— From the files of the World Intelligence Security Endeavor, The Legend of Ishtar
July 11, 2011 Georgetown, Washington, D.C.
The mid-sized brownstone, which had been parceled into smaller apartments, felt like a place of respite when Daniel had moved in three years ago. It had reminded him a little bit of his childhood home except the neighborhood, with its smooth, tree-lined sidewalks and working streetlamps was a lot cleaner, and the landlord kept the building and its apartments in good repair.
He wondered if he could just rent out a closet to unplug himself, as if he was a robot powering down for the day. It wasn’t like he had much of a life beyond what he did at work. He thought about his routine: shower, dinner, read a book, and watch some baseball until he passed out. Not for the first time, he mused that he might look like he was twenty-eight, but there was no question that he lived like an old man. “America’s walking symbol of might,” he muttered. “Yup. That’s me.”
He took a deep breath and closed his eyes before opening the apartment building’s door, trying to exhale and erase the last three hours of his workday. He had been training his ROTC cadets at Roosevelt University outside in the mud for most of the afternoon. That wasn’t a hard thing in itself. Today his boss, accompanied by some important military recruiters, had come unannounced to watch him. He had decided to crank up the performance by a notch or three and, to his surprise, the cadets had balked.
All through the hot afternoon, going through drill after drill with whiny cadets, Daniel had longed for a few days in the field on active duty, chasing down arms dealers. He’d take that over the rude laziness of this newest batch of entitled, apathetic students any day, especially considering today’s embarrassing display. Afterward, he had endured a spectacular chewing out by Rob Fisher, then by a couple of other higher-ups.
Now tired, sweaty, and, although he wouldn’t dare admit it to anyone, a little achy, he was ready to end his day. He opened the door, grateful to close it to the world behind him.
He stood at the bottom of the stairs and noticed a small sofa blocking the path to his apartment. He put his hands on his hips, let his shoulders slump, and dropped his head toward his chest as he shook it. Straightening and backing up from the first step, he ran toward the sofa and jumped.
His left leg twisted between cushions, sinking into the deep crease where the seat and back met. Pressing his palms flat on the floor to balance his weight, he tried to dislodge himself, but ended up taking an awkward lunge. Letting out a deep sigh, he surveyed the mess he had made.
“Sorry about that,” said a voice.
Daniel twisted in the direction of the voice. A young woman stood at the threshold of the building’s only first-floor apartment. From this angle, he couldn’t see her face right away. She was wearing light purple sneakers and torn-up jeans that hugged the bottom half of her hips. Her darker purple t-shirt, damp down the center, skimmed her narrow waist, emphasizing the roundness of her breasts.
She said something else, but his brain had gone momentarily numb. He looked up and stared at what seemed like Helen of Troy, come to life. She was stunning. Her eyes were large, with long eyelashes. Her nose was small and straight, and her mouth was full, evenly proportioned, and dark pink. Her black hair was pulled back in a long ponytail. The remote, artistic part of Daniel’s brain, which he’d thought long buried, lit up. His abandoned sketchbook sprung to mind momentarily. He refocused.
“I should’ve asked the movers to bring this inside, but they said it was too bulky and it would cost extra,” she was saying. “I didn’t
want to pay the extortion money. It’ll be out of your way as soon as I figure out how to maneuver it.” She smiled.
Daniel swallowed hard. He saw pretty women all the time. In fact, because of his unique standing at the university, he was a frequent recipient of unwanted female attention. They either came on too strong or acted awestruck, or they were way too young and silly. As a general rule, he disliked his semi-celebrity status as a youthful hero from a bygone era. If this woman showed interest, he admitted to himself, he might not mind so much. Her hands rested on her hips, as if she was waiting for him to say something.
Had she asked him a question?
Very nice, schmuck, he thought. He prided himself on not being the kind of man who leered at or objectified women, but he couldn’t stop staring, all the while thinking, I’m no better than the rest of them. He used his hands to yank his foot out, rolled sideways, and hit his head on the banister. The banging of his skull against cast-iron bars clanged through his head.
“Are you alright?” She was a few steps closer now, just at the foot of the stairwell, looking up at him.
“Yeah.” He rubbed the back of his head. “I think your couch ate my shoe.” He put on what he hoped was a charming smile, then lurched forward as he tried to sit up straight. He barely avoided somersaulting over the couch and slid gracelessly down the stairs. He ended up sprawled on the floor looking up. It wasn’t a bad view.
“Uh…do you need some help moving this, ma’am?” He pushed himself up to sit. He wondered why on Earth movers would just plunk someone’s stuff outside their door and leave, or demand extra to do their job, especially, when it was a beautiful girl who needed help. He fought the urge to voice his indignation at her treatment.
“Only if you’re up to it.” She waved a hand in front of him. He could feel his face heating. “I think you hit your head pretty hard.” She regarded him with concern. “I’m Nina, and I’d love the help, but can I help you first?”
“Oh, right. Yeah. I’m Daniel. Sure thing. I mean, I’m fine. Sure, I’ll help, thanks.” He figured he could find a picture of himself in the dictionary later, next to the word ‘awkward’. Then again, he also was pretty sure that he was one of the few people left on the planet who used a physical book for a dictionary. He slid himself down, careful not to topple the thing backward and onto her. Nina grabbed his arm to steady him as he got to his feet.
Her skin was smooth and cool. Up close, he saw that her eyes were dark blue, almost indigo. Her complexion brought to mind a beach whose sand was soft, with a touch too much peach undertone to be called tan. She even smelled like the beach: seawater, driftwood, and some tropical flower. Jasmine, maybe. He was dizzy for a moment, as if he’d smacked his head again.
He wobbled as he balanced between the one shod and one bare foot, and pulled his hand away and stepped back more abruptly than he’d intended. Nina’s brow furrowed.
Daniel looked down at the sofa. “No. Yeah.” His voice was a hair higher than he would have liked. “I mean, I’ll help you get everything inside. Then uh…maybe I can get my shoe and sock out of your furniture.” He shifted his weight to his bare foot, wishing he’d been less awkward and more charming. He was perpetually stupid around dames. Women.
Getting the couch into the apartment was not difficult. It was bulky though, and Daniel was surprised that Nina lifted her end easily. They steered it through the door and around a few stacks of boxes, then set it down. She reached down into the depths between the cushions, frowned, and plucked out the missing sneaker and sock. “You’d been working hard today already, clearly,” she said, assessing the sweaty, mud-caked garments. Do you want to sit down and rest?”
He took them from her and balanced on the right foot as he slid the sock and shoe back onto the left. “Thanks,” he said more to his feet than to her face. He sat down on the edge of the couch just in case he got uncomfortable and needed to bolt. He wondered if there was a way to sneak a whiff of his armpits without her noticing.
“I appreciate your help.” Nina folded her arms. “Now, how shall I repay you, New Neighbor Daniel?”
Daniel was disappointed. She was just another star struck broad with sex on her brain, after all. He glanced up at her. Her posture was relaxed and there was no sign of expectation or want in her expression. It became obvious to him that she was simply waiting for an answer.
I need to get over myself, he thought. He was again aware that he was sweaty, filthy, and that his gym sock and dirt-caked sneaker had been wedged into a pretty stranger’s couch. “Seriously, you don’t need…”
“Do you like pizza? Is there a good delivery place around here? Let’s do that if it’s okay with you. I’m starved.” Nina scribbled down the toppings she wanted on some scrap paper and left it, along with some cash, on the coffee table.
He rubbed the back of his neck and speed dialed Gio’s Italian Bistro. He took a precautionary sniff of his armpits.
From the kitchen, Nina sang some tune in a language he didn’t recognize. Her voice was light and clear, and belied the sadness implied in the song. He looked around. The apartment’s layout was identical to his, but it seemed more open. He walked over to the window overlooking the side yard. Outside, the giant tulip poplar seemed larger and sturdier than from the top-down view from his bedroom.
From his usual view, the branches reached out like enormous, hairy arms hitting the windows and blocking out light. From this angle, the trunk stood its ground. It was neither defensive nor offensive. It was simply still, as if certain of its position in life. It was less wild and angry. It struck him that his apartment’s insides mirrored his inner life: a dark, jumbled mess where nothing fit together, regardless of his precise, military-style attempts at order. In here, evening light spread across the straight lines of the oak floor and filled the entire space.
Nina rounded the corner with two water bottles in one hand and a sealed sandwich bag full of ice in the other. “For your head,” she explained, first handing him the ice pack and then the drink. She sat down next to him. She didn’t sit opposite him, on the other end of the sofa the way most strangers would, but just a few inches away, their knees nearly touching.
She reached past Daniel and he swallowed hard as she put her hand over his. She lifted his hand to touch the ice pack to his head. If he moved his head a half-inch, his lips would be on her hand. “That’s where you hit it,” she informed him. “I bet that feels better.” She was right, the ice pack brought immediate relief to the pulsating heat.
There was something about her that was…he struggled for a word. Familiar? He breathed slowly, savoring Nina’s scent again. He would have remembered if they’d met, he was sure of that. When Fisher Steel loaned him out to the Army a lifetime ago in the forties, the troops used to tell stories about picking up girls. Asking about perfume or lipstick was a surefire way to get slapped, he remembered, and ‘Have we met before?’ was an obvious line to women even if a guy was genuinely asking.
Nina was warm and welcoming, and clearly, she had neither the intention of making a move on him, nor had she asked him to stay merely as a formality for helping her. There was nothing that seemed false about her. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he realized he had no reason to believe any of this. He was usually wary of other people’s motivations.
As they waited for dinner to arrive, Daniel decided that ‘right’ was the correct word—almost. She asked him questions about the District. They discovered a common taste for old movies and the outdoors. Enjoying talking to strangers was a rarity. He surreptitiously examined Nina’s face as they talked. Her forehead was broad and smooth, with high, narrow cheekbones and a slightly pointed chin. Her jaw was just a little too firm for her to have a heart-shaped face. The overall effect was she looked delicate but determined. Her face was a paradox: strong and fragile. Her eyes were large and, looking more closely, just a bit too light to be indigo. Vivid gold and violet flecks extended from her pupils to the borders of her irises and lit up when she laughed.
She seemed interested in what he had to say. Some people, especially women, pretended to pay attention to him, but he could see their eyes glaze over when he talked about his job in Roosevelt University’s History department; heading up and creating the training regimens for the school’s ROTC. Not only did she listen; she asked questions. “What do you like best about your job?” she wanted to know. “Which parts are the most difficult?” Usually people just talked at him, looking for a favor or a selfie.
He sighed and didn’t answer that last question.
“So.” A few silent seconds ticked by. “Uh, so what brings you here?” He realized he should have asked her that an hour ago. He wasn’t sure whether his rudeness stemmed from nervousness or self-absorption.
“I’m the archivist for the O’Conner Military and History Library at Roosevelt University. But I have no idea why they hired me. There’s something you should probably know about me.” He watched her make a light fist and press her fingernails into her palm. “I have almost total amnesia of my life before a few weeks ago. Everything is pretty new to me. I even have to stop and think about what I might like to eat when I’m at the grocery store,” Nina half-joked.
She glanced at her lap, then at him again. “My earliest memory is of being visited by the men who are now my bosses when I woke up in a hospital room a month ago.” She furrowed her brow, as if she was unsure of what to volunteer. “I wasn’t even sure where I was. Really, I thought Doctor Fisher might be a relation of mine. But he assured me I wasn’t married, and that I in fact had no family at all, or any kinds of connections. They had a lot of papers to prove who I was.”
“And you just trusted him?” Daniel cringed and tried to calm his alarm, now knowing that Rob Fisher had come to see her personally.
Her eyes widened. “I had no reason not to.” She paused and looked down. Daniel glanced at the small space between them on the seat of the couch. Their fingers were millimeters from touching. “That information is the closest thing I have to an identity. Doctor Fisher was the first person who I had any connection with since I woke in the hospital, and the few others I met are because of him.”
She paused and tapped her finger, almost brushing the tip of his. “This life and job are my only connection to the world.” Her voice had quieted.
He looked at their almost-touching hands. “I get that. I felt the same way at first. Rob’s a good guy.” He wondered if the second man Nina mentioned had been Marcus Smallwood. Maybe it was the amnesia, but she seemed a little naïve, and he had a sinking feeling he knew what her job duties really comprised. He recalled Director Smallwood mentioning a new library hire a while back, someone who could get access to things easily for the team. “Who’s your supervisor?”
Nina averted her eyes downward and she pulled her hand away. “I’m…”
Daniel’s heart dropped. There was no getting away from his job; he was his job. “Let me guess. Dean of Social Sciences Rob Fisher approached you in his tailored suit, offering for you to be an integral part of saving the world, and W.I.S.E. Director Marcus Smallwood put on his little, gold-wire reading glasses to show you where on the contract to sign,” he said. “Welcome to the World Intelligence Security Endeavor, Rob Fisher’s private little superhero club.”
She sucked in her lips and looked at her lap.
“Nina Asher, librarian, allow me to introduce myself again.”
She looked up at him. He forced himself to face her.
He always hated this part of a conversation. Saying his name carried the baggage of his entire past: he was a Holocaust survivor. He was a ninety-three-year-old scientific experiment gone wrong. He was briefly a symbolic, honorary major in the U.S. Army, the paragon of the ‘new and improved’ soldier. Because his image was all over propaganda posters during the war, everyone seemed to think he was the bee’s knees.
Daniel had no idea what happened to sixty-four years of his life. One second, he had stepped back into the since-destroyed Nazi experimentation facility where he’d been imprisoned two years prior; next he was wandering around in an Iraqi desert, incoherent and in another century altogether, without having aged a single day. Nina was going to find out sooner or later.
“My name is Daniel Hecht. Sometimes on campus they call me ‘Lionheart’.”
He had liked the idea of meeting someone who had no knowledge of his strangeness. Just for a while, he had been a guy helping and getting to know his attractive new neighbor. Her cheeks flushed, and she bit down on her lip again. She lifted her eyes and smiled. It caused a reaction that was going to be embarrassing in a minute, and not just because heat crept up Daniel’s neck. It was making its way further down.
Nina touched his hand. “I thought you looked familiar, but you’re better looking than the portrait in the history department’s main entrance. She seemed to study his face. “You’re taller than the picture makes you out to be, your hair is a shade lighter, and there’s more expression in your eyes. And now I’ve also seen you smile. You’re whole in person.” She really was blushing this time. It was probably the sweetest thing he had ever seen on another human being. Plus, apparently, she thought he was good looking.
“I didn’t want you to think I had an agenda…I mean…I don’t have one, I’m happy to have you here…Maybe I’ll just be quiet now,” she said. The pink in her face darkened. “Did I happen to mention I have no idea who I am or what I’m like?”
He laughed. Nina mouthed, “Sorry.” The tension in his shoulders and neck released when her cool palm touched the back of his hand and she looked into his face, all earnestness and concern. Relaxing wasn’t exactly helping the other situation. It probably wasn’t noticeable through his jeans, but he wasn’t going to risk anything. He looked around for something to stick over his lap. Finding nothing, he crossed his legs.
Daniel shook his head and smiled. “Don’t be sorry, I was read the same riot act when I got here, too.” For a moment, he remembered something. He could hear waves on the beach, caught the wisp of salt and Nina’s scent in the air. The memory teetered on the edge of his consciousness, lingered for a split second, and disappeared.
In the three years he had been living in this time period, he’d spent most of his time trying not to think about the past and committed to arranging his new life in as orderly and complication-free a manner as possible. Today, he got stuck in a stranger’s couch, and stayed attached to it hours later. Smelling of cooled sweat and caked in dirt, he’d gotten sucked into the orbit of a beautiful, obviously well-educated young woman who had no past whatsoever.
There was a knock on the door. They got to their feet simultaneously, causing Nina to walk into him, bumping up against his chest. Her eyes got rounder and she reddened again as much as Daniel was sure he had. They each took a step back. “Let me. You didn’t have to help me with this.”
He shook his head. “That’s not how it works.” He reached into his back pocket for his wallet, but as he started to count out cash, Nina took a big step over the coffee table and got to the door before he realized what had happened. When she returned with the pizza, she placed the box on the coffee table.
He narrowed his eyes at her as they sat. “That was sneaky.” He tensed. “I mean…uh…I really could’ve gotten that. I’m not upset or anything it’s just that…”
His train of thought vanished when she smiled at him. “Thank you for helping me.” She leaned closer and Daniel swallowed hard. Once again, her scent, maybe something in her hair, triggered the image of a beach—a very specific one. She extended her arm toward him.
Daniel froze. “Um…we uh…we just met…” Nina angled herself to grab her water bottle and sat back. Daniel exhaled, feeling a combination of disappointment and relief.
As they ate, the sun lowered further, casting orange light across Nina’s face, making the gold rays in her dark blue eyes flash. “So, that must be hard, not knowing about yourself.”
She looked at her hands. “It is. It’s frustrating and confusing sometimes.” She smiled and looked at him. “But I can tell you whatever you want to know about virtually anything in ancient history or several mythologies.”
He resisted the urge to squeeze her hand. “I’m sure they’ll come back. I mean um…I’m not sure, but I hope they do, and uh…”
“Every day is a new beginning. For now, I have no past.” Nina smiled with her mouth closed. She still looked nervous. “All anyone really has is the present moment, and that moment has infinite possibilities, so I choose trust and honesty.”
She met his eyes. “I hope that one day, when my memories return, I will have no reason not to continue to live each moment as if it were absolutely beautiful and whole.” She beamed at him. “But I suppose we both have a sort of amnesia, then, don’t we? You’re missing about seventy years and haven’t aged a bit, from what I’ve heard.”
It was a good point. The Nazis had been working with what they considered magic, looking for ways to travel through time, in addition to creating an army of übermenshen to send into to the past and the future. He was the one success on both fronts. Unfortunately for the Nazis, their success came on the tail end of the experimentation facility’s attack by a small, piecemeal resistance cell for the former, and more than two years later for the latter, when he had ended up in an era where he should have been decrepit or dead.
When they’d finished, he realized he didn’t want to leave quite yet. Even on good days, he rarely connected with other people. Today had not been a good day. “I can stay and help you get settled.” The words came as a surprise even to himself. “That is, uh… if you want help.” He bit the insides of his cheeks.
There weren’t that many boxes to unpack. He emptied the boxes marked, ‘books,’ first. There were three bookcases and five boxes. The books were about philosophy, ancient history, mythology, and art. They were big, theoretical volumes, not just narratives: the kinds of things he wanted to study such a long time ago, before everything changed. Most of the books looked well-worn, and they were all annotated in pencil.
He smiled to himself. Nina was a woman with whom he might be able to have an interesting, deep conversation. Maybe she’d want to go out sometime.
As he helped her move pots and pans from a box to a cabinet in the kitchen, he realized that aside from her choices of reading materials, he didn’t know much about her; she’d kept him talking about himself. Yet, once things were put away and boxes were broken down and hauled to the dumpster, there was no more work to be done.
“I should get going and give you some time to settle in.” His mood deflated as he said it, but there was no reason not to excuse himself at this point. Besides, he’d wanted to go take a shower and a nap this evening. Daniel straightened, hands shaking and stomach squeezing. Unsure of how to say goodbye, he extended his arm for a handshake.
Nina grasped his hand, holding it instead of shaking it, and led him to the couch again. “Please keep me company.”
Thanks, but I’ve got to go, nice meeting you; I thought you’d never ask; I need to take a shower, I’m gross. Instead, he blurted “Always.” His voice caught. She cocked her head. He had no idea why he’d said that, but it had been an automatic response, as if they’d had that brief exchange several times before. “I mean…I, uh…yeah…I’ve um…I’ve got nothing going on, I’d love to stay.”
They sat back down, once again just a few inches apart. He almost wished she would move off a bit. He hadn’t been able to get drunk since he went through what he now euphemistically called ‘The Process,’ that changed his entire body and was the basis for his unwanted celebrity status, but he remembered what it was like for his judgment to be that impaired.
Close proximity to Nina was intoxicating. He wanted more and less of it at the same time. He remembered a roller coaster he used to ride on Coney Island, the Cyclone, when he was a kid. He hated the feeling of careening toward the ground in near-free-fall and abruptly being tossed upside-down, but he always went back for more when the ride was over.
Forever is composed of nows.
2900 B.C.E., Uruk, Sumeria
From the files of the World Intelligence Security Endeavor,
“The Legend of Ishtar”
Ishtar circled around the statue of herself in her temple one more time. She rarely set foot on the mortal plane, but a man had caught her attention. King Gilgamesh stood, having cleansed his sword of the blood of Humbaba. With his black, gleaming hair tied back, and donning a cloak whose purple was as deep as any god’s garment, he turned toward the altar. Ishtar stepped forward as the great warrior bowed, and placed his tribute, a sheath of wheat, at the statue’s feet. When he looked up, his black eyes widened, but he lowered his head.
Ishtar knelt alongside him and cupped his face in her hands. Without saying a word, she pressed her lips against his. His breath smelled of warm spices, and he softened, allowing the kiss, but did not touch her. “Put your hands on me,” she murmured into his mouth, and she slid her hands under his cloak.
Gilgamesh obeyed the goddess, cupping one hand around her head and pressing the other to the small of her back. His hands were calloused, and her head nearly fit his entire palm. She undid the clasp of his cloak and spread her palms across his chest. He was solid everywhere, and his skin was brown as the most fertile field. She ran her tongue along the side of his neck. “Watch me. Look at me, Warrior Gilgamesh.” She stood. When he met her eyes, Ishtar’s knees shook. She waved her hand over her tunic and it fell to the ground around her ankles. She smiled with satisfaction when Gilgamesh’s mouth gaped and his skin flushed. She returned to his side, kissed his throat, and pushed him onto his back. He was hard. She commanded, “Touch me.”
He did, this time with more abandon. She sighed when she lowered onto him and he closed his eyes to groan. “Look at me.” He opened his eyes and they both began to move. “Touch me everywhere.” He did, and without being asked, he covered one breast with his mouth, then the other, and did not come to completion although when Ishtar stopped grinding against him, his face was red.
Ishtar was satisfied with his deference. When she climbed off him, he reached for his clothes and scrambled to gather his robe and dress himself. “Be my husband. You are not a god, and I can change that. Be immortal with me.”
Gilgamesh froze. He placed the crown back on his head and told her, “With all reverence and respect, Great Goddess, I will not.”
Ishtar ignored him. “We will live on the celestial plane in a house made of cedar, and you will ride a chariot of lapis lazuli with golden wheels if you lay me down as your wife and plant your seed in my body. Come with me.”
She grasped his wrist and gasped when he yanked it out of her hand. “I will not.”
She smiled. This beautiful warrior clearly was overwhelmed by her loving generosity. “Kings and princes will bring you their wealth as tribute. You will be revered as my husband and consort. You will be more powerful than you are as king of Uruk.”
Gilgamesh’s expression changed. His jaw tightened, and his mouth twisted into a frown. “What could I offer the Queen of Love in return, who has everything? Balm for the body? The food and drink of the gods? I have nothing to give to her who lacks nothing at all.”
She took a step forward, her face and neck heating. “Mind you, for you are still mortal. Enlil, Himself had sent Humbaba to guard the Cedar Forest. You have slain Humbaba and razed the forest to ashes and sticks. I will protect you from Enlil’s wrath.” Ishtar was well aware that she was powerless against Enlil.
Gilgamesh glowered at her. “Do you not lose interest in your other, poor fools of lovers quickly? How many mortal men have you struck down, or refused your blessing, leaving their wives barren and their fields parched once those lovers angered or bored you? Is your own husband, Tammuz, now mourned in festivals each year because you cast him into the underworld for your convenience? Did you not love Isullanu, who brought you gifts, but refused to bed you, and you turned him into a mole? You transformed a shepherd into a broken-winged dove, and a goat herder into a wolf when they grew wearisome. You loved a lion and lured him to an ambush pit to be slaughtered. You loved a stallion, but when he displeased you, you set upon him harnesses to restrain him, whips to torture him, and spurs to control him. When your own father, Great An, Himself was away, you turned his gardener into a frog because he spurned you. Why should I expect to fare better as your new, shiny toy?”
She glared at him. “Your rule in this place is coming to an end, Warrior, and your impudence will not go unpunished. You steal the sons of mothers for your petty wars; you take the girls and women of Uruk as you please, ruining them. Your defilement of those under my protection has not gone unnoticed by Us. Choose your fate.” He folded his arms and turned his back to her. Furious, Ishtar returned to the celestial plane.
At her request, Antum and An, mother and father of Great Ishtar, cursed Gilgamesh to bring about his own destruction. Ishtar prepared her devoted priestesses with water and food enough for seven years, and An sent the Bull of Heaven to Uruk, along with seven years of drought and famine.
Uruk fell to its ruin for Gilgamesh’s refusal of Ishtar. It was foretold that a darkness greater than the seven years’ agony would emerge in the ages to come. Ishtar rid Uruk of heretics, then restored her worshipers and granted them immortality. She recreated Uruk on the plane between that of mortal man and the gods, and the women lived harmoniously; the men were their slaves.
Over the millennia, darkness descended on the Earth. Descendants of Gilgamesh grew strong and stole power from all who were loyal to the pantheon. Nergal, King of the Underworld and consort to Ereshkigal, sister to Ishtar, threw his support behind the mortals. The worshipers of Ishtar were slaughtered in battle and executed as heretics as the centuries passed.
Ishtar gathered the bloody clay of her uncle, who had given his life and his blood to the Earth to create mankind, at the altar of her temple in Uruk. She spread it at the feet of her own idol, and in it drew the figure of a human. She called forth Nimbanda, her general and high priestess.
Nimbanda knelt before her goddess and averted her eyes. Ishtar reached into Nimbanda’s belly and extracted the priestess’s womb. Ishtar filled it with golden light bright enough for all the gods to see, and they surrounded the figure drawn in the clay.
Ishtar brought the womb to the center of the drawn figure. It stretched, the figure vanished, and in the womb lay curled in on herself a young woman. She named the daughter she created with Nimbanda ‘Inanna’.
It was prophesized that Inanna one day would set foot upon the world of Gilgamesh in its time of need, when the world of the Descendants of Gilgamesh together with the realms of the gods were threatened.
It was also foretold that the darkest of times was descending upon them all. Uruk, which Ishtar had taken to its own realm and populated with her own army, might be reduced to ashes. The Underworld could dissipate into the ether. The heavens could fold into nothingness. The city in the sky would be destroyed. The emergence of Inanna signaled the beginning of the end of time, itself.
Inanna pushed her wet hair away from her face as she treaded water. Behind her, Uruk was a speck. She shivered even though the water was much hotter than she’d anticipated. She’d read that it would get warmer as she approached the conduit that led from Uruk to the world of Gilgamesh, the world of mortals. Watching the world through the Window of Omniscience hadn’t been enough, she couldn’t find him that way. Inanna took a deep breath and dove into the ocean again.
She’d never been to the conduit before. When she arrived, the water seared her skin and burned her eyes, but she could breathe now, and didn’t have to struggle as hard to remain underwater. This was the passage through which Nammu, the goddess of the ocean, came and went between the mortal world and the gods’ planes. Inanna clenched her muscles and gritted her teeth through the pain as she half-swam, half-walked through the swirling, dark tunnel.
On the other end was the reason why the water was so hot: that side of the ocean was on fire. Bright flames burst through the water as if it was air. There were bones everywhere: fish bones, whale bones, and human skeletons. Cracked stone pillars, broken off limbs from idols, and splintered vessels littered the ocean floor. She nearly tripped over a barnacle-encrusted, toothless skull that was tethered by sea grass. Further in the distance, explosions boomed, sending the flames soaring upward and out further, knocking her back a few paces.
This was where Nammu had returned the champion of mortals, the Lion of Gilgamesh? She made him go back to a burning world? Ishtar and Nimbanda had forbidden her to follow: this was no ordinary war between mortals, and Inanna’s mothers had been clear about staying out of it. They’d done their part in healing the champion of mankind; the rest was up to him, they’d emphasized.
Inanna clenched her fists, steeled herself, and ran toward the destruction. Screams from men, women, and children rippled through the water, filling her head.
Another explosion boomed and something dense thumped against Inanna’s stomach, propelling her backward. A man’s body jettisoned into the tunnel and skidded along the ocean floor until it smacked into the splintered, disintegrating remains of a boat’s hull. The first thing she noticed about him was the clothing—it was the same as the Lion of Gilgamesh had been wearing, and panic coiled through her until she saw that it was not the same man. She forced herself forward, skin scalding, and stopped short when she reached the end of the passageway. The shouts and wails crowded her, as if they were a human throng comprised only of sound. More men plummeted toward the ocean floor, and above, there was only fire.
She took another step. As soon as she set one foot into the world of Gilgamesh, the scalding sensation of her skin froze until she felt as if she would incinerate. She squeezed her eyes shut. When she opened them, smooth stone cooled her cheek, and she saw the pink, marble floor of the dais she was lying on at the temple in Uruk. Birds sang in the distance, and she heard waves lapping against the shore. The arch of the statue of Ishtar’s heavy, perfect foot was inches from her head. Heavy, iron cuffs were clasped around her wrists, and their chains angled upward to the hand of the statue of Ishtar. She yanked at them.
“You are no longer immune to shackles or pain, not even here.”
Inanna turned in the direction of Nimbanda’s voice.
“For your defiance, Ishtar has weakened you. You retain the power of a demigoddess rather than a goddess. You aren’t invulnerable anymore. I don’t know when Ishtar plans to free you from your prison, but you can still lead us in prayer as you pay penance. You are now the example of what happens when even the daughter of a goddess disobeys her masters.”
Inanna shivered. “The Lion? Is he safe?”
Nimbanda’s mouth pinched and she sucked in her lower lip. She took a step forward as if to embrace her, then paused and backtracked. She turned to leave.
Inanna wept at the foot of the goddess.
October 2012, Washington, D.C.
From the fifth-floor balcony outside the ancient antiquities wing of the Museum of World Culture, Washington, D.C. was quiet and dark. There were no lights from buildings or the occasional car down below; no sounds of conversation or engines on the street. The air was still foggy and misty from the day-long drizzle. In the distance, even Thomas Jefferson in his monument seemed happy to be sheltered from the cold gloom. Daniel crouched next to Graham, who, like himself, was clad in black, barely visible, himself, and kneeling near the edge of the large window.
“Any thoughts so far?”
Graham whispered back, “I guess we’ll find out. I mean, I’ve known Rye a long time. He’s good at what he does.”
“It remains to be seen tonight whether he’s good at what you do. Quit beating yourself up and focus, Hecht.”
Daniel pressed the night vision binoculars against the glass of the balcony’s Italian doors and looked inside. Various stone and bronze idols, ranging in height from over seven feet to about two feet tall, lined the far wall. He paused his scan to study a four-foot statue of a woman. It was made from rough granite, and with the binoculars, he could see that her head had a deep crack down the center and her hands were missing. Her hair was long. Next to her, suspended from the ceiling, was a set of worn-looking brown leather pants and a long-sleeved vest. The outfit was shaped to fit a woman with an hourglass shape and long legs. Laid out on a low table beneath the leather armor was a wide belt with red, silver, and purple stripes running its length.
Graham tapped the glass and pointed further right. Daniel saw the small, brown lion idol encased in glass. “That’s what we’re after?” he asked.
“That’s it,” Graham said.
“That’s what got Abioye looking stuff up? This is somehow supposed to stop Concordance’s plan for good?” Even with everything he’d seen in his life, it seemed improbable to Daniel that a small sculpture held the key to saving the world, or destroying it.
“That’s what all the chatter I’d heard was about,” Graham said.
“While you’re on the topic of ‘chatter,’ do me a favor and shut up,” Kevin said. He was squatting next to Daniel, studying the lock on the balcony’s door and trying various lock picks. “Unless you feel like smashing or blasting our way in and answering a lot of uncomfortable questions to security and police later on, I need to concentrate.”
Daniel gave the binoculars back to Graham, who held them up and scanned for anyone else who might be around. “Got it,” Kevin said. The lock mechanism clicked. “You’re up, Graham.” He opened the door a crack, and red lights started to flash along the perimeter of the ceiling.
Graham stood just outside the threshold with a crossbow. He aimed at a small, silver box in the far-most corner of the room. The box was partially hidden by a wide, stone column with a tapered dome. It looked just like the kind Daniel had seen in several structures in Uruk. Graham aimed and released the bolt. It hissed across the room, hitting a pencil eraser-sized, blue button on the box. The lights stopped flashing. “Security feed and alarms are off,” Graham said.
Daniel stood. “Okay. Let me get in there first, I’ll cover the main entrance to the room. Kevin, you’re gonna use those lockpicking skills of yours to…”
“Ahem.” Kevin frowned. “That’s not how it’s happening. You’re not in charge anymore.” The two men stared at each other.
Daniel folded his arms. “Well what’s your great idea, Einstein? You’re the one who’s grabbing that thing and flying it out of here. What do you want, for Graham and me to stand here and cheer or something?”
Kevin jerked his head to one side, then the other. “Both of you save it for later,” Graham said. Kevin and Daniel nodded at him.
“Trademark, you’re on lookout out here. Graham, you’re at the inside entrance to the exhibit room.”
“That makes absolutely no sense,” Daniel argued.
“Tough shit. Follow orders.” Kevin strode into the room and motioned Graham to follow. Graham looked at Daniel, shook his head, and headed inside.
Daniel watched as Kevin examined the case. Without the window’s reflection in the way, he saw that the lion was carved from striated brown crystal. A good deal of attention had been paid to chiseling its face. Its eyes were narrow and focused, with shiny green stones at the pupils. Its sharp teeth shone in its open, roaring mouth. Daniel could even make out individual hairs on the mane, which was shaped to look as if wind were blowing through it, making its facial features that much sharper. Kevin ducked under the table holding the case and began to feel around for a release mechanism.
Daniel glanced from Kevin as he worked, to Graham, who leaned on a wall next to the public entrance to the exhibit room. Muffled thumps sounded from the ceiling. Graham straightened and loaded his crossbow; Daniel took a step into the room
Kevin looked up toward the shadow Daniel had cast across the room. “Get back out there where I told you. It’s the building’s HVAC.”
Daniel frowned, neither retreating nor advancing into the room.
The thumps became louder, and Kevin jerked his head toward the ceiling. “Aw, shit.”
An expanse of ceiling tiles in the center of the room shook, split open, and fell to the ground with a loud series of thuds. “Incoming,” Graham alerted. Eight leather-armored men and women and four men dressed in black jumped down from the ceiling where they’d removed the tiles. Four of them ran toward Graham and another five toward Kevin when he stood up. The others spread themselves around the room, blocking off exits and windows.
Daniel ran inside. He jumped a man in black from behind, lifted him, and shoved him into a dark-skinned woman with long, thin, black braids knotted on top of her head. The back of her armor bore a swastika encircled by runes.
The man and the woman both shouted as she toppled face-first to the floor. Daniel kept hold of the man, whose sleeve had embroidered on it a silver eagle holding a wreathed swastika. He held him above his head by the neck, and the man flailed his legs.
Daniel began to stride toward the group who had focused on Graham. He didn’t actually see Graham, which meant he’d probably found a good place to hide. One of the Nazis already was flat on his back with a crossbow bolt embedded in his chest. Blood poured from his surprised, gaping mouth.
A pair of hands closed around Daniel’s neck from behind and pressed on his throat. Daniel gagged and dropped the man he’d been holding. The man landed on his feet, coughing and wheezing. He made a fist and rammed it into Daniel’s gut, knocking the wind from him as the other man continued to throttle him. Daniel’s chest contracted as he tried to take a breath.
He widened his stance, twisted his torso, and grabbed the hands of the man who was choking him. He pulled them away enough to turn around and knee him in the abdomen. The attacker further loosened his grip, and Daniel pulled his head back and knocked his head against the man’s brow. The attacker staggered back, falling over a glass display case, knocking it onto the floor. The case shattered when he landed, sending bloody shards everywhere.
He whipped around to face a Vril cultist and the lights turned on. Three black-clad men and one similarly dressed woman rushed into the room with pistols drawn. They looked well-varied in age; one of the men had thinning, white hair, and his hands shook as he pointed his weapon. The woman was short, with dark skin and short hair. Their jackets read, ‘security’ in big white letters across their chests. From behind a large, stone statue of Ishtar, Graham yelled, “Fuck.”
Daniel vaulted over a collapsed display case full of spear heads and headed for the civilians. A Nazi with a large, red swastika on the left side of his jacket pulled the female security guard into a choke hold. Her eyes widened as tears streamed down her face, and she yelped.
A tall, skinny guard with red hair and a goatee spun around and ran at them. The Nazi aimed his pistol with his free hand, pulled the trigger, and the young man’s surprised expression froze. A dark stain spread, soaking through his jacket as he fell forward. Daniel skidded to a stop when the Nazi held his pistol to the woman’s head. Her lips and hands were shaking.
Daniel held his hands up and took a step back. “Let her go. She’s not involved in this.”
The Nazi, who couldn’t have been more than twenty or so, clenched his jaw, tightened his grip, and pressed the barrel of the gun harder against her temple. There was a wet thwack and he let go, his mouth in a surprised-looking gape, blood gushing from his side around a crossbow bolt. Daniel ran to catch the security guard as a pair of arms pulled him by the waist from behind and yanked him backward.
The sharp, sudden blow to his diaphragm winded him. He leaned his weight into the attacker, letting himself fall on top of her. She cried out when her head hit the floor and loosened her hold. Daniel exhaled and hoisted his legs up and behind, somersaulting over her head. They both scrambled to stand.
This woman had the colors of Uruk and Ishtar painted over her cheekbones, and a sleeve of her leather armor was torn, revealing a tattoo of a purple and red rosette with a snake coiled around it, another, less common symbol of Ishtar. Daniel reared back and extended his leg to kick her in the jaw when a bright, hot light flashed past him, making him shut his eyes and stumble backward.
“Dammit, take the statue and get out of here, Rye,” he yelled. In those few seconds while he was blinded by Kevin’s blast, the woman had disappeared into the fray.
A security guard shouted. Daniel spun on his heel and ran toward the sound. An armored woman with purple, red, and silver stripes painted down the length of her sleeve pointed a dagger and leapt at the guard, who stood frozen, his hand shaking too hard to pull the trigger on his weapon.
Daniel dove across the distance between them, hugging the guard’s legs and knocking him out of the way as the cultist thrust her dagger forward. The guard lay under Daniel, pale- lipped and crying. Sweat beaded on his forehead and balding scalp, and the lines in his face were deep. “Go. Take your colleagues and get out of here,” Daniel said. He got to his feet without waiting for the man to acknowledge him.
Daniel turned to the cultist just as she made a run at him. He backed up, looked around, and grabbed a large, jagged and rough tablet with symbols carved on it. He lifted the heavy, cumbersome piece of history and flung it at the cultist. It hit her in the face, and she fell over. Dust and pieces of broken tablet littered the space around her. Her face was a bloody mess.
Another blast from Kevin blazed across the room and someone else screamed in pain. Daniel began to run across the length of the room, weaving around toppled displays and jumping over a pile of glass and metal, toward a corner where the female and a male guard were cornered by a Nazi pointing a gun at them. They were whimpering. The man’s hands were clasped together as if pleading, and the woman stood perfectly still, as if paralyzed with fear. As he approached, a Vril cultist standing next to the Nazi said something, and Daniel heard the shots fire. The two guards crumbled to the ground.
“Fucking Nazis.” Daniel’s body went hot, and his head buzzed. He stormed over to them. The Vril cultist widened her stance in front of the Nazi, angling a dagger. She pulled back her arm to attack. As she lunged, Daniel grabbed her arm with both hands, barely breaking his stride. A bone in her arm cracked where he’d gripped it too tightly. She cried out and he pulled harder, threw her to the ground, and advanced on the Nazi who had just killed two innocent people as they begged for their lives.
The corner of the Nazi’s mouth twitched as he leveled the gun at him. Daniel lunged left and knocked his shoulder into the Nazi’s side. The Nazi tripped and recovered, keeping hold of his weapon. Daniel reached for the man’s arm, closed his hand around his wrist, and squeezed. He noticed bones move and snap. The Nazi shouted in pain, grabbed the gun with his off-hand, and struggled to point it at Daniel. His hand, wrist and forearm began to swell and his skin paled. Daniel ducked, slammed his fist into his gut, and let go of his wrist as he shoved him to the ground. The man threaded his legs around Daniel’s calves and held his weapon out of Daniel’s reach. Daniel lifted up and jammed his elbow into his throat. The man gagged, and his eyes rolled back in his head.
Somewhere in the room, a person yelled as a crossbow bolt hit them. Kevin’s blasters went off again. The gun fired. Daniel rolled off the Nazi, jumped to his feet, and stomped on the hand holding the gun. The man screamed and let go. Daniel kicked him in the side, sending him sliding across the room, displacing shattered glass from display cases and remnants of antiquities until he banged into a wall, unconscious and bleeding.
He looked around. The room was quiet. All the security officers lay broken and bloody, along with most of the attackers. Scorch marks from Kevin’s blasters blackened a few statues and a wall. Daniel smelled the distinctive combination of metal and raw meat, and blood stained the walls and floor. Relics from the past: arrowheads, spearheads, scraps of cloth from garments, were strewn among the broken glass and crumbled tablets. Graham and Kevin stood on either side of him.
“Well?” Daniel asked.
“They got away with it,” Kevin said. He sounded stunned. “They have that lion.”
October 2012, Washington, D.C.
Daniel sat on the couch in the W.I.S.E. break room, leaned his head on the wall, and closed his eyes, folding his hands around his hot coffee mug. He wondered if it was still raining. He’d promised Nina a long hike this afternoon, while the days were still long, and there was sunlight in the early evenings. The door creaked open and he squinted. He sat up and took a sip of his coffee when Miriam walked into the room.
“Enjoying yourself?” Miriam closed the door behind her and sat next to him.
Miriam lifted her hips, dug around in her pocket, and pulled out a ponytail holder. “Screw you.” She bunched her blonde frizz in her fist and twisted the elastic around it. “I have no control over what the rain does to my hair and haven’t found a product in the world yet that helps. Believe me, I’ve tried everything. I’m a little self-conscious about it. Thanks for your sensitivity.” She stood.
He blinked. “You’re really that upset? Don’t leave, Miri, I apologize.”
She walked to the counter, grabbed some coffee, and sat in a chair next to the couch. “What gives? You look like someone’s run over your puppy.”
“You haven’t already psychoanalyzed me with Nina? That’s a disturbing analogy, incidentally.”
“Answer my question.” She shifted toward him. “And no, believe it or not, Nina has other things to talk about besides you.”
Daniel shook his head. On the other side of the wall, Rob’s voice was raised but muffled. He smirked.
“Bring me up to speed,” Miri said.
He took another two swallows and held his mug in both hands. “Long story short, Rob is in the process of chewing out Kevin for the botched mission.”
Miriam nodded and stirred a packet of sugar into her cup. “Too many casualties on top of the failure.”
“Yup.” Kevin said something now. He sounded angry. “I hate to think about telling them, ‘I told them so,’ but…”
Miriam grabbed another two packets of sugar. “But they’re still not putting you back in charge.”
Daniel nodded once and watched her stir a fourth packet of sugar into her cup. “You’re gonna get diabetes one day.”
She smiled. “I metabolize sugar too quickly for it to stay in my system that long.” She ripped two more packets open at the same time, poured, and stirred. “Anyway, enjoying the schadenfreude?”
He smirked and fidgeted in his seat. “Given the seriousness of everything that happened? Four civilians died, and Paul’s potentially got more monsters to throw into the world. Do you think I’m that callous or petty, Miri? Really?” He took a deep breath. “In 1938, the night I was snatched, I watched Nazi soldiers hurt and kill so many people for the sheer joy of it. I was short and scrawny back then and couldn’t help them. I couldn’t last night, either, though.”
She raised the corner of her mouth. “C’mon, Daniel. I know you better than you like to admit.”
Marcus was yelling something.
He sighed and had another sip. “Is it despicable that I’m enjoying the administrative fallout just a little?”
Miriam laughed. “You also got to knock the shit out of some Nazis. I mean, I know it doesn’t make up for those lives, but still, it’s something, right?”
He grinned. “That’s always a good feeling. I’d be happy doing that every day.” He bit his lip. Rob was yelling again, periodically interrupted by Kevin. “It was bad, Miri. Those security guards were executed. It was like something out of the war. Kevin should’ve grabbed the statue and flown off. Graham and I could have drawn the enemy outside and out of the way of civilians since it was so late at night. No one had to die.”
His chest tightened as he remembered the way a man who looked like he was in his sixties had begged, asked a cultist not to take him away from his wife, he was all she had left. The Ishtarian cultist slit his throat. Daniel shuddered.
Miriam took a breath and opened her mouth. “Don’t,” Daniel said.
“I wasn’t going to offer you a platitude. She slurped her coffee for a few seconds. “Nothing much to say here. In the Middle East, when I was stationed in various places, shit like that happened disturbingly often. I kind of know what you’re feeling right now.” She sat up straight, tilted her head back, and downed the rest of her drink. “Warm-up?” She extended her hand toward Daniel’s cup. He handed it to her.
When she returned, she handed him his cup and began to rip sugar packets apart and pour them into her cup. Her spoon clinked against the inside of the mug as she stirred. The shouting in the room next door became background noise.
“It’s not just the deaths and violence, Miri.”
“I get it,” she said.
Daniel put his cup down on an end table. “I’ve got all this power, and still…”
“Yup. We all feel the same way. Kevin’s beside himself. He’s just…well…being his usual, defensive, crotchety self.”
“If it makes you feel any better, Graham basically told me the same thing you did, and had the same assessment. Your plan would’ve been cleaner.”
Daniel picked up his cup, took a small sip, and blew across the surface. A few, hot drops spilled over the edge. He slurped the coffee until it was well below the rim, past the risk of spilling. “I understand why Rob and Marcus did this. The first civilian casualties were on my watch, and there was a child involved. On top of that, I could’ve had Paul in custody back in July if I hadn’t let my emotions get in the way.”
“I knew he was stalling. Nina knew he was stalling, too. I wouldn’t let her take action.” He put the cup down again.
“How do you ‘not let’ Nina do something?” Miriam held her cup between her thighs to make air quotes with her fingers. She picked it up again and took a big swallow of her coffee.
Daniel sighed and dropped his head back, hitting his head on the wall. He reached up and rubbed it. “Because I told her Rob wouldn’t let us work together unless she followed orders without question. I might’ve laid it on too thick.”
She nodded again and pinched her lips shut.
“I know you’re dying to say something. Just say it. I’m not in the mood to be judged silently right now.”
“There’s more to this. You’re not telling me something, and whatever it is, it’s eating at you. I can see it all over your face. This is why I love playing poker with you. Give me the rest of it.”
He cocked his head. “Are we in session now, Miriam Roth, psychoanalyst?” He took another sip and made a face. The coffee was tepid. He downed it before it got any colder.
“Sure, why not?” She grinned and took a few sips of her coffee. “Ick. It’s cold.” She flattened her hand over the cup to form a seal and shook it so fast that all Daniel saw was a blur. When she stopped and lifted her hand, steam rose from the cup.
“Would’ve been nice for you to offer to do that to mine, too.” Daniel smiled.
“Didn’t think of it.” She shrugged. “Sorry. As we were saying,” she leaned back and rested her elbow on the back of the chair. “Now, answer the question. She mocked a heavy, German accent. “I’m channeling Doctor Freud as we speak. Tell me all about your troubles and dreams.”
“Nina held back because she loves me. Paul went nuts because he loves me. My mother and Sam died because they took me to Germany, and they did that because they loved me. I don’t trust that level of devotion, Miri. Bad things happen when people get that invested in me. I lose people in horrible ways when they get too close. Paul nearly killed Nina back in Italy, at least as much as someone can try to ‘kill’ an immortal being. Now she really can die, and…”
“And love is scary. Got it. Love is scary, and it makes people take risks. Daniel, that’s normal. You’re willing to risk your life on a regular basis, but not your emotions. News flash, you can’t control everything and everyone. Are you saying you’d feel safer if Nina didn’t love you? Do you wish she’d never gone back to you after you got scared and took off?”
He reached around and rubbed the back of his neck.
“And that right there is one of your poker tells.”
He rolled his eyes. “Something happened.”
She nodded. “Nina told me about Ty. I gotta say, as your new therapist, I am impressed with your anger management. I was sure I was going to find Ty bruised up and with broken ribs sooner or later.”
He puffed his cheeks and blew them out. “First of all, every day since I found out what he did, I’ve fantasized about punching him and it makes me smile. I’m worried. I haven’t said anything to Ty because I’m still pissed, and I’m afraid I’m gonna screw everything up. Nina knows she has other options. Now that her time is finite, she can decide I’m not the one she wants to spend it with if I mess up badly enough.”
“Wow. Listen to yourself. Just wow.” Miriam tossed back the rest of her hot drink in three big swallows.
“It hurts my throat just watching you do that,” he said.
She zipped from the couch to the counter and back so quickly that if Daniel hadn’t noticed a breeze, he wouldn’t have been sure she’d ever moved. He looked over at the counter. She’d washed her cup and put it away.
“I’m gonna break a confidence for you, so you have perspective.”
“Don’t. Not if it’s Nina’s.” He wondered what secret Nina had been keeping from him. His fingers numbed at the thought.
She shook her head and leaned back on the chair. “She’s not telling you because she thinks it’ll hurt you. She was a mess when you left. She wasn’t just sad, I know she told you she was sad, and she missed you, but you didn’t watch her go through the grief over the loss.”
He bit his lip and released it. “Miri, please don’t. I already know how much I hurt her. I think about that every day, along with punching Ty.”
“No, you need to hear this, because you’re starting to sound like a whiny asshole, almost as much as you did before you finally schtupped her.”
He raised his eyebrows and frowned. “That’s crass even for you.”
Miriam ignored him. “Nina almost never smiled. Occasionally, Ty or I could get her to crack a grin, but it was always obvious that she was falling apart on the inside. Do you remember the crappy excuse for a congratulations you gave her over speaker phone when she finished training and Rob put her on the team?”
Daniel shut his eyes and cringed at the memory.
“It officially ended the evening for her. She heard your voice, heard the distance and the callousness. We all did, and everyone around that table knew she felt like she was dying. She didn’t have to say anything, she didn’t even flinch, but we could all tell.”
He didn’t open his eyes. “Why are you telling me this? Are you trying to validate the fact that loving me is a bad idea?”
“She begged Lisa and me to tell her how to not love you, and believe me, not a single person who knew the situation would’ve thought twice about it if there was a way. I told her exactly what I’m telling you right now, Daniel. Love is complicated, we do fucked up shit because of it, there’s no way to will yourself out of it, and it’s worth every second. It’s worth every damned risk, and you must realize how messed up it is that a commitaphobe like me has to explain that there is nothing wrong with your relationship. Get over yourself.”
He opened his eyes and folded his arms, staring at her. “Is our session over yet, Doctor Freud?”
She sat up straight. “No. Here’s what Doctor Miri thinks: you and Nina both need to live your lives as if everything that matters is happening right now, because that’s how it is. If you want to honor all the deaths you’ve witnessed, do it by remembering to live. Don’t wait until this mission or the next is over, don’t plan and think, ‘someday,’ and ignore whoever might distract you from that. Or at least decide which distractions are worth ignoring. Ty’s behavior isn’t worth getting this worked up over. She didn’t hide it from you, she even tried to take responsibility for it, and she obviously isn’t leaving you.”
He nodded and shrugged. “Thanks.”
“My advice is this, Daniel. If you don’t want to lose her, quit wringing your hands over it and make sure that you don’t lose her.” She grinned and folded her hands in her lap. “That was easy. I would’ve made a fantastic therapist.”
Daniel laughed. “I don’t think therapists tell clients that they’re assholes.”
Miriam walked to the door and opened it. “That’s what would’ve made me a top-notch therapist. That’ll be five dollars.”
Death and Rebirth
October 1993, Mogadishu, Somalia
Kevin Rye watched, helpless and horrified, as the missile sped toward his helicopter. It happened fast, even though it felt like the excruciating ordeal drew itself out in slow motion. The missile slammed into its target, and the aircraft bounced hard and tilted. Kevin’s restraint popped open, and suddenly, no one was in their seat anymore. The interior turned gray as the helicopter began to disintegrate. Hot air whooshed over him and burned his face and hands.
Fire roared through the cabin. He inhaled, choking on the acrid, almost overwhelming smell of fuel before he noticed he was being sprayed by it. Kevin couldn’t see the other men, and the cabin whirled upside-down as it separated from the tail. He plummeted while whole chunks of the helicopter shot in all directions.
He couldn’t have cried out if he’d wanted to; his lungs seemed to deflate, and his chest was heavy. He was sure he was dropping faster than he felt like he was. Several meters away, Simmons, his brown skin clearly visible through the smoke and blue sky, plunged as well. Above, the sky had ignited. A cloud of black smoke expanded above him. When the fireball dropped, he would burn alive. He was surprised at the detachment of his thoughts. He was about to be either a fleshy, ripped-apart bag of shattered bones, or a seared husk. Below him, a cloud was burning, and he bore down on it; above him, the gigantic ball of flame expanded. He was covered in fuel. This was it.
He always figured his last thoughts would be of Tricia or his mother but all he could think was that Rob was right, R.O.T.C. was a crap deal for college. He was about to die. Fuck Rob. He closed his eyes and the world went black.
Kevin opened his eyes. He was belly-down and draped over something soft. He inhaled a mouthful of dirt, which stung as it went down his windpipe and scraped as he coughed it up. This shouldn’t have happened. He shouldn’t have survived. He should be a mangled mess of human flesh and bone. His head dangled an inch or so above the ground, and he couldn’t feel his legs. The world blurred and spun.
Kevin wiggled his fingers and felt around. How broken was he? Maybe he hadn’t survived, after all. This was an impossible angle. He patted himself until he touched his belt, found the radio, and tugged at it. He didn’t feel the force of the tug because he wasn’t touching his own body, the radio he’d grabbed wasn’t his. He reared back a couple of inches, and pain seized and burned through his shoulders and chest. Lieutenant Henley, along with two ripped, padded seats from the helicopter, had broken his fall.
“Hey.” It hurt to make noise. It was probably just a few broken ribs, nothing short of a miracle. He smacked his colleague on the cheek to wake him. Henley’s head lolled to the side, and sandy blood poured from his head. Kevin’s stomach lurched as if his insides contained yet more fuel and had ignited. His torso expanded and contracted hard, and he threw up on Henley’s face.