The ongoing weekly serial continues. Click here for the introduction,  here for Part 1, here for part 2, and here for part 3.


Chapter Seven


“You told us this was just a shakeout mission.”

Julie slouched in a chair at the back of the VR room and crossed her arms over her chest. 

“What did you get?” Sven leaned forward next to her. 

“The word is shakedown,” I said, “and I stumbled across a board meeting or something. I thought you’d be happy I picked up some things you can write in your little report.”

“We are happy,” Sven nudged Julie, who rolled her eyes. “Some of us have a weird way of showing it.”

“This is the third-floor north conference room,” I said, pointing to the image in front of us. “The only person I recognized was the CEO, but I got a good look at almost everyone in the room.”

I played back the stream, turned up the sound, and then watched Julie’s face transition from pissed to begrudging to delighted when the CEO stood up and spoke. When the birds were out of earshot, I paused the stream.

“That’s it?” Julie sputtered. “Why didn’t you stay for the rest?”

“I was already out longer than I’d planned, but really, did you not hear that? There’s nothing here. She’s talking about Gandhi and King and Karim. They’re not violent.”

“That’s not for you to decide.” Julie snapped, having transitioned back to pissed.

“Hold on.” Sven held an open palm out to each of us. “Let’s all calm down.”

“I’m perfectly calm,” I said. “And I don’t see an issue. I told you to expect nothing from this mission, and I came back with a little bit of something.”

“We make the judgment calls,” Julie said. “You collect intel. That’s all you do. And when you’re in a juicy position like this, the last thing in the world you should do is leave.”

“Alright,” Sven stood and stepped in between us, “what’s done is done.”

“It was done poorly,” Julie glared.

“Why don’t you try—” I began, but Sven cut me off.

“I don’t know about you two, but I don’t want to spend the next year or so at each other’s throats. How about we set some ground rules that will make everyone happy. What do you say?” Sven smiled and clapped his hands together, trying to get us excited about his proposal. 

“Fine,” Julie said.

“Fine,” I said and shut off the simulation.

For the next half hour, Sven did most of the talking. In the end, we agreed to set each day’s mission parameters jointly and communicate more openly during the flight. I agreed not to make my own judgments about the targets I was surveilling and to let Julie or Sven sit in the VR room with me as long as they kept distractions to a minimum. They agreed not to question my decisions about the flight plan, security or bird safety. Julie and I even hugged before we left, although it only lasted a nanosecond.

It was a rocky start to a friendship that would blossom over the next year. We learned almost everything about each other and I spent a lot of time at their house in the city. I went there nearly every weekend for dinner. When they found out I was sleeping in the hangar because I didn’t want to catch anything from my bed upstairs, they offered me their couch. They’re both fantastic people that I miss very much. We haven’t spoken in a long time. Too long. I cut them out of my life for the same reason I cut ties with everyone else I knew on Earth – to protect them.




“Good morning,” I felt cheerful as I strolled into their office the next day. “What’s the plan for today?”

“David Chandler,” Julie said, sliding a folder across the table toward me. I sat down and flipped it open. “He is the quote-unquote expert the CEO scolded yesterday. We have other reporting linking him with far right-wing organizations like Gebian Watch, Earth First, and a host of others. They’re smart enough not to discuss their plans on streams we can monitor, so we want you to shadow him during the day and find out what he is up to.”

“And if I can’t get close to him in the building or hear what he’s saying, what do you want me to do then?”

“In that case, just look where you can see,” Sven answered. “We need everything we can get on TVA at this point.”

“How long can you stay out?” Julie asked.

“Four hours is standard. Performance drops off after that.” 

“And, if you see another meeting in progress….”

“I won’t leave unless it’s an emergency.” I played nice and grinned at Julie. She blushed, then studied the papers in front of her. “Who’s in the room with me today?” 

“Me,” Sven answered. “Quiet as a mouse.”

“Ok, let’s get it on.”




I shadowed David Chandler day in, and day out for the next four weeks, so I feel like I’m on solid ground when I say this: he is, in all certainty, the most boring person in the universe. 

He sat in a second-floor cubicle facing a window on the west side of the building. A medium-sized Sycamore tree stood in front of it, and the branches closest to the window were in a security camera dead zone, so I could watch and listen for long periods without fear of detection. 

In fact, my only fear was falling asleep. 

Chandler was married with two teenage children at home, one boy and one girl. His wife, who was moderately good-looking for her age, brought him lunch on Wednesdays. He didn’t cheat on her as far as I could tell – and trust me, I was looking for anything to spice up his life. His parents were still alive and retired and living in the US. 

I overheard him talking to them once. They’re boring, too. 

He was in his office ten hours each day. I varied my flight times and saw him arrive precisely at 0800 and leave minutes after 1800. His typical day consisted of reading and writing, interrupted by the occasional media interview. Sven and Julie showed me one of these interviews after it aired, and he appeared to have taken his CEO’s criticisms to heart. He was unfailingly kind and polite, even as he was being raked over the coals. 

Chandler had several face-to-face meetings with the organizations Julie mentioned, but those were almost as dull as watching him sit at his desk and read. I never heard a single exciting word. They talked about things like subsection five of section eight of the holy-shit-this-is-tedious act. It hurt my brain. 

So, after yet another uneventful morning watching Chandler prepare a report on Gebian asylum requests over the previous two decades, I stomped into Sven and Julie’s office looking for answers.

“Look, I know you two are the analysts, and I’m not supposed to question what you do back here, but you’ve got to help me out. Why am I still watching this guy? We’ve got nothing unless you’re sitting on something you haven’t shown me.”

“Believe me, we talk about this every day,” Sven said. “And we don’t have an answer. It may just take time. Maybe he doesn’t talk about the kind of stuff we’re looking for at work.”

“Maybe he doesn’t talk about it at all,” I offered.

“We asked the Lieutenant for help,” Julie said. “But he told us to keep at it. He’s confident we find what we’re looking for eventually.”

“Why don’t we do this,” Sven said. “Let’s fly again late this afternoon, say 1730, and see what he does when he leaves work. We’ll tail him after work for a week, and if we still have nothing to show for our efforts, we’ll move on. Agreed?”

Julie nodded.

“Why not? I’ve got nothing better to do with my nights,” I sighed and walked back to the VR room for a nap.




A week later, David Chandler was still a crashing bore. 

I followed him home from work that first night and set up shop outside his two-story townhouse. The man went straight there after work, never ate out or entertained any visitors, and never even had a drink. He brought work home, spent time with his family, ate a modest dinner, and watched a few minutes of entertainment before slipping under the covers at 2130 sharp. 

His wife, however, perhaps reaching this same conclusion years before, did add some excitement to her life. 

She was having an affair. 

Wednesday afternoon, after delivering lunch to her husband, she entertained a gentleman caller in the upstairs bedroom. I caught the aftermath as I flew in to await Chandler’s arrival. 

She was less attractive with her clothes off. 

After the week was up, Julie and Sven admitted defeat and asked me to move on to Cynthia Boyd, The Veritas Alliance’s CEO. I happily complied. She had to be more exciting than Chandler, and I already knew she was more attractive than his wife. 

In her late 40s, she was way too old for me, but her smooth white skin and sharp, gently creased face, sprinkled with freckles, was incredibly alluring. I never saw her exercise, but she had the body of someone half her age. She was married to an artist who worked across town. They did not talk often, but when they did, I heard passion in her voice. 

And she prayed! I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen someone do that. Julie was in the VR room with me when we saw Boyd grab a string of beads and drop to her knees in her office.

“Boom!” Julie erupted. “We got her.”

“She’s praying,” I said, looking through the eyes of all the birds at once.

“That spells trouble. We’ll definitely find something on her sooner or later. I can smell it.”

Except, we didn’t. As day stretched into endless day, I heard no talk of attacks or violence. To the contrary, she spoke of nothing but peace. After two full weeks of this, we used the same technique we had with Chandler and tailed her home. 

I’d be lying if I said I hated the nights I spent looking through her bedroom window. I realize that sounds creepy, but it’s not like I’m a peeping Paul in my spare time. It was my job to spy on an intensely attractive woman who sleeps naked. 

What’s a guy to do?

After a week at home with Boyd, Lieutenant Keel had apparently had enough and called all three of us into his office. 

“Specialist Lyon,” Keel turned to me after we all squeezed in and shut his door. “What’s your assessment? If we continue to surveil the CEO, will we eventually find something of value?”

“I don’t think so, sir.” As much as I didn’t want this particular assignment to end, I had to tell him the truth. 

“Do you two agree?” Sven and Julie both nodded, and Keel continued. “I have an idea that would involve approaching Boyd with an offer to assist in an attack. Are you aware of a group called the Society of Rome?”

I wasn’t, but the other two answered in the affirmative. 

“It is a small extremist group, but they’re well-funded and influential. They don’t have a public face, so I’m not surprised you haven’t heard of them. The DF has an undercover agent working with them in Rome. I’ve asked my boss to task him to come here to Cairo and meet directly with the CEO. He will offer to assist TVA in planning and executing violent protests or attacks. If my boss says yes, and I think he will, the meeting could happen within days, and we’ll need to be in a position to watch the entire exchange. I’ll have a tactical team on standby, and when we hear proof of her conspiring to deny civil rights to Gebian immigrants, they’ll swoop in, and we’ll have full access to the whole building and everything in it.”

Keel leaned back and smiled like he was Wellington describing the maneuver defeating Napoleon at Waterloo. 

“Sir?” I raised my hand.


“What if she doesn’t go for it? I mean, I’ve seen no indication she’ll agree to that kind of an offer.”

“These people are pious on the outside and rotten at the core. She’ll go for it. The only thing you need to do is be in a position to see and hear everything when she does.”

“Sir, can we request an outside meeting? In the park next to the building?” Sven asked. “That’ll make it easier for David to get close enough.”

“I like that. And if she’s outside, she will also be easier to arrest. I should have thought of that…” 

Keel cocked his head, and I could see the wheels turning. I think he was debating whether to give Sven credit for the idea or to sell it to his boss as his own. He snapped out of it after a few seconds, and I couldn’t tell what he had decided. “Ok! Any other ideas?” He leaned forward and surveyed the three of us intently. 

We looked at each other and shook our heads. “I don’t think so,” Julie said finally, “it sounds like a good plan.”

“A good plan that won’t work,” is what I wanted to say, but I kept my mouth shut and went along with the rest of the group.




Five days later, we executed Keel’s plan. 

In the meantime, I was back on day shift – unfortunately! – paying particular attention to any preparatory meetings or calls Boyd made before sitting down with our operative, Louis Gigante. There was only one, a two-minute discussion with her assistant where Boyd speculated about the real purpose of the meeting and asked: “Why in God’s name does he want to chat outside?”

They met on a park bench in El Basha Square, steps from the front entrance of the TVA building. A small murmuration of real Starlings had already taken up residence there, but I muscled them away. Live Starlings are never sure what to do about my birds. Their reactions are priceless.

There was a full house behind me in the VR room. Sven, Julie, Lieutenant Keel, and his boss, Major Rothman, all came in to watch the meeting. With a crowd this size, I expected more distractions than usual, but the only conversation I heard was Keel confirming to Rothman that the tactical team was in place, prepared to swoop in on his orders. 

Gigante arrived first. He was a large man, overflowing at the middle, and his choice of clothing only accentuated that feature. He wore a tight, white linen shirt tucked into brown cotton chinos rolled up at the bottom. He sported sunglasses and fanned himself while he waited for Boyd to arrive.

She walked up a few minutes later in a loose-fitting sleeveless blue pantsuit and shook his hand as he rose to greet her. 

“It’s nice to meet you, Mr. Gigante.” She used a crisp, businesslike tone, suggesting she didn’t care much for him. 

“Thank you for meeting me,” Louis responded and waited for her to sit before doing the same. “Giovanni sends his regards.”

“I miss Giovanni. Tell him I said hello.”

“I will. I know he values the way our two organizations have cooperated over the years, and both he and I hope that will continue.”

“Is that why you are here today?”

“Yes, as a matter of fact. And, before I begin, I apologize for asking to meet outside the office, but I have a rather sensitive matter to discuss and wanted to be away from any prying eyes or ears.” That was a nice touch, undoubtedly prompted by the report of Boyd’s conversation with her assistant. This guy was good.

“What is it?”

“Well, we are beginning a foray into, shall we say, a more active resistance to the government’s immigration policies, and we were hoping you would join us in some capacity.”

“What do you mean by active?” Boyd crossed her arms. Her antennae were up.

“We are in discussions with a group that would provide more of a physical presence on the streets in select major cities. Protests, counter-protests, light vandalism, and the like. Our previous efforts have been ineffective, and we’re pursuing a, shall we say, more direct approach.”

Boyd looked out across the square. This was the moment of truth. Coming into this meeting, I had my doubts she would accept the proposal but left open the possibility I could be wrong. I was about to find out the answer. 

No one made a sound in the room around me. We were all frozen in anticipation. I didn’t even move the birds. It must have been quite a sight. To this day, I wonder if anyone noticed two dozen immobile Starlings all looking in Boyd’s direction, waiting to hear her next words.

“I had dinner with Giovanni almost a decade ago at his house in Rome,” Boyd finally broke the silence. “I told him then what I will tell you now. The Veritas Alliance is a peaceful organization. Non-violence is one of our core values, and it is the only method we will use to pursue social justice.”

“Perhaps you misunderstand the proposal–”

“I understand perfectly, Mr. Gigante. The partnership you seek would change the very nature of my organization, and that is something I cannot and will not be a part of. I will also not be associated with an organization pursuing the kind of strategy you describe.” She stood up and straightened out her pantsuit. “You can tell Giovanni that I am severing ties with him immediately.”

“Mrs. Boyd! You can’t possibly–”

“I can, and I will. But I’ll do it quietly. Giovanni and I have been friends for a long time. I owe him that much. Good day, Mr. Gigante.” She did an about-face and walked back toward the office.

“Mrs. Boyd, please!” Gigante staggered to his feet and called after her, but it was no use. She walked through the traffic stacked up on El Manial street and disappeared. 

Behind me, I heard everyone stand up and shuffle out the door.

Twenty minutes later, after the birds were back and I’d spoken to Tuck about a minor maintenance issue, I opened the door to Julie and Sven’s office and sat down. The mood was funereal.

“So, what’s the verdict?”

“We don’t know yet. The Major and the Lieutenant are still talking.” Julie answered.

“Could she have known it was a setup?” Sven asked. “I mean, we have to be missing something.”

“Why can’t she be telling the truth?” I asked. “I will never understand why you two don’t believe her.”

“If you’d seen the reports we’ve seen, you’d understand.” Julie shot back.

“Are we going to get into this discussion again?” Sven asked rhetorically.

“There’s no discussion,” I said. “I don’t have the clearance to read whatever it is you’re reading, and you don’t trust the judgment of someone who has been watching her for weeks, including some of her most intimate moments.” It always made Julie squirm when I mentioned that I’d seen Boyd naked, so I did it at every opportunity.

“Stop it.” Julie closed her eyes.

“Sorry,” I said, smiling at Sven. “Look, all I’m saying is your reporting could be wrong. Maybe they got their extremist groups mixed up. Maybe the source is someone who doesn’t like Boyd. I don’t know what’s going on, but my gut tells me it’s wrong. We’re spinning our wheels looking at TVA, and there’s real shit going on in the world. People are dying, and we’re not doing anything about it.”

“Listen, Daniel,” Julie put on her patient face but didn’t get to finish her thought. 

Keel poked his head into the room at that moment. “Hey guys, Major Rothman wants to see everything we have on TVA by Monday. He’ll decide then whether or not to pull the plug. What a debacle. I’m going to need you here all weekend.”

“All of us?” I asked.

“Not you, Specialist Lyon. Just these two.” He pointed at Sven and Julie, then left the office as quickly as he’d arrived.

“We’re here all weekend,” Sven clicked his tongue against the roof of his mouth.

“We’re here all weekend,” Julie confirmed.

“Mind if I stay at your place?”




Major Rothman didn’t pull the plug. He ordered us to redouble our efforts. God only knows why.

For the next few months, Julie and Sven kept dredging up leads, and I kept chasing them down to no avail. We’d spied on roughly half the personnel on the TVA payroll when we came across Wayne Bouton. 

I liked Wayne Bouton.

He was the Edward Hyde to David Chandler’s Henry Jekyll and by far the most exciting person in the organization. That’s a low bar, to be sure, but for a long time, we thought we’d finally found our missing, violent link.

Bouton was a Research Assistant on the first floor of the building. His desk was nowhere near a window, but it was late summer, and the building’s doors and windows were open to circulate the air and save on power. I’d long since established a bird presence in the building and had never given anyone a reason to shoo me out. Appear lovable and cute with just the right amount of attitude, and people – being the decent creatures they generally are – will put out birdseed and water for you. 

But not Bouton. He didn’t care much for Starlings, or any other animals, as it turns out. During one of my first forays onto the first floor, he flung a plastic bottle at me, missing wildly. He chased me around with a broom a few days later, causing his colleagues to plead with him to leave the poor bird alone. I avoided him from then on, choosing more concealed vantage points. 

He shared a tiny studio apartment with his girlfriend, Doe. She claimed to be a model, but we found no evidence she was ever paid for that work. The pair fought constantly, which made for some fascinating evenings in the VR room and by itself would have cemented his status as the most exciting person in the TVA were it not for one other tiny thing.

He owned a gun.

Julie noticed it first. I was replaying the video of him chasing me around the office with a broom when she told me to rewind it.

“The good part is coming up in a second,” I said. “He knocks some books off a shelf, and they hit that woman in the head.”

“Go back. I thought I saw something.”

I ran the scene backward in slow motion.

“There,” she said, pointing at his waistband. “What is that?”

I paused the scene and rotated it around as best I could. There was a definite bulge and a flash of dull black metal, but I couldn’t identify the item.

Julie called in Sven, and I replayed the scene once more, stopping when Julie told me to.

“It’s a gun,” he said instantly. 

“What?” I squinted. “It can’t be. Nobody owns guns anymore.”

“I’ll have to do some digging to figure out what model it is,” he said, “and we can’t be sure it’s real. There are lots of fake guns floating around on the black market. They’re as illegal as the real ones, but I know there is a subculture of people who have them just to portray an image.”

“How do you know this?” I asked.

“Oli sees a lot of weird shit and can’t wait to tell me about it.” Oli was his brother, and as a police administrator, the source of several of the more bizarre stories told at their house late on a Saturday night.

“This guy can’t just be portraying an alt-death image,” Julie said. “This has to be real, and he must want to use it. I mean, this is our guy, right?”

“Could be,” Sven answered. “But we have to be sure.”

So began my month-long Bouton odyssey.

The gun turned out to be fake, but for a few days, we could not be sure. Lieutenant Keel almost had Bouton arrested, but Sven managed to talk him out of it. It was a good thing, too, because the next night, we figured out why Bouton carried the gun. 

His girlfriend was into it.

Their sex life included a smattering of role play and fantasy, which I didn’t mind but caused Julie to eventually stop taking night shifts. That meant Sven and I were there alone the night a masked man broke into Bouton’s apartment and threatened Doe with a gun. 

Sven ran out of the room to call the police, but I told him to stop. I sensed something was off. A few seconds later, we both watched in amazement as a sultry Doe, instead of pleading with the masked man for her life, wrapped her lips around the barrel of the gun. 

“No shit,” Sven said in wonder.

The Doe-Bouton romance didn’t last long once she learned what he did for a living. His research specialty was the Prosledite religion. Dominant on Geb, only a small — but growing, if Bouton’s numbers were to be believed — minority of people on Earth were adherents, and almost all of them were Gebian refugees.

He never spoke about work with Doe, but one night she confronted him after returning from a ‘photo shoot’ we couldn’t verify had occurred. 

“I ‘eard some people talking about you today,” she said, pouring herself a drink.

“Oh yeah?” He put down the book he was reading.

“Zey said you are a racist.”

“They don’t sound very smart.”

“Zey are quite intelligent, actually. So, is it true? Do you ‘ate people from Geb?” She stood at the foot of the bed and looked down at him.

“Of course not.”

“Why, zen, do you say racist zings?”

“I’ve not said anything that isn’t the truth.” He repositioned the pillow behind him and sat up.

“You said zeir religion tells zem to kill. I ‘eard you. Zey showed me.”

“Their holy book does tell them to kill.”

“Liar!” She threw her drink at the wall behind him, and it shattered, sending splinters of glass all over the room.

“What the fuck?” Bouton waited for the pieces to settle and stood, shaking out of his hair and shirt.

“Zey are not violent!”

“The Prophet Augur says in Chapter 9, Verse 29 of the Heka, ‘fight those who do not believe in God until they are in a state of subjection.'”

“You lie.” She spat at him.

 He slid past her, took the bottle and the glass on the counter, and put them up high on a shelf. “In Chapter 8, Verse 12, Augur implores the faithful to cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieve, to strike their necks and drain their blood.”

“I cannot be wiz someone who is a racist.” She gathered up her clothes scattered on the floor.

“I have a copy of the book right there. You can read it for yourself,” he said, not making any move to stop her.

“I don’t need to read it! I know zese people. Zey could never do zat.”

“Ok. You tell me why they set off a bomb in Paris last week.”

She threw the clothes back on the floor and whirled to face him. “You disgust me.”

“Stupid whore.”

She slapped him.

He grabbed her shoulders and threw her into the wall, shattering a glass picture frame and sending it tumbling to the floor. 

How they negotiated all that glass without shredding their skin, I’ll never know, but they made love after that. I didn’t stay. I’d been there way too long already and glided into the hangar with only a few minutes left to spare. 

The next time I peeked into the apartment, all her things were gone, so she must have followed through on her threat to leave. 

Their fight stirred something in me, and no, it’s not what you’re thinking.

Until then, I’d not studied the Prosledite religion in any detail. Or at all, to be precise. What little I knew of Earth-based religions came by osmosis through pop culture references or comments my friends made. News programs would occasionally mention religion in the aftermath of an attack, but only to say it could not have been a factor. After my parents’ death, I saw one religious figure after another proclaim that the four people who hijacked that plane were perverting the Prosledite faith. 

I believed them.

But after spending a few weeks following Bouton around, I started to believe him, too. He was a little left of sane, but everyone at TVA praised his diligence and hard work. I’ll never know if Doe took his advice and read the Heka, but after that night, I did.

It was confusing. And a little scary. 

The book begins with the claim that life in the universe originated on Geb. Now, I wasn’t the most attentive student growing up, but even I know all life, aside from some bacteria floating around on otherwise lifeless rocks, had its origin on Earth. I also know the people of Earth colonized Geb hundreds of years ago because they thought the climate was going sour. The Heka took more than a little narrative license with this story, flipping it on its head. According to Augur, God created life on Geb before banishing the unfaithful to purgatory on Earth. Those who returned to Geb were ‘the Chosen’ who inherited the responsibility to convert ‘the unbelievers’ on Earth. The Prosledite God, in this telling, rules the entire universe, and only She can bestow eternal life unto the faithful.

All of which would be harmless mystical bullshit were it not for the methods Augur wanted the faithful to use to convert ‘the unbelievers.’ There I found the passages Bouton had quoted to Doe, among many others mandating violence against those who do not take Augur as their personal prophet and savior. 

There is a chilling duality to the Heka’s pages. Most of the book promotes peace and community and happiness and gives practical if outdated advice for organizing society and living in harmony. But there are sections calling for the abuse of atheists and practitioners of other religions in horrific — there’s that word again — and vivid language. I found myself able to sympathize with both Bouton and Doe, depending on which part of the book I was reading.

I tried to discuss this with Julie and Sven one night over pizza at their house. We’d eaten almost the entire pie, and only one piece remained on the plate.

“Have you guys read the Heka?” I asked, turning the plate so the last piece was closest to me. “I read it for the first time this week.”

“Man, you have been bored since Doe left, haven’t you?” Sven said, turning the plate toward him.

“You need a girlfriend,” Julie added, idly watching the pizza move.

“I’m serious,” I said. “I’d never read it before.”

“They gave us a class on it, but we didn’t read the whole thing,” Sven said.

“We don’t need to. It says the same stupid things every other holy book says.”

“But what about all the ‘fight the unbeliever’ stuff?” I asked, reaching for the slice.

Sven slapped my hand away. “That’s way overblown.”

“The TVA plays it up like it’s a big deal, but Gebians don’t pay attention to it,” Julie said.

“I don’t know,” I replied. “I’m not so sure.”

“Look,” Sven took two bites, put the slice back on the plate, and turned it my way. “We have to cut them a little slack. They don’t have the same advantages we do. Geb got a late start. Their economy is a wreck, and the planet isn’t as hospitable as Earth. It wouldn’t matter if they were Christians or Jews. We’d still have attacks down here. It’s all about the underlying root causes.”

Julie turned the plate toward her. “Are you gonna eat this?”

“All yours,” I got up to grab another beer.

I dropped the issue. They weren’t interested in a serious discussion. I was unconvinced by Sven’s arguments but didn’t have the facts to back up my feelings, so the next day, for the first time in my life, I bought a copy of the Bible. I read through it – most of it anyway, the damn thing is long – but couldn’t find anything resembling the violent language of the Heka.

I never revisited the subject with them. I didn’t want to spoil our relationship. But this, coupled with their quixotic belief that The Veritas Alliance had some plan to start a campaign of violence against Gebian refugees, did make me think they were a little nutty.




Right about the time I stopped shadowing Bouton, I decided not to re-enlist in the DF. 

I’d grown more and more cynical as the months progressed. Disillusioned might be the right word. I joined to protect people and help prevent extremist attacks. Instead, I spent weeks and months on end listening to meetings and calls and discussions about public policy and immigration and assimilation and religion. I was even starting to believe the TVA was more interested in protecting people than the DF. But I knew that couldn’t be true. 

And the attacks continued. Fifty-four dead in New York. Seventeen in Tangiers. Ninety in Moscow. Two hundred and twelve dead when a plane splashed down in the North Atlantic, although the press didn’t pin this one on the Prosties right away. We only found out later. 

A week after I told the 2nd Squadron re-enlistment advisor I would leave the DF when my contract was up, I received orders sending me back to Canada to serve out my final few months. Julie and Sven had me over for a going-away dinner the night before Sergeant Taleb arrived – an hour late – to ferry me back to the airport. 

I was excited to return home and would have enjoyed the flight had it not been for the older couple sitting next to me. They chatted the entire time we were in the air and attempted, several times, to pull me into their conversation. Still hungover from the night before, all I wanted was some shut-eye.

I didn’t get it. 

Upon sitting down, they informed me they were newlyweds, each on their third marriage. They said they’d always wanted to see the pyramids up close, not just in VR. They were worried about an attack, of course, especially in a tourist destination like Cairo, but hadn’t let this affect their plans. 

“If we do that, they’ve won, ‘aven’t they?” Asked Rosie, the middle-aged bride sitting next to me. Her girth spilled over the armrest into what was technically my space, but I don’t take up much room, so I didn’t make a fuss. 

“What really worries me is the backlash,” said her husband Donald, leaning forward to peer at me around his new wife’s massive breasts. “I mean, the Gebians are no different than us, but you have all these idiots trying to blame them for the attacks. If we just let them be, we wouldn’t have any attacks, that’s what I think.”

“They’ve ‘ad a ‘ell of a time up there on Geb,” Rosie added. “Too much gravity and all that rocky soil. They ‘ave a right to come back. We’ve plenty of room.” 

I thought about telling them my parents were murdered in a Prostie attack, but sleep was my main priority, so instead, I chose a meaningless platitude I hoped would end the conversation. “Live and let live, that’s what I always say.” I then made a show of wrapping myself up in a blanket and closing my eyes.

“I wish more people thought like you,” Donald said.

“That’s very wise,” Rosie chimed in. “If we ‘ad left them in peace years ago, we wouldn’t ‘ave all this trouble today.”

“It baffles me how anyone can think they’re less than human.”

“We ‘ave friends from Geb. There is a couple that shops at our bakery. Charming people. I always say ‘ello when I see them.”

“They’re not going to hurt anyone. And isn’t it just horrible I have to say that? I wouldn’t be worried about you hurting us, now would I?”

Mind you, my head was turned the other way, resting on a pillow wedged between my seat and the bulkhead. My eyes were closed. I think I was even fake snoring. But none of it spared me. She actually waited for me to answer her question. 

And I still had ten and a half hours to go.

I might have been less annoyed if the conversation was at all interesting or fresh. But it wasn’t. For hours those two did nothing but spout snippets of milquetoast, greeting-card attitudes that anyone would have a hard time arguing with – were they inclined to do so – but at the same time were almost entirely wrong or irrelevant.

For example, the backlash Donald was so worried about never really amounted to much. I’d spent a year looking for it at the TVA only to come up empty. There were other, much smaller and less organized, fanatical groups of people spewing hatred toward Prosties, but they never gained much traction in civil society because the vast majority of people on Earth are a lot like Rosie and Donald, just less verbose. They get along with their neighbors and assume the best intentions of people until proven otherwise. 

Rarely are their assumptions proven wrong because most of the Prosties that request asylum on Earth don’t attack or kill people. It’s possible – likely even! – that the Prostie couple buying their muffins at Rosie’s bakery are kind, peaceful people. But it’s as wrong for Rosie and Donald to make that couple representative of all Prosties on Earth as it was for the militant groups to say the same about the Prosties who murdered my parents. 

I only managed a couple hours of sleep, but when the pilot announced that we were beginning our descent, Rosie looked over at me and said, “My! You slept nearly the whole flight, didn’t you?”

“We’re staying downtown at the Maple,” Donald said, answering a question I hadn’t asked. “What about you?” 

I wanted to blurt out, ‘Somewhere else!’ 

“After a long time working in Cairo,” I answered, “I’m finally home.”

“Congratulations! What were you doing in Cairo?” Asked Rosie, and I kicked myself for giving the conversation new life. 

“I’m in the Defense Force. I was stationed there.”

Rosie’s teeth slammed together. Her warm, affable countenance dropped in an instant. She nudged Donald, who stood up hastily and gathered their things from the overhead compartment. Then she slid out of her seat and pushed through the throng of people standing in the aisle waiting for the rows ahead to deplane. Donald shot a look my way, opened his mouth halfway as if to say a final word, then turned and followed Rosie off the plane. 

If I had known that’s all it would take to shut them up, I would have said it sooner.




Back home, I reported to the 6th Infantry Division Headquarters and sat at the front desk issuing security badges and checking bags and doing as little as humanly possible for the next few months while still receiving a paycheck. 

When I wasn’t rifling through gym bags filled with sweaty clothes, I was attending mandatory transition classes designed to help me ‘translate the skills you learned in the DF to the civilian world.’ Except the only skill I’d learned was flying Starlings, and there wasn’t much call for that in civilian life. 

I moved back to my parents’ house. It was eerie walking through it after being away for so long. The air was cold and smelled stale, and there was a thin layer of dust all over everything. My Grandparents had promised to check on the place occasionally, but it didn’t look like they’d been inside since I left.

I couldn’t blame them. They were old and had better things to do with their time.

My friends were still hanging around, doing the same things we used to do. Not much had changed. 

Except me. I was different. 

With my inheritance, plus the life insurance money, I could have lived comfortably for the rest of my life, assuming I invested it all and got a reasonable rate of return. But that didn’t appeal to me.

Instead, I felt like I’d taken a step backward. I was eager to move ‘forward,’ but it was a vague, disembodied feeling I couldn’t even explain to myself. I might not have known what ‘forward’ was, but I knew what it wasn’t. It wasn’t the DF, and it definitely wasn’t lying around a VR room with my friends. 

I talked to my Grandfather about it after dinner one night about a week after I got back. 

“If you picture yourself a year from now, where will you be?” He asked, sipping his whiskey while Grandmother cleared the table.

“I don’t know,” I responded. “I just know it’s not here.”

“What motivates you? Obviously not money.”

“I want to protect people. That’s why I joined the DF. But I did none of that in Cairo. The whole time I was there, I just felt like I was running in place.”

“What about working for airport security?”

“That wouldn’t have saved mom and dad.”

“But it might save others. You know, fifty years ago, I would have said join the police force, but they’re all bots now. There are some human administrator jobs. You could do that.”

“I just…I feel like there’s this imbalance. They took my parents from me, and I don’t feel like I’m back to even. The urge to do something is there, you know? It’s like I’ll never feel right unless I get back at them somehow.”

“That’s a dangerous thought. You shouldn’t have it unless you’re a dangerous man.” 

“I can’t stop a thought now, can I?”

“Sure you can. Pour yourself a drink.” He emptied his glass and handed it to me. “And get me another.”

I walked over to the cabinet and poured us both three fingers. 

“Maybe I should just stay here and live off the money. Sell the house and move into something smaller.”

“Something will come,” Grandfather said. “Something will come.”

He was right. Two weeks before I signed out of the Defense Force for good, something did come. Something that would change my life — and the world, as it turns out — forever.



Photo by Pixabay