I’m CJ Sugar Sweet and that was Deep Down with “Break Me.” You’re listenin’ to WolfHour, All-Request for all of you maniacs outtere who’re wound toooo tight to sleep. It’s twenty past two and we’ve got more music comin’ your way – Ginger, ladies and gentlemen. Who am I kiddin’? Most ladies are too smart to stay up this f’n late, so it’s you and me, bros. Let’s talk about Ginger. Now that’s a leet piece of tail… Belay that. Blue Alert! A mirhatsi has crossed the Barrier. I repeat, a mirhatsi has crossed the Barrier. The following counties are on Blue Alert: Jackson, Brewer, Conley, Dillard…
Lera Breaker awoke because someone was dying. The bedroom was pitch-black and for a moment she wondered if she was still dreaming.
The influx of magic hit her, smashing against her solar plexus, and instinctively she dug her heels into the bed and buckled against it. Every nerve exploded with pain, the muscles of her back and legs locked, and she strained, staring at the ceiling lost in darkness. The world drowned in white haze. Her mouth fell open, but no sound issued forth.
Abruptly it released her. Lera slumped onto the damp sheet in a limp heap. Her vision swam, forcing the dim contours of the walls to shimmer and curve on themselves, as if they were waves about to drown her. She squeezed her eyes tight. Something had crossed the Barrier and murdered a human. Not a real hunter – a real hunter would have waited until the influence of the crossing dissipated before making a kill. Murdering a human while coated with the residual Barrier magic sent a pulse through the world, broadcasting the killer’s location. This creature did not care.
She could feel it now, a glowing pinhead of pain, moving at a diagonal, coming closer and closer. Was it coming here? Panic hit her, clogged her throat, grabbed her heart and squeezed until it skipped a beat. She concentrated on the movement, trying to gauge the angle of the killer’s approach. Her heart thudded now, its beat too loud, too distracting. Her hands and feet went ice-water cold.
No. Not here. His course would bring him past her home, to the north, up the hill… to Malcolm’s house.
The killer kept moving, glowing weaker and weaker as the magic clinging to it dissipated into the night. She hesitated for another breath, double checking the trajectory. There was no doubt. It was heading for Malcolm’s house and it would slaughter everyone within it.
A flicker of movement crossed the bedroom floor and crouched in the corner. Terror stabbed her chest, and suddenly it hurt to breathe. Her pulse shot up in an insane drumbeat. Her legs went numb, her arms followed and she lay motionless in a tangle of sweat-dampened sheets, with nothing to do but sob and peer into the darkness of the bedroom. It’s an aftereffect triggered by the pulse, the rational part of her mind told her. A panic seizure. You’ve had them before. A purely physical response to the magic of the Barrier mixed with human life force. Fight it with logic.
The shadow moved forward on silent feet. A thin icy needle pricked its way down Lera’s back. She squeezed the sheets, her fingers clutching the fabric rigid, like talons of a bird.
The shadow slipped closer.
Closer. Lera whimpered.
In the twilight hallways of her mind, a presence rose and stood in the way of her fear. You’re the most dangerous thing in this house. Fight your fear. Fight it.
Shudders gripped her under the covers. The shadow had reached the foot of the bed. She could no longer see it.
The killer was almost invisible now too, closing in on Malcolm’s house, free of magic and ready to murder. She had to get up. She had to get up and help.
Get up, the presence ordered.
I can’t, she wailed.
Yes you can. You’ve fought the seizures before and won. You can do it again.
Lera gritted her teeth. Malcolm, large, red-bearded, with kind eyes, always speaking of Paula and their children, always “we” instead of “I” as if he had trouble distinguishing where his family ended and he, the individual, begun. Paula, warm voice, warm eyes, “would you like to join us – the cake’s just been frosted,” “Lera, let me give you a ride, you’ll catch a cold in the rain.” The twin boys. Leigh, the little girl, brown eyes, curly red hair.
She strained until she thought her spine would snap. The world shrank to the white rectangle of the bed. The muscles on her arms swelled, her hand curled into fists… With a guttural snarl Lera sat up.
The shadow leaped onto the bed. She caught it in mid-jump, her sweat-drenched fingers clutching the soft fur. The shadow purred.
“Sun, you idiot,” she whispered and dropped the cat onto the sheets.
As they pulled into the driveway before their house, Paula was gripped by sudden knowledge that something was wrong. The premonition was so strong that she shivered. The skin on the back of her arms pimpled, and she peered into the darkness of a warm spring night through her car window. Her gaze traveled past the grey gravel driveway and the freshly cut lawn to the row of dogwood trees. The danger lay there, she was sure of it, hiding among the crooked branches dripping inky night shadows onto the grass.
Malcolm shut off the engine, killing the lights. Gloom clutched at the car.
“Here we are,” he said.
He opened his door and stepped out, leaving her alone. Paula hesitated, her hand on the door handle. This is absurd, she told herself. Who would be hiding here? Oklahoma had no large predators, except for the red wolf reintroduced to the area a few years back. Wolves didn’t climb trees. They didn’t attack people either, especially not people the size of her husband. They had nothing to fear, except the mirhatsi. And those bastards didn’t hide. They waited in the open.
Paula swung the door open and stepped out, her feet in flat-soled Easy Spirit shoes sliding slightly on the driveway gravel. She took a deep breath, faced the trees, and listened, expecting a lithe shadow with claws and teeth to leap at her any minute.
“Honey?” Malcolm’s hand touched her shoulder. “Are you okay?”
“Yes. Just jumpy.”
He nodded and went to open the front door. They had bought the house recently and at a great price – it was a fixer-upper and the location was rather remote. The nearest town, a small, ugly, functional place, full of cheap restaurants and autopart shops, was nearly forty-five minutes away. She loved the ranch-style house and she loved the land on which it sat, hugging the top of a low hill, the planted wood rolling from their lawn down the slope to teeter on the edge of a muddy but picturesque lake. But it did mean that they were isolated. Their nearest neighbor was a young woman, a bank employee, a nice but a bit helpless girl, and if real trouble began, Paula wouldn’t be sure who she would have to save first, her family or poor Lera.
Wind came, rustling through the branches. Her heart skipped a beat, and then the porch light came on, offering refuge from the darkness, and she shook her head and went to open the rear door. Gently she untangled their daughter from the belts of a child restraint seat. Leigh murmured something in her sleep. Paula held her against her shoulder and walked to the house.
At least the boys were away at her mother’s for the evening. She had been looking forward to a quiet night. If only her unease would go away…
Inside she put Leigh on her bed, briefly wondering why she bothered. Nothing short of a locked door would stop Leigh from a mad dash across the sleeping house to their room and their bed; and they didn’t lock themselves away from their children. Unless the moment demanded.
Gently, she pulled Leigh’s shoes from her small feet, and put the “My Little Pony” blanket over her. Leigh turned in her sleep, kicked the blanket, and became still.
Sleep, baby. Big day tomorrow.
Tonight of all nights she was grateful for the steel bars guarding their windows. God, what an age. With a sigh, Paula went back to the car to get the groceries, meeting Malcolm halfway, hands full of plastic bags.
She stepped into the night and walked the few steps to the gaping trunk. It was empty.
“Malcolm?” she called. “Did you say there was chicken left?”
He didn’t answer; probably didn’t hear her. Paula stared at the empty trunk. She could picture the chicken, cut and packed into neat white trays and stuffed into plastic bags with the United logo on them. She had put them in the trunk herself.
Paula frowned. This is silly. She must’ve put the chicken into the cab. She had done it so many times that the memory was playing tricks on her.
A deep guttural snarl rippled through the night. It came from behind her.
The urge to turn was overwhelming, but somehow, by some animal instinct she knew that to turn around was to die.
The snarl broke into a growl that raised the tiny hair on her neck. It’s a dog, she told herself. A large feral dog.
Don’t run. Whatever you do, don’t run. If you’ll run, it will chase and kill you.
Slowly, step by step, Paula began skirting the car. The growl followed. Hot, moist vapor touched her neck and she smelled a foul odor of carrion. Oh God. She edged around the trunk. She could jerk open the car door and dive inside, but then Malcolm would come looking for her and the thing would kill him. Paula kept walking, one tiny baby step at the time, to where the open rectangle of the house door promised shelter.
She saw Malcolm walking through the house, heading to her, oblivious to the danger at her back. Lord, no, she prayed silently. If she screamed, he would rush to her and then the beast would rip into both of them.
A mere four feet separated her from the entrance. Malcolm was halfway through the living room. Paula took a deep breath and ran.
She dashed into the house, slammed the door behind her, and braced it with her back. A crushing force smashed into the door with a dull thud. The wood shuddered. Without asking, Malcolm threw himself against it. Paula slid the deadbolt shut with trembling fingers. It hit the door again – boom! – and they heard a low nasty voice murmuring something in a strange language as if a dozen people spoke the same phrase at once. It laughed, a cackling giggle that arrested Paula’s breath in her throat. She clung to the wood.
Quiet scratching came from beyond the door, sharp claws on reinforced wood. It scraped at the top, to the side, at the bottom, murmuring gibberish and broke off. Silence reigned.
Moments stretched, thick and viscous like honey. Paula held on to the door, afraid to step away, afraid to check on Leigh, afraid to speak.
Malcolm took one careful step into the living room and crossed the floor to the window. She never knew he could move so quietly. He motioned her to him, but she didn’t dare leave the door unguarded and instead leaned over to see the window. Through the glass and steel bars, she saw the driveway and the car…
It sat on top of the car. Humanoid in shape and lean to the point of emaciation, it perched on top of their Vilada, gripping the roof with oversized feet. Black sickle claws curled from its abnormally long toes and they tapped the surface of the sleek plasti-steel, touching but not scratching the glossy paint. Spotted black and blue fur grew in patches along its spine, sheathing its pelvis in a tangled mass. Its forelegs with clawed fingers clutched a pale object.
Its face was horrible. Enormous square jaws, too large for the skull, protruded forward, making the wide flat nose seem ridiculously small. Sharp cheekbones, thick ridged eyebrows, low misshapen forehead. But the eyes, the eyes were worst of all. Small and sunken deep into the skull, they burned with malicious intelligence. They looked human.
The thing shifted. Its jaws gaped, displaying triangular teeth and a long tongue. It brought the object in its hands to its mouth, and Paula realized what it was – chicken, still in its tray. The thing bit into the package, tearing the plastic wrapper, and stuffed a chicken breast into its maw, leaving long strands of flesh between its teeth.
It turned, looked straight at Paula, and laughed. That awful cackle chilled her to the bone and Paula thrust herself away from the window and back against the door. Malcolm had moved to the cabinet in the corner and was punching in the code on the small digital lock.
“What is that?” Paula whispered.
“I don’t know.”
He opened the door and took out a shotgun. She watched him load it, and a realization dawned on her.
“What are you doing?”
“I’ll kill it.”
“No!” she whispered, suddenly reaching new heights of terror. “Three packs of chicken aren’t worth it!”
He gave her an odd look and slid the second cartridge into the chamber.
“Wait!” She was desperate now. “Wait, maybe it’s gone.”
Slowly she leaned forward, glancing out of the window, and found the bright human eyes mere inches from the glass, staring at her with hungry glee. Paula froze. The thing pressed its deformed face against the bars, so close that she could see the build up of plaque on its yellow teeth. The long agile tongue licked the glass.
“Paula, move!” Malcolm barked.
She knew she had to move, she was in his line of fire, but her feet were rooted to the floor by the intelligence in those awful eyes. She could do nothing but stare, mesmerized. The creature grinned.
Something hit it from the side, knocking it out of her field of vision. A shape flashed by – a shock of pale blond hair – and vanished… And then Malcolm jerked her away from the window.
“Where is it?”
“Something hit it!”
“Lock the door behind me!” Malcolm unlocked the door.
“No!” she begged, but he slammed the door in her face. Through the window she saw him step forward, shotgun staring out in the yard. He paused, turned, examined the door.
“It’s gone,” he said.
She came to stand by his side and saw four long pale scratches scarring the brick of the outside wall. Malcolm stepped to the wall and put his hand on the scratches. His fingers didn’t spread that wide, but if they had, his first three fingers and his thumb would’ve matched the marks.
“Something dragged it away,” he said. “Did you see what it was?”
“No.” She hesitated.
“What is it, Paula?”
“For a moment I thought… I thought it looked like Lera.”
“Lera?” he said. “Lera from down the hill? The banker Lera?”
Paula stared at him helplessly. “The hair… It just looked like her.”
Malcolm looked into the night and then at her, and drew her close. “Let’s get inside.”
They locked the metal bars and the door behind them and ran to the children’s bedroom to check on Leigh.
The lieutenant’s camo-tinted face was young and round, soft with baby fat, but his eyes were infinitely older, tired as if dusted with ash. Lera had seen eyes like that before. Too much death, too fast, too frightening.
He stood on her porch, waiting for her to open the door, flanked by two soldiers in the pixilated green and brown BDUs. The soldiers wore bulky helmets and carried M-20A’s. Their 12 mm rounds would stop a rhino at full charge. They would do nothing against the rvah, but she wouldn’t be the one to tell them that.
The lieutenant leaned forward and knocked again. All three kept their searchlights off. Eight years of battling the mirhatsi taught them not to announce their presence unless numbers were on their side. From her post by the window behind the dense gauze of the curtains, she couldn’t see up the hill, but she knew Malcolm’s place was awash with lights. The guardsmen had formed a defensive perimeter around the house, determined to protect the family within. A real hunter would slice them to shreds despite all of their firepower, electrified wire, and fledgling magic users, but she admired them for trying.
Somewhere in the woods, a search team led by bloodhounds was tracking the killer’s scent. They would find nothing of importance.
The lieutenant frowned. She would let him knock one more time.
The memory of Paula’s face against the glass thrust itself before her. Eyes glistening the terror, mouth open in a silent scream. The lieutenant shifted to the right, looking into the other window and Lera leaned to keep him in her view. It was a mistake to become involved. She should have stayed out of it, but she couldn’t. She ate their food. She watched their children. She couldn’t sit by while they died. How human. The thought made her smile.
The lieutenant banged on the door, slapping it with open hand. Now.
She retreated into the hallway and yelled, “Who is it?”
“It’s the Guard, open the door!”
She came to the door, slid open the two deadbolts, and opened it with marked hesitation. “Yes?”
The lieutenant’s eyes flickered for just a moment to the low-cut front of her nightshirt. “A mirhatsi was sighted in the area, ma’am. I need you to come with me.”
“Was anybody hurt?”
“Not at this time. I need you to come with me, ma’am.”
Lera had little doubt that if she delayed any longer, he would carry her to the humvee waiting in the driveway. She snagged a knitted afghan off the stairs, where she had dropped it a few minutes ago, wrapped it around her shoulders, and let him lead her into the night to be protected.
Booker raised the coffee mug to his lips, tapped the Page Down key to scroll the document to the end, and stopped, puzzled, when no coffee reached his mouth. He glanced into the mug. Empty. He couldn’t recall how many cups he had drunk. He tried to keep caffeine to a minimum, but sometimes the old habit of coffee-guzzling got away from him. Especially when he was stumped.
He glanced at the file open on the display, reached out on impulse, and touched the small glowing glyph, red on black, in the left bottom corner of the page. His name, spelled in Pressian script. Pointless, a tiny voice of self-doubt told him. All of it. There was no solution to this dilemma. He simply did not have the means to solve this new puzzle they had placed before him.
To get another cup or switch to water? Probably water, he decided, and some Tylenol. Two, no, three. His head ached. He saw no light at the end of the tunnel.
Booker leaned back in his chair, stretching the fatigued muscles of his back, and glanced at the thin panel of the digital clock. Forty three minutes past midnight. He’d been in the office for sixteen hours. It occurred to him that he spent more time here than at his apartment.
It was a simple office, painted with glossy off-white and furnished with a large desk, three soft client chairs and an oversized leather executive one, which Booker, who hated the sound leather made, promptly banished to a corner. He did little to personalize the office. Unlike most of the military brass in this building, he never developed the need for the I-love-me displays and the walls stood bare, save for the lonely frame identifying him as a diplomate of the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology in Psychiatry and Forensic Psychiatry. The title, as obsolete as the Olympic Games considering his current profession, did little to inspire additional confidence in his visitors – those who came to his office came convinced by his deeds rather than his credentials. But he held on to it all the same. If only to remember all the work he had put into obtaining that degree.
He did bring in the plants – two bonsai trees and a bamboo plant. And the tiool-noma. It sat behind him on a small metal stand, a smooth transparent cylinder eight inches tall and six inches wide. Within the turquoise water, tinted by microscopic algae, a golden sphere the size of a lemon slowly made its descent. Built of rigid hair-thin tendrils, with all of the fragility of a snowflake, yet infinitely more complex, it would drift gently until it reached the bottom of the cylinder and then start its ascent. It fed on the algae, which in turn flourished by consuming tiool-noma’s metabolic waste. The ratio of the algae to the sphere’s potential for consumption had been perfectly calculated, neither overwhelming the other. It would live for years, rolling up and down within the water. The biological perpetum mobile was a gift from the pressians. He prized it more for its origin then for its beauty. It was a testament to the thought methodology of its creators, who sought balance in all things.
Booker massaged his face, trying to rub away fatigue. Oh to hell with it. He pushed the button of the intercom. “Anybody there?”
“Specialist Russel, 4th of the 32nd, may I help you, Doctor?” The male voice was tinted with the light southern tones of Coastal Georgia.
“Do you happen to have any coffee, Specialist?” It was a moot question. They always had coffee.
“Sure do. Would you like a cup?”
“Yes.” The relief in his voice bordered on embarrassing. He really would have to cut down on caffeine.
“Hold on, I’ll bring you one.”
Three minutes later, Specialist Russel shouldered his way into the office, carrying a full carafe and a mug. He eyed Booker’s cup, perched on his desk. “Guess I should’ve known you’d have a mug.”
“Have a cup with me,” Booker said, offering a newspaper as a pad for the carafe.
Russel set the carafe down, checked his watch. “Don’t mind if I do. I’ve got a few minutes before I have to check the doors again.”
He reached into his pockets and produced a scattering of sugar packets and white cones of creamer. They made their coffee, Booker – black, Russel – loaded with creamer to pale brown, and drank. Russell looked around the office. His gaze paused on tiool-noma, but he didn’t say anything.
“If you don’t mind me asking, are you that Booker?” Russel rested his coffee on the edge of the table.
Booker smiled. “Yes, I am.”
Russel offered his hand across the table. “Nice meeting you.”
Booker set his coffee down, and they shook. Russel sat back and looked around the office again. Booker noted the degree of relaxation in his posture, a slight touch of defiance in the corners of Russel’s mouth. As long as the Pressians chose him as their designated contact, Booker wielded his own, strange brand of power, the kind of power that made senior officers pay attention to what he said and did. However, he was still only a civilian and Specialist Russel was determined not to be impressed. Booker could almost hear thoughts going through the specialist’s mind: he didn’t go to Basic, he didn’t go through AIT, he never been in combat. He is a civie.
Russel’s gaze came to rest on tiool-noma again. He studied it, as if it were an odd insect. “Kind of odd using one race of aliens against the other,” he said. “Think the Pressians will help us beat the mirhatsi?”
“They our best chance,” Booker answered honestly. “They gave us magic, which we as civilization neglected to the point of denying its existence.”
“So how come we can’t just take a nuke through the Barrier and take the mirhatsi out?” Russel asked.
“It’s not that simple.” He had been asked this question so many times, he hardly had to think about the answer. “The Barrier isn’t a physical boundary, but a magic one. Think of it as a tangle of violent currents, each pushing and pulling at each other. We don’t know how to cross it and we don’t know what it would do to a nuclear weapon. It might expel it back at us and we can’t risk a detonation so close to the Barrier.”
“I see,” Russel said. He wasn’t really listening, Booker decided. Something else was on his mind. This question was just a warm-up, a look-see to find out if he would answer.
Russel shifted in his chair. “You know most of the stuff that happens with mirhatsi our side of the Barrier, right?”
“You could say that.”
Russel licked his lips. “There’s a rumor floating around,” he said. “People are saying there was a soldier at Fort Gordon who killed a mirhatsi hunter.”
Not surprising, Booker decided. It was only the matter of time before the news spread.
“I understand if you can’t tell me.” Russel took a swallow from his mug.
Booker smiled. There were bad rumors and good rumors. This was one of the better ones. It gave people hope if nothing else. And after seven years of war and nearly two thousand Americans dead, good rumors were in a short supply.
“There was such a serviceman,” he said.
Russel leaned forward, grey eyes intent. “How did he do it?”
“The mirhatsi hunter targeted him and went to his house to challenge him. For some reason this hunter decided to eliminate the serviceman’s wife first, possibly because he found her distracting.”
“I thought they didn’t target noncombatants.”
Booker grimaced. “Most don’t. The mirhatsi are fragmented into clans, as far as we can tell. The majority of the clans seem to consider killing bystanders beneath them. Apparently some don’t. The mirhatsi in question was in the process of killing the wife when the serviceman came home.”
Hammond’s face flashed before Booker. He remembered the towering, all-consuming rage in the sergeant’s eyes and suppressed a shudder.
“What happened?” Russel asked.
“The serviceman jumped on the hunter’s back and choked him to death,” Booker said.
Russel stared at him, coffee forgotten in his hand. “Just like that?”
Sergeant Hammond’s eyes glared at Booker from the depth of his memory. Describing what had occurred, putting it into words somehow made it seem almost trivial.
“Just like that. He broke the hunter’s neck and had to be forcibly separated from the corpse.” It had taken a sedative and six men. When they strapped him to a gurney and carried him away, Hammond had been growling like an animal. He barely seemed human at that point.
“Wow.” Russel shook his head. “He must’ve really loved his wife.”
A flashback to the sterile starkness of the hospital bed, Hammond’s face, grey, tired, eyes worn, bleached of all color. Doctor, she’s dead and I feel… relief. Tell me how I’m supposed to live with that?
“He did,” Booker lied.
Russel looked into his cup. “Unbelievable. Seven years we’ve been fighting them and they just raided us, picked us off one by one. We tried snipers and better guns and poison, and nothing worked. And here’s a guy kills one with his bare hands.”
“They aren’t immortal,” Booker said. “They are better armed and better trained, and they fight the war on their terms, but they aren’t immortal.”
“That’s good to know,” Russel said. “So what happened to him?”
“That, Specialist, I can’t tell you.” Booker grinned. “He’s safe, and the rest is classified.”
Tomorrow the entire base would know every last detail of their conversation.
The laptop chimed, announcing an incoming message. Booker glanced at the sender’s address. Reyes. The message bore a cryptic subject line, “You must see this.”
“Excuse me, I have to take that,” he said.
“No problem, Doc.” Russel rose. “Have to make my rounds anyway.”
Booker waited until the specialist closed the door behind him and tapped the key. The small rectangle of the message expanded. Pixelated, out-of focus smudges of color filled the screen, as the laptop processed the encrypted feed streaming across thousands of miles. Booker reached for his coffee. A strange thing, hope. Weighed against the death toll in the U.S. alone – two thousand three hundred and twelve as of this morning – a single mirhatsi casualty at the hands of a human was statistically insignificant. A Pressian would have found it incredibly depressing, and yet one soldier’s spirits were uplifted by it. How little we truly need, Booker reflected. A mere hint, a proverbial glimmer of hope. A possibility of success, no matter how slight, and the human race is ready to suck it up and drive on.
Too bad it did so little for his own mood. He was too close to it all, in the very heart of the inferno. He knew the dead, he interviewed their families… Booker took a swallow from his mug and grimaced against the acrid bitterness of the overcooked coffee grind. He never doubted the importance of what he did. His work was vital to the survival of the human race. But he doubted his success, his own ability to carry it through, and nothing he had accomplished cured him of this nagging worry. Somewhere down the line he would come up short. It was inevitable. For years now he could almost feel that distant point of failure. He dwelled on it, however irrational such musing might seem, and tried to come to terms with it. Other men in his place would have found solace in religion, but he had lost his faith a long time ago, and at times like this he missed it keenly.
Now, when he finally arrived at the point of failure, he found himself unprepared.
The image solidified with a sudden snap. The back of someone’s dark head… The picture crept upward and the camera tilted, wide panning on a medium-sized room, two people on one side of the table, one sitting across from them. A woman with short blond hair huddled in a chair, wrapped in a bright blanket, looking a bit disheveled, alarmed and fragile, like a doe caught in the headlight of the car. The camera zoomed in with precision of the alien technology, and the woman’s face filled the digital display. The coffee drenched Booker’s leg as the cup slipped from his fingers and rolled on the floor under his desk. “Dear God,” he whispered, mesmerized by the face. “It can’t be.”
The woman nodded at someone in the room. Her light grey eyes focused on the camera for a briefest of moments. Ice shot down Booker’s spine.
The woman looked away. Booker forced himself to swallow. His breath was coming out in small controlled puffs. Calm. He must be calm. This would have to be done carefully. Booker slid open the top drawer of his desk, took the small black rectangle of the headset with trembling fingers, pressed it to his right temple and let go as the headset adhered to his skin. A hair-thin filament of the microphone slid to his lips, while another curved to his right ear.
Booker typed the access code and cleared his throat, trying to fight the excitement in his voice. “Santos, are you in the room with her?” he whispered.
“No.” In his ear, Reyes’ voice sounded slightly distorted by the connection.
Booker breathed a sigh of relief. He would need Reyes later. It was best she didn’t notice him.
“Santos, listen carefully,” he breathed into the microphone. “Not a word gets said in that room without my approval. Not a word. Make your people understand.”
“Affirmative,” the voice in his ear said. “They’ve been briefed.”
The camera tilted, zooming on a laptop opened before the interviewer on the left, showing a line of text across the screen. Booker would feed the questions to Reyes and Reyes would feed them to the interviewer through the laptop. Smart, Santos, very smart. If he was right about her, she would hear the communication going on the interviewers’ headsets.
A narrow frame blinked into existence on the side of the screen, displaying the background information. Booker scanned it with feverish speed: a routine mirhatsi alert, targeted a male, attack interrupted by an unknown, body recovery made… He tapped a key, and a small shot of the recovered remains popped up in right bottom corner. He had to squint before he realized that a bloody heap of mush he was viewing had actually been a body at some point. It could’ve been a dead mirhatsi or the regurgitated contents of a bear’s stomach – it was impossible to tell.
The camera turned back to the woman. Desperately Booker wished he had more time, time to prepare, to craft the questions…
“Ready when you are,” Reyes said.
He had to do it now. Any delay might alarm her and then she would be gone. He couldn’t let her slip through his fingers. If it was her…
On the screen the woman drew her blanket around her shoulders, and looked at the floor. Her face, pale and puffy from the sleep, made her seem even more frazzled. It was an illusion, but had he stepped into the room, not knowing who she was, he would have moved to comfort her.
“Sir?” Reyes’s voice prodded him through the headset.
Booker took a deep breath. “First question…”
The horizontal mouse wheel clicked under Booker’s finger. The recording of the interview blurred for a moment, froze, and played back.
“Why do you think a mirhatsi would choose Murphy family as their target?”
“I have no idea. It’s all so senseless.”
The colored bars of the behavioral analyzer on the screen to his left registered a deep green of a truthful response. Lera Breaker was quite literally cool as a cucumber.
“Do you consider the mirhatsi evi?”
“If you mean evil like Lex Luther or Skeletor, no, I don’t think so. I think they’re more like animals. Not evil or good, just amoral.”
A cultural reference. Very good, Lera.
“Do you consider yourself to be a good person?”
He watched her look up. She appeared so earnest. “I suppose so,” she said. “I try to be.”
“Are you a good citizen?”
“I try.” There it was, a tiny smile. Booker froze it with a click, afraid he had imagined it, and zoomed in until her face filled the screen. He reached to the bottom drawer and punched the four digit code into the small digital lock. The tiny red dot on the lock’s smooth metal box flickered and turned green. Slowly Booker slid the drawer open, took out an unmarked manila envelope, and put it on the polished surface of the desk. Inside the envelope was a single photograph. He didn’t really need to take it out. He knew it in minute detail. If time had mass, the desk would have collapsed under the weight of the hours he spent pouring over that single digital image.
He didn’t need it, but he had to be sure. Scratching the seal with his thumbnail, Booker carefully peeled back the adhesive strip and slid the image from the envelope. The same grey eyes. The same tiny smile.
“Welcome home, Veleri,” he whispered. “Welcome home.”
The log split with a satisfying crack. Sergeant John Hammond inhaled the scent of sap, set the two log halves upright, and swung his go-devil. The heavy blade bit into the white oak and the wood splintered cleanly. Crack. He swung again and busted the other half. High above him cold autumn wind churned the thick clouds, ominous grey and pregnant with drizzle. It would rain soon.
He heard the back door swing open with a screech, followed by a slap of a screen frame carelessly flung shut. Jeremiah. Hammond picked up another log and split it.
His nephew hovered on the edge of his vision, the bright-yellow Lands’ End jacket thrown over a T-shirt, and shifted from foot to foot, uneasy. They all were uneasy around him. He was growing used to it.
Hammond picked up the quartered log and tossed the pieces onto the growing pile of split wood.
“Mom says to come inside for supper,” Jeremiah said.
“Tell her I’ll be right there.” Hammond set up another log.
The boy remained where he was.
“Aren’t you hot in the jacket?” Hammond swung the go-devil.
“Mom says to keep it on. I have asthma.”
Yes I know. Your mother told me. And told me.
Hammond glanced at the kid out of the corner of his eye. He wasn’t a badly built kid. A little pale, a little pudgy. If she peeled that damn jacket off of him and let him out in the yard once in awhile… Ahh, shit. Not his kid. Not his place.
“Are you gonna go back in the Army after you done with vacation?”
“Planning on it,” Hammond said grimly and split another log.
“Dad says they won’t have you. He says the Army won’t know how you gonna act.”
Hammond took his time to set up the log exactly the way he wanted it. There were two kinds of soldiers – those who left their job at the door of their house and those who dragged it in kicking and screaming. Dick was of the second kind and then some. He did his mandatory three years in the Guard, liked it, and might have stayed in, if not for his busted knee and the fourth kid. Now he managed to stretch three years worth of war stories into seven years of civilian life and showed no signs of stopping. There wasn’t an MOS in which he wasn’t expert. It didn’t bother Hammond too much. When he got tired of listening, he left to sit on the porch in the old wooden rocker. He watched the trees rustle and drank his iced tea.
“So what will you do if the Army won’t take you back?”
“I’ll do something else.” Hammond took aim and busted the log with one precise swing.
“Go on to the house, Jeremiah. Your Mom will be looking for you.”
The kid chewed on his lip, lingered for another breath or two just to prove to him that he wasn’t his Dad and didn’t have to be obeyed right away, and finally turned and wandered back to the house, slouching in his oversized jacket. If they took him in hand now, they could salvage the kid. But they weren’t going to. He’d grow fatter, paler, and weaker.
Who am I to judge?
He took the axe to the shed and put it in its place in the corner. When he stepped out, pushing a rickety wheel barrow over the bumps in the lawn, two men waited for him by the woodpile. The first was black and bookish, with a college intellectual haircut and an expensive coat, tailored but still too large for his slight frame – Booker. The second man was older, brick-house thick, square-jawed, and stiff as a board in a civilian getup. Sergeant-Major Waten, decked out in a suit and trying his best to impress Booker. The dickwad probably saw coming here as another milestone in his transition to a civilian career, a checkmark on his much pampered resume. Hammond grimaced. Two people he wanted to see the least.
He forced the wheel barrow to the pile and began filling it with wood.
“Sergeant,” Booker said softly.
“Hello Doc. Can’t say it’s good to see you.”
“I thought we agreed on Keaton the last time we met.” Booker studied him with dark eyes.
Hammond didn’t answer. They had a history, Booker and he. Few people spoke to him after Shelly died. Most hesitated, uncomfortable and stiff, broaching the subject slowly not so much for his but for their own sake. He suspected that most of them responded to their own embarrassment. Some went out of their way to maintain a safe distance, as if he was some deranged lunatic who could lunge for their throat without a slightest provocation. Booker seemed to understand, as much as anyone could, but he belonged in the past, back with the cause of his forced “vacation.” He had no reason to be here.
The two men watched him for awhile. When the wheelbarrow was full, he pushed it into the shed to the stack of firewood. Booker and Waten followed him. Booker stepped into the shed. Waten took one look at the grimy walls and stayed put.
Looking at him riled a familiar shitty feeling. For all of his verbal diarrhea, Dick was right, Hammond decided. They wouldn’t have him back and he was too proud to beg. He did his time, carried his share of mud on his boots, watched over his share of soldiers and buried his share of them. He had only one reason to go back now – revenge. And that’s the only thing they wouldn’t let him do. Oh, anything these two offered him now would have to do with the mirhatsi, he was sure. Talking about mirhatsi. Thinking about them. Studying them. Just not killing them in the field. That they would not let him do.
“I’m done with it,” he said. “I’ve already said what I had to say.”
Most of the wood had been cut earlier this year, but Dick hadn’t gotten around to splitting it and now it was damp. The soggy, dirt-stained bark gave slightly under Hammond’s fingers, as he rearranged the pile before starting his own stack of freshly split logs off to the side. He would have to bring some of this in to dry up.
“I’ve come with a proposition,” Booker said.
“Don’t want to hear it.”
Waten cleared his throat. “Son,” he said, his voice grave. “Your country needs you.”
Fuck it. It didn’t matter – he had a discharge coming anyway. Hammond turned on his heel, the log still in his hand. “Don’t ‘son’ me,” he said, his voice full of quiet menace. Waten took a step back. “I’ve worked for you because you outranked me. You’re a piss-poor NCO and a career asshole. I never liked you and never respected you.”
The vein in Waten’s left temple throbbed. He opened his mouth.
“Sergeant-Major,” Booker said. “It’s best you go back to the car.
“I will not…”
“To the car,” Booker said. “Please.”
Waten hesitated, looking very much like Jeremiah had a few minutes ago. Hammond waited, hoping he would make a move. Waten was thinking about it – Hammond saw in his eyes – and then the breaks kicked in and the NCO turned stiffly and stalked off, his jaw muscles working furiously under clean-shaven cheeks. Hammond watched him go with regret.
“You’re an incredibly violent man, John.” Booker leaned against the shed wall, oblivious to sawdust and dirt clinging to his coat. “Haven’t changed a bit.”
“I’m an enlisted.” Hammond slid the log in his hand onto the pile. “Had I gone up the chain, I would always be an enlisted, getting screwed by officers and dickheads like him. Figured I had my one shot at him and you’ve ruined it.”
Booker looked up at the shed’s wooden ceiling. “Do you still blame yourself for Michele’s death?”
“Before you decide to punch me,” Booker said, “consider this: what if I told you that you would get a chance to kill more mirhatsi then any other human on the planet?”
Careful now, Hammond thought. The last log slid in its place with a light thump.
“It would put you in imminent danger, but you would get a shot at stopping this war. Would you want that chance?”
“What the hell do you want me to do? Carry a nuke through the Barrier?”
“You didn’t answer my question.” Booker’s gaze was direct. “Would you want that chance, John?”
He grimaced and lifted the empty wheelbarrow, leaning it against the wall, wheels out. “Yes,” Hammond said. “I’d want that chance.”
Booker smiled. “Then I have something to offer you. Nothing as trivial as getting a nuclear weapon through the Barrier. This will be a lot harder. Come.”
He stepped out of the shed and Hammond followed him. The rain finally broke through the clouds and cold drizzle sifted onto the grass. Hammond reached for the sweatshirt he left hanging off the apple tree by the porch but his hand brushed the bark, missing the fabric. At the end of the gravel driveway, in the wide fork where it joined the dirt road leading up the mountain, a long bulbous body the color of bloodied muscle floated above the ground like a twelve foot long half-deflated zeppelin. Hammond’s heart skipped a beat. Something brushed against his mind, feather-light yet chillingly alien. Instinctively he looked toward the shed where he’d left the go-devil.
“Easy, John,” Booker murmured. “Easy.”
The red alien jerked. Muscle convulsions ran along its sides, the entire body palpitating like a huge heart. The red color pulsed and dulled to a dim crimson. The Pressian turned, its fragile antennae shuddering, and floated toward them.