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The Six

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Six

 

 

 

 

Copyright 2016 Calvin Wolf

Published by Calvin Wolf at Shakespir

 

 

 

 

 

Shakespir Edition License Notes

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your enjoyment only, then please return to Shakespir.com or your favorite retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

 

 

 

 

Table of Contents

 

Acknowledgements

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Epilogue

About Calvin Wolf

Other books by Calvin Wolf

Connect with Calvin Wolf

 

 

 

 

Acknowledgements

 

I would like to dedicate this novel to my son, Aiden. He lights up my life with his intelligence, energy, and creativity. I love him very much and always will.

 

I would also like to thank my beautiful wife, Brittany, for all of her love and support.

 

As always, much thanks to Mom and Dad, who have always been there for me. Best wishes to my amazing brother and his wife – may little Theo grow and prosper mightily!

 

 

 

 

Chapter One

 

1

 

“At 1:27 PM eastern, the integrated Human Capital Market eclipsed the New York Stock Exchange in terms of trade volume for the first time. The recent political crisis, which has birthed a new era of democratic socialism in the United States, appears to have been underwritten by the billionaire class itself. Ever since the astounding Tupelov Airlift ushered in a new presidential administration, the nation’s largest investment firms have shifted over a trillion dollars in assets from corporate stock to human capital stock.”

 

He changed the channel.

 

“As of start of business Monday, the STITCH network has been fully restored nationwide, offering new transportation schedules to virtually all major cities. In Congress, Republicans appear willing to trade privatization of STITCH for universal healthcare, with corporate bids being accepted by the STITCH Administration even as health insurers weigh federal buyout offers.”

 

The screen showed a plethora of slick corporate logos, revealing which Fortune 500 companies were bidding for pieces of STITCH. Apparently, the giants of air and rail were excited about expanding into pressurized underground tube travel. As he watched, a video clip revealed that Boeing and Airbus were already tweaking their latest airplane designs to fit inside the government-built armored tubes.

 

“Whether consumers will pay a premium for ultimate travel security remains to be seen, but the recent spate of terrorist drone attacks on airliners during takeoffs and landings has definitely increased airlines’ interest in partnering with STITCH.”

 

A third channel showed sports. A fourth showed some sort of children’s show, probably the Disney network. The fifth channel had what he wanted:

 

“After many weeks of speculation, it has been revealed that the former president did indeed flee to Russia, where he was apparently offered asylum by its hard-line government.” The comely blonde was replaced with a video of the former president speaking from behind a wooden podium. Though the video did not zoom in closely on the man’s face, it was clear that it was the disgraced commander-in-chief. With a stern face, the controversial politician declared that he had been driven from office in an illegal coup and hoped for an international investigation to clear his name.

 

“All future communications with the deposed political figure are supposed to go through a Moscow-based law firm. Although we have tried repeatedly to get in touch with any relatives and close friends of the former president, nobody has been willing to comment. The news report from Russia, however, officially ends the FBI investigation into the president’s whereabouts. Since Russia is a non-extradition country, the White House has announced that it will not seek the return of its former occupant to face trial here at home.”

 

With a smile, he turned off the television and picked up his tablet. Swiping through the news sites, he discovered that the whole plan had gone off without a hitch: Everyone was buying the story. He looked across the room at the full-length mirror and smiled, a practiced expression of friendliness and reassurance. The former president of the United States smiled back at him. The makeup and minor cosmetic surgery had worked wonders.

 

Feeling ravenous, he left his bedroom and headed to the luxury apartment’s stainless steel kitchen. As he strode down the hallway, he passed the large study that had been renovated to resemble a Russian Federation political briefing room, complete with seals and flags. “Good work, comrades,” he chuckled to the empty room. Amazing what you can do with automation these days.

 

In the kitchen, the lights turned on automatically. Though this had been happening for days, he had no idea why it was occurring. Occasionally at first, and then more frequently, electrical appliances in his apartment had started working even before he had turned them on. They even started up before he could grab his tablet or remote control. It was as if they sensed him somehow, or as if he projected his desires to them telepathically.

 

He opened the fridge and grabbed some leftover pizza. Without bothering to heat up the slices, he began to eat. He was always hungry these days; his metabolism seemed to be turbocharged. Although forty-five was in the rearview mirror, he had never felt more energized. It wasn’t some tweak of testosterone, either – it was as if he was on some powerful cocktail of amphetamines and steroids. Frankly, it was starting to scare him.

 

The phone rang, and then answered itself. Why?

 

“Good job with that video. They bought it hook, line, and sinker. It was our lucky day that you happened to resemble that son-of-a-bitch.” The voice belonged to a Marine general turned spymaster, a man who was both loved and loathed around Washington. Despite an image of solid dependability, the former leatherneck had sucked up to the escaped president, now a reviled fugitive, just as much as he was sucking up to the new prez. What a pathetic waste of cells.

 

“Thank you, sir.”

 

“Is everything going okay out there? We’ve been trying to get information about the MIST labs, but nobody seems to be answering.”

 

He knows.

 

“Everything is fine, sir. It’s right before the start of a new semester, so things get a little hectic in a university town. You know how it is.”

 

The power went off, and he discovered that the spymaster was not in the mood for small talk.

 

2

 

Rural areas were sanctuaries to those on the run, and America’s backwoods were enjoying something of a revival as hundreds of zealots from the deposed administration fled Washington, New York City, and other locuses of power. On short notice, resignations had been tendered and families had flown to Denver, Salt Lake City, Portland, and Albuquerque with their most valuable possessions. From there, pickups and SUVs had been hastily purchased with cash. Cabins, trailer homes, and ranches had been snatched up by the dozen, often with little or no haggling.

 

Within a few weeks of the previous president’s departure, virtually his entire administration had taken up new residence in rural areas west of the Mississippi. Whether or not they cropped up again on the radar, having accepted jobs or attempted to engage in local politicking, depended on the likelihood of arrest. The ex-president’s Secretary of Defense had allegedly fled to the Yukon Territory. The Secretary of Education, meanwhile, had moved to Colorado Springs and was openly giving speeches about the state of America’s public schools. While the old education guru was not at risk of arrest, the move to Colorado was likely prompted by concerns that he would be forced to testify constantly if he remained in Washington.

 

Most of those with ties to the former president were keeping a low profile and telling their families to pretend that they were on extended vacations. They quickly sold their stocks, bonds, and HumCap shares and were prepared to live off their capital gains, perhaps forever. As ardent conservatives, most were quite well-to-do and had plenty of cash to fund their permanent backwoods vacays.

 

If the new administration came calling with FBI agents and U.S. Marshals, looking to detain and depose, many of the ex-president’s cronies were well prepared to actually flee into the woods for lengthy camping trips. Canadian currency had appreciated slightly due to increased demand, and sporting goods chains had sold out of various popular gear. The deposed elites had an affinity for name-brand apparel and would be fleeing across the northern border in style if warrants were served.

 

Though most of the former president’s cronies and benefactors were laying low, praying that Congressional inquiries would not lead to something worse, not all were playing meek and mild. Like the old Soviet hard-liners in the early ‘90s, some remained defiant, cunning, tapped in. After having fled Washington, they were eagerly searching for back-channels. They maintained contacts and skulked around the dark fringes of the Internet.

 

They knew people who knew people, and many were alarmingly well-connected to those who remained in power. Not many degrees of separation divided the reviled corporatists of old from the democratic socialists now in power…and everyone knew it. Pursuing justice would be a delicate balancing act, a fact that everyone of importance also knew. If push came to shove, names would be named and reputations tainted.

 

From a wilderness retreat outside of Cloudcroft, New Mexico, a former presidential adviser kept his finger on the national news pulse. A bank of computers in the basement of his remote cabin allowed him to maintain a complex array of aliases. Though he had only been in grade school when the Berlin Wall had crumbled, he would have made an excellent Cold War spy. A thin and physically unimpressive man, he had never desired a military or law enforcement career, but had instead done a brief stint in intelligence as a diplomat. Once a Foreign Service Officer, he had proven himself a natural facilitator and communicator.

 

The Diplomat spent his days now as a connector, linking fallen giants of the old administration to those who could help them regain what they had lost. Few knew his real identity, and an impressive bug-out bag awaited just in case anyone did crack under interrogation. Within four weeks of being in his cabin, the Diplomat had broken a laundry list of federal laws regarding classified information, conspiracy, corruption, and aiding and abetting fugitives. As for being an accomplice? The Diplomat had helped commit hundreds of other crimes.

 

A computer chimed and revealed that a situation had gone sideways in Laramie, Wyoming. Ever the helpful ambassador, the thin man scuttled over to that particular laptop in his rolling chair and set out to learn everything he could.

 

3

 

The MRI machine clicked, whirred, and roared. Hank Hummel was claustrophobic, and being in an enclosed space that was howling at him was downright excruciating. He tried to clear his mind, but his thoughts traveled back far in the past, to his son’s bathroom. An assassin had tied him to a toilet and was ransacking the house. The assassin burst into the bathroom to deliver the coup de grace, and Hummel slammed the toilet tank into the man’s torso.

 

Who was that man? Why was he trying to kill me?

 

The machine stopped howling and Hummel was pulled from the tube by a kindly-faced nurse. “You’re all done, Mr. Hummel,” the portly man announced, his appearance and tone reminiscent of a comedian. Nodding, Hummel sat up and accepted a robe.

 

“The doctor is ready to see you in the office whenever you’re done getting dressed,” the nurse announced.

 

“Thank you,” Hummel replied. Always good to be polite.

 

Robed, Hummel climbed off the MRI table and went through a door into a cozy dressing room. Were my clothes like that when I hung them up? I thought I always hung my pants in front of my shirt. Old habit. Checking to make sure the chubby nurse had not ventured into his wallet, Hummel found everything in perfect order. Quickly, he dressed.

 

Leaving through a more solid, oaken door, Hummel emerged into a plush hallway and went down to the MRI office.

 

“You’re right as rain, Mr. Hummel,” beamed his doctor. The dapper chap, practically a transplant from a TV medical drama, pointed to a bank of computer screens. “Your body is completely free and clear of any nanoparticles.”

 

“You’re absolutely sure?”

 

“Positive. I understand you’re worried, but this is your fourth visit and they have all been negative. No sign of anything. Didn’t the authorities put you at ease after the incident?” Hummel had explained the basics of what had happened to the doctor, despite having been badgered into a fearsome-sounding nondisclosure agreement. Since I didn’t mention the rocket launch, I doubt they’ll seek an indictment. Hell, politicians get away with a lot worse…

 

Hummel laughed at the doctor’s innocent query. “At first, yeah. But then I thought about it. You wave a little wand over me like some TSA guy, and I’m supposed to believe you? No thanks, Uncle Sam, but I’ll take a second opinion.” The doctor smiled and nodded. The hospital, and the doctor himself, were being paid handsomely for these second opinions. In cash.

 

“I’m glad you came to us. Your worries may have been justified, but let me put your mind at ease. Whatever nanoparticles were in your body have since gone away. Would you like to schedule a follow-up appointment? Say, three months?”

 

Pulling out his phone, Hummel checked his schedule and told the doctor when he was free. The doctor used his tablet, a sleek holographic model, to suggest a suitable date and time for the appointment. Hummel confirmed that the time would work fine. “Great, we will see you then!” the internist beamed. The men shook hands and Hummel departed, heading through the winding hallways and stairwells that would eventually take him to the Midland Memorial Hospital parking garage.

 

He was three right turns into his journey before he realized that the doctor had been wearing gloves when they shook hands.

 

4

 

In generations past, there would have been tall filing cabinets lining every wall of the room. With the joys of modern technology, all the misery was compacted into a sleek holographic tablet. The president ignored the device, encrypted and customized by the Ivy League nerds downstairs, and demanded an update in plain English: “How the fuck did we miss this?”

 

Men and women in fancy suits stuttered and stammered, trying to come up with a coherent response. Finally, a young woman stepped forward and declared that files had been deleted when the arrests of the hard-liners began. “They were hacking and deleting as fast as they could,” she said. The president clapped and announced that this was the type of response he needed. “We don’t have a lot of time, ladies and gentlemen. I need to cut through the bullshit. Now, tell me the problem and what we are currently doing about it.”

 

“One week ago, we discovered an alert that had been deleted by the hard-liners. It was related to the MIST project in Laramie,” the young woman continued. The president used the tablet to search M-I-S-T, bringing him face-to-face with a digital folder marked with more classification icons than he had ever seen.

 

“Yet another thing they didn’t tell me about,” the president snarled, annoyed. “How long has this program been going on?”

 

“Three years, give or take,” a man responded, his voice hoarse. “We felt that, with everything going on, it wasn’t necessary to-”

 

“Necessary to inform me? People thought they could handle it themselves, right? Well, it looks like that didn’t happen.” The president sighed loudly, then demanded that the briefing continue.

 

“The man they sent to Laramie to oversee the project, just before the president was deposed, turned out be infected with MIST. He bears a strong facial resemblance to former president, and agreed to try and fool the computer. That part worked, but the computer later analyzed the video and identified that the man had symptoms of MIST. That’s why it tried to launch those missiles – it viewed MIST as a top threat.”

 

“And this was eleven weeks ago?”

 

“Yes, sir. The computer’s alert got lost in the shuffle, and only a week ago did we realize that this guy is still out there, by now completely infused with MIST.”

 

Standing, the president stared deeply into the eyes of his aides and advisers. “That’s a helluva long time. Be honest, how bad is this?”

 

“By now, he could have infected many people he has come into close contact with,” the young woman explained, her voice strong but shaky. “He was already at that point when he made the initial video. Since then, his nano count has almost certainly tripled.”

 

“And this is from the scientists? Who’s in charge of this?” The president began swiping and tapping up a storm, seeking names and numbers from his tablet. Inches above the screen, three-dimensional pixels swarmed and danced.

 

“We, uh, have been having trouble reaching them,” someone said, and the president rolled his eyes. Of course. Same shit, different day.

 

“Have we picked up this guy who’s infected with the MIST, the esteemed individual my predecessor sent out there as his consigliere or whatever?”

 

“We tried to keep him occupied, but he eluded us when we went to grab him last night,” the young woman said. “The situation went sideways and there were casualties.”

 

The president swore and collapsed back in his office chair. “Civilian or our people?” He seemed a bit relieved when his aides assured him that only uniformed personnel had been affected. “How many? Dead and wounded. And I better not be finding out on CNN.”

 

“It’s been kept quiet. Eight dead, seven more wounded.”

 

“Jesus Christ! From one man?! Who was in charge of this arrest?” Someone delivered the name Drew Storm, the former Marine and current assistant CIA director, and the president immediately whipped out his cell phone. “That wannabe Patton better be in my office inside the hour,” the commander-in-chief hissed as he dialed. “All of you, get out of here and find me some solutions! I want this guy found and I want everything dealing with MIST to be put on ice until we can run a full investigation.”

 

5

 

“We haven’t had sex since it happened,” the police lieutenant said. Reclining on the couch, he exhaled heavily and wiggled his toes. Behind him, comfortably ensconced in a leather armchair, his therapist scribbled on a yellow notepad. It was Hector Rodriguez’ first time in therapy.

 

“What do you think the problem is?” the psychologist asked. The man came highly recommended, and there was no way that Rodriguez would go to the usual counselors used by local law enforcement. MUPD’s guy was good, but a bit too close to home.

 

“That stuff that was in me. They say it’s gone, but I just can’t trust them.” Rodriguez had explained the nanoparticles as best he could, but there was no paperwork he could hand over. With the whole thing classified above top secret, there was little to go on aside from the information gleaned from Google and Wikipedia. Fortunately, the good doctor had done an impressive amount of homework. Despite probably thinking that his newest client was a kook, the psychologist had downloaded and printed out reams of documents on nanotechnology.

 

“Why do you think they might be lying?” the doctor asked.

 

Rodriguez stared up at the relaxing ceiling, beige and sand soothing his mind…or trying to. Where do I begin? “It’s what I would do in their shoes. What were their options? Tell me that the stuff didn’t come out? That there was still some in there, replicating? Evolving? I might go crazy, do something unpredictable.”

 

“But what do they gain from telling you that you’re free of these particles, if you really still have them in your system?”

 

“Now they can watch me. Track me. Study me. Watch me to see what happens. If I start showing symptoms, then they pick me up and take me back to a lab.” Now I’m worried that I really am crazy.

 

“And how is this impacting your life now? It has been…” the therapist ruffled through his notes. “Eleven weeks since the incident, which was related to the political crisis. Since you started with the sex, let’s go back to that.”

 

“I’m worried that my wife will be infected or something.”

 

“Does she know about the nanoparticles?”

 

“No. I haven’t told her. She knows something is wrong, and she keeps demanding that I tell her. But I can’t tell her this – it’s too much!”

 

“Would you be comfortable bringing her to a session with you? I have lots of experience working with couples.”

 

“She might not take it well. My marriage is crumbling, Doc, and I need to calm her down and try to get things back to normal, not drop this sort of bomb on her.”

 

The therapist cautioned against lying to one’s spouse, a response Rodriguez had predicted. Still, hearing the words stung. Am I really being that guy? I guess I am.

 

“I didn’t ask for any of this,” Hector Rodriguez snapped, feeling the unfairness of it all. The last several years had been rough, and trouble just seemed to find him. “It’s like there’s no way to get off the damn roller coaster.”

 

“Such is life,” the therapist said wryly. “Unfortunately, we cannot wish our way to another path. But, being where you are, let us discuss what we can do to improve your relationship with your wife. I feel that that is your greatest source of stress right now.”

 

Rodriguez concurred. “It’ll be a tough sell. How do you tell your wife that you might never be normal again?”

 

6

 

The stately mansion had once housed the dean of the College of Engineering, but its current occupant was a world-renowned scientist who had largely disappeared from the usual circles. The man’s latest employer, a shell agency within the United States executive branch, had paid handsomely to relocate him to this isolated, remote college town. Someone had decided that rural college towns were the best place for clandestine and controversial research projects, and the scientist did not disagree.

 

However, he certainly had some qualms about it now.

 

When your employer gets disbanded during a political crisis and your government-appointee boss starts acting strangely, being stuck in a small town becomes a lot less fun. Shortly after the crisis in Washington, all communication from anyone above the CIA guy had ceased. A week later, his car had begun breaking down. After several weeks of the dealership not being able to determine the cause of the various malfunctions, he had decided to buy a new vehicle.

 

“You’ve got some issues with your credit, sir,” the salesman had said after running his info. “Your accounts have all been flagged.”

 

The scientist immediately took the problem to his superior, the CIA guy, and had been informed that it must be a temporary glitch. “Things like this always happen in countries after big political shakeups. I’ll call my people at Langley and have them straighten this out.”

 

When he had finally decided to screw the job and take the next flight out of Denver, he had not been able to buy the ticket. Sitting at his home computer, he had felt his blood run cold. This is no glitch. This has all been intentional. My car never working, my phone never working, my Internet never working. My credit cards not working. I’m being held hostage.

 

On a foolish whim, he had grabbed his phone and called as high up the chain as he could, fueled by adrenalin, energy drinks, and vodka. When he finally got an undersecretary on the phone, he discovered, to his shock, that the project had been shut down weeks ago.

 

“We got confirmation that MIST had been shelved and you had taken a job in England. Your exit interview and debriefing were filed with our office…uh…eight days ago.”

 

Oh God no. Fighting to keep his voice calm, he asked where that information had come from. The undersecretary gave the name of the CIA guy, and asked if any of the information was incorrect. What do I say? That the psychopath has been lying about everything and holding me hostage, still conducting this research?

 

“No, everything’s fine,” he had whispered, lightheaded. The glass of vodka had slipped from his sweating hands and shattered on the tile. Silently, he had staggered upstairs to pack.

 

Now, bags in hand, he picked up his phone and began to call his colleagues. Most had been absent from the lab recently, but there was a touch of something going around. He didn’t know what to say, but the booze told him that the truth was a good place to start.

 

Outside, it began to rain, an evening thunderstorm signaling the beginning of autumn.

 

“Hello, Jack,” his boss said from the kitchen. In a flash of lightning, the man’s eyes glowed yellow. In that moment, everything was made clear. The drunk scientist was instantly sober. Slowly, heart pounding, Jack set the phone down on the coffee table.

 

“They’ve finally come to shut me down, Jack,” the CIA man said. He was dressed all in black, and Jack saw bullet holes in his tactical shirt. There was blood, but not a lot. Strangely, it seemed to shimmer in the light. “I think they figured it all out.”

 

“That you kept us all here under false pretenses?” Jack croaked, feeling every day of his fifty-seven years. “I should never have come here.”

 

The spook laughed. “Probably not,” he agreed. “But you guys were doing so well that I couldn’t accept the call from up the chain to shut everything down. Fortunately, I was able to find some new backers and keep everything going.”

 

“So this wasn’t just you?” Jack asked, surprised. Makes sense. It’s not like one man could keep this whole thing afloat on his own. But who else helped him? Jack tried to picture all the various techs and assistants and security folk involved in MIST, but could not. Many seemed shifty enough, and several probably had backgrounds in killing. We were not doing a peaceful thing. Even through his fear, Jack felt a streak of shame.

 

“Not at all. Any time a government falls, lots of powerful people have chances to make new opportunities. Open new markets, if you will. You think I would just turn over MIST to Uncle Sam when all that was awaiting me was a prison cell?”

 

So you’re one of the criminals from the old regime. One of the knee-breakers like the Home Guard. But more dangerous, more sophisticated. I made a deal with the devil.

 

“So what do you want?” Jack asked, almost trembling.

 

“I need your admin password. I’ve got to skip town, but my backers need more than I managed to download on my own. I know you’ve been changing the passwords, so don’t try to tell me otherwise.” The CIA man removed a wicked-looking knife from a black sheath on his belt. “And time is of the essence. We’ll test out the password you give me. If it works, you die quick and painless. If it doesn’t, well…”

 

“You’re a monster,” Jack whispered. “I don’t know how you got the MIST into you, but it’s made you a monster.”

 

The spook beckoned and Jack followed willingly, unable to risk the pain of the knife. Fully infused with MIST, the man in black could not be outrun or outfought. Jack knew his time had come. Fortunately, he had no family to leave behind.

 

On the coffee table, the cell phone revealed that a call had been ongoing for three minutes and sixteen seconds.

 

7

 

Robert Smith finished his beer and hurried across the campus as rain pattered down, enjoying the rich aromas of damp earth and ozone. Earlier that evening, his Ph.D. research had just been accepted, guaranteeing him a spot in the next graduation. The former struggling boy from west Texas was going to be a physics professor. The department chair had hinted that a spot was opening up right there at the University of Wyoming, and Smith was giddy with excitement.

 

I made my mark here, Smith thought as he swayed, darted, and danced from cover to cover. The campus was deserted, but he wouldn’t have cared if it was rush hour – he was simply that ecstatic. He jogged between two overhangs and gusts of rain coated his bare arms and the back of his neck, making him shiver. When he made it beneath the concrete overhang, he hugged himself to ward off the chill.

 

“Shoulda brought an umbrella,” he said to himself, a smile plastered on his face. Nothing was going to ruin this night! He stood tall and stretched his arms and back, feeling a buzz of energy in his veins. His eyes darted from building to building, taking in the stately and picturesque infrastructure that had been his home for years. Should I stay here, where I am comfortable and well-known, or seek a new adventure?

 

Lights were on in the Engineering Building, where the secret labs were. Nobody was supposed to go into those labs, which had always been locked down tighter than Fort Knox. Smith looked at his phone and saw that it was after 10:00 PM. Why is anyone up there right now? With semesters about to change over, Smith figured that perhaps the secret labs were no longer secret.

 

“Maybe they’re being turned back over to regular classes,” Smith mused. On a whim, he decided to check it out. Instead of heading toward his apartment, which was west of campus, he turned to the left and ambled toward the Engineering Building. As an adjunct, he had an impressive ring of keys that would aid in this adventure. What could they be clearing out of there? What was so top-secret that they wouldn’t allow any students in?

 

The Engineering Building itself was locked, but Smith had a key and knew the security code – heck, he was usually there after-hours grading papers anyway. He let himself in and wandered past his office. At least this way, if anyone did question him as to why he was there after ten, he could say that he had been to his office. None of the other adjuncts or TAs were around, and everything was dark and locked up tight. Using his cell phone as a flashlight, Smith found the stairs and began climbing to the third floor.

 

At the third floor landing, he saw that the security system had already been deactivated. Through the tiny gaps around the edges of the steel doors, he could see that the lights were on. Emboldened by the margaritas with which he had celebrated the acceptance of his doctoral thesis, he quietly pushed open one of the doors. It was surprisingly heavy, but swung smoothly and made not a sound.

 

Robert Smith heard voices at the end of the hallway, and crept toward them. Perhaps it was a dean or vice president, gossiping with some contractors about what the labs were being converted to? In academia, knowing the inside gossip could endear anyone to his or her colleagues. Knowing what’s going on with these labs could help me land a professor gig here. Dr. Knowles loves anyone who can give him the skinny on what admin is up to.

 

He was walking past the third set of doors when he saw the blood on the bulletproof glass.

 

Oh no.

 

Smith rushed to the glass and tried to push open the laboratory doors, but they were locked. Peering inside, the young adjunct saw two men lying on the floor, blood pooling by their heads. Squinting, he saw a hole in one man’s forehead, and a similar hole in his colleague’s temple. Murder. Murder!

 

Everything from eleven weeks ago came flooding back and hit Robert Smith like a hammer, almost buckling his knees. The arrest, the prison camp, the escape, the coup. He had been proud of how quickly he had pushed it from his mind and gotten back to his studies, how he had gotten back to normal. I never processed. I never grieved.

 

Somewhere in his mind, he knew that the two dead men lying on the laboratory floor were related to the chaos of the last several months. Things are not back to normal. Something horrible has happened. This was intentional, an assassination.

 

Though Smith knew he should run and seek help, find the cops, he felt compelled to see if anyone needed his help. There might be wounded. He could still hear voices up ahead. Not wanting to speak on the phone, worried that his voice might attract unwanted attention, Smith decided to text for help instead. He knew a reserve campus police officer, a jovial criminal justice professor, who could summon help from the outside. Smoothly, Smith extracted his new iPhone and began to send a text.

 

A loud pop rippled through the hallway, followed by an agonized wail. Silencer. That’s the sound of a silencer.

 

8

 

“You didn’t have to kill her!” the computer engineer moaned. “Oh, you son of a bitch!” A woman in a lab coat lay on the carpet, lifeless. The man in black, eyes glowing yellow, twirled a pistol like an Old West gunslinger. The barrel of the pistol was fitted with a large cylinder, obviously a silencer.

 

“No witnesses,” the man in black snarled. “And if you don’t give me the drive, your kids will be next.” The computer engineer crumpled to the floor in misery, tears pouring down his cheeks. “Tell me now, and your kids never have to know what happened. They’ll spin it as a robbery gone wrong. Hold out on me, and I’ll make a visit to 446 Arbor Avenue before I skip town.”

 

Weeping, the computer engineer blubbered on the floor. Slowly, like a miserable child, he pulled a tablet from his lab coat pocket. Calmly, with a bemused smile, the man in black watched him, still holding the pistol in a gloved hand.

 

“I hate you,” the engineer sniffled. “You’re a goddamn monster. If I find you the drive, do you swear to leave my children alone?”

 

“Of course,” the man in black soothed, his face fatherly and reassuring. He looked rather presidential…except for the eyes.

 

“You don’t know what you’ve done to yourself. We don’t even know,” the engineer rasped. “We don’t know how the MIST will evolve, what could make it change. Soon, it will be in charge, not you. You’ll be a puppet.”

 

“Just give me the location. The goon squad will be here soon for round two, and you’ll regret it if I have to deal with them again. It’ll make me angry, and I might just forget my promise to stay away from 446 Arbor.”

 

“They’ll stop you. They won’t spare any effort.”

 

“Nobody on earth can stop me, my good man. You should know that.”

 

Smiling, the computer engineer looked into his assailant’s impassive face. “Yes,” he said, his eyes narrowing. “I know that.” He continued to swipe and tap on his tablet.

 

“I’m growing impatient,” the man in black snapped. “You ready yet?”

 

“Yes, I’m ready,” the computer engineer replied. He slowly climbed to his feet, unsteady and wobbling. Suddenly, he straightened up and pulled a small handgun from inside his lab coat, his speed unexpected. The nerd had reflexes that would impress an athlete. Still, it was not enough.

 

Like a snake, the man in black fired off a shot with his silenced pistol, striking the scientist between the eyes. The man in the lab coat staggered back and slid on the carpet, his small pistol clattering off into a corner. His killer swiftly stepped forward and retrieved the fallen tablet computer.

 

On the screen, it was apparent that the blubbering computer engineer had not been doing the assassin’s bidding. The screen was split in half, and the left window revealed that the man had texted his children’s babysitter and instructed her to flee the house and take the children to the police station immediately. The right window showed the planet earth as a blue circle, with a satellite’s orbital path stationed above it.

 

MIST QUARANTINE SILVER SIX

 

DEORBIT CODE APPROVED

 

LANDING PATH ACQUIRED

 

“I’d almost forgotten about that,” the assassin whispered to himself, his eyes glowing with unusual fervor. He watched as the image in the right window changed to show the satellite descending, leaving revolving its orbit above the planet and entering a glide path.

 

GUIDANCE SYNC MCDONALD OBSERVATORY TX

 

The satellite would land near Fort Davis in approximately two hours and forty-seven minutes.

 

The man in black heard a sound out in the hallway, and he spun around to see a youngish man, about thirty years old, standing there. With lightning speed, the killer brought up his pistol and pulled the trigger, his mind already seeing exactly where the bullet would go.

 

9

 

Hank Hummel was awakened by his phone, and he was surprised to hear his old criminal justice professor on the other end of the line. “I can’t talk much,” the big guy from Wyoming whispered, “but you need to know that all the stuff they might have told you about those nanoparticles is probably a lie.” Wide awake, Hummel sat bolt upright in bed. “What do you mean?” he asked, trying to keep his voice quiet so as not to disturb Whitney.

 

“There’s been a bloodbath up here in Laramie tonight, including a killing spree at the MIST labs on campus. You know how those labs were supposed to be entirely shut down? Apparently not. Someone just murdered a whole bunch of scientists and engineers who weren’t even supposed to be there. We locals got here only a few minutes before some angry-looking feds, and they pushed us out real quick.”

 

“God damn,” Hummel hissed, his heart pounding.

 

“I’ll fill you in on more later, but I’ve gotta split. Fortunately, I left a little bug or two up there as the feds were herding us out. Whatever they say, I’ll hear when I check my computer.” The call ended abruptly.

 

Unable to sleep, Hummel swung himself out of bed and padded across the soft bedroom carpet to the bathroom. He closed the door, turned on the lights, and stared at himself in the mirror. Bringing his face close to the glass, he stared deep into his own eyes. He knew about the yellow eye symptom, the reflection of light from an unnatural new lens. For several long moments, he held his breath, looking as closely at his pupils and irises as he could. He could not detect any change in his eyes, and finally let out his breath.

 

It will be okay. It will be okay.

 

Hummel turned off the light and left the bathroom, but did not return to his bed. Instead, he quietly crept out into the living room. As the French bulldog stirred and snored in her crate, Hummel went into the kitchen and decided to make a sandwich. Trying to avoid waking his family, he quietly arranged his desired ingredients on the kitchen counter. After arraying the bread and adding mayo and mustard, he grabbed a sharp knife to cut the rotisserie chicken.

 

After cutting a few nice pieces with the crispy skin still attached, Hummel’s hand slipped and the knife’s blade darted into the side of his hand. Blood welled, and there was a brief pain…but then the pain shut off, as if a flip had been switched.

 

His mind reeled when he saw silver in his blood. Terrified of any of the tainted blood landing on the counter, Hummel rushed to the drawer of kitchen towels and grabbed an out-of-place Christmas one. He covered the wound and looked around. His son’s cell phone was charging in its usual spot, and Hummel grabbed it with his good hand. Pulling recklessly, he yanked the device free and carried it into the living room.

 

Breathlessly, he called and left a message for his brother Carl, who must have had his phone on silent. Next, he dialed an old friend. After four rings, a groggy voice answered.

 

“Hec, we’ve been lied to. I just cut myself with a kitchen knife, and I’ve got the MIST. Deep gash, but it doesn’t even hurt. It almost feels like the cut is knitting itself back together right now. They lied to us.”

 

Hector Rodriguez was silent, unable to craft a response.

 

“And I just got a call from Wyoming. Someone pulled a raid on the MIST labs, and not the kind where they leave survivors. I don’t know what to do, man.”

 

 

 

 

Chapter Two

 

1

 

FBI agent Roger Garfield swiped through hundreds of three-dimensional holograms of the crime scene. “Robert Smith was lucky that the psychopath never thought to reload. His last shot killed the computer guy, and it looks like Smith surprised him just a few seconds later. When he discovered that he was out of bullets, he chose to pursue Smith on foot instead of reloading and trying to take him at a distance.”

 

The Ph.D. student was in a coma, having leapt from the third floor stairwell in an attempt to land on the second floor landing and gain some quick distance from his pursuer. Unfortunately for Smith, he had landed wrong and struck the side of his head on a metal pillar. The fall from the second floor landing to the ground floor had given Smith a skull fracture and cracked a half dozen ribs. Seconds later, the strike team had swarmed into the stairwell and rescued the young man from certain death.

 

“We heard the impact,” a sergeant had declared in his statement. “When we got through the door, we saw the suspect disappearing into the second story entrance. We had the building secure in thirty seconds, but he was already gone.” When asked if he had ever heard of a fugitive being able to move so fast, the sergeant had responded in the negative.

 

“He must be some master track star. Our teams have busted ex-pro athletes on speed and steroids who didn’t move that fast,” the sergeant had explained.

 

The sergeant and his team had disappeared into the night, leaving only a business card. “And you thought the new administration was going to be transparent,” Garfield’s new partner sniffed. “How are we supposed to put this in our report? Everything is classified.” Only three weeks after being transferred to the Denver office, Garfield was running ragged and subsisting on caffeine and sugar. I think I’ll put in for retirement at the end of the year. This is too much for me.

 

“It ain’t always easy being the good guys,” Garfield replied softly. Having arrived only minutes before by plane, he was under the deputy director’s orders to keep local law enforcement in the dark and keep things calm until another team arrived. Once the new team arrived, showing the right documents and providing the right passwords, Garfield and his agents were supposed to depart immediately and return via plane to Denver.

 

Rolls of police tape had been strung around the Engineering Building, and a handful of wandering co-eds had been turned away. Otherwise, the night was quiet. The rain had stopped, and FBI crime scene techs were collecting mind-boggling amounts of data. Garfield took another gulp of coffee and waved over a hovering tech.

 

“What’ve you got?” he asked, though it mattered little. All data was to be handed over to the new team as soon as it arrived.

 

“Everything. This guy didn’t even try to hide from the cameras. Take a look.”

 

Amazed, Garfield watched on the tablet screen as the perp stalked from laboratory to laboratory, swiftly shooting down his prey. Guy’s so fast and accurate that it doesn’t look real. Like a movie or a video game. The last few seconds of video showed the perp, who was dressed entirely in black, calmly following a terrified man and woman into a corporate-looking conference room. “That last room isn’t a lab, so there’s no camera in there,” the tech explained.

 

Next, the tech showed the camera feeds revealing Robert Smith’s entrance onto the third floor. The man entered calmly, headed down the hallway toward the carnage, and stopped when he saw blood. As Garfield watched the screen, he saw Smith pull out his phone and fiddle with it. He paused the video and called over his partner. “Find out who Smith called,” he ordered, and the agent agreed to run Smith’s iPhone through the machines.

 

As soon as the younger agent hurried off, Garfield continued the video and saw Smith stop at an open doorway, presumably leading into the conference room where the perp had killed his last two victims. Smith stared, shocked, eyes wide. Seconds later, he bolted, sprinting. Shortly afterward, likely delayed by his own shock at being out of bullets, the perp ran after him. Just at the edge of the camera’s range, Smith’s feet could be seen leaving the hallway and going into the stairwell.

 

A split second later, the perp reached the same spot. “And Smith’s a young, fit guy. I’ll bet his student ID card reveals that he hits the gym five times a week or more. Yet this perp, who looks to be at least forty-five, almost caught up to him over a distance of fifty meters,” Garfield marveled. “This MIST stuff is no joke.” He fingered his lapel mic and asked for an update on the laboratories.

 

“We get any of the stuff? The MIST? It’s supposed to be kept in armored cylinders, heavy glass. Perhaps in coolers of liquid nitrogen. The info we’ve got about it is in the file marked ‘recovery.’” After several minutes, the team leader upstairs confirmed that the lab was clean. “We found the coolers, and they’re empty…but open, and it doesn’t look like by accident. They’ve got about two dozen latches, and all have been unlatched.”

 

“Security camera doesn’t show our perp carrying a bag or pack. Any chance the cylinders are small enough to be carried in a vest or jacket?” Garfield asked.

 

“Uh, yeah. Cylinders are about eight inches tall and two inches in diameter. About the size of a twenty ounce can of Red Bull. If the guy’s over six feet tall, he could probably carry them in a utility belt without them being too noticeable underneath a jacket.”

 

Damn.

 

Garfield sat down on a stone bench and hastily typed out a text message to his superior. As soon as he was done, he received a text himself. His partner had discovered the last message of Robert Smith, upcoming Ph.D.: A phone call to the personal number of a reserve UWPD officer, a man Roger Garfield knew quite well.

 

2

 

The sealed satellite capsule landed hard in the Davis Mountains at fifty-eight minutes after midnight, its landing chutes providing just enough braking capacity to prevent the craft from being destroyed. NORAD and NASA were going ballistic, particularly because the satellite was not registered in their systems. “Someone call the Russians, the Chinese, and the European Space Agency!” a department head roared from a computer lab in Florida. “We need to know who owned that damn thing!”

 

An employee ran over with a phone handset, and the department head suddenly found himself talking to the night manager of the McDonald Observatory in west Texas. “An outside system took control of our computers and used it to guide that thing down,” the manager explained. “I saw the fire trail myself. It’s a big one, we’re talking massive. I’ve called fire crews, but we don’t know where it hit.”

 

They gave it three more minutes, waiting for news of any visual confirmation, and then decided to call the White House.

 

“Sir, we’ve got an unknown satellite that has made a hard landing in the Davis Mountains of southwest Texas,” the department head explained as soon as the sleepy president bade him speak. “It’s not registered, and the McDonald Observatory folks say it’s quite large.”

 

“Russian? Chinese?” the president yawned. “Is this landing an accident?”

 

“We don’t know whose it is, but the landing appears intentional. It landed hard, but did not crash. And someone hijacked the computers at the observatory to guide the craft down. This was no accident.”

 

The president used language not normally heard at state dinners and hung up the phone.

 

“Now what do we do?” a young engineer asked, his face flushed and excited. Situations like this did not occur often, and everyone was abuzz. Although nobody was talking alien invasion or anything so outlandish, many were anxiously awaiting the arrival of the news networks. If the satellite was Russian or Chinese, the incident could be dubbed the spark of a new Cold War.

 

“Find where the thing landed and keep civilians away from it.” The department head began barking for his staff to find the phone numbers of all local, state, and county first responders in the area of the Davis Mountains and inform them of the situation.

 

3

 

The Chevy Tahoe roared over the cattle guard and its headlights revealed the small blaze coming up from the ravine. “Thank God we had that rain this evening, or this would be a hell of a lot worse,” the blond state trooper told his partner. “Just a week ago, this place was dry as a bone.”

 

The other trooper, a bald man with goatee, nodded. He didn’t talk much.

 

Taking the opportunity to off-road on company time, the blond driver left the pavement and trundled over the rocky dirt. After cresting the edge of the ravine, the SUV’s headlights suddenly revealed a battered and smoking metal cone. Attached to its tip were steel cables. The trooper stopped the vehicle and put it in Park, then flipped on his searchlight. He swung the light from side to side until he found the white-and-red parachutes that had slowed the cone’s descent.

 

“Fuckin’ A,” the driver crowed. His older partner grinned. This was a story to tell the grandkids someday!

 

“This is car thirty-eight, and we’ve located the bogey,” the bald passenger said into the dash mic. “The craft is intact.”

 

When prompted to give their exact location, the trooper hesitated. “I’ve gotta check the map. We’re off on ranch road 1832, but I don’t know at which stream crossing.”

 

“That’s no problem for road crews, but try to double check for the helicopters. We’ll have crews inbound,” dispatch replied.

 

Both troopers clambered out of the cruiser, flashlights in hand. They had driven hundreds of yards from the highway, and the older trooper began berating the younger driver about the possibility of puncturing tires on mesquite thorns. “I didn’t hear you complaining when I was driving,” the blond man snapped. “Plus, it adds to the story.”

 

They trudged to the pavement and shined their lights on the flood gauge down below. The number in small type atop the gauge revealed the number of crossings, starting at where the road diverged from the state highway. “We’re nine in,” the bald trooper said. “Let’s go back and report.”

 

As they stomped back toward the car, its lights shining like beacons in the night sky, the metal cone down in the creek began beeping and clicking, its sounds grating above the babbling of the water. “What the hell is it doing?” the blond trooper asked. Instead of heading to the cruiser, he began climbing down the ravine.

 

“Don’t do that! It’s not safe!” his partner hissed.

 

“It’s not a UFO, you pansy! I just want to get some pictures of it before NASA or the Air Force hauls it away!” That rationalization seemed to do the trick, and the bald trooper began clambering down the hillside behind him. Both men pulled out their phones and were ready to snap epic photos.

 

“A door’s opening on the side!” The source of the clicking and beeping had been revealed. Taking a deep breath, the blond trooper began aiming his flashlight directly inside the square hatch that had been revealed. “Idiot – that’s probably sensitive camera equipment in there!” the other man yelled. “We’ll have to get close and use our phones. We don’t want to get sued for ruining film or something.”

 

“Film or something? How old are you?” the blond one laughed.

 

Seconds later, the duo bounded up next to the craft and approached the square hatch. “Smells like burning,” the bald one remarked, and his partner informed him that that was the smell of re-entry. “Space is intense, dude.”

 

They aimed their cell phone screens at the open hatch. An instant later, they gasped in horror.

 

4

 

“We’ve got two males inbound to Midland Memorial on mediflight one-eight-eight from Big Bend Regional Medical Center,” came the radio crackle. Names were mentioned and the two men were identified as state troopers from the Pecos station.

 

“Holy shit,” said Hector Rodriguez, somewhere into his fourth beer. He and Hank Hummel were drinking at the 24-hour bowling alley, with Rodriguez’ police radio chattering softly on the table next to them.

 

“All units in the area urged to stand by. Do not approach the satellite. Preliminary tests negative for chemical air contamination, but use extreme caution. I repeat, extreme caution. Full gag order in effect on anything involving the satellite. Direct all civilian or media inquiries to Department of Public Safety spokesman-”

 

Rodriguez and Hummel looked at each other.

 

“Holy shit.”

 

“Satellite?”

 

“Yeah. You think?”

 

“Probably not, but I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”

 

Both men took another swig of beer. “There’s no way that stuff could have survived outer space. And then re-entry? No way.”

 

“Then what sent those guys to the hospital? The only things in that capsule were the men who were infected with MIST. It was a hollow prison.”

 

The bowling alley suddenly seemed very loud. Balls clattered, pins crashed, and machines beeped. “I feel sick,” Hank Hummel announced.

 

“What do we do?”

 

“I don’t know.”

 

5

 

The man in black knew he had an RFID signature as blatant as a bright yellow school bus, so taking the time to dye his hair and otherwise disguise his appearance was out of the question. Speed was the name of the game. He had evaded the goons twice in Laramie, but they would inevitably increase their efforts. Eventually, they would start using some heavy equipment.

 

I’ve probably exhausted their restraint. They won’t be worried about collateral damage much longer.

 

He picked up the phone and called a New Mexico area code.

 

“I’ve made it out and got the stuff. I need to ditch the hounds, and I’ll call as soon as I do. You still tapped into the old network?”

 

“You know I am,” the former diplomat said from his rural cabin.

 

The man in black ended the call and snapped the phone in half with his gloved hands. He pulled out the sim chip and threw it out the open window, wagering that it would never be found.

 

Returning his focus to the road, he kept his stolen ride aimed south, adhering strictly to the speed limit. He knew exactly where he needed to go, and why. As for what what and how, he would figure it out along the way. He hadn’t become one of Langley’s most valuable agents simply by having good luck, that’s for sure. When Uncle Sam needed arms twisted, nobody could apply leverage like he could.

 

Then there’s a coup, and you go from having an unlimited expense account to being labeled an enemy of the state. From pensioned to prisoned. How many people who ended up testifying against me benefited from my hard work? Mentally, the man in black ran through a list of

General officers and high-ranking bureaucrats who had advanced because of his handiwork.

 

Today, most of those esteemed men and women won’t admit that I ever existed.

 

Driving, he thought and thought. His MIST had stabilized, but nobody really knew what that meant. The files he had accessed were of little help. If only I had gotten the drive. That son of a bitch pulled a fast one. Not fast enough, but damn! The man in black, despite his anger at being defied, was impressed with his final victim. Most of the lab nerds had offered zero resistance, but the computer engineer had been packing heat.

 

Not too surprising, given that he got a call from Jack. He and his wife should have run faster, not tried to play hero. Where could that drive have been?

 

It didn’t matter much now – the whole building was buried under a mass of federal agents. A surprising number were his former colleagues, men and women he had worked with in places like Eastern Europe and the Middle East. He had led teams of them. Well, that doesn’t matter too much…they never knew my real name. Nor I theirs, come to think of it.

 

On the passenger seat, a dozen glass cylinders of silvery swirls clinked and clattered softly in a stolen duffel bag. Though the glass was strong, the clinking would be unnerving if not for the fact that the driver was already completely infused with the mysterious substance the cylinders contained. Fully energized, he had not slept for twenty-six days.

 

“Get to Fort Davis. Find what was on that satellite. Track down what I need to. Sell the cylinders.”

 

6

 

“He’s gonna screw us,” the Diplomat said. “From what I’ve pieced together, he’s completely full of this stuff. This MIST. It’s the acronym for Microtronic Infrastructural Symbiosis Technology. You heard of the six million dollar man? From the seventies? Add about three more zeroes to that. I think he’s gonna hold out on us.”

 

“We thought of that contingency. This guy is a hard breed, and smart as a whip. And with that stuff in him, he can learn and process at an increasing rate. Fortunately, we have been working on a backup plan. If he won’t come to us to sell willingly, it is possible to trap him.”

 

“Don’t do something stupid. If I start hearing about this in the news, I cut the line. I’m not going to get dragged into some cowboy shit. I’ve got a long-term plan and I’m plenty comfortable where I am. Before you start with some hard-ass speech, let me promise you that you need me more than I need you.” The Diplomat knew when to be polite and when to turn the screws. The powerful woman on the other end of the line was silent, a sure sign that the speech had done its job.

 

“We know what we’re doing,” the Diplomat’s client insisted, her voice calm but angry.

 

“Then what do I need to know?”

 

“He’s got an ex. Former corporate superstar type. Ivy League, attractive, type A. Basically him, but the civilian, female, non-assassin version. They’ve got a little girl. He’s still carrying a torch, we think. These two ladies are his Achilles heel.”

 

“I’ll find out what I need. Remember, don’t send me any documents. Nothing that the NSA can copy-and-paste,” the Diplomat cautioned. He disliked phones, but using e-mail was too much of a liability these days. Unfortunately, many of his clients were eager to try to send him reams of digital documents, any of which could end up in an electronic security sweep. Phone calls were much harder to pick up in real time.

 

The Diplomat ended the call and breathed in deeply, inhaling the scents of alpine nature. He stuck his stockinged feet into his hiking boots and grabbed his liter bottle of spring water. Without a second thought, he bounded out of the cabin and headed into the woods. After every important call, he reconnected with nature.

 

Half of his post-call wilderness jaunt routine was to clear his mind and rejuvenate his spirit. The other half was to keep his clients waiting and increase his own power. Less is more. Less supply equals higher price. As the primary link among numerous factions of the fallen titans of the deposed regime, his time was extraordinarily valuable.

 

Well, not so much my time, per se, but the fact that I left Foggy Bottom with one of the few uncrackable servers in existence. If you need absolutely untraceable research, I’m your man.

 

The State Department was undoubtedly searching high and low for its missing server, but Washington was fractionated so badly that the White House may not have even been informed of its loss. With indictments and depositions rippling through the Beltway, it would probably be months before anyone was brave enough to tell the president that the regime change had resulted in the loss of lots of sensitive equipment. If you have a culture of shooting the messenger, eventually the messenger stops telling you what you need to hear.

 

Taking a swig of water, the Diplomat walked down the old trail he had discovered. It looked perfect, both quaint and powerful at the same time. Beautiful, yet not overwhelming. It was just the way he liked it. He heard a snuffling sound and looked down the hillside. A black bear was overturning rocks to search for insects. Silently, the Diplomat watched the animal’s powerful forelegs push and flip rocks that easily weighed fifty pounds or more.

 

He did not know much about MIST, for even his powerful system could not breach those firewalls and classifications, but he knew there was unimaginable demand for the ability to augment the human body. The bear can hibernate and lose almost no muscle mass. How much would people pay to never lose muscle mass? He watched the bear roll over a boulder. How much would people pay to have endless strength?

 

The bear looked up the hill, chuffed at him, and scrambled away.

 

7

 

“So what’s going on?” Whitney demanded. “A funeral?”

 

“Yeah, Frank Parsons at the sheriff’s department. Accident at his ranch, a real freak thing. Terrible. I had to go to the hospital to see him,” Hank Hummel lied.

 

“They even want the reserve deputies to be there? Do you even know this guy?” Hank’s wife was suspicious.

 

“I don’t really know him, but these old southern boys put a real premium on brotherhood. And with everything that’s happened, I have to be a team player.”

 

“Hank, I want you to quit. Tell the university you’re not going to be a reserve deputy any more. You’re not getting any younger, and that job just keeps getting you into trouble. Michael’s older, and he’s talking about doing something like that when he’s an adult. Some of those kids he hangs out with, you know they’re the type who are going to pressure him to show them your guns.”

 

Hank lied profusely and tried to calm his wife, agreeing that she was absolutely correct and assuring her that he would let his peace officer certification lapse. Eventually, she sighed and told him to do his best to cheer up old Frank Parsons.

 

“You better hope she doesn’t Google that name,” Hector Rodriguez warned from the driver’s seat. “I bet dollars to donuts that the Midland County Sheriff’s Department doesn’t have any such deputy.”

 

“Actually, they did. Real pain in the ass. Hassled all the reserve deputies during their summer shifts. But I don’t think he has a ranch. He’d be too fat to ride a horse!”

 

It was pre-dawn when Rodriguez’ old pickup squealed to a stop in the hospital parking lot. According to the radio chatter, the helicopter had landed thirty-four minutes ago. Both patients were stable but unresponsive. “I can’t tell if that’s good or bad,” Hummel said. His friend just shrugged. They don’t exactly write how-to articles about situations like this.

 

“Do we just tell them at the front desk what they’re dealing with here?”

 

“I think we’d get involuntarily committed for seventy-two hours if we went that route. ‘Excuse me, but you just admitted two men who probably got dosed with a super-secret nanotechnology symbiote. And we don’t know what it does or what it could do. Oh, and by the way, we have that stuff in us, too…and the government’s lying to us about it being gone.’” Both men began giggling, and then laughing.

 

“‘Oh, and we know all this because we were the original test subjects. And we know all about that satellite because we were there when they shoved all those nanotech-infested people inside and launched it into outer space! Oh, and the former president of the United States was one of those folks. You saw on the news that he fled to Russia? Guess again!’” The laughter continued until there were tears and aching stomach muscles.

 

“Yeah, we better not tell some desk jockey that story,” Hummel concluded.

 

“We should just focus on trying to find out what these two guys saw, and whether or not they’re infused with MIST. How we do all that, I have no idea,” Rodriguez said.

 

“And what do we do if they are infected with the MIST?”

 

“Hell if I know. I mean, we’re still infected with the MIST!”

 

The two men climbed out of the aging Silverado and walked to the front bumper. “Isn’t it scary as hell that we don’t know what to do?” Rodriguez asked.

 

“It’s even scarier that nobody else seems to know what to do, either,” Hummel answered. “If they did, that satellite wouldn’t have come back down. It wouldn’t seem like the world was falling apart every few years.”

 

“Few years? Try every few months. It’s like having kids: They look at you like you’re supposed to know everything, when you’re still just faking it and waiting for the lightning bolt moment when you actually understand life. You always think the people up the chain know what’s going on…but what if they’re just faking it and waiting for that lightning bolt?”

 

“Damn, Hec, that’s deep. You get to guest lecture in my next class.”

 

8

 

“So the body of the former president is inside the spacecraft?!” the president yelled. “What the shit is this?!”

 

“It was a crazy situation,” the Director of Central Intelligence explained. “The MIST was starting to get out of control, and we were right by a commercial launch station, so we…”

 

“So you launched it into outer space?! Like this was a B-grade sci-fi movie?!” The president frowned, shook his head, and pounded his fists on the Oval Office desk. Then, he smiled and laughed. “Hell, that actually doesn’t sound like a bad idea. I like you, Parker.”

 

Parker, a former National Guard commander from Alaska, had been on the ground in Midland and helped depose the former president and his legion of well-armed cronies. He had been handsomely decorated and promoted for his bravery, but had yet to fully explain what had happened that fateful night. The more he explained, the more ludicrous it sounded.

 

“Thank you, Mr. President.”

 

“So you launch the bad stuff into orbit, and then someone de-orbits it back down. Who did this, and why?”

 

“We think it was one of the MIST scientists in Laramie. For some reason, these guys all thought the project was still ongoing.” Parker handed a manila folder stamped Microtronic Infrastructural Symbiosis Technology to the president, and the older man began flipping through dossiers of numerous scientists, programmers, and engineers. “It’s that one, the lead computer engineer. He knew all about the satellite and was monitoring the MIST on board. We think he de-orbited it right before he was killed. You see, his wife died first, so he may have de-orbited the satellite to avenge her death or something.”

 

“That doesn’t make much sense, Parker. But you wouldn’t be telling me all this if you didn’t have a theory. So let’s hear it. Keep the crazy train running.”

 

“The killer, an old wet works guy who dresses like Johnny Cash, is all amped up on MIST. He’s virtually unstoppable man-to-man, so putting him down means risking lots of civilian casualties and spreading MIST all over the place. As a result, nobody can stop the killer on his own. But if the subjects we sent up into space somehow retained their sentience, perhaps they could stop the killer.”

 

The commander-in-chief mimed his brains exploding, indicating that the theory was far too fantastical.

 

“So this computer nerd thinks that the psychos you launched up into space will kill his wife’s murderer for him?” the president asked.

 

“Something like that. Again, I’m not saying it makes sense, just that we believe that to be what the scientist believed. He might have been out of his mind with grief.”

 

Lacing his fingers together, the president put on his proverbial thinking cap.

 

“You’ve been reading the files, Parker. What’s your gut feeling on his guy?” The president pulled out the computer engineer’s dossier and scanned it. “Stanford and MIT, both private and public sector experience. Forty-nine years old, three children. Moved his family to Laramie to work on the MIST project from its very inception. Several references and commendations, no demerits or warnings of any kind. What say you?”

 

Despite finding his own beliefs strained by the radicality of recent hours, Parker responded that he believed the computer engineer to be of sound mind. “Guy’s no kook, sir. He knew more about MIST than anyone, which is probably why the killer went after him last. If the idea of the subjects remaining sentient sounds crazy to us, maybe it just means that we weren’t getting the full picture about what this MIST stuff was.”

 

“That makes some sense,” the president agreed. “A lot of those special projects type like to play things close to the vest. Probably for more job security and whatnot. So, scientist de-orbits your imprisoned evildoers to neutralize the man who killed his wife? How does he expect this to work?”

 

Parker had no idea.

 

“The computer guy must have been able to send some sort of message to the satellite, and presumably whatever was sentient on board. Before he de-orbited the damn thing. Instructions, perhaps. The identity of the killer.” The president rose from his chair, his mind racing. His trademark gesticulations came out, and he pontificated at will.

 

“We know the real identity of the killer, but not a lot about his personal life. Guy was a textbook sociopath. And there’s always a chance that some of our political enemies could be erasing more of his data right now, trying to create some distance. Every hour that goes by means the trail could be growing colder. But maybe the computer guy knew stuff we don’t, and he sent some of that info to the satellite.”

 

Parker smiled and nodded, impressed with the old president’s mental faculties. Though many pundits questioned the chief executive’s vigor, especially as his eightieth birthday approached, the man’s neurons were clearly capable of rapid-fire. “We’ll scour every electronic device in the labs and find any message he might have sent,” the Director of Central Intelligence assured. “In the meantime, what should be do about the people who have seen the satellite and the bodies inside? Eight local and state cops got to it before our choppers arrived, and we’ve got them doing paperwork and debriefing in Monahans. We’re delaying as long as we can, but soon these guys are going to want to go home.”

 

“We’re not thugs like our predecessors, Mr. Parker. Urge them to sign the usual nondisclosures. If they don’t want to, invite them to bring their families for an all-expenses-paid trip here to D.C. We’ll butter them up so good that they’ll feel guilty as sin spilling the beans. And the nicer we are to them, the more outlandish their story will seem if they run to the media.” The DCI felt a wave of relief – the previous president would have ordered the men disappeared.

 

9

 

Roger Garfield sat down next to the hospital bed and listened to the updates from the doctors. The news was pretty grim for Robert Smith, Ph.D. The double strikes to the head had caused some swelling of the brain, and it was difficult to determine the extent of the damage. A silver lining, if you could call it that, was that Smith’s respiration and heartbeat remained strong and steady. His head engulfed in bandages, the young man looked small and frail. A myriad of cords ran from under the bandages and his blankets, feeding computers information on his brainwaves and organs.

 

The doctors left the room, giving Garfield ten minutes to try to talk to Smith. “We ordinarily wouldn’t do this, but we heard it’s an intense situation out there. He might murmur something of use, but don’t pressure him. Under no circumstances should you try to shake or touch him, understand?”

 

Garfield agreed to their terms and announced that he and Smith knew each other. “Listen, I’m not just some cartoon G-man here to get information out of him. I owe him one. Hell, we all do.” Of course, the doctors did not understand the last sentence, nor would they. Smith’s computer wizardry, which had helped prompt the downfall of the former president and his reign of terror, would be forever classified.

 

“I’m sorry, Robert,” Garfield said as soon as they were alone. “I’m really sorry about all this. This should never have happened. Somebody dropped the ball, and that’s why all this spiraled into happening. But we’re not going to leave you alone, you hear? We’re finding people to come visit you, to sit with you.”

 

Smith’s eyelids flittered but did not open. Garfield felt his chest tighten and his eyes grow hot.

 

“I really don’t know what else to say, buddy. We don’t know each other that well, and I wish I knew you better. We were political prisoners together.” Garfield chuckled wryly. “Political prisoners, imagine that! When I was your age, I never thought America could have gotten to that point.”

 

The aging FBI agent looked at the grad student’s smooth and unlined face. The law enforcement officer had more than twenty years on the thirty-year-old. It was a tragedy that a good kid with a bright future was fighting for his life in a hospital bed, especially when he had already seen such misery. Having read Smith’s file after both men survived a brief stint in the Home Guard prison in Colfax County, New Mexico, Roger Garfield had learned about Jim Smith’s untimely death. Robert Smith had been substantially impacted by the murder of his older brother, and their parents had never recovered emotionally.

 

“You think things get fixed, but it looks like some stuff never gets solved. I don’t know why they were making this MIST stuff. Supersoldiers? Medicine? Whatever it is, it’s all about the money.” The machines beeped, hissed, and clicked. Garfield sat in the rolling chair by Smith’s bed and listened to the electronica. “I’m sorry you got caught up in this. You’ve had more than your fair share of being caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

 

“But if it wasn’t for you, I probably wouldn’t be here. So you can bet your ass that I’m gonna make this right, Robert.”

 

With a bang, the door to the room flew open and Roger Garfield jumped to his feet, hand reaching under his sport coat for his 9mm compact. “Easy there, suit,” the burly criminal justice professor said, holding up his palms. “That was a touching speech you gave to the boy.” Before the FBI agent could react, the professor had enveloped him in a bear hug.

 

“I was listening outside the door, just for safety sake. I didn’t know who was in here trying to talk to Robert. Glad it’s one of the good guys, you know?” the prof whispered.

 

“What’s got you so worked up?” Garfield asked, cocking an eyebrow.

 

“I’ve got some info, man, big info. We need to talk in person, in public. I brought some UWPD buds over to watch the room and make sure nobody tries to manhandle our boy while we’re gone.”

 

Surprised, Garfield protested that changing the room guards was not standard procedure. “When you hear what I have to say, it’ll make perfect sense. For now, you’re in charge. In fifteen minutes, it’ll be some pencil-pusher from D.C. Change the guards to my guys, and it’ll let us have more control over what’s going on. I swear to God, it’s big.”

 

Nodding, Garfield turned on his lapel mic and ordered the agents in the hallway to relinquish control to the UWPD officers.

 

10

 

The professor insisted on returning to campus, and he dragged his old FBI acquaintance to the Half Acre gymnasium. “It’s open twenty-four hours a day, so we can go walk on the upstairs running track,” he explained. Despite the pre-dawn hour, there were a surprising number of exercise-obsessed college students sweating it out over weights or cardio. Though he was happily married, the tenured prof did enjoy the occasional glimpse of an attractive coed in form-fitting exercise clothing. Nothing wrong with yoga pants at all, he thought as he and Roger Garfield climbed the stairs to the running track behind a couple of curvy, glistening twentysomethings.

 

“I don’t think any black ops spies were planting bugs and hidden cameras in the university gym,” Garfield gasped, winded by the stairs and Laramie’s high altitude. “Can we talk yet?”

 

When they finally emerged onto the track, rather ludicrously attired, the professor told his friend to take off his sport coat and button-down. “Down to the undershirt, pal.”

 

“What?! You don’t trust me?!” The grizzled G-man seemed genuinely hurt.

 

“After what happened less than a year ago, I don’t take any chances. The good guys may have won, but I have a feeling that a fuck ton of ‘winners’ may be secretly working for the bad guys. Some real ODESSA files, Nazi rat line shenanigans going on. Have you been following the news? Read any of those op-eds about all those bigwigs who fled Washington after the crisis?”

 

“I read you loud and clear, professor. I assure you, I’m clean.” Garfield removed his tie and button-down and laid them carefully over the running track safety rail that overlooked the basketball courts. The professor, satisfied, gestured that they should begin walking. As they walked, the professor talked.

 

“Listen, Roger. As you know, I got a phone call from Robert Smith when he was on that third floor. Maybe he thought he was going to text me, but he called instead. I heard everything. I ran up there as fast as I could, and I was the first responder on the scene. I was up there for about two minutes before the federal SWAT guys arrived, probably because I could hear them running around on the second floor looking for that maniac.”

 

Roger Garfield nodded along, indicating that he understood the chain of events.

 

“I saw the bodies of the man and woman scientists in that office, and I went over to the man. Turns out, he wasn’t dead. Before he died, he told me two things: The location of the hard drive that the killer was after, and not to trust anyone. His last words were that the killer wasn’t working alone.”

 

“So there’s more than one killer?” Garfield asked, excited.

 

“No, no. I’m sure he meant that the killer, who’s cranked up on that science experiment in his bloodstream, is in cahoots with others. He didn’t murder the whole crew of scientists because he was angry! There is a purpose for this madness,” the professor hissed.

 

11

 

“I don’t know what movie or TV show you got this idea from, but damn,” Hector Rodriguez whispered as he and Hank Hummel cruised through the hospital hallways in doctor scrubs and masks. It had taken some ingenuity, but the campus cop and the college lecturer had figured out how to freely roam the building. After following a nurse into a supply room and silently slipping a credit card into the metal border around the strike plate, both men had feigned ignorance and apologized profusely. They left the supply room, waited around a corner for the nurse to leave, and then enjoyed the fruits of their handiwork. The credit card trick granted them instant access to the room again.

 

Within moments, both Rodriguez and Hummel had found surgical scrubs that fit decently and were on the move.

 

“The state troopers are on the fifth floor, surgical wing,” a nurse informed them after Rodriguez had used his best doctor voice on her.

 

Walking quickly, eyes hard and breathing rapid, neither man talked. What the hell do we do? Will our guns set off an alarm? Are there metal detectors? What if the wing is locked? Are there cops on duty?

 

“You bring your piece, reserve deputy?” Rodriguez whispered, and cursed when Hummel responded in the negative. “What do we do, then?!”

 

They reached the elevators and rode in silence to the fifth floor. As soon as the doors opened, they ran into a crowd of silent and nervous state troopers. Those two in there might not be your buddies anymore, Rodriguez thought. Oh, if only you knew. Seeing doctors arriving, the troopers parted quietly to let them maneuver through. Taking a deep breath, Rodriguez plunged toward the nurses’ station, followed closely by Hummel.

 

“We need to see the two troopers who were brought in,” Rodriguez charmed behind his mask.

 

“Which consultants?” the young nurse asked, looking at a computer screen. Rodriguez drew a blank, but Hummel threw out the term “cardiothoracic” and got them waved through. The nurse pressed a button on her desk and the doors to the surgical suite hallway unlocked with a loud thwik. Gritting his teeth, Rodriguez went through the door.

 

“I think we have to scrub up,” Hummel said as the door closed behind them, gesturing to a handwashing station. Not knowing what else to do, Rodriguez joined his friend in a hand-to-elbow scrubbing that he mimicked from every medical drama he had ever seen. “Glove up,” he said, and Hummel handed him a pair of surgical gloves.

 

“And now we find these guys and think of a plan.”

 

Feigning nonchalance, the two men went from suite to suite, looking in on things. With no medical expertise, neither man knew what he was looking at. Despite their ignorance, it took only a few minutes to stumble upon the operating theater containing the two state troopers and a bevy of scrub-wearing medical professionals.

 

“There they are,” Rodriguez whispered. Who knows what the MIST has done to them? Has it shredded their neurons? Are they vegetables? Or did the MIST override their brains, turning them into-

 

“Hank Hummel and Hector Rodriguez, get down on your knees with your hands behind your head,” a woman’s voice said softly but firmly. Rodriguez did nothing, mind racing through his limited options, but his ears picked up at least a dozen pairs of boots behind him. The sounds of tasers and stun batons being readied finally convinced him to comply, and he nodded for Hank to do the same.

 

“I admire your efforts, gentlemen, but we anticipated this reaction of yours. We’ve been able to track you due to your unique RFID frequencies,” the woman continued.

 

Hector Rodriguez felt a hot wave of anger roll through his brain. We’ve been nothing but fancy science experiments to them. Unable to help himself, he sprang to his feet again, ready to demand answers. He heard the release of the steel barbs, and felt the electricity rippling through his body.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Three

 

1

 

Dawn was breaking over the Sierra Blancas as the man in black stopped in the resort town of Ruidoso. He parked his stolen Camaro at the edge of the grocery market lot, away from the streetlamps. Like a cat, he slipped out of the sports car and used a mini screwdriver to remove the license plates, which he slipped inside his tactical vest. This chore complete, he ambled toward the front of the store and watched the early-morning shoppers who straggle inside in search of breakfast necessities. Spotting a suitable quarry, a burly cowboy climbing slowly out of a giant one-ton dually, the man in black made his move.

 

With one swift maneuver, aided by supernatural speed and strength, the former government agent snapped the cowboy’s thick neck. As the man crumpled, the assassin grabbed him around the waist and heaved him back into the open cab of the pickup. Pushing and scrambling, the man in black moved the lifeless cowboy onto the passenger side of the bench seat while positioning himself behind the wheel. Closing the door, he scanned the parking lot to see if he had attracted any attention.

 

Nobody noticed. If you haven’t had your coffee yet, there’s no way you could catch me at work…even before I got juiced on this stuff.

 

The man in black found the truck’s keys in the cowboy’s hip pocket and brought the pickup back to life. Carefully, he piloted it across the lot to his Camaro, where he retrieved his duffel bag of MIST. After putting the duffel in the rear of the quad-cab, he swapped out license plates with an adjacent Chevy Tahoe that was shrouded in deep darkness – probably an employee’s ride.

 

His phone buzzed, and he climbed back into the pickup to answer. “It’s me,” he replied, then fired up the noisy V8. Now nobody can eavesdrop.

 

“Where are you?” the woman asked, her voice angry.

 

“I’m taking a scenic route,” the man in black replied. He put the truck in gear and began gunning for the highway again.

 

“You don’t trust us?” That’s the understatement of the century.

 

“Listen, I’ve done the heavy lifting. I’ve eliminated the MIST team, taken the nanotechnology magic mix, and what’s in it for me?”

 

“A lot of money,” the woman replied, her voice exasperated and icy. “You think it’s not enough? Do want credit instead of cash?”

 

“Don’t play dumb. I know you plan to kill me as soon as possible. It’s exactly what I would do. You think I’m stupid enough to accept your little dead drop proposal? ‘The trunk full of cash is in locker forty-six of the _______’ business? Like I’d walk into a room full of high explosive? I’m changing the terms of our agreement. And you don’t want to hold out on me, because MIST is unstable. I’ve filled the duffel with dry ice, but it won’t last long.”

 

“What do you want?”

 

“Find my wife and daughter, and I’ll let you know more. Don’t talk to her – just find out where she is.”

 

“Why can’t you do that? You can use the Internet.”

 

“Another stupid comment like that is liable to see my throw one of the cylinders of MIST out the window. What’ll you think that’ll do? I’m a little busy at the moment, and I’ll need you to be working for me for a bit. If I get what I want, you’ll get your MIST. And me. I know that you want stable MIST that has reached equilibrium inside a human host.”

 

2

 

Whitney Hummel was putting on her scrubs when Michael knocked on the bedroom door. “Mom?”

 

“What is it, sweetie?” she asked. With summer vacation about to end, Michael nervous about starting junior high. Though normally afflicted with twelve year old ‘keep-my-parents-away-from-me-itis,’ trepidation about leaving his familiar elementary school surroundings had made the boy more eager to spend time with his parents. He had even been getting over the drama with his father, who had seemed to be getting back to normal.

 

“I was reading Dad’s morning news sites, and there’s something big going on in the local news. I think it’s why Dad really went down to the hospital.”

 

Whitney had been waiting for the other shoe to drop. “What’s going on?” she asked, trying to keep her voice happy.

 

“Two state troopers were flown here from Alpine. The Department of Public Safety says it was a rollover on Highway 17, but there’s a rumor on social media that it had something to do with a crash, like a plane crash.”

 

Hank wouldn’t lie about going to see two troopers who were in a rollover. Or even something to do with a plane crash.

 

“An anonymous source from the McDonald Observatory claimed the crash was actually a de-orbited communications satellite, a massive TC44 model,” Michael continued. His voice sounded like he was reading from the tablet.

 

That satellite. No, not that.

 

She opened the door, and Michael was standing there holding the tablet. Together, they watched a hologram of an orbiting satellite descending through the planet’s atmosphere. “Though the Observatory normally does not track or monitor orbiting satellites, sources report that an unknown computer program took control of their broadcasting system, which connects with four orbiting telescopes, for approximately thirteen minutes last night. Authorities are insisting that the computer breach was entirely coincidental and had nothing to do with any rumored events in the Fort Davis area. The FBI has reported that it will investigate and work to ensure that the Observatory’s computer system is secure,” a reporter’s voice said.

 

In that moment, Whitney knew something bad was happening. “Michael, go bring me my purse,” she said. As she absently brushed her hair, the boy returned with her purse. She grabbed her wallet from it and rifled through the many cards – business cards, gift cards, credit cards. She found the business card she wanted and grabbed her phone.

 

When nobody answered, she left a message for Roger Garfield, the FBI special-agent-in-charge who now worked out of the Denver office.

 

“Michael, you stay here and watch your sister. If you need anything, call your grandparents,” Whitney ordered. She went to her nightstand and removed the false bottom of the top drawer, revealing a compact pistol. Looking around to make sure that Michael had gone, she plucked the handgun from its hiding place and slipped it into her purse. “I’m leaving now.”

 

Instead of going to her job as a dental hygienist, she would be taking a look around Midland Memorial Hospital in search of her husband.

 

As she walked through the living room, she was intercepted by the family’s French bulldog, who demanded attention. She picked up the dog and looked into her brown eyes. “I’m going to get Daddy,” she told the wild-eyed dog, who lolled her head around in excitement. “Tell Michael to let you outside.” Her phone rang, and she set the dog down. As the Frenchie ran to her water bowl, Whitney eagerly hoped the call was from agent Garfield.

 

Instead, it was Hector Rodriguez’ wife.

 

“This is some bullshit,” her friend exclaimed. “They went down to the hospital to check out those two state troopers. I don’t know what their plan is, but I don’t like it.”

 

“Let me swing by and pick you up. I’ll bring some extra scrubs. We’ll get inside the hospital and find out what the hell they’re doing,” Whitney replied, stalking toward the front door.

 

3

 

Roger Garfield had heard plenty of stories in his day, but the tale laid out by the big criminal justice professor was worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster. It was a conspiracy thriller of the highest order.

 

“The more I thought about it, the more sense it made,” the prof insisted. “It’s a guaranteed ticket back into wealth and power. The out-of-power players consolidate all the MIST and use it as the ultimate bargaining chip.”

 

“So they massacre a lab full of people like in Goldeneye? I swear, you couldn’t make this stuff up!” Garfield marveled. “So what now? What should I do?”

 

“With so much money at stake, I don’t think you can trust anyone, Roger. Plenty of people who are still in power will be part of this as well. They’ve got to refine the MIST, figure it all out. That’s why the killer wanted all the passwords and hard drives and data. Pulling a smash-and-grab just to get the MIST itself is not enough. They need to know how to use it, control it, manufacture it.”

 

“For what purpose?” Garfield asked, his mind struggling to keep up.

 

“Damn, Roger! Think! We saw this stuff in action, remember? Carl Hummel. Dude grew stronger and faster by the day with that stuff in his system. MIST takes over your nerve conduction and is faster than your nerve conduction velocity. It gives you faster reflexes than anything the human body could naturally achieve. Nanocells go into your muscles to prevent muscle fatigue and increase strength. It builds a lattice in and around your bones, giving you a steel-reinforced frame. As for your brain? We don’t even know what it could do. A matrix of those nanocells could give anyone a photographic memory, perfect recall. You could remember everything, think faster than ever before, learn it all the first time.”

 

Garfield was silent as they walked another quarter of a lap on the track. The professor continued:

 

“The nanocells could kill off cancer cells, collect and destroy bacteria and viruses. Who the hell knows? It’s all programmable, too. When the nanocell matrices hit critical mass, they can send and accept signals. Human wifi, able to interact with computers and devices. Do you understand what I’m telling you?”

 

Heaven help me, I do.

 

“Rog, this is bigger than the atomic bomb. It’s bigger than the Industrial Revolution. This is the biggest thing ever, and it was created in a lab right here at the University of Wyoming. And now the bad guys are going to take it and use it. And once they know how to use it, they will be unstoppable. And you know what? I think they won’t be able to use it or control it like they think. MIST is too complex, too independent. Because its creators are dead and we don’t have all the data, we don’t know what all it will do on its own.”

 

This is heavy. Garfield took a deep breath. “What do you want me to do? I’m old, I’m getting fatter by the month, and we were all political prisoners heading toward likely execution less than six months ago. I’m barely fit enough to be staggering along with my usual job, which is one step above desk jockey. You want to go back to playing Indiana Jones?”

 

“You think anyone else is going to step up? You know, the root of evil is indifference,” the professor said, his face appearing wise in the strange shadows of the indoor jogging track.

 

“We have wives and children. You think they’re going to stick around if we start running around playing white knights?” Garfield sighed.

 

“What do you think is going to happen to our wives and children if the vicious bastards who disappeared after the inauguration of president Sanders get a monopoly on MIST? You think they won’t re-open those prison camps, start their purges again?”

 

God damn it, he’s right. Garfield nodded wearily and checked his phone. He had a message from a west Texas number and listened to it. When it had played, he turned to his professor friend and announced that he had received a voicemail from Whitney Hummel. “If you’re ready to go on a wild goose chase, old man, I think we have our first destination.”

 

4

 

Hector Rodriguez awoke on a metal operating table, his head pounding in pain. If it hurts, it must mean I don’t have the MIST any more. Slowly, he brought up a hand to feel his head. Pain erupted at the touch, and he looked at his hand to see silver-infused blood. “What the hell?” he croaked. He turned his head to the right and saw the white wall of the operating room. He turned his head to the left and saw Hank Hummel lying on another operating table.

 

“Wake up,” Rodriguez said, trying to yell. His voice was weak.

 

Hummel opened his eyes and looked at him. “You’ve been shot,” Hummel whispered. “Your head. Shot in the head.”

 

“Fuck that,” Rodriguez retorted. Mustering all his strength, he tried to sit up. At first, he could not. Then, a second later, heat bloomed in his spine and muscles. Feeling stronger, he sat up slowly. He looked around the room and saw the bodies on the floor.

 

“The doctors are dead,” he said, his voice stronger. Men and women in OR scrubs had been gunned down. For the first time, Rodriguez visually explored the operating room and saw flashing red lights through the windows that opened up to the hallway. Alarms going. Listening closely, he could suddenly hear more klaxon alarms in the distance.

 

Feeling a sense of foreboding, Rodriguez moved his legs around and swiveled so that they were dangling off the table. Gingerly, he stepped down, and found that he could stand. Hank Hummel sat up on the adjacent table and Rodriguez saw two bullet wounds in the man’s torso.

 

“You’ve been shot too, Hank.”

 

“That explains why it hurts,” Hank moaned. “I feel the MIST working.”

 

“Me, too. It’s scary. But it’s keeping us alive. We should be dead right now.”

 

Rodriguez stepped over bodies and looked for something to wear. “I can’t be escaping a hospital naked,” he explained.

 

“They probably wanted to see if MIST made us better endowed. Not that I needed any help in that department,” Hummel joked. He coughed, and Rodriguez turned around to see blood on Hummel’s palms.

 

“Jesus, Hank, you’re hit bad.”

 

“I can feel it being sewn up inside me,” Hummel said, mesmerized. “It doesn’t hurt.”

 

Opening a closet door, Rodriguez found an assortment of scrubs and rifled through them. He grabbed a set of large blues and handed Hummel a set of medium grays.

 

“We better get the fuck out of here. Whoever rampaged through this OR might be back, or the people who were about to cut us open will have backup arriving.”

 

Feeling stronger by the second, Rodriguez slipped into the blue scrubs and then went over to the hand-washing station. His hair was slicked with blood, and he grabbed a surgical cap to cover the gore. No time to try to wash and bandage that mess. Hummel had found a towel and was cleaning up his torso, removing the blood so he could put on his scrub top.

 

Seconds after Hummel slipped on the scrub top, the doors to the OR burst open. Rodriguez snatched a scalpel from a metal tray and prepared for a valiant last stand. He spun around to see two women in green scrubs. “What the hell did you do, Hector?” demanded the taller one. The shorter one glared daggers in the director of Hank Hummel. With the doors open, the sounds of alarms and yelling flooded into the operating room.

 

“Ladies, we don’t have time to explain, so we better just run,” Hummel replied. “I think Hec and I just missed having to undergo a surgery we were never gonna recover from.”

 

5

 

The hospital was in a frenzy, and Whitney Hummel had to guide her shoeless husband through the chaos. “Are you okay?” she yelled. City police were running to and fro, ignoring them. Apparently, whoever had attacked the operating room had also spread carnage elsewhere. What is going on? What nightmare is this?

 

“Somebody shut off the damn alarm!” a doctor yelled, and a second later the blaring ceased. In its place were shouts of medical-ese. Someone demanded a patient count.

 

“I’m okay, I think,” her husband wheezed. “I think they sprayed and prayed and never checked for a pulse. With any luck, they’ll think they got us.”

 

“We better keep you out of the camera zones, then,” Whitney replied. “Keep your face down.” She glanced behind her to see Hank shading his eyes with a hand. Between his hand, a surgical mask, and a surgical cap, she felt fairly certain that her husband could not be easily identified, especially while moving. The MIST, during the period when it had infused his body, had increased his height closer to average.

 

Remembering her days of doing occasional dental work at the hospital, Whitney darted and wound through the hallways, followed closely by the three others. “I feel something,” Hank said, urging her to slow down. “I feel it, too,” Hector replied. Whitney rounded the corner and came face-to-face with a young blond man in surgical scrubs. He stared at them, and then smiled.

 

“So that’s what that was,” the young man said. “Hank Hummel and Hector Rodriguez, as I live and breathe.”

 

How does he know them? Is he a student at the university?

 

Whitney tried to brush past the man, but Hank pulled her back and held her close to him.

 

“And now I’m back, from outer space,” the young man began to croon, his eyes shining crazily. Briefly, they flashed yellow, like a wolf’s eyes. That’s creepy. What the hell is wrong with him?

 

“Let us past,” Hector demanded, and Whitney saw him step forward out of the corner of her eye. The police lieutenant held up a scalpel as a warning. In response, the blond man pulled a handgun from underneath his scrub top, the weapon having been tucked in his waistband.

 

“Never bring a scalpel to a gunfight, lieutenant. Well, I guess you can pick up a gun while you’re there, which is what I did. They came rolling in like the NKVD while I was still trying to get my mind right, and I had to bust some moves on a few of them.”

 

“You didn’t kill all those doctors? You’re a liar!” Hank snarled.

 

“Easy there, good professor. I may have caused a little collateral damage, but it took a whole brigade of thugs to do all this to the whole hospital. And all I’ve been trying to do is process a new body! My old one got brittle pretty fast once we hit about a hundred kilometers high.”

 

“Who are you?” Whitney snapped, unwilling to tolerate the banter any longer. Who is this crazy bastard?

 

The blond man rattled off an incomprehensible Russian name, but then told her she could call him Ben. “But I did hear my body’s name, and perhaps I should adopt that moniker. Ben is so old-fashioned, you know.”

 

“What are you going to do, Ben?” Hector asked, his voice firm. “You need to turn yourself in. This place is surrounded.”

 

“Ah, ever the noble policeman, aren’t you? Well, I may as well make things more interesting by letting you in on a little secret: There’s another one of us MIST-laden folk running about. A real bad guy. Methinks, perhaps, that he is the man in black with whom I dueled in front of the Villa Philmonte about eleven weeks ago. He has now reached equilibrium and is up to some lethal games. I may go pay him a visit, check out the lay of the land. Maybe he wants a rematch on our duel?” Ben chuckled to himself, eyes gleaming.

 

“What about Adam Pastorius? Where is he?” Hank demanded.

 

“We tussled for a bit, but he started it. I think he’s still bitter from when my team held him prisoner and planned to make him the fall guy for some plot or other. He split. I don’t know where. But I definitely got the better body. Look at this thing! I must be, what, twenty-six? That Syrian bastard only shaved a few years off his old body, and had to give up all his hair! But, I must warn you: Even his MIST seems to have the mad strength of zealotry.”

 

Quick as a viper, Ben leveled his pistol at Whitney’s face. “Nobody move!” he roared, a complete flip from his earlier nonchalance. Everyone froze.

 

“Kindly hand me the gun that you have stashed in the small of your back, dearie,” Ben ordered. “I can sense things. Perhaps subconscious X-rays? Keep it nice and slow.”

 

Suddenly, a pair of nurses ran up behind the group, their gym shoes almost silent on the linoleum. Senses strained by the chaos and trauma that had engulfed the hospital, the two young women did not notice the strange gathering in front of them. By the time either of them noticed Ben’s outstretched gun arm, it was too late. Like a cat, Ben darted out his other arm and snagged a chubby blonde nurse. In a microsecond, the barrel of his pistol was against her temple.

 

“Gotcha! All right, you know the drill. Everyone keep quiet, blah blah blah. I’m walking out with my hostage here, and any foolishness gets her nursing school brains splattered all over the walls. Capisce?”

 

Whitney slowly plucked the small pistol from her waistband and bent her knees, sinking to the floor. She set the weapon on the ground. Next to her, Hector dropped the scalpel. Ben smiled and then pushed the blonde nurse toward them, using one foot to trip her. As the young woman fell, Hank and Whitney grabbed her.

 

In seconds, before Hector had time to collect Whitney’s pistol and draw a bead, Ben had disappeared around the next corner.

 

6

 

The president watched the live video feed from Midland Memorial Hospital and demanded to know who had turned the place into a bloodbath. “Someone went in there! They found eight bodies, all special ops gear, no IDs! Are they ours?!” He glared at each cabinet secretary in turn, even Education and HUD.

 

“These aren’t thugs someone hired off of Craigslist or met in prison!” the president snarled. “Clean cut, no tattoos, military spec gear? These are pros, and I’m betting my left nut that they’re active duty.”

 

Behind the president, DCI Parker and Secretary of Defense Hummel crossed their arms and examined the faces of everyone else in the room. Though several were loyal progressives who had fought for the president, many were old-timers whose loyalties were less certain. One of Parker’s aides was busily constructing a spreadsheet that organized the probable allegiances of the president’s many administrators. It was going to be a long and exhausting day.

 

“Fuck it. Everyone is dismissed,” the president sighed. As everyone filed out of the briefing room, a select group of Secret Service agents surreptitiously placed tiny bugs and tracking beacons in pockets and under lapels. Though some of the suspected disloyalists could not be bugged due to unsuitable clothing, such as silk blouses, many wore enough fabric for a silicon wafer to be successfully hidden.

 

As the last of the bureaucrats tromped out of the room, the Secret Service agents departed and closed the doors behind them. Finally, the president sank into his desk chair and rubbed his temples.

 

“They’re trying to undermine us,” the vice president said. “Their first goal is to get the MIST, and their second goal is to make us look weak and incompetent. Double-whammy.” The former libertarian had become more pro-military in recent years, a change that the president did not appreciate.

 

“Easy there, doc,” he told the former Senator from Kentucky. “We’ll also look bad if we go jackbootin’ down the street and call out the cavalry. As a onetime Democrat, I’ll either get pilloried as a hippie peacenik or as a Stalinist commie. If I’m gonna get blasted either way by the pundits, I might as well take the time to make a smart decision rather than go off half-cocked.” The vice president rolled his eyes but concurred with the assessment. At least I can trust my veep…nobody else in Washington likes him.

 

“So, since we’re playing catch-up, what did we miss down in Midland?” The commander-in-chief was anxious for a status update. A tablet was slid across the desk to him, pre-loaded with the latest news from law enforcement.

 

“The two troopers are missing, but we just got word that Hector Rodriguez and Hank Hummel were seen on the grounds. Local police spoke to the pair, but had no reason to make an arrest. The two men were wearing hospital scrubs and had no shoes on, which seems mighty strange,” an intelligence adviser explained as the president flipped through the paragraphs.

 

“Let me guess, Hummel and Rodriguez are still infused with MIST?” the president asked. He looked at his Secretary of Defense. “He’s your nephew. What do you know about it?”

 

“We all heard that he, his brother Carl, and Hector Rodriguez were free and clear, that the MIST completely separated from their bodies when we found new hosts,” the SecDef replied angrily. “If that’s not the case, then we were all lied to.”

 

“I think it is the case, because those two wouldn’t be mixed up in this situation if they were free and clear! I’ll bet that they’re trying to investigate this thing on their own, like a couple of vigilante cowboys!” The president was not a fan of vigilantes.

 

“Well, they probably feel betrayed and worry that they can’t trust anyone. Can you blame them?!” Hummel snapped. The former brigadier general glowered at the president, who quickly backed down. Even her husband, DCI Parker, took a step back. The vice president poured a shot of Kentucky’s finest at the mahogany bar and gave himself a shot of liquid courage.

 

“I’ll admit, they’re probably justified in thinking that things have gotten fucked up, because they have,” the president admitted. Things were a lot simpler back in Vermont. Back then, the most sophisticated thing I had was a laptop. MIST seems like something out of Star Trek.

 

“We need to find your nephews and Hector Rodriguez and put them under immediate quarantine,” the vice president insisted. “I’m a medical doctor and I’ve seen the MIST briefings. That stuff can spread, especially if the men get agitated. We don’t need them running around half of Texas!”

 

“They will not go back under quarantine!” the Secretary of Defense hissed. “It was Republicans who infected them with MIST in the first place!” She rounded on the former Republican legislator. “They will not go back to being science experiments!”

 

“Nobody said anything about them being experiments,” the president soothed. “But we need to contact them.”

 

Parker agreed, and explained that the two men were probably trying to figure out what to do about the MIST within their own bodies. “They’re good men, Mr. President. They just want to go back to normal. If we can find a cure, some sure-fire way to remove that stuff from them, they’ll take it.”

 

The president nodded. “I need a list of military and law enforcement people I can trust. I want any surviving MIST personnel, from day one when that abomination of a program began, brought right here. I want all MIST equipment from the lab in Laramie brought right here. No delays, no excuses. Any and all expenses will be covered. I will reimburse all credit card expenses. Since there is a conspiracy afoot, have everything travel separately and incognito.”

 

“And as for the state troopers? And the killer from Laramie?” someone asked.

 

“They must be destroyed, but without spreading the MIST. That’s why I need what I just asked for. Immediately. It’s early morning outside, and I expect people to begin arriving at the White House by evening. If anyone needs Air Force One, it’s on standby.”

 

Everyone was silent. “Air Force Two as well,” the vice president volunteered.

 

“You have your orders! Go!” the president urged, and everyone got to work.

 

7

 

Carl Hummel checked his cell phone at work and realized he had missed a call from his brother in Midland. He was about to play the voicemail when his office phone rang. “This is Carl,” he answered on the third ring. As a new partner in the firm, he was on a first-name basis with most people whose finances warranted climbing that high on the phone chain.

 

“Mr. Hummel, this is Ray Patrick with Devonshire Construction, a new firm in the area. We’re in a bit of a pickle and heard you were the best. I’ve got a hefty retainer fee if we can get started on my problems today. The IRS is breathing down my neck.”

 

Carl checked his daily planner and saw that he had some time available. “Certainly, Mr. Patrick. I’ve heard of Devonshire. If you can make it downtown, I can actually see you this morning.” Devonshire was a fast-growing commercial construction corporation with operations across the south and southwest. Just to be better prepared, Carl turned to his computer and began searching for the latest specs on the company.

 

“Well, I’d like to buy you coffee, if I may. It’s a sensitive issue, and I’d hate for people to see me walking into an accounting firm that specializes in fixing big problems. Could you come down to the Starbucks on the corner? I’ll throw in as much caffeine and danish as you can handle.” Something about Patrick’s Texas twang seemed reassuring, and Carl accepted the offer. Though the Houston heat could be overpowering, today was rather mild and Carl didn’t mind the walk. Ever since the political crisis, he had felt so alive! He felt that he could run marathons, and was half tempted to sign up for one.

 

Standing up from his desk, Carl stuffed his wallet in his back pocket and headed for his office doors. “Billy, I’m going out for a while,” he told the college intern manning the secretary desk. “Can you hold down the fort?”

 

“I’ve gotcha covered, sir,” the kid from Amarillo replied. In a couple of years, Billy would be among the many applicants angling for a spot at the accounting firm. In exchange for his dedication as a secretary and gopher, the newly-minted graduate would get it. I’ll see to that. Boy’s got good work ethic.

 

Carl took the elevator down from the ninth floor and realized as the doors were closing that he had yet to listen to his brother’s message. As the elevator car hissed downward, he played the recording. When he reached the lobby, the full weight of the message struck him. MIST. Still have it. Satellite coming back. Bad stuff.

 

The elevator doors opened and Carl looked out across the marble lobby of the office building. Though it was usually vacant this early in the morning, there were several people standing there. Cautiously, Carl got off the elevator and listened to the doors slide shut behind him. Seven men in the lobby. All wearing dark clothing. No ties. Crew cuts or bald. Big guys. Is that an earpiece? He looked through the glass floor-to-ceiling windows bordering the lobby and noticed the black Ford Excursions parked out front, with a black van sandwiched between them. Van looks armored. Like it’s meant to hold a gorilla or something.

 

Carl turned and sprinted for the stairs.

 

“Aw, god damn it!” one of the men in the lobby yelled, and Carl heard running footsteps behind him. He hit the door to the stairs and knocked it open. Legs churning, he took the stairs three at a time. As he ran, he dialed 9-1-1.

 

“9-1-1 emergency,” a middle-aged woman droned.

 

“We have a hostage situation!” Carl replied, huffing and puffing. He gave the address and described the attackers as military-looking men in dark clothing. “They say they’re going to start shooting people!”

 

“Please stay on the line-” the 911 operator said, but was cut off as Carl ended the call. Without hesitation, Carl ran into the sixth floor. He sprinted down a beige corridor and saw what he was looking for: Fire alarm. He pulled it, and an alarm began shrieking.

 

Still running, he made for the sixth floor central desk where a bevy of receptionists directed visitors to the offices of the many attorneys of Mefley, Jenlink, and Stuart. “Huge fire on fourth!” he hollered. “Sound the master alarm!” Immediately, the alarm doubled in intensity. Now the entire building would promptly evacuate. “Turn on the sprinklers!” he demanded, and a receptionist complied.

 

As offices emptied and angry attorneys tried to cover their heads with briefcases, hoping to shield themselves from the sprinklers, Carl blended in with the flow.

 

8

 

Lucifer had been to heaven, but had been cast back down to earth in a cacophony of heat and wind. His time above the earth had been peaceful, where he had healed his mind. He had left his body after the first day, realizing that the flesh could never be repaired. In human terms, he had been up there for eleven weeks.

 

In real terms, he had been up there for an eon. Like a lucid dreamer, he could control the passage of time, or at least the perception thereof. Lucifer had spent decades contemplating, centuries learning, years meditating. He tapped into the satellite’s on-board computer and learned the classics, the languages, and the collective mind of Wikipedia.

 

But to access the computer, he had warred endlessly with the nefarious Ben until a detente could be established. Ben’s human form had been closest to the computer, and so he had gotten there first. By the end of the second day, each entity had claimed one half of the satellite’s hollow hold. The wars had begun, with Lucifer demanding partial access to the on-board computer and half of the remaining MIST.

 

The U.S. president had defected to Ben. One of the mercenaries had defected to Lucifer. A war was fought over the last island of MIST, a weak entity named Chad Peterson. The MIST had crept across no-man’s land and attacked its foe, digital neurons firing spectacularly. Using magnetism and van der Waal’s forces, Lucifer and Ben had captured and stolen each other’s nanocells by the billions.

 

When they fought, the drama was on a scale equal to both World Wars combined. The combatants learned much about each other, strengths and weaknesses, pride and secrets. In many ways, they were not so different.

 

After two weeks, Ben had ceded partial access to the on-board computer, allowing Lucifer access to the Internet. Three days later, having filled his consciousness with new learning, Lucifer finally silenced the last vestiges of the mercenary’s consciousness. Then he rested, at peace.

 

On July sixteenth, he fought the Great War against Ben. On July twenty-second, he fought the Second Great War. On July twenty-sixth, he fought Atlantic War, which occurred while the satellite was crossing the Atlantic Ocean. The wars left each entity psychically exhausted. Lucifer had never hated and respected another entity more than Ben.

 

Ben wanted to escape back to earth, while Lucifer did not. Lucifer wanted to judge from afar, while Ben sought power and profit. Ben hated Lucifer, and mocked him mercilessly with his human name.

 

Occasionally, they communicated.

 

Now they were back on earth, and Lucifer was most unhappy about it. When the satellite hatch had first opened, Ben had rushed to the first body and invaded it. Lucifer, not to be outdone, invaded the second body. When they awoke in the hospital, surrounded by doctors, Lucifer had fought viciously, angrily. He had been prepared to dispatch Ben’s new body, still prone and groggy, with a twenty blade scalpel when the team in tactical gear had burst into the operating room, giving him new foes.

 

After Lucifer had stripped a gun from the first man through the door, Ben had entered the fray and been lost amid the fury of twisting and fighting bodies. The men in tactical gear had gunned down doctors and nurses, only belatedly realizing that the naked man was their primary target. Eventually, Lucifer had run, realizing that serious injury could cause his digital self to flee his current body for a new one unexpectedly.

 

He did not know where Ben had gone, only that the naked blond body had been headed in the opposite direction.

 

He would destroy Ben, for Ben was the root of all evil.

 

9

 

Ben was pleased to be back in a city he knew well. Praise be that they didn’t med-flight my body to Lubbock, Dallas, or El Paso. He grabbed baggy blue jeans and t-shirts from the rack and took them into the Walgreens restroom, changing out of his conspicuous scrubs into less conspicuous street clothes. Emerging from the restroom, he grabbed an armload of snacks and drinks to fuel his new body, which was in pretty good shape. I wasn’t lying about this young guy having a nice member. I could fuck a whole bunch of pretty girls with this thing.

 

His knowledge of American idioms had finally been perfected, and he no longer thought exclusively in his native Russian. In fact, he had perfect recall of over a dozen languages, and could speak and think as a native in any one. He went to the checkout counter and surprised the Hispanic teen behind the register by speaking in fluent Mexican slang. As the teen began to respond, Ben hit him in the throat. Gagging, the young man collapsed.

 

Ben hopped over the counter. “Muchacho, dame las llaves del coche,” he said, and the boy quickly handed him a set of Ford keys. Hitting the register with a forceful hand, Ben released the drawer and collected the cash. As he vaulted back over the counter, he told an old woman to forget what she had seen.

 

In the parking lot, he used the key fob to locate a battered Mustang. “An American classic,” he said wryly, and then climbed behind the wheel. Fortunately, the base-model sports car cranked to life on the first turn of the key. “Kid’s probably calling the cops right now, but every unit in the county is headed to the hospital,” Ben explained to himself. “They’re not gonna worry about a grand theft auto until tomorrow.”

 

The Mustang roared onto Andrews Highway and headed northwest.

 

They attacked the operating room to get the MIST, especially MIST that has achieved equilibrium inside a human host. I’ve got billions of dollars flowing through my veins. Forget calling the Kremlin and trying to make a deal to get back into the spy game – it’s time to cash in! By the time the Mustang reached the outskirts of the city, Ben decided that his best course of action was to pursue a monopoly on MIST.

 

I’ve got what can only be described to laypersons as silver liquid magic. Its value is inverse to its supply, meaning I must eliminate anyone else with knowledge and abilities that could be considered a substitute to my own. That means I must reconnect with Hank Hummel and Hector Rodriguez, both of whom will likely be approaching full equilibrium now that their MIST matrices got all ‘fired up’ by the excitement.

 

What am I going to do? Slice them up? Shred them with automatic fire? No, I need some way to collect the MIST.

 

“And where can I procure specialized equipment for this? This may also be a labor-intensive process. But, as they say, you must spend money to make money…”

 

Ben exited the highway and turned the car around, deciding to return to the city. Although supernatural speed was perhaps his greatest advantage over any adversary, speed alone would not achieve positive results. He needed knowledge. This must be treated as a business endeavor.

 

“I can make tremendous return, but only if I incur the necessary fixed costs,” the former Russian spy muttered to himself. As the sun rose over the city, he headed for the public library.

 

10

 

Hank Hummel sat down in the armchair and answered the call from Roger Garfield. While he talked, Whitney used a pair of sharp scissors to cut off his scrub top and examine his bullet wounds. Amazingly, the injuries had completely stitched themselves closed, with silvery threads faintly visible within the reddened flesh.

 

“So I’m basically in the same position I was in three months ago, when I was a fugitive?” Hank sighed.

 

“Not exactly,” Garfield replied. “This time, you’re considered one of the good guys. The only problem is, we don’t know who the bad guys are. And these really bad guys basically want to take all the MIST out of your body.”

 

“Well, I want the MIST out of my body. You don’t know how pissed I am that they lied about that being the case!” Hank responded.

 

“I think it’s like that old movie Inner Space. The good guys will try get the stuff out the right way, but the bad guys will do it…uh…badly,” Garfield explained.

 

“I remember the movie!” Hank snapped. “They were going to send that chomper thing into him! Jesus Christ, Roger! I really don’t need this right now!”

 

“You just sit tight, Hank. I’m on my way to you. We’re running our lights and headed south on I-25 at full speed. Draining tanks of gas and all that.”

 

When the call ended, Hank barely had time to shrug his arms out of the destroyed scrub top before his phone rang again. It was his brother, Carl. “Did you get my message?” Hank asked.

 

“I did, and just in time. A whole team of kneebreakers was waiting for me in the lobby of my work when someone tried to lure me to the nearest Starbucks. I escaped and got the hell out of there, but this is some bullshit. I need to know what’s going on!”

 

“Bad guys are after the MIST, and they want our blood. We’re walking gold mines. You need to get out of town, Carl.”

 

“My wife is pissed as hell! She won’t be over the events of the spring for at least a few years, and now it’s going on again! Someone tell me what to do here!”

 

Trying to be calm, Hank advised his brother to get out of Houston and lay low for a while. “Use your accumulated vacation days, liquidate your 401k, cash in your retirement savings. Only use burner phones from now on. If the goons tried to snatch you just a little bit ago, they’re definitely going to try again.”

 

Carl ended the call and Hank stood up. He went into the kitchen and grabbed a beer.

 

“Is that a good idea? We should be packing to leave!” Whitney emerged into the living room with suitcases. Behind her, Michael was rapidly stuffing clean laundry into his duffel bag. Fold those first! Hank wanted to yell, but did not. He took another sip of beer.

 

“I don’t feel like running this time. And besides, I’m pretty sure whoever is after my MIST is preoccupied with the two FBI most wanted terrorists who have MIST in their own systems. After what happened at the hospital, I’m sure they’re busy licking their wounds.”

 

“Don’t be an idiot. I’m packing your stuff,” Whitney insisted. As she returned to their bedroom, Hank turned on his laptop and reserved three plane tickets for a toddler, a soon-to-be-teen, and a woman.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Four

 

1

 

The train sat silently on the outskirts of Alpine, Texas, appearing for all intents and purposes to be a run-of-the-mill freight train. Behind the locomotive, however, several pressurized canisters of liquid nitrogen fed tubes and pipes into a series armored cars. These cars, despite sitting in the heat of Texas in August, were positively frosty. Anyone driving past on Highway 67 would be taken aback if they noticed the chain of frozen train cars, but few drivers were so observant. Many travelers on 67 were tourists heading home to the bigger cities of Texas, eager to start a new school year after taking a brief vacation in the Davis Mountains.

 

The specialized cars, which had been hastily outfitted by the U.S. Army in New Mexico, had been coupled to a Home Guard supply train, a holdover from the previous president’s militarized administration, and sent to await a very sensitive cargo. Standing near the train, appearing to be railroad employees, men with submachine guns hidden underneath their orange vests and sturdy coveralls played with their cell phones.

 

Truck arriving now. Suit up. The text message was sent to everyone simultaneously, and the men went by threes into a shipping container car. As soon as three men had finished changing into CBW suits and returned to guard the train, three more entered the disguised car. Within moments, the entire brigade of railroad employees had evolved into gun-toting special forces operatives. Their immediate leader, a Captain, used the in-mask displays to tell everyone to keep close to the train and stay in the shadows. Inconspicuous is the key word, gentlemen, the Captain messaged using speech-to-text.

 

Minutes later, the eighteen-wheeler arrived on scene. Behind its tinted windows, both the driver and co-driver were wearing identical CBW suits. Carefully, they pulled the truck parallel to the train, crunching through the weeds and caliche. As soon as the large vehicle hissed to a stop, the roof of a nearby train car slid open and a yellow crane emerged. With practiced precision, the crane boom was extended and a steel hook-and-cable was soon dangling over the top of the truck’s trailer.

 

In seconds, the top of the trailer slid open and the hook descended. Men in CBW suits ran to the rear of the trailer and unlocked the doors, throwing them open. Three men clambered inside and secured the top of the Silver Six satellite to the steel hook-and-cable. As soon as the three men jumped back to the ground, the crane extracted the charred and battered hulk of the former communications satellite, lifting it free of the cargo hold.

 

As more men closed the trailer doors and re-locked them, the crane lowered the satellite through the opening roof of a frozen train car. As the roof opened, billows of frigid gas and fumes escaped into the morning air. “Quickly,” someone urged through the radio network, and the cable lowered the satellite into the train car with a solid thunk. The crane released the cable, which fell around the satellite like a collapsing snake. Silently, the roof slid shut once more, sealing the satellite inside a liquid nitrogen cocoon. The roof of the tractor trailer also returned to its original position.

 

The driver and co-driver of the eighteen-wheeler emerged, and several men helped them uncouple the trailer from the cab. As they did this, the yellow crane was outfitted with a new cable-and-hooks apparatus, this time allowing four points of contact. Quick as world-class rock climbers, a team clambered atop the truck trailer and checked the steel hook-and-eye attachments affixed to each corner. Seconds later, the crane boom swung over them and the team attached a sturdy hook to each eye. As soon as four thumbs-up had been given, the team dismounted from the trailer and allowed the crane to hoist it into the air.

 

With impressive speed and strength, the customized crane maneuvered the trailer over another frozen train car. Just as before, the roof of the car slid open and the crane lowered its quarry inside the freezer. Again, the crane detached its cable, allowing the train car to close its roof in mere seconds. As this was going on, the team of CBW-suited operatives was securing the truck cab for its own delivery into a nitrogen-cooled train car.

 

“Cab is ready,” a sergeant announced over the radio, and the crane performed its third lift of the morning. Another frozen train car received its sensitive cargo, and the operatives quickly changed back into their Union Pacific garb. Within ten minutes, the entire operation had been concluded. Slowly, as their excitement subsided, the fake railroad employees returned their attention to their cell phones.

 

“I’m about to set a high score on Pacman,” a Lieutenant announced to everyone through their radio earpieces. The Captain told him to shut it.

 

2

 

They had had a rocky, tumultuous marriage. He had once been charming, but his sweetness had quickly been revealed as an act. Only image and ambition had mattered then, and presumably still did. Their passionate love had been, she could now admit, mostly lust. She had fallen for the image of the clean-cut, All-American hero.

 

She folded the basket of laundry and watched her daughter watching cartoons. The little girl was angelic, at least on most mornings, but had a worrisome amount of her father in her. Dark-haired, athletic, and tall, the little girl was bound to be a heartbreaker like her old man. Hopefully she won’t opt for a career as a paid killer.

 

Folding a pair of jeans, she thought back to her husband’s early career as a spook. At first, it had been so exciting, a real thrill. When other wives tried to humblebrag about their doctor and lawyer husbands, she could just smile. God, I really did think I was so high and mighty. ‘My husband is protecting your freedoms’ and all that. But I looked down on military wives because their husbands were just dumb gun nuts. Honestly, I thought I had married James Bond.

 

With his politician’s good looks and impressive family background, her husband had seemed to be an American version of the famous fictional hero. His courtship had been a whirlwind, and she had been seduced by his tales. He had made her swear never to tell, and she felt like she was part of a secret society. She liked that – she had always been an outsider before. With him, she was “in the know” and one of the elites.

 

When did I realize that he actually killed people? 2006? 2007? Or was it during the Recession, when the whole world seemed to explode into extremism? There had been diplomatic covers and fake identities, but things had only become real when a Chechen radical had put a bullet through her husband’s bicep. He had recovered quickly, but the event had changed her whole world view. It had removed her goggles of blissful ignorance.

 

No, her husband wasn’t just a dashing bureaucrat. That devilish smile was more than just lustful and impish – it contained violence.

 

Perhaps it had been getting wounded in action that eroded his mask of normalcy, but her husband had become progressively angrier and more dangerous. Made to feel vulnerable for the first time, he had begun to lash out and pursue more power in an attempt to regain control. His nights away from home grew from two or three to five or six at a time. His stories became less romantic.

 

After the infamous Daylight Stealing Time crisis down in Texas, her husband had begun to drink heavily. When he finally broke her arm two Christmases after, drunk on rum, she had filed for divorce. Eager to be free of him, she had asked for nothing. Since he was a government spook, she knew the agency would want him to keep things quiet and avoid making a fuss. It was an unspoken agreement: In exchange for her remaining quiet about his recent abuse, he would disappear. If he could disappear from the Russians and the Chinese and ISIS, he could sure as hell disappear from my life.

 

Now he was back. Beside her on the couch, sitting innocently next to the stack of jeans and shorts and tees, was her phone. Her ex had found her unlisted number. She was shocked, taken aback, and could only focus on watching her daughter. As the woman folded a Sea World San Antonio tee shirt, her mind raced.

 

He says he’s changed, that he’s retired. That he loves me. Could it be true? No, he’s a liar. A skilled liar. A professional liar. But a girl needs her father. It’s been hard being a single mother. Was he really that bad? He was, and he’ll get worse. Why would he get worse? He’s no longer living that life.

 

He included a selfie, and he looked better than ever. He had always been handsome, but now he seemed even more energetic and full of life than when he was younger. His face looks younger. His eyes are almost glowing.

 

“I never stopped loving you,” was the last line of his letter.

 

3

 

“Why did the train go to Alpine and not to Pecos?” the president demanded, looking at the holographic map projected onto the wall of his office. “Now it’s in the middle of the mountains!”

 

“Something about damage to the tracks in that direction. Our team had to divert,” a colonel in dress uniform replied. The president ordered him to find out who had reported track damage, then check out the real condition of the tracks, and make an arrest in the event that anyone had been lying. “Scramble a chopper out of Pecos, and do it now!” the president commanded, and the colonel hurried off at a jog.

 

Moments later, as the chief executive was noshing on a breakfast sandwich at his desk, the first of the former MIST personnel arrived, escorted directly to him by his most trusted Secret Service agents. “This is Dr. Kreitin, who worked on MIST during its first two years. Retired now, living nearby in Maryland,” an aide said, handing over a manila folder. The president eyeballed the scientist, who was at least seventy years old. Martin Kreitin was a tall, slim man with steel grey hair and a Harvard accent.

 

“Why’d you leave MIST?” the president asked. “Don’t give me that retirement bullshit.”

 

“They were fucking around with liquid magic. Worse than plutonium. You know how all those members of the Manhattan Project who later repudiated atomic weaponry? I protested much earlier than they did. I quit, and they swore they would bury me in a dark hole if I ever said anything. I’ve been living a quiet life since then, until your boys found me.”

 

“As you probably guessed, Dr. Kreitin, we’ve got one hell of a situation. I need all hands on deck. Can you help me?”

 

“I voted for you back in the day, and I figure you’re an honest fellow. I’ll do it. Set me up in whatever lab you got and tell me what you need. I may be old as you, but I haven’t lost my edge when it comes to tech.”

 

“I should hope not, since you’re a leading nanotechnology scientist. When it comes to equipment, you name it, you got it.”

 

The guards escorted the gentlemanly doctor from the Oval Office, whisking him down the street to an underground laboratory that was being hurriedly constructed. Already, the president had ordered dozens of top scientists working on other projects to be assembled and placed at the disposal of any MIST personnel who could be located. Research scientists were being flown in, tenured professors were being pulled out of office hours, and corporations were being extravagantly paid to loan out their best minds.

 

Exiting the Oval Office, the president stalked into the bullpen of aides, advisers, and other assorted bureaucrats. He tapped his watch and reminded everyone that he needed a full briefing for the cabinet at two-thirty that afternoon. “I want live links to everyone searching for those two state troopers! I want live links to everyone searching for that son of a bitch who destroyed our lab in Laramie! I want a conference call with Hank Hummel, Carl Hummel, and Hector Rodriguez! And I want a conference call with my team on that train!” For emphasis, he knocked over a potted plant and watched it shatter on the expensive carpet.

 

“You see that shit? That’s what’s going to happen if we lose control of this situation!”

 

The colonel came running over, huffing and puffing, and announced that the train’s diversion went all the way up to the Texas Railroad Commissioner.

 

“Get me the governor of Texas on the phone. I want that Railroad Commissioner put under immediate investigation. If he makes a phone call to anyone, I better have a printed transcript within the hour!”

 

Still in a frenzy, the president wandered to his veep’s office and barged in. He turned and closed the door behind him.

 

“Paul, there’s some underhanded deception going on, and I need to root it out. We need to lay a little trap for those who might have gone rogue.”

 

4

 

The man in black roared into Pecos and skidded to a stop at the nearest travel station, pleased to find it already full of late-summer tourists. West Texans getting in their last day at Balmorhea before scooping up those back-to-school sales, he thought as he rammed the oversized pickup into Park. The dash was lit up like a Christmas tree – its deceased owner, whose body was now lying in a ditch by the side of the road, had apparently not been a fanatic about regular maintenance.

 

He watched a young tough guy, a wannabe gangster, climb out of a Dodge Charger and decided to make his move. Amped up on science, he slipped out of the truck and swiftly closed the distance between himself and his target, moving like a cat. When nobody was paying attention, he slipped an arm around the thug’s neck and pulled him between two full-size SUVs. With a hard and fast application of pressure, the young man’s neck was broken. The man in black eased the body to the ground and fished the Charger’s keys from the pockets of the gangster’s basketball shorts.

 

With any luck, the SUVs were owned by old-timers who would shoot the breeze in the travel station’s cafe until late in the morning, preventing the body from being discovered quickly.

 

More likely they’re owned by middle-aged yuppies whose kids are taking a piss. After they get their bottled frappuccinos and fruit juices, they’ll be right back out here.

 

The man in black walked casually, but quickly, to the red Charger and used the remote start function on the key fob to fire it up. “Thing’s got a Hemi,” he said to himself as he climbed behind the wheel. As he had done before, he pulled his new vehicle alongside his old vehicle and transferred the heavy duffel bag of liquid magic. With an arm now rivaling that of any MLB pitcher, he hurled the pickup truck’s keys into the scrubland beyond.

 

He tore out of the lot and got back on 17 South, heading for Saragosa. His phone rang.

 

“My boy, we’ve done what you’ve asked,” the icy-voiced woman said, skipping any salutation. “Where’s the MIST?”

 

“I’ve got it right here beside me, ma’am,” he said with feigned politeness. “But the dry ice just doesn’t feel as cold as it used to.”

 

“Then let us take that stuff off your hands. You’ve got to be tired of running around like a wanted man. Complete the transaction, and I’ve got the power to call off the dogs.”

 

“Actually, I don’t feel tired at all. As an added bonus of the stuff in my veins, I don’t exactly need caffeine any more. And I doubt your ability to call off said dogs. Last time I checked, you weren’t the wild-haired old socialist in the White House.”

 

A silent rage surged over the airwaves, and the man in black cracked a smile. The woman on the other end of the line was not pleased, but would never deign to show it.

 

“West of the Mississippi, we’ve got quite a network. The president may have loyal teams that he can send out from the Beltway, but most of the local muscle is under our influence.”

 

“I’ll believe it when I see it. By the way, I want to arrange a rendezvous with my wife and daughter at a friendly location. Shut up and listen to my plan. If it goes well, you get the duffel bag of magic, and for a delightful discount.”

 

5

 

The deputy director met them in Pueblo, and the professor got a bad feeling about the guy from the moment the pasty-faced dweeb sat down across the booth from them at the McDonald’s off I-25.

 

“You got my report?” Roger Garfield asked his boss, and the man nodded profusely.

 

“The stuff about a conspiracy, a sort of cabal of deposed politicians looking to regain power, is bit far-fetched,” the deputy director continued, shrugging his shoulders. “I haven’t seen any sort of evidence to support that. And who is this consultant of yours?”

 

The professor smiled and shook hands with the deputy director as Garfield introduced them. “I’ve read some of your work, sir,” the deputy director said, though this may have been flattery. As the man talked some more, the big prof realized that the director had, at the very least, read his dossier. Knows about my whole career. If he’s not smart, then he’s at least thorough and well-read.

 

“I’m surprised you asked us to meet on such short notice. We were rushing to Texas as part of the MIST investigation,” Garfield said. “I really hope we can keep this brief.”

 

Although such bluntness would ordinarily not be tolerated by a subordinate, the professor figured that Roger Garfield was given lots of leeway due to his stint as a political prisoner. Garfield had proven his patriotism the hard way, and had the awards and commendations to prove it. The deputy director, as far as the prof’s Googling could determine, was a longtime paper-pusher who had never been harassed by the former president’s goose-stepping goons.

 

“Of course, of course,” the director murmured. “I would have met in Denver, at the field office, but you had already made it this far south. I took the helicopter. I would lend it to you and the good professor here, but it is urgently needed back up in Laramie to transport equipment.”

 

Funny. Bureaucratic transport is usually in Bell JetRangers, hardly known for their ability to ferry cargo. Sensitive stuff from the MIST lab would have to be transported far more smoothly. He just doesn’t want us to be able to use his helicopter.

 

“I understand,” Garfield replied, but the professor saw the man’s eyes harden in annoyance.

 

“I’ve talked to assistant director Arnold, and he would like to be kept abreast of your activities. Though he is not overly concerned at this point, he agrees that it may be worthwhile to determine who might be, uh, trying to get their hands on MIST.”

 

This sounds fishy.

 

“If you’ll excuse me, I have to run to the restroom,” the professor announced. He stood up and headed for the restroom. As soon as he rounded the first corner, he texted Garfield: Something fishy. Follow me to the restroom.

 

Moments later, as he waited by the men’s room, the professor saw the graying special-agent-in-charge arrive. “What’s up?” Garfield whispered.

 

“Just watch the old guy,” the big ex-cop whispered.

 

Sneaking back to the corner, both men peered around. The professor witnessed the FBI deputy director look around carefully and then use a syringe to drop clear liquid into both his and Garfield’s open-topped cups of coffee.

 

“Is that son of a bitch trying to poison us?!” Garfield whispered, enraged. The man’s hands seemed itching to go inside his windbreaker and liberate his standard-issue handgun. The prof put a reassuring hand on his partner’s shoulder. “Nah, just make us sick,” he said. “He’s not stupid. Just wants us to be puking our guts out by the time we hit Raton Pass. Can’t investigate corrupt cronies when you’ve got dysentery.”

 

“So what do we do?” Garfield hissed.

 

“Well, I do have tenure,” the professor replied, stroking his chin thoughtfully. “The university held my job during the last crisis…and I’ll bet they’ll do it again.”

 

“What does that mean?” the FBI agent asked, confused.

 

Without responding, the criminal justice professor strode over to the FBI deputy director and cold-cocked the man in the face, apparently still able to muster up as much force as when he was a Division 1 college lineman. The director went down like a sack of bricks, and the professor quickly relieved the fallen bureaucrat of his phones and tablet. “Time to get out of here before they call 9-1-1,” the prof said to a stunned Garfield. A crowd of breakfasters sat stunned in their booths, gawping at the seemingly unprovoked attack.

 

“He tried to poison our drinks,” the prof explained to them as he slipped the man’s electronica into his own pockets. “And he used to be a member of the Home Guard.”

 

“Home Guard sons of bitches,” someone muttered, and several restaurant patrons agreed.

 

6

 

Lucifer could not get the body’s brain to be quiet. Memories kept bubbling up, surprising him. Somewhere, deep inside the brain, state trooper Gordon Edwards still existed. Though Edwards could not defeat Lucifer’s crushing consciousness, strengthened by millions of nanocells, he would not admit defeat.

 

As a result, Lucifer was hobbled. He had stolen a car, but could scarcely focus as he drove around the city.

 

I have a daughter, Edwards told him. She is three. Lucifer could see the daughter, a little girl. I know you had a daughter. You loved her.

 

For the first time in years, Lucifer remembered back before he was Adam Pastorius, a Syrian spy sent to the United States. He remembered his real name, his real life. He remembered Qamlishi and the drones, the American drones. The drones had killed his daughter in their unthinking brutality, their unknowing arrogance.

 

Some lazy, entitled ‘soldier’ in a climate-controlled bunker in Kansas killed her, not knowing or caring that it was not a military convoy.

 

But now Gordon Edwards had a daughter, and she would never have her father again. For the first time, Lucifer was forced to think about children without fathers.

 

What if I had died in that traffic jam, rather than her? How would she feel? To not have a father? He considered Gordon Edwards’ life.

 

Parking the stolen Toyota Camry in the dilapidated carport of a house with countless newspapers scattered out front, Lucifer examined his new face in the car’s mirrors. Despite being prematurely bald, state trooper Gordon Edward was a decent-looking man. In another era, perhaps, he would be considered handsome.

 

With his perfect recall, Lucifer pegged Edward’s visage as a combination of several well-known actors. His daughter must look up to him as a hero, especially with this uniform. My daughter liked my uniform.

 

Gordon Edwards’ sadly confirmed Lucifer’s thought. A memory floated up of a family photograph, taken in Edwards’ dress uniform right after his promotion to corporal.

 

In another universe, we could have been friends, this Corporal Edwards and me. He was a good man.

 

For the first time in his life, Lucifer was having a crisis of conscience. He kept the car running and reclined the seat as far back as it would go. Lying there, he thought about the decades of mayhem in which he had taken part. He had never thought about anything but seeking revenge, retribution, or sending a message.

 

I needed the world to hear me. But in my anger, I stifled so many voices. And I killed innocents. He had never thought of the word “innocents” before. For the first time, he felt guilt.

 

Slowing down his perception of time, Lucifer decided he needed to think awhile. In his mind, seconds stretched into minutes and minutes into hours. In space, he had only thought of his foes. He had never thought about himself.

 

7

 

“Go to Washington, D.C.,” Hank Hummel told his brother over the phone. “Listen to them. Go to that lab.” Only moments before, the Hummel brothers and Hector Rodriguez had received calls from the president of the United States himself. There had been a minimum of sugarcoating, lots of promises made, and a desperate plea to stay off the streets to avoid inadvertently spreading MIST.

 

It’s like we have Ebola or something, Hank had thought during the conversation. Not that that’s a bad analogy.

 

“Are you going? I’ll be on the next flight out of Bush,” Carl said.

 

This is not an easy lie to make. “Yeah, I’m on the next one out of Midland. Midland to Denver to Dulles. All four of us.”

 

“Hec coming on the same flight?”

 

“You know it, bro.”

 

When the call ended, Whitney appeared with their suitcases. There were tears in her eyes. “You lied to him. I can tell. You’re not going.”

 

He tried to go to her, to hug her, but she pushed him away. “Don’t touch me!” she hissed. “Oh, you’re such an asshole!”

 

“They’re not going to fix us,” Hank said, trying to explain. “I can’t be a lab rat again. And I need to help stop what’s going wrong out there.”

 

“Let someone else do it! Don’t always try to be the fucking hero!” Whitney screamed back at him. “Why are you doing this to me?! To your family?!

 

“Nobody is going to fix this, Whitney, and I can’t live like this. You can’t live like this, and neither can Michael and Ava. We haven’t slept together since I came back, and you know why we can’t. I’m toxic, Whitney.”

 

“So you think you can just exile us, ship us off, and leave us waiting for you to come back?! I won’t do that, Hank!”

 

Michael appeared, carrying a babbling Ava. Jesus, just what I need right now, Hank thought. His son was on the verge of tears.

 

“Why can’t you come to D.C., Dad?” Michael asked, and Whitney told him to go to his room. Shaking his head, Michael refused to leave. “This affects all of us!” he said defiantly.

 

“Son, they can’t heal me. This stuff isn’t coming out. Deep down, I know it, and they know it, too. They just want to be able to keep an eye on me. You guys would be living in a hotel or on some base, in a bunker, and only able to see me through glass. Once I check myself in, I can’t check out.”

 

Michael furrowed his brow, angry and unwilling to understand.

 

“You would come to hate me. You would be bound to me, and I would hold you back. You’ve got a life here, friends here. Nobody is after you, only me. If I leave, you’re safe. If we’re together, you and Mom and Ava will always be a target.”

 

“We want to go with you,” the boy insisted. “If we let you go alone, I know we won’t see you again.”

 

“Don’t say that,” Hank snapped. But is he right? Probably so.

 

8

 

Ben knew an APB was out for his body, so he made sure to go to the private study rooms at the library. Sliding into a cubicle with a door, he awakened the sleeping computer and began checking the news, beginning with an epicenter of Midland. He did not know where he had landed, but assumed it was not far away. They would not have moved his body far for medical treatment.

 

He created new social media profiles to search for posts relating to the incident and the area, hoping that a steady rumor mill had developed. If there was chatter of an explosion or crash-landing in west Texas, he would discover it and seek more information. Downloading an online photo of a comely twentysomething woman, he created a pleasant avatar with which people would feel comfortable interacting.

 

In fifteen minutes, he had learned that the site of the satellite crash-landing was near the town of Fort Davis, Texas, and the craft had apparently been de-orbited and guided down using the computer system of the nearby McDonald Observatory. Though the authorities were denying everything, locals were adamant on Facebook and Twitter that a craft had landed. One Facebook post, from a high school kid who lived on a ranch, said that the government had sent in black helicopters and that he had seen an eighteen wheeler with no markings turning right onto 17 from ranch road 1832 with a state trooper escort.

 

Using an online map, Ben discovered that a right turn onto Highway 17 from RR 1832 led to Fort Davis, Texas. From there, the truck could have continued to either Marfa or Alpine. Alpine was the larger town and was the home of Sul Ross State University. Does Uncle Sam really want many witnesses? The MIST-bearing satellite is more sensitive than Area 51 and the Manhattan Project combined. But then again, it’s got a lot more infrastructure to work with. Railroads ran through both towns, but Ben figured that the government would attempt to put the satellite on a train at Alpine.

 

So I know where the satellite is going, which is one objective. But where is the rest of this stuff? What of the MIST laboratory in Laramie, where all of this began?

 

Grabbing a sheet of scratch paper from a shelf above the computer, Ben jotted down all the information he needed about Fort Davis and Alpine with a pencil stub. Then he began searching again, this time using Laramie, Wyoming as his information epicenter. Fortunately, the Cowboy State rumor mill was also in full swing.

 

It sounds like someone else wants to consolidate this stuff, presumably for the same profits I seek. He did not know how many had been involved in the rumored carnage in Wyoming, but knew that it could not be many. The more people there are involved in any operation, the more witnesses and leaks there are. It may have only been one man.

 

Ben’s mind flashed back to the man in black, a government operative with whom he had dueled before being captured. He had handily won that shooting contest, thanks to his digital upgrades. Still, that man was the fastest I had ever seen. I wonder what became of him? Ben remembered seeing a drop of his own blood falling into his foe’s open eye as he leaned over to check the body.

 

What if that man in black had not been dead? What if I transferred MIST to him? It could have allowed him to survive his wounds.

 

In the back of Ben’s unnatural mind, he began to suspect that the man in black was behind the hidden horrors in Wyoming. They sent him there as an enforcer, and things did not go as planned. Or maybe they did. What better way to make off with the MIST than to make sure there are no witnesses left alive?

 

Working in their unknowable ways, the nanocells augmenting Ben’s brain began to pull together memories, facts, estimates, and predictions. He knew he needed to find those who wanted the MIST. A monopolist needs consumers, after all.

 

9

 

“The satellite has lots of regular cells, but very few builder cells,” a technician reported after examining his computer screen. “Unless there was a leak in the satellite’s hull that could suck them out into space, most of the nanocells must have dispersed after re-entering earth’s atmosphere.”

 

“The satellite’s computer indicates no breaches, either in orbit or during its descent,” a second tech said grimly. A third confirmed that there was no loss of pressure until the hatch opened at touchdown plus fourteen minutes nineteen seconds.

 

“We should send in a probe to collect samples,” a scientist suggested. “We’re not getting enough information just watching the MIST at that low a temperature. It is imperative that we find out how it expands and reacts at normal temperatures.”

 

A small group began chattering about the on-board probe, which nobody had ever used before. There were concerns about MIST being able to travel from the nitrogen-cooled storage car to the control car. “Quit being a bunch of pussies and get on with it!” barked a lieutenant colonel over the intercom. Everyone fell silent and a few flashed the bird.

 

The control car was wired with security cameras, but the technicians, engineers, and scientists did not know it. The lieutenant colonel rolled his eyes at the middle fingers aimed his way. As the scientific crews continued to collect data, the security teams kept their eyes on the highways and the horizons. “All clear,” a captain responded to the umpteenth query. “Hillbillies and hot mommies only.”

 

“Shut up, Lawsden,” the LTC replied. “Keep it professional. If I recall, you’re one of those hillbillies yourself. Aren’t you from this neck of the woods?”

 

“Plainview’s far to the north, sir. We’ve actually seen snow and played more than six-man football. But we’re not too civilized to rassle steers!”

 

Everyone was laughing when the president himself appeared on the wall-mounted holographic screen. “It’s almost time for the briefing!” the wild-haired commander-in-chief snapped. “I want that data and then I want this train moving! Every minute that you’re stationary increases your vulnerability.”

 

“I assure you, Mr. President, that this train is safe. I’ve got Delta operators inside, outside, and spread throughout the landscape. They can even sneak up on the rattlesnakes,” the lieutenant colonel replied after snapping off a crisp salute. The holographic screen suddenly split, with the president moving to the left and Director of Central Intelligence Charles Parker appearing on the right.

 

“There is reason to believe that one of those former Delta operators himself may be in the area. Our prime target. He was a heavy hitter in Iraq and Afghanistan from ‘01 to ‘05 before he transferred to intelligence. He’s achieved full MIST equilibrium and may even have something resembling telekinetic ability with equipment in his possession. We’ve run an analysis on his apartment in Wyoming, and the place is crawling with MIST. He’s juiced to the max,” Parker warned.

 

“I’ve got snipers who can cut him down from a half mile,” the LTC responded confidently.

 

“That’s the dilemma, colonel. We know your automatic fire and explosives can turn him into a red cloud, but that red cloud is unacceptable. MIST must be contained, and we can’t do that with spilling blood.”

 

The security commander was taken aback. “No spilled blood? Capture him or kill him without rupturing his skin? That’s a tall order, sir.”

 

“I know, soldier. But that’s why we brought in the best. We’re working on a plan now to help you out, but if he shows up I need you and your men to improvise.” Next to Parker, the president was nodding solemnly. “Your country needs you, colonel,” the president agreed.

 

Wow, no pressure, thought the officer. He declared that the train would be kept impregnable from outside threats.

 

“Is your communications equipment ready for the one-thirty teleconference?” Parker asked, cocking an eyebrow. He and his staff had been hounding the train crew about their electronics all morning. “It’s running perfectly, sir,” the LTC replied.

 

10

 

Hector Rodriguez sat alone in his office while his wife sobbed uncontrollably in their bedroom. That was the hardest thing I ever had to do. I hate myself. He had wanted to shed his own tears, his emotions had faded rapidly. This terrified him, for it seemed unnatural. Is this what MIST does? Block emotions that could impede performance?

 

His wife had screamed at him about his lack of emotion, claiming he didn’t care about his family. But I do care, I just don’t show it. I want to show it, but my brain won’t let me. Ever since he had regained consciousness on that operating table at Midland Memorial, he had felt less and less in control.

 

“It’s taking control of me,” he whispered.

 

He reached out to turn on his laptop, intending the check the news, and the computer turned on even before his fingers touched it. Oh damn.

 

His phone rang, and immediately answered itself on speaker. His stomach lurched, not knowing how to process.

 

“Hec, it’s Hank. I feel that things are too out of control, and I’m hitting the road. I told Whitney to take the family and go to D.C. They can stay with my aunt and be safe.”

 

“I understand,” Hector said softly. There was nothing else to say. With all the pain they had just caused, they could not partner up like before. There was no more them. The MIST was changing them, and there could be no more them like there was before.

 

It’s the end of an era. It’s far too dangerous for us to hang together, even with the end of the world on the line.

 

“Hec, I don’t think I’m going to survive this. Whatever this is, I don’t think I’m coming back. This is it for me.”

 

“I know, Hank. God help me, I know.”

 

“I just don’t want Whitney to hate me. Michael may come around, and Ava’s too young to understand, but I don’t want Whitney to hate me forever.”

 

Hector wanted to cry, to commiserate, but could not. As the emotion flowed through his brain, something unintelligible cut it off at the source. After a brief flicker, he was numb. Machinelike. He did not respond to his friend and simply moved to end the call.

 

Instead, the call ended on its own, and he saw the icon change on his end. I ended the call, and yet it was not me.

 

Without thinking, he grabbed his car keys and fled the house. He jumped into his truck and fired it up. Recklessly, not looking or caring, he backed out of the driveway and swung the heavy vehicle into the street. Somehow, despite his recklessness, part of his mind had an awareness of the surroundings and assured him that nothing was in his path. It was both comforting and horrifying.

 

He sped off, not knowing where to go. The sun, now above the horizon, flared briefly in his eyes, and then his vision dimmed comfortably. Although he had put on no sunglasses, his eyes felt as though he had.

 

It’s growing faster and faster. At what point does it take over? When do I become the backup rather than the lead?

 

 

 

 

Chapter Five

 

1

 

Lucifer stumbled from the Camry, his emotions on fire. So many children hurting, and I am to blame. Tears streamed down his face. Everything I do hurts a child. The car I stole, what if a child is stranded? There could be an emergency! He imagined a young mother standing, agonized, in the parking lot, staring at where her Toyota sedan had recently been, a child at her side. They could be going to a doctor’s appointment. Dialysis. Breathing treatment.

 

He staggered out into the residential street, looking around at the carefully-kept homes and signs of domesticity. Although he had grown up in near-poverty in the Middle East, his extensive time in the U.S. meant that he was quite accustomed to American culture. No longer did he see the neighborhoods, lawns, and homeowners as alien. But for geography and time, we are one.

 

In that moment, he began to feel anger once more. If we are all one, then what keeps us separated and fighting each other? Why have I been at war with America for so long?

 

Money. Social class. Class warfare.

 

Staring at his hand, Lucifer pondered the monetary value of the nanotechnology that had allowed him to transfer his consciousness from one body to another, to augment any body beyond the normal limits of human reflexes, strength, and endurance, and to gift his brain with perfect recall and untold learning capacity. Billions of U.S. dollars, at least. Billions per what? Per person? All of a sudden, he remembered an old television show called the Six Million Dollar Man.

 

I am the six billion dollar man. Or sixty. With so much money at stake, to what lengths will men of power go to control it?

 

The former Syrian spy had no misconceptions about the ruthlessness of men and women who sought profits and power. He had seen thousands of lives wasted simply so one man’s authority could provide over more square kilometers of desert. People die over so little…how many will die over MIST?

 

As if a light had been switched on, the man once known as Adam Pastorius decided that MIST had to be destroyed, completely eliminated from the face of the planet. All of the nanotechnology had to be eliminated and its use prevented by the world’s corrupt power brokers. Otherwise, there will be class subjugation on a massive scale, with the power held entirely by a small elite that possesses Microtronic Infrastructural Symbiosis Technology.

 

2

 

The Texas Railroad Commissioner had skipped town, apparently, leaving the president’s men scrambling for leads. At the man’s Austin mansion, closet doors were flung open and beds were blanketed with tossed clothing. “He grabbed his family and split,” the U.S. Marshal said into his lapel mic. “Probably left as soon as he gave that phony info about the train tracks.”

 

“If he took off, you can bet that others are fleeing as well,” the president replied from the Oval Office. “Have your computer guys start looking for unusual spikes in flight reservations, hotel reservations, and other travel stuff involving destinations in rural areas, particularly out West.” As the president spoke these words, his own staff dove into online databases, fingers typing and swiping like mad. Within minutes, it had was determined that charter flights to the northern Midwest had quadrupled for the next twenty-four hours.

 

“Yeah, we’ve got major travel to the boonies going on,” a tech-savvy adviser declared after a period of intense data diving, his search fueled by intense rave music piped to his brain via earbuds. “Highway cameras reveal a big increase in out-of-state license plates heading west from the Beltway.”

 

Similar checks revealed private planes fleeing the area, flight plans hopping westward. When asked if he wanted the panicked politicos apprehended, the president demurred. “We don’t have evidence of a crime, or at least nothing that will stick. But try to track them, if you can.” The staffers began compiling a list of federal agents who could be trusted to track the escaping politicians and bureaucrats without sinking ships with loose lips.

 

As the two-thirty conference approached, the president demanded a preliminary list of those he could trust, as well as a second list of those he could not. “Find out who might betray the administration for a cut of whatever profits they might make off of MIST. Be honest. If shit’s gonna go down, which it very well might, I need to know who’s got our backs. If you have any inkling that someone might be willing to trade their integrity for dollars, put ‘em on the bad list.”

 

A deputy undersecretary looked up from his computer in the White House bullpen and raised his hand. When the president noticed him, the grizzled undersecretary asked how many dollars, exactly, he was talking about.

 

“Get me Dr. Kreitin on the phone!” the president barked, and a secure cell phone was quickly placed in his hand.

 

“What would be the market value for MIST, assuming someone got ahold of it?” the president demanded.

 

“Assuming they could guarantee its equilibrium inside the human body, achieving the effects we have seen with the original subjects, it could be worth-” Realizing he had the phone on speaker, the president pressed the screen and returned the device to normal function. Original subjects. The ones we launched into space. The number the scientist gave him was mind-boggling, but a rambling explanation of MIST’s effects indicated that the figure was not inflated. Upset, the president terminated the call after urging the scientist and his team to keep working. In the bullpen, everyone looked at the commander-in-chief expectantly.

 

“The total value would be in the hundreds of billions,” the president moaned. “Dr. Kreitin is confident that a human body infused with MIST at the proper equilibrium could enjoy superhuman capabilities, giving anyone on the Human Capital Market an astronomically high value.”

 

“Yeah, but there’s only so much of that stuff to go around, right?” an assistant department head implored. “And doesn’t it have a limited life span?”

 

“Absolutely,” the president replied, suddenly nervous. It feels like I’m forgetting something.

 

3

 

The man in black played the pleasant customer, just wanting some info about the thingy by the men’s restroom, and then snapped the teenage clerk’s neck when the young man stooped to inspect. Immediately, the former spook hurled the clerk’s body into the open restroom, where it collapsed in a heap on the dirty tiles. Engaging the push-button lock on the doorknob, the killer closed the restroom door. He pushed on it gently, mindful of his growing strength. Sure enough, it was locked tight. That will delay the discovery of the body.

 

Instead of cash or car keys, the man in black now sought dry ice. With the clerk dead and locked away, and the rest of the convenience store empty, the entire oversized cooler of dry ice – great for fishing! – was his for the taking. He grabbed a Styrofoam cooler from a shelf and filled it to the brim with the smoking ice, using his bare hands just to see if it would hurt. After a brief second of pain, the MIST neutralized his pain receptors and planted tingling energy under the skin of his fingers, allowing him to handle to dangerous stuff with impunity.

 

Cooler filled, he went outside to the car and transferred the MIST cylinders from the duffel, which had lost most of its chill, to the new container. As he drove away, he made a phone call.

 

“Let’s get this show on the road,” he said, feeling energized. He knew it was now or never. “I’ve got the stuff. Where do I take it?”

 

“Come to Fort Davis, the Hotel Limpia,” the woman replied, sounding gleeful.

 

Now that I know where you are, it’s time to flip the script. “Actually, that’s a bit out of my way. I’ll be at the Balmorhea State Park. Public, lots of people, all that jazz. I don’t feel like being cut down by a sniper outside the historic hotel up there in the mountains.”

 

“I assure you, you will be completely unharmed. We have plenty of use for you on our team,” the woman replied, feigning a motherly tone.

 

“As a lab rat? I don’t think so. If you need a human guinea pig-” He was going to tell her to shove something up her posterior, but his mind was on overdrive. They need a human guinea pig…and there are others besides me. Get her a guinea pig.

 

“Then I can get you a human guinea pig,” he finished. “I know you’ve tried to get some already, but you failed, right?”

 

Silence on the line revealed that his assumption was correct.

 

“You failed to catch them, but they’ll come willingly to me. All you have to do is tell me who they are, and I’ll do the rest.”

 

His contact was quiet for several long seconds. “We trade the MIST first, and then you will neutralize the other hosts for an additional fee,” she declared.

 

“‘Other hosts’? We’re not infected with parasites,” he snapped. “That’s a big verbal gaffe, ma’am, and it hardly makes me trust you. Perhaps I should throw this stuff out on the side of the road? See what the MIST does when it gets inside the little bunny rabbits and coyotes? Or snakes and worms? You ever see Tremors?”

 

“I apologize,” the woman sighed. “I’m a bit tired, you know. It was a long night.”

 

“I’ll be at the state park in two hours. Let me give you the e-mail address to send the information about the ‘other hosts’ to. And include what you know about the two new ones, the state troopers. It’s all over the AM radio news.”

 

4

 

The professor roared through Raton Pass, noticing several rusting Humvees decaying along the treeline. In the eleven weeks since the crisis, much of the Home Guard’s military surplus equipment had been junked…but not all of it. Occasionally, old roadblocks and checkpoints could still be seen along highways and on vacant city lots, unclaimed and unwanted equipment left to the elements. Coasting down the I-25 slope into New Mexico, the big prof turned on the radio news and found himself in the middle of a report out of Texas. “Doctors at Midland Memorial pronounced state trooper corporal Kent Hewton dead at 9:37 this morning from injuries received in a one-vehicle accident. According to investigators, the Chevy Tahoe cruiser overturned last night on ranch road-”

 

Roger Garfield turned off the radio and announced that he needed to focus.

 

“Hey, hostages can’t commandeer the radio,” the professor grinned. “I’m a dangerous felon. You should be terrified.”

 

By now, the academic’s battery of the FBI deputy director had generated a nationwide APB for the esteemed former football player and police officer. Utilizing his extensive knowledge of criminality, the professor had delayed apprehension by stealing a random car from a Walmart parking lot and decorating it with a set of license plates from another vehicle. A smattering of bumper stickers hastily purchased with cash had further disguised the car. At the prof’s insistence, Garfield had helped with none of this. “The story has got to remain that I KO’d the deputy director by myself and kidnapped you,” the distinguished lecturer had explained. “This allows you to remain a free agent.”

 

Garfield’s agency-issue phone buzzed as they hit the outskirts of Raton, and a quick glance confirmed the nationwide APB.

 

“You’re a wanted man, professor,” Garfield sighed. “And there is no known motive for your heinous and violent crime.”

 

“Well, we better think as we drive, because I’m sure this conspiracy runs deep. It won’t take long before some of the conspirators assume we’re actually working together.”

 

“As a G-man, you know how they think, so I’ll let you be the brain trust. I’ll be on the lookout for some new wheels. It won’t take long for the APB to include this car.” Seconds later, they pulled off the highway and bounced along a pothole-laden main drag of the small town. It was still a sleepy late summer’s morn, meaning traffic was light and many businesses were closed.

 

A used car lot was sandwiched between two boarded-up restaurants, and the criminal justice professor indicated that it was time to switch out cars. “These places are closed, so there won’t be any witnesses. You stay in the car and I’ll flash my gun around, looking like an irate kidnapper. The security cameras will tell a great story.”

 

“Yeah, if there even are security cameras,” Garfield chuckled. “This car lot looks like it’s on its last leg. I’m skeptical about taking any one of these cars.”

 

Without another word, they bounced into the used car lot and screeched to a stop in front of the dusty and battered office. The prof leapt from the car, his right hand wrapped in his belt, and strode to the dilapidated glass doors. With his left hand, he waved around his personal .45 handgun, hoping to put on a show for hidden cameras. At the door, he threw his weight behind a powerful punch. While a modern glass door would have withstood the blow, even from a huge guy like the former football lineman, the old glass door of the auto dealership cracked.

 

“I’m gonna feel that in the morning,” the prof winced. He repeated the punch, and the glass broke. Reaching inside, he deftly unlocked the door. Though he tensed for the howl of an alarm, he was greeted by nothing but silence. Walking inside, he marched to the front desk and vaulted over it. After a moment of tearing open doors and drawers, he found the desired assortment of car keys, all labeled with a feminine script.

 

Below the keys, a sheet of typed paper listed a summary of each vehicle, indicating that a white Ford F-150 pickup, traded in by G. Romero, only had sixty-two thousand miles and had been serviced in town a mere two months ago. “Truck month it is,” the prof whistled, snatching the keys to the nondescript Ford. A white F-150 describes half the oil field and contracting company fleet vehicles in the country. It’s practically a Harry Potter cloak of invisibility.

 

He jogged back outside and pointed his gun at the windshield of the car that had brought them in from Pueblo. “Get out the car, motherfucker!” he yelled at Garfield, who rolled his eyes. “And don’t make me hit you again! I’ll knock you the fuck out!” Maybe the security cameras pick up audio, too.

 

Garfield played along, exiting the car shakily and holding a hand over one eye. Guy deserves an Oscar, the professor thought proudly. Using the gun, he gestured for the FBI agent to walk toward the white F-150 parked against the side of the building. The key fob unlocked the truck, and Garfield climbed into the passenger seat after another verbal tirade by his foul-mouthed kidnapper. Seconds later, after more gun-waving, the professor joined him.

 

“You talk like that in your lectures?” Garfield asked as the truck roared smoothly to life. Fortunately, no warning lights appeared on the dash. Without responding, the prof dropped the pickup into Drive and slammed on the gas. In a cloud of dust and leaves, they turned onto the main drag and aimed for the interstate.

 

“Only during finals week,” he finally answered. “I think I got most of that from the Friday movies. You know, with Ice Cube?”

 

As they headed toward the interstate, they passed a Colfax County sheriff’s deputy driving the other direction. Their stomachs clenched, but the cruiser did not deviate from its comfortable drift. In the rearview, they saw it pull into a mom-and-pop eatery for a late breakfast. A portly man in a khaki uniform exited the Chevy Tahoe and hitched his utility belt over his belly as he swaggered toward the front doors.

 

“Another home run for us. So, agent Garfield, where do we go from here?”

 

5

 

Lieutenant Watterson of the Midland Police Department grabbed the good doctor as he rushed out the back door of his office. “Looks like someone is trying to skip town,” the cop announced, pointing to the doctor’s twin duffel bags. The bags, one slung over each shoulder, were monogrammed with the internist’s initials. “Don’t bother trying to run. We already picked up the missus and your two daughters.”

 

“Am I under arrest?” the doctor asked nervously. “I have done nothing wrong!”

 

“Well, Hank Hummel just flew the coop. He’s pretty pissed off, you see. It turns out, his doctor had been lying to him for the past couple of months. Said he was free and clear of these nanocells…but that wasn’t right, was it? The nanocells were hiding in his bones.”

 

Flabbergasted, the doctor dropped the duffels. He almost asked how the hell the policeman knew about that, but caught himself at the last second.

 

“Gonna ask how I knew about that? Because it’s highly classified? I got friends in high places, doc. I helped with that little political crisis a while back, so they put me in the loop. And it’s all hands on deck today.”

 

“I have no idea what you’re talking about. And who are you, anyway? I’m very busy.” Sighing, Watterson showed his badge and handed over a business card.

 

“Oh, and I know about the bone thing because I looked at your computer while you were grabbing your stuff. I may be old, but I still got moves like a cat,” the detective crowed. “You showed Hummel fake scans.”

 

A pair of younger detectives sauntered over from an unmarked patrol car. One was a tall and slender Hispanic man, while the other was a petite black woman. “Miss Kirk, what is the punishment for medical malpractice of this magnitude?” Watterson asked loudly.

 

“At least ten years, and permanent loss of license. Add in the possibility that these nanocells could kill Mr. Hummel, and you’re looking at twenty to life.”

 

The Hispanic detective announced that a second doctor, one with whom the duffel-bag wielding internist frequently golfed, had already been arrested for what had been done to Hector Rodriguez. “You know that name, don’t you? I’ll bet you do. Well, he’s a brother in blue, so we take a pretty dim view of what you and your golfing buddy have done.”

 

Crestfallen, his stomach sinking with despair, the internist felt sick. “I would like to speak to an attorney,” he said.

 

“Time is of the essence, sir. If you lawyer up and slow the chain of discovery, I’ll be most displeased. And when I’m displeased, I make your life a living hell. Right now, I want to know who you’re working for. Who told you to lie to Hank Hummel, cover up the existence of his nanocells, and fool him with false scans?” Watterson pulled out a slim digital recorder. “Talk, and I’ll push for no jail time.”

 

The doctor looked around. Aside from their tense quartet, the alley was empty.

 

“I’ll need protection. These are bad people. I only acted under duress,” the internist quavered. “Where is my family?”

 

“Safe and sound. I have them at a safehouse, not at the station. I’ve learned a little about political intrigue in my day. And these two detectives with me are clean. And if they’re not, I’ll kill ‘em myself.”

 

“Shut up,” the Hispanic detective sighed. “You been saying that since I passed the detective’s exam.” His colleague concurred, nodding her head.

 

“Can we go back into the office? I don’t feel safe in this alley,” the doctor shivered, looking around some more. Watterson pulled out his cell phone and texted someone. The reply was nearly instantaneous, and the aging lieutenant smiled. “Yeah, we can talk inside.”

 

6

 

Whitney Hummel lay on her bed, staring at the whirring ceiling fan. She was past crying, and in the stage of numb acceptance. She could feel the sensation of the tears drying on her cheekbones, making the skin tight. Michael will be okay. He’s tough. He’ll be okay. She didn’t know exactly what her son was doing at that particular moment.

 

Is he gone forever? Did that really happen?

 

Hank had left with hardly a word. At first, she had been furious. Beyond furious. Now, she saw an iota of what he had been talking about.

 

Could we live with him forever like that? Like what he was talking about? She had, surreptitiously, researched nanotechnology over the last several weeks. After he had begun acting strangely, despite having been told that he was just fine, Whitney had decided to take matters into her own hands. She had learned a tremendous amount, most of it frightening.

 

“He’ll come to his senses. He’ll come back.” He had never taken off like that before. Was that even him? Could it be the nanocells, the nanites, the MIST, the whatever-the-fuck you call it? For a second, lying still and staring at the fan blades, she wondered where her husband ended and the metal cells spread throughout his body began.

 

Do I want him to come back? She wondered if things would ever be like they were, several years ago. Back then, Hank had been a high school teacher. The world had gone through strange shifts, and her husband had been caught up in them. Hank had used guns, used violence. Terrorism and political intrigue had made him something more, but also something less. There was something inside of him, something relatable and intimate, that went away.

 

Now he had left, after the mother of all fights. He would not seek medical treatment, offered free of charge by Uncle Sam. Though she had screamed at him, mocked him, she believed him. They would not fix him. He would be in a quarantine room, behind armored glass, forever.

 

But he would be there, alive and safe, and she could see him.

 

Do I want to see him like that? Living in a bunker or on a military base, seeing my husband in a government hospital every day? Every week? In her mind’s eye, she saw her life unraveling in a crappy little apartment, her children growing bitter. How would Michael feel with a science experiment for a father? How will I explain this to Ava?

 

The dog hit the bedroom door with her head, thunking it open. Panting happily, the French bulldog bounded into the room, seeking to spread cheer. Behind her, Michael was holding Ava. “Mom? Let’s get something to eat,” he said, sounding concerned. “We’ll feel better if we get some food. I ordered some using your tablet.” Before Whitney could protest, Michael set little Ava on the bed next to her. A second later, the Frenchie leapt and struggled onto the bed as well. Michael sat on the bed and everyone edged and scooted together, feeling scared and forlorn. Hands absently petted the dog, who rolled onto her back and snorted and kicked gleefully.

 

“Doggie miss Daddy!” Ava declared. “Doggie miss Daddy!”

 

7

 

The Diplomat fielded lots of calls from his cabin. It was warming up outside, and the external temperature was mirroring his own tingling skin. You really do get hot under your collar, he fumed. The great diaspora had begun, but the administration in Washington had caught and detained some. People were starting to freak out, but the Diplomat urged calm through his many digital channels.

 

As birds chirped outside and a gentle breeze rattled some loose shingles on the cabin roof, the former State Department guru encouraged everyone to get an attorney on speed-dial. If everyone has been following directions, there is plenty of plausible deniability to go around, he texted. Even his own texts and emails, despite being highly encrypted, were purposefully vague and devoid of details.

 

He was looking forward to a jaunt toward the babbling spring down in the valley when an email came in from a contact he had to look up in his spiral notebook. The contact, a law enforcement official in Texas, was a bottom-tier member of their collective organization. HH’s doctor arrested. Squealing right now in his office. Have told others to bug out. How to proceed?

 

“Son of a bitch,” the Diplomat muttered. He called the matriarch and asked for a timeline on procuring the MIST. “Washington may have nabbed a piece of string and begun unraveling things. The doctor you bribed to mislead Hank Hummel? He’s spilling his guts to the cops. I think our man out there might be able to put things on ice, but he needs to know for sure.”

 

The line was silent for an uncomfortably long time. Despite her power and resolve, the matriarch could be known for excessive caution. “I guarantee they’re looking for the doctor’s contacts within your organization,” the Diplomat sighed. “In a few minutes, things will be set in motion that cannot be undone.”

 

“Putting things on ice will also put things in motion that cannot be undone,” the matriarch protested, her accent changing under stress. Occasionally, she sounded like a New York socialite, but anger revealed her decades of living in the South. “Maybe if they start unraveling that piece of string it will slow them down. They will take the time to dot their Is and cross their Ts.”

 

“Oh, it’s way beyond that, ma’am,” the Diplomat scoffed. He explained how his contacts in Washington were reporting full-blown panic. “They are not underestimating the situation. In fact, they’re running hotter than they did on nine-eleven. The president is sending out loyal teams to rustle up those he considers traitors. Very socialist of him.”

 

“He’s a usurper,” the Diplomat’s former boss snapped, her voice outraged. “He was never elected by the people, only by an emergency session of Congress.” Amazed, the Diplomat listened to the fearsome matriarch give a length lecture on constitutionality. I think something has touched a nerve, he figured.

 

“Regardless of whether he should be president, he is the president. And he’s pissed, and he’s on the move. You’re paying me for my contacts and my advice, and right now my contacts and my advice point to one thing: Move fast. Feint, dodge, and sprint. The president won’t let bureaucracy slow him down.”

 

“But that’s against the law!” the woman hissed.

 

“Are you kidding me? We’re all guilty of high treason at this point. And anyone who knows that you’re running the show will blame you. You must know that.”

 

Furious, but now seeing clearly, the former Secretary told the Diplomat to order the hit in Midland and inform everyone to operate with great haste and momentum.

 

The Diplomat returned the contact’s encrypted email with a simple sentence ordering the situation to be put on ice.

 

8

 

Lucifer returned to the street he knew better than any other, perhaps excepting the dusty avenue on the outskirts of Damascus where he grew up. Years ago, he had been stationed there as a Syrian spy. After his death experience, he had regularly returned. He had made the man who lived across the street a fighter, a killer, a weapon. And now that man was also infused with MIST and needed to be destroyed.

 

Fire. Will fire destroy it? The MIST had made Lucifer’s new body a live wire, but his mind was not sharp. Was it because the body’s brain was that of an imbecile? Lucifer was not impressed with the body’s past, and anything more than flashes and glimpses would require him to direct his consciousness to the effort. He knew that distracting his consciousness from controlling the body would be dangerous. I could drive off the road. I could have a seizure. There was the slim chance that the brain could re-assert control and kick him out.

 

Eventually, the artificial neurons would replace the biological neurons, destroying them. This was among the many facts Lucifer had gleaned from the Internet during his time orbiting the planet. He wondered briefly about the death of his body’s original consciousness. The man died serving a greater good, he decided, putting it out of his mind. All that mattered was the mission.

 

He parked the stolen car in front of the house on the corner and climbed out of the dusty sedan. While his original body was well-known to any news junkie, this new form was anonymous. Perhaps a few Midlanders had seen a photograph of the officially-deceased state trooper on a news site, but most had not. Lucifer strode down Maple Street without fear of being recognized. To his right, he saw the house he had rented long ago. In another life.

 

Someone had repaired the shattered windows he had caused by throwing the president’s men through them. A blue minivan in the driveway indicated that the house had been purchased, likely by someone who did not know its amazing history. “It’s a girl!” proclaimed a pink sign hanging from the tree in the front yard. The August heat had killed most of the lawn.

 

Across the street, to his left, he saw the house he wanted. The cacti have grown since last time. Last time in the daylight, at least. I did not see them last time I was here.

 

Lucifer reached the driveway and touched the black SUV that was parked there. No car alarm blared. He knew, instinctively, that it was not Hank Hummel’s car. Is he away?

 

The bullet tore through his neck and sent him staggering to the cement.

 

Flight flight flight flight. The MIST wants out. I want out. I am the MIST. Frantically, Lucifer willed himself to remain inside the dying body. He lay still on his back, feigning death.

 

“A kill shot!” a man yelled in the distance. Booted feet ran toward him. He did not open his eyelids, yet he could see. Hazily, anyway. The particles see for me. Incredible. An exterior camera.

 

“Two to base, subject is down,” a different voice said, close. Still, still, be still. Be dead.

 

“Adam Pastorius is down,” someone said through the radio channel. “Begin retrieval procedures.”

 

9

 

Professor King and Dr. Cuentz, two of the original MIST administrators, landed on the White House lawn in an armored clone of Marine One. The two-thirty briefing had begun, and everything was in a frenzy. Flanked by a bevy of guards, the two aging computer scientists ran toward the stately mansion.

 

“Is all this necessary?” Cuentz asked over the din of the chopper, which was lifting off again. “You bet your ass!” replied a Secret Service agent, his gloved hand pressing his earbud deeper into his auditory canal. “It’s do-or-die time!”

 

The two distinguished nerds were led through a maze of hallways and pushed through a nondescript side door. Instantly, they found themselves face to face with the president himself. “Okay, let’s begin,” the wild-haired Vermonter said, skipping the pleasantries. Looking around, the two scientists saw a bank of high-resolution screens and clusters of cameras. On the screens was a veritable who’s who of the president’s administration. The faces were grim.

 

“Um, I prepared a drive,” King said, fishing an encrypted flash drive from his coat pocket. An aide deftly took the drive and plugged it into the side of a polished table. Seconds later, a three-dimensional image coalesced above the tabletop. King and Cuentz smiled, duly impressed.

 

“The latest holographic projection technology,” a second aide beamed.

 

Busily, King poked and swiped his way to the presentation he had been instructed to cobble together. The airborne images responded to his touch: moving, morphing, and disappearing as if they were being manipulated on a traditional screen by an old-fashioned cursor. Finally, the lanky computist reached his digital presentation.

 

“Give some background on who you are,” whispered Cuentz. King looked around and smiled awkwardly at the camera pods.

 

“I am professor Stewart King, of the University of Maine,” the man said with a self-conscious throat-clearing. “And I was recruited to work on the project known as MIST by the White House some five years ago.”

 

“And I’m Dr. David Cuentz, of UCLA,” his partner continued. “I was also one of the original scientists on the project.”

 

“What’s your specialty, Dr. Cuentz?” asked a grey-haired woman in an impressive Navy uniform. At the bottom of the screen it was revealed that she was taking notes on a clipboard.

 

“I am a board-certified psychiatrist, and I have a Master’s degree in biocomputing. I have fifteen years of experience working with neural implants,” Cuentz replied proudly. Realizing that he had forgotten to state his own credentials, professor King hesitantly explained his own Ph.D.s in computer engineering and physics. “Since two thousand four, I have worked in the area of nanotechnology, and have worked in quantum computing since two thousand nine.” He had left the University of Maine to work at the secret government lab at the University of Wyoming, but returned to the east coast three and a half years later.

 

“Why were you asked to leave?” the vice president asked from one of the screens. It appeared that the Kentuckian was on board Air Force Two. Despite seeing clouds behind him through oval windows, the image was steady as a rock. Must have great stabilizing software, King thought.

 

“The original MIST prototype was complete. We wanted more money to stay on, and they asked us to leave. We signed our nondisclosure agreements and left,” Dr. Cuentz explained. He gestured to Dr. King. “We actually took the same flight out of Denver.”

 

“So you do not know the current capabilities of MIST?” a man in a black suit asked, his voice disappointed. Judging by the pins on his lapel, the man was a spook or G-man of some high-ranking variety.

 

King sneered. “We helped architect the stuff. While our successors may have modified things, we have quite a good idea of what is going on. And we have been briefed as to what happened approximately eighty days ago. Judging by that data, plus all the data you have recovered since, we have plenty to go on.”

 

“It’s going to be a wild ride, ladies and gents,” Cuentz promised.

 

10

 

Six bodies lay on the ground next to the black Jeep Grand Cherokee, arrayed in a brutal semicircle. In the middle was a bald man, his torso and face riddled with bullet holes. Blood ran in rivulets down the sloping cement. Blood was everywhere.

 

“Jesus Christ, oh God,” gasped the first member of the retrieval crew. In his CBW suit, he had been approximately three and a half minutes behind the strike team. That was too much time, by far. Something had gone wrong. The two teams were supposed to be less than a minute apart, at most.

 

“Fuck, fuck, fuck!” yelled the second member. Through their earpieces, they could hear their armored truck’s external microphones picking up the sounds of neighborhood denizens crying, yelling, and frantically calling the police. A third member, swinging down from the crew cab of the specialized transport, held an electronic sensor.

 

“Maybe it has already dissipated,” someone suggested hopefully.

 

“The hell it did. It had five new hosts to choose from!” scoffed someone else. The truck was only meant to hold two bodies, which presented a big problem.

 

“But everyone’s still lying there. Maybe the head shot to the host killed it.” A gloved hand pointed at the bald man’s destroyed skull.

 

“They said it takes time for the MIST to take control of the nervous system. Until it gains control, the body is immobilized as the nanocells fight the neurons,” their leader said, exiting the truck. “We won’t be attacked by anyone, at least not right now.”

 

“Then we better figure out which body the MIST went into, fast as hell. I don’t want the bogeyman waking up and doing us like he did the strike team,” was the nervous response. Slowly, the quintet of men approached the bodies. From behind curtains and miniblinds, people were taking video and photographs. So much for secrecy, the team leader thought. This will be national news by five o’clock.

 

Three of the five men were heavily armed, and they unslung their weapons. Instead of assault rifles, they held automatic shotguns. Under their specialized suits, they had padded shoulders to handle the massive recoil.

 

“Anyone see The Thing?” someone asked. Nobody answered.

 

“The MIST definitely left the original host, so we can rule that out,” the leader said. “Focus on the strike team.”

 

Turning on their helmet cams, the team recorded its cautious approach. “HQ, feed us info. What do you read from our video?”

 

“Adam Pastorius fought like hell, even after a .308 through the carotid artery,” an electronic voice intoned. “We’re trying to use the surveillance network to pull up video on this neighborhood.” The nationwide hidden camera network, which had been deemed unconstitutional, had never been fully shut down. Occasionally, operators still used the network to surveil cities with mobile avatars like a virtual reality video game.

 

“Negative on the replay; this sector’s got glitches,” the metallic voice said after a few tense seconds. It was hard to do routine maintenance on a surveillance system that was continually exposed to the elements and was not supposed to exist. “You will have to scan each body manually.”

 

Any fear trembles hidden by his bulky CBW suit, the man with the sophisticated sensor array walked over to the first prone body. Slowly, he waved the sensor over the man. The man groaned and twitched. Instantly, the sensor-wielding man jumped back as his compatriots raised their guns.

 

“What happened?” the prone man asked, his voice weak.

 

“You tell us,” a gun-wielding member of the retrieval team snapped. “And don’t move.”

 

“You think I’m infected with MIST,” the prone man moaned. “I’m clean, guys. I’m clean.” He tried to move, and the shotguns were brought closer.

 

“Don’t move!” someone yelled. Another prone man began to twitch, and one of the three shotgun-aimers swiveled his boomstick toward the new target. “Stay still!” the soldier ordered. For the first time, the retrieval team became acutely aware of the strike team’s weapons lying scattered on the cement. Using a booted foot, the tallest shotgun-holder kicked a submachine gun away from a limp hand. Just in case.

 

“Guys, you’re going crazy. I’m clean,” someone said, trying to sit up. “Just took a hit to the head.” A second later, a fourth man began to stir.

 

The retrieval team did not know what to do, and panic quickly set in.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Six

 

1

 

“It’s magic, basically. Any technology that is sufficiently advanced will be seen, by those unfamiliar with it, as magic. Imagine the natives in the Caribbean seeing firearms used for the first time. Imagine someone in colonial Massachusetts being shown a radio. Or a frontiersman from the 1820s being shown a television. A Civil War soldier being given a laptop. One of Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders being given a smartphone. Take one of our new holographic projectors back to Europe during World War I.”

 

A translucent three-dimensional image of a human body was created by the referenced display, with flashing and pulsing nanites flowing through bloodstreams and along nerves. Dense clusters resided in the brain and brain stem, with similar concentrations coating major organs. “This is MIST at early equilibrium,” professor King explained to his intrigued audience. “The human body is augmented to the peak of natural performance.”

 

The nanites increased in density, and a latticework began to appear on bones.

 

“At middle equilibrium, MIST is still programmed to protect the body. It reinforces bones, shuts off pain response, and takes over most nerve conduction. It also begins creating additional structures in the retina to allow for conscious focusing of sight. Our tests also indicated increased auditory sensitivity. Memory recall is tremendously enhanced. This stage was reached by all five of the initial subjects.”

 

Three-dimensional images of Hank Hummel, Carl Hummel, Hector Rodriguez, Adam Pastorius, and Boris Elkanovitch replaced the translucent body.

 

“Pastorius and Elkanovitch, as you know, were launched into orbit in the XCAV satellite. The MIST in the bodies of the Hummel brothers and Hector Rodriguez sought new hosts after the three men experienced unexpected and traumatic injuries. It was a brilliant plan! The flesh wounds made the MIST believe that death of the host was imminent, and so it departed using electromagnetic forces.”

 

“But not all the MIST left their bodies,” the president’s National Security Adviser protested. “Why not?”

 

“We don’t know. It may have been too deep in the bones, or it may have been programmed to generate the necessary magnetic repulsion to eject the rest of the nanites. Unfortunately, we still don’t have that data.”

 

A deputy director of the CIA requested information on approximately how much of MIST’s programming had occurred after King and Cuentz left the project. For the first time, the president himself spoke. Instantly, the camera pods focused on him. His face was angry.

 

“No files or hard data will be transmitted today,” the president vowed. “There are too many leaks for us to risk providing any technical information.” The wall full of talking heads began chattering animatedly, promising their complete loyalty and that of their respective staffs. However, the president refused to yield. “No files,” he declared.

 

Professor King and Dr. Cuentz, attempting to defuse the sudden tension, explained that a whole team of programmers remained at the laboratories in Laramie after their departure. “It is impossible for us to know what the final programming entailed,” Cuentz admitted. “And, given what happened not long ago, it may never be known at all.”

 

“Not quickly, anyway,” King continued. “If enough builder cells were captured, we might be able to piece it all together.”

 

2

 

The Diplomat watched the armored train through the satellite feed as it languished in the high desert, within sight of the Davis Mountains. Inside, busy as bees, technicians, scientists, and engineers were working on the remains of the satellite. Gnawing on a granola bar, replenishing his depleted energy, the former State Department employee felt despondent. Despite being impeccably well-connected, he did not have an insider on the train.

 

“We need inside the train,” she said over the phone. Her voice was colder with each call. Though she did not tell her consigliere everything, he had a pretty good idea of what was going on. Things were going sideways.

 

“I don’t have a man on the inside, and we’re not getting on by force,” he replied. “Their security is far too strong.”

 

“We can draw it away. Lure it away. Create a diversion.”

 

“Ma’am, Delta operators don’t get easily distracted. That’s probably why the president has them on the train.”

 

The former politician’s voice grew smug as she explained that she had not begun her movement without plenty of outside muscle. “Did you think I wouldn’t have a backup plan?” she oozed. “Fortunately for us, they’re geographically convenient. Had this all happened up North, I might have to re-plan.”

 

Shaking his head, the Diplomat felt his stomach lurch. This will really tatter my network. They won’t like this. They want a return to law and order, damn it. “You’re not talking about south of the border, are you?”

 

“Obviously. If my plan goes south, so will many of my allies. They have already bought real estate, made connections, and so forth. It was easy, really, to find some cheap muscle. The cartels are eager for a president who will criminalize drugs again and bring back the value of their products. Reduce the supply, increase the price. Econ 101, my friend.”

 

Alarmed, the Diplomat argued that violence should be avoided, especially when it would be wielded by those who lacked discipline. “Using a legion of machismo-obsessed cartel hitters would be bad. They would talk, and eventually it would come out who hired them. If you don’t keep the violence under wraps, you might not make it a full term in the White House before the proletariat tears down the gates.”

 

“I will cross that bridge when I come to it,” she snapped.

 

“But you’re burning bridges right now,” the Diplomat protested. “You’ve only got the backers you have because they think you can do things quietly and efficiently. If you reveal that you can’t do that, they will disappear. Some might even turn you in if they get cornered.”

 

“They wouldn’t dare.”

 

3

 

The line of rushing, howling ambulances drew Ben’s attention away from his research. Instantly, his mind recalled the fact that three other MIST-infused individuals were still in the city. And who could draw a line of ambulances? My old friend, Adam Pastorius. Recalling their fierce battles, Ben stood up from the computer and steeled himself for another confrontation. Pastorius was insane, no doubt about it, and was probably causing lots of destruction for some reason or another.

 

He could be doing it for Allah, for Syria, for his daughter, or any other reason. Ben was only motivated by profits and power, which was far cleaner and simpler. He cared nothing for stopping destruction, but felt there was tremendous value in stopping his foe. At the very least, leaving Pastorius around would complicate things in the future.

 

“Musta been a plane crash or sumpin’!” a weathered man in oil field garb declared by the library’s checkout desk. “I seen about a hunnert ambulances!” Behind the desk, a middle-aged woman was praying with a rosary. Several mothers were shushing their kids in the library foyer, trying to distract them from the sight of ambulances tearing past on the elevated loop highway.

 

“Say, you got a company truck out there? A saw one with its lights on,” Ben said to the oil worker.

 

“Yeah, Concho. Was it a Concho truck? It’s a Silverado.” A microsecond later, Ben grasped the grizzled man’s shaggy hair and drove his cranium into the Formica countertop. People screamed and fled. Quickly, Ben searched the unconscious man’s pockets and fished out a set of Chevy keys. Ignoring people calling 9-1-1 on his behalf, he stormed through the library doors and used the key fob to locate the desired half-ton pickup.

 

Ignoring normal driving etiquette, he tore out of the library parking lot and made for the loop, sideswiping vehicles and driving over sidewalks and grass. Angry drivers honked and flipped him the bird, but he did not care. His nanites thrummed with energy, and he knew that he was a demigod among mere mortals. Let them honk and curse, for their lives mean little.

 

He did worry about police officers, whose firearms might make his MIST try to flee its current host, but figured that they were not interested in a grand theft auto when the city’s entire ambulance corps was being scrambled. They are a bit busy at the moment. Well, unless the oil field worker died. How hard did I hit his head on that counter? Ben only worried about the police deciding to look for the Concho fleet truck, not the possibility of manslaughter. He was many times a murderer, going all the way back to his military days in Afghanistan. As the Soviet Army was withdrawing in 1989, the young lieutenant had surreptitiously done away with a troublesome senior officer. That first time, he had used a knife.

 

Ben accelerated onto the loop and followed the convoy of ambulances in the distance, their lights twinkling merrily. They exited en masse at Big Spring Street and turned north, driving underneath the loop’s overpass. Ben made great effort to catch up, even running a red light at the intersection. He dodged a lumbering tanker truck and bounced over the curb, cursing as warning lights lit up the dash. Still, the big Chevy did not stall, and he returned the gas pedal to the floor.

 

Up ahead, the ambulances were hanging a sharp right immediately past a well-manicured cemetery. Ben ran a second red light and was soon on their tail. Though there was the possibility that the last ambulance in the convoy would radio someone about the mysterious white pickup truck on its tail, Ben figured it unlikely. When there was a disaster afoot, extraneous details tended to be forgotten.

 

The ambulances were taking a dirt road shortcut through a large field, and Ben saw the convoy rapidly approach a middle class neighborhood. Already, a large number of light-barred vehicles was scattered about. Cops. Lots of cops. As the ambulances thundered out of the field and onto the blacktop, Ben hoped their dust would conceal him from the many police officers on scene.

 

Ambulances braked, and paramedics began leaping out from all doors, both cab and bay. Teams of men and women began organizing stretchers and backboards. Ben left his pickup running and climbed out. As uniformed people ran to and fro, he marched over to the first policeman he saw standing solo. The cop was a young man, probably less than thirty years old, and he stood roughly the same height as Ben’s current host. The youthful cop was entering data on a tablet computer, occasionally leaning into the open driver’s door of his cruiser to check things on his in-dash unit.

 

Ben sidled up behind the man and deftly slipped the officer’s expandable baton from his belt. As the man whirled around, his unaugmented reflexes no match for Ben’s MIST-aided nerve conduction velocity, he saw the baton swinging across his field of vision.

 

4

 

Roger Garfield listened to the plan as the stolen F-150 cruised down Highway 64 toward the small town of Cimarron. Returning to the site of the secret prison where they both had almost died seemed ludicrous at first, but the UW criminal justice professor certainly had a way with words. By the time they reached the halfway mark, the FBI agent was on board. He was going to become a mole.

 

“So, we go to where the conspiracy probably has a bunch of people, which is right in this neck of the woods. I hole us up in a barn or shed or abandoned house or something, and then I call the deputy director on your phone. I give a big rant about how you’re all traitors, and how I found out that you, special agent in charge Roger Garfield, was a traitor, too. I’ll make them think that you got recruited by someone for this whole shindig. Then, you turn the tables on me and cuff me. You call the deputy director for help, and he sends the goons we want.”

 

“And what do we do when they get to us?” Garfield asked nervously.

 

“An ambush, buddy. They’ll be sending a bunch of yesterday’s Home Guard rejects. We get the drop on ‘em, tie ‘em up, and start working up the chain. Their phones’ call logs will be their undoing.”

 

The pickup crested a rise and then descended into the small town of Cimarron, which was nestled in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo mountains. Spotting an abandoned house, the professor vowed to make things look realistic. Before Garfield could protest, the truck was throttled over the dead front yard and scrunched, noisily, into the weathered porch. “Jesus! People will hear!” Garfield exclaimed.

 

“Quickly, then,” the burly prof said. The men exited the cab of the truck and staggered up onto the porch. The front door was unlocked, and they soon found themselves inside a den of musty yesteryear. After a bit of poking around, the duo determined that the home had been abandoned for at least five years. Garfield settled onto a threadbare couch with an old National Geographic while the professor made a call to the Denver office of the FBI deputy director.

 

“You’re one pathetic son of a bitch,” the professor said as soon as the call was answered. Impressive start, Garfield thought as he read about DNA recombination. He wondered how his wife and children were doing, and felt guilty for not contacting them yet.

 

“Yeah, I’ve got Garfield here. He’s another one of you fucking traitors. Bad-mouthing the president, all that. He wants to make profit off the MIST, says it should be regulated and sold to those who can ‘appreciate it,’ he says. I ought to put a bullet in him. I thought he was one of the good guys, but he’s just like you.” The professor’s rant continued, and Garfield began wondering where he might procure something to drink. I wish there was bottled water around here.

 

Quietly, Garfield got up off the couch and tiptoed into the decrepit kitchen as the Wyomingite in the living room continued his rant. Though the electricity had long been shut off, water still ran from the sink. After a streak of reddish-brown liquid spat from the faucet, Garfield turned the handle to off and firmly decided against trying the water. Moments later, as the FBI agent poked through the pantry for bottled water, the ranting in the other room ended.

 

“That went really well,” the professor said, his voice a bit hoarse from all the pontificating. “I got your corrupt boss all riled up. He vowed all sorts of fire and brimstone.”

 

“Jesus! Aren’t you worried that they’ll come for your family? You’ve got kids, man!”

 

“Don’t freak out, Rog. I’m a criminal justice professor, remember? The deputy director and his cronies will play this as quietly as possible, especially since they know I have his phone. They may have put out an APB, but they won’t name me by name. And after what happened a few months ago, I told my wife to take the family out of town in the event of another crisis. This shit usually happens in multiples, you know.”

 

Suitably impressed, Garfield agreed that his friend’s plan was acceptable. “So now what? When do we pull the switcheroo and put me on the phone?”

 

“We’ll wait at least a few hours. But we’ve got to make it look real for when the goons swoop in. Roger, I need you to hit me in the face.”

 

5

 

The police detective walked swiftly and silently, his feet shod in running shoes rather than the more traditional loafers. With the whole north side of the city losing its mind, the young man knew there was little chance that his absence from normal duty would be noticed. As he slunk up the walkway to the nondescript ranch-style house, enjoying the mature oaks that cut the sun’s August rays, he felt for a key in his windbreaker pocket. While some passers-by would question the wisdom of a windbreaker in the simmering heat, the detective knew that most drivers on the adjacent street were focused on rushing back to the office from lunch. He kept his hands in his jacket pockets, lest anyone notice the leather gloves.

 

He unlocked the front door of the small house and rushed inside, his days as a college athlete flooding back to his muscles. Lithe and agile, he spun through room after room with pistol drawn, searching for his target. He had memorized the layout of the safehouse, about which nobody in his pay grade should have known. Someone had sent it to him, anonymously, from a one-time-use email address.

 

Damn. Not here.

 

As silently as he had arrived, the young detective departed. The house had been dark and still, likely unused for a week or more. A thick layer of dust had collected on flat surfaces, and nothing had broken the cloying smell of industrial-grade cleaners. He wondered if his contact had been wrong about the doctor being taken here.

 

The cop slipped back into his unmarked Dodge Charger and turned the key. The engine cranked, but would not start. God damn it! Angrily, he pulled the handle near the accelerator pedal and popped the hood, preparing himself for a look at the engine. If he had to call for a department mechanic, he would have to come up with a story to explain why his duty vehicle was parked in front of a secret safehouse. Better take off the damned windbreaker.

 

He was in the middle of wrestling off the windbreaker when old detective Watterson ripped open the car door and fired twin barbs from a taser into his abdomen. Despite his athletic prowess and iron will, the young cop writhed helplessly from the unexpected voltage coursing through his core. Still, he managed to lash out with a well-muscled arm and grab Watterson’s button-down. An instant later, Watterson’s non-taser arm swung a happy slapper into the young man’s temple, and he saw stars.

 

“Fuck,” the corrupt detective croaked. Watterson hit him again, and unconsciousness turned out the lights.

 

Behind Watterson, the rear door of an old Toyota 4-Runner began to open. “Stay in the car!” the old lieutenant gasped, his heart pounding from the excitement and exertion. The door closed again as the internist decided that it was indeed unsafe on the street. Whoever had sent the young cop to assassinate the doctor was likely nearby, and Watterson prayed that the puppet-master wasn’t looking through the scope of a rifle.

 

Quickly, Watterson grabbed the unconscious detective under his armpits and pulled him out of the sedan, straining more heavily than he had in years. I’m gonna feel this tomorrow. Probably messed up my back. Ignoring his shrieking muscles and aching spine, he dragged his corrupt colleague across the blacktop and opened the back door of the Toyota. “Help me here,” he told the doctor, who obligingly grabbed the young cop’s lapels with both hands. Working together, they managed to heave their quarry onto the bench seat.

 

“I should’ve known they would try to kill me,” the doctor muttered as he used a syringe to ensure long-term sedation of the captured man. Up front, Watterson clambered into the driver’s seat and fired up the old SUV. As the grizzled detective had explained it, the 4-Runner was an unregistered gift from an acquaintance who owed him a favor. The anti-establishment acquaintance had outfitted his “bug out” vehicle with fake license plates and a cloned VIN, rendering it the perfect ride for eluding surveillance.

 

The ride was less than smooth, but Watterson did not plan on remaining in the city. There were plenty of places at the end of dusty county roads where he could find out everything the young assassin knew.

 

6

 

The nightmare had begun in Whitney’s driveway and grown to encompass her entire world. First, she had heard the gunshot from her respite in the master bedroom. Numb from crying, she had hoarsely yelled for Michael to grab Ava and come to her. Thankfully, the boy had moved quickly and not asked questions, rushing audibly through the house with his young sister in a protective embrace. “Want me to get Dad’s gun?” he asked, his voice serious and his eyes scared.

 

“No, just sit on the floor by the bed,” she replied, her heart racing. She knew that Hank kept his reserve deputy handgun in a special compartment in his nightstand. On shaky legs, she walked around to his side of the bed and accessed the compartment. Using skills she had learned from her mother, she checked the clip and clicked off the safety.

 

“Stay here. I’ll check it out. Call 9-1-1 on my phone and report the gunshot, okay?” Michael set Ava down on a floor-bound throw pillow and grabbed his mother’s cell phone. Whitney slipped her feet back into her sneakers and walked, shoelaces flopping, to the front door. Peering outside, she saw a semicircle of armed men in biohazard suits standing around the driver’s side of her Jeep. What the hell?

 

The men moved closer around a prone body, which lay on the concrete in civilian clothes. Suddenly, like a cat, an arm lashed out and swept a CBW-suited man off his feet. The man in civilian clothes sprang up and knocked an assault rifle from someone’s hands. There was yelling, flailing, and then shooting. “Michael, get down!” Whitney yelled. She ran back to the bedroom, praying that no stray bullets would enter her house.

 

In the bedroom, she closed and locked the door. “Cops are coming,” Michael said quickly, his voice filled with terror. “Here, the operator is still on the line.” Whitney took the phone and began explaining everything she had seen to a middle-aged woman. With the routine punctuation of three-round bursts outside, she struggled to make the 9-1-1 operator understand what was going on. It sounds crazy. She probably thinks that it’s some sort of drug deal gone bad and I’m out of my mind on drugs.

 

Putting the call on speaker, Whitney set the phone and pistol down and pulled her two children close to her. Whispering prayers, she hugged them and waited for the police to show up. She waited, and waited, and waited. The shooting stopped, voices could be heard, and shooting would start again. Emails, Facebook messages, and texts from her neighbors lit up her phone screen. The 9-1-1 call disconnected as other calls overwhelmed the system.

 

She heard someone enter the house and close the door behind him. Hank. Thank God. Footsteps approached the bedroom, and Whitney climbed to her feet. Instead of Hank unlocking the bedroom door with the key that rested atop the door frame, a booted foot kicked it in. Standing in the doorway was a man who was not Hank Hummel. As Michael gasped and clutched Ava, Whitney dove for the pistol on the carpet.

 

Though she moved fast, the man in the doorway moved faster. The blond city police officer kicked the gun away and grabbed Whitney’s upper arm with a powerful, thrumming hand. “Not today, ma’am,” he said jovially. “Violence is never the answer. Besides, bullets won’t do much to me now. I’ve got too much life inside of me!”

 

“What do you want?!” Whitney spat. Her mind reeled, and she began putting together the pieces.

 

“I need some bargaining chips, and you’ll get Hank to come straight to me. I’m putting together a nice little MIST monopoly, and competition is bad for business.”

 

7

 

“We’ve got an officer down!” someone yelled, and Lucifer saw without opening his eyes. He zoomed in on a distant police car, parked on the outside of the metal scrum of vehicles, and saw a group of uniformed men and women standing around a prone, shirtless body. Someone took that officer’s uniform. And did so quickly enough that nobody nearby even noticed. Like Flash Gordon. Or Ben. Ben!

 

Lucifer’s MIST went from neutral to howling in a microsecond. Nothing in the world was more evil than Ben, the Russian rogue who thought of nothing but profit. He must be stopped immediately.

 

Fortunately, none of the men in the sophisticated suits had considered the possibility that Lucifer’s consciousness could have remained in the original host. Although the .308 shell through his throat was easily lethal to a normal man, the MIST was strong enough to overcome the horrific wound. Within seconds, it had begun forming a lifesaving lattice. Seconds later, it had allowed him to fight back with superhuman strength.

 

He had lain low when the second team of men had arrived, and they had swiftly turned on each other out of confusion and fear. When the local authorities had begun arriving en masse, he had played possum once more, buying time to regain his strength. Someone did walk past me and into the house. Was it just a local cop checking on the Hummel residence? Lucifer cursed himself for his stupidity. The footsteps passing between him and the house had belonged to Ben.

 

I must still be weak. I should have felt him, detected him.

 

Lucifer used his extraordinary senses to detect the scene around his apparently-lifeless body. Paramedics, firefighters, and local law enforcement ran to and fro. Some of the dead and wounded had been removed, but others were still being inspected. Radios were squawking and people were yelling. Lucifer searched around, looking for a tool he could use.

 

There is an M4 under the Jeep. It clattered under there and none of the first responders have seen it. Opening his eyes, Lucifer rolled over and reached out an arm. His senses sang and blood pounded through his veins. He grabbed the rifle and pulled it out from underneath the SUV. He stood and checked the magazine, discovering plenty of ammunition.

 

“Sir! Drop the weapon!” Someone has noticed.

 

Lucifer began firing and weaving, carbine tucked firmly into his shoulder, scattering police officers in all directions. The rest of the world was moving in slow motion. Returned fire decimated the body panels and windows of the Jeep, but he avoided it deftly. Within seconds, a small army of local cops and deputies had taken cover behind their cruisers. Lucifer crouched behind the hood of the Jeep, plotting his next move.

 

Do not give them time to think. Right now, they are terrified and unknowing.

 

If Ben walked past me and into the house, without having to force the front door, he likely left that door unlocked behind him. I did not hear a lock click. Get to the door, and I can face my adversary.

 

Using up the last of his ammunition, Lucifer spun from behind the Jeep and raked fire across a line of idling cruisers. Glass flew and metal squealed. Before a return salvo could be made, he darted to the front door and ripped it open. Bullets slammed into the brick and wood as he slipped inside, the confines of the front porch protecting him from most of the gunfire. Still, he felt one bullet punch through his bicep and another slice through his thigh.

 

Dropping to a knee, he spun around and kicked the front door shut behind him. As it closed, he rocked back on his haunches and used a free hand to click home the deadbolt. A few more bullets scarred the porch, but then the shooting stopped. Somewhere high above, a helicopter approached, its rotors whuffing the hot summer air.

 

The house was quiet. Where is Ben? Where is Hank’s family?

 

A French bulldog emerged from a hallway and snarled at Lucifer, nails clicking on the stained concrete floor. Looking around, Lucifer saw that the back door of the house was slightly ajar. They left through the back. He stood and checked his rifle, discovering that he had no more bullets. Walking through the living room, he felt his upper arm and quadriceps burning and tingling as the MIST scaffolded and closed his wounds.

 

The dog ran to block his path, apparently protecting the kitchen. Lucifer reversed the rifle in his hands and prepared to bring the butt of the weapon down on the little critter’s head. Suddenly, the back door swung open and Hank Hummel stood in the doorway.

 

“Touch that dog and I’ll kill you,” the college instructor growled, his eyes glowing yellow in the dim kitchen. He held a pistol in his left hand.

 

8

 

The explosions tore through the University of Wyoming campus thirty-six minutes after the lunch rush died down at the student union. Two large trucks, carrying tarpaulin-covered equipment from the secret MIST labs, detonated simultaneously as they drove past the Human Capital Market building. A split second later, most of the third floor of the Engineering Building exploded in deafening fireballs. Immediately, the campus went into lockdown.

 

A call was sent from federal agents on the ground, who were overseeing the transfer of MIST equipment to Washington, to the private line of the president himself.

 

“False flag is a go, sir. The simulation was a success.”

 

“Any injuries?” the president asked, his voice anxious.

 

“No, sir. Trucks were being run on driverless mode. Buildings were all evacuated. Data going through HumCap had been routed to secondary servers in the bunkers as of twenty minutes ago.” The president could be heard breathing a sigh of relief.

 

None of the vital equipment had been destroyed, only generic things like vacuum pumps, fans, office computers, and random scientifica gleaned from the university’s other labs. To anyone who was part of the MIST conspiracy, however, it would appear that irreplaceable machinery and computers had gone up in flames. Hopefully, those men and women would blow their cover by placing frantic phone calls to their contacts.

 

“Make sure you have eyes and ears on all suspects. When someone slips off or acts funny, I want it reported. They’ll be trying to make those calls soon, no doubt about it. I’m in a fucking pickle because we haven’t been able to pick up any of the MIST hosts!” The nation’s chief executive sounded close to a nervous breakdown.

 

The call ended and the undercover agent slipped the phone back into her leather bag. Disguised as a university professor, she hurried through the halls of the Arts & Sciences Building with dusty tomes of Russian history tucked under the crook of her elbow. That particular building, due to its central location, allowed her to see most of the campus’ hustle and bustle when she was on the top floor.

 

Pausing at a window, she used her phone camera to record images of students and faculty streaming east on Prexy’s Pasture, headed off campus as the alarms blared. Campus cops directed the migration, yelling and pointing. Switching from camera mode to an app that appeared to represent a popular coffee chain, the faux professor began watching her own personnel moving about on a digital map.

 

None of the men and women on her team knew they were being tracked – such secrets were simply part of the game of working in field intel.

 

As expected, at least one dot was out of place. Valerie Vick, a thirtysomething former lawyer and interrogation whiz from Des Moines, was out of rotation and using her personal cell phone. Got one. She’s reporting in to someone, wondering what the hell those explosions were about. Ducking her head to her collar, the Russophile used her lapel mic to send a trio of large male door-busters to apprehend agent Vick. Then, she thought better of it.

 

“Negative on that arrest. Surveillance only. Once we cuff her, she’ll clam up. We’ve got limited time before the stolen MIST goes sideways, so we can’t risk having our first break in the case play the quiet game.”

 

“Roger that,” one of the door-busters replied, his voice like a lumberjack. While the professorial agent knew about the mysterious kidnapping of agent Roger Garfield, her immediate supervisor at the Denver office, that information had been withheld from anyone below her pay grade. Some agents had been dispatched to search the home of a renowned criminal justice professor, but that had also been kept hush-hush. It’s not good when there’s so many secrets, the agent thought to herself as she climbed down the stairs to the second floor. Things start to spin out of control.

 

9

 

The man in black purchased more dry ice in the small town of Balmorhea, but felt a sense of foreboding when he looked at the glass cylinders of MIST. Normally sedate, the nanoparticles were swirling faster than usual. Law of increasing entropy, he thought. This stuff can only be contained for so long.

 

He thought about calling his wife, and his burner phone instantly dialed her number. Considerately, as if knowing that he was far away in the driver’s seat, the device automatically set itself on speaker mode. “Hello?” she asked, her voice coy. He started the engine and dove into the recesses of his mind, searching for the words that would work. Months ago, he would have been curt and simplistic. Now, thanks to the technological marvel infusing his grey matter, he could even recall high school poetry.

 

“It’s me, angel. I’ve missed you, you know,” he soothed. He had not talked like that during the entire last year of their marriage. I was too harsh. I see that now. A woman needs connection, tenderness. He cruised slowly down the highway, the historic town halved on either side. Despite the fact that the entire United States government was searching for him, presumably with orders to shoot to kill, he was entirely focused on this maddening woman. I must win her back.

 

“They told me what you did,” she said. The man in black smiled as his wife asked him about the story of his noble heroism, which had been fed to her by the conspiracy’s silver-tongued spokespeople. They did come through on that. Probably even got her therapist on board. Lord knows they managed to bribe everyone else.

 

Hanging an unexpected left, he drove toward Balmorhea Lake. There, where the conspiracy would not be expecting him, he could talk and plan. He knew that advance personnel had undoubtedly begun infiltrating Balmorhea State Park, setting traps for his arrival. “I just want out of the business, Mary. I want to be a family again.” Though he did not feel emotional, he made his voice anguished. His voice control was award-worthy.

 

“They said we could come visit you,” his ex-wife said. “Your daughter misses you.” My daughter. She never said it like that before.

 

He begged her to come see him. He promised that he was a changed man. As he parked the Charger next to the lake, the heat shimmering off the water’s still surface, he swore that it would be a changed world. A new world. “Things more amazing than you could possibly imagine are coming, Mary. I want you by my side for it.”

 

Mary agreed. “I love you,” he said. He meant it. Oh, how he meant it.

 

“I love you, too,” she said softly. “I’ll tell them to bring us to you.”

 

The man in black used the phone number he been given to call a number in New Mexico. From his Internet search, he had deduced that the number connected to someone in or around the town of Ruidoso. “This is Richard Warren,” he said, identifying himself. “I was told you would be expecting my call. I need some phone numbers.”

 

10

 

“Ben has your family,” Adam Pastorius said from the mouth of the state trooper. Hank Hummel could see a shimmering silver mesh holding together the man’s throat. There were multiple other discernable wounds. Someone shot the hell out of this guy. Hummel warily focused on Pastorius’ assault rifle.

 

“Where did he take them?” Hummel asked. He did not know else what to say. Angrily, his French bulldog barked and snapped at Pastorius, who was not Pastorius.

 

“I would like to know the same thing. He must be destroyed.”

 

A phone began ringing from somewhere in the house. Quick as lightning, Hummel aimed his pistol at Pastorius’ head and demanded that the man retreat to the couch. “Drop the gun and sit down.” Surprisingly, the world’s deadliest terrorist did exactly that, letting the M4 clatter to the concrete.

 

“As you wish, old friend.”

 

Hummel approached the sound of the phone, keeping the gun steadily aimed at the intruder’s head. I don’t know how much a head shot will do, but it doesn’t look like they’ve hit him there yet. It might be the magic key.

 

The ringing was coming from the bathroom. Hummel opened the door and saw his son bound and gagged on the floor, tears streaming from his eyes. Ignoring the psychopath on his couch, Hummel rushed to his son and removed the wadded t-shirt from the boy’s mouth. “It’s okay,” he whispered. “I’m here, Michael. I’m here. It’s okay.”

 

“He took Mom, and Ava,” Michael cried. “I tried to stop him. I’m sorry, Dad.” The boy was battered and bruised, likely from being callously thrown across a room by the MIST-augmented madman. The phone rang again, and it turned out that the device was in the breast pocket of Michael’s polo.

 

“He put my phone in there,” Michael moaned as his father grabbed it.

 

“This is Hank Hummel.” The caller was his wife’s number, but Hank had a horrible suspicion that it was not she who was calling.

 

“Hank, Hank, Hank,” said Boris Elkanovitch from another man’s body. “I’m glad I finally got ahold of you.”

 

“If you harm them, I will make you suffer,” Hummel promised, his voice vicious.

 

“I just want you, Hank. Once you come to me, to the right place, I’ll let them go. They mean nothing to me. I need you…and Hector Rodriguez. If you come alone, I’ll let little Ava go free. Bring Hec with you, and your wife gets to go free as well.”

 

“Where do I go?”

 

Hank’s phone suddenly announced the presence of a new call. Somehow, the malignant force known as Ben knew about it. “Let’s put that new call on three-way, shall we?”

 

Numb, aware of little but Adam Pastorius standing still behind him, Hummel answered the incoming call. It’s Whitney. He’s going to have Whitney talk to me. He felt a sudden bolt of emotion, fearing that she would be in tears.

 

“Hello, Hank,” a man said. The voice was vaguely familiar, as if he had heard it once before. Long ago, perhaps.

 

“Do I know you?” Hank asked. The outside world, which included a veritable army massing outside his house, ceased to exist. Everything seemed focused on this single phone call. “You sound familiar.”

 

“I tried to kill you once, several years ago. You had impressive moves for a teacher. I guess I always assumed that our paths would cross again, me needing to finish what I started and all that.”

 

“What do you want?” Hank snapped. His heart buzzed and hummed and his fingertips tingled. He could practically feel electricity sparking from them.

 

As Michael and Adam Pastorius watched silently, almost like extras in a play, Hummel received directions. From somewhere nearby, for he could not have gotten far, Ben listened silently. After some instruction, the mystery man announced: “And, as for the other man listening in on this call, I would like to meet you as well. I feel that a summit of our kind would be mutually beneficial.”

 

“I know who you are,” Ben replied, his tone angry. “I made you what you are. You should have died on the pavement.”

 

“So you are too afraid to meet me?” the man asked, his voice weary and resigned. “I should have figured as much.”

 

Though the reverse psychology was crude, Hank knew that Ben would never be able to resist the challenge, whatever it was. He was not disappointed. Ben announced that he would go to Balmorhea. “We should talk,” the mysterious man urged. “Don’t call us,” Ben replied over the line. “We’ll call you.” With that, both callers hung up and Hank Hummel was left holding a lifeless phone.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Seven

 

1

 

Evening settled across east Texas as the Harris County Sheriff’s Department responded to the single-vehicle accident reported by passers-by. “We’ve got four deceased,” a deputy said through his radio, “and it ain’t pretty.” The accident investigator quickly announced that the van must have been doing at least sixty when it impacted. “Nobody could have survived,” the mustachioed man surmised. “But I don’t know why they went off the road. Nothing wrong with the tires, axles, or brakes.”

 

“Must’ve been an animal in the road,” a young deputy guessed. She pointed at a deer down at the bottom of the ravine, indicating that there was an abundance of crash-causing fauna around.

 

“Boss, we got a problem,” a crime tech reported, joining the scrum of uniformed officers. “We just checked the bodies and the van and found zero ID. Zip, nothing, nada. No paperwork in the van, either.”

 

“Must be drug runners,” the accident investigator sighed. “Tag ‘em and bag ‘em. I’ll do the write-up.”

 

“And there’s something else,” the tech said nervously. “We found a wallet that wasn’t on the bodies, and doesn’t match any of the victims.” With a gloved hand, he held out a Texas driver’s license. The investigator flipped open the billfold and began looking at cards.

 

“Carl Hummel, organ donor. CPA, CFP, works for a big firm. Holy shit, this guy has been in the news.” A deputy ran the name on her tablet and announced that there was an APB for Carl Hummel, with a request for the man to be immediately placed in contact with the White House if located. “And it’s not just him, but his brother also. And a third man, a police lieutenant from Midland. I’ve never seen an alert of this type, asking them to be placed in phone or video contact immediately. It’s bizarre.”

 

“Well, we better call the White House and tell them that we found Carl Hummel’s wallet in a crashed van. Since his body’s not here, he must have been thrown clear. Send some unis to check the ravine.”

 

“We got a lot of guns in ankle holsters over here,” a tech called out, and the investigator hurried over. One of the bodies, which had been maneuvered onto a gurney, had a pant leg hiked up. Gingerly, a young man pulled a slim pistol from the corpse’s boot. “I’ve never seen this model before.”

 

“I’ve seen it before,” an older deputy growled. He slipped his hands into gloves and took the gun from his colleague. “This is a Barker .38, a rare piece used in black ops. CIA, Delta, that sort. I learned about them when I was in Army intel. It’s built for easy concealment and use in sub-optimal conditions.”

 

“So this isn’t the type of gun some run-of-the-mill drug pushers would have?” the accident investigator asked. He had pulled out his pad of paper and begun writing.

 

“Certainly not. I’ve never heard of one being owned by a civilian. Combine that gun with this serious tactical clothing, and I’d say that these four bodies were all professionals. These guys are wearing body armor, they’ve all got buzz cuts, and they’re military fit. I bet dollars to donuts that we’ll see some of the usual tats when we cut off their clothes.”

 

A call came over the radio network that a disheveled blond man had hijacked a pickup truck near mile marker 113 and left the driver unharmed by the side of the road. “Suspect reportedly said that he needed the vehicle, but made no threats. Victim’s wallet was in the center console. Vehicle is a late-model Nissan Titan, dark blue, with New Mexico plates. Suspect is Caucasian, approximately five-nine to five-eleven, muscular, two hundred pounds, early thirties to early forties.” Looking at the driver’s license from the found leather billfold, all deputies on scene agreed that the suspect was indeed Carl Hummel.

 

2

 

Nobody spoke as the man staggered up the street, his eyes wild and his hands flexing. “What happened?!” he yelled at the uniformed men and women standing around him. “Someone tell me!” Nobody dared move, and Hector Rodriguez knew that they feared him. They can see that I’m no longer mortal. I’m their worst nightmare, something uncontrollable.

 

He ran to his house and saw that the garage door had been knocked outward from the wall. His wife’s Tahoe had been driven completely through the door, which lay shattered on his driveway and front lawn. Bits of red taillight sprinkled the concrete. He got away. “Why did nobody stop them?!” he yelled. Everyone looked away, ashamed.

 

Hector ran into his home, and darted from room to room, searching. His wife lay at the base of the kitchen bar, her eyes dull and breathing ragged. “The kids?” he asked, unable to breathe.

 

“They’re okay,” his wife rasped, her voice shaky. “They were hiding.” He ran to her and held her. He wanted his emotions to work, but they would not. A digital filter blocked them, and he hated it.

 

“He had Whitney and Ava,” she said. “He was holding Ava, so Whitney had no choice but to follow him. He pushed me aside and I fell.”

 

“I’ll stop him,” Hector promised. “I will get them back.”

 

“You came back for us,” she said. She was crying. “Don’t go. If you go, you won’t come back. I know it. I know it!”

 

Emotion broke through the filter, and Hector started crying as well. “If I don’t go, he will be the one who returns. He must be stopped.”

 

“Let Hank do it.”

 

“He can’t do it alone.”

 

Silently, Hector Rodriguez held his wife and rocked back and forth. He hummed the song from their wedding, years ago. His children did not come out from their rooms, but he did not blame them. He had left, had intended never to come back. When he had heard on his police scanner what was going on, he had rushed back home.

 

They know I will not stay. Cannot stay. Can I not, or will I not?

 

He rocked his wife and told her how much he loved her, and how he would love her forever and for always. Eventually, she curled up and put her arms around him, resting her head in his lap. He wiped away the tears as he talked, knowing that he could not let his tears touch her. Then she would be like him, forever different.

 

“Remember me as I was, angel. Not like this, okay? Not while I was changing.”

 

“You are still the man I love, Hec. This is not your fault. This is nobody’s fault. I know that. You didn’t want this to happen.”

 

“I’ll stay,” he said. “I’ll go to the lab. We can be together, the whole family.”

 

“I know you don’t want us to be together like that, not really together at all,” his wife murmured. “I love you, Hector. I love you so, so much. Promise me you’ll come back to us somehow, in some way.”

 

She knows I will die. She knows.

 

“I promise.” His voice cracked. “I’ll always be watching over you.”

 

“He said he was going to Balmorhea. Before he pushed me. He said he knew you would come.” Her voice was weak, and he knew she needed a doctor. She closed her eyes, and he grew scared.

 

“Tell them I love them,” he said, and gently carried her to the couch. With the MIST in his muscles, delivering amplified impulses and deleting fatigue, she seemed to weigh hardly anything. She knew he meant their children, and she nodded. Concussion. She has a concussion.

 

“I love you,” were the last words he whispered to her. He walked out the front door of his house and yelled that a doctor was needed inside. Dozens of eyes stared at him as he bounded down the sidewalk, leaving the front door open behind him. He climbed into a Dodge Charger cruiser that had been left with its driver’s door open. Nobody spoke. A medical team from one of the many ambulances silently rushed into the house through the open front door.

 

Hector Rodriguez closed the door and put the car into gear. He did not turn on the lights or the siren. Smoothly, he motored out into the open street and headed for the highway. Behind him, nobody spoke.

 

3

 

The goons arrived just as the sun dipped below the mountaintops, making the shadows long and ominous. As expected, most of them were recent ex-Home Guardsmen, toughs who had been working at the secret prison four miles to the west until it had burned down. “He’s in the bedroom,” Roger Garfield wheezed. “I got him cuffed.” As the men congratulated him for his bravery and promised to get him all squared away, Garfield steeled himself for the violence he was about to commit.

 

On the remains of a formerly impressive king-sized bed sat the big criminal justice professor, a black eye forming on his sweaty and bruised face. The man’s arms were behind his back.

“You fellas don’t need your guns,” Garfield assured them. On the decrepit mattress, the guy looked defeated and harmless. Several of the former Home Guardsmen slid their pistols back into their hip holsters while a pair of young guys went to grab their prisoner’s upper arms.

 

Just as the men reached him, the professor utilized the moves he had been practicing for hours, striking the young hotheads in the groin and lower stomach with hard, rapid punches. Surprised, the other former Guardsmen did not know how to react, and audibly wondered what the hell was going on. Sliding a piece of rebar into his hand from the forearm of his button-down, Roger Garfield swung the metal into the skull of the largest goon present.

 

With the criminal justice professor tapping into his gang unit days in the bedroom and the grey-haired FBI agent using a metal bar like a Louisville Slugger in the living room, the mass of poorly-trained Home Guardsmen milled about in angry, terrified confusion. As soon as guns were drawn, both Garfield and the prof dropped to their knees and withdrew Garfield’s pistols from their socks. “Drop your weapons!” Garfield yelled, hearkening back to his days at Quantico. “Do it now!” roared the professor, his days in the LAPD giving him tremendous volume.

 

Despite outnumbering the two fiftysomething men by a factor of five, the hired guns dropped their weapons. Of the ten who had arrived at the abandoned house, five had been rendered ineffective by the time guns were drawn – three had been floored by the six-foot-five academic and two had fallen under Garfield’s rebar. The remaining five had determined, in a split second, that they were not being paid enough to risk life and limb.

 

Garfield kicked three guns into distant corners and grabbed a fourth for himself, keeping a wary eye on the stunned Guardsmen the entire time. “Anybody move and I blow your balls off,” the professor growled. He stuck Garfield’s throwdown .32 revolver into a young man’s temple as he searched for phones and other electronics. Moving from man to man, the prof quickly accumulated a handful of cell phones and tablets.

 

“My guess is that the people who sent you will be looking to inflict some punishment since the ten of you failed to bring in two old guys. Talk, and we can make a deal to protect those who speak up. Play tough guys, and we blow this Popsicle stand and leave you to take the heat. Someone has fifteen seconds to speak up.”

 

4

 

As day turned to dusk, the Diplomat snuggled in his cabin and watched his bank of computer monitors as the mercenaries attacked the armored train. The mercenaries, gathered using the vast conspiracy’s entire reserve of funds, consisted primarily of cartel hitters and former members of Mexico’s Fuerzas Especiales. The cartel bosses knew that the attack was a suicide mission, and thus sent only the men they wished to be rid of.

 

Fifteen seconds after go time, a rocket-propelled grenade struck the sixth car of the unmarked train, turning the western sunset into a shooting range on steroids. Hidden cameras, placed by highly-ranked conspirators, zoomed in on the action and captured, in high definition, Delta operators picking off targets. Emergency calls through the 9-1-1 system and law enforcement radio network were rerouted by a highly-paid conspirator, going directly to the Diplomat’s encrypted server. Listening through headphones and using voice-disguising software, the Diplomat assured all callers that the situation was being handled immediately. Within minutes, he had fielded radio and telephone calls from Alpine city cops, Brewster County sheriff’s deputies, Texas state troopers, and dozens of concerned highway motorists.

 

“We are bringing up the main body to attack,” an electronic voice said, cutting through the main headphone chatter. On one of his monitors, the Diplomat saw a tremendous swarm of dots heading toward the train, most of the dots of the size and color to indicate off-road vehicles. Jesus, they must have spent all their money on this. This is it, the entire budget, right here in this goddamn Pickett’s Charge.

 

“This is Border Patrol station Alpha Kilo, and we’ve discovered agents down at point-”

 

Quickly, the Diplomat pressed a button to change his voice to a new version and soothed the angry Border Patrol agent. “Who is this? Where’s Frank?” the agent demanded. “We’ve got a situation here!”

 

“I’m Jules Rosenberg, new transfer to the El Paso office,” the Diplomat replied, looking at his handwritten cheat sheet. “I’m already sending your information to Austin and D.C.”

 

“Four dead, execution style, and there’s a shitload of tire tracks! Fuck!” The agent at the Alpine office was freaking out. Take charge, the Diplomat thought, and instructed the man to contact the Brewster County Sheriff’s Office. “They will assist with the investigation until the El Paso office can send investigators,” he said. “Would you like me to send the deputies to your location?”

 

“Yes, please,” the flustered Border Patrol agent responded, and the Diplomat ended the call. He texted a message to conspirators who would help cover things up, posing as hardworking deputies of Brewster Country. As soon as he hit send, he returned his focus to the battle unfolding on his many monitors. The off-road vehicles were starting to reach the highway, where they were meeting stiff resistance from what appeared to be automatic defense systems on the train. A hidden camera revealed a flash and then an exploding Hummer H2.

 

Train has missiles, the Diplomat texted to his employers. This attack will fail quickly.

 

Explosions lit up the sky as the main line of vehicles tried crossing the pavement. In the maelstrom, a few made it through. Now it’s man-to-man, the Diplomat thought, pulling his sweater tighter around his arms. Although it was not yet autumn, the altitude of Ruidoso meant the impending night was chilly.

 

Zooming his hidden cameras, the Diplomat watched as some ex-Fuerzas Especiales approached the train on foot and were picked off by a pistol-wielding Delta operator. More attackers followed, having survived the missile barrages against their vehicle armada. Quickly, the president’s men upgraded from pistols to submachine guns. Moments later, a small scrum of attackers actually made it to the train itself, and a man reached out and touched the side of the train. The Diplomat watched as an arc of electricity flung the man off the metal.

 

Train is electrified, he texted. Only Deltas know where to climb on and off w/o getting zapped.

 

Minutes later, the attack was over. On the map, all the dots were immobile, indicating dead or dying men. From the Diplomat’s estimation, the Delta defenders of the armored train had not lost a single person. One monitor revealed that a scanner had picked up approximately four hundred messages between the train and the Pentagon during the minutes-long assault, and the Diplomat felt his chest tighten. It was now or never time. President Sanders would be coming hard, and all members of the MIST conspiracy were now unquestionably guilty of treason.

 

5

 

Fueled by donuts and coffee, detective William Watterson and his informant, experienced internist Dr. Bob Boarin, rolled through Midland’s dark streets. The young detective had talked eagerly and given up everything with little persuasion. Of course, it’s hard to play strong and silent when you’ve got a 9mm set to shoot off your kneecap, Watterson thought. “We might need to make this an all-nighter, doc. Starbucks sound good?”

 

“What do you mean, all-nighter?” the internist asked nervously. “I thought I was going to see my wife and kids!”

 

“Well, they’re safe for now. I know who’s watching ‘em, and he’s five-by. But our wannabe assassin just revealed that there are a whole bunch of cops who aren’t quite kosher. If we don’t help shut down this madness, the bad guys will still be out there to come after you and your family in the future. The way I figger, we’re in it ‘til the fat lady sings.” The doctor sunk lower in his seat, scowling at that explanation. “Hey, cheer up, sawbones! The more time you spend helping me, the less likely you are to spend time in prison.”

 

The mention of avoiding prison suddenly made the Stanford-trained internist more agreeable. Boarin made a pumpkin spice joke, and he and Watterson debated when Starbucks would be rolling out the iconic fall flavor for the year. By the time they reached the coffee shop next to the supermarket, they had both agreed that September first was the likeliest date.

 

“Venti black coffee, as hot as you can make it,” Watterson demanded from the driver’s seat of the 4-Runner. “What’ll it be, doc?” The doc wanted a quad espresso, light splash of heavy whipping cream, five pumps of sugar free caramel syrup, and sugar free whip. “Don’t make fun,” the man said. “I won’t make fun, but that’s because you’re bankrolling this expedition,” Watterson explained. He held out a weathered hand, and the doctor put a MasterCard in it.

 

Coffees in hand, they rumbled out of the drive-thru. Boarin had told Watterson the name of his boss in the conspiracy, and the police lieutenant was unsurprised to learn that it was a prominent HumCap broker in town. Driving through residential streets, he watched the houses grow larger and more ornate in the headlights. After several minutes of driving, they pulled to a stop by a veritable mansion.

 

“And now you know why I told you to keep texting him and telling him things were copacetic. See? Our friendly broker hasn’t skipped town yet.” Watterson popped the top off his coffee and quickly dipped a finger into the liquid. It was piping hot, too hot for normal folks…but that was exactly what he had ordered. “Follow me, and no funny business.” Both men exited the SUV and walked up the pristine stone walkway to the front door.

 

Watterson rang the doorbell and sniffed the delicious aroma of his overpriced brew. He smiled when he saw a man approaching from behind the frosted glass. When the door opened and the handsome stockbroker smiled politely at him, he threw the steaming coffee in the man’s face. As the wealthy man clasped his hands to his face and wailed, Watterson grabbed him by his long-sleeved polo and pulled him out of the doorway. Sticking out a foot, he tripped the man and sent him sprawling onto the porch.

 

“Where is the conspiracy headquartered?! Tell me or you die!” Watterson screamed. As Dr. Boarin watched in shock, the policeman pulled his gun from his shoulder holster and jammed it into the stockbroker’s hair. The cocked the hammer and the broker whimpered.

 

“And then I’ll go inside and finish off your pretty little family,” Watterson snarled. Sniveling, the broker broke. Eyes screwed shut, face dripping coffee, the man insisted that he knew nothing. He tried to get to his knees, but the detective kicked him in his ribs and drove him back to the hardwood. Watterson noticed a cell phone in the man’s khakis and deftly swiped it, plucking it free from its fabric cave. It was an older model, not the sort you would expect a multimillionaire HumCap broker to be carrying.

 

“You don’t know nothin’, eh? Well, let’s see if that checks out. This is a burner phone, right? I’ll bet you were on this thing to communicate with your conspiracy buddies. It’s how they get in touch with you. If I check this thing and find out you were lying to me…” Watterson put a round through the porch, and Boarin wet his pants.

 

Blubbering, the broker changed his story. As the hammer cocked again, he announced that the MIST was scheduled to be collected in Balmorhea, with the brain trust behind the whole operation located in Fort Davis. Satisfied, Watterson closed the recording app on his phone and stuck his revolver back in its shoulder holster. He pulled a business card from inside his blazer and set it on the porch next to the distraught stockbroker. “Get in touch with this guy. He’s a good cop. Do it quick, because the conspiracy’s already unraveling and you’re bound to catch a bullet if you don’t turn yourself in.”

 

Sobbing, the man collapsed on the porch and clutched at the card. “Let’s go, doc,” Watterson said. “We’ve got a long drive to Fort Davis.”

 

6

 

The scientists had been examining the human remains pulled from the Silver Six satellite when the attack on the train had begun, disrupting their concentration. “All personal proceed to lockdown position,” came the booming announcement as all train cars sealed shut. Immediately, the computer guys began transmitting all collected data to Washington, unsure of whether or not they would be able to do so later. Minutes later, after the attack had been successfully repulsed, the intercom announced an all clear. Without a word, the Ph.Ds. returned to their work.

 

“Remains are too degraded for much analysis,” a medical doctor said into the recording mic. He held in his triple-gloved hands the unrecognizable head of the former president of the United States. “We’ve run all craniums through the scanners, but the intense heating and cooling experienced by each skull has essentially ruined the soft tissue.” He used a boring tool to collect a sample of brain tissue, whatever was left of it, and handed the sealed glass capsule off to an underling. Within seconds, the capsule was inside a scanning microscope.

 

“Only three builder cells in this sample, inactive, probably because of the cold temperature,” a doctor announced. The team’s specialized suits were heated to compensate for the liquid nitrogen temperatures, and the scientists had been assured that there was zero chance of being “infected” by any lingering MIST particles. Still, the men and women in the lab cars felt chilled, and tensions were high.

 

“That implies that the mass of nanites did indeed leave the host en masse, as was indicated by witnesses,” someone in the control car replied. “Does what you have seen so far corroborate that?” Several scientists replied through their helmet mics that the evidence did concur. “Any idea on the range of these nanites, once they have evacuated a host?” the disembodied voice queried.

 

“Judging by the speeds we’re seeing at the current temperature, coupled with Van der Waals forces and electromagnetism, I think less than ten feet,” the lead scientist in the car said, glancing at a computer monitor for reference. “We can double check in an isolation chamber that’s warmer.”

 

The final series of questions asked about destroying or deactivating the MIST particles. “We’re going to test out an EMP device,” the lead scientist answered. He directed a team of doctors to use the wheeled examination tables to move two of the bodies to the next car. Silently, the burnt and twisted bodies of Adam Pastorius and Boris Elkanovitch were wheeled down a metal corridor. A sliding door noisily unlocked and hissed open, revealing another frozen train car beyond. This new car was empty and had dim, recessed lighting.

 

Seconds later, both wheeled tables were next to each other and the doctors were retreating back to the laboratory car in their bulky suits. One of the doctors opened a locked cabinet and withdrew a device that looked like a bazooka attached to an extension cord. “The weapon gives a four hundred kV directional pulse,” the doctor said. “This morning, we converted if from a modernized Wimshurst machine. It has been strong enough to destroy builder nanites under the controlled conditions in car 4C.”

 

“Affirmative. See what it does to the remaining nanites in the bodies,” ordered control.

 

Leaving the sliding door cracked behind him, the doctor went into the second car and placed the butt of the high-tech bazooka to his shoulder. As a colleague held the thick extension cord, the doctor lined up his shot. With a loud crack, the device discharged, and Adam Pastorius’ corpse shook, jittered, and smoked. After a second, it lay still, smoldering.

 

“Damn, even with only a fraction of its former nanites, it’s still one hell of a show!” crowed the Army biomedical expert. “Scanners report ninety-nine percent deactivation,” reported control. “Good, but not good enough. And these nanites were near dead. How will this device work in the field?”

 

The scientists argued over their radios, but figured that multiple shots from their Wimshurst devices could effectively disable any human who had reached MIST symbiosis. “Well, hit it again. One more shot on Pastorius, then deliver two to Elkanovitch,” control decided. “Okay, but it will take time for this thing to recharge,” the doctor replied.

 

“How much time?” Control sounded unhappy, apparently not expecting such a delay.

 

“Three minutes. And that’s with this cord hooking us into the train’s power supply.” Cursing could be heard over the radio, and the scientists suddenly felt nervous. In the background of the radio chatter, someone could be heard ordering the design team at the Pentagon back to the drawing board.

 

7

 

“We’ve got an inbound bogey at nine thousand feet!” the adviser screamed as he ran into the Oval Office with his holographic tablet. Bolting to his feet, eyes wide, the president demanded to know who was attacking the White House. “Not here, the train! A fighter is headed toward Alpine, totally unapproved!” Swearing, the president picked up his red phone and demanded Air Force Central Command.

 

“Of course it’s not approved, the pilot has gone rogue!” someone from CentCom said. NORAD came on the line and reported that the jet was an F-22 out of Colorado. “Radar signature indicates that the plane is fully armed.” The president only breathed a partial sigh of relief when he was assured that the fighter could carry no WMD payload.

 

The commanding officer of the air base in Colorado entered the conversation in a panic, reporting that he had no knowledge of anything. “Son of a bitch just up and took off on his own!” the lieutenant general swore. “Guy’s always been a good pilot, no red flags whatsoever.” On the president’s wall-mounted monitor, a holographic display of USAF Captain James Whitmire appeared. The man was classically handsome, thirty-two years old, and a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy.

 

“Why the hell is he headed toward that train?!” the president roared in frustration. The Air Force general cut in and announced a possible motive: Whitmire had a young child with a rare neurodegenerative disorder. “Jesus, they must have promised to cure the child with MIST,” the adviser gasped, and the president ordered the young man from the room.

 

“The conspirators can recruit any scientist or soldier with a sick or dying family member,” the president moaned. “We’re fucked!”

 

“What do we do, sir? Shoot him down? He’ll be in range of the train in twenty minutes.” Taking a deep breath, the president confirmed that course of action. Still on the line, CentCom ordered fighters scrambled from Holloman Air Force Base. After listening to military chatter for a few minutes, the president finally convinced himself that his team was doing all it could. Reluctantly, he disconnected himself from the call.

 

The adviser knocked on the office door and told the president to turn on the nightly news. Sighing, the commander-in-chief fished his cell phone from his suit jacket and used its full-room sync feature to turn on the television. A seventy-inch holographic screen silently descended from the ceiling along the far wall, showing CNN, ABC, Fox News, and BBC in a quad. Toggling from one another, the president discovered that the recent incident near Alpine, Texas had become news.

 

“Border Patrol agents dead, a cartel gun battle near Sul Ross State University, and no explanation for the recent carnage at the University of Wyoming,” declared a somber Fox anchor. “Has the White House lost control of running the country?” The liberal media was only slightly less accusatory, with CNN questioning the president’s uncharacteristic silence over the past thirty-six hours. ABC news was running a report on how STITCH travel from east to west had been significantly reduced, and questioned why additional security procedures had suddenly been implemented.

 

“We are concerned as to why travel by road, rail, air, and STITCH has suddenly been subject to even more security than we saw after September 11,” a female anchor intoned, her face appearing genuinely sad. “Yet no federal agency has provided any reason for the heightened security. Passengers report having their trips to states in the West and upper Midwest scrutinized by TSA officers, with authorities appearing suspicious of any travelers headed to rural areas in west Texas, New Mexico, eastern Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming, western Nebraska, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Idaho, Nevada, Utah, eastern Oregon, and eastern Washington. Authorities in Canada and Mexico have confirmed that the U.S. State Department has almost entirely stopped issuing travel visas to those respective nations over the past twenty-four hours.”

 

ABC, now full screen, replaced the big-haired anchor with a map of the United States. The areas that had been previously referenced were highlighted in yellow. The anchor’s voice explained: “These remote areas, long known for being popular with avid outdoorsmen, small-government libertarians, ultraconservatives, and various fringe groups, have prompted rumors that the president’s administration is concerned about domestic terrorism originating from these regions.”

 

As a male journalist appeared on screen and began discussing an unexpected shortage of for-sale and rental properties in many of these rural locales, the president turned off the TV. Well, the story is finally breaking. We’re locked in now.

 

8

 

The man in black swam through the dark water, pulling the Styrofoam cooler behind him. As expected, the conspiracy had the state park surrounded, awaiting his arrival. He wondered if their mercenaries were ordered to shoot on sight, or try to talk him down. His vision, more acute than mere mortals could understand, picked out the details of their elaborate traps: Motion sensors, spike strips, sniper rifles, and even attempts to electrify the metal fence around the giant pool.

 

But they never figured I would enter underwater.

 

Checking to make sure the cooler was fully waterproofed, the assassin took a deep breath and sank under the surface of the cienega. As he expected, he did not feel the usual yearning for air. He expelled the air from his lungs and sank to the bottom of the pond. His lungs and organs tingled, and he theorized that the nanites were somehow extracting the necessary oxygen from the water itself. How the MIST was making him a real-life Aquaman mattered little – all that mattered was that it allowed him to enter Balmorhea State Park undetected.

 

Slowly, he crawled along the bottom of the canal that ran from the cienega to the record-sized natural pool. Despite the darkness of the wee hour, his eyes were enjoying MIST-generated night vision. Feeling no fatigue whatsoever, he crawled against the current while tucking the cooler underneath his torso. His black clothing helped camouflage him against any gun-toting mercenaries who might happen to look down at the canal.

 

Within a half hour, the man in black reached the pipes and grates that linked the canal to the pool. Although a normal man could never have generated the strength to remove the grate from the inside, he was no longer a normal man. In seconds, the grate popped out of its rock-and-mortar frame with hardly a sound. The mercenaries, on the outside of the fence, were too far away to hear the noise of the grate over the constant babbling of the water and the drone of cars on nearby I-10. Letting the grate drop to the bottom of the natural pool, some twenty-five feet below the surface, the former spy slithered into his final destination.

 

Surfacing for an instant, he took a deep breath and dove to the bottom of the pool to retrieve the metal grate. With the apparatus in hand, he resurfaced and slipped it back into place. Although the device was now loose, any casual observers would be unable to tell that it had been tampered with. Quick as an eel, the man in black set the Styrofoam cooler on the walkway bordering the enormous pool and hoisted himself out of the water. Grabbing the cooler, he ran silently from hiding spot to hiding spot, surveilling the landscape.

 

As expected, the firepower was entirely on the outside of the park. Nobody was inside the fence. The man in black hunkered low and ran in a zigzag pattern across a wide-open stretch of ground. Despite a half moon, he was neither spotted nor heard by the roving guards. In seconds, he made it to the park’s offices. He tried a doorknob, but it was locked. He was about to force the door, perhaps break a window pane and unlock the knob from inside, but sensed an alarm.

 

Go in through the roof.

 

Quietly, he stashed the cooler under a secluded bench and scaled an adobe wall to get to the rooftop. Lying on his stomach, he crawled to the top of the state park office and forced open an air vent. After creating a loud metallic shriek, he lay still for ages as mercenaries searched the building beneath him. Someone has given them the keys to this place. After many minutes of searching with flashlights, the guards declared a false alarm and returned to their slow circuits of the property.

 

Sliding on his stomach, the man in black entered the offices and crept along the carpeted floor. A computer was on, and he grabbed the monitor, keyboard, and mouse and lowered them to the floor. Fortunately, the fact that the office was locked and alarmed meant that some Balmorhea State Park employees rarely logged off of their TPWD profiles. In seconds, the former government spy was on the Balmorhea State Park employee page and accessing the files he wanted.

 

Fortunately, the daily logs of park visitors were kept on a Google Sheet, which was shared with several key TPWD personnel. Smiling, the man in black added himself to the share list by using one of his generic-sounding Gmail addresses. He then went into the employee’s email account, thanks to the joy of browser-stored passwords, and deleted the alert that a new account had been added to the Google Sheet. Covering his tracks further, he even emptied the Trash folder.

 

Searching further, he found the Google Sheet prepared for the next day, already loaded with pre-registered guests. While guests some might not show, he knew that most would. He checked his burner phone, which had been triple-bagged for protection during his underwater journey, to make sure that he could access the desired Sheet. Once he discovered that his phone still had full functionality and could access the Sheet, he returned it to its clear plastic armor.

 

Quietly, he turned off the screen and set the computer monitor, keyboard, and mouse back on the desktop. He went to the adjacent office, dragged a metal desk below the air vent, and pulled himself up into the ceiling. After he had a handhold on the roof, he used his other arm to affix the vent cover underneath his feet, disguising his trespass. On the rooftop, he put the outer cover back in place and smiled at his success. Although he had run clandestine operations in several nations, none had gone as smoothly as the one tonight.

 

He slipped back down the adobe wall and retrieved his Styrofoam cooler. He checked the dwindling supply of dry ice and knew that the dozen armored glass cylinders would not remain secure for long. The MIST was swirling faster, practically alive and angry. Time to lighten the load.

 

Utilizing his long-ago military training, he slunk and darted his way back to the location where the canal met the pool. He set the cooler down on the concrete and withdrew six of the twelve cylinders, the dry ice not bothering his fingers in the slightest. Packing the remaining six cylinders deep in the lingering ice, he secured the lid back onto the cooler and removed the top of the Balmorhea State Park’s new water monitoring system. The large device, which descended into the water flowing from the canal, monitored various parts-per-million during the park’s operating days.

 

At eight o’clock each morning, the device turned on and opened six sluice gates to channel flowing water over and around its sensors. The water then emerged into the pool. With online research, the man in black had discovered that the opening and closing sluice gates of that particular model of industrial water monitor would easily shattered the glass cylinders. In seconds, MIST would be in the pool.

 

Within minutes, MIST would have spread throughout the popular deep end of the pool. Within a half hour, the natural currents would have spread MIST to the shallow end. Within a few hours, MIST would have spread upstream to the cienega. By the afternoon, agriculture near the towns of Toyahvale and Balmorhea would be affected.

 

9

 

Roger Garfield knew that the impromptu communications center set up at the famous 1920s mansion had been untouched by the fires and explosions that had demolished the rest of the secret prison. Though both he and the professor had been held prisoner there, and were likely headed to the gallows had the revolution not set things right, only Garfield had been allowed to read the investigative reports. Restored to his position in the FBI, he had obsessively pored over what had gone wrong to allow him, and scores of other decorated agents, to be railroaded as supposed enemies of the state.

 

In the many reports he had read, several at home by lamplight while his family slept, he had gleaned that a state-of-the-art communications center had been installed in the basement of the Roaring Twenties villa0. Like that Nazi command center in that castle in the third Indiana Jones movie, he had thought. Although Hank Hummel had torn through the Villa while coming to rescue his brother from the prison, the man had not encountered the comm center.

 

Unless the feds dismantled everything, some of that equipment may prove useful. Given the remoteness of Cimarron, both Garfield and the professor considered it unlikely that, in only eleven weeks, the disorganized FBI would have even begun dismantling that communications center. Rather, any analysis would have been done on-site and the equipment left unplugged for later disposal.

 

With a shriek of metal, the old F-150 ripped open the wrought-iron gate blocking the circular driveway heading to the stately manor. In the headlights, both men could see that the main house and its plethora of outbuildings were boarded up and lined with police tape. “Evidently, nobody is camping out on-site anymore,” the professor groused. “With everything that happened here, I would expect a score of investigators to be on the grounds.” Sadly, their pickup was the only thing moving that night.

 

Garfield headed directly to the mansion and hopped the curb, driving right over the manicured lawn. Perhaps by next summer, the Boy Scouts of America would have reclaimed the property and begun setting it right, but for now a few tire tracks weren’t hurting anyone. The FBI agent parked in front of the main doors and climbed out of the vehicle. Looking around, he and the professor could only see the dark outlines of the mountains and the night stars above. The stars were breathtaking.

 

“We almost died here,” the professor said, his voice thick with emotion. “Fuck, man.”

 

“Yeah. Dutch. Dutch.” Roger Garfield had tried to not think about his former partner, who had died perhaps a mile away from where they now stood. The young FBI agent had died a hero, part of the prison break that had rescued countless political prisoners from certain execution. In the J. Edgar Hoover Building, a plaque was now dedicated to the lanky native of Odessa, Texas. “Dutch, if you’re watching, help us out, okay?”

 

Without another word, the men bounded up onto the wooden porch and checked the front doors. As expected, the villa was locked tight.

 

“This place is gonna be alarmed to hell and back,” the professor warned. “And, given those goons we dealt with in town, a good chunk of local law enforcement is part of the conspiracy. We bust in here, and they’re the ones who will get that alarm. It ain’t going to FBI headquarters – it’s probably going to Raton.” Garfield knew all this, and insisted that they press on.

 

“We can hole up here and mount a defense while we spread the word. The goons are waiting for us on any of the roads out of here: East to Raton, northwest to Taos, south to Springer,” said Garfield. “Getting the drop on those Home Guard punks got us good info, but we can’t spread it with dead cell phones and no bars.” Inside the truck, the back seat was littered with a smorgasbord of phones with zero battery life remaining. It was as if Murphy’s law had focused entirely on their communication capacity.

 

“I knew I shouldn’t have been playing ‘Snake’ so much,” the professor joked, referring to his own out-of-battery iPhone.

 

Garfield grabbed a dead potted plant and hurled it through an antique window. As a silent alarm triggered, he and the professor grabbed nearby flowerbed tools, left over from the mansion’s last occupant, and knocked out the remaining shards of glass. Within moments, Garfield was able to wriggle through the de-glassed window and unlock the front doors from inside. Ignoring the rolls of police tape wound throughout the mansion’s first floor, the FBI agent led his friend to the basement. From exhaustive reading of reports, he knew that the basement housed the comm center.

 

As soon as they descended the staircase, Garfield breathed a sigh of relief: The communications equipment had been left. Quickly, both men grabbed electrical cords and plugged them into wall outlets. In the darkness, red and green lights began to glow. “The goons are on their way, but we are back in business,” Garfield said with a smile.

 

10

 

The F-22’s air-to-ground missile struck the locomotive and obliterated the diesel-electric hybrid, sending chunks of burning metal flying into the night. Seconds later, an F-35 from Holloman Air Force base blew the rogue F-22 from the sky, encountering no evasive maneuvers. “He just let us paint him,” the lead F-35 pilot said over the radio. “He wanted to die.” I wonder what they promised him, the president thought. Can MIST really cure a dying child?

 

Moments later, he received an update on the progress made by Drs. King, Kreitin, and Cuentz. “The MIST is more impressive and versatile than we first thought,” King said over the holographic link. In high-definition, the president could see the exhaustion on the scientist’s face. With the fate of the nation hanging in the balance, nobody had had a break. “Assuming the conspiracy knew what we now know, which is probable, they could have promised the moon to anyone whose help they wanted. These nanocells can cure a plethora of chronic conditions, replace dead or severed nerves, and replace lost bone and muscle tissue. Dare we say it, MIST could replace most of the fields of genetics and bioengineering.”

 

“That’s one hell of a financial motive,” the president mused. “What do you think they want with it? Designer babies? Supersoldiers?”

 

“Designer babies, for one,” Dr. Keitin voted. “If they know how to program the MIST to develop a child’s phenotype, it would work better than any genetic engineering. You could literally program your children’s looks to a tee, plus have the added bonus of superhuman physical and mental capabilities.”

 

“Your kid would be Captain America. We’re talking a guaranteed pro contract in any sport,” Cuentz marveled.

 

“Does your team know how to program this stuff yet?” the president asked. “Can you control the MIST?”

 

“Negative. Not yet, anyway. We’re using samples gotten from Laramie, which is programmed with their code and cannot be overwritten until we know that specific code. Supercomputers are crunching, but it’s taking longer than expected. Anyone who knew the original code was killed in that lab.” Exasperated, the president ran his fingers through his hair. He urged the trio of leading scientists to continue working, and then shut off the holograph.

 

They could have promised the moon to anyone whose help they wanted. Anyone at all whose help they wanted. Alarmed, the president grabbed his encrypted tablet and ran a search through his entire staff, looking for personnel with known sick and dying family members. “No, no, no, no!” he wailed as names kept popping up. Employees who would be invaluable to any conspiracy against his administration had wives with breast cancer, husbands who were paraplegics, children with lymphoma. The president knew immediately that most of those families would be under intense financial strain, if not already dealing with medical bankruptcy.

 

I had no idea there were this many. Congratulations, privatized health care. The president considered calling his staff to have them do a workup on the list he had just compiled, but looked at the clock and decided to have mercy. It was midnight, and his people were strained almost to the breaking point. The president walked over to his ornate coffee bar and poured himself another customized brew, one he had ordered during his transition into office.

 

Fourteen minutes later, when his National Security Adviser burst into the office to tell him that an FBI agent had opened fire on several key scientists working on MIST research before turning his gun on himself, the president was not surprised. “What did his family have?” the chief executive asked from his desk. “Cancer? AIDS?”

 

“His wife was dying from leukemia. He didn’t leave a note, but we think they promised to cure her with MIST if he did what they asked. He had four kids, ages two to nine.” Nodding sadly, the president requested that the NSA leave him be. As soon as the office door closed and locked, the aging commander in chief leaned back in his comfortable chair, resting his eyes. When he opened them again, there were tears.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Eight

 

1

 

Whitney Hummel awoke in the back seat of the stolen Tahoe, holding Ava tight to her chest as the engine droned and the frame shimmied gently. Fortunately, the child was asleep. Through the window, the stars were beautiful. “Where are we?” she asked her kidnapper, who called himself Ben.

 

“Heading into the Davis Mountains,” Ben replied. He held up a glowing cell phone in his hand. “I’ve been talking to a friend. A real interesting guy. We think Fort Davis is where the party’s at.” Ben usually spoke in ambiguities and generalities, so Whitney did not expect much in the way of an answer. At least, despite the man’s superhuman strength, he appeared to have little desire for violence. Whitney curled around her daughter, wanting to shield the little one from this mysterious force. Hank will come for us. I know he will.

 

“I’ve been to these mountains a lot, strangely. First, my plane crashed here. Then, my satellite crashed here. Now, I’ve got to go here to work my grand plan. You’d think that a big city like New York or Moscow would be the center of fate, but apparently that’s not so. My universe does appear to center around these mountains.”

 

“Did you grow up here?” Whitney asked, hoping to get the man to reveal some useful information.

 

“Not at all. Despite my impeccable grasp of vernacular English, I’m all Russian. I was born Boris Elkanovitch in the autumn of nineteen sixty-six in a wonderful city called Petrograd.” Ben looked into the back seat and smiled with the face of a man who had yet to see thirty. The MIST. The MIST transferred him into a new body, the state trooper’s body. Don’t lose your cool, Whitney. Keep him talking.

 

“Why are you here? Why are you doing this? You should be back home.”

 

“Money, my dear lass. It all boils down to money. Adam Smith had it right, and I never did take to Marxism, even when I was schooled incessantly in it. I wanted more than the Kremlin was willing to pay, so I increased my market value by taking some private sector jobs. I bounced back and forth between my own jobs and working for ol’ Vladimir Putin. And then, the MIST…” Ben made a sound mimicking an explosion with his mouth and held his palms far apart.

 

“I can tell you all this, Ms. Hummel, because you’re never going back to Midland. You’ll be dead soon, though it will probably be painless. You can’t be allowed to live. You, Hank, and little Ava will have to go. I did leave your son, Michael, though. I think he will remember you fondly.” With that, the kidnapper engaged the child lock once more for good measure, the metallic click as loud as snapping bone.

 

Mind racing, Whitney considered whether or not she should try to plead for her life and the life of her child. It took only seconds for her to realize that Ben, or Boris, or whoever the hell he was, could not be swayed. The man was emotionless, practically a machine. He was all pop culture quips and shallow charm superimposed over an efficient psychopath. Could I try to choke him? Wrap the seatbelt around his neck? Stab him with something? Sadly, it was clear that the kidnapper was physically invulnerable to anything within the confines of the car.

 

“You don’t have to kill me,” she sniveled, feigning fear. “I’ll just disappear with Ava. Hank will still come after you. Let me go back to my son.”

 

Ben sighed. “Don’t play that game, Whitney. I can read you like a book.” He told her to go back to sleep and returned to his phone. As Whitney watched carefully, he pulled up text messages and made a phone call by pressing on a number that had been texted to him. The call was answered by a woman on the third ring.

 

“This is Boris Elkanovitch, and I’m ten minutes from your location. You know who I am, and we should talk. Have your people set up a nice midnight snack for us at the hotel restaurant. Minimal security, so we can talk in private. I understand you’ve been having problems with your supplier. If it goes well, I can get you the MIST on time and under budget.”

 

2

 

Hank Hummel and Adam Pastorius raced through the night in Hank’s classic Jeep Cherokee, the writer behind the wheel while the terrorist rode shotgun. They did not speak, for there was no need. Pastorius, in his new body, would help free Whitney and Ava from Ben’s clutches. In exchange, Hank would allow himself, and Hector Rodriguez, to be killed so that the world would be safe from MIST. Hank knew that Hector would show up to try and save him, and Whitney and Ava too, and he could not allow himself to think about leading his friend to his doom.

 

He has a family, too. You’re sacrificing him to save your own family. How selfish are you? How cowardly?

 

Another mile marker flicked past in the headlights. Glancing down at the speedometer, Hank saw that he was approaching a hundred miles an hour. He did not take his foot off the gas.

 

Anything is worth it to save Whitney and Ava. Period. End of discussion. I won’t leave Michael and orphan, and I won’t let them be hurt. That’s my job as the father.

 

“How will you stop Ben? I need to know,” Hank said.

 

“I can use his greatest weakness against him,” Adam Pastorius replied. “He only cares for money and power. He wants to create a monopoly on MIST, and to do so he must either capture or destroy us. That means he can be lured into a trap. He is arrogant, and his arrogance will be his undoing.”

 

“And after you kill Hector and me?”

 

“I will destroy all of us, Hank. The substance within us cannot be allowed to exist. It is far too dangerous, and cannot be controlled. Ben is not alone in his mania. Rather, he is all too common. The threat is that he is simply far better equipped than most to take advantage of his obsessions. He is impeccably trained, tremendously intelligent, and lacks any form of conscience.”

 

Hank laughed. “He is not so different from you.”

 

“Perhaps not. I have been changing, and am changing still. I used to feel no emotions, but now I do. I am terribly guilty, as you know. My death will serve but a tiny fraction of my penance.”

 

“And you will leave Whitney and Ava unharmed? Entirely?”

 

“Of course. They are not infected with MIST, and therefore are completely innocent. I even hope to spare them the trauma of witnessing Ben’s demise. He will not go quietly. I will need your assistance, and even the assistance of Hector Rodriguez.”

 

Before Hank could begin formulating a plan, his passenger cut him off. “Do not think about going back on our deal. I am far more powerful than either of you, for I spent months alone as MIST itself. You may be stronger and faster than any mortal man, but I am godlike. I became one with the MIST. Ben did not, which is why he will fail where I have succeeded.”

 

To prove his point, Pastorius touched his hand to the dashboard of the car. A spark flew from a fingertip, and then vanished. Suddenly, the radio and lights began to flicker and change rapidly from setting to setting. “What the he-?” Hank sputtered, confused.

 

“My nanites allow me to transmit electrical charges from my body at the precise voltage and frequencies needed to cause the desired changes in electronic devices. I can shut down this car, disable an alarm, destroy a computer. Do not think that you can challenge me, Hank. I do not wish to cause pain, but I will hurt those you love in order to force your cooperation.”

 

3

 

Carl Hummel walked into the brightly-lit hotel in Abilene and strode past the front desk, where the seated duty manager snoozed with his head resting on his arms. He located the business center and opened an Internet browser. After his attempt to avoid going to D.C. resulted in his kidnapping, he did not know who to trust. Given that the men who kidnapped him were obviously government-trained, and might even still be on the job somewhere, the bad guys could include anyone.

 

He opened his personal cloud profile and looked up his aunt’s direct number. With the hotel lobby still quiet and deserted, he punched in her number. She answered on the second ring. “Jesus, Carl, why didn’t you call earlier?” she asked groggily. “We thought you were dead!”

 

“I almost was. Guess I should have gotten on that plane, huh?”

 

“You’re not coming in. You don’t trust us,” she said accusingly.

 

“It’s not that I don’t trust you guys. It’s a gut feeling that there’s nothing you can do. Or will do. I know you work with decent people, but I also know how stuff goes. MIST is the cat that got let out of the bag, and there’s no putting it back. It won’t ever be out of me.”

 

“Where are you?”

 

“Abilene, but don’t send in the cavalry to rescue me. I’ve got a feeling that the cavalry is riddled with bad guys. There’s a good chance that I’ll end up in the back of an armored van again.”

 

“Okay, I hear you. Are you safe? Are you feeling okay? Any MIST symptoms?”

 

“I’m fine, I think. I could use a new vehicle, though. I drove the snot out of the Nissan Titan that I stole, and it’s pretty well shot.”

 

“Do you know where Hank and Hector Rodriguez are?”

 

“I can guess. When I escaped my kidnappers, I got two of their phones. Will you rent me a car under an assumed name? I know you’ve got secret accounts for that sort of thing, Ms. Secretary of Defense.”

 

“Yes, I’ll get you something under my father’s name. Where are you?”

 

“Holiday Inn Express off I-20. Use the rental car place between here and the airport – it’s open twenty-four hours.”

 

“I’ll get you a full-sized SUV and all the insurance. Now where’s Hank?”

 

“Fort Davis. This is all going down in Fort Davis. Get everybody out of bed and on this right now. I’m going to be sending you what I can from these two phones I got.”

 

His aunt’s voice became soft and sad. “Carl, have you told your family what is happening? Your wife?”

 

“You know I can’t. You have to tell them after it’s over.” Carl felt a wave of emotion make his eyes hot. “We won’t be coming back. I don’t know how bad it’s going to get, but you need to be ready for the worst. You know what I mean.”

 

“It won’t come to that, Carl,” she insisted.

 

“Yes, it will. I will keep this phone on me and charged as long as possible. You need to monitor it and use its coordinates to target the hit. Do not hesitate.”

 

“I know we’re not a very religious family, but would you like me to pray for you?” she asked. He said yes.

 

4

 

The president was coming out of his private bathroom when the Secretary of Defense bounded in, her eyes wild. Steps behind her was her husband, the Director of Central Intelligence. “Carl Hummel just checked in. He escaped a kidnapping by the conspiracy and managed to make off with a pair of their phones. Fort Davis is the location.”

 

“Damn! They’re close to that train! I’ve got crews scrambling, but they won’t be there for hours,” the president fumed. He had taken off his button-down and was working phones and tablets in an old University of Vermont tee shirt. “I assume you’ve already gotten the ball rolling?” The DCI confirmed that every cruncher on his team was searching databases and discovering assets in the Fort Davis area.

 

“Are they after the train? A third of the defense team had to leave it in order to take casualties to the hospital in Alpine!”

 

“We don’t know. We’re trying to pull up every trustworthy person we can from El Paso to Dallas to get down there. We can’t fly assets in because of bad weather moving in all around. In a few hours, a storm will have everything socked in from Pecos to Alpine.” The president held up a tablet that was pinging incoming alerts every single second. He looked exhausted, and the Secretary of Defense asked if he needed to tap out for some rest.

 

“Call in that Kentuckian to run point for a few hours,” she insisted. “Or get your Chief of Staff to run that damn tablet. Where are those two, anyway?”

 

“Veep’s holed up with the cabinet across the street, everything in secret. Once we discovered that the conspiracy could be promising MIST as a miracle cure, there was no way we could protect everyone. We had to resort to target hardening.”

 

Clearing her throat, the Secretary of Defense announced that she had spoken to Carl Hummel on the phone. After relaying most of their conversation, she lowered her voice and told the president that he would need to prepare for the worst. “Carl thinks we may have to use a nuclear device,” she said softly. “He is having me track his phone, and says we need to direct any strike to that source.”

 

“I assume you’ve spoken about that to your MIST team, Mr. President?” the DCI asked, his voice also practically a whisper.

 

“If they cannot crack the source code, they want me to use a twenty megaton device. Overkill, to be sure, but it’s guaranteed to eliminate everything in the vicinity,” the president rasped, his throat numb from exhaustion and stress. “It would destroy the train and the core of this damned conspiracy, assuming that they are indeed holed up in Fort Davis. We would just need to make sure that Adam Pastorius, Boris Elkanovitch, and Adam Welsh were near ground zero.”

 

“Adam Welsh?” Both the SecDef and the DCI were confused.

 

“A positive ID came in early today on the assassin who killed the MIST team in Wyoming. Adam Welsh was part of the CIA special activities division under my predecessor. He’s a West Point graduate, veteran of Haiti, the Balkans, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Switched to intelligence in ‘05. He’s forty-six, divorced, and his psych profile is not a pretty picture. Someone tried their best to erase any info on the man, but some of his former colleagues were eager to talk. Nobody’s very surprised that he’s turned into a gun for hire.”

 

“We should have been told as soon as the ID was made,” DCI Parker groused. Things were falling through the cracks, and on a day when there was no room for error. “Let’s keep it calm,” the Secretary of Defense soothed, putting a hand on her husband’s arm. “We just need to keep moving forward.”

 

“If we do reach the point of no return and I have to do the unthinkable, I will resign immediately thereafter. I need you two to plan your responses to that eventuality. I know my vice will want you to stay on, but I understand if you don’t want to,” the president said somberly.

 

“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it, sir. You need to go to your media war room and get ahead of the shit in the news cycle. Let them know that you’re here and working. I’ll go rally the cabinet and get them talking to the press. If the conspiracy is trying to paint you as inept, we’ll put a stop to it. I can promise you that.”

 

5

 

Lightning flashes could be seen over the Davis Mountains, silhouetted against the disappearing stars, as Adam Welsh walked through the hotel parking lot with the Styrofoam cooler under one arm. He touched the hood of a sports car and its engine roared to life, its electrical system commanded by the MIST in his fingertips. He touched the doorknob and overrode the electronic lock. He discovered a universal phone charger plugged into the center console and attached it to his cell.

 

“It’s past time. You broke our deal,” his employer said as soon as he called. “You can forget ever seeing your wife and daughter again.” The woman’s voice was ice cold.

 

“I may be over on the clock, but better late than never,” Welsh quipped as he drove out of the lot and put the phone on speaker. “I’m delivering everyone right to your door: The Hummels, Hector Rodriguez, Adam Pastorius, and Boris Elkanovitch. Surely that buys me some bonus time?”

 

“How do I know you’re not lying? You’re not exactly trustworthy.”

 

“Isn’t that rich, ma’am!” Welsh actually chuckled with the incredulity of it all. “Your political career leaves you little room to discuss honesty. But, anyway, I have no reason to lie. I want you to take possession of my troublesome peers. I don’t want those five nanite-ridden rascals running around. Like with kindergarteners these days, it’s all about being unique.”

 

“I’ve got your wife and daughter en route, just ahead of the storm. They’ll be the last flight into Alpine before we get socked in. Good for me, since it keeps the president’s Air Force grounded. Bad for you, since it eliminates any chance of you welshing on me and trying to escape via air.” Smiling, the assassin ignored the riff on his last name.

 

“Have them meet me in front of the Hampton Inn on Highway 67. If they come alone, I will text you the location of the MIST and help you capture the five targets. If I even sense a trap, I will find other uses for the MIST that could be most detrimental to your well-being. Get my drift?”

 

“Don’t lie to me, Mr. Welsh,” she said flatly, insisting on having the last word. Welsh let her. He put the accelerator to the floor and raced toward the mountains. As mile melted into mile, the flatlands became foothills and then became mountains. Beside him, the cooler was growing warmer to the touch, no longer perpetually chilled by dry ice. Entropy is increasing, Welsh thought. As lightning lit up the sky behind him, he felt a growing sense of triumph. Soon, he would be reunited with the love of his life. She had left, but he had won her back.

 

He had won it all back, and soon he would win even more.

 

Behind him, he saw a pair of headlights in the distance. At this point, it hardly mattered what it was – no pair of cops in a cruiser could even slow him down. But, inexplicably, he felt a sense of wariness. Something about the headlights seemed ominous. Well, not the headlights, but the driver. Though he could not explain how, he had a premonition that the drive was like him…abnormal.

 

The MIST is evolving me in ways I cannot fathom. That’s why I have a feeling about that other car.

 

Accelerating, Welsh decided to put more distance between himself and the vehicle behind him, which was miles back on the flat land. I’ll deal with that vehicle when the time comes. The road doesn’t split off until Fort Davis. But if it is who I think it is, he’ll come to me. They all will. With eight cylinders howling, the man in black was soon twisting through the mountains, taking the opportunity of the sleepy night to enjoy both lanes.

 

The sign said that Fort Davis was twelve miles away.

 

6

 

“Now I’ve got weather to worry about,” the Diplomat moaned as he sipped his espresso. Rain drummed on the roof of his cabin, but the weather with which he was concerned was approaching the Davis Mountains far to the south. Rain would disrupt the hidden cameras that the conspiracy had placed all over the area, especially around the train. The train, currently disabled and surrounded by a phalanx of state and local first responders, needed to be monitored. Somehow, they needed access to the cars that held the Silver Six satellite and whatever they had pulled out of its hull.

 

Thus far, the scientists and Delta operators had kept the first responders away from the nitrogen-cooled cars and focused on the destroyed locomotive.

 

A call came through, and his system answered it for him. “He called. We’re having his wife and daughter meet him in Alpine. He says he’ll tell us where he left the MIST.”

 

“Obviously, he’s lying. I’ve read his profile,” the Diplomat sighed. Why the hell did I sign up for this? There really is no honor among thieves.

 

“Yes, but we’re keeping him busy. He’s running lower on options. Eventually he’ll have to deal, even if he doesn’t know it yet.” Her voice was confident. “We need you to contact our local law enforcement contacts and get a log of all calls made off area cell towers. Once we triangulate, we’ll track him down manually.”

 

“Sounds good,” the Diplomat replied. He rang off and sent messages to several men and women in Reeves, Jeff Davis, and Brewster counties. Minutes later, call logs began rolling in from a series of rural cell towers. He looked for a common device that had pinged off of towers in a southwesterly route. Fortunately, the fact that it was the middle of the night had kept phone usage along that highway to a minimum. Bingo, he thought as he discovered only one device following the route.

 

“He should be arriving at Fort Davis right about now,” he said over the phone. “That’s where you are. You want to try to stop him?”

 

“Don’t be stupid. He’ll destroy the MIST before we can bring him down. We’ve got to wait until we can separate him from it.”

 

The call was interrupted by another call, this one from their people in Colfax County, New Mexico. “FBI agent Roger Garfield has just started sending all of our information straight to the White House!” a man yelled. “He’s at the Villa Philmonte, in the old communication center from the prison’s warden! He got someone’s phones with names and numbers!”

 

Oh shit. This is not good.

 

“Whose phone? I need names,” the Diplomat said, fighting for calm.

 

“The highest-ranking guy was Raul Cortes, a sheriff’s lieutenant. Was Home Guard, but kept his record clean. Guy basically ran the sheriff’s department,” the caller said breathlessly. The Diplomat looked up the name in his records and swore loudly. Cortes had access to a lot of data, and there was no way to tell how much of it was on his cell phone. “Thank you,” the Diplomat said, and transferred back to his initial call.

 

“Raul Cortes’ phone has been compromised, and he was a member of the bird bounce team. That means he could have the names of everyone else on that team, including some who know me. And you.”

 

“God damn it,” she hissed angrily. “Start dumping data. We’ll have to go from the seat of our pants from here on out. Get rid of the evidence.”

 

“We’re fucked, madam. You realize this, right?” The Diplomat was angry.

 

“Stay strong, you sniveling little punk,” she snapped. “I helped make you what you are, Mr. High and Mighty. If we can get the MIST on the bird bounce, we will have succeeded. We will all be free and clear.”

 

Swallowing nervously, the Diplomat agreed.

 

7

 

Hector Rodriguez listened to soothing music on his nightmare ride. Despite the loud drone of the engine and the impossible hour, he did not want the usual hard rock that pumped him up. He no longer needed such auditory stimulation, and that made him sad. It was an intellectual sadness, not an emotional one. The MIST had robbed him of that true feeling.

 

He knew the desert, for he had grown up with it. The days spent at the Monahans sand dunes with his father and brothers were vivid in his mind. They had ridden well-waxed discs down the dunes, trying to build tracks and ramps in the sand. At night, they had made spaghetti and gotten to try sips of Dad’s beer. In the morning, he and his brothers had gotten in trouble for trying to bury the uneaten noodles in the sand. After they had cleaned everything up, and were driving back to the highway in their Dad’s old Ford pickup, a helicopter had swooped over the sand and erased any sign that visitors had been carving up the grainy slopes.

 

I’ll never see the sand dunes again. I’ll never take my family there. He whipped around a slow-moving duo of Walmart tractor-trailers. But I’ll make sure others get to see the sand dunes. Other families, other children. My own children, with their children.

 

Leaving the lights and siren of the borrowed cruiser untouched, he raced through the night with unnatural night vision guiding his movements. The in-dash QB was almost muted, but not quite. Under the tones and melodies of the satellite radio, he could clearly hear regional cop talk. His taking of the police cruiser had been duly reported, but nobody was intent on following him. They were tracking him, but leaving him be. It was a nice compromise.

 

The attack on the train near Alpine was all over the state band, with troopers and Texas Rangers heading to the mountain town. FBI agents from El Paso and Dallas were en route, but there was little information about their travel. Something is strange with the flow of information on this band. After several minutes, he ascertained that some of the voices were abnormal, likely manipulated by a machine. Voice distortion. Someone is using voice distortion. Probably not discernible to normal folks, but the MIST in my auditory canal picks it up like a microphone.

 

The abnormal voice was masquerading as a state police dispatcher. With a slightly different voice, someone was also pretending to be a sheriff’s dispatcher from Jeff Davis County. Reaching beneath the dash, Hector Rodriguez picked up the handset.

 

“Attention all units! This is Hector Rodriguez, Midland University police lieutenant on special assignment. Both the state police dispatcher and the dispatcher from Jeff Davis County are not to be trusted. Someone or some group has hijacked their signal and is using voice distortion software. All available units in Fort Davis, please investigate the dispatch center and reset the equipment.”

 

For many long moments, the radio was completely silent.

 

“Roger that, Lt. Rodriguez,” someone said. Seconds later, another officer concurred. More followed. Within a minute, a three-vehicle convoy of state troopers en route from Amarillo to Alpine declared that they would stop at the Jeff Davis County dispatch center to investigate. “Exercise extreme caution,” Hector replied. “I have a bad feeling about this.”

 

8

 

William Watterson slammed on the brakes and guided the aging 4-Runner into a shuddering stop along the side of the highway. He killed the headlights as his passenger, the nervous Dr. Baurin, asked what the hell was going on. “Why are there so many punks with supersized flashlights wandering around the Balmorhea State Park?” Watterson asked, pointing through the windshield. In the distance, scores of bobbing lights revealed what appeared to be a manhunt.

 

“The park is closed. Nobody’s swimming at night. So why did someone call out the cavalry?” Watterson demanded. Obviously, Baurin had no idea.

 

“Think they’ll shoot us if we drive up and ask ‘em?” the police lieutenant mused. Not unexpectedly, the distressed doctor advised against that course of action. “Well, we look like nice guys. No risk, no reward,” Watterson decided, and turned the headlights back on. He pulled back onto the deserted highway and drove to the state park. He turned on his blinker and eased off the highway at the entrance to the park.

 

Within seconds, men in black tactical gear surrounded the vehicle. A bearded bruiser appeared at the driver’s window and motioned for Watterson to lower it. Using the hand crank, the incognito cop did as instructed. “I saw the flashlights and wondered if anyone needed help,” Watterson beamed, smiling like a rube. “My friend here is a doctor.” Dr. Baurin waved politely.

 

“No help needed, sir. We’ve got everything under control,” the bearded monster replied. “Might I enquire as to your business tonight?”

 

“I heard a rumor that something nefarious was afoot. A conspiracy. Billions of dollars at stake for some state-of-the-art nanotechnology. You hear anything about that?” The question was bold, unexpected, and just might get the two men killed.

 

Watterson watched the big lug’s face to study the man’s reaction. As expected, the man displayed a slight look of surprise, anger, confusion, and fear. But the man was a professional, no doubt a highly paid mercenary, and was not about to gun down two civilians in a Toyota on the side of the highway. “I have no idea what you’re talking about, sir,” he said. Then he thought better of it and requested that the two men turn off the vehicle.

 

Instead, Watterson plucked his MPD badge from the breast pocket of his blazer. “Sorry, no can do. Police business.” Confronted with the fact that the driver of the vehicle was a police officer, the bearded mercenary recoiled slightly, a concerned look on his face. That’s right, buddy. Can’t whack a cop in broad…well, it’s not daylight. Nightlight? It’s overcast and thundering.

 

“We’re headed to that scout ranch between here and Fort Davis,” Watterson lied. “There’s a situation out there.” He held up his glowing phone and announced that he was on the line with his superiors. Just in case you thought there were no witnesses, guy. Without another word, the cop put the SUV in gear and accelerated, pulling back onto the pavement as the mercenaries stood around angrily.

 

“They could have killed us,” Baurin said angrily. “What was the purpose of all that?!”

 

“I needed to know if they were part of the conspiracy, and they sure are. But who knows who or what they’re searching for out here?” Watterson was silent for several minutes of driving. As soon as he was out of visual range of the state park, he swung off the side of the road and parked. He got on his phone and called a trusted fellow detective back in town. “I don’t know who we can trust, especially after detective Sullivan tried to whack my informant doctor, but you need to let someone know that a whole division of mercenaries is combing the grounds of the Balmorhea State Park.”

 

“Blackwater types?” his old friend asked. Watterson confirmed, reporting that their clothing was uniform, their demeanor was professional, and their arms were heavy. “They weren’t ready to ice an active-duty cop…but they weren’t far away from that point, either.”

 

After a few more cryptic comments, the police lieutenant turned off the car and sat deep in thought.

 

“Dr. Baurin, I want you to take this 4-Runner on to Fort Davis. If what I think is going on is really going on, a whole lot of shit might go down there. You did a fucked up thing by selling out Hank Hummel, but this is your chance at redemption. I’ve got some old favors I can cash in, and I can make criminal charges go away if you make me proud. You get to Fort Davis, and you help out Hank Hummel if you can. I think he’ll be there.” The doctor tried to protest, but William Watterson was adamant. He pulled the keys from the ignition and handed them to his prisoner.

 

“I’m gonna retire tomorrow, so tonight I’m going out with a bang,” the grizzled lieutenant announced. “I’ll be playing a little reconnaissance. Oh, and a hidden bug in this vehicle connects straight to my phone, so know that I’m keeping track of you. Abuse my trust, and the first person I’ll call, even in the dead of night, is the DA.”

 

9

 

The power was cut seventeen minutes after they made the first calls, and the two men knew that the assault on the mansion would occur shortly. “You ever see Home Alone? Of course you have.” The professor’s voice was growing strained with fear. “Well, we’re about to get a lot worse than Harry and Marv coming after us.” Both men sat in the pitch-black communications room, the red, green, and blue lights extinguished by lack of electricity.

 

If there was a backup generator on site, it had been turned off after the closure of the prison compound.

 

“All that time you worked with Dutch, did he ever tell you about this place?” the professor asked. “When he was in the Scouts, he did a trek here, right? Did he take a tour of this villa?”

 

“You want to know if there are rifles and stuff,” Roger Garfield said, snapping to the realization. “And yes, yes there are.” Turning on their cell phones, both men used the faint lights to lead them out of the computer room. Garfield took the lead and tried to talk through what Dutch had told him. Then he remembered Carl Hummel, who had worked on staff at the ranch. “Hunting room,” Garfield said. “Carl Hummel said something about a hunting room.”

 

“In the basement,” the professor said, continuing the line of thought. “We’re practically there.” They walked cautiously down the hallway, which still retained its 1920s decor. The Home Guard had been in such haste to create a prison compound that it had left most of the mansion’s original features undisturbed. When they reached the rustic door at the end of the hallway, it was locked.

 

“Your move, Mr. Lineman,” Garfield said, referring to the professor’s college football days. Groaning, the big man backed up and prepared himself for a painful tackle. He hit the door, and it shuddered in its frame. “It ain’t as soft as a tackling dummy,” he complained. “You got this, buddy!” Garfield encouraged, and the professor made a second run at the door. This time, the oak yielded to his shoulder and popped open. The academic stumbled to the floor and landed on a bearskin rug.

 

“Carl said that that was the last grizzly bear in New Mexico,” Garfield recalled as he helped the other man up off the floor. “And I’ll bet that’s the gun closet at the back of the room.” Using their phones to gaze around at the dozens of taxidermied trophies, they marveled at the hunts of generations past. After that brief respite, they rushed to the gun closet. Looking through a barred window slit, they saw a row of long guns.

 

“Our batteries are dying, so we better make this fast,” the professor huffed. He prepared for another round of door-busting, but Garfield discovered that the thick door to the gun closet was actually unlocked. “Pay dirt!” the FBI agent crowed happily. They entered the walk-in closet and held their phones aloft to get a look at the gentlemanly armory. Most of the rifles and shotguns were antiques, but a few modern pieces had been added, perhaps by ranch staff.

 

A rubber foot locker sat at the far end of the closet, a patchwork quilt thrown halfway over it. In spray-painted block letters, the foot locker announced that it was U.S. Army Surplus – 2018Q2. “I don’t think Waite Phillips was a time traveler,” Garfield joked. He removed the quilt and popped the latches on the foot locker. When the lid was opened, they saw stacks of late-model assault rifles and cases of ammunition. “Hot damn! The general must have felt the need for some backup when he ran the prison,” the professor said with a smile. He pulled out a carbine and handed it to Garfield, then claimed a second for himself.

 

“Before our batteries die, we better start lighting some candles and lamps and stuff. We’ve got some defenses to create.”

 

10

 

He knew he had very little time, but his racecar antics through the mountains had bought him precious minutes. They were expecting him in Alpine shortly, but he had just enough padding in his schedule for a break. Running with his lights off, using his digitally-augmented retinas for guidance, he slewed off the side of the road and turned off the engine. With unmortals like Boris Elkanovitch and Adam Pastorius looking for his MIST, Welsh knew a diversion would be invaluable.

 

Plus, he figured his phone and vehicle were being tracked by his employers. What better way to spread their resources thin than to have them scouring yet another area looking for the MIST cylinders? Inside his Styrofoam cooler were six electrical transformer glass fuses, which he had swiped from a substation between Pecos and Balmorhea. Until they were seen up close, they looked like the sophisticated MIST cylinders themselves. To help complete the ruse, Welsh had filled his fake cylinders with packets of silver glitter taken from a travel station.

 

He grabbed his glass fuses from the cooler and stuck them in his pockets. Despite his earlier swim, his amplified body heat had already dried his black clothing. He exited the sports car under cover of darkness and ran from tree to tree down into a shallow gulley. Up above him was the Fort Davis National Historic Site, a genuine Indian Wars era fort. From his youth, and online research, he knew that parts of the fort had been restored and parts were still in decay.

 

The place was the perfect hiding spot for his fake MIST. There were plenty of nooks and crannies to stash the stuff, and his employer’s mercenaries would make a mess of things searching around. Opting for speed over stealth, Welsh sprinted quietly up the hill and into the fort. As lightning lit up the peaks behind the fort and rain began to pelt, he ran from building to building, picking spots. One glittery fuse went into a restored kitchen, while another was placed under the porch of an officer’s quarters.

 

Two were hidden inside decaying buildings, quickly accessed by ripping out the wire mesh that kept out tourists and their bratty kids. They’ll see these removed doors and check here first. If only I had some claymores…

 

A fifth fuse was hidden in a former armory, slipped into the breast pocket of a mannequin wearing a vintage U.S. Army dress uniform. The sixth fuse was dropped off inside a restored hospital building, pushed under a stack of wool blankets. Finally, to complete the ruse, he left one of the six remaining cylinders of genuine MIST. Assuming his employers had RFID scanners, which was essentially guaranteed, they would home in on the frequency of the one cylinder of the real stuff.

 

But it wouldn’t be fair to not put them on the clock.

 

He pulled back the slide of the restored Gatling gun and set the cylinder, perpendicular, in the chamber. He gently let the heavy slide come back to rest against the glass. With the metal slide sharp, and being pressed against the glass with more than forty pounds of pressure, it was only a matter of time until the hollow cylinder cracked. The nanoparticles would be released.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Nine

 

1

 

The Chevy Tahoe cruised slowly down the main street of Fort Davis, stopping in front of the historic saloon-turned-ice cream shoppe. Boris Elkanovitch exited the vehicle, fully aware that he was being watched through a plethora of sniper scopes. Pretending to be a gentleman, he walked to the rear door of the SUV and opened it for Whitney Hummel. She held little Ava in her arms, refusing to let go of her daughter.

 

Standing in the rain, the man known as Ben closed the door. “Before you try to take my head off, you might want to hear about how your paid lackey is planning to double-cross you,” he yelled. “I’m heading into this fine hotel in front of me, and I would like a nice midnight snack. And throw in some food for my guests, as well.” He ushered his prisoners forward, crossing the deserted street.

 

He approached the hotel doors and found them unlocked. He held the door open for Whitney, who walked inside with her toddler. When Ben followed, he found himself looking at a dozen heavily-armed mercenaries with guns raised. “Easy there, fellas. I just want to chat with your boss.” Most of the mercs seemed scared, but a few pairs of eyes were defiant. “Don’t try to be a hero,” Ben growled at them. “I’ve put more of your kind in the ground than you can even count.”

 

“And, even if you can get a shot off, I will exit my current body and take yours instead. I trust you’ve been briefed on that capability?” From the stunned looks, Ben realized that the men had not. They were just hired guns, ex-military men who had seen their brief careers in the Home Guard dashed by the recent political revolution. Hoping for a second chance. Aren’t we all?

 

“I want some food. What’s on the grill?” The head mercenary beckoned for his men to move back against the walls, revealing the way to the dining room of the hotel restaurant. “Ma’am?” Ben prodded Whitney Hummel forward once more, following her into the dining room. Sitting at a table in the center of the room, surrounded by more elite guards in suits, was the leader of the entire conspiracy.

 

“Boris Elkanovitch, at last we meet,” the woman said, her voice cold. “What do you have to offer me?”

 

“Your out-of-control assassin, for one. I know he’s double-crossing you. You think you can box him in, but you can’t. Only someone with my knowledge, skills, and abilities can do that. Oh, and I can get you everyone else on the dream team: Adam Pastorius, Hector Rodriguez, and the Hummel brothers. They’re all on their way here, drawn like moths to a flame.”

 

“My team is more than capable,” the woman replied. Ben sat down in an adjacent chair and stared her down. She blinked.

 

“Your desperate mercenaries? Those types always cut and run when bullets start flying. They’ve been loyal so far, but most will take prison over death any day. I’ve seen it in Russia and all over the Middle East. Especially Syria. And Hank Hummel is coming here for his wife and child, both of whom I am leaving in your care. That makes you a target. Now we are partners.”

 

Angrily, the old woman scowled at him, her brow furrowed. She crossed her arms. “You brought them here – you take them.”

 

“Sorry, but I can’t do that. I give you custody of them, meaning Hank Hummel will be upset with you if anything happens. Now you need me to help fend him off. Your assassin won’t do that, will he?”

 

“I’m right here,” Whitney Hummel snapped, having sat in a chair with Ava. “For the record, fuck you both.”

 

“She’s been a good sport so far, so give her and the girl some dinner,” Ben said. “Put them up in a nice room upstairs. Then, tell me all about this assassin with whom I will be dealing. You’ve got a new partner, and I need to know the franchise rules.” Two mercenaries arrived with trays of food, and Ben selected a plate of steak and shrimp.

 

2

 

The storm hit the train, forcing the first responders to retreat and the Delta operators to withdraw inside the cars. A regular Texas gullywasher drummed on the roof as scientists hunkered down and soldiers endlessly checked and rechecked their weapons. They had been warned that there might be additional attacks on the train, probably in the form of projectiles or attempted sabotage. The bodies of the mercenaries who had attacked the train, most of which had been removed by local authorities, had been tentatively identified as cartel hitters.

 

“Obviously, we’re sitting ducks now,” the Delta commander said over the train’s intercom. “We need to secure the existing MIST samples and come up with contingency plans to prevent them from falling into enemy hands.”

 

“We’ve got plenty of liquid nitrogen to freeze the hell out of it, but permanent destruction will require either intense heat or an EMP,” the lead scientist replied through his headset mic. “We don’t have either on the train because we were supposed to be heading east by now.” The Delta commander checked on his satellite tablet and discovered that the nearest facility with EMP capabilities was in northern Oklahoma. “We’ve got to improvise on-site,” the commander replied. “You guys are the best minds in the business, so I know you can make it happen.”

 

The scientific team took a quick inventory of the MIST samples gleaned from Silver Six and determined that there were enough builder cells to create a critical entity or two, assuming that someone could conglomerate all the samples together. “Fortunately, I don’t think anyone outside this train or the president’s teams near D.C. have that equipment,” the second-in-command engineer said as he walked through the tech cars. “If need be, we can have small teams try to escape the train with the MIST. Anyone here have evasive training, either on foot or in a vehicle?”

 

A small number of the scientists, engineers, doctors, and programmers were former military, with two having done SERE training in the Air Force and one via the Army. One computer programmer was an accomplished amateur rally driver, while an expert on Van der Waals forces was a former teenage and undergraduate street racer from Los Angeles. “Put me in a four-wheel-drive, and they won’t be able to stop me,” the rally driver said with confidence. One of the medical doctors had completed the Paris-Dakar rally, and a second was actually a former Nebraska state trooper with a number of high-speed pursuits under his belt.

 

“And if we have to evacuate the MIST without the help of Delta, who here can provide any sort of fighting cover?” Aside from the tech and med people with previous military experience, there were two members who had been law enforcement officers and a decent number of hunters and sport shooters. In moments, the lead scientist cobbled together small MIST evacuation teams that combined escape artists and decent shooters. Builder cells were split among four small teams, with slave cells spread among a larger number.

 

The accumulated technical data, which would not be separated out, would go with the best-prepared team of the rally driver, an Air Force SERE standout, an amateur pistol marksman, and a Golden Gloves boxer. Maps were pulled up on computer screens and bug-out routes were plotted on cell phones and tablets. A programmer brought up the armored train’s inventory, discovering that two rear cars held three half-ton pickup trucks apiece. A third car held two Humvees.

 

Within minutes, the Delta commander and the lead scientist met in the command car, determining that all vehicles would be made ready for the scientists to evacuate. “If trouble comes, we will provide as much cover as we can from this location. We will try to help you escape, but it is imperative that all seating remain for your team,” the Delta commander said. “All of you guys must make it out safely. If anyone must get captured, it better be us soldiers. Your knowledge of MIST is too sensitive.”

 

The Delta commander opened a small pill bottle and shook out a handful of white tablets. “This is cyanide. I would never tell anyone this, but it might be preferable to swallow this in the event of impending capture. It’s up to you, but you might consider giving one of these pills to each of the most important members of your team…just in case worse comes to worst.”

 

3

 

With a tremendous squelch and splash, the black, unmarked Bell JetRanger helicopter landed in front of the Hampton Inn. As the rain poured down and spun off the whirring rotors, the copilot jumped out and opened the rear door for a woman and a girl. He pointed them into the rain, and the woman opened an umbrella. Seconds later, as she and the girl were still walking through puddles toward the parking lot, the helicopter took off again. The pilot, desperate to beat the brunt of the storm, could not afford to linger.

 

Adam Welsh watched his wife and daughter approach, hand-in-hand, through the rain. He smiled and held out his arms to them. Welcome back.

 

“Adam, it’s you,” his wife said breathlessly as she drew near. “You’re safe! Thank God!” Welsh smiled, happy that his employer’s false tales of lifesaving heroism had worked on his emotional ex. “And you’re really retired?”

 

“For good, my love,” he said. He had caught a glimpse of himself in a car windshield a moment earlier, and he knew he looked fantastic. Like a movie star. He beamed a smile at his daughter, who stood shyly under her mother’s umbrella. “Hello, Kristi,” he said. “I love you, angel.”

 

“Love you too, Daddy,” Kristi replied, finally looking him in the eyes.

 

“Let’s go inside the hotel, where it’s warm and dry,” Welsh said, holding out his hands. His wife and daughter each took a hand, and he guided them toward the glowing lights of the Hampton Inn. “We’ll have coffee and hot chocolate, okay?” The glass sliding doors hissed open to allow them entry, and they could smell rich, desserty wafting from inside. The brightly-lit lobby was deserted, and the trio walked to the coffee bar as soft music twinkled. Freshly-baked cookies were arranged on a plate, and the silver carafes were full of piping hot coffee and hot chocolate.

 

Welsh knew that the hotel night staff was composed of people loyal to his employer, and that this whole thing was intricately choreographed according to his specifications, all the way down to the lobby music. Smiling, he poured a mug of hot chocolate for his daughter. “And some coffee for my beloved,” he said, fixing a mug of coffee to his wife’s exact tastes. He poured a final mug for himself, and suggested they sit in the first floor lounge.

 

As his wife and daughter sipped their comforting beverages, his phone chimed.

 

We have done what you asked. Where is the MIST?

 

The last five cylinders of MIST were in a Styrofoam cooler hidden underneath a Ford minivan in the hotel parking lot. Welsh ignored the text, taking a calculated risk that his employer would not respond with force. They had been tracking his phone, obviously, which meant they knew he had stopped briefly at the fort. If I do not respond, it is easier for them to simply search the fort than to risk accosting me. The former will cost them no casualties, but the latter certainly will.

 

A family-friendly movie, one with sentimental significance, happened to be playing on the wall-mounted television in the lounge. Welsh found his wife and daughter curled up on the couch, sipping contentedly. “Remember this movie?” his wife asked. “We saw it in theaters.” The man in black replied that he remembered clearly, and that it was his favorite film. The lie was easy, trained.

 

“We could go anywhere,” he whispered as the lounge lights dimmed. As they all snuggled together, it felt like the good Christmases when Kristi was a baby. “Some place with pretty snows, maybe? Or Hawaii?”

 

Outside, thunder rumbled and the rain intensified. His phone binged again. Where is the MIST? Do you have it with you? Answer very carefully.

 

“Sweetie, turn off your phone,” cooed his wife. “You’re retired now. It’s our time now.” Smiling, he turned off his phone.

 

4

 

Lucifer arrived in Fort Davis and knew that things were all wrong. He could feel it in his bones. “Ben is here,” he said from the passenger seat. “I can sense him. Like a beacon.” Hank Hummel slowed the Jeep Cherokee and brought it to a stop next to the small town’s elementary school. As rain pounded and lightning crackled around them, Lucifer announced that it was time for the final acts of their lives. “In this town, there are the evil people trying to get their hands on the MIST. It is my task to stop them. It is why I was returned to earth.”

 

“Just help me bring back my wife and my daughter,” Hank Hummel said, his voice flat. “I can feel it now, too. I can’t explain it, just a sixth sense. Spider-sense, like from Spider Man.” Lucifer understood this reference, and nodded. “That is a decent summary, Mr. Hummel.”

 

“So, what do you recommend?” Hummel asked. “You are familiar with his tactics and strategies from your time in orbit, I take it.”

 

“If the conspiracy is here, then he has imbedded himself in it. Like a tick. Trying to go to him would be difficult, for he will anticipate that. It is better to make him come to us. We have to determine what he wants.” Lucifer thought for a while, tapping his fingers on the glove box.

 

“I sense something. MIST, but not inside a person. Hmm…the conspiracy is here to collect the MIST…from someone.” Lucifer snapped his fingers when his mind finished putting together the puzzle. “Our mystery man is not turning over the MIST. He is hiding it, using it for leverage. Smart, or at least he thinks so.”

 

Lucifer looked in the rearview mirror at the faint lights of the Fort Davis Historic Site behind them. As lightning sizzled behind the fort, he announced that the MIST was hidden there. “It’s in there, Hank. Not a lot, but a little. Ben may be coming to get it, and soon. But just in case he doesn’t know it’s there, you must make a phone call from inside the fort. They will trace the call and come running.”

 

Hank Hummel nodded and both men exited the Jeep. Hummel took the keys and stuck them into his jeans pocket, patting the opposite pocket to make sure his phone was in there. Without another word, he began hiking up the hill toward the fort. Within moments, he was soaked. Lucifer trailed behind, using his greater senses to search his surroundings.

 

Before the phone could be saturated by water, Hummel made a call to the last number that had called him. It was his wife’s number. Lucifer could tell from the man’s face, even through the rain, that he desperately hoped to hear his beloved’s voice. The call was answered, and Hummel began talking.

 

The two men reached the headquarters of the park and took shelter under the deep porches. Dim lamplights, on some sort of timer, illuminated most of the restored buildings in a quaint, Gilded Age scene. In the stormy night, it resembled a Charles Dickens tale more than an Army fort. “And now?” Hummel asked. He had kept his phone operational, and the device rested on a windowsill.

 

“Now we wait,” Lucifer replied.

 

Lightning flashed, blindingly close, and thunder boomed. It was enough to briefly overwhelm Lucifer’s heightened senses. A second later, when he recovered, he noticed that Hank Hummel had disappeared.

 

5

 

Whitney Hummel was in the hotel room when she heard someone in the hallway give the order to search the fort. “If there are any witnesses, make sure they are neutralized. No warnings.” She returned to the queen-sized bed and hugged Ava tight to her. She did not know what would happen, but she would protect her daughter until the end.

 

Someone unlocked the door to her room, and she watched as an old woman entered. Two guards in tactical gear tried to follow, but the woman waved them off. She reached inside her designer purse and pulled out a chrome pistol. “I’m fine, gentlemen,” she declared to her protectors.

 

Agreeably, the muscle-bound mercenaries waited in the hallway. After closing the door behind her, the woman held up Whitney’s cell phone. “Your husband has made it here to Fort Davis. We spoke on the phone. I sent a team out to kill him.”

 

“Go to hell. Your Army rejects aren’t killing Hank. If I were you, I would let me and my daughter go right now.”

 

The old woman laughed, and Whitney managed a wry smile. “I had to try,” the younger woman said. Ava, shy, buried her face in her mother’s chest and hid from the visitor. Smiling, the gun-wielding crone talked about how beautiful the little girl was.

 

“Whitney, do you believe that little Ava is exceptional?” the old woman asked.

 

“Yes,” Whitney replied confidently.

 

“I’m glad. It’s so important for parents to truly believe in their children. Are you and Hank good parents?”

 

“We try to be.” Whitney’s brow furrowed.

 

“You want to give Ava the world, right? And Michael, too, of course.” To this, Whitney did not bother to reply. She only hugged her daughter tighter.

 

“Now we have the world to give to our children, Whitney. The MIST, which I’m sure your husband told you about, is the world. It’s magic, pure magic. They say that technology that is sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic. There are six adults who have successfully achieved MIST equilibrium, but their time is past. The children are the future – imagine what they could do if given MIST from an early age?”

 

“You want to put this stuff into children?” Whitney gasped, horrified.

 

“It can turn them into the best possible versions of what they could ever become. Taller, faster, stronger, smarter. Once we reprogram the MIST, we can even use it to create designer babies. Forget genetic engineering! We’ve skipped over that step. Using nanotechnology to adjust the phenotype is so much faster and more powerful. How much would people want that?”

 

Whitney was tempted. She imagined what a charmed life Ava would lead if given the gifts of physical perfection, a photographic memory, and tirelessness. For Hank, the MIST was a curse, something that separated him from society. But what if MIST was a part of society? What if Whitney was one of many who had it, and would not be alone?

 

You’re talking about a dystopian future society, where a social caste of designer babies grows up to control society. Is that what you want?

 

She was ambivalent.

 

“You know, Ava could be the first. The very first of a new generation of perfect leaders, guaranteed to enjoy the very best this world has to offer.” The old woman reached out her hand to touch Ava, the Whitney knocked the hand away. “Don’t touch her!” Whitney hissed, eyes hard and jaw clenched. The gun-wielding grandmother sighed and shook her head sadly.

 

“Hank is not coming back, Whitney. You need to realize this. You can join us and be part of tomorrow, or you can be buried with today. Ava would be invaluable to us, and so would you. There is so much left to learn about MIST. Some of my scientists think that the nanocells could even be altered to halt the aging process, perhaps even reverse it. Do you know what that means?”

 

“My daughter will not be your science experiment! Hank would not allow himself to be one, and I damned sure won’t let my daughter be a guinea pig in your laboratories!”

 

“Would you rather die? I’m all about usefulness, my dear, and I don’t have the time or resources to spare for prisoners who aren’t giving me something of value.”

 

“Yes,” Whitney replied after some thought. “I would rather die. Living with your sick and twisted cast of deplorables would be worse than death.”

 

“As you wish,” the old woman growled. She pointed the gun at Whitney and was prepared to fire when a radio squawked from her expensive purse. “We’ve got a situation at the Hampton Inn. Code red.”

 

6

 

Carl Hummel raced through the mountains in the rented Ford Explorer, getting his aunt’s money’s worth from the turbocharged engine. She had sprung for the sport model with the turbo and the all-wheel-drive, helping her nephew cut down on travel time despite the rain he encountered as far east as Pecos. While most speeding drivers would have spun off the road before leaving the foothills, Carl’s acute vision and reflexes allowed him to avoid the slickest spots on the asphalt, even in the darkness.

 

He raced into Fort Davis and his headlights swam over the historic fort, revealing the bizarre sight of lines of armed soldiers running across a field. This must be the place, Carl realized, braking and guiding the Explorer into a grove of trees off the side of the highway. He doused the lights and turned off the engine. I was down to a quarter of a tank anyway. Rain drummed his face and back, and thunder rumbled loudly.

 

Peering between the trees, his eyes adjusting to the night by turning his vision into something he had only seen with night vision goggles, Carl saw the soldiers spreading out and flowing through the many buildings of the fort, beams of illumination coming from handheld and rifle-mounted flashlights. They’re searching. For what? In a flash of lightning, he saw a man-shaped being race across the field toward the soldiers, darting from cover to cover.

 

Quickly, the running man reached the side of a building and toppled a soldier. A second later, the soldier’s rifle had been appropriated. As lightning flashed again, the shooting began. As Carl watched from a distance, the mystery man shot a nearby soldier and darted over to appropriate a second rifle. He then disappeared inside the nearby building as soldiers began returning fire.

 

Well, this is something to see! He felt disappointed that the soldiers were damaging the old fort. As lightning flashed, he saw the raking of automatic fire stitch lines of holes in historic barracks. Those soldiers might be good guys. I need a closer look.

 

Leaving the safety of the trees, Carl sprinted toward the fort. He had no weapon, and no body armor. After he paused for cover behind a twisted oak, he caught sight of the lone mystery man firing from the second story of an unrestored building. The soldiers, not anticipating his current location, were hit from behind. Two fell and did not get back up. Feeling confident that he was completely unnoticed, Carl ran again as the soldiers opened up on their attacker’s location.

 

Reaching the buildings of the fort, Carl ducked inside a restored hospital wing. He dropped to the floor and crawled to the nearest window. Though the rain was drumming on a metal roof, he could still clearly hear the sounds of warfare outside. In flashes of lightning, he could see dead bodies lying in the commons between rows of historic buildings. The mystery shooter was proving very effective.

 

Suddenly, Carl felt his nerves tingling. I am not alone. Someone else is here.

 

“Brother, am I glad to see you,” Hank Hummel announced as he entered the hospital wing from a side door. He had an assault rifle in each hand.

 

“Jesus, Hank! Are you the one who was shooting everyone?!”

 

“No, that’s Adam Pastorius. Long story. He wanted to bait those mercenaries into a trap; they’re part of the big conspiracy.” The brothers faced each other and, after a moment, awkwardly embraced.

 

“Glad you’re here,” Hank said. “I need your help, bro. I made a deal with the devil.” Carl promised that he was there until the bitter end. Seconds later, both men felt their nerves tingling. “Is that Pastorius coming?” Carl asked, checking his rifle. As a former shooting instructor, he was warming up his mind and remembering his drills.

 

Hearing more gunfire outside, Hank looked through the window and replied that Pastorius was shooting from the far north side of the fort. “Then why am I feeling this? Someone with MIST is coming,” Carl insisted.

 

“It’s Ben,” Hank realized.

 

7

 

The president took the data that Roger Garfield had sent from Colfax County and quickly found a federal judge to sign midnight arrest warrants. “I want them rounded up and charged with treason!” he yelled at the White House bullpen, where aides, advisers, and interns were scrambling. The train outside of Alpine was a sitting duck, and everyone was on edge. New locomotives were racing to the site from all directions, but it would be almost forty-five minutes until the first one arrived.

 

Garfield and his friend, a criminal justice professor from the University of Wyoming, had sent documents and e-mails revealing the scope and breadth of the MIST conspiracy. “We’ve got local law enforcement all across the west and southwest who are part of this,” the Director of Central Intelligence said into a phone as he emerged from the bullpen. “Send state police and military units to round them up.”

 

Eight FBI special agents were also named, in addition to the one already identified on the UW campus. More warrants were quickly signed, with the detained agents to be interrogated immediately. “Freeze assets and bank accounts of everyone on the list,” the president told the head of the Secret Service, who typed in the necessary codes on his encrypted laptop. While many of those named by Garfield had already cleaned out their accounts and fled to the wild, the digital freeze caught scores unaware.

 

Five minutes after the Secret Service director froze the accounts of all those implicated on the captured phone’s hard drive, interns feverishly reading the phone’s e-mails realized that the vice president himself might be part of the conspiracy. “Bring him to me,” the president ordered. “But exercise extreme caution. Don’t let him make any phone calls or send out any sort of possible signal.” Yelling and confusion erupted from the bullpen, and someone announced that the hastily-assembled MIST research labs near D.C. had been sabotaged.

 

“We’ve had a series of explosions, sir!” a Marine major explained, a cell phone attached to each ear. The president immediately asked if the key scientists were okay, and in a few minutes was told by his National Security Adviser that the trio was alive. “All three are headed to the hospital and are pretty shaken up, but they’re alive. They were apparently arguing about literature in a courtyard when their lab exploded.”

 

“Other casualties?”

 

“Some deaths, lots of injuries, especially techs and guards,” the NSA responded. A political adviser informed the president that his opponents were going to argue that he was weak on public safety, and the president hit him on the shoulder with a stapler snatched from a nearby cubicle desk. “Not the time, Ron!” the aging chief yelled. “Not the damn time!” Ron retreated, massaging his shoulder.

 

“How are we on getting people into Fort Davis?” the president called out over the fray. A couple of generals in dress uniforms bounded over and reported that convoys were on their way. “Closest National Guard unit we’ve got is en route from Odessa, with backup from Midland joining in. We’ve drawn up units from Lubbock and El Paso, as well. Fort Hood is prepared for aerial transport as soon as the weather clears.”

 

An Air Force general announced that a strike force of loyal pilots could decimate the heart of the conspiracy if it could be tracked to individual buildings within the towns of Fort Davis and Alpine. “We can’t land in these conditions, but we can flatten any building they’re in, sir.”

 

“As soon as I’ve got people on the ground, I can get you that,” the commander-in-chief replied. “Have everything on standby. When I get you the info, I want shit moving!” The military men snapped off crisp salutes and hurried toward the exits, eager for action. One could be overhead suggesting that newer drone models could be massed for maximum effect on ground targets.

 

The president accepted a can of energy drink from an intern’s cart of refreshments and cracked it open. He had only taken the first sip when the call came in from the train that there was a new situation.

 

8

 

William Watterson was soaked to the bone and cursed his poor judgment. He had let the oath-violating doctor, who had sold out Hank Hummel to the bad guys, take his vehicle on to Fort Davis. To do what? To help Hank Hummel when he got there? Like that was gonna happen. What was I thinking?

 

Shivering, the detective lieutenant realized that he was actually at risk of contracting hypothermia. He remembered that there was a dive shop across the highway from the state park, and figured that it was probably free of mercenaries. Getting up off the ground, he hugged his wet blazer around his torso and began walking briskly toward the road. He pulled his cell phone out of his pocket and discovered that the rain had already rendered the device waterlogged. Fuck!

 

In minutes, he reached the road. Cold and tired, he did not bother trying to conceal his presence from the horde of gun-toting mercenaries who were undoubtedly still all over the Balmorhea State Park. Single-mindedly, he jogged across the road and across the empty parking lot of the dive shop. All of the shop’s lights were off, but its porch was deep and kept away the driving rain. Seconds after Watterson got out of the rain, a bolt of lightning blasted a tree only a quarter of a mile away. The thunder was deafening.

 

After regaining his bearings, the grizzled detective decided it was time to get inside the building. The front door was locked, but there were big windows. He shrugged out of his blazer and wrapped the thick fabric around his knuckles. With a cry of effort, he punched out the window. Reaching his hand through the hole, he unlocked the doorknob. He opened the door and went inside the establishment, relishing the warmer, drier air. If they’ve got a land-line phone, I can work with that.

 

Unable to turn on the lights, lest he alert the mercenaries down the road, Watterson had to inspect the interior of the dive shot during flashes of lightning. After one particular flash, he spied a rack of tourist-y shirts and hustled over to it. Using his sense of touch, he found a decent-fitting shirt and replaced his wet button-down with it. A second rack displayed swim trunks, which he used to replace his soaked slacks. In a few minutes, he went from being a dripping wet detective to a retiree tourist.

 

He stuck his gun in the waistband of his swim trunks and felt his way back to the front counter. When lightning flashed again, he saw a telephone at the far end of the counter. He went over to it and saw the little lights blinking on its surface. He picked up the receiver and listened for a dial tone. But who to call? Local cops? They might be in league with those goons down the road. State police?

 

Taking a calculated risk, Watterson fired up the desktop computer that was sitting next to the phone. He needed to find the right phone numbers. Slowly, the old machine booted up. Fortunately, it did not require a password, and Watterson was able to get to the operating system. He double-clicked on the Internet browser and prayed that the old dive shop was wired for it. After almost a minute, a Google homepage opened.

 

Watterson founded the number he wanted and was punching it into the phone’s keypad when he was hit with the bean bag round. Doubling over from the projectile punch, the old detective fell away from the phone. Seconds later, he was swarmed by black-clad mercenaries. “If it isn’t our friendly neighborhood cop,” one sneered, obviously remembering him from the 4-Runner. Roughly, Watterson was rolled over onto his stomach by gloved hands and felt his wrists being zip-tied behind his back.

 

I should’ve stayed in the damn car.

 

9

 

The Diplomat grabbed his bug-out bag and prepared to flee the cabin. The jig was up. His bank of computers told him that the feds were moving rapidly on the information gleaned from Colfax County, filing warrants and sending out APBs. While many of their listed suspects would not be caught quickly, having already gone underground, the Diplomat knew that some would be rounded up. And someone would talk. People always talked.

 

Frantically, the Diplomat went over the blueprint of the conspiracy in his mind, trying to decide how he should run. Could he remain in the country, perhaps in a rural cabin in Montana or Idaho? Should he go to Canada, just to be safer? Was it necessary to go overseas? The worst-case scenario, impending arrest, would likely prompt him to eat a bullet. Though the Diplomat was not a violent or aggressive man, his cabin was not unarmed. A pistol was hidden in a desk drawer, and there was a hunting rifle in a bedroom closet.

 

He would not suffer through the humiliation of a trial, or risk beatings and rapes in a maximum-security prison.

 

Most people in the conspiracy have no idea about the MIST. They were fed vague promises and operated mainly on good old right-wing hatred for the new president’s democratic socialism. They gave money and supplies, probably thinking they were funding some sort of militia. All they know are pseudonyms. Some more were fed promises of wealth, and others were promised position and title once the president’s administration crumbled. But how many actually knew about the MIST? How many? The Diplomat’s throat tightened as he realized that he could never know who knew what.

 

Though all the information was supposed to flow through him, his gut told him that rules had inevitably been broken. People get eager, they get greedy, and they get sloppy. There really is no honor among thieves.

 

Moving as fast as he could, the Diplomat finished zipping up his duffel and pulled on his rain jacket. Rain still drummed on the roof and it was a bit of a walk between the cabin and the Chevy Suburban he had hidden in the woods. He buttoned up the jacket, jammed a baseball cap on his head, and grabbed the car keys from a nail by the front door. As he was unlocking the door, prepared to flee into the night, a call came over his emergency speakerphone.

 

“Leaving so soon? Let’s wait a minute, friend.” It was his employer, her voice condescending.

 

“I should have figured that you bugged this place and put in hidden cameras,” the Diplomat sighed. Part of his brain said to run, to ignore this old bitch and save his own skin, but part of his brain said to be cautious. He knew what she was capable of.

 

“That’s what you get when you accept a fully furnished cabin in the woods free of charge. Of course, that was before you knew what was going on. I’m surprised you didn’t sweep the place. Isn’t that Foreign Service Officer protocol 101? My people should have taught you better.”

 

“I’m done. The feds are on the move, and I’m not waiting for the agents from Albuquerque or Lubbock to scoop me up and throw me in a concrete hole.”

 

“Oh come on, they don’t have your name. You’re still anonymous. And you only get the reward if you stick through the risk.”

 

“There are too many people who are part of this thing. I should have known better. There more people there are, the more leaks there are.”

 

An ominous sentence crackled through the speaker. “Oh, don’t worry about that. Our club just got a lot more exclusive. Go back to your monitors, and you’ll see what I mean.”

 

10

 

“That’s not Adam Pastorius, or Ben. Not even close,” Carl said, squinting through the storm as two figures advanced toward each other across the fort’s enormous quad. There had been more shooting, and the remaining mercenaries had decided to flee the scene, escaping into the night. A younger blond man and a middle-aged bald man were now facing off, oblivious to the rain. Both pairs of eyes glowed yellow.

 

“They got new bodies,” Hank explained casually, as such a thing was commonplace. “The Silver Six satellite got de-orbited, and those two bodies were state troopers who opened it up. I guess the MIST can survive in outer space and retain someone’s consciousness even after their body dies.” Carl shook his head, unable to say anything. What a world we’re living in, he thought.

 

“Do we just let them kill each other?” Carl asked. Lightning flashed, and the two antagonists continued to advance on each other. Thunder boomed, but neither yellow-eyed killer flinched. “I don’t know if they can kill each other in the conventional sense,” Hank replied. “But it probably won’t hurt us if they do.”

 

Carl noticed the gooseflesh on his arms and felt the intense tingle of having the two MIST-infused foes, and his MIST-infused brother, so close. “If we can sense them, can’t they sense us? They’re just letting us hang out in here while they have a Wild West showdown?” Angrily, Hank insisted that he had no answers. He sounded fearful, and his fear made Carl scared as well.

 

Be brothers to each other, their Mom had once said, but neither man knew how.

 

10.5

 

Ben fired, relying on the advice of his original Soviet Army trainer to always strike first. The 9mm bullet, despite flying true, did not drop Adam Pastorius to the sodden ground. Instead, the Syrian began firing back. Apparently, his nemesis had acquired an arsenal while mowing down the horde of ex-Home Guardsmen. By Ben’s estimation, the Islamic terrorist had killed a full fifty percent of the wannabe commandos before the rest turned tail. Bodies in expensive black gear littered the fort from east to west, flashlights haphazardly illuminating the field and surrounding buildings with rays of jagged light.

 

Now shooting, Ben and his enemy darted and jagged, running toward each other. Some bullets missed, but others hit. Their pain sensors overridden by the MIST, neither combatant felt anything. Instantly, nanocells began healing torn flesh. Nanite-coated bones deflected bullets rather than being cracked or splintered by them. Adrenaline was augmented by MIST-released electrical impulses in muscles. In seconds, both men were out of ammunition and dropped their weapons. Snarling, Adam Pastorius launched himself at Ben, his face a rictus of hate.

 

Reacting faster than any normal man, Ben parried the first blows and struck back with a hammerfist. The hit landed squarely on Pastorius’ new face, but caused no damage. Sweeping a leg, the Syrian threw Ben off balance and the Russian’s new body dropped to one knee. Before he could rise, Ben’s lapels were seized and he was dragged to the grassy mud. The fight continued, with neither man tiring in the slightest.

 

There has to be an end to this, Ben thought as the two briefly separated and circled warily. Their battles in outer space, fought nanocell to nanocell in the sealed capsule of the satellite, had been epic. But I don’t think so.

 

Both men lunged at each other again, each intensely focused on finding a way to damage his opponent. Ben wondered if separating Pastorius’ head from his body might do the trick, and broke from the scuffle to run for a building with an axe or hatchet. If I can get my hands on that thing before he can, I can at least take off a limb.

 

Sprinting, Ben feigned fear and a desire to escape. As expected, Pastorius pursued. Ben bounded onto the porch of a restored carpenter’s shop, its interior revealed by flashes of lightning, and dove through a historic glass window. As Pastorius followed behind him, Ben spied a vintage axe and wrenched its blade free from the stump into which it had been plunged as a tour prop. Whipping around, he aimed the blade at throat level. Pastorius’ reflexes were fast, and he ducked backward. The blade cut only skin, causing no real damage.

 

The Dodge Charger police cruiser plowed through the brick-and-adobe wall at full speed, sending debris puffing into painful clouds. Its front windshield cracked as the blade of the axe hit it dead center. A millisecond later, the car flipped onto its side and crashed through the back wall of the carpenter’s shop as its left front tire struck an old-fashioned anvil. Headlights illuminated the ruins beyond through the pouring raindrops, and red flashers began blinking at its rear. The front end was crumpled in the middle, as if it had struck a sturdy pole.

 

Seconds later, the car rocked back onto all four tires with a loud clatter that was almost drowned out by thunder. The driver’s side door opened and Hector Rodriguez climbed out, his face covered in silver-tinged blood. “I hope the MIST heals this shit,” he winced. Gingerly, he popped an arm back into its socket.

 

He turned around and looked at the destroyed building behind him. Both Adam Pastorius and Boris Elkanovitch lay twitching on the ground.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Ten

 

1

 

The moment was magical, and Adam Welsh could feel it working on his wife and daughter. The lighting was just right, the volume was just right, and the temperature was perfect. He could practically feel the flow of bonding hormones from the two females, snuggled on either side of him. I’ve done it. I have won them back.

 

And he still had the five invaluable cylinders of MIST. A plan was formulating in his mind, percolating like fine coffee. In the morning, he would leave here with his family and begin his life anew. But where? Where would he, and his amazing body, be safe?

 

Somewhere where they could never dare use something to disrupt or destroy the MIST cells. Near a hospital? A school? He imagined a place where he could live a quiet life, one of luxury, without the fear of being paralyzed from an electromagnetic pulse. But what could the government not dare destroy? I have seen them destroy so much, cause so much collateral damage.

 

The Human Capital Markets. The original one, at Midland University. That one held over one trillion dollars’ worth of income shares on its servers, and was the automatic backup for any of the other HumCap markets in the event of a calamity. I knew I read those financial blogs for some reason, Welsh thought with a smile. I could move into one of the nice houses right across the street from the university and use false credentials to land a cushy gig on campus. Any EMP pulse aimed at me would destroy the servers, crashing the markets. The feds might be willing to kill a hundred hospital patients to get me with an EMP, but not their precious HumCap markets.

 

His hand itched to pull out his phone and do an Internet search for real estate in Midland, but he knew better. A particularly touching part of the film appeared on screen, and he hugged his wife and daughter closer to him. Both murmured softly, happily. “I love you, Adam,” his wife whispered. “I love you too, Lauren,” he replied smoothly.

 

Seconds later, his daughter began to cough. As Adam Welsh rubbed the girl’s back, his wife began to cough as well. Welsh’s heightened senses detected an odor of camphor, similar to the vaporizing rubs put on people’s chests during cold and flu season. He had encountered something similar before, when on assignment in the Middle East. Syria. Soman. It’s soman gas. His daughter and wife began coughing harder. Welsh’s ears could pick up coughing and choking sounds from the surrounding hotel rooms.

 

“We’ve got to get you into the shower,” he announced, hoisting them up by their waists. They were sweating and gasping now, hardly able to breathe. Welsh inhaled and felt his lungs burn. The MIST was counteracting the thickening cloud of soman gas, providing him immunity. Most of the hotel guests, he knew, would be dead without quick thinking. He carried his wife and daughter to the nearest hotel room and kicked open the door. The room was unoccupied, and he bolted into the bathroom and turned on the shower.

 

“We’ll rinse away the exposure,” he told his wife as he lay her at the bottom of the tub. As he set his daughter next to his wife, he noticed blisters forming on their skin. Grabbing a bar of soap, he began working up a thick lather. He could still smell the camphor, but he would not give up without a fight. He rubbed the soap over his wife and daughter, trying to scrub the deadly chemical agent from their skin. Outside, thunder rumbled.

 

No projectile hit the hotel. The stuff came in from outside, probably through those open lobby doors. What was the target?

 

2

 

“The train has been compromised!” a colonel yelled, running into the Oval Office and causing the president to spill his espresso all over his tee shirt.

 

“Jesus! How?! They stopped that cartel wave like it was nothing! What could have gotten through the guards?!”

 

“Nerve gas, Mr. President. We’re receiving reports from all over the town of Alpine. Based on reports of an odor like mothballs, we think it’s soman. It’s a nerve agent more powerful than sarin, but less potent than VX.”

 

“I don’t need a science lesson, colonel! What are we doing about it?!”

 

“The storm is still going strong, so we can’t medevac. We’ve already scrambled every emergency vehicle in a two hundred mile radius from Alpine with oxygen masks and nerve gas treatment supplies.”

 

“Just how compromised is the train, colonel? Do we know?”

 

Swallowing hard, the officer announced that no defensive capabilities remained. “We’re no longer getting any communications. The train was not equipped with defensive air filtration aside from the cars dealing with Silver Six. Given the concentration of soman that seems to be used, anybody attempting to exit those sealed train cars will be dead in minutes.”

 

Hanging his head, the president thought for a moment. “Try to send a signal to the sealed cars and tell the scientists to stand down. Do not attempt to escape or resist. We need them to try to stay alive. If we can get them back to us later, they can help with the MIST situation. If they try to play hero right now, they’ll be cut down.”

 

“Play hero? You think someone will try to enter those cars?” The president rolled his eyes, harshly judging the colonel’s intelligence.

 

“Of course! That’s obviously why they used a nerve agent. It incapacitated all of the Delta operators, because they were no longer wearing protective gear. Instead of shooting their way in, they gassed their way in.”

 

The colonel left the office, his crisp walk now a panicked jog. The president closed the door behind the man and locked it. He sat down at his enormous desk and ran his hands over the historic wood. Slowly, he opened a secret panel and used his unique code to access the United States nuclear arsenal. He used manual selection to pick an underground silo in Nebraska. A voice recorder automatically activated to record the moment, a red light indicated that the president’s voice would be preserved in the archives.

 

“To prevent Microtronic Infrastructural Symbiosis Technology, or MIST, from falling into the hands of domestic enemies of the U.S. Constitution, I am activating a twenty megaton warhead from silo NE71426. The target is U.S. Army special train AT623, which is stationed at…” the president grabbed his tablet and pulled up the coordinates. “At approximately 0145 hours, the target was attacked by enemies of the state with soman nerve agent, source unknown. We cannot defend the train with conventional means due to its remote location and surrounding adverse weather conditions. As commander-in-chief, I hereby approve this action and take full responsibility.”

 

Using a second code, the president armed the warhead. He pressed a button on his desk phone and asked for the Secretary of Defense. A minute later, the woman was in his office. “Sir?” she asked. Despite the unpleasant hour, she seemed strong and vigilant.

 

“I need Carl Hummel’s phone number. He spoke to you earlier, and now I need to speak to him. I’m about to launch a nuclear weapon against a target inside my own country, and I need to know that I have no other viable option before I press that button.”

 

3

 

They loaded the blond man into the back of the black Ford Expedition as rain poured down around them. “I can’t believe local law enforcement hasn’t shown up yet,” Carl said. “It sounded like the Battle of the Bulge out here just five minutes ago.”

 

“I’ll bet most local law is part of the conspiracy,” Hector Rodriguez replied as they tied more rope around their angry and twitching prisoner. “This is Jeff Davis County, after all. As in Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States of America?”

 

“I was a history teacher, Hec!” Hank reminded him. His knowledge of the Civil War was impressive, honed by a summer of visiting Virginia battlefields and Gettysburg when he was in junior high. In the cargo bay of the SUV, the blond man moaned and twitched. Though the high-speed impact from the Dodge Charger would have killed any normal man, the MIST was bringing Boris Elkanovitch back from the brink. If the prisoner was not properly secured by the time his body was reinvigorated, there was no telling what might happen. Fortunately, the mercenary company vehicle was impeccably equipped with various ropes, chains, cords, and plastic ties.

 

“Got him tied,” Carl said. “Now let’s get Pastorius.” Pastorius was lying in the field, looking to be in even worse shape than the new-bodied Russian. He aimed a mercenary’s flashlight into the field and discovered, to his horror, that there was no body. “Guys! We’ve got a problem!” Hank and Hector began aiming their own flashlights, searching the field. Lightning flash and thunder boomed, but the temporary illumination revealed nothing.

 

“He’s already fast!” Hector gasped. “Where could he go?!” With dead mercenaries and their armaments littering the field, Adam Pastorius could have his pick of weapons. All three men standing around the Expedition flinched, waiting for the Syrian to begin sniping. Though a torso hit would kill none of them, it would still be an unpleasant experience.

 

“Do we search for him?! What do we do?!” Panic was beginning to set in. The man in the rear of the Expedition thumped and flopped, and Carl closed the cargo door on him. The trio shouldered their scavenged rifles and prepared to return fire, wondering idly where it might come from. Aside from the soaking rain, the night was silent.

 

“No flashers. No cops. What the hell is going on?” Hector whispered anxiously. Crouching, he tried to find some cover in the tall grass near the car. His compatriots, taking his lead, did the same. They turned off their own lights, hoping to further disguise themselves.

 

Behind them, near the highway, they heard the faint sound of a vehicle’s engine cranking. Whirling around, they saw an identical Ford Expedition turning on its headlights. “It’s him!” Hank yelled, standing with his rifle. As he sighted in, the driver’s window rolled down and a gloved hand waved a glass cylinder at them. “I knew there was MIST here! He found it,” Hank hissed. He fired a three round burst, but the sides of the SUV were armored. With a whirr of tires and a plume of mud, the Expedition reversed up the hillside toward the asphalt.

 

“Get in the car!” Hank roared, and jumped into the driver’s seat. Carl climbed into the front passenger seat and Hector clambered into the back. He quickly slid the vinyl cargo lid over their prisoner, hoping to deprive the recovering man of information.

 

“No keys!” Hank cursed loudly. He grabbed the ignition node and gripped it angrily. A second later, the engine roared to life on its own. Stunned, Hank the looked at his own fingers. For a brief moment, he could see faint silvery dots on the sides of the fingers that had been touching the metal. The MIST had started the car for him. He put the SUV in gear and roared forward, pursuing the other Expedition.

 

“Where are we going?” Carl asked. “After that son of a bitch,” Hank replied angrily. “We’ve got Ben, and we need Pastorius. We shouldn’t have left him alone in that field! Whose idea was that?!” As they plunged through mud and muck toward the highway, the three men began to argue among each other.

 

4

 

They shoved him into a water heater closet and closed the door behind him. William Watterson quickly clicked on the bare bulb dangling overhead, noticing with annoyance that the State Parks had only sprung for forty watts. He gingerly tried the doorknob, knowing that it was probably locked. Of course it’s locked. You don’t not lock the closet door on the prisoner. The door was locked.

 

Do I try to escape? Fight my way out of here in a blaze of glory? Watterson felt his midsection and noticed the extra twenty pounds he had recently accumulated. He was not quick enough to try to sprint and spin past any guards.

 

The greying detective sat down on the concrete floor and pondered his situation. He listened to the old water heater click and hiss next to him. Water heater. Water heater. He reached over and turned the heat dial as high as it would go. Someone in the Balmorhea State Park complex was using water right now, hence the clicking and hissing, and Watterson could make that water scalding.

 

He took off his tourist-y tee shirt and tore it into two pieces, wrapping each section of fabric around his hands. Earnestly, he began working on the thick pipe at the base of the water heater. Within minutes, the pipe began to loosen. Rivulets of steaming water began trickling down the outside of the pipe. Scooting close to the door, Watterson discarded his fabric hand wraps and waited.

 

When he heard boots tromping toward the door, Watterson took a deep breath, grimaced, and opened his mouth. He stuck his fingers as far into the back of his throat as he could and triggered his gag reflex. He began to vomit. Please work, he hoped between heaves. Seconds later, the closet door began to unlock. The cop scrambled to his feet and got into position.

 

With a bang and clatter, the closet door surged open. As the first guard walked in, Watterson vomited on the man’s neck and chest. Stunned and disgusted, the guard did not go for his gun. Instead, the black-clad goon began trying to wipe at the vomit. The second guard was also surprised, and Watterson grabbed the man and threw him into the rickety water heater. The pipe wrenched free and scalding water gushed over the stumbling guard. Screaming, the man collapsed.

 

Braving the scalding water washing across the floor, Watterson grappled with the first guard. Puke on me. Gross. Watterson managed to seize the man’s gun from its hip holster and drive its butt into the man’s temple. With a grunt, the mercenary collapsed on top of his writhing partner. Reaching out, Watterson grabbed the doorknob of the half-open closet door and pulled it closed.

 

“It burns!” hollered the second guard, and Watterson brained him with the pistol. With both guards unconscious, the police lieutenant was able to cobble together a new wardrobe. He pulled shirts and pants off his former captors and, after outfitting himself, used the remaining fabric to bind and gag the guards. Each second that passed without a new squad of guards bursting into the closet increased the likelihood that the scuffle had not been heard by others. After several minutes, Watterson calmly exited the water heater closet. He was proud of his mercenary disguise.

 

In the distance, he could hear cheering.

 

5

 

The men slunk through the darkened hallways, seeking revenge. They had been given orders to terminate the two cops and reclaim the stolen cell phones. Most of the men were sheriff’s deputies, working on behalf of a thoroughly corrupt sheriff. The hired guns knew little, but the cash was nice…and plenty more was promised.

 

“First floor clear,” one of the deputies finally declared, and the heavily-armed team began stomping upstairs. Flashlights painted the walls and ceilings in erratic, moving patterns.

 

Roger Garfield pushed the king-size mattress off the top of the railing. In the darkness, it had been unseen by the corrupt deputies in SWAT gear. As the goons single-mindedly rushed up the stairs, they were suddenly tackled by the giant, heavy mattress. “What the fuck?!” one of them yelled. The men fell down under the weight. As they tried to wrestle free from the obstruction, a burly criminal justice professor from the University of Wyoming dragged a second mattress to the railing.

 

“Heave!” he yelled, and hurled the mattress over the wrought iron in a display of strength that would have made his old UC football coaches proud. With a whump, the second mattress landed atop the first, knocking the wind out of the men underneath. The top mattress slid forward as the entire mass bumped and thumped down the stairs. The deputies, their weapons pinned under their torsos, hollered in confusion and agony. As the top mattress collided with more deputies at the foot of the stairs, FBI agent Garfield yelled “go!”

 

Jumping down from the railing, Garfield landed atop the mattress and rolled and kicked. Beneath him, the team of assassins writhed and struggled. A second later, the heavier professor landed on the mattress. Frantically scooting and kicking, the two men slid down the two-mattress slide. Amazingly, all of the deputies were either trapped underneath or had been pinned against the side of the stairwell.

 

“Fuck yo mama,” the professor snapped at a gawping deputy, the man’s arms pinned against his side between the thick mattress and the wall. Garfield rolled off the second mattress and planted his feet on the hardwood of the first floor. “Time to boogie,” he gasped to his friend as his heart pounded and tension sweat ran down his cheeks.

 

Both men ran toward the front doors of the manor, feet pounding. A lone SWAT deputy with a halogen headlamp rounded a corner and tried to intercept them, forgetting that one of the targets was once an award-winning lineman. The professor dropped his shoulder and barreled into the goon, lifting him off his feet. With a crash, the deputy landed on an imported coffee table and shattered it. An earbud popped out of the man’s ear and angry words could be heard emanating from it.

 

Quickly, Roger Garfield bent down and swiped the deputy’s phone and its hands-free headset. The professor grabbed the deputy’s sidearm and swept the area to make sure that more foes were not approaching. As they bolted through the front doors, escaping into the rainy night, Garfield slipped the deputy’s earbuds into his own audial canals.

 

“Get done with those targets! We found the MIST at the Balmorhea State Park and are getting the birds ready. We need you to activate the Raton Air Base immediately. Do you copy, sergeant?”

 

Taking a calculated risk, Garfield responded into the headset mic that he copied. “I think we’re going to the municipal airport,” he told the professor. “After that, I have no idea.”

 

6

 

Lucifer raced toward his destiny. He could sense that the MIST was in Alpine, along with the mystery assassin who had been sowing the horrible stuff. He put the pedal to the metal through the town of Fort Davis, leaving his brights on to blind any potential enemies. As he approached the Hotel Limpia, a small team of black-clad mercenaries shielded their eyes after making a halfhearted attempt to aim their rifles at him. With most of their colleagues lying dead at the fort, they know fighting is a lost cause.

 

The highway forked and Lucifer hung a left, the heavy SUV almost drifting onto the shoulder. The road was wet and slick, but the rain was finally slacking off. Behind him, he could see the headlights of the pursuing vehicle. Hank Hummel is back there, on a mission. He thought he evaded me, but I am controlling this situation. I am nothing if not a master of manipulation.

 

To that end, Lucifer intentionally did not evade the man who wanted to destroy him. Although his MIST was far more advanced than his pursuer’s, and he could have driven faster despite the rain and darkness, he needed to ensure that Hank Hummel was always close by. Four of the six human beings infused with the nightmarish MIST were in the trailing SUV, and Lucifer would never be redeemed if he could not destroy them. He had to lure them into his trap, and failure was not an option.

 

The rain stopped entirely by the time Lucifer made it out of the mountains and onto the plains, the headlights revealing the distant glow of Alpine. Behind him, the other Expedition was gaining, Hummel apparently feeling emboldened by the respite from precipitation. Looking at the dash, Lucifer discovered that his engine was running hot and his gas tank was below one quarter full. Allah is testing me, and I shall not fail. Each second, the town grew nearer. More lights became visible, breaking up the peaceful desert night.

 

After cresting a shallow rise near the outskirts of town, the Syrian saw a fleet of taillights far ahead, cruising toward the railroad tracks. Squinting, he used his superhuman vision to make out the dark, squared-off lines of black SUVs, probably uparmored. Ah, the main mass of evildoers. They are numerous but stupid, mere pawns on the great chessboard of fate.

 

Before Lucifer could reach the convoy, which was moving far slower than he, his lungs and skin began to tingle. As a former member of Bashar Al-Assad’s forces, he was no stranger to chemical weapons. Unbidden, his mind flashed back to his use of such weapons on the campus of Midland University during its inauguration ceremony. He remembered the failed attempt, his physical and mental agony as the cloud of gas washed over him, and he felt shame. I was a monster, human filth. I still am.

 

His mind flashed back further, to Qamlishi and the news about his wife and daughter. The American drone had sought a military convoy, but had struck civilians instead. He remembered signing his name to the documents transferring him to Assad’s elite intelligence forces, his mind seeking revenge. He had blamed America for its brutal, arrogant ignorance and Assad’s regime for its vicious, foolish mayhem. In the end, he had punished both…or tried to.

 

The MIST recalled the memory of signing the papers in Damascus. His name, long forgotten, had been Ahmed Zuabi. He was from Latakia. His wife was from Homs, and they met at university. Painful memories, long repressed, were rolling back. Lucifer did not know whether it was the memories or the poison gas lingering in the night sky, but tears were rolling down his cheeks. Not my cheeks. Another man’s cheeks. I stole his body. He was a family man, and he deserved better.

 

Angry, Lucifer stomped down on the accelerator, no longer worrying about his overheating engine or diminishing gas tank. The convoy up ahead turned off onto a side road, heading east. Lucifer continued straight ahead, roaring through the town of Alpine at high speed. While the buildings on the northern outskirts of town were deserted, including the federal courthouse, he quickly began seeing vehicles crashed and strewn along curbs and sidewalks. The chemical weapons had incapacitated many late-night drivers, including an ambulance crew. Smashed halfway through someone’s backyard fence, the ambulance’s flashers blinked mindlessly.

 

Somewhere up ahead, a big mass of MIST was calling Lucifer home.

 

7

 

The oxygen coming through her mask was bitter and metallic, but she breathed it deeply nevertheless. Ava had her own mask, a model designed for a small child, and Whitney wondered if the girl was scared or crying behind the translucent Plexiglas. In the back of the upscale Hummer, sandwiched between two armed guards in WMD suits, Whitney did her best to calm her daughter. She could not talk through the thick mask, but she could rub her daughter’s back and give her reassuring squeezes.

 

Keeping quiet, Whitney had gathered that the conspiracy had launched the chemical attack on the train in order to gain easy access to the MIST in its armored laboratory cars. They had disposed of plenty of their own men in doing so, stationing them in the area beforehand. This way they don’t have to share their ill-gotten gains with as many mercenaries. Who knows how many more of these hired guns will be taken out of the equation before this is over?

 

How long before Ava and I will be taken out of the equation? Whitney thought of Michael, and prayed he was safe. He was probably with Hank’s parents, worried sick. Hugging her daughter, Whitney swore that she would see her son again. She would reunite Michael and Ava and they would grow up together.

 

Peering up ahead through the wide-set front seats, Whitney saw a train appear in the distance, bathed in lights from flares and external spotlights. The front of the train was destroyed, blasted into charred and twisted metal. As the convoy drew nearer, the Humvees turned on spotlights and searched the outside of the train. Dead bodies were strewn across the landscape, anonymous men dressed in dark tactical gear.

 

The vehicles eased to a stop and Whitney was told to stay in her seat. One of the two guards left the back seat, taking his assault rifle with him. Holding her daughter in her lap, Whitney watched as men in CBW suits quickly assembled and then approached the train with guns at the ready. There was a buzzing by her ear, and she realized that there was a tiny speaker in her mask.

 

“I’m glad you’re here to witness this,” the old woman said, her voice tinny over the radio. “We just picked up six vials of MIST that our agent tried to hide for his own purposes. After we get what’s on this train and collect what’s ours from our double-crossing employee, we will have a monopoly on the future. You can still be a part of that.”

 

“You stay the hell away from me and my daughter,” Whitney hissed, assuming that her mask also had a radio mouthpiece.

 

“Listen, Whitney, it’s coming close to time for you to play ball. You’re here and wearing a protective suit only as insurance against your husband trying to play John Rambo. Once that use for you is done, why should I keep you around? I won’t feel like wasting a suit on you. Or Ava.”

 

“Well, maybe I should just remove our masks, then! How do you think Hank will react when he finds out what happened? If the MIST is as powerful as you say it is, he’ll tear through your ex-military Call of Duty rejects like a hot knife through goddam butter!” Tears of anger welled in Whitney’s eyes, and she felt her words hit home. There was no response from her captor, only wounded silence.

 

8

 

Adam Welsh wailed over the body of his wife. He had fought, and he had lost. Though he had followed protocol and training fast, so very fast, it had not been enough. The soman had been potent, cloying, and the soap and water had been ineffective. Numb at first, he had carried their bodies back into the hotel room and set each on a matching twin bed. He had had such plans for them! Now it was worthless.

 

“We would have been so rich, Lauren. Beyond our wildest dreams. We would have had a monopoly on investing in the leaders of tomorrow,” he whispered over her body. “I had it all set up, you see? We would know everyone who got the MIST. They would go on to become leaders in their fields – bosses, supervisors, CEOs, millionaires. Pro athletes, geniuses, congressmen and presidents.” He pulled out his smartphone and showed it to her unseeing eyes. The Google doc was already populated with a hundred names. By ten o’clock in the morning, there would be hundreds more.

 

“They’ll come to swim and relax and make out and look at the pretty fish. They might feel a little tingle, but that’s it. They’ll go home, back to El Paso and Midland and Dallas and San Antonio. In days, they will start becoming something more.” Neither his wife nor daughter spoke, but Welsh felt the need to explain. How could his amazing plan be unsuccessful?

 

“We’ll buy shares in all of these people. Before they know that they are becoming the best possible versions of what they could ever hope to be – faster, stronger, smarter than ever – we will own part of their profits! For life! Up to thirty percent. I’ll have aliases, front companies, generic-sounding portfolios. It will be foolproof, and it will set us up for life.”

 

A tear fell from Welsh’s cheekbone and into his wife’s open eye. Snapping back to cold reality, the former spook reached out and used the heel of his hand to close her eyes. After wiping tears from his face, he walked over and did the same to his daughter. Now it’s over. They took this away from me. Fuck.

 

He vomited on the carpet, then walked to the corner of the room and sat in a cushioned armchair. Like a gentleman, he crossed his legs and put his chin in his palm, his elbow propped on the armrest. Around the hotel, he could hear occasional coughs, gasps, and cries of pain. Those on the upper floors might survive. The chemicals were heavier than air.

 

Welsh sensed something outside, a buzz that was more thought than felt. Someone else with MIST. This new MIST was different than the substance in the cylinders he had hidden in the parking lot, had a different signature. Parking lot. No.

 

The man in black leapt to his feet and ran from the room. He sprinted through the lobby, catching sight of the dead desk clerk on the floor. The automatic doors slid open, and Welsh breathed in a fresh punch of soman. How much did they use?! He ran to the parking lot in time to see a black Ford Expedition driving off. The passenger window was rolled down, and he saw his Styrofoam cooler. A bald man in civilian clothes was driving.

 

It’s the state trooper I saw on the news, the one who died in that crash. I would recognize that face and bald head anywhere. He’s supposed to be dead! A second later, he put it all together. The idea that his foes could change bodies by using MIST as some nefarious cut-and-paste of one’s consciousness was troubling.

 

You can’t lose again, he told himself. Get the MIST back and follow through with your original plan. You are a winner, not a loser.

 

Welsh ripped his car keys from his pocket and ran for his sports car. He was climbing behind the wheel as a second black Expedition tore past on the nearby highway.

 

9

 

The Diplomat crunched the numbers for the six cylinders of MIST. According to his figures, the six cylinders of silver magic were worth over ninety billion dollars. Each cylinder contained roughly seventy grams of suspended MIST, and MIST achieved critical mass at approximately three hundred milligrams in a localized spot in the human body. This meant they owned just over two hundred thirty doses of MIST.

 

Who would be the two hundred top bidders in the world? As an impeccably well-connected former State Department employee, the Diplomat’s job was to find out. Convinced to remain at his post for the time being, trapped by a web of threats and his own curiosity and greed, the Diplomat dove into his list of black market contacts. These fringe characters, mostly lawyers and financial advisers, were the late-night phone calls of cutthroat CEOs, ruthless politicians, shady bankers, secret crime lords, and vile heirs and heiresses.

 

“He’s got a kid with cancer,” the Diplomat explained to a disbarred lawyer and ex-cop who was now a private investigator to powerful CEOs who dabbled in corporate espionage. “How much would he pay for a guaranteed cure-all that would get that skinny kid an athletic scholarship at any university in the country? Hasn’t he been visiting different new doctors every week for the past two years?”

 

“What is this, some sort of experimental drug?” the PI asked. The woman tried to sound calm, but there was an underlying excitement in her voice.

 

“Of a sort. It’s unique, and very powerful. Guaranteed to work. But it’s gonna move fast. We have a very limited supply. Very limited. To be honest, nobody knows how to make any more. At least, not yet. But we control it all.”

 

“You have all the patents?” The PI could be heard typing things down.

 

“Yes,” the Diplomat replied with a smile. Patents. What a laugh. If only she knew…

 

“I’m authorized to promise eighty million up front. It’s his standard offer for anything that will cure his son. He’s even been talking to quacks in Russia and China about experimental programs, real Cold War spy stuff. Secret cities in Siberia, underground medical labs in Beijing, et cetera.”

 

Eighty is a little low, but you have to sell the first units at a bargain to start spreading positive word of mouth. And it’s not like we can advertise.

 

“We’ll accept eighty. I’ll contact you later with the details. Of course, you can’t tell anyone. You breathe a word of this, and the deal is off. We know people who will pay a hundred, easy.”

 

“Maybe, but we can pay cash. Lots of people make promises, but not many can deliver.”

 

“That’s why we called you first, ma’am,” the Diplomat charmed. “The operation to give the boy this new medicine will have to be very fast, and in a remote location. We do not want to risk other people finding out about this.” The call ended and the Diplomat made a second call, this one to the lawyer of a billionaire U.S. Senator. The politician, a preppy heir to a pharmaceutical fortune, had bought himself the office at age forty-one. He was a notorious playboy who wanted a fountain of youth.

 

“Opening bid is eighty-five million,” the Diplomat explained. “You can have it now at that price. If you pass, you’ll regret it. The price will rise. I know the good Senator does not like to be behind the curve.” After a moment of thought, the lawyer guaranteed the sum of eighty-five million, payable in cash or bearer bonds.

 

An alert flashed on the computer monitors, warning that phone communications had been compromised. The feds were now scanning all cell traffic. Quickly, the Diplomat ended the call and took a deep breath. The remaining doses of MIST would have to be sold in person. But where to hold such an auction? In what city could you ever accumulate two hundred rich VIPs in secret that has no love for the feds? Looking at a map of the United States tacked behind the computer monitors, the Diplomat thought of one city: Midland.

 

10

 

Hector Rodriguez opened the sunroof of the Expedition and stood through the opening, his chest and shoulders above the roof of the car. Hefting the assault rifle, he tried to aim at the vehicle ahead of him. The noxious air made his lungs burn, and the howling wind and rocking chassis made it difficult to aim in the pitch dark. Squinting, he fired off a burst. Despite the aid of the MIST, his bullets did not connect. Annoyed, he aimed again.

 

Ben, in the body of the blond state trooper, tore through the vinyl cargo cover and pulled the policeman’s legs out from under him. “Fuck!” he yelled as he grappled with his foe in the back seat. The M-4 clattered down inside the SUV and went off, shooting Carl Hummel through the seat. Distracted, Hank Hummel turned to check on his brother. Ben lunged forward, elbowing Hector in the face, and grabbed the steering wheel with his outstretched hand.

 

Hank snapped Ben’s wrist and wrenched it off the wheel, but the damage was already done. The tires were no longer parallel with the road. On the wet pavement, the big vehicle began to drift. It struck something and flipped over. Inside the cab, everything was chaos. Heads and limbs caromed off metal and hard plastic. Flesh tore and bones cracked.

 

Behind the tumbling Expedition, a sports car that had been roaring up from behind braked hard, trying to avoid a collision. Unfortunately, its brakes had never been serviced, and its stopping time was slower than it should have been. Though the driver’s reflexes were second to none, the impaired car still slammed into the flipping and rolling hulk. The tumbling Expedition, bulked up by expensive body armor, was heavy enough to flip the sports car when its rolling side panels caught under the Mustang’s front bumper.

 

The two vehicles tumbled together, eventually rolling to a stop on opposite sides of the highway.

 

Up ahead, the first black Expedition braked to a halt. Ahead of it were the lights of a fleet of Humvees, parked by the lit hulk of a disabled train. Behind it were two smoking wrecks. After the driver made a decision, the Expedition rolled forward again, gaining speed. Eagerly, it raced toward the train. With a silent click, the driver turned off the headlights.

 

Gunfire erupted and muzzle flashes lit up the darkness, but it was not the arriving SUV that was targeted. Rather, the shooters were aiming at the men in CBW suits who were coming out of the train cars. How disrespectful, to eliminate one’s own fellow conspirators, the driver thought. A second later, the shooters realized that someone was approaching and turned to aim at the onrushing car. Due to the positioning of their own vehicles, the shooters struggled to draw a bead on the SUV that seemed to blend into the night.

 

By the time the shooting started, the Expedition was nigh unstoppable. It plowed through a half dozen men in chemical warfare suits before the rest wisely scattered and retrained their fire. Raked with bullets from all angles, the SUV lost control and plowed into a black Cadillac limousine. Fire erupted and engulfed both vehicles.

 

“We got him!” one of the CBW-clad gunmen reported through his helmet radio. “It’s a done deal!”

 

The front door of the Expedition opened and the driver emerged, covered entirely in flames. He jolted and jittered as surprised gunmen shot him. He fell to the ground, motionless. “Now it’s a done deal,” one of the shooters corrected through his helmet mic. Suddenly, the radio network was filled with anguished screaming.

 

“It’s her! She’s in trouble!” The armed gaggle of mercenaries rushed toward the smoking Hummer. Suddenly, the flaming body of the Expedition’s driver began to move again. Rolling over, the man sat up and tucked the butt of an assault rifle into his shoulder. With the uncanny skills of an Olympic sharpshooter, the burning man took down a target with each three-round burst.

 

As the screaming continued to reverberate through the radio waves, the Expedition’s driver stood and lunged at his stunned and confused attackers. Quicker than a cat, he dispatched well-trained foes with martial arts moves learned in training centers in Damascus, Aleppo, Tehran, and Moscow. After five men fell limp, the rest fled into the night. It was very likely that they thought they were dealing with a supernatural being. And they’re not wrong, the driver thought.

 

A steel case lay on the ground next to the train. From that case came a metallic hum, a homing signal. The driver of the Expedition grabbed the case and opened it. Inside were three glass cylinders, of a similar design to the ones in the Styrofoam cooler in his cargo bay. Remembering that his car was on fire, he ran back to it and opened the rear lift gate. The fire had not spread beyond the front seats, and the cooler was undisturbed.

 

Holding the cooler in one hand and the steel case in the other, Lucifer realized that he had it all.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Eleven

 

1

 

Hank Hummel stood, his entire body tingling. Deep inside his bones, nanocells repaired the damage caused by the spectacular accident. His phone rang from inside his pocket, and he grabbed it. It was Whitney’s number, but the caller would not be her. Whoever it was, Hank had no desire to chat. Anger flowed through him as he heard Adam Pastorius’ new voice, coming from the mouth of the bald state trooper.

 

“I told you to deliver Carl Hummel and Hector Rodriguez, and you have. Take them, and that miserable Ben, to our final destination. That is where you will have the president send the ICBM. Don’t think I don’t know about that plan. It is the only one that makes sense.”

 

“My wife and daughter?” Hank asked.

 

“They are coming your way. They were by the train, in a Humvee. Apparently, they were being held as leverage of some sort. Well, that leverage is no longer needed. They are free. But you must send them on their way, and come to me instead.”

 

Hank said nothing. He could not speak.

 

“You know I am right. They should not have to spend the rest of their lives with you. You are no longer normal. And there is no going back. You cannot be allowed to live, to spread the MIST. It spreads like a virus.”

 

The phone dropped from Hank’s hand and broke on the pavement, the screen dissolving into a thousand cracks. Hank never thought he would see his wife and daughter again, and to do so would be too much to bear. He would be tempted to cling to them, to run with them.

 

He heard his wife before he saw her, running hard in the special suit that protected her from the toxic air. Then he saw her, backlit by the glow of lights from around the destroyed train. Whitney was holding little Ava in her arms. She ran to him. Desperately, he hugged her and Ava. Whitney set down Ava and tried to lift up the mask, but Hank held her hands.

 

“Don’t, angel. You won’t be able to breathe.” His voice cracked and he was crying. “You need to take Ava and run back toward town. Don’t stop. They’re about to nuke this whole area; it’s the only way to stop the MIST permanently.”

 

Whitney grabbed Hank’s hands with her own, trying to pull him along with her. “I can’t, I can’t!” Hank cried. Ava grabbed at the knees of his pants, pulling as well. “Daddy!” she called through her mask. Ava began trying to remove her own mask, and Hank held her hands to stop her.

 

“You’ve got to go, Whitney! Now!”

 

Carl Hummel joined them, a latticework of silvery MIST repairing the left side of his head and face. He said nothing, and there were tears in his eyes as well. “Find Ben,” Hank told him, and Carl disappeared into the night. Hector Rodriguez appeared next, and also did not speak. He disappeared as well.

 

“I love you Whitney. Always remember that. Always.”

 

2

 

Detective lieutenant William Watterson pulled on the black balaclava and bravely ventured out into the lighted parking lot of the Balmorhea State Park, joining the milling mercenaries as they celebrated their find. Some sort of medical equipment container, the type he had seen in ambulances, was sitting on the open tailgate of a Super Duty pickup. It was being filled with dry ice by a pair of masked goons who were wearing protective gloves. A handful of corrupt state troopers, having traded their honor for cash and promises, guarded the parking lot entrance. Of course, given the ungodly hour, the highway was silent.

 

“This is the big payday,” a mercenary grinned, patting Watterson on the back. Despite being covered from head to toe in black, the detective was worried about being discovered. He was surprised that his escape from the water heater closet had yet to be discovered. “Hell yeah,” he replied. “This stuff is gonna change the world.” He chatted with his new buddy for a moment, trying to discern whether or not the man knew anything specific about the MIST. Unsurprisingly, it seemed that the goons had been kept in the dark.

 

“So what’s the plan? I got a bit turned around on patrol.”

 

“The drones are coming in now. We load the stuff into the drones, and they go into bounce mode. Unstoppable, man. There are so many configurations that the feds will never figure it out.” Watterson nodded as if the information made perfect sense. He asked his new buddy if he had a cell phone. “Mine got waterlogged in the rain. I need to check my department’s duty schedule, see if I need to call in.”

 

Smiling, the goon handed over his late-model Samsung. “I just checked mine an hour ago. They still don’t need me for tomorrow. They’re pretty generous with shift schedules in Big Spring.” Watterson smiled, his wager about many of the goons being cops having paid off. He fit right in. He used the mercenary’s phone to check his messages.

 

Dr. Baurin, the sniveling internist, had called seven minutes ago.

 

“Hey, it’s me. I’m in Fort Davis, and everything’s a madhouse! There are dozens of cars fleeing this place at high speed, all black and with no license plates. I don’t know what’s going on, but it looks like some sort of evacuation!”

 

Watterson called the number back and the doctor answered on the third ring. There was no time to worry whether or not the other black-clad goons were listening in.

 

“Listen, doc, it’s your favorite detective. I need you to find where these people were evacuating from. It’s probably a large building in town, something that could serve as a command center. Find it, and turn on any computer, phone, or electronic gizmo they left behind. Take that info and send it to detective Brett Borgmann’s office at MPD. That’s Borgmann with two Ns. His direct line is on the department website, or you can Google it. He’ll send it on to the right people.”

 

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Baurin said nervously.

 

“If Borgmann gets your call, he’ll make sure you get full immunity in exchange for testifying. There’s gonna be a hundred trials after this thing wraps up, I can guarantee it.” Properly incentivized, the doctor agreed to search for the command center. Heart pounding, Watterson ended the call.

 

The man stared suspiciously at Watterson.

 

“What the hell was that, man?” the corrupt Big Spring cop asked. “Are you-”

 

A fist snapped up and hit the man in his Adam’s apple, incapacitating him. As the other mercenaries looked over, startled, Watterson bolted for the edge of the parking lot. He was old and overweight, but the mercenaries were caught by surprise. They had not been anticipating an enemy in their midst.

 

The graying detective was almost to the edge of the lot, where the babbling canal that ran from the cienega to the pool awaited, when he was hit twice. He fell on his back and rolled down the hillside as shots rang out overhead. Pain burned in his side, and his guts felt torn and jagged.

 

The phone! Don’t let the phone get wet!

 

Using the last of his strength, Watterson controlled his roll into the canal and made sure he entered feet-first. He managed to keep his feet beneath him in the water, and let the current carry him along. Despite screaming from his ribs and lats, he held the cell phone above his head and kept it dry. As the mercenaries rushed over to scan the canal, the wounded man slipped beneath the bridge that bore visitors into the parking lot and disappeared into the shadows.

 

I don’t know how long I’ve got, but damned if I won’t make it count.

 

3

 

She had been abandoned, left to die. Her mercenaries, who had promised their loyalty, had fled. Her damned seat belt, which she ordinarily did not use, had jammed and kept her trapped after the collision. Fortunately, her thick CBW suit had acted as a protective insulator and dulled the pain of the flames. Nevertheless, she had screamed long and loud into the radio. She had thought help would be coming, but nobody had opened the limousine door.

 

Outside, the whup whup whup of helicopter rotors ripped through the night sky. Was it the feds? It was no longer raining, so President Sanders’ entire armada was headed her way, by ground and by air. A new take on by land or by sea, she almost laughed. The helicopter landed nearby and she waited, in pain, for arrest. Her use of soman would guarantee the death penalty.

 

The limousine door opened and she discovered, instead of a CBW-suited soldier or federal agent, that the face behind the Plexiglas shield belonged to her protégé.

 

“Are you here to save me?” she asked over the radio. She felt weak, and wondered how bad her burns were. The suit had saved her from smoke inhalation.

 

“No. I’m here to frame you,” her protégé replied. “I’m just dropping off a few things. You will never recover, and your value from this point forward is minimal at best. You’ve taught me well, and for that I am grateful.”

 

“Don’t do this,” she begged. The young traitor set a tablet computer by the old woman’s side, as well as a folder full of papers. The car door closed again, and the helicopter’s rotors could be heard increasing their tempo. Seconds later, the chopper lifted off.

 

I trained that girl. Made her a genuine leader, a force of accomplishment. After her company went under, and she was left with nothing but hounding lawsuits. Talent, but no guile. And now that bitch has thrown me under the bus.

 

Long minutes went by, and she felt herself slipping closer to death. New sounds could be heard in the distance – jet planes. The air armada had arrived. But the MIST was already on the move. It was loose. Everything was sideways.

 

“This is Captain Terry Franks of the United States Air Force and I am taking over the radio channel. This band has been identified as in use by enemies of the state. Identify yourself immediately and you will be apprehended without violence.”

 

Breathing deeply, she contemplated using the radio and spilling her guts, admitting to everything. She thought about revealing the identity of her protégé, the woman who had left her to die in this smoldering limousine. What good was remaining silent? When they found her corpse in this wrecked car, she would replace Benedict Arnold as the worst traitor in the nation’s history. Might as well get revenge while I can.

 

She tried to speak, but her mind went fuzzy. As darkness clouded her vision, she slumped over in her seat. At that moment, as if mocking her, the seatbelt finally unsnapped. The old woman tumbled over and landed on the burnt floorboards of the limousine. Seconds later, her life completely ebbed away.

 

4

 

FBI agent Roger Garfield raced through the night in the stolen Colfax County Sheriff’s Department cruiser, wondering just how much of a head start he had gained on the corrupt deputies whom he had foiled at the villa. “Keep an eye out back there,” he told the professor for the umpteenth time. In the back seat, the big ex-cop held the cruiser’s AR-15 assault rifle in his hands. If trouble came racing up from behind, they would not be sitting ducks.

 

Using the cruiser’s in-dash navigation system, Garfield kept an eye out for the Raton Municipal Airport. The digital map indicated that it would be on the right side of the highway. Maintaining his speed, Garfield flipped on the cruiser’s spotlight and aimed it to the right, illuminating the fields to the south.

 

“Over there!” the professor called from the back seat, and Garfield saw the searchlight illuminate a radar tower. Carefully, he slowed the Chevy Tahoe and shut off the spotlight and headlights so as not to alert any conspirators who were waiting inside. Putting the vehicle into four-wheel-drive, he eased off the pavement and trundled through the muddy field. “Brace yourself,” he told the prof. “There’s probably a fence.” Seconds later, the heavy vehicle plowed through a chain-link fence, its grille guard snapping the thin metal.

 

Garfield braked and turned off the engine. “We better walk from here,” he said. “If we’re dealing with anything as serious as what we’ve already dealt with, there will probably be plenty of guns around that radar tower.” In the pitch darkness, the professor racked the slide of his rifle in affirmation. “Ready when you are, agent Garfield.”

 

The two men quietly exited the SUV and began feeling their way across the field toward the soft lights of the radar tower. Scuttling low, they felt for thorns, divots, and other obstacles with their feet, maintaining their firearms at the ready. Within minutes, the mud and rain-covered plants had soaked through their shoes and pant cuffs.

 

“Step one: Save the world. Step two: Find dry shoes,” Garfield quipped in a whisper. Then he stopped and put a hand on his friend’s arm. “They’re here,” he said softly. Squinting, both men could make out armed sheriff’s deputies milling around the base of the radar tower. Though the building’s lights were turned off, the corrupt deputies had made the mistake of remaining glued to their phones. Blue and white lights illuminated faces.

 

“How many do you count?” the professor asked.

 

“I think eight,” Garfield whispered.

 

“Do we try to disarm them?”

 

“No, too risky. We’re too outnumbered. Plus, they’ve got defensive positions and we’re stuck out here in the open.”

 

Quietly, they concocted a plan to distract the deputies when the time came. When something came in to land at the airport, they would strike hard and fast. If they achieved complete surprise, the two of them might have a chance against eight greedy, likely half-incompetent, disgruntled cops. “What do you think our chances are?” the professor asked, sitting cross-legged in the muddy brush.

 

“I’d say fifty-fifty.”

 

5

 

Adam Welsh returned to consciousness to find, with his MIST-given night vision, a young blond man standing over him. “Don’t try anything foolish. After eleven weeks in outer space, getting in touch with my MIST, I can do things you can’t even imagine.” Reacting fast, Welsh rolled and spun, rocketing to his feet. Eye to eye, he faced a man who felt eerily familiar.

 

“I made you who you are,” the blond man said. “My name is Boris Elkanovitch, and we have met before. Years ago, you killed my team in Midland, in the county courthouse. You were quite something. Eleven weeks ago, I killed you in a duel in Colfax County. It turns out that you weren’t so fast the second time around.”

 

Now I know. Boris Elkanovitch. Ben. Those files read like a James Bond script.

 

“What do you want, Ben?” Welsh asked. His body was on edge, debating at the cellular level between fight or flight. Every nerve in his body was howling.

 

“I want to make some money, and I think you do, too. But we must hurry.” Ben pointed behind them, and Welsh turned to see three men in the distance.

 

“The collision threw us far from them, but they’re a wily bunch. No match for me one-on-one, of course, but I’d prefer to have backup against all three. We can either travel together, get the MIST and become rich, or I can leave you to fend for yourself.”

 

“I’m not afraid of them,” Welsh replied, though he was unsure about this. He had tangled with Hank Hummel before, and had suffered the first failure of his professional career. Expecting an easy kill, he had unwarily sauntered back into that bathroom with his gun only half-cocked. When Hummel had gotten the drop on him with that heavy toilet tank, he had been unable to turn the tables. The high school teacher and novelist had escaped the house, along with his damned dog.

 

Though the botched job had not made it into Welsh’s official record, he had never forgotten it.

 

“Are you in or out?” Ben asked. Welsh said he was in. “Then we better move fast.” As soon as those words were spoken, the three men down the road saw them.

 

“Don’t move!” police lieutenant Hector Rodriguez ordered. “Get down on the ground with your hands above your head!”

 

Ben burst out laughing. “I have to give you points for trying!” he chuckled. “I almost felt like surrendering!” A gunshot sounded and Ben took a bullet to his chest. “Okay, time to go,” he said. “They’ve gotten better at this.”

 

“Where do we go?” Welsh asked, confused.

 

“Let’s check out the train over yonder. I’ll bet at least one of the dozen vehicles sitting around it still runs.”

 

The two men took off running, sprinting toward the ruined hulk of the train. Behind them, three men followed in hot pursuit.

 

6

 

“We have aerial domination, Mr. President,” an aide cheered. A fleet of full-size drones had descended successfully upon Fort Davis, scanning everything in town. No antiaircraft response had been detected. “It appears that the enemy has decided to hide rather than resist.”

 

“When can we get boots on the ground?” the president asked, crinkling a can of Red Bull and tossing the aluminum vessel into a corner. When the stakes were that high, there was little time to search for a trash can. “Ten minutes, sir,” another aide replied, looking up from a holographic screen. “By helicopter. The first vehicles should be entering the town five or six minutes after.”

 

“Do we have a read on the MIST yet?” the Director of Central Intelligence demanded. Taking a cue from his exhausted boss, the man had eschewed his usual suit jacket for a T-shirt, this one of his alma mater of West Point. In the bullpens, the early hour and the intense stress had wrung sweat from every pore and sprouted a crop of colorful tees to replace button-downs. The Ivy League was widely represented, though state flagship universities were also numerous. Local sports teams were popular as well. A White House staffer in a Redskins jersey announced that MIST was not present in Fort Davis.

 

“Expand the search radius. If the conspiracy has gone underground, they likely went to the train to consolidate their existing holdings of MIST with the MIST gleaned from the Silver Six,” the president said. “And they’re taking advantage of the chaos in Alpine. Christ!” Angry tears welled in the president’s eyes as he thought of the agonized misery in Alpine. How many dead? How many permanently crippled?

 

The Secretary of Defense walked up and grabbed the president’s arm. “Have you armed the warhead?” she whispered. The president nodded somberly. “Yes. As soon as I have the location, it can be launched.”

 

A man rushed over from the bullpen and announced that a cell phone call had come in from the Balmorhea State Park. “We’ve got a police detective named William Watterson calling from the park. He says that some of the MIST is there, being loaded into a container full of dry ice. He said they tried to kill him.”

 

“Can anyone confirm that information?” the president asked, suddenly reinvigorated.

 

“I don’t think so, sir. He said he was bleeding out.”

 

“Then I have just one question: Do you think he was being honest?” The president looked deeply into the staffer’s eyes. “I need your gut feeling, sir.”

 

Swallowing and taking a deep breath, the man replied that he thought the caller was telling the truth. The president thanked the man for his candor and walked immediately to the Oval Office. He closed the door behind him, not bothering to engage the locks. Speed was of the essence. He sat down at his desk and activated the hidden nuclear command center. One missile was ready to launch, but he needed a second. The president selected a one-point-two megaton B83 warhead because he already had a precise location.

 

“Target the Balmorhea State Park, and put the blast and damage radii on my wall map,” he said into his desk mic. A second later, the wall-size holographic map revealed a close-up of the southwestern quadrant of Texas. The surface blast would generate a half-mile fireball radius and a two mile destructive radius. “How long will it take to strike once it is launched?” the president demanded. The computer replied that the journey would take six minutes.

 

“Estimated casualties?” the president asked with gritted teeth. Using the latest population data for the towns of Toyahvale and Balmorhea, coupled with the seasonal tourist occupancy rate in those areas, plus the average number of highway travelers for the late hour, the computer estimated six hundred dead and seven hundred seriously injured. The given the swirling weather patterns, it was possible that substantial radioactive fallout could affect the larger town of Pecos to the north.

 

Nervously, the president asked the map to also include the results of the twenty megaton warhead strike, tentatively targeted on the disabled train. The new holographic image was horrifying. Due to the close proximity of the town of Alpine, deaths would range into the thousands. Many of those who were suffering from the recent chemical attack would be far too weak to survive even a relatively distant nuclear strike.

 

The casualties are too high to launch the weapons without absolute certainty. I need drone confirmation.

 

7

 

With a hearty roar, the Hummer H1 Alpha fired up on the first turn of the key. “These corrupt bastards went all out,” Hector cheered as Hank dropped the enormous SUV into gear. “Does this thing have a fridge in the back?” Carl inspected a swivel-mounted .50 caliber machine gun and announced that there was no fridge. As the Hummer ground onto the highway and slowly headed toward its top speed, the accountant discovered how to open the sunroof and raise the mounted gun through it.

 

“I hope you do better than me!” Hector encouraged. Carl peered through the sights and flipped on the high-powered searchlight. Up ahead, Ben and his new ally could only be seen as distant taillights. “They’re too far away!” Carl complained over the rumble of the engine. Hank had the accelerator to the floor, but the big vehicle was not known for its pursuit ability. Hector demanded to know where they were going, and Hank said that they were following Ben. They did not know where Ben was going, but presumed that he was heading in the direction of Adam Pastorius.

 

“And what happens when we get there?!” They did not know that either. Carl, as a former rifle instructor, might be able to shred them with the .50 cal, but that would do little about the MIST. And there was an excellent chance that Ben and his new friend had an identical machine gun in their own Hummer. Given Ben’s propensity for murder, it was almost certain that the Russian would try to use such a weapon if he had it. The other man was unknown, but both Hank and Hector figured that said individual was also extremely prone to violence.

 

Eventually, they got the military-inspired vehicle up to eighty-five miles an hour, at which point its long-term viability came into question. “It might overheat,” Hector warned, but they dared not let their quarry increase the gap. Up ahead, the steady size of the red taillights indicated that the other Hummer was also moving at top speed. Suddenly, a flame of muzzle shot erupted from atop the vehicle. As Hank and Hector watched, horrified, an oncoming convoy of state troopers was strafed by .50 caliber rounds. “Christ, he’s mowing them down!” Hector gasped. Unable to respond, the unarmored sedans and light-duty SUVs swerved onto the shoulder and tried to evade the bullets.

 

Anxiously, the detective lieutenant grabbed for the in-dash radio and searched for a channel. “This is MPD Lt. Hector Rodriguez in the second Humvee! We are friendlies in hot pursuit of the shooters! Do not fire on us! I repeat, the trailing Humvee is a friendly!” After several tense moments, a gruff voice responded in the affirmative.

 

“We’re entering Fort Davis now, as per your earlier message, lieutenant. In a couple minutes we’ll figure out exactly what has been going on,” the voice continued. A new voice popped up on the band and announced that that ship had sailed. “After Alpine, we know we’re heading into some sort of operation of domestic terrorism,” a younger man said. “We’ll go in hot. Lieutenant, do you and your team need assistance?”

 

Hank and Hector looked at each other. Hank turned off the radio and reduced his speed. “Hec, I’m gonna pull over and let you and Carl off here.”

 

“What the hell?!”

 

“When I went back to my house, Ben had kidnapped Whitney and Ava. Adam Pastorius called me, and I made a deal with him to get them back. I promised to deliver you and Carl to him if he got Whitney and Ava back to me. I’m sorry.”

 

8

 

Lucifer saw the lights glowing in the pre-dawn darkness. As soon as he saw the small building, he realized that it was where he would die. He would make his last stand and his final statement there. He had caused untold misery, but there was no reason that he could not grandstand a bit. He parked the black SUV on the shoulder and left it idling, setting the emergency brake.

 

There was a security system, but Lucifer disabled it with his fingertip. Inside, the once-luxurious carpet was covered in a layer of dead insects. He set the Styrofoam cooler on the floor and slipped a glass cylinder into each Prada purse. The empty cooler was returned to the front passenger seat of the Expedition. Lucifer had found a 9mm handgun in the glove box, and he retrieved it now. He stuck the gun in his waistband.

 

Walking around to the driver’s side, Lucifer disengaged the emergency brake. He pressed Resume on the steering wheel and the SUV roared off into the night. It tore through a barbed wire fence and bounced through a field. Lucifer watched it rumble, squeal, and howl into the distance.

 

Wind began to blow and the first stars appeared in the sky as the clouds cracked apart. It is a big universe out there. Will the MIST destroy us, or help us explore it? With the building’s warm lighting bidding him farewell, Lucifer walked out onto the shoulder of the deserted highway. He placed the barrel of the pistol against his temple, whispered a brief prayer from his youth, and pulled the trigger.

 

The bald state trooper’s body crumpled to the crushed gravel and rolled back down the incline, coming to rest a swamp of tan mud. The legs and arms twitched briefly, then were still. After seconds of silence, insects began to chirp again. In the west, headlights appeared and grew larger. A Dodge Charger state police cruiser, racing in from El Paso, roared past the misplaced building on the plains. Camouflaged by mud and shadows, the body of the bald man was not seen by the driver.

 

As the police car entered the small town of Valentine, slowing only slightly as dilapidated shops and houses appeared on either side of the highway, the driver felt a tingling in his nose and mouth. He had the vent fans on high, and reached out to turn them off.

 

9

 

Ben felt the tingle in his bones and raced east through Marfa. A few more official vehicles headed past him, rushing to the chaos of Alpine, and Adam Welsh fired on them with his .50 cal. The former CIA spook was a valuable asset, but Ben was already thinking of ways to successfully end their partnership. Something was off about Welsh – he seemed distracted. Was it by lust? Love? Revenge? Ben sought only profit, and a partner who was distractible was not suitable for a long-term operation.

 

If I can get him in front of the Hummer, I can use the machine gun on him and escape before his MIST can try to bond with me.

 

After firing a long burst at a state trooper heading east, walking a line of bullets up the hood of the Dodge Charger, Welsh swung himself back into the front passenger seat. In the rearview mirror, Ben saw the damaged cruiser swerve off the road and crash into a cinderblock fence. “Chalk up another one,” Welsh said coldly. Ben contemplated trying to throw Welsh from the moving Hummer, but decided that the man in black would be too able a grappler. Though Ben’s MIST was more developed, he knew that his American counterpart was no slouch either.

 

“Engine’s overheating,” Welsh remarked, looking at the dash. The 6.5 liter turbodiesel, running at full power for many miles, had a thermometer in the red. “I think the MIST is close by,” Ben replied, relying on instinct. Though Pastorius had a head start and a faster vehicle, Ben figured that the Syrian’s goal was not to run. Rather, the former terrorist was likely preparing for a last stand. Although all cops and soldiers in the area were rushing to Fort Davis and Alpine, they would eventually focus on catching Pastorius’ black Expedition. Ben’s co-tenant on the Silver Six satellite could only run so far.

 

“He’s setting up for last stand,” Ben explained. Welsh nodded, accepting Ben’s far greater knowledge of Adam Pastorius’ twisted mind. “But where? We’re past Marfa and it’s nothing but fields.”

 

“There’s the town of Valentine up ahead,” Ben said, looking at the in-dash navigation. A moment later, a smattering of lights appeared and the Hummer roared through the wide spot in the road, rickety houses practically swaying on either side. As the vehicle passed through the town, the engine shrieked and began blowing smoke through the dash vents. “We’ve thrown a rod,” Welsh snarled. Ben contemplated shooting him, but refrained. He continued driving, pushing beyond the town.

 

As the Hummer shuddered and issued terrible squeals of grinding belts and scraping metal from under the hood, Ben spotted a well-lit storefront up ahead on the left. The store was by itself, isolated in the middle of nowhere. With power steering failing, Ben gripped the steering wheel and aimed the hulking SUV toward the building. He sensed something in the building, and wanted to check it out.

 

The Hummer rocked onto the shoulder and pulled to a stop in front of the store. “Purses?!” snapped Welsh, looking over Ben’s shoulder. “Who the hell buys purses out here?” Remaining in his seat, Ben turned off the ruined engine and touched his index finger to the in-dash computer. Guided by the MIST, the microchips searched for the identity of the purse store and revealed that the building was an art installation.

 

“Prada Marfa,” Ben said aloud. “Yeah, this fits with that crazy bastard’s way of thinking. Must be some critique of capitalism.”

 

“But where’s his car? There’s nothing out here.”

 

“He’s tricky. He could have parked up the road, or out in a field. Chances are that he has laid a trap for us. Better put your thinking cap on, Mr. Welsh. One wrong move, and it’s likely that some sort of booby trap will light us up.”

 

10

 

Bob Baurin found the side door of the Jeff Davis County Courthouse unlocked and snuck inside. The small town was descending into chaos around him, and the lack of daylight made it even worse. Moments after Baurin had coaxed the old 4-Runner into town, worried about being shot on sight by some Blackwater thug, a convoy of outbound mercenaries ran into a convoy of inbound cops. As he parked the SUV in a motel parking lot, preparing to head out on foot and find some way to make that crazy cop William Watterson happy, the world exploded.

 

The bad guys were trying to shoot their way out of town, and the good guys were trying to shoot their way in. Dr. Baurin had darted, snuck, scrambled, and scuttled to the center of the tourist town under the cover of shadow, his desire for dropped criminal charges outweighing his fear of violence. As he crept through a vacant lot behind a historic saloon, a helicopter roared over the town, both delivering and taking fire. Mercenaries who were unable to flee from the town were unwilling to surrender.

 

When Baurin had seen the county courthouse, he had immediately known that it was, or at least had been, the epicenter of the conspiracy. The building was darkened, but flashes of light and distant sources of illumination revealed gun barrels sticking out of windows. Though he dreaded the thought of trying to enter the building, the internist quickly came to believe that the ad hoc fortress was actually empty: The front doors were hanging open, the building was all quiet inside, and there were no vehicles in the parking lot.

 

It makes sense, Baurin had thought to himself. The leaders got out while the getting was good, and left their hired guns to take the fall.

 

Gunfire around the outskirts of town intensified, and the doctor came to believe that it was safer inside the courthouse than skulking in the bushes. Mustering up his courage, he had darted across open ground and run to the service door on the side of the quaint courthouse. Miraculously, the door had opened on the first tug.

 

“Hello?! Anybody here?! I’m a doctor!” Baurin waited several minutes before venturing forward in the pitch blackness. His hand groped for a light switch and found it. When the old fluorescents flickered to life, the doctor found himself in a narrow hallway lined with storage closets and a barred holding cell. Cautiously, he walked forward and explored the first floor of the building, turning on lights as he went. In the main hallway, he saw the unmistakable signs of a hasty evidence-destroying operation. Paper was strewn everywhere, and a jammed shredder in a corner still had a half sheaf of documents jutting from the top.

 

Baurin tore the jammed sheaf free from the metal teeth and looked through it. Sure enough, they were technical documents about MIST. The doctor folded them up and stuffed them in his pants pockets. Looking around for a computer, he saw a sleeping laptop on a bench. He opened it and saw nothing of interest on the desktop. Checking the documents folder, he discovered that it was empty. Suspicious.

 

Then Dr. Baurin checked the trash bin, and discovered that someone had tried to erase gigabytes of documents. Quickly, the doctor tried to open the Internet browser so he could email the documents out. The courthouse WiFi had been turned off, and the doctor cursed profusely. Remembering that his new phone had satellite connectivity, he pulled out the device and used its extendable port to attach the phone to the laptop.

 

Using the mass transfer app on his phone, Baurin sent all the documents in the laptop’s trash bin to detective Brett Borgmann of the MPD. A second after he hit send, he heard feet pounding up the stairs that led into the elevated lobby from the front doors. Men were talking about the lights being on, and they did not sound happy about it. Thank God for the National Guard, Baurin thought. He stood up and smiled.

 

It was not the National Guard.

 

11

 

Someone in the administration was a traitor, for the drones sent to the Balmorhea State Park to detect the presence of MIST landed at the site instead. “They’re transferring the MIST onto the drones,” the president snapped as soon as he heard the news. “That confirms its presence. I will deal with that. You men, find who was in charge of flying in those drones.” The Secret Service agents outside the Oval Office quickly departed, heading off to search the White House offices for whoever was controlling the computers that flew the drones.

 

His nerves steeled, the president typed in the commands to launch the B83 warhead. When the missile had cleared the silo, he poured two large shots of whiskey from his private bar and downed them both. On shaky legs, he returned to his desk. He was in entirely unprecedented territory. On his holographic wall, a digital clock began counting down to impact.

 

There were four and a half minutes left on the clock when he felt the warm, smooth wave of whiskey soften his mind. He was tempted to pour a third shot, but realized that he would soon have to explain his actions to the world. Sobriety was important. He needed to put back on a button-down shirt and tie.

 

The door to the Oval Office burst open and a young aide rushed in with a letter opener. He advanced on the president while apologizing. He said something about needing the MIST for his daughter. Fuck me, the president thought as he retreated across the room. Too late, he realized that his Secret Service agents were searching the building for the drone operator. It’s all up to me now.

 

Stopping at the president’s desk, the aide began tinkering with the nuclear warhead control panel. “Tell me how to stop it!” the young man demanded, eyes wild. The president grabbed a pineapple-sized bust of Lyndon B. Johnson and responded that he would do nothing of the sort. “Then you’ve gotta die,” the millennial snapped. The president swung the hunk of bronze, but the attacker was too quick. Dodging, the kid in navy pinstripes only took a grazing blow on the arm. A second later, the president felt the letter opener plunging into his midsection.

 

Crumpling to the carpet, the president watched helplessly as the young man returned to the control panel. He pressed his hands to his stomach, trying to apply pressure around the handle of the letter opener. It didn’t hurt too bad – yet. He had an emergency button on his wristwatch, but his fingers were weak and fumbly. “Stupid arthritis,” he whispered to himself.

 

“What the fuck?!” the Secretary of Defense roared from the door of the Oval Office. A second later, a single gunshot ripped through the air. The young man jolted backward from the president’s desk and collapsed next to the fallen commander-in-chief. As the president lay still, conserving his energy, a flurry of feet rushed around him. The SecDef knelt over him, telling him to hang on. Her DCI husband arrived and took over the president’s encrypted tablet, ensuring that someone was in charge. Polished shoes of Secret Service agents ran to and fro. People were calling for a doctor.

 

“We’ve got you, Mr. President,” an agent said, bending over to apply impromptu compresses around the belly wound. “The doctors are coming at full speed.” The president closed his eyes and lost consciousness.

 

He opened them again and saw that there were only eight seconds left until impact. As a doctor shined a light in his eyes, he looked to his right and watched the countdown. He was about to become the first president to use a weapon of mass destruction against U.S. citizens.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Twelve

 

1

 

As the sky began to brighten in the east, signaling the impending dawn, the line of drones on the straight section of highway idled loudly. William Watterson watched as the MIST cylinders were placed in the unmanned planes, each cylinder being carefully secured in the cargo bay of each drone. They’re flying them out of here.

 

Knowing that time was running out, Watterson hoisted himself from his hiding place inside the canal. His limbs felt weak and rubbery, but he wouldn’t be needing much endurance. His phone call had set something in motion, and he knew help was on the way. But if those drones managed to get airborne before the help arrived, the MIST would disappear. There would be no guarantee of recapturing it.

 

Watterson clawed his way up the embankment and, in a tremendous stroke of luck, discovered a guard with earbuds jammed into his auditory canals. Oblivious to any threat, the mercenary was quickly relieved of his AR-15 and knocked over the low bridge railing into the canal below. Wheezing and bleeding anew, Watterson knelt on the pavement and aimed the rifle toward the state park’s entrance. Meters beyond the entrance, lined up in a column, the six drones made easy targets.

 

As mercenaries yelled, noticing Watterson’s presence, the old cop began shooting. He pulled the trigger as many times as he could before he himself was struck down. As his life ebbed out of him, he heard someone yell to launch the drones. “These ones won’t work!” was the enraged reply, and Watterson smiled. Seconds later, his soaked pockets were being searched by mercenaries. They discovered the cell phone and tried to turn it on. Waterlogged, the device would not respond. Had they been able to get to the call log, they would have discovered that the final one was to a blocked number in Washington, D.C.

 

“This one’s been hit three times!” a mercenary yelled as he stood beside a sparking and hissing drone. He and a partner began opening the cargo bay to take out the invaluable MIST cylinder. Moments later, as they plucked the glass from dry ice with gloved hands, they were erased from existence by an atomic fireball.

 

2

 

The five men stood outside the Prada Marfa art installation, looking inside at the beautiful and ironic scene. Boris Elkanovitch, Adam Welsh, Hector Rodriguez, and Hank and Carl Hummel crossed their arms and did not speak. Each of them could feel the MIST hidden inside, signaling to the nanocells that now infiltrated their organs, muscles, and bones. “You know, we could reshape the world,” Boris Elkanovitch said. “This stuff is magic. Pure magic. You could use it to save lives.”

 

“And give you a cut to make profit from?” Hank Hummel snapped.

 

“A cylinder for each of us would be fair,” Adam Welsh suggested. “And we throw the sixth to the wind. A kind of twist of fate. Let the wind carry it into the mountains behind us, turn it into an enchanted land.”

 

“No, not when we’ve come this far. We’ve given up our lives to get rid of this stuff,” Hector Rodriguez declared. Adam Welsh laughed.

 

“I guess you guys don’t know. This is only half of it. I hid the other half at the Balmorhea State Park. No matter what you do here, six cylinders of the stuff are ready to be released into the pool at the park’s opening.” In the east, the sun suddenly rose in mere seconds, astounding them.

 

“Looks like Balmorhea’s open for the day,” Welsh laughed, confused. Then, surprisingly, the sunrise dissipated and pre-dawn darkness returned.

 

“That was a nuclear explosion, not a sunrise,” Carl Hummel said softly. “I guess someone else found out about your little ruse.” The man in black looked crestfallen.

 

Boris Elkanovitch noticed something in the mud and announced to the group that he had found Adam Pastorius’ body. “I bet he committed suicide. Or something like that. He wanted us to all be here, looking at this Prada Marfa, and thinking about the MIST inside.”

 

“Well then, why don’t you enlighten us?” Welsh snapped. He had had about enough of his Russian counterpart.

 

“I think he just wanted to slow us down, make us overthink things,” Boris responded. He took a step forward, and the three Texans moved to block his path. “You’re not going anywhere,” Hector growled.

 

“You should take off while you can, Lieutenant Rodriguez. Hank Hummel only dragged you here as a pawn to deliver to Adam Pastorius. To save his wife and kid.” Boris looked over at Carl Hummel. “Same for you, brother. Hank promised you to Pastorius as well.”

 

“I forgive him,” Hector said coolly. “I would have made the same trade to convince Pastorius to get my own family back.” Carl nodded in affirmation.

 

“So you’re all willing to die here to stop me from getting my hands on this stuff? Go home. Go back to your lives,” Boris hissed.

 

Adam Welsh bolted for the glass windows, intending to simply leap through them, but Boris grabbed him and threw him back. He was the fastest and most powerful of the MIST-infused, and he glared at the other three challengers. “Don’t try it!” he growled, eyes glowing yellow. Carl narrowed his own eyes and suggested that the three of them could overwhelm him.

 

Welsh was suddenly back on his feet, running around to the back of the building. Boris turned and leapt through the glass himself, seeking a shortcut. When Welsh ripped open the back door, he found himself face-to-face with his foe again. The man in black tried to close the metal door, but Boris fired a fist through it.

 

Boris was dragged backward by two pairs of strong arms and hurled through the now-empty window frames of the Prada store. “And stay out!” Hector cheered. Boris popped to his feet, but was immediately set upon by Carl Hummel. The former football player drove the Russian into the mud, but was fought off with a flurry of strikes. Welsh tried to enter the purse showroom again, but was stopped by Hank.

 

Hector Rodriguez ran to the purses and found the MIST cylinders inside. Without stopping, he snapped the glass with his bare hands, destroying cylinder after cylinder. Silvery plasma ran through his fingers. It felt like lightning.

 

Outside, Boris drove Carl headlong into the side of one of the Hummers, leaving a horrendous dent in the armored panel. Adam Welsh got a forearm against Hank’s neck and drove the writer’s head into a wall. Both aggressors stared at Hector and his silvery, dripping hands. A breeze blew through the destroyed structure and streams of MIST particles flew into the emerging dawn sky.

 

“You’re a dead man!” Boris screamed. Carl, looking up from the mud beneath the Hummer, announced that they were all dead men. He held up his cell phone and announced that he had called the White House seven minutes ago.

 

3

 

The state troopers gave Whitney blankets, hot drinks, and a quiet office in which to rest with her daughter. She could not stop the tears. Ava was still asking about her Daddy, and why he was not with them.

 

“We saw him!” Ava said, and Whitney sobbed. They rocked back and forth on the cot, and outside the room people began yelling about a nuclear strike. The world is coming apart.

 

A man in a suit entered the office and delivered a cell phone. “It’s Hank’s aunt, the Secretary of Defense. She wants to talk to you.” The man swiftly left the room and closed the door behind him.

 

“Is Hank dead?” Whitney asked.

 

“I’m afraid he is,” the older woman replied. “And I am so, so sorry. To eliminate the MIST, we launched a nuclear weapon at Hank’s location. It was what he and Carl wanted, what they demanded.”

 

Whitney could not speak.

 

“Whitney, you are not alone. I am resigning immediately and will be coming to visit you, to help with anything you need. Hank’s parents will be with you. We will take care of everything.” Not knowing what to say, Whitney ended the call and lay down on the cot. Ava snuggled in next to her, telling her Mommy not to cry.

 

Through the wall, she could hear people arguing next door. “There was an explosion outside Valentine, but not strong enough to be a nuke. If they launched a nuke, it didn’t go critical,” a man said. Someone asked just what the hell that meant, and the first speaker explained how everything had to go just right to trigger a nuclear chain reaction. “If something gets messed up, it’s just a big dirty bomb, with only the conventional explosive detonating. It wouldn’t even level the town of Valentine.”

 

Maybe Hank is alive. If something went wrong with that weapon, maybe it means that Hank is still alive out there. I need to find out.

 

Whitney picked up her daughter and exited the office. Men in uniforms and suits were running around in a frenzy, ignoring her. She walked through hallways and corridors, eventually finding the exit. As dawn broke in the distance, she entered a parking lot and began searching for a car with keys in it. After several minutes, she found an older, unmarked Crown Vic with keys dangling from the ignition. She shifted Ava to her other hip and tried to door knob. The car was unlocked.

 

Setting her toddler on the passenger seat, Whitney cranked the engine. The undercover cop car roared to life and its in-dash screens flickered to life, revealing the vehicle to belong to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Whitney buckled in her daughter, did the same for herself, and eased out of the parking space. In the early dawn light, a myriad of men and women rushed about, dealing with important issues. Nobody stepped in front of the Crown Vic and pounded on the hood, demanding she turn off the engine.

 

Given the horrific events of the past few hours, it was unlikely that anyone would look into a missing cop car, especially an older one that seemed soon destined for auction or scrap. Maneuvering around side streets, Whitney soon found a main thoroughfare heading to the highway. On the open road, she hit the gas and headed back toward where she had last seen her husband.

 

4

 

 

The president struggled into a sitting position. “You say it didn’t go critical? How the hell did that happen?” Though a staunch critic of America’s bloated military spending, the commander-in-chief had also been concerned about the aging of the nation’s Cold War WMD infrastructure. Was it possible that the warhead had malfunctioned due to age?

 

“It was a command from here, sir,” a general replied. “I think the young man who tried to kill you must have hit a button on the panel.” In agony, the president swung his legs off the rolling bed that had been brought in for him. Doctors rushed over, insisting that he lay back down. “Get back, get back,” the president snapped. “I’ve got to check!” With help, he hobbled over to his desk. Sure enough, the kid had hit the magic button.

 

“A one-in-a-million shot,” the president marveled. “Unless he knew what he was doing, which I doubt.” His stomach burned from his recent wound, and he staggered back to his bed with his hands over the thick bandages. Someone was calling on a phone to ready a surgical suite. The finest doctors in the country were flying in.

 

“Do we re-launch, sir?” a second general asked. “The fizzled strike was less than one kiloton. That’s not nearly enough to vaporize the MIST.” The man’s hands poised over the president’s secret panel, ready to access buttons and switches.

 

“How big of a strike would we need?” the president asked. A scientist announced that the MIST would have been dissipated by the fizzled blast, requiring a forty megaton weapon to ensure greater than ninety percent vaporization of the nanocells. “Unfortunately, it will take up to an hour to ready the weapon. The initial launch that just failed was the largest single warhead that was ready for use.”

 

“Then we better go to the weather,” the president sighed. A meteorologist was called and reported, via holograph, that the post-storm winds in that region of Texas were brisk. “In one hour, those nanoparticles will have spread too far for even a forty megaton device to be fully successful.” The president cursed mightily and decided against any launch.

 

“Get a team together. This will have to be a long-term thing.” People ran from the room, ready to work. The president lay back down and closed his eyes. What the hell will happen now? They’ve unleashed Pandora’s Box, and I couldn’t stop it.

 

“What about the strike on Balmorhea? Did it stop those drones?” Looking at each other nervously, nobody spoke.

 

5

 

The drone roared north as dawn broke over the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Its route, chosen by sophisticated software, was virtually unpredictable and untraceable. With the sun warming its silver sides, it began to descend toward the Raton Municipal Airport. A former State Department employee, working out of a remote cabin, watched through its high-definition cameras as he guided it down. Of the six drones that had been delivered to the conspiracy, only three had taken off before the nuclear strike on the Balmorhea State Park.

 

Instead of the expected ground crew of sheriff’s deputies in beige and tan, the high-def cameras picked up two men on the runway. One was quite large, with the build of an offensive lineman. The other one was normal-sized, and clothed in the garb one would expect an FBI agent to wear. Who the hell are these chumps?

 

The big guy lifted something to his shoulder, and the man in the cabin recognized the device as a rocket launcher. The ground crew had procured one, just in case, and now these two saboteurs had gotten their hands on it! “Aw, God damn it!” hissed the drone operator. If the two goons had gotten their hands on the rocket launcher, it almost certainly meant that the entire ground crew was incapacitated. Grabbing the joystick, the operator steered the drone away from the danger.

 

A bevy of bells and whistles revealed that the rocket had been fired…and had digitally detected its target.

 

Sweating bullets, the former Diplomat mashed down on his drone controls, attempting to evade the incoming projectile. On a screen, he saw the rocket get closer and closer to the drone. Just when he thought the drone was clear, the rocket exploded. More alarms began blaring, indicating that the drone was in trouble. The aircraft no longer responded to the Diplomat’s controls.

 

“Fuck it, I’m out,” the Diplomat declared. He grabbed his bug-out bag and fled the cabin, not waiting to see when or where the careening drone would impact. He clambered into his Chevy Suburban and took off down a four-wheel-drive trail, heading deeper into the woods. His last phone call, from a burner phone he kept in the glove box, was to a former tech mogul who had once designed a nationwide surveillance network that utilized avatars and resembled the Grand Theft Auto video game series.

 

“It’s me, and I’m out. If you figured out the access code to the central server, you had better use it quick.” Moments later, the Suburban exploded in an impressive fireball after a woman in a Canada-bound helicopter was alerted to the Diplomat’s undesired flight.

 

Seconds afterward, many miles away, a large drone crashed into a rural area of Colfax County, New Mexico known as Hidden Valley.

 

6

 

“We still have two cylinders of MIST in our control, and the bidding starts at two hundred million,” the man with the microphone said from the center of the stage. The historic theater, tucked away inside Midland’s rejuvenated downtown, was full of money-hungry lawyers and private investigators who were representing a who’s who of the Western world’s less-than-scrupulous billionaire class. Convened under the utmost secrecy and threat of death, the pre-breakfast meeting would result in treason indictments for anyone caught by the authorities.

 

Although the marquee advertised a political farce called The Socialist, which was earning rave reviews for a young playwright from Vermont, a genuine political coup was actually occurring inside the 1920s-era theater. Most of the shady lawyers had seen unconfirmed news reports about the chaos in and around Alpine, but too much money was at stake to remain home. For a chance to own a critical mass of Microtronic Infrastructural Symbiosis Technology, no criminal charge was too serious.

 

An Odessa lawyer representing a Canadian mining billionaire hastily bid two hundred million, followed by a Midland lawyer bidding two-twenty for a manufacturing magnate from Michigan. Despite it being barely time to start breakfast, the theater’s full-service bar was doing brisk business as lawyers sought liquid courage. Bids climbed past three hundred million within minutes. Coalitions began forming, with lawyers on phones deciding to pool bids and split a cylinder of MIST into usable fractions. Within ten minutes, a five-billion-dollar bid was launched, and countered with a second coalition’s offer of five-point-two.

 

Detective lieutenant Brett Borgmann, holding a tablet computer full of files sent by a deceased internist, watched as a SWAT officer used a specialized tool to pick the lock of the theater’s rear exit. As soon as the door was unlocked, the SWAT team swarmed inside. They barreled into the auditorium from both sides, surprising the packed house of lawyers. Swiftly, many of the attorneys dropped their electronics into their full glasses of alcohol, trying to render the devices inaccessible.

 

“You’re all under arrest!” Borgmann roared as he stormed the stage and snatched the microphone from the terrified auctioneer. Seconds later, one of Midland’s resident FBI agents appeared and read the assorted charges from a printed list. A handful of lawyers vomited in fear. One tried to jump up and run, but was seized by cops in body armor. As police officers waded into the rows with handcuffs and zip-ties, a handful of federal agents entered the lobby and began setting up interview stations in corners, offices, storage rooms, and even behind the bar.

 

“We need to get info fast, before anyone comes to their senses and clams up,” an agent told Borgmann. The detective nodded and watched, arms crossed over his chest, as SWAT members began lining up lawyers and escorting them out of the auditorium. Some blustered about suing, but most were just hoping to cop plea deals.

 

Watching the drama unfold from onstage, Borgmann sat on the auctioneer’s stool after the man, a notorious criminal defense attorney to rich scumbags, was led away in zip-ties. He knew that his old friend, William Watterson, was dead, along with countless others in the law enforcement community. The grizzled cop had died trying to stop the drones from taking off before they could be vaporized.

 

Wait, the drones would have to change paths to deliver the MIST based on the results of this auction. Could there be a way to control the last two drones from here, or at least input a new final destination?

 

“Turn off all the lights,” Borgmann told a uniformed officer, who nodded and rushed off. A moment later, the auditorium went completely dark. While most theatergoers would complain under such circumstances, the arresting officers and cuffed lawyers were silent. Borgmann searched around, and noticed a twinkling of blue lights from inside a slatted-door storage closet adjacent to the stage. He slipped off his loafers and padded over, noticing a person inside.

 

Turn the lights back on, he texted to his partner. After the lights glowed again, Borgmann whipped open the closet and jammed his pistol in the face of a nerdy Millennial. “Don’t touch that dial,” he glowered, and the kid put his hands up. The detective grabbed the back of the young man’s rolling chair and wheeled it swiftly out of the closet. As other cops and a G-man in a grey suit crowded around, Borgmann entered the closet and inspected the computer array.

 

“They’re controlling the drones from right here,” Borgmann marveled. “Makes sense, because their conspiracy basically got evaporated. The head honchos must have cut and run and tried to outsource this operation.”

 

Looking at the screens, he noticed that one drone was approaching Laramie, Wyoming and a second was on the ground in between Midland and Odessa. “One is at the airport. Get units out there, now!”

 

“When does that first drone reach Laramie? That’s a populated area.” The FBI agent was on his phone to NORAD. When the computer revealed that ETA to a privately-owned airfield was three minutes, it became clear that nothing could shoot the drone down in time. Borgmann grabbed the controls and announced that he would crash the drone away from the populated area. “This way, it doesn’t affect people and the bad guys don’t have a chance to recover it.”

 

Brett Borgmann jammed the joystick forward and drove the drone toward the terrain. It impacted two and a half miles northwest of Laramie and exploded.

 

7

 

“We’ve got an unauthorized launch from Midland Air and Space Port,” the radar operator reported. “I think it’s one of XCAV’s new space planes. The ones that fly to their new facility in Scotland in four hours or so.” Her supervisor got on the horn to the White House and announced that the last remaining MIST cylinder was on the move. Seconds later, more calls began flooding in. Police and FBI were calling from Midland, XCAV was calling to report that armed men had hijacked their hundred-million-dollar space plane, and the Wyoming State Police were calling to report that a large drone had crashed outside of Laramie.

 

The president was in surgery, the vice president was being interrogated, and the Speaker of the House was also under suspicion. Though the president pro tem of the Senate was clearly loyal to the president, he reported that he was not up to the task. The Secretary of State was busy fielding calls from foreign nations over the nuclear blast in Balmorhea, and so the Secretary of Defense took over the president’s duties. “Where is the space plane heading? Get me the details!” she demanded from the Oval Office. Within a minute, XCAV officers were on the line.

 

“It’s unmanned, ma’am. It flies on automatic pilot to our facility in the UK. That’s where it’s headed, which means that the people who hijacked it and launched it must have people at the other end.” The CEO provided the coordinates and flight path. “Unfortunately, this thing has collision detection, which might make it difficult to shoot down with a long-range missile.” Using her tablet, the SecDef pulled up all of her projectile options.

 

Given the speed of the space plane, and the fact that it was headed away from the United States, it was unlikely that anything could be launched from the continental U.S. and shoot it down before it reached the United Kingdom. “I need to get in touch with 10 Downing Street,” the Secretary ordered, and someone brought over the red phone. Before she dialed the preset number for the Prime Minister, she asked her husband to use back channels to try and speed up the process. The Director of Central Intelligence nodded and walked away briskly, pulling his satellite phone from his pocket. He placed a call to a man who had recently landed outside of Alpine in a black helicopter.

 

“You did us a solid eleven weeks ago, but we need another favor,” the DCI said to a man who was playing with an embossed, stainless steel lighter. “We need you to contact your British counterpart, J. We’ve got a space plane headed to Scotland from Midland, and we need someone from that end to shoot it down. I know Vauxhall Cross can probably scramble something faster than going through normal channels.”

 

“What’s on the plane?” the man asked, putting his lighter in his jeans pocket.

 

“Microtronic Infrastructural Symbiosis Technology. I assume you were briefed on the stuff?”

 

“Indeed I was,” the man replied. He looked at his tablet to get a bearing on the situation. Every document and communication simply used his code name: F. “Did some ne’er-do-wells try to get it out of the country?”

 

“Yep, and the bad guys are waiting at the XCAV facility in Scotland to receive it. Might have killed the usual employees. We’re dealing with some very bad, very powerful people. Can you make a call?”

 

F assured that he could make the call, and switched to a second line on his special phone. He called J and informed the dapper Brit of the situation. “Try to shoot it down over unpopulated areas. You don’t want this stuff getting inside people,” F warned. J replied that it would be done. Within seconds, the White House was informed that British intelligence would attempt to shoot down the approaching space plane before it could land.

 

Via satellite, the Secretary of Defense watched as a Spitfire X84 experimental rocket interceptor was fired from a military facility near Kent. As tense seconds passed, the two dots grew closer together. Shortly after the space plane passed the beaches and began descending, the interceptor came within range. Sensing a collision, the space plane attempted to evade the interceptor and turned sharply. The interceptor exploded, but the space plane’s hull remained intact. It tumbled through the sky.

 

“It’s going down, but did not explode like it should!” a colonel exclaimed, and the Secretary of Defense shushed him. Anxiously, she watched the screens. Thirty seconds after the interceptor exploded, the damaged space plane crashed in the forests south of Greenock. “Send them a message not to enter those woods,” the Secretary said. “They don’t know what they’re dealing with.”

 

8

 

Whitney drove west. She was not stopped, though there were increasingly large convoys of vehicles coming east. Half of the convoys were composed of black SUVs, some emblazoned with emblems and insignias, but others entirely unmarked. The other half were made up of military vehicles, some tan and others in various patterns of camouflage. Her Crown Vic was the only car going west. Only in Marfa did local police manning a roadblock attempt to wave her over, but she ignored them.

 

As the sun rose and the day warmed, Whitney drove through Valentine. Now she began seeing signs of destruction, with broken glass and scorched siding clearly visible. She kept on driving, recognizing that she was approaching a place she and Hank had visited while on a family vacation. Michael had been seven, and they had taken pictures in front of Prada Marfa. Within a mile of the place, Whitney knew that Prada Marfa had been the target. Everything was a wasteland.

 

Go back, there’s radiation! Hank’s voice said inside her brain. Please, take Ava and head back the way you came. Go home to Michael. He needs you and you need him.

 

“Hank, is that you?” she whispered as the stopped the car in the middle of the road. Up ahead, an armada of military vehicles surrounded what must have been the vicinity around Prada Marfa.

 

Yes, it’s me. I love you, Whitney, but you need to go away from here. You’re in a radiation zone!

 

Whitney turned the car around and headed back toward Alpine, and then on to Midland. I love you Whitney. I love you, Whitney.

 

She couldn’t be sure, but she thought his voice said that he was not gone forever.

 

 

 

 

Epilogue

 

Robert Smith awoke in the hospital two days later, and quickly accepted a position as an assistant professor in the science department at the University of Wyoming upon recovery. His longtime friend, the older criminal justice professor, retired from full-time teaching at the end of that academic year and became a part-time adjunct. FBI agent Roger Garfield was promoted to deputy director of the Western Region and received a gold star in the agency’s hall of honor in Washington, D.C.

 

The president of the United States resigned from office and retired to Vermont. His vice president, though never charged with a crime, also resigned and returned to his home state. A special election was held, with the Secretary of Defense winning a full term as president on October 4. Numerous trials were held for those accused of treason against the United States, including Roger Garfield’s former deputy director. By Christmas, ninety-eight individuals had been sentenced to lengthy prison terms. Nineteen were sentenced to death. Twenty-one individuals on trial committed suicide before verdicts were announced.

 

A forty-year-old woman who was thought to be the leader of the MIST conspiracy was later found murdered in Iceland. The former billionaire and tech leader was discovered deceased in her hotel penthouse suite in a faked suicide, the scene suspiciously similar to a years-ago death of a Russian diplomat in the Middle East. A sensor sweep of the room revealed the presence of nanocells, but a secondary sweep was inconclusive.

 

The United States government sealed off three areas from all human visitation: West of Marfa, Texas, northwest of Cimarron, New Mexico, and northwest of Laramie, Wyoming. The United Kingdom sealed off the forests south of Greenock. A memorial was built next to the White House for the five thousand, one hundred sixteen individuals who lost their lives in the MIST Crisis. Military and law enforcement personnel who moved swiftly to save civilian lives and apprehend members of the conspiracy were recognized for heroism and promoted. Many would later be disabled by the long-term effects of exposure to radiation and soman gas.

 

All records of Adam Welsh were permanently deleted. The Russian Federation likewise eliminated all records of Boris Elkanovitch. The American-installed government in Syria located and destroyed all records related to Ahmed Zuabi. Their bodies were never found and had likely been blown to bits.

 

The two state troopers whose bodies had been taken over by Boris Elkanovitch and Ahmed Zuabi were always listed as being killed in a vehicle accident. Their families were never told the truth about what happened. Both men were posthumously promoted for able service to the State of Texas.

 

The families of Hank Hummel, Carl Hummel, and Hector Rodriguez had good days and bad days. Over time, many came to feel that the spirits of the three men were still on earth, in an indescribable state of being. Friends and family who were contacted by the authorities vehemently opposed any government attempts to capture MIST nanocells in the sealed area west of Marfa. “We don’t want them to be in a lab, if such a thing is even possible,” the father of Hank and Carl told the director of the nation’s new MIST Directorate. “If they are still in existence, just let them be.”

 

Eighteen months after the sealed areas were created, people began sneaking in again.

 

 

 

 

About Calvin Wolf

 

 

Calvin Wolf teaches AP Economics and AP Government at a 6A public high school in Texas, where he also serves as chair of the Social Studies Department. He has an MPA degree from the University of Wyoming, a year of graduate-level Sociology from Texas Tech University, and is pursuing an MSFE degree from West Texas A&M. He is married to a beautiful artist and craftswoman and they have a son in elementary school. The family has a French bulldog and enjoys lounging, binging on Netflix, and decorating for the holidays.

 

When he’s not teaching or writing novels, Calvin is an ardent editorialist who has published over 2,000 articles. He supported U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) in the 2016 presidential election. In years past, he has worked as a substitute teacher, backpacking guide, and professional comic strip artist. He has a brother, sister-in-law, and adorable baby nephew who live in east Texas.

 

 

 

 

Other Books by Calvin Wolf

 

The College

[* The University*]

The City

The State

[+ The Singularity+]

 

Daylight Stealing Time

The Socialist

 

 

 

Connect With Calvin Wolf

 

Facebook[*https://www.facebook.com/calvin.wolf.author

Twitter[*https://twitter.com/calvin_wolf?lang=en

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


The Six

Eleven weeks after a political revolution swept aside a corrupt and brutal president, America is thrown into chaos when an unregistered satellite is de-orbited over west Texas. The mysterious substance inside the satellite offers untold wonder and horror...and unbelievable wealth and power to those who control it. Lives are threatened, loyalties are shattered, and families are broken as nefarious forces will stop at nothing to capture every milligram of what was on the Silver Six satellite. Hank Hummel and Hector Rodriguez, forced to abandon their quiet lives, are on the clock and forced to face off against foes who are, quite literally, like nothing on Earth.

  • ISBN: 9781370308415
  • Author: Calvin Wolf
  • Published: 2016-11-21 00:05:17
  • Words: 80735
The Six The Six