Deja Vu: Chapter One: Lionhearted

‘It was foretold that when the Great Darkness descended, a Champion from Heaven and a Champion from Earth, would rise to combat such evil.’— World Intelligence Security Endeavor, The Legend of Ishtar

Daniel, 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 were 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 R.O.T.C. 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 were 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.

All Our Yesterdays: Prologue

“The Legend of Ishtar” — 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.

The Beginning of Always: Chapter 5: Defeat

CAUTION: SPOILERS!

Daniel, 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, nor 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.” Daniel sighed. “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 all the chatter I’d heard was about. That’s what got Abioye looking stuff up.”

“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. 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 brown 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. A 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.”

W.I.S.E. Men

Chapter One: Death and Rebirth

Kevin, 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.

This sucked.

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.