of my being vibrated with indescribable power. My hands felt like two balloons.
"Be gone!" I hollered, and raised my arms.
A tremendous propulsion of sinful energy; expanding cones of black force, blasted from my palms and spread across the heavens. Thanatos's entire army of punishments burst into pieces and rained down in a driving hailstorm of bones. Thanatos remained alone, hovering in the sky, his face contorted into a terrible grimace.
"Impossible!" he shouted. "How can you have more power than I?"
He shot fireballs, but I lowered my arms and they washed harmlessly over my body.
Energy continued to flow into me. Hate gushed through my veins like water through a cracked dam. It overwhelmed my sensibilities and rationality. I wanted to destroy Thanatos. I wanted to destroy the Realmlevels. I wanted to end the existence of good and evil and humanity. I cared nothing for Ma, or Sarah, or my friends, or the Uppers. This was the real me. Born from the darkest depths of creation. Out of my mind with vile lunacy.
I raised my hands again intent on annihilating all of existence.
Then something happened. Something Thanatos, Lucifer, nor I, nor probably anyone in the universe had expected. The air itself changed, becoming charged with electricity. A huge, blinding, rainbow-colored flame exploded in front of Thanatos and burned as a continuous fireball. All around the fireball the air crackled and popped with incomprehensible energy.
"Thanatos!" boomed an exalted voice. "Thou will be punished along with Demiana!"
The sky swirled into a massive whirling vortex that sucked the pieces of punishments into a great star-filled chasm. Wiry creatures with huge, hinged jaws flew out from the chasm on membranous, dragonfly-like wings. Their mouths opened to reveal rows of bristling, needle-like teeth.
Screams ripped from Thanatos's throat as they attacked, biting his form into pieces until there was nothing left. Each wiry creature then carried a small chunk of Thanatos back into the chasm.
The last of the wiry creatures vanished; screams of the tortured abated, volcanoes stopped erupting, thunderstorms cleared, and the sky turned to a brilliant, robin's-egg blue. Peace, perhaps for the first time since the beginning of time, fell over Realmlevel Three.
A piercing headache exploded into my skull.
"Thou must learn to control the evil with from which thou was born!" boomed the exalted voice. "That which gives thou great power can easily destroy thou!"
I looked at Lucifer, healed, and on his knees in a solemn bow. In front of him, and for a brief instant, I raised my eyes and saw… the Source.
Everything flared into oblivion.
Air rushed into my oxygen-starved lungs. I gasped, opened my eyes, looked up, and saw Sarah looking down at me. Sunlight dribbled through the leafy trees but didn't burn my skin.
"You okay?" she asked, and snapped her fingers in front of my face. "You know where you are?"
Tiny electric vibrations pulsed through different parts of my body. I felt weak and my fingers hurt. But the evil, horrible, ugly energy that had occupied my body was gone.
I scrambled to my feet and staggered. She reached out to steady me.
"Whoa, take it easy," she said. "You might want to sit down."
"What happened?" I asked.
"You passed out."
"I did?" I stood, stunned, and looked down at my hands. A tiny, pink scar was in the middle of each of my palms. "For how long?"
Her frown deepened and her forehead crinkled. "About thirty seconds. You were walking across the yard and then you just kinda went down. You sure you feel all right?"
My balance returned and the fuzziness in my head began to clear. I followed her big brown eyes to my tie-dye T-shirt, which was covered in grass clippings. Dry leaves clung to my hair. I felt a bulge in the right front pocket of my blue jeans, reached down, and fished out the object.
"What's that?" she asked.
I fingered the multi-faceted, golf ball-size crystal. Sunlight reflected off its angles causing hundreds of miniature prisms. It pulsed as if momentarily igniting.
"A good luck charm," I said, and closed my hand. "What time is it?"
She glanced at her watch. "1:17. Your Ma is worried sick about you. I'd better go tell her you're okay. She saw you fall, she's on the phone with your father right now."
"My dad?" Disbelief shot my pulse into a heavy drum roll. "What are you talking about?"
"He's at the high school attending a faculty meeting, remember?" The concern on her face deepened. "You sure you're okay?"
At the far end of the yard, I noticed Dodger napping in the shade. His long tongue stuck out the side of his mouth like a pink cigar. I gazed at him, trying to figure out exactly what was going on.
My breath came in and out of my lungs without me having to think about it. My heart slapped automatically in my chest. I was hungry.
Thoughts ping-ponged inside my head.
Was this my section of the Uppers? My version of paradise? Was I granted my own personal heaven as a reward for helping to save creation? Had I become a Realmlevel ruler and this is the environment that I chose to exist in?
And then I thought; If this world is filled with everything and everyone that I love. If this world makes me happy, and feel at peace, then who cares if it's mortal or celestial in nature.
I leaned forward, pressed a kiss to Sarah's lips, and tasted her cherry-flavored lipstick. I sensed her confusion and relief, not by psychic means, but by human intuition.
"Now I know you're fine," she said teasingly, and relief spread through her expression.
I dropped the crystal back into my pocket, took her in my arms, and wrapped myself in the warmth and scent of her body; smelled her clean, thoroughly human skin perfumed with Teen Spirit.
"I'm better than fine," I said into her hair, relishing our embrace and the moment. "In fact, I've never felt more alive than I do right now."
The crystal flared and exploded into a swirling whirlwind of supercharged particles. Sarah screamed. The ground beneath me disappeared.
Everything went black and silent.
I was floating through space.
A spiral galaxy appeared in the limitless backdrop of nothingness. Another galaxy came into view. Twinkling stars surrounded me; millions of tiny, flickering dots.
Fear sunk into my bones, but then a strong sense of purpose and destiny dammed the feeling. There was something I had to do; another great task for which I'd been chosen to undertake.
I existed for a reason.