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The Prognostication

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Foreword

   This is a continuation of the Before the End Series , the follow-up to _The Great Deception. _

    The Prognostication  centers around the battle between evil Uncle Ephraim, his nephew Azriel, and his brother Seth Markov. There’s also a plot twist in the Berlin Mission. Suddenly not everyone is playing on the same team.

   After a surgery alters his memories Azriel is trained to go on a mission to take out the only threat to Scorpion’s plans of taking over the world.

Prologue

   

   Today, the sun forgot how to shine. It was a dark day. Very, very dark day.

   Having had several millennia to plan this, the forces of evil were finally ready to yoke humanity into their fixed schemes for the end of days.

   

   Sector 3 or Washington D.C. (the district’s historical name) grew very rich from private funding. When the revamped city got off the ground, quite literally, it wasn’t too hard to see why this location off the Potomac River could serve as the New Babylon.

04/24/2041: 6AM, S3

[_   _] Esmeralda Westover had just started her day.

   The warm sunshine of that particular morning shoved its way into the unprotected living areas that weren’t outfitted with blackout shades. The natural sunlight was one of the things Esmeralda appreciated most about her residence up in the clouds. Every room except her master suite got an overdose of the friendly UV rays.

   She enjoyed it most though when her routine took her out to the floor garden/green area which was simply there for the complex’s residents to bask in its radiance. Every ten floors of the massive building she lived in had one of these. It existed at the center of the cylindrical tower in a greenhouse environment.  

   All in all the place she called home shone with an emerald radiance. The floor to ceiling windows of the tower expressed that color in its tint.

                                     …

   The flaky sleepies still occupied the corners of her eyes. Esmeralda hesitantly draped her legs over the side of her bed, anticipating a jolting drop to the floor: all twenty-eight inches.

    When she had finally left the comfort of her master bedroom, the first thing that greeted her were the morning rays. The sun felt better than it should have over her body—a warmth that awakened the senses before the first pot of coffee even finished brewing.

  She didn’t have anything booked for that day. Yet.

   It wouldn’t be extremely unusual though to say yes to another shoot on the whim—jet to the set. These sort of things were as whimsical as her personality.

   Still in her robe, she padded over to a vanity with its coordinating makeup mirror. The mirror doubled as a screen where she viewed her calendar, among other things.

   A sudden low rumble startled the woman. Her drowsy figure searched for the source of the noise. Unsuccessful at first, Esmeralda returned back to the mirror. As soon as she sat down on the little stool the disturbance from before reared its ugly head again.

   This time her instincts prevailed; they knew right where to take her. The missing phone, the one she had searched high and low for last night? An incoming phone call functioned as the homing beacon to draw her to the device’s location.

   Esmeralda found herself in a mini trance when she spotted it. The inbound call had nearly made it all the way to voicemail again. That is until she flipped the device up to her ear to answer.

   “Hello?”

    “Mom? Listen to me, it’s very important you look out your window!”

      Confusion came before blind obedience. “Wha—?”

      “Just do it,” her daughter Amanda said more firmly.

   The reluctant mother didn’t have to go very far to get to the nearest window. That beautiful sunrise she woke up to? Gone.

   At that moment long foreign shadows stodgily moved across the various living spaces in her apartment. Where there had previously been an overabundance of natural sunlight now was blotted out by several immense objects loitering over Sector Three airspace.

   Esmeralda clutched her robe in a defensive posture as she cautiously traipsed over to the nearest window to get a better look.

   “Oh, my…God.” escaped her lips

                                    --

[_Masada: Tel Aviv, Israel _]

   Azriel briefly looked away from Ephraim Markov to notice the strange room he stood in.

   “Dad, where are we?”

   “Home son. You are home,” he repeated a little softer and more distant than the first.

   Even though he had heard Ephraim, he continued to walk past the man and out into a more open area, away from the room he spent the last twenty-four hours in. Azriel swiveled his head in a full three-sixty like an owl.

   “What is this place?” he asked again.

   Ephraim’s eyes shifted to Stacy. They were both doing the same thing: smiling at the boy’s curiosity—amused at his juvenile line of questioning.

   Ephraim cleared his throat and calmly approached on Azriel’s left. He then wrapped an arm around the boy’s shoulders and gave him a little shake.

   “We’re in Masada, son! The modern day fortress no one knows exists except for the good folks at Israel’s intelligence agency, Mossad.”

   Azriel’s face brimmed with exuberance.

   “Tell me about it!”

   Stacy craned an ear towards Azriel and said, “What?”

   “Mossad. Tell me more,” he clarified.

   Stacy passed the buck on to Ephraim to fill in the blanks.

   Ephraim Markov nodded at her non-verbal request; not before running his fingers through his silver-streaked hair to fix a side part, though.

   “Come walk with me son. I’ll show you around,” he said with a twinkle in his mischievous eyes.

    “What about mom?” Azriel replied, looking up to Stacy who stood a few inches taller than he did.

   Stacy smiled softly at her stepson and patted him on the back.

   Ephraim’s eyes moistened a little at the sight. “You’ll see her soon. Come, come. I think you’ll wanna see what I have to show you. Lots to go over.”

   “Okay!” he replied with youthful exuberance.

                                       …

   The hallway straight ahead bloated into a cavernous open air atrium. Up or down, left to right, one could glimpse a complete cutout of the one hundred plus story supertall.

   Ephraim leaned over the railing that looked down into a deep abyss—thirty-nine stories to the lobby. He placed more weight of his than he should have in his elbows. If someone happened to bump into the Head of Kidon at that moment he’d wind up a bloody mess on the marble far below.

   Azriel fearlessly perched at the same waist-high rail as the man he now called father did.

   

    The cerebrum transfiguration had changed so much about the young man. His fears and insecurity? Gone. Replaced by an adaptable personality that used any methods or means possible to overcome obstacles.

   Before the transformation Uncle Ephraim was one of those obstacles. Now, the boy knew the man to be his father. He didn’t know any different. Though that would only be just scratching the surface of the changes he had borne under the knife.

   Manufactured memories of a happy childhood with Stacy as a nurturer and Ephraim as the caring father played in the boy’s mind.

    He looked over at his new dad. “When can I start doing what you do around here?”

    The suddenness combined with the absence of a preamble startled Ephraim.

    “Boy, where did that come from?” He didn’t know what else to say.

   “What do you mean, father?”

   “Nothing,” he said quietly while shaking his head ever so slightly.

   

   “There’s so much to say. I don’t know where to start,” Ephraim said after an interlude of silence.

   “Start where it seems logical to,” the thirteen-year-old suggested.

   Ephraim smiled at this. Getting offered advice from a youngster seemed so foreign to the old-hand agency man. However, this teenager was his [_ son_]  now.

   It would take time to reconcile the new change. These things took far longer than the operation itself. Much longer. No program, equipment, or medical miracles could facilitate familiarity among a newly-formed family. Again, time would be the conduit through which the cerebrum transfiguration patient (Azriel) and his new family would have to travel through in order for them to become a unit.

   “Azriel?”

   The boy evenly measured his father, waiting for an interesting tidbit to come out of the man’s mouth.

   “I’d like to take you where your sister Esther is training at. We can get you plugged in today if you like!”

   Azriel didn’t expect this kind of information. The message most pleased him however. After all he wanted to know when he could start to begin doing what mattered in life, walk in his father Ephraim’s footsteps.

   Here’s to the journey.

                                       —

Barcelona, Spain

   The cafeteria at the Mossad hub in Barcelona didn’t seek to thrill those who were on the meal voucher system. It merely existed like the rest of the well-greased operation that ran underground at the black site location.

   Vegetables were delivered to the kitchen for dishes far less often than meat and grains—the traditional food staples at the cafeteria.

   That night the special was trout.

   Chicken soup happened to be simmering in tall pots with steam escaping through their wide-mouth openings. Beef kebabs served on skewers with fried veggies were another meal option.

   Braided Shabatt bread with its fluffy yellow insides dominated all other smells in the kitchen, however. It was nearing Easter, so naturally the seasonal bread proliferated over all others at the black site.

   

   Agent Marcello passed through the cafeteria line slower than normal. His mind worked quietly as he ladeled a little soup into a styrofoam cup. He anticipated the phone call the Germans promised they would make with their handlers which were somehow connected to Scorpion.

   An alarming thought pierced through all the others: What if all they’re saying is a hoax? Disinformation?

   It wouldn’t be the first time that happened to Agent Marcello. Many others that had gone on before the Germans employed the same tactic. It reaped excellent short-term returns for the promulgators of the lie, but in the end the truth would always come out.

   In this scenario he hoped the bad guys were actually playing by the rules this time and not making life more difficult for him and Mossad.

    For time was not on their side.

   

                                          …

   

   Three little raps on the door signaled there would be a new face in the room…or a returning one more than likely.

   Agent Marcello invited himself back into Interrogation Room 3a with a deliberate attempt at an exaggerated re-entry.

   “Miss me?” he flashed a toothy grin the German’s way.

   When neither one of them gave him the satisfaction of a change in expression or tort reply, he politely set their meal down on the table. Alfonso didn’t say another word as the two German officials grabbed at the grub with a gusto that appeared more barbarian than civilized and measured.

   After the last morsel of food had been cleaned off their plates Alfonso resolved to move forward once more without further delay. Before the agent could get underway though Amalia promptly reminded her interrogator that they still hadn’t been allowed to shower or change clothes per the prearrangement they had agreed upon.

   “For shame,” Alfonso said, shaking his head in mock sympathy. “Don’t you hate it when people don’t hold up to their end of the bargain? There’s a lesson that can be learned here.”

   His eyes grew more intense as he stared down the victims who sat there looking like fattened livestock before the slaughter.

   Wendel’s head throbbed a little. He winced. “Let’s just get it over with already.” He held an open hand out, ready to accept the phone he would use to contact his people.

   “Ah! But first we must do a few things to you before you make any calls,” Alfonso quickly said, dismissing the German’s see-through entreaty.

   Wendel’s face turned red in an instant.  “We had a deal!”

   “Yes, we did,” Agent Marcello deflected, “however _we _ have a few redundancies which must be put into place in order to insure truthful compliancy on your part when you make the call.”

   “Wire me up then, if you must,” Wendel indignantly stated. “I will do _anything _ to shorten my dealings with scum like you. I’ll deliver for you….”
p. “I expect no less than your best,” Agent Marcello said while he untangled some wire to a few contraptions he was prepared to use on the Germans before they placed any calls.

                                   

                             

Chapter 1

Berlin, Germany

   This wouldn’t be a zero-hour operation. On the contrary, the hit would take place during the humdrum early hours of the morning—at the start of everyone’s work day at Germany’s Interior Ministry.

   

                                         …

   Dimitri, Sofia Keller’s limo driver, woke up extremely early that day. First he hit the gym following a protein-rich breakfast of scrambled eggs and bacon. When he got back from his sweaty routine a healthy shake waited for him in the fridge.

   He felt refreshed from the invigorating exercise and chocolate-flavored supplement he took afterwards. It was now time to pad on over to the bathroom in the flat to clean up before continuing his daily grind.

   Dimitri’s workout suit dropped onto the tiled floor in a haphazard stinky heap. He stripped down to nothing then hit the button on the shower wall to start the jets.

   Streams of water blasted out from the nozzles, pulsating against the back wall of the enclosure at irregular intervals. Dimitri stepped into the spray when he felt satisfied the water was warm enough, but not blazing hot.

   The water coursed over the man’s muscular body. Before long it mixed in with the suds. Dimitri remembered he had a music jukebox he could play with, too. His dripping wet finger dialed in his favorite playlist of songs. A surround sound system made the shower become an experience.

   If anyone were to ever break-and-enter, now would be their golden opportunity.

   Normally Dimitri was always prepared for the worst. He frequently conceal-carried a sidearm. His self defense didn’t stop with a gun either, though. The German’s martial art skills weren’t anything to be taken lightly. He could dislocate shoulders, hips…put the hurt on a victim in a hurry in a myriad of ways.

   

   At the moment an opus from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony chorused through the six speaker system in Dimitri’s shower. It made him linger even longer than he normally would have underneath the steamy streams of water which seemed to match the intensity to which the orchestra played.

   Unbeknownst to the preoccupied man in the shower his dog had been barking for a few minutes. Its cries suddenly went silent after it let out the telltale whimper.

   The double basses, cellos, and percussion came in strong during the climax to a particular opus. Each one of their distinct voices added to the hauntingly beautiful mastery of orchestral symphony.

   Dimitri never grew tired of these scores of music written centuries before.

   Just then the fan in the room automatically kicked in to purge the air which was thick with steam. The loud noise the ventilation system made when it switched on drowned out the far more subtle disturbance of the door handle turning.

   The bows of the violinists went up and down a few more times—the screechy dissonance serving as the apropos death knell to Dimitri’s waning last seconds.

   A black silencer-tipped muzzle appeared between the void of the cracked bathroom door. Three pew, pew, pews ended Beethoven’s Ninth…and Dimitri’s existence. The German lay dead against the back wall of his travertine tiled shower; his crimson blood funneling towards the drain in the center of the smooth stone surface.

                                     —

   Seth parked his black sedan with fake plates a few miles away from the barber shop he needed to get to. It was a cool fifteen degrees Celsius out that morning. The sun hid behind partial cloud coverage, and a nippy breeze from the north would occasionally gust across the open areas.

   Agent Markov wore a grey wool henley top with light body armor underneath. Enough protection against small arms fire and most rifles. Although .50 Cal rounds would make things a little dicey for the Israeli.

   He had on black tactical pants that could resist tears, liquids…the harshest treatment you could put it through.

   His boots were special. They were equipped with springs in them for extra hop for clearing walls more easily. The level of traction in the insole was enough to allow Seth to nearly scale walls vertically. Nearly. Certain materials still proved difficult to climb like Spiderman though. That’s why he wore fingerless gloves which had a gecko-like skin on the palms.

   His whole uniform was tailor-made for the urban fighter’s environment. In the concrete jungle they gave their user an unsurpassed advantage over traditional mountain climber gear used by militaries and police forces for decades. Outfitted with the wonder gloves he wore, Agent Markov could go where most men couldn’t.

   Today, he would need to.

   

                                        …

   The U-bahn is Berlin’s heavily-traveled subway system. Its tunnels are so expansive and pervasive that even though the world in 2041 has primarily gotten around quicker with flying transport or speedy autonomous vehicles…subways still reign in the Fourth Reich’s capital city.

   Line U5 began to near a station three blocks away from the government buildings in the empire’s capital. It slowed drastically from a cruising speed of nearly four hundred kilometers an hour down to nothing in an eighth of a mile or less. That’s what you call efficiency. And millions of passengers in Berlin chose to ride it as their principal means of getting around town.  

   Seth stepped off the middle car at the station the moment the doors opened. He remained obscured from the vision of cameras by staying very close to the throngs of people bustling to and fro in the cavernous plazas that connected the people of Berlin with ground zero of a burgeoning hub.

   Many office buildings actually had their entrances in these plazas instead of on the street level, further eliminating the need to use the city streets. This was all by design to get cars off the roads and make Berlin more walkable. And when it got cold three out of four seasons in the year it would be much easier to stay warmer down below than above the city where the elements got the best of anyone risky enough to hazard the cold.

   Seth moved with the ebb and flow of the traffic—now much closer to his end goal destination than ever before. Still, plenty could go wrong with their plan and he knew it. Discerning that gave him an adrenaline rush like none other, too. This would be one of his more important missions of many in the robust repertoire of the veteran Mossad man.

   His partner Baruch counted on Seth to be the linchpin of the whole operation.

    [_What he had to do? _]

   Get past security, learn the behavior of the motorcade crew—how many there were, their movements, etc.—but most importantly communicate with Baruch the best time for himself to slip in and assume chauffeur status of the interior minister’s limousine.

   Obviously nothing went according to plan in these scenarios; it was always good to leave room for mishaps and unanticipated actions or reactions.

   

   As he walked the busy terminals in Berlin’s U-bahn he kept an eye out for a corner store where he could buy a ball cap at.

   Seth wouldn’t use DigiCoin because that tender tied the user with his born identity, defeating any aliases or other clever attempts at anonymity. However since there still was coin and bill currency in wide enough circulation, it wouldn’t be a problem for the Mossad agent to masquerade as an undercover Spanish terrorist that day.

   Once he had found a store with little trouble at all it didn’t take him long to decide on a hat which so happened to display the logo and colors of Germany’s Major League Soccer team. Simply wearing it would almost instantly engender him to the respect of the locals.

   Next up he needed a cup of coffee; everyone around him held one in their hands. It was cold enough too for the Israeli who was much more accustomed to an arid Mediterranean climate than the chilly German one he existed in at the moment.

   Seth was in luck. Soon as he left the one store wearing his soccer hat he observed the place next to it appeared to be a coffee shop.

   The inconspicuous man with balanced measurements—six-one, two benjis—became the latest person to join the line that circled the dining room and went all the way out to the entrance.

   Seth looked down at his Swiss watch and measured how much time he could spend at such a place. Then he considered his boots and tensed a little more. Seth quickly made up his mind: he needed the darkest roast they had. And he needed it now. The mission’s success depended on it.

   That wasn’t a gross exaggeration at all from Seth’s end of things.

   Others who knew the man well understood him to be a little too caffeine dependent; Agent Markov would neither confirm nor deny their claims, which only served to further validate them.

 

    “Five DigiCoin,” the lady with the fair freckled complexion politely requested when Seth said he wanted a medium coffee.

   Despite needing to be somewhere else on the most important mission he’d perhaps ever attempt to do, Seth showed his gall to protest the price.

    E in wenig hoch , oder? “ A little high, no?”

   The woman shrugged, but said nothing. She wore the expression that said, “Just pay up and don’t give me any trouble.”

   Seth laid down his currency with a reluctance to underscore the point he passionately believed in: no cup of coffee should ever cost five DigiCoin.

   The barista appeared to judge the Jewish man for the bills he was offering her. However, she had a line. Expediency suited her better than haggling with a difficult customer.

   

   Seth had another thought coming after he finally was handed a to-go cup: [_I’m debating with a girl over the price of coffee when in a short while I’m gonna be taking lives. Odd. _]

[_   _] Seth cupped his fingerless gloves around the rim of the lid and gingerly tipped it back to experience the caffeinated goodness and hopefully expel the chill from his body. He repeated these steps until a warmth gradually took over and his mind became extremely lucid from the beverage.

   Whatever Germans that were loyal to the flag that got in his way today? They’d perish.

[_   _] Tyrone Banks woke up feeling strangely refreshed. He didn’t anticipate getting any sleep, but the opposite came true. A good omen? Maybe.  

   The fifty-something retired agent rolled off the spring mattress onto the carpeted floor. He had stayed the night at a local bed and breakfast on the Poland side of the border a hundred miles from Berlin. Baruch and Seth both had gone their own separate ways after the brainstorming session at the restaurant the night before.

   

   You never actually _retired _ even after you cleaned off your desk and walked out the front door of Mossad. In some ways the work piled on all the more—post-Mossad. At least that had been the case for Tyrone.

   Today didn’t feel like the morning of an operation. But it had arrived, nonetheless.

   The African-American didn’t bother hitting snooze either. Not today.

   He showered, ate—left his room the way he found it and paid at the front desk. Before he left the inn, he troubled the bellhop to help load up his vehicle. Tyrone thanked the youth for his services and duly tipped him.

   The young man didn’t expect to get anything in return; Tyrone’s smile and token of appreciation made the bellhop smile broadly and say at once in Polish, Mają bezpieczną podróż!  “Have a safe journey!”

   Tyrone’s smile faded and turned frosty. Safe? His travels would be anything but safe.

   He slowly pulled out and got on the main road.

   That day he decided not to caffeinate, but rather just go with his smokes. He smoked one right now as he drove in silence.

   The ash dripped off his cig and landed on the soft synthetic materials of his dashboard. Tyrone didn’t notice, didn’t care. He liked smoking in his car. Passengers? No, that’s not how he got around. Tyrone’s vehicle never would be a carpooling service.

   The African American drove with a purpose. He headed to an underground parking garage in Berlin. It had been mutually agreed upon by the three men on a mission that Tyrone would be best close to the action and not directing the show from an armchair in another country entirely. Additionally, he needed to be close enough to intercept the shortwave radio frequencies the police communicated on.

   Three hours later after fighting the morning rush hour headed into the city, Tyrone Banks finally found a place to stop and set up shop.

   The middle-aged man got out to stretch, survey his surroundings a bit, and finally return back to base. When he made it to his parked mobile communications center, instead of hopping back in on the driver’s side he moved around to the rear and activated a motion sensor which caused the tailgate to rise.  

   It didn’t go up nearly fast enough though for Tyrone who was already ducking under it to mount up. He had more work to do than he felt comfortable with.

   No time to start like the present though.

   After his computer array booted up and he stared at his version of a start screen, the man quietly blew air into his palms before he briskly rubbed them together: a little ritual he did to relax himself before he did something big.

   Three screens had four quadrants on each. They were divided into separate windows for various tasks like terminals, browsers, and other various software programs.

   The back of Tyrone’s SUV would be the beating heart of the operation in Berlin. He had eyes and ears across the whole spectrum of where the operatives would be that day.

    Tyrone went into his Linux terminal and used a secure shell to initiate a conversation over an encrypted IRC (internet relay chat) client. He then typed in  /msg CCGuy22   I’m ready  and waited.

   A little pinging noise sounded in the quiet interior of his command post.

    Status?

[_   _] Tyrone typed it out hastily:  [_Alpha Centauri. _] The green cursor blinked away, awaiting the appropriate response from his contact in Spain.

   Cyberspace was restless for an answer from Carlos Castell, Spain’s governor.  [_You should see the file, _] Carols messaged.

   Tyrone looked at a different monitor this time after he read the words. An encrypted volume he had preemptively loaded now showed a new file that had made the journey from Barcelona to Berlin. He quickly accessed it…his heart rate beginning to run away a little bit.

   The first thing he opened was the readme. It briefly explained in short text that the information and plans contained in the subsequent files were highly classified and obtained through secure channels. The document also referenced the torture of two Germans from the Interior Ministry by Mossad.

   Tyrone’s eyes fell across the line with the words  [_Mossad _] and  [_torture _] in it. His other contact in Barcelona, Agent Marcello, had personally carried out the interrogation of the criminal Germans. What Agent Marcello wasn’t able to tell Tyrone before would now be revealed that morning.

   However before he even remotely became interested in the bigger picture Tyrone strictly engrossed himself in the directories of the attachment that related directly to the Berlin mission.

   Near the top of the file tree a folder titled “Access granted” incentivized him to click on it first over all the rest. When he opened it his computer executed several commands which automatically blasted jpeg images into separate windows in a shutter style effect where one window overlaid the other—similar to a deck of cards. His eyes shifted over to another screen on his right where he took in the new sensory data on display.

   The image in the forefront of the stack blew up to a larger size through the aid of an eye tracker which let the software know precisely what Tyrone stared at. When Tyrone’s hands spread apart in front of his computer’s cameras and motions sensors which followed what his hands did, his machine then interpreted them into screen manipulations.

   What he was looking at were security clearance credentials supplied by the Germans who had no choice other than to give them up. Not only that, separate images underneath the first one correspondingly tied in with it: Full 3D retinal and palm scans were captured and recorded in a digital mold in order to make it easy to replicate for anyone who wanted to get into the German Interior Ministry campus as Wendel or Amalia (the government officials captured in Barcelona).

   Tyrone knew just the thing too for how his operatives Seth and Baruch would accomplish this. Using 3D scanners and printers, the Israelis would be able to print out tissue for their hands and contacts for their eyes to enable the two men to clothe themselves with the Germans’ distinct identities.

   The deception would work perfectly, too. As far as Tyrone knew the German government hadn’t put out a bulletin yet on any missing diplomats. If the operation’s luck could hold a little longer, it would stay that way. The last thing Tyrone and his crew needed was for there to be unrest in the Fourth Reich over personnel disappearing on an inspection to Barcelona…which is precisely what  [_did _] happen.

   Tyrone rarely did it, almost never in fact, yet somehow, someway it now seemed appropriate to crack his knuckles. The brittle bones of his going out of joint then back in satisfied his ears with a sound similar to a log crackling under the intense heat of a campfire.

   Tyrone continued to slave away at the sets of data. He slowly but surely moved his way on down through it until he had opened every last directory, every last file in the attachment.

   Now suddenly the scope of his assignment just got bigger with his aided enlightenment.

   Tyrone instinctively looked down at his pack of old-fashioned cigarettes. The stress brought on by the new information made him crave the cancer sticks like never before.

    How could a room look so cool? All the elements were so disparate, yet they worked in the space. The color pallet wasn’t monochromatic either. Tapestries dyed in vivacious reds hung from purple colonnades.

   Workstations were more conservative than their non-conformal surroundings however. Cubicles had never looked so modern before until now. They still retained their four-sided box, yet somehow managed to shed the cramped feeling that notoriously came with thanks to their ingenious arbor design with bars that went across at the top to hang whimsical decorations down from.

    Esther reclined in a zero gravity chair with her body parallel to the ground. Three monitors hanging in the balance on an elaborate scaffolding kept the information she needed to see only a comfortable glimpse away—no neck strain whatsoever.

   Silence and tranquility were the unspoken rules to working in the very much controlled environment. Those two things were what tricked the young cadets into thinking what they were accomplishing wasn’t hard work at all but merely another day in the office.

   

   Music with a foot-tapping rhythm to it played through Esther’s headphones. She chewed on a nail while simultaneously taking in a message from just the person she didn’t care to talk to right now: a guy who had graduated from the program a year prior.

    [_What do you want dude? _] her agitated brain mulled while she read the message’s contents and then read it again for any underlying nuances she may have missed beforehand. This guy didn’t talk in riddles, nor did he ever give it to her straight either; there was always at least a little pretext though. That was one thing she could be sure of.

   “What kinds of assignments are you doing these days?” he asked.

   Esther fired back, “Who are you talking about? Team Musketeer or me personally?”

   The slowness in his reply told on him: he felt stupid for speaking in such ambiguity. Especially since he had moved up in the agency where clear communication was cornerstone to anything that happened.

   “And besides, friend or not, you know I can’t give you an honest answer on my activities. I’d have to kill you if I did,” she typed out. No winking smiley face followed her last message, leaving it up to him to determine what she had really meant. Esther flipped up a tussle of hair that had accidentally floated down into her field of vision; she smiled big—more or less because it made her smirk wondering what her old secret admirer was thinking right at this moment.

   

   An icon that previously was lit up green to indicate his presence in the chat room now turned gray. Something had come up on his end necessitating an early exit from an otherwise typical back and forth between a girl he swore still loved him.

   Esther sighed. He had retreated again (!) she concluded from the clues he had left her. Flipping that switch back to work mode came easy for her after a talk like that.

 

   Today she trudged through simulated worst-case scenarios the agency had cadets go through in order to bring them up higher to the next level. This process repeated itself over and over to develop reflexes, mental toughness, appropriate tactical decisions when under duress…and the list of reasons stretched on and on.

   Since it was still the morning though her routine consisted mainly of setting up the mission profile through her terminal and obtaining Intel on the threats she would face in the virtual reality environment she’d suit up for later after she had lunch.

   The excitement wouldn’t cease until her head hit the pillow at the end of the day: just the way she liked it.

   And then something unexpected happened to her world.

    _He _ showed up. Not the dude from the chatroom either. A face she failed to forget.

   “Esther, that you?” the young boy with the bouncing black curls called out from a long ways off.

    This is all in my head. I’ve got to see a guidance counselor about these day dreams I’ve been having.  

   He asked another question as he drew closer: “What are you doing here?”

    Crap. This is real.

Chapter 2

The Ozarks,

   Another morning had dawned, however the prisoners of the underground penitentiary facility of the Ozarks learned to forget what a sunrise looked like. It was a fact of life that went with existing underground in a subterranean prison. The oxygen didn’t taste as good, no natural light, and the smells? Sulfuric musty scents: not exactly perfume or cologne line fragrances.

   

   Damion brooded in a corner. There he sat cross-legged planning his escape route. Various ideas, big and small, were all in play for him; he even dreamt of escaping the prison like the comic book character Iron Man did from his captivity. Just the thought of blasting all the prison guards with flamethrowers from a jerry-rigged exoskeleton suit made him feel better already.

   “Christophe?”

    The Frenchman merely grunted to acknowledge he was listening.

   “I could make a ham radio. Signal friends….”

   Christophe openly scoffed. “Where would you get all the parts anyway? And lest you forget friend, time is not on our side. We needed to escape like yesterday.”

   Damion frowned and slowly nodded his head in defeat. He knew Gerard was right. No sense in arguing.

   “Then what do we do?” he said at last out of desperation.

   “We wait for a rescue,” the scientist suggested reassuringly. He wryly smiled then added, “There is one thing we can do to be proactive my friend.”

   “Oh? Do I want to know?”

   “No,” he chuckled, “but I think desperate times call for desperate measures. You said you’re catholic, right?”

   This brought on an ear-to-ear grin from Damion. “I knew you were going there.”

   “Can you fault a man for trying?”

   “You’re persistent, I’ll give you that. But you forget who you’re talking to. I’m not about to pray to an imaginary god. No, no, no!” he emphatically stated, his eyes growing more dim and lifeless with each no he uttered.

   Christophe ignored the show of smoldering anger and instead started praying out loud. “Dear God, please smack this befuddled billionaire straight upside the head for me. Knock some sense into that confused brain of his. Show him there’s another way, and it ain’t a ham radio. Amen.”

   Damion stood up, his jaw slack as the rest of his features. He remained fixed in a closed stance, his eyes wide open in astonishment. “You—!” But the words weren’t there. He turned around and instead hefted his body onto his cot and began punching his pillow uncontrollably.

   “Why?!” he screamed into his punching bag, his face turning red.

    “We’re not always told the why in life, but we must learn to accept the circumstances and adapt our emotions to them, anyhow,” Christophe said with his index finger raised while he made his point.

   Damion didn’t stir for a moment. He simply laid there motionless on his disorderly mattress with his face burrowed into the thin feather pillow. His anger slowly turned to sadness. His shoulders rose and fell. The man who normally kept a tough as nails exterior began to burst at the seams. The emotions came out in small sobs.

   This greatly intrigued Christophe. He had never seen his business partner this way. Never.

   “Uh, Damion?” By now Gerard had crossed the dirty floor. He rested his sweaty palm on Damion’s shoulder blade as he spoke to him in a small voice.

   The man made of money turned his head ever so slightly to notice how close his friend was.

   “I turned my mom away, Christophe. Made her leave my place crying. Now I’ll never see her again to tell her I’m sorry.”

   This bit of news completely shocked Christophe. Damion rarely shared about himself. He remained guarded, kept many secrets. However, the little prison experiment seemed to be changing that. For the first time Christophe got a sneak peek into the inner sanctum of Damion’s heart. There was flesh there, not stone…deep feelings, not just hollow lofty thoughts of self.

   Christophe was more than ready to regard his closest colleague in a different light. Maybe even the most stubborn people could change their ways after all.

   No sooner had the changed man turn a new leaf did he revert back to his well-worn system defaults.

   “I liked you better from across the room than at my side. Your bedside manner has exceeded my comfort level.”

   Christophe snorted and flipped his head back to chortle. “That didn’t take long.”

   Damion smiled weakly. “You like me for me—that other guy you just witnessed? He doesn’t exist.”

   Christophe played along. “Just another ghost from your past?”

   “Precisely.”

   “Ah, we understand each other, monsieur.”

   Damion used one of the few words he knew in French to answer his friend: “Exactement.” [_(Pronounced exact-a-moh) _] Exactly.

                                    --

   Several foreign objects never before seen passing through Sector 3 airspace much less any sovereign airspace on planet earth now appeared content to park themselves over the center of the city.

   What the residents of the former capital of the United States of America didn’t know was this very same occurrence happened to be a global phenomenon and not merely native to the skies of what once used to be the District of Columbia.

   

    It was anyone’s guess what would happen next.

   Beijing in the year 2041 looked nothing like its primordial self in the mid twentieth century. Its population density far surpassed any other urban area on the globe with only Tokyo on its doorstep as the runner up.

   The powers that be over mainland China weren’t Commies like their forefathers, but rather more like interest-driven beneficiaries of the economic reforms started in the early nineties of the late twentieth century. And furthermore, the boost in Chinese military spending before WWIII witnessed a sharp decline after the bloody, nuclear conflict.

   In the years following the third world war the leaders of the declining economic superpower thought it more prudent and sound to invest in better highways, high-speed transport, and industrial infrastructure versus a robust military. China still remained very estimable however much less prominent on a very globalistic world stage.

   Tonight she would wish she hadn’t let her military stagnate so much to the point of turning into a mothball, boneyard fleet.

   

   Young men dressed in Armani suits with Burberry shades on; all of the business crowd wore their earpieces too so they could stay connected with their clients while on the run.

   The scene painted on the city streets of Beijing’s core wasn’t one of gridlock or smog like its stereotype had been for many years. Instead a very coordinated flow of connected, autonomous cars drove their many passengers to their per diem destinations in the very happening city center.

   Beijing also benefitted from the flying car phenomenon which had its origins in Austin, Texas. Even more sophisticated designs for flying transport continued to skate their way through the patent offices and eventually see real-world mileage in the skies of Beijing and other major metropolitan areas the world over. This miracle in the aviation sector did wonders to alleviate congestion at ground zero as well as give people a good option to be anywhere and everywhere at a moment’s notice.

   Today the Sky Belt traffic weaving in and out of skyscrapers was overshadowed, quite literally, by a flock of oblong, foreboding discs moving at a leisurely pace. These UFO’s, just like their cousins in various parts of the world which were doing exactly the same thing, didn’t seem to have an apparent agenda judging by their lack of speed or purposeful direction in which they were headed. Nevertheless, these foreign objects in the skies achieved the one thing their commanders flying them had in mind: confuse the humans, scatter the roaches. Make them panic to the point of entering into a military conflict as a united human race rather than as separate nations with weak militaries.

   

   This terrifying sight which repeated over and over on planet earth didn’t guarantee inaction from vigilantes who were local to the sky invasion. On the contrary many daring individuals sought to scramble their own air assets to be the first responders to the crisis: rather than sit around and wait for E.T. to stomp its boot on the ant, the ant would make the opening move.

   The commanders overseeing the holographic invasion forces anticipated such a reaction from mankind.

   Howard & Co. from Scorpion prepared a very real response for just this kind of contingency. No they didn’t plan on dropping a Star Wars fleet from orbit to back up the disc projections which were merely there to scare and frustrate any attempts from man to immediately remedy the doomsday picture.

   Scorpion had an even better way to handle it.

   Stolen from Westover Ventures were revolutionary plans to weaponize holograms and allow them to inflict mortal blows on humans in a very tangible way. No one knew such a technology even existed much less could be achieved other than the weapon’s proprietor himself, Damion Westover…and the thief who took it from him—Howard.

   This quantum leap in holography would change the battlefields forever. Wars would be fought in ways never even imagined. Sci-fi had some catching up to do with reality in this strange wrinkle in the timeline.

   But first, history was about to take a decisive turn in Howard’s favor…and no one appeared ready to counter his move.

Berlin, Germany

    The Mossad agent wore all black down to the little booties he slipped on over his shoes to avoid tracking through the house. The killer stared at the lifeless corpse that slackly leaned up against the shower wall.

   It had been too easy.

   Everything he did next bore the resemblance of extreme familiarity in the field of cold calculating executions.

   Baruch unscrewed the silencer on his pistol first thing, broke down the firearm, and tucked it away into a rucksack he had on his back. The agent didn’t bother locating the rounds he had fired into the victim either. No sense. Baruch had used easily obtainable ammo that wouldn’t be traceable back to Mossad. However, he did decide to backtrack to his point of entry into the room. At precisely the fateful juncture where the gun went off, he decided to exam the doorjamb for any burn marks or other impressions that may have been left to indicate a weapon had discharged.

   White paint seemed to be missing just below waist level on the wooden frame. Baruch inspected his gun once more and found it to be clean. The Israeli shrugged before getting back up on his feet from a squatting stance. The coast remained all clear. There was nothing more to do other than make a clean exit. And then a phone call.

    “Did he get it?” an eerie voice rasped in the agent’s ear.

   “Three to the brain.”

   “Good.”

   “Firefly?”

   “Hm?”

   “Are the traps set? Are the nets ready?”

   “That is not for you to ask. You merely do. That is all.”

   Baruch’s expression changed. He said nothing.

   “Dragon, stay on this line.”

   “Roger that,” Baruch replied in a monotone.

   An intermittent insertion of static gave way to the same voice from before, only stronger and with a stern message. “Dragon?”

   “Go for Dragon.”

   Firefly spoke, saying, “I have a tracker on you. Changing out of your clothes would be useless. I wouldn’t advise that.”

   “Okay?”

   “All you need to do is follow orders and you will make it out of this mission in one piece. I can’t guarantee that for your friends though.”

   Baruch glowered. “Oh, they’re not my friends.”

   “Good! You will do well.”

   Baruch hung up at these words right after he slid into his parked car that waited for him in an alley. He had remote started it all the way from the house. By the time he sat in the driver’s seat the cabin’s temperature had risen to a comfortable sixty-eight.

   Time to get on the move, again

[_Masada, Tel Aviv—2041 _]

   Malach Kemper touched the top edge of one domino which caused a chain reaction of the rest on his desk. The noisy clatter preceded the final black and white piece that triumphantly landed away and to the side from its fallen brethren on the wooden surface. Malach picked the last piece up, turning the smooth stick of porcelain to and fro in between his fingers. A pattern of six dots peaked out from where his thumb held the domino. The man’s face turned into one big wicked smile.

   An encrypted agency phone which sat perched on a desk organizer started to buzz. Malach rolled his chair closer to the source before his hand deftly reached out to snare the device from its resting place.

   “Yeah.”

   “Am I a go?

   “Not Berlin, this is not the time or place.”

   It was evident judging by the cursing and muttering this kind of answer from Malach didn’t jive well with the listener.

   “Why?” the other man asked at last.

   “Son, do you trust me?”

   The mature, deep male voice on the other end appeared to catch upon hearing the term of endearment used. But after a short while he said a little unsteadily, “Yes.”

   “We need to let the events unfold in the Berlin Mission per our earlier discussion without anymore intervention. Let Baruch handle things on his end, then we’ll leave the rest up to Berlin’s police and the government to tighten the noose on Tyrone and…” Malach paused while preparing to mention the next figure, “Seth Markov.”

   The head of Kidon of Mossad rarely got nervous, yet uttering Azriel Kemper’s biological father’s name in context of a mission to destroy said person made Malach naturally feel on edge. He worried whether Azriel’s cerebrum memory transfiguration surgery had fully worked to remove all traces of the young man’s  [_real _] father from his mind.

   Only time would tell, really. And that’s what worried Malach Kemper (Ephraim Markov) to no end. All his work to re-train Azriel to despise Seth and view him as a traitor to the state and to Judaism would all be for naught if in a moment of confused emotions Azriel saw Seth at death’s door, noticed his  real  father’s pleading eyes, and then in a flashpoint of profound implications Azriel would remember everything just in the nick of time to stay a trigger pull that could have ended Seth Markov’s life.

   That’s precisely why Azriel couldn’t be allowed to be sent to do the job in Berlin. Yes, the boy had risen to the top of the agency’s operatives—had proven himself to be even more capable in some ways than even his father, Seth Markov; however, there were absolutely no assurances that in the moment when it was in Azriel’s power to end Seth’s life whether or not the memory transfiguration would hold.

   

   Azriel had come a long way from inception. Five years ago when he was reborn in an operating room on the thirty-ninth floor of Masada near Tel Aviv, he possessed the raw potential to be and do something great—to be an even more bad-ass agent than Seth Markov. For normal people though, such aspirations were inconceivable. Silly.

   Azriel Markov left the chamber (where he had been operated on) not as a normal person, but rather an almost subservient robot tooled to blindly follow Uncle Ephraim’s every desire without questioning motive. He simply did. And in essence, Ephraim Markov, aka Malach Kemper, had at his disposal one of the deadliest weapons in the Scorpion arsenal. Yes, the  [_Scorpion _] arsenal.                              

   Tyrone Banks painstakingly sifted through the remaining files while puffing away the final cig from the pack he had with him. He didn’t need anymore harmful carcinogens than he already had. The bad habit that had started during his college days ceased to desist—thirty years later.

   One positive  thing that hadn’t changed with time though was his amazing handle on complex problems and summiting the Mount Everest of the hacker’s world routinely. No system was too hardened for him to expose the vulnerabilities and gain root access.

   

   Getting into the police and government servers to do his dark magic would be tricky, but not overwhelming in the least. For that, Tyrone actually would rely on outside help in order to make the hack into the Interior Ministry.

How it would go down [_   _]

   

   Seth out in the field would employ the social engineering tactic to gain physical access to the network nodes of the German Interior Ministry in order to plant packet sniffers so that all the traffic on the agency’s computers could be relayed back to Tyrone Bank’s terminal.

   All the Germans’ information that Tyrone would now be privy to after the successful hack would then be filtered and consequently dispensed into various categories by way of very advanced software which exercised tried and true algorithms to distill the information down to only the parts that mattered.

   AI bots which knew what to look for would then form alerts that appeared in a central HUD (heads up display) where Tyrone could take in the most crucial messages at a glance. Anything that came up that might compromise the mission would assuredly appear on one of the monitors in the control center of the SUV. And if that threat exposed either one of the operatives or put them in harm’s way, the African American directing the show would get on the horn and give the agent in danger an escape route.

   

   As far as getting on the police bandwidth, Tyrone had decryption software that could tear down the wall that previously obfuscated police communication from individuals attempting to get on the same frequency.

   All it took were a few scripts and he was in.

   

   Hearing the first radio traffic between squad cars and a dispatcher gave Tyrone goose bumps. This _was _ real. Everything he did from here on in had immense consequence on operational success, not like it hadn’t before. However, the effect his decisions made henceforth multiplied twenty-fold.

   A new message in IRC caught his eye. CCGuy22  again.

    Report , he requested.

    About to send the AG files to a contact in the city who can do up Argo 1.  

   Governor Carlos Castell in Barcelona knew Argo 1 to mean Agent Seth Markov. The enigmatic language wasn’t lost on him either. He understood “do up” translated into the 3D schematics he sent in the Access Granted files. And that it involved making a husk and contacts for Agent Markov to impersonate a German commissioner of the Interior Ministry: Wendel.

   A half hour went by without a response. It was half past seven and that worried Tyrone a little.

    You still there CCGuy22?

   The bot that was running on the Spanish governor’s computer answered for the absent Carlos Castel: Yes. I sent backup. Friendly inbound. Don’t do anything stupid.

   Tyrone looked at the communication with shock and wonder.

   “What in the sam heck is going on…” he muttered.

   Just then the tailgate to the secure mobile communications center began to rise. The locks must have been overridden. The moment seemed surreal. If that wasn’t bizarre enough, the familiar face staring in at Tyrone Banks was .

   A nonplused Tyrone croaked, “Dekel Hornik?”

Chapter 3

   Being so close to the building he would enter into as commissioner Wendel overstimulated the Israeli’s adrenal glands.

   All the ambient noise from the tunnels and corridors of an underground city faded away in an instant when Tyrone’s voice filled his ears in surround sound.

   “Have you arrived at Eldrich’s yet?”

   Seth knew Tyrone to be tracking his progress in real time with pinpoint accuracy. In short, it was more of a rhetorical question than anything else.

   “I had to get coffee and buy a hat.”

   “Pick up the pace a bit. I’ve already sent the necessary files along with your measurements to an eager Mr. E. You’ll be in and out.”

   The Mossad agent scanning his surroundings every five seconds said, “Good,” nodding his head.

   Tyrone knew what happened in the field. Judging by the simple replies he got from his asset he knew there had to have been an overabundance of images for Seth’s field of vision to take in, process, then make real-time decisions on friend or foe, threats or non-threats.

   Enemies were lurking all around. Always. Those that were really skillful hid in plain sight.

   “You need to get on the next line headed for Berlin Central Station. From there you can make the connection to your final destination,” he carefully communicated to Seth.

   Agent Markov used his index finger to press into the cartilage of his right ear. “Copy that,” he confirmed the last transmission.

   “You won’t believe who I have with me.”

   Seth had just stepped onto a moving sidewalk. His head slowly swiveled towards the tracks to his right. They were empty for once—no speeding trains went by in either direction.

   “Just tell me,” he replied dully after he had exhausted his short supply of patience.

   “You may know him by the name Alfonso Marcello.”

   “ _Agent _ Marcello?” Seth repeated, feeling stunned.

   Tyrone didn’t answer directly but instead launched into the reason why help had come. “….We have four hands at the helm now, Markov.”

   Eventually the moving conveyer belt brought Seth to firm ground where he would once again have to worry about modulating his own natural means of locomotion. Nothing about the sea of faces in the new surroundings registered as familiar. Seth breathed a sigh of relief. There had been a shifty character or two from earlier he had his eye on, and they appeared to be watching him with great curiosity too.

   “Hello?”

   “Would you quit yackin’ in my ear?” Seth replied rather testily.

   A distant, far-away voice apologized which only meant one thing: despite having seniority and years of more experience and time with the agency, Tyrone had never become so smug and content with himself to the point where he missed the occasion to feel stupid over his actions or what he said.

 

   Seth needed a clear head for the mission. Tyrone’s communication of late served as more of a distraction than a help. It intrigued him that Agent Marcello would be assisting in the operation, but as far as Seth was concerned, that remained a sideshow. In no way could he allow his excitement over the new prospect take his eyes off the ball—the primary objective.

   

   Seth got through a line real quick to pay with currency for his fare to make the connection to his next destination where he would get fixed up as commissioner Wendel.

   While he stood in front of the lady at the window to get a boarding pass, out of his peripherals Seth noticed two German policemen walking in an eastward vector straight for him.

   “Your passport?” she asked in German with her hand held out.

   Seth’s eyes rolled sideways while still maintaining a visual on the woman with an open palm ready to receive his fake passport.

   For a languishing few seconds Seth fumbled through his pockets for his identification. The cops already closed the distance no sooner than after he had produced his passport to the transportation agent who studied him through narrowed eye slits . The two men in black uniforms with their hands down at their hips, undoubtedly by the holster, covered a football-field length in an astonishing twelve seconds.

   Seth counted to three in his head, took one glance at the woman, then snatched the little blue booklet out of her hands.

   She cried out but he was already packing it to get into the nearest train that was about to pull away from the station.

   The doors sealed shut and the train lurched forward with a violent tug. It nearly threw Seth sideways into several passengers; his quick reflexes saved him from sandwiching an elderly woman into her husband against the plexiglass windows.

   Seth ran to the back of the train once he regained equilibrium. The two hundred and ten pound piece of biological military hardware sprinted through the final segment of the subway line. A petrified-looking conductor raised his walkie to his lips but before he could speak a word Seth karate chopped him across the throat. The blow made the man turn shades of grey while he desperately tried to suck in air: Agent Markov had perfectly ruptured the man’s esophagus which cause him to instantly suffocate to death.

   Though he had never been in the back of a German subway before the Israeli intuitively knew how to open the rear door while the train was underway. Three little sliders on a console were shifted all the way to the right until the German word for “open” flashed in red on the screen.

   The rear hatch instantly obeyed Seth’s input even through the subway began to reach over a hundred kilometers per hour. The wind howled at those high speeds. Seth felt sucked towards the opening. Only his boots with their traction feature prevented him from being jettisoned out the opening and onto the tracks.

   In a surprisingly quick sequence of spider-like movements, Agent Markov hugged the wall, scooted through the exterior hatch, and shinnied up to the top of the speeding bullet. If it hadn’t been for the gecko skin on his hands Seth would in no way have ever attempted to get on top of a fast train in transit.

   And there he lay, on top of a fiberglass roof, in a dangerously climactic predicament. These were the moments where Seth Markov didn’t blink. Every blood cell in his body reacted  accordingly; every muscle group responded when called upon; all the neural synapses appeared to behave like a fiber-optic cable: at the speed of light. No hesitation whatsoever.

   Seth behaved like the imperfect-perfect human. His response time to physical stimuli put him at the top of the heap. No man could be his equal. Seth operated in an entirely different universe where the impossible became possible.

   His fingerless gloves gripped the riveted galvanized steel edges of the subway. The train continued to put on speed, completely oblivious to the fact that a stow-a-way clung to its roof.

   Seth knew he had to escape the entrapping tunnels of Berlin’s U-bahn system. And to do so would require an incredible amount of cunning, luck…and even more luck.

   “What are you doing?!” a familiar voice practically ruptured the agent’s eardrums.

   Seth could still hear Tyrone’s squawking, despite the deafening noise of traveling on top of a subway.

   The built man grunted as he began to methodically crawl towards the middle of the caboose. “Kinda busy,” he managed to say in the midst of heavy breathing.

   “You have another train headed in the opposite direction along the parallel tracks, Seth,” a new voice said.

   Seth could only assume the new instruction came from none other than the newest member to join the Berlin Mission task force: Agent Alfonso Marcello.

   Seth’s brain raced. “How much time till both trains overlap?”

   “T-minus ten seconds.”

   “Great.”

   The sound of another powerful engine building up steam met Seth full on as his subway line neared a bend. He knew the approaching train, though currently out of sight, would not only be visible but also abreast of his position very soon.

   The distance needed to jump onto the next ride was marginal. However, the real danger derived from the changing velocity represented in the moving objects.

   Seth had to do everything just right otherwise he’d wind up as U-bahn dressing. The blur of the high-speed trains, the high-voltage current of the tracks, the danger of the police who scurried to hunt his hide down…all of these fears were replaced with an irrational level of confidence and stoicism that only Seth Markov was capable of exhibiting.

   He could get the job done.

                                --

Junior Cadet Wing, Masada

[_   _] The teenager that had escaped the white contraption which changed his memories and life forever now reemerged into Esther’s life, quite seamlessly.

   Esther jerked upward from her previous position of comfort on the zero gravity chair.

   She noticed for the first time that Azriel appeared to be wearing what the other cadets had on. When she saw him initially her brain replayed images of the time where she and her mother had captured the boy and taken him to the operating room for the cerebrum memory transfiguration surgery. Back then she saw a scared kid wearing street clothes. Now the person who stood before her station dressed in a blue and white-streaked skin tight warmup suit.

   If she squinted Azriel looked more like a superhero than anything else. His small shoulders, petite chest, and little cutlet arms looked larger than life in the skin-sucking suit he wore.

   

   All of the boy’s questions to her had gone unanswered thus far.

   Esther didn’t know where to start.

   She knew that according to the parameters of the software that had reprogrammed Azriel’s brain, she was his sister now. Scary thought. Having a Markov boy for a brother made her more nervous than she should’ve been. For good reason though. Azriel’s real  father Seth Markov did a magnificent job of scaring the bad guys before he inevitably ended their lives. If his son was anything like him, Azriel would make a name for himself—bad guys would quake at the mention of Azriel Markov.

   Esther didn’t see herself as a bad guy, yet the human being standing such a short distance away made her feel criminal.  He looked at her with an innocence in his eyes that peered deep into her soul. She didn’t want him looking around in there…no one belonged in there. Esther possessed secrets that had secrets. No one would ever be entitled to them. Especially not the son of Seth Markov.

   “Are we gonna do sim time together?” he asked her point blank.

   Now he stood at an uncomfortably close distance away from the girl who still hadn’t vacated the safety net of her leather chair.

   Esther didn’t even acknowledge his presence by giving him the courtesy of a head turn, much less eye contact. Instead she stared straight ahead at nothing in particular and said firmly, “Are you tough enough?”

   It was meant more as a remark than a question.

   Azriel spread his feet in a wide stance, shifting his weight from left to right before settling into his athletic stance. He folded his arms across his chest.

   “Don’t you want to see for yourself?”

   Esther did want that. Her curiosity and desire to see what kind of caged animal Azriel really was got the better of her. She had  to see it. Ephraim Markov had created a monster. Admittedly, a cute  monster. But a monster nevertheless.

   Esther avoided a yes or no response to his question with, “I have to run a background check on some people I’m gonna run across in today’s sim. I need to get an accurate profile on these characters, know where they’re gonna be and when, so I can interdict them. Sift them. It’s all part of the game.”

   Azriel didn’t blink. “I’ll link up with your mission profile. I’m a quick study. Join you in Sim Room Number 1 at thirteen hundred hours?”

   “Are you asking me a direct question?” Esther queried.

   “Then it’s a yes ?”

   “God, you’re so much like Seth,” she murmured. Esther really quick clamped a hand over her mouth in vain. She couldn’t believe the words that had just come out of her mouth.

    “Who?”

   Her forehead began to glisten. “Huh?”

   Azriel cocked his head and raised an eyebrow.

   “Never mind. Thirteen hundred hours. Don’t be late. I’ll start without you.”

   “Wouldn’t miss it.”

   Esther watched as the boy looped between the funky cubicles and disappeared into a section of the cadet wing she was less familiar with.

   She pinched herself on the elbow and repeated the same phrase from before upon first seeing Azriel: _Crap, this is real. _

   Baruch listened to the growl of the quad exhaust system of his German sports car. Each note did something to him; they made him feel more in touch with his decision to fake an alliance with the co-conspirators of the Berlin Mission in order to achieve the takedown of the century. Seth Markov would be off the streets. The tormented Scorpion scum could then rest easy knowing the world’s most dangerous assassin finally got a taste of his own medicine.

   It wouldn’t be that easy though. But it had to be done. Baruch reported directly to Malach Kemper, Head of Kidon, the snake who provided the oil to make the plan all come together.

   

   This would get personal, too. Baruch had known Seth for a number of years, did a good many ops with him that built trust. That’s what made his impending actions the ultimate blindside. Seth came prepared for anything, but not this. How could he?

                             …

   

   “Are you ready to insert yourself into this? Fully commit to what needs doing?”

   Baruch braked hard and came to a stop in the middle of a busy thoroughfare. His closest tail nearly slammed into the back of him, causing the rest of the traffic to madly swerve around the impediment to traffic.

   “How did you—I hung up on you.”

   “Newsflash, you can’t hang  up on me. We’re always connected. Just remember that.”

   Baruch detected a smile in Firefly’s spooky language.

   Baruch popped the clutch to his sophisticated manual transmission while simultaneously flooding the cylinders with fuel. “Fine. Keep talking oh voice in my head.”

   “I don’t know why, but I have had a premonition all morning that we’re in for a few surprises today.”

   “Oh?”

   “For starters, there’s been chatter in the backchannels out of Spain.”

   “Get to the point,” Baruch said rather indignantly. He didn’t appreciate the roundabout communication from his superior.

   “I think Tyrone and Seth have help. Help that we haven’t planned for.”

   Baruch slammed his fist down on the twelve o’clock position on the steering wheel. Loud, ugly curses in Hebrew and a few other tongues reverberated around the small cabin of the compact sedan.

   “How sure are you of this?”

   “What does that even matter. I told you what I know: now respond in a manner you see fit. I’ll bump up the frequency in which you receive Intel bytes on the positioning and intents of our enemies. You will remain a step ahead the whole way.”

   Baruch avoided getting boxed in again by the brutal traffic patterns that weren’t kind to efficiency. He exhaled a little more loudly than even he would have liked.

   “Just keep me posted. I’m putting my neck on the line for you. If shit goes sideways, I won’t hesitate to switch sides and go after your people. You got me?”

   Malach Kemper didn’t tolerate threats from agents in the field under most circumstances. But this was a most special exception to the rule indeed. He needed Baruch: lippy, out-of-bounds, insubordinate agent and all.

   “Remember who you’re dealing with agent,” he sharply reprimanded Baruch. “Stick to the plan. Go in as the interior minister’s chauffeur. She will be notified of the plan. I have people in place to make the communication go as planned. Everybody is on the same page.” Malach exhaled and paused with his chin up, “Bottom line? We win.”

   “Well, winner here is en route to a guy Tyrone Banks calls Mr. E.”

   “Yes, yes. I know.”

   “Seth will beat me there and undoubtedly be gone already by the time I get there. This thing is planned out to the second.”

   “That’s the nature of these things.”

   Baruch flicked his blinker on and changed lanes. “We have nothing else to discuss then.”

   “Just remember, I’m always here.”

   “I’m comforted.”

   Malach Kemper smiled. “I knew you would be. You agents are very needy.”

Chapter 4

   

Berlin, Germany

   

   The police in Berlin were on high alert. Several passengers riding the U-bahn had reported suspicious behavior by a six-foot-one male wearing a soccer hat. Among the charges brought against him: he bought things with a currency not frequently passed around in the plazas, was rude to a barista, and constantly glanced around like he had something to hide—all crimes punishable by the court of law.

   Of course that wasn’t it though.

   His passport, despite being a good forgery, didn’t hold water. He had used it once to cross the border. He managed to fool the agents there and get into Germany. Since then he had to show identification to use Germany’s public transportation system underground where the authorities were eventually tipped by the vigilant locals on the lookout for individuals like him.

                                           

   Now he clung to the metal roof of a subway—the point of no return.

   In the blur of color from going over a hundred kilometers an hour Seth saw blue flashes of lightning to his left. The police, no doubt. The delayed whine of motorcycles racing along the side of the tracks, screams of random passengers scurrying to get out of the way, and cops blowing their whistles filled the air.

   This was it.

   The moment when he’d have to jump.

   Seth lifted his fleece’s sleeves up to his elbows with his teeth. Next he used his chin to hit the release button by his left clavicle which activated raised razors along the undersides of both of his arms. These blades would be useful when landing his fateful jump onto an otherwise slippery moving target. With the use of a multitude of pointed carbon steel teeth, gecko skin fingerless gloves, and his extreme traction tactical boots, Seth could stick the landing.

   The other train grew so close a heat wave whipped through the agent’s hair full blast. The headlights of the lead car of the oncoming subway were about to pass the caboose that Seth was situated on.

   Now or never.

   Seth raised his upper body halfway up; his hat got ripped off by the current of air that lived in between the space along the top of the tunnel and the subway roof. Seth Markov’s chest muscles bulged as his arms spread out like a runner ready to launch off the blocks to the shot of a pistol.

   Things began to sway and go blurry in the crux of things.

   Agent Markov’s leg muscles quivered right before he went airborne.

   And then in the twinkling of an eye he joined the airstream that flowed over the two moving trains. His body cut through it like a gymnast twisting and turning. Gravity ultimately decided the warrior’s fate.

   All things that go up come down.

Sector 3, New Babylon

   Mass pandemonium spread across the city with the same haste of an abrupt storm rolling in out at sea.

   Certain pockets of urban New Babylon were already deciding on what could be done; others were just waking up to the reality of E.T. in the skies; however more people than not were too scared to do anything.

   And then there was Esmeralda, Damion Westover’s mother.

    The sky was falling.

   So many people in the apartment building wanted to get down to the ground floor all at once that a massive elevator waiting list instantly occurred. Scores of people didn’t care what floor they were on, though—stalling for another moment for help to come just wasn’t even an option, therefore the fire escape stairways would be the way to go since an elevator wouldn’t be arriving anytime soon.

 

   Esmeralda chose to wait for an elevator. She became more petrified as the seconds evaporated.          

   Despite being in better shape than most women her age, she had unfortunately arrived at the time in life where she needed to start taking supplements for osteoporosis. Seventy-nine floors to ground zero using the stairs would have been way too long of an adventure to go on for the Covergirl model in her early fifties.

   In the midst of the hysteria she felt a gentle vibration in the clutch she literally went everywhere with. Her talent manager had texted asking if things were okay. Right then after she had just read the text another one…and a half dozen more from personal acquaintances started dropping in her mailbox like it was her birthday.

   Esmeralda let her arm holding the phone go slack and drop down to her side as if it had been yanked there by an external force. She exhaled. The burden of today caused her a great deal of stress. Another thought came to the forefront though ahead of all the others: what about [_Damion? _]

[_   What about my boy?!_]

[_   _]

[_   Yes, _] he had left a mark on her soul the other day at Westover Estates. It had hurt something fierce. Yet she was his mother. No amount of pain he may have dished her way over the years could possibly trump the maternal feelings as a nurturer she would always hold for him.

   A sermon on undying love could be written based off of how Esmeralda felt for her son now.

   

   As she sat on the cool tile floor of the lobby, waiting for the next elevator to come available, she thought of her next action move.

   A man in his forties leaned up against the same wall Esmeralda did. His obsequious smile, balding mess of hair, the vibes he gave off…all unwelcome by her.

   He started off by saying, “What beautiful hair you have!”

   Esmeralda pulled out her phone, pretending to be busy.

   The man’s gaze dropped down to the model’s hands, looking for a band. When he didn’t see one, he grew even bolder.

   “They must take lotsa pictures of you. Big blown up photographs in nice frames.”

   Esmeralda pulled out some gum from her purse and chewed it loudly.

   The stranger revealed a crooked toothy grin in response to her most recent gesture.

   “No talk?”

   Another person who had been stealthily observing the course of the interaction from a distance now decided to chime in and act as the referee. It was another man, but a much kinder-looking one. His face communicated compassion and sympathy—not wanton lust or any other immoral failure of the heart.

   “I’m sorry you’ve had to deal with this scumbag,” he said as he glowered at the man who still didn’t appear ready to give up the act.

   Esmeralda normally resisted the attention males gave her. This man, however, was the exception. Good Samaritans in New Babylon were rare. Very.

   “I’m Esmerelda,” she weakly said while looking up into the ruggedly handsome face of the nice neighbor.

   The man who had intervened took up a spot on the floor across from her. But before he did he bent over slightly and reached out to gently shake the model’s hand, saying, “I’m Joshua. So nice to meet you.”

   She had to look away to hide how she was feeling. When the smile was well enough under her control her head swiveled back to face Joshua.

   “Likewise,” she said at last.

   Joshua asked, “Is there anything else I can do for you?”

   Esmeralda suddenly felt self-conscious. She currently struggled with all the nervous energy of being around someone that made her antennae go up. Joshua had just rescued her from an uncouth dude who didn’t respect women anymore than he respected himself. Now this same knight came around a second time, seeing what more he could do.

   Then she remembered why she sat on the floor. One look around at the grossly overcrowded lobby jogged her memory. Joshua had so skillfully taken her mind off the things that were happening out the window that if it hadn’t been for an intermittent, middling thought desperately fighting to get her attention she would have given him the keys to her heart in a matter of time.

   “I have to get outta here,” she blurted—more for herself than for the man sitting across from her.

    “You and a lotta other good people,” he cocked his head in the direction of the assembly that had gathered. “Where you headed? Do you have a place to go?”

   Esmeralda’s eyes grew small and shy. “I…I dunno,” she said to her toes.

   The kind stranger reached out and took hold of her hand not holding the cell phone. Esmeralda wanted to resist, but she couldn’t. The warmth of good intentions and trust flowed through Joshua’s fingertips until it reached its end destination: Esmeralda’s heart.

   “I don’t know where I’m going either,” he said.

    _Of course he would say that. _ “Well let’s get lost together then,” Esmeralda facetiously joked.

   Joshua studied her before saying in a measured voice, “C’mon. Are you gonna be straight with me?”

   The Covergirl’s eyebrows went up with surprise. “Straight? You don’t even know me, and you think a little handshake and kind hello entitles you to know about all my dealings in life?”

   “I’m sorry I intruded,” Josh said withdrawing.

    [_No! Why did I do that! _]

   The middle-aged woman instantly regretted her edginess towards the attractive gentleman.  

   Just as he turned his shoulder to her and started to go, she said quickly, “I’m trying to find my son.”

   Joshua halted, turning. “Excuse me?”

   “Can you help me?”

   Those were the words he never dreamt would come out of the bright red lips belonging to the woman of high fashion.

   At last the elevator chime dinged.

   Esmerelda had never seen people move so fast in all her life except for Black Friday or something. Residents were getting trampled under the stampede. Just when Esmeralda thought she was gonna miss it Joshua pulled her in close to his chest while simultaneously thrusting himself through the narrowing gap of the closing doors.

   Going down.

                                   —

[_Mr. E’s, Berlin _]

   The door to the barber shop clanged open with a jingle. The keeper of the rundown establishment heard it. He didn’t get many customers. He hoped this meant that one of the Israelis had shown up at last.

   The business was more or less a front for his real reason for being in Berlin: transforming associates to do missions for Mossad.

                                  …

   Mr. Eldritch had a very interesting backstory. From a very young age his passion for fashion and beauty led him down a predictable career path. Cosmetology school. Two years later he was more than ready to open his own practice up in Berlin. As a creative individual with an entrepreneurial spirit owning his own salon seemed more than logical.

   However Hans Eldritch was a little more sophisticated than that though. Because of how this man’s mind worked? Making people more beautiful merely supported much higher life ambitions. And as a bonus he had fun while doing it. It more importantly paid the bills.

   The circumstances of getting a contract with Mossad to do what he did were questionable, like with any civilian-clandestine agency deal struck.

   Mossad came to him five years ago. More specifically, Tyrone Banks did.

2036—Better Cuts

   Hans Eldritch ran an efficient business. The overhead couldn’t have been any smaller, too. Just him and another gal.

   It was a Tuesday. Business trickled in here and there, but overall things had been slower than usual. Eldritch thought about going to the upstairs apartment to ruminate until things picked up again. Before he went up though Hans instructed his employee Greta to call him if things got too busy.

   As fate would have it Better Cuts experienced another surge that day. This obligated Eldritch to get the broom out to sweep up the clippings that covered his floor. The extra business put him in a much better mood than he had been in earlier that day. Greta was grateful for this.

   The last customer of the day walked in without much of a hello. His didn’t appear to need a haircut either.

   “Just a touch up,” the African-American communicated as he invited himself up onto one of the barber chairs.

   “What’s your name friend?” Hans asked in English.

   The new arrival shifted in his seat to scope the room before deciding how he wanted to proceed with the haircut. He noticed a few striking paintings on the wood-paneled walls. One in particular made him open up and want to talk to the man holding the scissors.

   The customer wouldn’t give his name.

   Instead the man pointed at the far wall just to the right of the entrance. “Where did that one come from?” he said in a gruff sort of way.

   What his eyes saw: terrified passengers on a small log raft which looked like it could break apart at any moment in a turbulent angry sea that tossed it like a pizza dough being prepared by a chef.

   Hans put his tool down and folded his arms across his chest. He took a couple premeditated steps back to sit on a nearby vanity. The German cupped his right hand under his small chin—his thinking pose.

   “What draws you to that one? That’s a John Decker painting by the way.”

   But the stranger avoided the question with, “I’d like half an inch taken off the top.”

   Hans became more annoyed than ever. Why couldn’t this guy even acknowledge any of his direct questions? Who did he think he was? Lothar Kirsch? So the barber played by the same rules as his customer.

   Greta watched as her boss move in with a number three razor aiming to take off more than the requested half inch.

   The aloof man sitting there with an unreadable face turned just in time to see the blade nearly shear more than its fair share.

   “Ah, ah…ah. Half an inch,” the man put Hans in his place. If the barber didn’t listen the customer seemed prepared to grab the hand with the razor.

   “What’s your name, please,” Hans entreated while he withdrew a little.

   Finally the man on the stool seemed moved by something he saw in the hairdresser. Words weren’t necessary. A calling card passed from a brown hand into the soft hands of the business owner.

   He said, “Call me,” before rising from the stool.

   He walked with his back turned until he got to the door where the African-American rotated to face Hans who still wore a nonplused expression.

   “Thanks for the haircut chief.”

 

   Fast-forward five years into the present. Hans still ran a business called Better Clips. Same spot? Much less foot traffic however.

What happened

   A far more upscale barber shop opened its doors back in 2039. This direct competition siphoned away even the most loyal customers that religiously did business with Better Clips. As a result the German hairdresser sadly had to let Greta go in order to run his atrophying hole in the wall by himself.

   

   The next person that walked through the lonely door seldom darkened by customers didn’t look like he wanted a haircut.

   Baruch stood in the waiting area, wearing an impartial expression to his surroundings.

   The place looked deserted to him. Yet a sign in the window saying “Yes, We’re Still Open” faced out towards the busy street running by the establishment.

   “Anybody home?” he called out with his distinct accent.

   The sound of floorboards creaking on the second level may have answered his question. It appeared someone began to move towards the top landing of a staircase that connected the business with the upper-floor living area.

   

   Baruch quizzically crept towards the back to force the confrontation. All his senses remained on high alert. As an extra precaution the Israeli took out a small concealed weapon and cocked it.

    At the sound of a round being chambered a somewhat young man with red facial hair came out from hiding.

   Hans had his hands behind his head. He hoarsely whispered in German, “Don’t shoot!”

   Baruch could feel the other man’s fear.

   To relieve some of that in order to move on with the real reason why he was in the barber shop to begin with the agent tucked the weapon back into its holster.

   Satisfied he wouldn’t get one to the back of the skull, Hans drew closer, slowly lowering his hands, but keeping them out where they could still be seen in a show of trust.

   Hans was first to talk again. “I speak English.”

   “But I’d prefer German,” Baruch replied with a fairly convincing local accent.

   This answer provoked a tight smile and slight nod of the head from the shop keeper. “I suppose you came to see the renovations upstairs?”
p. Baruch understood perfectly. “Show me.”

   

   The agent was taken up a flight of stairs into what appeared to be an ordinary room with a small twin-sized bed, nightstand, and chair positioned adjacent to a dual-pane window. At face value, a very ordinary room. That couldn’t have been further from the truth though.

   Hans could be seen pulling a cord to an old lamp which actually did what Baruch expected it to. The single light bulb cast its faint glow through a green lampshade. What he couldn’t have anticipated?

   “Do you sleep on the right or left side of the bed?”

   “What?” Baruch asked in surprise.

   “It’s a simple question really. Everyone has a preference.”

   The Mossad agent furrowed his brow because he didn’t enjoy playing these nonsensical games. “The left.”

   Baruch’s answer reflected his single, eligible bachelor status.

   Hans gestured towards the bed. “Why don’t you lie down.”

   “And if I don’t want to?”

   The barber rolled his eyes and sighed. “You people.” He then silently waltzed over towards the bed and committed to the course of action Baruch wouldn’t.

   “What are you doing?” the Israeli impatiently snapped.

   Hans disappeared.

   Right before Baruch’s very eyes the bed tilted down towards the floor on the left side. A loud groaning noise abated as soon as it started. When all was said and done the small man with the red facial hair no longer laid on the bed. For all practical purposes he had disappeared like some smoke and mirrors trick.

    [_I’m tired too, _] Baruch muttered as he hastily made up his mind to do the same thing as the man he presumed to be Mr. E. did.

   The false floor flopped the mattress over to the left once more. A chute spat out the newest arrival into a new scenery that felt completely disassociated from a barber shop environment.

   Baruch rocketed back to his feet, standing big and tall. “What the hell is this?!”

   The agent’s eyes covered the entire space very quickly and thoroughly. He was about to give up when Hans finally emerged from the shadows.

   “You like?” the German asked, appearing to find Baruch’s bewilderment most amusing.

   “Just do your job,” Baruch growled. “I don’t have the time or patience for your clown tricks.”

   Just then the familiar voice of Malach Kemper of the Kidon division at Mossad discreetly trickled into Agent Baruch’s hearing.

   “Speed it up in there. You need to get out, ASAP. Seth hasn’t even left the tunnels yet. There’s a manhunt for him now. Breathe heavy to acknowledge receipt of this.”

   It wasn’t too hard for the agent to comply with the last request. The air seemed devoid of oxygen with more carbon dioxide than anything.

   

   Hans presently appeared in front of some monitors that came to life. The short man struck up a lively whistle to a tune he apparently made up on the fly. It suited him.

   “I’m pulling down the files,” he explained to an impatient Israeli who hadn’t moved at all.

   “There isn’t a magic trick to make it go faster?”

   Hans laughed. “I’m really not that weird my Jewish friend. It’ll be ready shortly. Patience.”

   “Am I really gonna be made to look like this German secretary, Amalia?”

   Hans didn’t bother to directly answer this inquiry. “You’ll be beautiful.”

   Baruch stomped his boot on the rug he stood on. “This is bullshit!”

   Hans stifled a laugh he felt coming on strongly and replaced it with, “What are your measurements, agent?”

   “Big where it counts.”

   “A shrink shorter than Lothar Kirsch and pushing 225?”

   Baruch moved in and came within inches of physically harming the German. “Just do what you have to do. I won’t say it again.”

   Hans ignored the threat. “I’ve got good news and bad. Good? The fabricator’s finished making your husk.”

   “Yeah, what’s the bad?”
p. “You _have _ to put it on.”

   To his surprise, Baruch offered no resistance. “Where’s my eyelashes?” he joked.

   “They’re in the hopper still,” Hans played along.

   Malach Kemper piped into Baruch’s head again. He raised his voice and said, “Hurry it up. Seth won’t be put into police custody. He’s too good.” Malach grew somber. “Expect him there soon.”

   Baruch’s heart rate quickened. Seth had trusted him. The betrayal would be a sudden affair, and it’d all be over soon, too.

                                         —

 

     

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

 

  Chapter 5

New Babylon, S3

   The enchanting elevator ride seventy-nine floors to ground zero in Josh’s arms went too quickly.

   When the doors opened up to the lobby the cacophony of panicked people reached a whole new level.

   Lights blinked on and off, their flickering light illuminating an audience full of fright. There was no fast exit from the apartment. People were shoved, throttled…thrown to the mercy of an angry, scared and confused human corpus.

   Though the time on the wall indicated it was morning, the utter darkness over New Babylon would make one think otherwise.

   Just then something went crashing through the front window. A motorcyclist had apparently lost control. He thankfully didn’t have to travel through the thick glass—his bike however did not share that same fortune.  

   Esmeralda screamed. Josh used his body to shield the woman from the deadly flying shards of glass. Many residents dropped to the tile floor as collateral damage from the runaway cycle.

   Josh grimaced. The flannel sleeve of his right arm had a fresh tear. Underneath the fabric an ugly red stripe opened up like a flesh wound. It stung.

   The handsome stranger clenched his teeth.

   Esmerelda couldn’t see very well, but she could sense Josh was hurt.

   He tried to find Esmeralda’s scared eyes. “We must get to a fire escape exit,” he communicated. “ Too risky out the main entrance.”

   The model didn’t say anything.

   Josh saw two glinting brown marbles looking into his. “If you can hear me blink twice,” he said softly.

   She did.

   “Do you trust me?”

   This time she took his hand and gently squeezed it. “Yes!” her wispy reply came out.

   Josh took his injured arm and placed it behind Esmeralda’s left shoulder blade to gently lead her along. The Good Samaritan had such a calm demeanor that despite the explosions, shrieks, and turmoil, he made the model feel free to cling to him for security.

   The strong man cut through the crowded level quicker than he should have been able to. Much like a superhero would, he brought the damsel in distress out of harm’s way.

   Josh smashed through the emergency exit door out into the morning air.

   “We made it,” he murmured.

   The words halted in his own mouth though as the two of them were awakened to what everyone outside the shelter of buildings could see.

   All around as far as the eye could see New Babylon was on fire. Mass hysteria reigned. Traffic signals weren’t working. Gridlock got so bad that drivers left their vehicles and took to foot.

   Directly overhead several huge menacing spheres bigger than aircraft carriers glowed green at their centers. No one wanted to be around if the bogies in the sky were charging their weapons to blast the earthlings to smithereens.

   Josh determined not to be like the rest of humanity around him. Staring at the crafts from outer space did no good to alleviate his current problems.

   “Do you have a car?” Esmeralda asked.

   Josh nodded. “I’m parked over there,” he pointed.

   Esmeralda followed his finger across a sea of cars and people. She could make out a parking deck.

   “Does it fly?”

   Josh smiled. “You wanna find out?”

   “Uh-huh.”

   Josh scanned the landscape to determine the safest way to get there. He made up his mind quick on where they should go. He also surprised the woman standing next to him with a question, “You’re looking for your son?”

   The lights from the sky played across her face. A breeze fluttered her hair a little, causing some strands to partially obscure her right eye.

   “Can—can you help me?” she stammered.  

   Josh reached in to kiss her on the cheek.

   The CoverGirl felt like a fuse shorting. Too much electricity. She bit her lip and avoided eye contact.

   “C’mon, let’s get outta here,” he said calmly.

   She followed him through the maze of metal, often having to get up on cars because there wasn’t a way around them. Other stragglers didn’t seem to pay them any attention. And thank goodness there weren’t any more creeps to harass her like the guy back from the tower.

   Before long they had traversed a field of debris which used to be a busy highway prior to the events of that morning. One sideways look down the avenue revealed an apocalyptic poster complete with UFO’s up above.

   Luckily for them an elevator shaft with a street entrance allowed easy access into a garage with  thousands of spaces.

   “I’m in the middle somewhere,” the good-looking man gestured.

   Esmeralda kept close to him. Since the area they were in was much better lit than where they had come from, Esmerelda now saw the torn sleeve, the matted blood. She stopped and reached out to touch his arm.

   “You need to get that wrapped.”

   Josh shrugged his injury off. “I’m fine.”    

   Esmeralda didn’t continue to pursue the point. She solved it. She had a scarf around her neck that she knew would work well as a tourniquet.

   “Here,” she said while fastening it on and pulling it into a tight knot. “Better?”

   The man with the beard he had only started growing the other day framed by wavy medium-brown hair with no bangs paused underneath the glow of a nearby light fixture to see his arm then turn to the model.

   “Thank you,” was all he said.

   Both of them fell under the spell of silence until their elevator brought them to the floor Josh had parked on.

   Esmeralda watched with fascination as her rescuer pulled a device from his pocket and fired it up.

   “I dropped a pin,” he explained.

   “You don’t park here that often?”

   For the first time the stranger looked a little unsure as to what was safe to say. “I don’t live in New Babylon,” he said to the side.

   Josh went about thirty paces before making an abrupt right to walk uphill. The phone that came out of his pocket earlier now made another appearance.

   Esmeralda decided not to continue on the line of sensitive questioning. It didn’t come natural for her to be assertive; backing an individual into a corner until she heard the truth wasn’t her style.

   She looked at him intently, “Are we any closer to that pin?”

   The man didn’t answer her. He pulled up a different screen on his phone; this one looked like a digital key fob for the car. Josh tapped the screen twice and waited.

   This time he smiled.

   Esmeralda didn’t have to look hard for the source of his smile. A stealthy vehicle with a low profile hovered off the ground a few feet behind them.

   Esmerelda went over to the passenger side and ran her hand along the hood of the car. “This is yours?”

   “A rental,” he winked.

   

   The woman of fashion may have been a model, but she wasn’t born yesterday. Very few people could afford flying cars even though they had become more popular over the years. She couldn’t help but wonder at this man’s pocketbook. What financed his outfit?

   He said he didn’t live in New Babylon. Of course people visited the world class city all the time. However, he seemed like a real outsider.

   Josh’s voice interrupted the woman’s thoughts when he asked, “Are you ready?”    

   Esmeralda tossed her hair. She bounced her eyes to the wheels and said in an aside sort of way, “We don’t even know where we’re going.”

   Josh got on the driver’s side. “Well, we can’t stay here,” he said with his hand waving out the window, referring to where they stood…New Babylon.

   Esmeralda freely agreed with his logic. She even cozied up to the idea of flying off to the horizon on the wings of Josh’s special car.

   When the model decidedly stepped into the low-slung entry of the vehicle that barely hovered off the pavement, she asked the driver, “Is this a free ride?”

   “You’re trusting me with your life, so no, not entirely,” Josh returned. His face glistened with a splash of good will.

   When Esmerelda wasn’t looking he stole a glance at the model’s legs which were veiled by thin nylon stockings under a ruffled skirt. She definitely had a more mature look about her, but not in a bad way he decided.

   Josh adjusted his vision to something higher up on the individual he was talking to. Above the shoulders.

   “Is your son safe?”

   Esmeralda surprised the man behind the wheel by saying a little tersely, “Just drive.” She hurriedly corrected herself. “I mean, fly.”

                                 —

Berlin, Germany

[_   _] The air occupying the void was thin. Until a couple hundred pound biological instrument of death passed through its domain.

   The clearance from the top of the passing subway lines to the tunnel ceiling didn’t leave much room for error when attempting a jump.

   Seth threaded the needle however. No matter the impossibility.

   To any passenger inside the yellow car he landed on, it might have sounded like the roof would cave in.

   Seth didn’t move immediately. No need. For now he would ride until the opportunity for escape presented itself.

   The only problem being the subway went even faster. Agent Markov couldn’t count on hopping down to freedom at the next station. The police would be waiting. This he counted on.

    None of this should’ve been happening in the first place though. His cover effectively blown…Seth now had to contend with a police force obsessive about closing off his way to escape.

   “Seth, there are sewage lines you can use to get to the surface.”

   “I’m excited,” he sarcastically answered Alfonso Marcello who worked with Tyrone Banks.

   Seth reasoned Agent Marcello probably gave a wry smile and shoulder shrug to his partner running point for the operation.  Even in the throes of an ineluctable moment the Mossad operative’s brain felt free to wander to inconsequential thought matter.

   

   The riveted arched rafters overhead all ran together in a streak of grey. Not a comforting image.

   From his perch Seth felt like a protruding object on a vehicle in a wind tunnel. The velocity of the subway threatened to rip him off like the unaerodynamic addition he was.

   “Ah, I think you guys have to slow this thing down.”

   This time Tyrone spoke. “Seth, we’ve overridden the controls of the subway you’re on. There’s an approaching aqueduct. We’ll slow it down to a manageable speed for you to be Tarzan and swing to safety.”

   Seth didn’t like the plan one bit. “I never understood being between a rock and a hard place,” he said while taking in the view of reinforced concrete supporting the tunnels. But I’ll know soon.”

   “Concrete sandwich? Mm,” Tyrone joked. “Sounds…packed.”

   “I’ll fix you something my friend when this is all over,” Seth threatened him.

   “I’m not hungry.”

   “Too bad. Hey! Man on the subway here,” Seth raised his voice, “when are you planning on slowing this ride down?”

   “I’ve already decreased speed by forty kilometers an hour,” Agent Marcelo answered him. “We can’t do it all at once though. You’ll be in position soon,” he reassured Seth.

   The man strapped down to the slippery silver roof by jagged razor teeth began to maneuver his legs along the lining to better position himself to be able to squat. His boots formed a vacuum seal with the metal surface.

   Seth dug into a cargo pocket on his pants for an attachment he would insert into his pistol. It looked like an arrow.

   A thread made from spider silk that had the strength of steel would deliver the tip of the projectile blasting out of the muzzle into something solid.

   Since he only had one free hand Seth made use of his mouth to hold the accessory while he groped for a pistol underneath his henley top. Sure enough he found it secure in its chest holster.

   The subway continued to slow down in small increments. The Israeli hitching a ride certainly discerned the difference. It put ice in his veins. Soon he’d need to be ready for another acrobatic move.

   Tyrone’s voice buzzed in his communications gear, “We’re coming up on it. Are you in position?”

   Agent Markov took one last glance at his right arm pinioned to the subway.

   “Affirmative.”

   “Aim high and close on the ceiling, don’t want you to smash your face in on the far wall,” Tyrone said.

   Seth didn’t reply right away. “When?” he asked finally.

   In two hundred meters the ceiling would be higher and the tunnel wider. With luck Seth’s subway would pass through a maintenance cross-section along the tracks. This would give him enough room to swing like Spiderman yet avoid being crushed like a bug.

   “Now!”

   Sure enough the tube the yellow bullet travelled through bilged out into generous pockets on the right and left.

    Go now or otherwise resist arrest at the next station.

   Seth punched the release button to the blades that kept his right arm decommissioned. The release came instantly, jerking his ligament away from its previous hold. Seth resisted standing up for a balanced, poised crouch instead.

   A pop and hissing noise accompanied the speeding arrow intent on burying itself into solid rock. At this point the train had nearly made it midway through the section with additional swinging real estate.

   The sharp tip punctured the concrete for a good hold to allow Seth to advance. The Mossad man held on to the spider silk with his fingerless gloves that gave him a gecko’s grip.

   He lifted his right foot to break the suction he previously enjoyed with the roof. In a fateful step down from safety the tracks rushed to meet the two boots headed straight for them. The wind whistled over his body hurtling towards danger. At the lowest point of the arch, mere inches from a girder alive with electricity, that’s when physics took over to rescue Seth from a painful death. He rose and rose until a brick wall confronted him.

   His legs reached out to be the breaks to an impending collision with an immovable object. The wall fared worse than the human striking it. Brick powder and dust poured down below.

   Tyrone anxiously inquired, “Are you okay?”

   “Shutup.”

   Seth heard Alfonso say “he’s alright” back to Tyrone.

   

   His first order of business was to let go so he could climb. Seth could trust his special boots to stay glued to the wall. Furthermore the agent knew he could hold the position of being stretched out with no handholds long enough to put his gun away and to take out a lighter which he would use to burn the line he had swung on a moment ago.

   An accelerant incorporated into the thread of the line would ignite to incinerate any evidence of its existence.

   Seth looked down at the platform ten feet below, out across the now empty tracks, then to his left from his perch. Jackpot. A black ladder was embedded into the wall near the corner of the alcove. That had to mean a way up to the surface, perhaps.

   The whole area appeared to be engineered as an outlet to get out to the tracks quickly to perform maintenance on them. Seth’s chances of succeeding in his mission sharply increased with the new discovery.

   He put an intense strain on his inner core to hold him steady until he could bend backwards and grab the wall. The hours of time spent in strength conditioning made him the epitome of fitness.

   Seconds later he dropped the rest of the way to the floor and rushed over to grab the rungs of the ladder. Seth shinnied up to the top no problem. Sure enough a covering waited to be lifted. When he hefted it out of the way his answer to escaping the U-bahn was another dark climb up the same ladder to nowhere. It extended for an unforeseen length. The agent gritted his teeth. He replaced the cover and continued to go up with barely a pause.

   White flecks fell intermittently, frequently blowing sideways like a shook up snow globe. Few pedestrians walked the streets on the cold spring morning in Berlin.

   Thankfully no one noticed the manhole lid come off near a crosswalk of a lonely side street. A head, then shoulders, and finally the upper torso of a built man who knew what he was doing emerged from the underworld. One could simply blink and there he’d be…walking the streets like he belonged. Nothing about his presence or manner suggested he may have ridden on a subway roof mere moments ago.

   Seth found the nearest public restroom to be conveniently close. However, the likelihood of security cameras on buildings tracking his every step now entered his consciousness. Privacy didn’t exist in a world closely monitored by those who controlled the system.

   Seth chided himself for not taking the opportunity before to reverse his gray top to its black side. Like back in the maintenance cove. A mistake, no doubt.

   “I rotated the cameras on your block to look the other way,” Tyrone proudly stated.

   Seth brightened at hearing these words.

   A faraway siren reminded him he had his work cut out though. The agent got in and out of an employee’s bathroom unnoticed in the back of a restaurant.

   “Now to get to Mr. E’s only half an hour late,” he lamented to the two men listening from their static post miles away.

   Alfonso suddenly shared his wisdom. “Sometimes it’s a game of inches, Markov.”

                        —

  Mosada

   At thirteen hundred hours the Junior Cadet Wing’s Sim Room 1 had activity. The first arrival wasn’t Esther though, but rather the newest recruit to the program—Azriel.

   She said to be on time. So he got there early. He knew she wouldn’t wait for him. However he would be more gracious and give her a small window of time before initiating the program.

   This would be the first time he had ever taken the jump. No one told him what it’d be like. Azriel had a good imagination though. Furthermore, common sense dictated that what he was about to go through would be as close to the real thing as one could get. The calendar said they were in the year 2036 after all.

   Azriel noticed there were two control panels in the room. One very close to the only way in and out of the simulator and the other located on the total opposite side.

   The fourteen-year-old took several curious steps further towards the center. He slowly spun to get a panorama of the space he’d be doing a mission in. The cadet felt truly small in comparison to his surroundings.

   The walls were silver with rows of horizontal and vertical columns forming a dense grid. This matrix had many optical devices with shiny lenses all pointed at Azriel.

    This could get interesting,  he surmised.

   But that was nothing.

    _She _ had arrived at last.

   Esther had on a purple and white wave-patterned jump suit. Her silky blonde hair was pulled back into a scrunchy.

   Azriel stared.

   Even though his cerebrum memory transfiguration surgery had altered some realities, there were things that didn’t realign.

   Before the surgery he had attended one day of high school. Esther had been there. She stole his heart right from the get-go. Now to be on a brother-sister basis confused his system. His hormones didn’t forget, post-surgery. Something in him made him want to go back.

   Easter leaned into the panel to examine something. “Is it ready?” she sharply asked the boy about the program.

   Azriel stood his ground. “Well, don’t you know already?”

   He grew tired of her challenges. Esther’s tautness in her interaction with him didn’t help.

   To his surprise Esther mustered a partial smile, saying, “You’re not bad Kemper.”

   She was careful to use his new surname. It would be difficult though. The chance of making a mistake and calling him by his real last name made her extra cautious in her communication.

   Azriel still hadn’t shifted much.

   Esther decided to ask a question when she saw he hadn’t reacted to what she said before. “Have you gone over any strats or plans for what we’re about to do?”

   “Strats?”

   She sighed. Esther determined to meet him in the middle and just start the mission already.

   “ Strategies, ” the junior cadet spelled it out to the recruit when she got closer. It was a big room. “You have a lot to learn.”

   Now that the girl came into view her finer details weren’t distorted by distance or less than ideal lighting. Her dimpled cheeks, slender jaw and petite chin gave her the appearance of an angel in her attractive uniform.

   Azriel might have been transfixed…again.

   He quickly came out of it though. The young man had a couple fail safes in place to guard against impairment of the female kind. He was ready now.

   “Let’s go,” he urged her.

   She put up a hand because she had more to say. “First, there’s a few things you should know.”

   Azriel tilted his head back sharply before he exhaled. “What?”

   “The bad guys can hit you. You won’t die, but you’ll get zapped with seriously high voltage.”

   “Has it ever happened to you?”

   Esther slowly nodded. She rolled up her sleeve to show him a scar.

   “That’s awful!”

   She waved it off like it was nothing. “I receive epidermal skin cell therapy later today. It’ll look good as new.”

   “Cool,” he quickly said.

   “Cool?” Esther gave him a gentle push. “Weirdo.”

   Azriel frowned. He really struggled with the inner battle of being around this girl.

   “Computer?” she called out to the artificial intelligence listening for commands like the one she’d give. “Link us up with program two hundred and thirty-four.”

   Azriel watched in amazement as the walls around him transformed into an environment that looked so real he couldn’t believe they were still technically in Sim Room 1.

   The surface below his feet slowly compiled into a grayscale catwalk of a floating space facility in orbit.

   Azriel gasped.

   The installation had artificial gravity. It appeared to be a transit hub of sorts. Many spaceships were docked outside. Right as he looked out one of the many enormous viewports on the station he got a front seat perspective to one vessel slowly pulling away with its blue thrusters flaring behind it.

   “Where…?”

   Esther hushed him. “Follow me,” she whispered.

Mr. E’s

   Baruch completed his identity change. He emerged from the changing room like a pooched German Interior Ministry secretary.

   Hans shook his head disapprovingly. “We’re gonna have to make alterations. You’re midsection, um—” He didn’t want to finish his thought when he saw the other guy’s eyes narrow.

   Baruch turned his voice synthesizer on which made him sound like the woman he impersonated. “Finish it. My midsection is, what exactly?”
p. The agent’s handler, Malach Kemper, angrily hissed in Baruch’s ear at this intersection in the conversation. “What the hell are you doing wasting time there?!”

   Hans interjected with humor, “Maybe the officials there will just think you’re a few months along.”

   The agent enjoyed the joke. “I always wanted to have a kid,” he said, his eyes smiling.

   Hans laughed. He looked preoccupied though. His other appointment hadn’t showed. The shopkeeper knew Seth should have been his first of the day.

   Later on when Baruch had left for the government offices Hans decided he would call his boss. He got a hold of Tyrone directly.

   He didn’t waste any time getting right to it.

   “It’s me.”

   “What is it?”

   “Where’s the other associate?”

   “He got made in the subways. Could’ve been just bad luck,” Tyrone explained.

   Hans understood spy craft just as much as the man he spoke to. “We have to assume the worst,” he said.

   “What are you saying?”

   “There could be a double.”

   Tyrone openly scoffed. “That’s impossible!”

   “Is it?”

   “Well detective…take your pick. It’s either me, Baruch, or Seth.”

   “I don’t like Baruch.”

   “What’d he do?”

   Hans put his elbows on his workstation. For a moment he recalled his interaction with the Mossad agent. Nothing seemed sideways.

   “It’s—more or less me following my instincts.”

   “Mr. E., I respect you. Your service record is above reproach,” Tyrone said, “but you’re going off a bad feeling. I’m afraid that’s not _good _ enough. I have a job to do.”

   Hans had already pulled up Baruch’s profile on Mossad’s secure database of agency operators.          

   Between clicks he said dismissively, “Maybe it’s nothing.”

   “Please don’t call me about _nothing _ then,” Tyrone rebuked him. “I’m slave to the clock today. I don’t need interruptions like this. That is all.”

   Hans was prepared to be hung up on, and that’s precisely what happened. Afterwards the growing sense of concern and anxiety about the day’s events didn’t lessen any. If Seth showed up he would warn the agent to at least keep his head up for any funny business. To stay vigilant. Trust no one.

Chapter 6

New Babylon, S3

[_   _] The thrills were just beginning. Josh followed the signs. His car drifted around the circuit that funneled towards the inner core of the structure.

   “Why are we going towards the center?” Esmeralda asked.

   “You’ve never seen this before?”

   “No.”

   The pilot came to the solid white line and waited. A whooshing noise entered into the cockpit from another flying car going up. The arrow on one of the structural pillars turned green twenty seconds later: his invitation to enter into the stream that went against gravity.

   The female passenger didn’t look so comfortable with the science. “You’re just gonna drive off the edge?”

   “Fly off the edge,” he corrected, flirting with a smirk.

   Josh’s vehicle was about to cross the imaginary line and be launched out of the chute when at the last possible second his sensors warned him of an incoming object. Someone below had disobeyed traffic patterns.

   A green car rocketed past their level at an unexplainably fast speed. Josh and Esmerelda braced themselves. The emergency brake came on by itself. Josh’s car shuddered at the close call.

   Both occupants were disposed to silence at first.

  Josh’s first reaction was to take up pursuit, but he now had to think of the woman who sat next to him. This time when he eased the craft into the zone he didn’t have to worry about someone else running a light.

   They went up with such ease that it provoked a question from Esmerelda: “Is something helping us up?”

   “We’re on an anti gravity lift,” the pilot answered her. “Most parking garages have these.”

   “Oh! I never knew.”

   “Have you flown on the Orbital Flyer all these years?”

   “It’s the fastest way I know of to get around,” the model admitted.

   Josh nodded. “Yes it is.”

   Eventually they escaped the building and were flying low over the mysteriously dark skies of New Babylon.

   Esther gazed out the window and remarked, “You would think we are having a solar eclipse.”

   That got Josh going. “Isn’t it something?”

   She reached across the short distance and touched his shoulder. Esmeralda tried to ascertain a million and one things all at once about the individual she just touched. He didn’t withdraw…nor did he advance. What did he want with her? There had to be something in it for him.

   “Why were you in my apartment building this morning?”

   He remained busy at the controls and pretended like he hadn’t heard the question.

“You said you didn’t live in New Babylon.”

   Josh didn’t act surprised to be hearing these words. It still surprised him it had been this easy to get a woman like Esmeralda Westover this far. How quickly she had been taken in by his heroics. The personal questions he could handle.

   Josh tilted his chin and leaned back to contemplate. “I came here for someone, actually.”

   Esmeralda didn’t go to any length to hide her unbridled inquisitiveness towards the man who flew her away from the place she called home. She in fact repositioned herself more into his side of the compartment than her own.

   Esmeralda cushioned herself against Josh’s broad shoulders.

   “You don’t mind?” she wondered.

   Josh attempted not to move a muscle. “Why would I?” Momentarily he issued a peek at the woman content to rest on his shoulder.

   It was as if the model knew when he would look too. For precisely during the moment he did her eyes rose up to catch his. Josh blinked away and perhaps blushed. Esmeralda wanted to hear him talk now more than ever.

   “Who were you coming to see?

   “A very successful model.”

   “Ah.” Esmeralda sat sideways now. “And she just happened to live on floor seventy-nine?”

   “You wouldn’t know who I’m talking about, would you?” Josh facetiously queried.

   The CoverGirl sobered up. The games were over. “Where are you from?”

   “Look in my wallet,” he handed her something dark. Josh watched her flip it open to find an ID that altogether surprised her.

   “What’s a…Viper agent?”

   It finally dawned on her. “No. No, you’re not.”

   Josh nodded.

   “FRN?”

   “My employer, yes.”

   Esmeralda retracted her hands and folded them in her lap. She looked straight ahead. The city was behind them now.

   “Where are you taking me?”

   “Okay, I’ll be brief—”

   Esmeralda sharply clipped his language short. “You said you would help me find my son.”

   Josh unbuckled and took his hands off the controllers that were on both chair arms. “That’s why I came to get you. I need your help to find Damion.”

   That was the first time she had heard her son’s name in a while. It aroused strong emotions. She longed to become a mother to him again. Esmeralda regretted putting her career over family once more. This would end.

   “My help?” she said scornfully. “Why do you need me?” Her emotional marathon left her breathless and bent over. “What did Damion do to you?” she challenged.

   Josh took his badge back. “It’s nothing like that.” He indulged in a transition from playing defense into a deserving explanation for a moment. “Your son is a person of interest to the FRN, Scorpion detainee, and someone I am charged with rescuing.”

   Esmeralda drank in the information. The various pieces in Josh’s message percolated through her filter like a slow-brew coffee. The word _detainee _ gave the blend a generally bitter aftertaste.

   She finally formulated the dramatic question Josh expected she would: “My baby is being held by Scorpion?!”

   “Yes Mrs. Westover.”

   “Please, call me Esmeralda,” the model said as her left hand went on a mission to pet the Viper agent’s knee.

   “You really don’t have to do that.”

   Josh’s radar sensed the incoming flesh in time to have a prepared interceptor shooting up to meet the unwanted advance. His quicker hand made contact with the slower stealthier CoverGirl mitt on a mission.

   She got the hint and returned what belonged to her. Esmeralda held the formations of a smile in place. “What’s my role?”
p. Josh acted like he had the next line in the play he didn’t look forward to saying. “You and I must go in as a couple.”

   The middle-aged woman started to laugh. “What was that all about a minute ago then…when I—”

   “You weren’t pretending,” Josh replied.

Masada,

   Azriel pursued Esther through the portal shaped like a diamond. It was one of several doors leading deeper into the mysteries of the space station.

   “Is this place even real?” Azriel doubted. He dared breathe the oxygen of the video game world.

   “Wait, you’ve played this level before, haven’t you?” the boy put it to her.

   “Azriel, this is your destiny in less than five years. This place _is _ real. Or will be real, more accurately.”

   “Who’s my target again?” he called out after her.

   Esther tore a panel off the wall and shined a blue beam at the circuitry. Her gloved hand reached in for the tangle of wires to extract the one she searched for. The junior cadet then used a tool to open a socket to get into the network. A weak hologram projected from her wristband onto the wall a ghastly green shell of the platform they were on.

   “What?” she finally said. She had been too preoccupied to listen to him talk. Seemed like that was all he was good for so far.

   A tremendously violent shake rattled all the bulkheads, upending a few floor tiles and starting mild fires all around.

   Esther’s hologram began to slant obliquely on its surface because the person who threw the projection had left the floor to drift in a zero gravity situation. Azriel bonked off of her side and careened into a much less forgiving object.

   “He’s here,” Esther uttered.

   Azriel knew. “My target.”

   “In the real world, you’ll only get one shot,” she reminded him as she reached out to stabilize herself and stop the out-of-control nauseous spinning.

   “I know how that works, now can we move on to our objective here?”

   “A minute ago you didn’t even know who our target was. Is that still true?”

   “All I remember is his last name sounded familiar.” Azriel scratched his head. “Markov?”

   Esther offered a hand which the boy received. She winched him in like a docking arm ferrying its cargo.

   “Yeah, that’s him. You have his profile memorized? Like, if he were to be here would you know to shoot him?”

   The question altered Azriel’s face. “I haven’t shot anyone before,” he admitted. His tacit vacillation over his new occupation though absent before now found a voice.

   “Oh my god,” Esther frowned. “You sure you didn’t lose your way kid?”

   Azriel’s voice deepened. “I’m in the right place,” he insisted, pounding his chest to reinforce his belief.

   Esther tugged at his arm she still held on to. “Come on! We have to move.”

   “What do we do if we see anybody?”

   “Shoot on sight.”

   When the young man didn’t say anything after that his female complement to the mission said, “This will test your mettle. Let’s see what you got, Kemper.”

   She was proud for once again not stumbling by mistakenly calling him by his real last name.

   The two junior cadets synchronously travelled for a length of time. The crawlway they moved through had the intrinsic claustrophobic compartments of a submarine with the elements of modular space structures connected by bottleneck hatches. Aztec markings furnished the walls in a straight line like chair rail in a stately dining room. A fluorescent glow brought the art to life.

   “You hear that?”

   “Hear what?” Azriel tried to discern what she may have heard. Yet he came up blank until it became real obvious.

   Incoming streaks of blood suspended in mid-air straying across their path prepared them for the victim it belonged to. A slayed guard with a charred breastplate where a blade carved out a gushing lesion tumbled out from an airlock.

   “Weapons!” Esther hissed the command.

   Azriel subconsciously drew his gun from the hip in a nanosecond to cover the angle on where the body originated from.

   Esther took caution to analyze her instruments. They indicated there only was one life form. It couldn’t mean the dead guy. Could it?

   Suddenly another person climbed through the opening. Neither one of the two junior cadets fired though. The stranger had an insignia on his shoulder that Esther and Azriel were familiar with.

   “You’re one of us?” the boy asked.

   The man wearing a combat suit only worn by  operators from Mossad’s special task force clamped his jaw. “What do you think?”

   Esther put her arm out to block Azriel. “Is _he _ here?” she asked the other agent.

   “Seth? Yeah.”

   “We can’t let him stop those shuttles from taking off.”

   “That would be up to this young man, now wouldn’t it?” the much bigger and more imposing one of the three stated.

Chapter 7

Berlin, Germany

   There were no dry-runs to prepare for this. You either succeed or fail.

   Baruch checked in at a security stop dressed as Amalia. His ankles wobbled a little on their stilts as they were unaccustomed to the practice. The guard made some remark about wearing heels before he let the agent go with a half smile and a drifting stare that followed Baruch until he disappeared from eyesight.

   He didn’t have to go more than ten paces in the government building before the comments started. People noticed him with wide-eyed recognition. A few women offered their congratulations.

    [_Why the hell would they be congratulating me? _] he wondered. And then Baruch remembered Hans’s remark on his pooching midsection.

   One matronly woman tried to strike up a conversation. The last thing Baruch wanted. He smiled and nodded. When the annoying intrusion to his focus finally shut up he interjected in German, “I’m sorry, I wish I could chat. I just got back…” he whipped his head around in the direction he had come from to aid in communication.

   The government worker made a thinking face before asking, “How was Barcelona?”  Apparently she didn’t know how to read Baruch’s not too subtle body language to cease and desist.  

   “Great,” Baruch answered.

He knew he needed to interface with Seth soon. The interior minister would be leaving at nine, which was very soon.

   Baruch made a trip to the women’s room. It was so foreign for him to push against the door that had the symbol of a woman in a dress on it. But today he was Amalia. If he had clearance into the government building, the bathroom full of stalls certainly wasn’t off-limits. The female-in-pretending moved towards the mirror to adjust a few things.

   She pulled out a phone from her purse and dialed her partner. It’d be easy to make a phone call to another agent who masqueraded as her lover.

   “Wendel? Hi, it’s Amalia. Will you be at your office soon?…Yeah,  I just got here…”

    A few office workers came and went. All of them politely said hi to the fake Amalia who couldn’t be bothered to pay them any attention.

   The phone call didn’t last long. There would soon be a reunion. Sofia Keller would get in her limousine. Then the chain reaction would start. In the meantime, Amalia the interior secretary had a personal effect to give Keller.

   

                                …

   What a trip to Barcelona revealed to the interior ministry of the Fourth Reich strengthened a longstanding premonition: the jews had spooks in Spain. Not just that though. Something  was underfoot.

   

   Sofia Keller dressed in her dark velvet slacks, white suit with black cardigan. She had somewhere to go at nine that morning. Upon opening the door from inside her executive office a familiar face greeted her outside.

   “Goodmorning Amalia.”

   “Were you briefed on today?” she asked.

   “Do you have it for me?”

   The interior minister accepted Amalia’s purse which she exchanged for an identical one she handed to the phony secretary.

   Baruch took it and gave Keller the a-okay symbol.

   The German leader gave it right back. Then the woman with blonde hair clutched Baruch by the elbow and said in a stern low voice, “Good luck agent.”

   Amalia thought better of it. “You’ll need that more than me.”

                                     —

   The CoverGirl crossed her legs and twitched at the mouth. Something she did when she felt uncomfortable. The last hour had been just that. The exhilaration of being with a man younger than herself had left. Josh made it clear any extracurricular activity wouldn’t happen.

   At least the farther west they flew darkness surrendered to the daylight.

   Josh analyzed the miles of sky laid out before them. “No discs this way,” he solemnly remarked.

   “What’s this way, anyways?”

   “Answers.”

   This peeved Esmeralda enough to wallop him across his shoulder. “Be specific honey.”

   “We’ll find your son, plenty of bad guys,” he stopped to dwell on something, “and possibly have time to stop them.”

   Esmeralda didn’t blink. Her tactless mind dumbly asked, “Who?”

   “Hold on, we have an incoming transmission.”

   The Viper agent sweated the details on the order which he switched toggles in and the buttons he pushed.

   While he busied himself making preparations to answer the communication the model watched with obvious fascination.

   Josh noticed her stare and supplied the answer, “Gotta cover my butt. I’m not from around here, remember?”

   Esmeralda’s eyes quickly shifted to the floor. “Yeah.”

   “Where is  my son?”

   “I told you earlier he’s a detainee, remember? That should’ve given you a nice clue to his whereabouts.”
p. “My Damion?!”

   Josh put on a headset and flipped a microphone in front of his mouth in advance of his reply. A hair- raising vocoded voice played over the radio. Its message didn’t entirely surprise Josh.

   “Citizen of unidentified vessel, where are you travelling?”

   “To visit my son in Sector Five.”

   An uncomfortably long time lapse made both characters in the flying car extremely unsettled.

   The radio crackled again. “What’s his name?”

   He was prepared for this question. The agency gave Josh a name of a real person who lived in S5 who could be used. Josh boldly tried it, hoping he wouldn’t be caught in his bluff. And it worked by all appearances. The eerie voice waived them on.

   “We’re gonna be watched from here on in,” Josh somberly said after he closed the channel.

   “How do you figure that?”

   “It’s my job to figure it. He or it  didn’t buy it.” And at that, Josh steered the craft off its course in a more northern direction.

   “Will that really do any good?” Esmeralda commented on his flying.

   This tipped the taunt scale in the negative direction. “It can’t hurt,” he fired back, glaring a little.

   “How do we get my son out of there?”

   “I know someone. He said he would help.”

                                --

Chapter 8

Masada, Israel

   The trio stood a long distance away from Seth Markov on a vast installation designed to get lost in. The biggest terminal with the most gates where the thirty shuttles of great deception waited for their mysterious payload would be the battleground.

   A silent emergency signal broadcasted after the artificial gravity had been knocked out along with failing life support systems across various decks. Security guards hustled to respond to the crisis.

   But they were looking for one man. That was the problem. One guy who knew how to be a chameleon _and _  get the job done.

   

   As the trio got underway in the strangely empty corridors near the bottom of the space station Esther spoke to the man that had just joined them. “How well do you know Seth Markov?”

   The man with a sturdy frame, plain features, buzzed hair, and a square jaw answered, “He’s a slippery son of a bitch. I should know. Did a lotta missions with him in my time.”

   He started a new thought. “I know how he thinks though. We can corner him. Make no way for escape.”

    The other cadet who hadn’t spoken in a while surprised the others by adding to the discussion, “And I’ll finish him off!”

   The man laughed. “I like you kid, my name’s Baruch.”

   “Azriel.” The boy held out his hand to shake the other agent’s.

   Esther swiftly jumped in the middle of things. “Maintain focus,” she ordered.

   The female junior cadet’s actions knocked Baruch off balance. “I’ve never worked with a woman in the line of duty before,” he smiled with a chuckle.

   This sexist comment rankled Esther. The type-A, strong-headed alpha dog cadet certainly didn’t appreciate being talked down to. She may have been young, but for what she lacked in years she more than made up for with a ceaseless supply of fortitude and assertiveness.

 

   Pretty soon a closed door stopped the progress made by the three. Baruch held one finger up for patience. He stepped aside to find what he thought should be there. An access console. The agent quickly worked to hack the hardware into thinking the group belonged on the other side.

   Azriel thought out loud. “I haven’t learned to do that yet.”

   Esther put a hand on his shoulder. “You will,” she made the assurance.

   Plates, screws and things that were in the way piled up on the floor. Baruch cut a few wires. He stripped the ends of two and crossed the strands.

   “That should do the trick,” he said under his breath.

   The door apparently heard him, opening apologetically. As soon as it did though it revealed guards lying in wait for the intruders. The fastest reflexes would prevail in a skirmish.

   Before Azriel could even draw his weapon Baruch had already taken down the guard on the far right. Esther ended the other threat with a headshot. When the assailant hit the floor his gun went off. It missed the three Israelis wide however.

   Baruch relaxed a little by rocking his shoulders. “Nice shootin’,” he complimented Esther.

   Azriel hated being the odd man out. The guy along for the ride…that’s what it felt like here . There was a large chip on his shoulder. However because the way he was programmed it became instinctive to avoid an emotional response. That helped him out in a big way.

   Without gravity the journey took much longer than it should have. The Mossad agents pointed their bodies like scuba divers to pass through the environment. Each held a gun in one hand while the other was tasked with forward movement.

   “We’re nearing a lift,” Baruch said. “We’ll be able to get up to the right level real quick.

   “Level six is what we need, correct?” Esther confirmed.

   “Yes.”

   “Do you think the lift works?” Azriel wondered.

   Baruch answered him without any delay. “No.”

   “How can one guy sabotage so much so quickly?” Esther asked the rhetorical.

   They had arrived at a row of cylinders. A bluish glow lit up the dark silhouettes that were approaching. Nothing appeared to be working just like Baruch deduced. For good measure he smacked the up arrow. Nothing.

   The oldest and most experienced in the group went back to work again to get them in business. He clawed at the raised screw heads on the edge of the aluminum door, trying to pry it open. The greater the tug he imposed it coincidentally  responded with creaking. Baruch’s muscles flexed a great deal under the strain. Something had to give.

    [_Clink! _] The sound of victory. Baruch threw back the door with tremendous force. He was first to rush in and open the trap door in the roof of the lift. There would be no need for climbing gear since the artificial gravity had been decommissioned until further notice.

   Azriel went first. He was given a leg up from Baruch followed by his partner Esther. The man kind enough to assist his teammates onto the roof soon joined them himself.

   A long thick cable reached to the upper heights of the dark shaft. It guided the drifters to the level the action was on.

   No one bothered to keep a floor count. They wouldn’t stop until they got to the top.

                                      --

   

   Talking on the phone as Amalia’s love interest could’ve made him puke. Getting kootchie-koo with Baruch? Repugnant.

   At last it was getting close to the point of no return…the drop. This roller coaster ride had Seth in the first car about to crest the tallest hill on the journey. The best part about these moments were they didn’t last long.

   

   Seth Markov left Mr. E’s looking dapper like the commissioner he impersonated. He dressed in pleated grey wool trousers with a lightly starched dress shirt with French cuffs topped off with a tight-fitting checked sports coat.

   He avoided public transportation knowing a BOLO was out for him. Even under disguise he still wouldn’t chance it.

   Normally the nippy bone-chilling air of Berlin would’ve gotten to him. Used to a Mediterranean climate and then suddenly being thrown into a cold ice box like Germany should have made him react like the frog tossed into boiling water. But it didn’t. The implications of his missions brought the blood to the surface. Hot flashes were regular. Plus it didn’t help Seth also wore the stuffy outfit for Sofia Keller’s limo driver under  the Wendel husk.

   Along the way he said a few meaningless sentences out loud just to synchronize his synthesized voice. The first few words felt incredibly weird and unnatural. The more he practiced however it became easier to embrace this new person for the day.

   The fake Wendel got into his workplace no problem without raising any suspicion. He even went to his office and pretended to be doing a task. Apparently there had been a meeting he was scheduled to go to. Finding an excuse to be absent wouldn’t be easy. Someone caught him fleeing to the motor pool and stopped him.

   “What’s the hurry, Wendel?” his colleague asked.

   “My landlord just notified my place has been broken into,” he lied.

   “Oh my god!”

    “Take good notes for me,” Wendel joked.

   

   A utility closet provided the perfect spot to change identities yet again for Seth Markov. He came out wearing what Dimitri would have worn had Baruch’s bullet not exploded through the man’s gray matter and out the back of his skull.

   The imitator left the changing room quietly. Next he needed to get keys.

   “Carriage is ready for its rider. All things look good on our end,” Tyrone Banks communicated to Seth.

   “10-4.”

   Seth paused halfway through a vestibule with white pillars at the corners to the four-way intersection. He looked up at the chocolate-colored cathedral ceiling. The decor of the government building was stately. Tax dollars hard at work.

   The limo driver noticed the time however and walked fast. He arrived in a locker room. Seth got in and deposited something. Turning around, the driver stopped at the window. His manager mumbled a hello and returned with keys.

   “Danke.”

   Seth pushed against the door that led into the garage. The vehicle he’d take was easy to spot. Long, black, and with little flags on top…there was no question Sofia Keller rode in it.

   The engine turned over with a mighty roar. An easy push of a button and the pretend Dimitri had the vehicle in D. It headed towards a ramp with speed. He wasted no time to be at the south entrance Sofia would exit from.

   This was it.

                                  --

   

   

   He had already made a trip to the Ozarks not long ago. In his occupation it didn’t allow for passengers, yet he had four that haul. Two of them Scorpion scumbags, the others were prisoners. Now that he had paid off an IOU to the thug Henry he was bound to no one. In the sports world that made him a free agent.

   Archie was no athlete though. He lived to fly trucks, to deliver cargo. It took a special someone to spend hours alone in between brushes with civilization and conversations with strangers. He didn’t have any family. No one to come home to at the end of the day. He only had one person to look out for.

   Archie had a big heart however. Despite his eccentric behaviour and bizarre tendencies, he  truly cared about the human existence—finding good in the world.

   It became increasingly hard to do business in such dark times though. But even so, the trucker found there were still plenty of like-minded individuals who hadn’t gone down the drain like the American government had.

   Shortly after he had left the Ozarks to go on more runs he got contacted by some people who were very interested in two individuals that may have been on his rig. They explained there had been hostages taken. A rich man and a scientist were missing. All the clues led to him.

   Archie volunteered as much information as they needed. Not expecting this response at all, Sentinel who had reached out to Archie also brokered an agreement with him for additional help.

    [_“Whatever help and service I can be to you, I’d be much obliged,” _] the trucker had told Sentinel.

   The Free Republic of North America’s intelligence agency (Sentinel) would need him to get an agent and Damion’s mother into a black site location. Since he flew over restricted airspace before and landed near the installation, they were hoping he could do it again.

                                   —

   Josh waited with the phone pressed up against his face. In 2041 you didn’t need to turn your phones off when flying. And the devices could still be used to fulfill their design: to make calls.

   “Arch, it’s me.”

   The trucker’s voice rang with a disgruntled note when he answered, “Why does everybody call me that? And who’s me? I don’t recognize this number.”

   The Viper agent rested his phone in his palm, covering the microphone. Josh rolled his eyes in Esmeralda’s direction. “I’m with my wife. I was told I could stay with you for the day.”

   “My home is always open to good folks. Just for the night?”

   “We’re just passing through.”

   “Uh-huh, I know what that’s all about. You had a passphrase you wanted to give me?”

    “VW.” A backwards abbreviation of Westover Ventures, Damion Westover’s company.

   “Enjoy your stay,” Archie said abruptly.

   

   At the conclusion to his call the woman referred to as the wife in the phone conversation was itching to say something. “Well aren’t you just the most secretive person I’ve ever met.”

   Josh’s face didn’t betray anything. If Esmeralda didn’t know any better she would’ve guessed he had gone to acting school.

   “How’d I do hon?”

   She played along. “We make a good couple.”

   The flying car began dropping in altitude in small intervals. Josh saw the model staring out the window. She could see the ground now for the first time in hours.

   “Your son is gonna ask if he can have visitors,” he explained to her.

   Esmeralda thought hard. “They’re gonna be suspicious about you though.”

   He knew she was thinking about how young he looked. Too young to be Damion’s dad. “I’m his step-dad.”

   She laughed. “That’s weak.”

   “It’s the only way…” he argued.

   She openly fretted. “It’s a big risk.”

   “Do you want to get your son back?”

   She didn’t say anything.

                                    --

   

     Azriel helped Baruch muscle level six’s door open. It groaned in resistance. This time the lift hatch gave a better fight than the one five decks below.

   The simulation seemed so real to young Azriel that he forgot about  the artificial element to the mission.          

   

   On the top level the ceilings were much higher and the rooms more open. Gone were the claustrophobic feelings and sense of entrapment. The exciting reality that Seth must be on the same floor hit all three as soon as they stepped foot on new territory.

   It didn’t hit anyone right away. The agents were able to run. No more scuba-diver antics. Seth hadn’t disrupted gravity on this floor. They were dangerously close to their objective now.

   The lay of the land duplicated an airport terminal. There were no stanchions, rope, or long lines though. Everything was eggshell white. The lights were so bright too. You could see the dust drifting in the midst of the lights’ wash.      

     “How is one guy gonna sabotage all the ordinance going into the shuttles?”

   Baruch had been read in by Malach Kemper. He knew exactly what Seth would try to do. “If you’re thinking explosives? Think again. It’s much simpler than that.”

   “What?”

   Straight ahead huge insectoid creatures patrolled in randomized patterns. They competently noticed the agents violate their perimeter and enter into the off-limits section yet none reacted to the Mossad agents as a threat. Someone had foretold them to expect a team to deploy in their bailiwick. Malach Kemper.  

   Baruch paused to admire the grotesque, mesmerizing soldiers of Scorpion. Despite the distraction he still remembered to finish filling Esther in on Seth’s methods.

   “Damion Westover, the technology’s inventor, has shown Seth how to make the ordinance going onto the space shuttles a way for it to self-destruct,” Baruch articulated to Esther.  

   Azriel interrupted, “That couldn’t be done remotely?”

   “Nope.”

   “How much time does it take to knock just one of these devices offline?”

   “Unknown. Doesn’t matter though. We must move like he’s deactivating number thirty already.”

                                        --

   

   

     

Chapter 9

   The little flags of the Fourth Reich flapped in the brisk breeze on the cold spring day. It felt like winter with the below freezing temp and overcast sky.

   Seth hid behind big sunglasses with a black polished conductor’s hat arched on his head. A warm pea coat with double breasted buttons made him official.

   He sat and waited in attention at the wheel to the big stretch limo. A couple minutes went by. The next time the door to the south entrance opened none other than Sofia Keller and her entourage walked through.

   Seth looked down at his brass coat buttons, the pin on his left breast pocket…the small bulge on his right hip.

   The cadre of officials drew closer. Amongst the knights, rooks and pawns, the queen piece enjoyed the utmost protection even though she normally moved freely as an offensive weapon.  Ironically her heavily armored official ride made her more vulnerable today than being surrounded by her associates of the German government.

   Sofia’s people parted like a curtain before her when she got near her waiting ride. The door opened to the back seat. She got in with grace and aplomb.

   Normally the driver would be informed ahead of time of the route and destination. The chauffeur had to preprogram the coordinates into the vehicle’s trip computer before it allowed him to go anywhere. To do this a special token, much like a credit card, was assigned the driver with the trip details loaded onto it. Unless there was a destination, an official one, the driver wouldn’t be able to even leave the parking lot.

   Seth prepared to take out the destination card and feed it into the slot. He knew Baruch supposedly had tampered with it to reroute Sofia Keller where the Mossad agents wanted her to go. In seconds the driver would know whether or not the fake Amalia complied.

   He inserted it in, held it there, then yanked it out. The large vertical display taking up the center console blinked. The image it returned Seth made his heart sink. Suddenly Seth’s foot didn’t know what to do. He couldn’t step on it anymore. Something was very, very wrong.

   Sofia tapped on the partition and said, “Everything okay?”

   Seth lowered it only to get a gun shoved in his face.

   “Drive.”

                                        --

   

   “Who turned on the lights?”

   Damion shielded his eyes from the penetrating flood lights he didn’t even know the room had. His eyes would need time to recalibrate. Christophe suffered from the same thing.

   The warden of the Ozarks facility kindly agreed to allow the inmates visitors.

   

   When Damion could see straight he laid eyes on someone he last saw in tears. His fault. The man with her he didn’t recognize however. Never saw him in his life.

   “Esmeralda?” He never addressed her by mom or mother.

   “I’m here son,” she said reassuringly.

   “Who’s he?” Damion pointed.

   By this time the guard had already left the group. Lucky for them, too. Otherwise Josh’s flimsy cover would’ve been destroyed already.

   “Your mother and I are here to help, buddy,” the Viper agent calmly said.

   Damion’s voice lowered as he took a step closer. “Who are you really?”

   The billionaire read the pronounced concern in the other man’s eyes which he had an answer for. “Don’t worry, we’re not being listened to.”

   Josh reached into his pocket and slipped his cred pack over to Damion for a looksee.

   “Satisfied?” Josh asked.

   Damion did a doubletake when he glimpsed the Sentinel shield. Christophe saw the same thing causing him to whistle.

   “You were right,” he whispered to Damion.

   Damion heard and smiled triumphantly. Then he thought about all the roadblocks to freedom there were which made him question, “So it’s just you?”

   Esmeralda came forward in Josh’s defense. “He saved my life honey back in New Babylon.”

   Christophe repeated what she just said. “Saved your life?”

   “From the invasion!” she said, her pupils wide with fresh fright.

   Those words didn’t need any interpretation for the prisoners whom had feared the worst possible outcome  happening while they were in captivity. Damion’s Project Canvas found a user: never the one the inventor envisioned either when he designed the science marvel.

   “So far you’re two for two!” his French scientist complimented Damion for his accurate predictions he made earlier.

   “Yeah.”

                                           —

     

   Baruch ran ahead of the cadets. They struggled to keep up in his wake.  

   The director-general of Scorpion, Howard, had already issued the command for the great deception to play out around the world that morning. Not too long ago this couldn’t be a reality. Howard needed Damion’s holographic technology which he pillaged from Westover Venture’s right before the Free Republic of North America launched their Operation Switchblade.

   Presumably the technology had already been ferried to Jeddah’s space station as soon as physically possible with the orders that went with it for it to be activated according to the earliest timeline.

   

                                       …

   Seth Markov was having a busy day. He didn’t have time to second guess or take an extra breath.

   Not too long ago he had gotten off the phone with a man whose reputation went before him. This celebrity of the science world at seven years of age designed the prototype  eventually used in New Babylon’s state of the art transportation system. When the kid hit double digits the genius in the making shared with the world a supercapacitor that had a far superior storage density to any battery currently on the market.

   As Seth came to understand through a conversation with the household name, Damion Westover, he would need to travel to Jeddah to hitch an elevator ride to the space station there. What he was looking for may or may not have been still there. But nevertheless, it paid to go up to investigate anyhow.

   The Mossad agent didn’t need directions on how to find his way up. In between the skyscrapers of the city a bright glowing spire got lost way up in the atmosphere. On the other end of it was the space hub.

   The Mossad agent travelled in the gondola to Jeddah’s station in order to locate weapons of mass destruction before they were to be used by Scorpion.

   

   No one else apparently needed a ride to outer space at such a late hour. Normally the operation had closing hours. However Seth engaged his coercion skills to change somebody’s mind. He got results.

   First thing he did on the space station was throw a couple of blades that spun through the air. Two guards on patrol that were just rounding a corner and were about to head his way never saw it coming. They instantly tumbled to the ground rather noiselessly.

   Seth grabbed both of them and stuffed them into a nearby closet. He then made tracks to find the control station of the platform to perform sabotage.

   Several destructive strokes later he did what was necessary to confuse and delay anyone that came after him. Most anyone. Unless they were as good as him. That crowd was a very small percent of the population.

    The elevators were dead because he had killed them. Many decks didn’t have gravity. But where he needed to be avoided all the malfunctioning plagues. Here there were Scorpion henchman all over however.

   He was in the right place.

   Seth came with climbing gear, just like he did for many other missions. It came in handy for urban warfare scenarios. Or when he needed to go over the heads of a bunch of bad guys that outnumbered him eight to one.

      But just because he could get up in high places didn’t mean he wouldn’t be spotted.

   Luck didn’t often factor into the outcome of how things went down. On this occasion though he was more than grateful he grabbed his white gear over the traditional black duds. It may have saved his life as he slithered undetected against pearl white ceilings.  

    Seth crossed over into the shuttle bays. One alarmingly small problem….the Scorpion spaceships had left already.

                                  --

   

Chapter 10

   Tyrone started the mission with anxiety. Nothing worked to mollify those apprehensive feelings either. After Baruch had last checked in to relay the success of changing the destination card route, he decisively broke established protocol and went dark. He discarded his phone too.

   Suddenly Mr. E’s hunch on Baruch spooked Tyrone.

    [_Was he right? _]

[_   _] The doubting thoughts on Baruch were quickly moved to lower priority. Seth wore a wire which allowed his spotters to monitor things.

   Tyrone and Agent Marcello both heard the strong threatening snarl, “Drive!”

   At the same time their tracking software detected the deliberate detour the limo was taking.

   Alfonso Marcello shook his head and sternly glowered at his senior. “Baruch.”

   “Time to pack it up.”

   Alfonso helped the retired agency man shut down and power off all the gear. Then they hurried around the sides of the vehicle to mount up. Tyrone gassed it. While the vehicle gained speed Alfonso checked his battle rifle, sidearm and explosives.

   “This won’t exactly be a turkey shoot,” Agent Marcello worried.

   Tyrone attempted to restore confidence in the other figure by saying, “Seth can get leverage on any situation, son.” When he saw it wasn’t working he shared a seemingly hopeless tale from the past where Seth emerged triumphant, doing the impossible and turning the tables against the bad guys who had incredible numbers against one agent.

   Tyrone continued talking. “The good news is he isn’t going too fast. We can head him off…”

   Alfonso ran his finger along the edge of his KA-BAR knife. “Do we want to do that?”

   “They have put us in an undesirable spot. Afraid we don’t have many options.”

   “Are you ready for a warzone old man?”

   “Nah,” Tyrone smelled his upper lip, “but I am ready to die.”

                                      --

 

   

   Damion addressed no one but it sure looked like he had meant it for someone when he said, “I hope you came in here with an exit strategy.”

   While the words were still on his tongue Josh discreetly inspected their surroundings. “Not too many ways in or out, eh?”

   “I dunno, I was hoping you could tell me that,”
Damion pushed back.

   Josh gesticulated the need to calm down. “Relax, this place ain’t no Alcatraz. There are some soft spots.”

   Christophe at least brightened at this.

   “How often do the guards come this way?”

   The French scientist stared at the ceiling while slowly counting on one hand. He bent his index, middle and pinkie fingers back before stopping. “Three times I think. Not often.”

   An astonished Josh got a little excited. “For the whole day?”

   “The second watch, monsieur.”

   “Oh.”

   Damion knew better but he asked anyway, “Are you armed?”

   Josh answered in the future tense. “I _will _ be.”

   “So what now? Visiting hours are almost over.” Damion analyzed the broad shouldered rugged looking man once again. His flannel shirt and jeans were disarming enough. The woman he came with increased that effect. The billionaire sighed heavily and concluded, “I hope you are who you say you are.”

   

   Though he didn’t need to prove himself, the Viper agent decided a little reassurance might help the plan. He feigned holding an arm behind his back like a casual stance to give him the opportunity to release an object clipped higher up on his right arm. Something travelled down the length of his appendage until the pointed tip of a dagger revealed itself just beyond the cuff of his shirt. In one split second Josh sent the weapon flying through the air quicker than a bullet within inches of Damion’s head.

   By the time the billionaire knew what had happened Josh was already stepping forward to retrieve his weapon that successfully penetrated the grout in the concrete wall in front of him.

   “What the, you said…I thought you weren’t armed?!” Damion roared.

   Esmeralda grabbed her son by the arm and held on to his hand. She gripped it tightly, saying, “We’re gonna leave here. Do you believe me now?”

   He looked shaken and drained of color. But Damion managed a soft, “Yes.”

                                         --

   

   

   Three assailants instantaneously advanced from the south end of one hangar. They spread out with their guns dancing up, down and sideways. It would be hard to flank them or catch them unawares from any angles, really.

   Seth could only see the tops of heads from his vantage point holding on to one of the many trusses connecting a massive girder to the roof. Even from his distance though he could tell there was a man and two teenagers, possibly. The three moved with agility and skill he recognized from his line of work. Professionals.

   The head-scratcher though was he knew they searched for him. But they didn’t look like Scorpion pukes. He patiently observed them do a grid search for him down below. Nothing doing.

   He imagined the many ways he could perform the hit. Seth utilized a pair of optics to study the quarry. His fingertips adjusted the magnification to bring the picture into sharp focus. The shoulder of the man who led the search party for Seth showed up big and large.

   The Mossad coat of arms glinted.

    Baruch, that son of a…

   All of a sudden Seth felt something leave his pants pocket and drop the great height, landing with a bang. The mistake that could be his last.

   Baruch shouted, “Up there!”

   Seth had little time to react before a fusillade of bullets blasted into the steel where he once perched. The agent juked and reacted by attaching a line into a neighboring truss. He rappelled to the floor, but not before sending a few flash-bangs bouncing towards his adversaries: enough chaos to lose sight of Seth from him to regain the advantage.

                                     —

     

 

   The inmates faked affectionate hugs with their visitors with the exception of Damion who wrapped his arms around his mother—cradling her in a loving embrace. Christophe wrinkled at the eyes and twitched his mustache at the sight.  

   They said their protracted goodbyes.

   Once they had left Damion trudged back the short distance to his cot. The worn man released a long overdue sigh he had held in before he collapsed on the flimsy mattress. The springs bounced up and down by the sudden force, creaking each time.

   Christophe said out of nowhere, “How long?” referring to Esmeralda and Josh backtracking after they had done what they needed to do for everyone to be able to escape.

   “Jury’s still out on him .”

   “Your Viper hero?”  

   “Hero? Or Zero.”

   “FRN wouldn’t make a mistake by sending the wrong guy Damion. Think about it.”

   “That’s an awful lot of confidence to put into one man springing us from this hole though, don’t you think?”

   “I don’t know what to think,” the French scientist truthfully admitted.

   Damion blinked fast. Finally choosing to look away. “Yeah.”

   At last the cavalry had returned. In unprecedented quickness only Damion and Christophe’s cell door clicked open. The two captives didn’t move right away, initially. Both of them were too stunned the plan was actually working.

   Damion mumbled, “Pinch me.”

                                            --

Chapter 11

      A small caliber firearm hovered at a lethal angle directly behind the limo driver’s head. The woman who held it ordinarily planned meetings in the back of the her spacious vehicle as the interior minister of Germany.  

   Her arm didn’t shudder. No sign of nerves whatsoever. She willed herself to play her role to perfection.

   “I have nothing to lose,” Seth indignantly postured, turning his neck enough to see the threat with his peripheral vision.

   Sofia Keller cocked her gun. “Only your life,” she blustered.

   “What is that?” Seth countered. “Death is just the gateway to eternity.”
p. Keller scowled hard. “Christian?”

   “Reformed Jew.”

   “Whatever.” Her gun left its target for a millisecond. “You’re all the same to me. You must die.”

   As he drove the new circuit Seth noticed a familiar black SUV closing in from the east. He knew Tyrone Banks and Alfonso Marcello had his back. Unfortunately for him the only way he’d walk away from being held at gunpoint involved a wreck.

   Seth decided to create a little more conversation to ensure the hand that threatened him stayed distracted. The traffic around his limo had thinned—good fortune.

   “So Baruch is the canary, eh?”

   Keller beamed at hearing this. “You can’t trust anyone in this day and age. How does it feel? Doublecrossed, backstabbed.”

   Seth mused. “What’d you promise him?”

   Sofia sneered. “Money talks, Markov.”

   “Hey Sofia…”

   “Huh?”  

   In that crucial moment an erratic driver ran the red light, slamming at a high rate of speed dead center into the side of the stretch limo. The significant force of the crash threw Sofia’s aim off of Seth. Her arm smacked into the window. As a result the gun went off. However the bullet whizzed by Seth’s shoulder missing the Israeli who subsequently lost control of Keller’s vehicle.

                                      --

   

   Three against one weren’t odds a man with Seth’s ability feared. A straight on confrontation wouldn’t be in his favor, however. From his earlier scouting the hunters turned out to be Mossad.

   He had an idea.

   The flash bang he tossed managed to disorient his pursuers long enough for Seth to reach a control panel where he would further slow his opposition down. His quick fingers keyed in a sequence. The screen froze then finally accepted the input.

   A loud noise forewarned anyone with ears something bad was about to happen. The massive glass door reinforced with crisscrossing beams forming an X hastily slid down the track towards the side of the hangar.

   A cold blast of air rushed into the station. Anything unsecured would certainly become space junk with the tugging forces of the outer world being unleashed through the open door.

   To Esther, Baruch and Azriel the experience could have been compared to a hurricane making landfall; unless they found a tree to hang on to, they’d be swept out to sea.

   Several yellow and red barrels with very flammable contents were the closest thing to trees as one could get. They were nearly filled to the rim with deadly fuel. The container not quite as weighty as its siblings took a tumble onto its side, eventually rolling out the airlock.

   If it hadn’t been for quick reflexes and fast thinking the hunting party would’ve jettisoned off the station with zero chance of survival after that. Simulation over. But by now their target may have already circumvented their trap and escaped.

   From one wonky moment to the next it looked more and more like Esther and Azriel needed more practice at this mission.

   The projection of Baruch’s character suddenly lost his handholds to the overpowering vacuum winds which sucked him out into the void.

   Esther and Azriel watched the agent being ripped away. His arms were outstretched, his face a sheet of petrified horror. He  wildly grabbed at anything he could but to no avail. All was lost.

   The hangar bay started dropping pixels left and right. They were gradually no longer on a space station fighting for their lives but rather in the center of Sim Room 1.

   “He escaped.”

   Esther and Azriel spun to face a very unhappy uncle Ephraim who stood off in the shadows of the large space. His arms were folded.

   “He was better than you,” Ephraim continued his attack.

   “This time,” Azriel pushed back.

   “Tomorrow. Again! Same place. Same time. Don’t fail me.”

                                              --

   Damion and Christophe just had to follow their rescuers. No leg irons needed to come off.

   The Scorpion stockade had been an altogether unpleasant experience, yet easily just a momentary disruption of life events. Damion only missed a war that took place at the corporate offices and R&D center of Westover Ventures. And more recently the ongoing sky invasion. Hardly relevant to an important man’s life.    

   The lights in the jail’s hallways were severely dimmed. All security cameras bowed to the floor, failing to see the escapees fleeing.

   “How did you do turn this place upside down so quick?” Damion called after Josh.

   The Viper agent turned around without slowing. “We’ll have time later to trade stories.”

   “Fair enough.”

   Christophe spoke, “I assume there’s a backdoor we can make use of?”  

   “Too obvious. They’re positioning their forces around every exit point as we speak. We’re going underground,” Josh answered solemnly.

   Christophe nodded in approval.

   Esmeralda appeared indifferent. She still trusted Josh’s judgement though.

   The group passed through the facility unimpeded. They hadn’t gone too far when Damion suddenly pivoted and turned around.

   “What are you doing?!” his mom cried.

   He raced back to the cell block they just left. “We forgot Heather!”

   “Who?”

   Christophe attempted to explain then gave up. “Be right back,” he said worriedly as he chased after Damion who had a good lead on him.

   None of the escapees realized that it was nearly time for the warden to make his rounds. Finding an open cell door with the inmates gone would immediately throw the facility into lockdown.

   Damion soon stood outside Heather’s holding cell in a panic. Problem. Josh hadn’t opened her door.

   “I tried to tell you…” Christophe said panting after he arrived a bit later than Damion. He bent over out of breath with his hands above his knees for support.

   Then things escalated quickly.

   “Get down!” Josh barked. He and Esmeralda had backtracked also, and not a moment too soon. The Viper agent had his weapon out that he had obtained from a fallen guard in the communications room.

   The sound of a clanging key ring and heavy boots alerted Josh to the impending confrontation. He already lined the shot up before the dead man came into view. A speeding bullet obliterated the target’s head.

   Damion and Christophe hit the deck after the report of a gunshot. Both whipped their heads around to witness the damage. Neither man had seen a human die such a gruesome death like that. Blood and tissue painted the formerly white walls of the hall.

   Josh was the only one not appalled by the sight of the gore. He brushed past Christophe and Damion who were still lying down. The agent then snagged the keys from the waist of the dead warden. In a few tries he got lucky guessing the right one that opened Heather’s door.

   She looked scared seeing Josh enter her room first with his gun still out defensively. But when Damion and Christophe crowded into the cell too the apprehension went away instantly.

   Heather, feeling dazed said, “What’s going on…who is this?”      

   “He’s a Viper agent,” Damion answered her concerned question. “Look, you think you know the best way out of here?”

   “Yeah.”        

                                    --

   Sofia’s left hand that previously gripped the pistol nearly let go of it after connecting with the thick glass.

   This was the perfect opportunity for Seth.

   The limo’s rear swung hard left as the giant vehicle drifted diagonally. Its left bumper smashed into parked cars causing alarms to go off. The SUV that plowed its angry grill into the vulnerable side of Sofia’s ride didn’t separate after hitting it either. The two badly damaged vehicles were like first time dancers, bumping into everything around them. This continued for a seemingly long time as Newton’s third law imposed itself on the cars trapped in a state of flux.

   In the midst of the mayhem Seth immediately recognized the gun was off of him. If he acted quickly the situation would be even more favorable.

   With a blind jab the Mossad agent reached around and struck the shooter’s hand. He devastated Sofia Keller’s wrist. She involuntarily dropped the gun as her bone shattered. Seth shifted in his chair enough to lay eyes on the woman he just disabled in time to catch the falling weapon and in the same reflex pistol whip the interior minister directly to her skull. She wouldn’t be threatening him again in the near future.

   Then there was more bad news. The long straightaway ended in a T-intersection. A meaty building with brick masonry anxiously awaited its brick-dropping fate.

   “Oh shit,” Seth heard the staticky voice of Tyrone Banks in the other vehicle share over his earpiece.

   “How else did you think it would end?” Seth yelled back in the final seconds.

                                       —

Chapter 12

   The night passed quietly with uninterrupted sleep cycles. Azriel no longer slept in his dad’s apartment. Being a cadet and all gave him his own private quarters at Masada.

   A gentle draft circulated through the room, keeping it a chill sixty-five. Azriel had only one sheet on. He sweated through it. His chest went up and down. The cadet groaned and turned over. A solid thirty minutes evaporated. The still form slid off the mattress and landed on the hard floor with bare feet.

   Azriel tied a robe on and exited his quarters. He tranced past many closed doors until he reached a fire escape. The elevators wouldn’t be on this time of night. Using his elbow he nudged the door open. Azriel caught the steel edge to slow it down before it made a loud noise when it closed.

   He didn’t fear anyone being aware of his movements too much. Although the floor resident assistant could very well give him a warning if caught out of quarters after curfew. Get too many of those and it went to a counseling with the program director. One more instance escalated it to a final word from Malach Kemper (Ephraim Markov) himself. Then it’d be there’s the door.

   Azriel knew he couldn’t get kicked out of the program by his own father though. Impossible.

   The boy climbed stair after stair. The burn intensified from the extensive climb. Finally the last flight of stairs looked up to a door labeled roof. It was unlocked from the inside.

   The sounds of Tel Aviv filled his ears as he walked under the black night sky towards his favorite view. The large towers of all shapes and sizes fell below him from his lofty perspective, nearly higher than anyone else in the city.

   He didn’t remember dreaming that night, but he was certain he had one. How else could he explain his sleeplessness? Something had been off. A nearly extinct memory or vision, he wasn’t sure which, came in and out of focus. He tried to piece it together to understand. Something about it screamed importance otherwise it’d be easier to ignore.

   Azriel found the parapet and a ladder that hung off of it. He sat on the rusted upper ledge contentedly then slowly dangled his left leg followed by his right over the top rung. His feet kicked freely. Azriel had a railing on either side of him to hold on to. He didn’t feel the need however. Fear seldom overtook him at heights.

   A stream of recollections captivated his conscience that night making him wonder how they got there. Recollections of a life he didn’t remember having. It must’ve belonged to a different person he reasoned. A dream hacker—that’s what he had become.

   Occurrence number four…how many times it had happened to Azriel. That night played out like all the rest, at first. He sat on top of Tel Aviv engaging in self-discovery soliloquy.

   He’d ask, “Who are you?”

   In another voice, his wooden, impassive cadet one, he answered, “Mossad Junior Cadet, Azriel Kemper. Son of Malach Kemper.”

   “What’s your mission?”

   “To protect the Jewish state and destroy her enemies, namely Seth Markov.”

   “Who told you that?”

      “Your father  did,” a female voice interrupted the self talk.

   Esther had quietly walked up on Azriel. She stood to his right and put a hand on his shoulder. “What is this?”

   Azriel’s eyes turned a different color. His brain shifted into a different gear before he re-engaged. “You found me,” he said, not wanting conversation yet acknowledging Esther had spoken nonetheless.

   There wasn’t room for two on the fire escape ladder to nowhere. Esther’s body language showed she wanted a moment with Azriel though. Maybe more than a moment.

   He wasn’t too obtuse not to notice the signs. The young man made himself small by folding his legs into his chest then slowly rising to his full height on the little platform he once sat on. Azriel delicately made his way off his nest to face her.

   “There’s a couple of chairs over there,” she gestured in the direction that veered away from Azriel’s favorite view of the city.

   Shortly the two were seated. Esther ran a furtive gander up Azriel’s bare legs to his slightly opened robe that peeked in at a more prominent bosom than she remembered he had. He was fourteen and she was seventeen. His features were mature for his age even if his actions weren’t always. But she could look past it and still see him in a favorable light.

   Esther took a measured breath and held it like she was prepared to ask something but hesitant to do so. She analysed Azriel and stopped herself.

   He could sense it, prompting him to say, “What is it?”

   “Do you remember anything?” she said. At the same time she moved closer to him until he reacted.

   “Oh.”

   “Oh?”

   Azriel’s skin grew warm. The sweat glands in his face opened up making him glisten.

   “What?”

   The young woman stole Azriel’s offering hand to hold it in her lap. She rubbed his smooth skin with a thumb.

   “Us. You really don’t remember anything?”

   “What happened to me?”

    [_He knows! _]

   The arresting development made her stomach tighten. There was so much she wanted to tell him. An open invitation stuck around. She couldn’t push it away. It was time. Screw it.

   Esther’s heart rate quickened. “How long have you known?”

   Azriel smiled. “A guy never forgets a pretty face like yours. You brought me back,” he said returning the tender strokes on her hand like a brush to a canvas.

   “I’m sorry about the attitude I’ve been giving you.”

   He thought up an instant excuse for her. “You were in cadet mode.”

   His good-hearted rationalization made her laugh. Esther’s eyes jiggled back and forth in a place called dilemma.

   “You were asking yourself questions…”

   “Yes?”

   “I have answers,” she finally finished. “Whatever you want to know, maybe I could—”

   “Okay!” Azriel’s knees were touching hers. The point of view was much better from here. He hadn’t noticed until now that she was wearing pink again. The color of love.

   Esther’s head went back, her expression unguarded. Any secrets he wanted to know were his. All he had to do was ask.

   “I, I don’t remember how I got here. I can’t even remember a beginning. I’ve been coming up here for a while and just asking myself over and over, ‘Who am I?’”

   Esther nodded. She felt terrible for him. If it hadn’t been for her cooperation with Stacy to subdue Azriel, he wouldn’t have turned into Malach Kemper’s robot.

   “I have to be honest with you.”

   Azriel tilted his head to one side in a searching manner.

   “This is gonna get me in a heluva lot of trouble with some people,” she explained before saying what was on her heart.

   “You don’t have to,” Azriel  graciously tried to give her one last way out.

Esther temporarily stopped up her ears to block his voice out so she could do what must be done. She then communicated, “You aren’t who you think you are.”

   

   And just when the two cadets thought they were free to exchange sensitive information that’s when the spies caught the spies. Men of the night rolled up fast and furious, cordoning off the only exit. That same voice Azriel and Esther heard address them the other day after a failed simulation mission cracked like a peal of thunder.

   “Take her to the brig! He’ll come with me.”

   A pair of sturdy thickset men waiting to collar someone who nearly told Azriel everything, readily snatched Esther away upon hearing their boss’s order. She protested and struggled until one of the agents strong-armed her into compliance.

   Azriel for the first time felt fear. They had supposedly reprogrammed his brain to forget the emotion. But as the intimidating agency head Malach Kemper got closer and coarsely said, “Son?” That’s when he knew what Esther would have told him.

                                        --      

   Everyone associated with Scorpion knew about the Ozarks facility. A privileged few were even acquainted with the underground tunnels going in and out of the penitentiary. Howard’s previous secretary, Heather, knew enough to be helpful to her rescuers.

   “There’s an old tunnel no longer in use by Scorpion. It’s much smaller than the one the subway runs through. It’ll be very dark though. And we’re gonna have to walk a ways,” Heather communicated to the group.

   Josh nodded. “I’m familiar. That’s where I was taking you guys before we backtracked.”

   After hearing those words Heather felt her stomach drop. “I’m sorry. You shouldn’t have come back for me then.”

   Damion immediately disagreed with her. “What? And leave you here to die?”

   “You’ve already wasted precious time,” she argued.

   “You’re not a waste of time,” he said with finality.

   Christophe snorted. “Ah, this is love.”

   Josh reached behind his back and drew a small weapon. “Know how to use one of these?” he asked Heather while extending it to her.  

   She took it right away, thankful to wield her own protection. “My dad taught me.”

   “Good.”

   Josh resumed his leadership duties, directing traffic back across familiar territory. Damion did one more over the shoulder to make sure no more bad guys were attempting to flank them while their backsides were exposed. The image of the jailer josh had killed earlier pollinated in his brain all over again after seeing the grotesque body one last time.

   He wondered how many more would end up that way before they were free.

   Their leader took them through some abandoned offices, passing crooked cubicle walls, overturned waste bins with crumpled scrap paper overflowing onto threadbare carpet. The group ended up in an equally shabby conference room. Everyone scattered around the particle board table waiting for Josh to make something happen.

     The Viper agent went back in his memory to what his handlers had told him about this part. They weren’t as specific as he needed them to be because even they didn’t know. Hypotheticals and best guesses were all he had to go off of. There had to be something in the conference room to cause the false wall to open.

   Heather knew what Josh was looking for. It surprised her he didn’t already know. “Good thing you came back for me,” she said to the struggling leader.

                                          --

 

   Neither Friction nor gravity would be enough to halt the forward progress of two vehicles hell bent on wreaking havoc against the roads and buildings in their way. The lumbering stretch limo with its high-hardened ballistic steel and thick opaque polycarbonate windows bored through the street-facing exterior wall of a sandwich shop.

   The business about to get smashed didn’t have a breakfast menu. The minute hand would have to tick thirty more full cycles ‘round the clock before the kitchen even began to prep for the lunch crowd; lunch didn’t start prior to eleven at the establishment either.        

   Casualties would be at a minimum on the ground level of a mixed-use building absent of customers or employees. The same thing however couldn’t be said for the heavily populated one hundred yard collateral damage zone of the outlying area.

   The restaurant’s natural gas main ruptured right after the outer wall got breached. The still-churning combustion engine and flaming hot exhaust of the wrecked limo ignited the buildup of natural gas. Therefore immediately following the interior minister’s several ton Audi A8 State Car slamming into the facade, secondary explosions shook the whole block like a 6.0 magnitude earthquake.

   A fireball surged out of the restaurant kitchen with the ferocity of a flaming belch generated from the bowels of a provoked dragon. All the windows on the floors above the sandwich shop shattered instantly during the catalytic event.

   Oblivious pedestrians who walked straight into ground zero had to contend with a glass shard shower from above. However far worse than that even were the flying chunks of masonry that went airborne after the natural gas detonated.

   Prior to the devastation there were the two guilty cars that stuck to each other like glue, a three-way intersection fast approaching, and a sidewalk guarded by a curb which fronted the side of a sandwich shop. The limo traveled straight as an arrow and jumped the curb to continue through the intersection into a vulnerable restaurant supplied by natural gas for its kitchen appliances.

   The SUV formerly going sideways in its bond with the government limo separated upon impact of its tires’ sidewalls with the curb. It flipped. While still upside down and suspended mid-air, it collided with the cornice of the building. Agent Alfonso Marcello who sat on the passenger side instantly died. The driver, Tyrone Banks, was as good as dead in a vehicle that careened off an immovable object. Merely the neck-snapping inertia of the speeding SUV striking a motionless, fixed landmark could’ve taken his life.    

                                       —

Chapter 13

    [_“How else did you think it would end?” _]  

[_   _] Seth’s last words to Tyrone struck him with the full force of an airbag deploying which consequently was happening in real time.

   The corner of the building drew the vehicle in like a magnet at first. It wasn’t a mutual attraction as it turned out. Bricks and metal collided like the diametrically opposed elements they were. There wouldn’t be winners: only destroyed vs. more destroyed.

   The nanotube reinforced brick building that could handle earthquakes and hurricane force winds repelled the incoming SUV.

   A roll cage would’ve been particularly useful for the driver still alive but barely after the vehicle struck the intersection’s stronghold. Cushions of air blew up all around Tyrone Banks, separating him from the mangled crunch zones of the vehicle as it bounced and somersaulted into a ricochet.

                                   …

 

   A column of darkness like an empty vacuum with a distant faint light at the end of it seemed to be Tyrone’s new consciousness. The darkness receded gradually, gradually replaced by blinding radiance which he travelled towards. Was he in his body still? Somehow he saw, albeit there were no sounds or smells.

                                          …

   Tyrone had read about people with out of body experiences who lived to tell—genuine testaments to the lazarus syndrome.

   When resuscitation doesn’t work, a  clinically dead pronouncement swiftly arrives. The medical examiner records the time of death. Eventually the corpse ends up in the morgue in a black cadaver pouch. However unlike most other people’s stories, there is no funeral. Lazarus came back to life, leaving the grave behind to walk the earth once again, as do the people in these special cases.

 

   His vitals returned. A heartbeat. Tyrone’s sojourning soul rejoined with its vessel. It was time to wake up.

   The shades to the windows of his soul struggled to stay open, choosing to flutter instead. He didn’t see any light this time but at least he could feel. Maybe that wasn’t such a privilege though for his body’s nerves sent messages to the brain of being on fire. Tyrone suffered  many fractured bones along with second degree burns on his arms and legs.

   He had to think about breathing and the need to. Baby steps. Tyrone told his brain it was time to walk. Yet he couldn’t. Paralysis? No. He was literally trapped and feeling claustrophobic.

   For the first time since the crash he heard a noise. A zipper was working. A line of light got bigger, longer. A refreshing current of air entered the bag nearly depleted of its oxygen supply.    

                                     —

    Heat lightning bolted across the sooty black night sky. No clouds were burdened with a load of water needing to be let out; they merely floated around like moving screens for the lightning to reflect off of.

   Esther’s piece had already been taken off the chessboard. Azriel felt like a king nearly trapped in a checkmate. The security forces not tasked with taking Esther to the brig stayed behind to intimidate Azriel with their guns and brawn. Thankfully the muzzles weren’t aimed at anything living.

   The head of the Kidon branch used a belittling tone and repeated, “Son?”

   When Azriel still didn’t answer for himself, even after the second invitation to explain his actions, he could tell it irritated “dad” to no end.

   Ephraim Markov sat where Esther once was. He said nothing, instead, only rotated a ring on his right hand. In between revolutions of the diamond-shaped signet the diabolical man premeditated what he would say. It didn’t take long for the tongue to loose itself.

   “Who am I?”

   “Sir?”

   “Say it!”

   Azriel’s took a breath. “Who am I?” he said as told.

    “You are a Junior Cadet at Masada. But you’re my son first.”

    Wow, he really says it like he believes it , Azriel thought as he listened.

   In an ironic twist, Malach Kemper (Ephraim Markov) believed his own lies more than Azriel did the ones surgically programmed into his mind.

   For once the young man had someone else to thank for helping him to see something. The self confident, independent soul rarely depended on anyone for discernment or a second opinion.  Blame it on the female pheromones…something Esther gave off reminded Azriel he had another life.

   The deception in his head confused him with messages that seemed hardly logical (ala Esther being his sister). She couldn’t possibly be blood. The chemistry he had with her was stronger than anything in a test tube from a lab.

   Azriel may have been young in any other culture, but in Israel at fourteen you  were considered to be a man. The way he thought and some of the things he could see himself doing hardly came from a boy’s mind.

   “You’ve been thinking again,” Ephraim pontificated. “What have I told you about that?”

   Resentment for Ephraim’s authority bounced from a six to an eight tonight. This man very likely wasn’t who he said he was. An imposter. Esther had told him before the security forces dragged her away that Azriel was different. That would make sense.  

   The gentler facade Ephraim wore around his son slowly stripped away to reveal a dark maleficent grim reaper. “At some point you have to nod your head, grunt, fart…anything. Are you hearing me?!”

   “Yes.”

   “No more midnight rooftop meditation sessions then?”

   Azriel found humor in this question even though he knew it required a serious answer. He also found it easy to lie in this instance.

   “Yes.”

   A wicked smirk shone through Ephraim’s features at Azriel.

   “You and I aren’t done here.”

   For the first time a real clap of thunder sounded. The timing of the boom juxtaposed with the juncture in the confrontation on the rooftop sent a chill down Azriel’s spine. Brilliant white zigzagging lightning illuminated Ephraim and his henchman as they left to go.

   The pretend dad wished his son a good night and pleasant dreams. Azriel may have just imagined it, but he could’ve sworn he heard an evil laugh before Ephraim and the other two men stepped off.

                                  --

   There was no conceivable way even a Viper agent knew where the backdoor was into a very secure Scorpion blacksite. Such sensitive information couldn’t be found in public records or redacted declassified white papers even. Only the insiders knew.

   Scorpion’s sitting director-general’s ex-secretary, Heather, learned many close-to-the-vest secrets. Things people openly talked about as conspiracy theories on the internet? She once lived in them on a day to day basis. That’s why any knowledge she possessed had to be locked up in a jail cell in the Ozarks. Or forever silenced by a lethal injection.

   Someone of her caliper from the underworld organization turned to the other side (the Free Republic of North America) could potentially yield deadly consequences to Scorpion’s worldwide regime; which is why it shocked Heather how her employer failed to tie off a loose end like her, especially since they purposefully framed her for aiding and abetting the “enemy” who assassinated the last director-general to ultimately make room for Howard to occupy the highest office.

   There had to be another agenda at play other than a promotion at Heather’s expense. The multi-faceted endgame strategies of the dark side would confuse the world’s smartest artificial intelligence even.

   

   In the meantime Heather and everyone with her ran free through the secret tunnel that technically didn’t exist. No one pursued the escapees. It didn’t all add up. Things that weren’t readily apparent before were about to be however.

                                       

                                      …

A little earlier

   “What seems off about this room?”

   Heather meant the question to be left for Josh, the confused Viper agent who still thought he could lead the expedition. But Damion answered instead. He couldn’t help himself. He still had a thing for the beautiful British woman, even in the midst of a tense quagmire.

   “The interior decorating. It’s held captive by the early 2000s,” said Damion.

   Christophe appreciated the jail-themed personification his friend used.

   Heather however doomed her not-so-secret admirer’s efforts by blowing him off; instead she helped the Viper agent prioritize what to look for in the room.

   “The pyramid in the wall over there?”

   “It seems to be missing something…” Josh demurred as he traced the imaginary line her pointing finger made directly across the head of the table to the incomplete shape situated above a four-foot high wooden buildout in the wall. In its hollow cavity on many shelves were black manuals bearing the resemblance and thickness of timeless literary tomes butted up against blue three ring binders that cracked at the edges from being fed too much paper. Gray dust blanketed all the manuscripts which nearly filled up all the cubby holes in the feature wall.

   Heather deliberately ate up the distance between her and the unfinished symbol above the bookcase. Her right hand verily climbed the levels until it landed on the uppermost reaches, a mere twenty-four inches from the pyramid under construction. She was close to the final building material it needed to finish its zenith. What she sought dwelt within a false bottom of a book.

   She noticed many  titles in league with a square and compass trademark stamped onto the spines of their volumes. The library in front of her for this reason transported her back to a masonic lodge memory she vicariously experienced  through an anecdotal told by a male friend at Scorpion’s Central Command.

   All of the underworld agency’s major controllers, especially those who worked at Central Command itself were required to be thirty-third degree masons, the highest honor in masonry. Money didn’t buy the degree for all who owned it. From initiation in a blue lodge and onward through the rite of passage…this elect upper crust citizenry of Scorpion were not only de facto freemasons but more importantly vested partakers in a vision of one world government.

   

   Of all the sacred texts she could’ve pulled off the shelf a Bible left the bookcase firmly in her grasp. It fell open to Daniel 7 almost by a ghostly hand’s will. Two words in verse eleven differentiated themselves from the sea of monochromatic typeface they were surrounded by. To Heather’s eyes [_“fourth beast” _] glowed like a lively fire.

   Her transfixation soon died down though.

   “Fourth beast,” she said out loud.

   Everyone  packed it in close in a huddle—Heather being the playcaller. Even Josh deferred to her now.

   The biblical reference to the New Babylon Heather uttered did one of two things: spook all the humans within earshot and physically unlock the secret compartment in the Bible. The Old Testament half of the book contained an apex which looked to belong to an unfinished pyramid. The Eye of Providence that dwelt in the pyramid’s top section literally winked at Heather who fingered the relic from the hollowed out section of the Bible.

   No telling how long it had been there.

   The ancient triangle’s terra cotta cast possessed a heart of alloy, giving it a heft greater than one would estimate. Its fragility wasn’t any less diminished though even with a strong core because the edges began to shed bitty earthen flakes in Heather’s open palm.      

   The pictorial representation of the all-seeing eye of God with rays of glory depicted all around it actually emanated an ethereal projection that could be discerned within the visible spectrum of light without any aids.

   Heather was involuntarily forced to squint when she held it up. Her fingers suddenly bent backwards against the strain. She had to let it go. The incomplete pyramid on the wall received its all-seeing topper in a magnetic embrace.

   The three-sided union took a nanosecond to initiate. A golden band of splendor traveled up and down and around the outer edges of the pyramid a total of three times. The blonde streak of dazzling photons went faster with each successive pass of their starting point from the bottom right corner. After the third lap the brightness factor exceeded the pain of looking directly into the sun.

   One more passphrase was needed to have access granted to the tunnels.

   By some dark magic a banner curled into a half circle underneath the pyramid. It was a blank parchment needing a script.

   Heather held up a finger with a composed expression on her face. Her eyes were closed.

    “Novus ordo seclorum,”  she spoke confidently.

   “The dollar bill,” Christophe murmured to a confused Damion. The scientist knew about the Latin phrase and its meaning; many people did, but few took its message seriously until the bill went out of print.

   

   Fresh calligraphy wrote itself onto the pyramid’s streamer as Heather verbalized the passphrase. The all-seeing eye then darkened as it transmuted back into a lifeless relic.

   Everything seemed to go back to normal like nothing happened.

   Josh cleared his throat. “Was there something else?”

   Heather stood her ground, not moving an inch. Her patience received its reward after all. Three clicks echoed from an underground subfloor. A low rumble sounded like the beginning to an earthquake. The ground shifted, causing anyone not already in a crouch to totter.

   The earth-moving event revealed to the group that one, the furniture was bolted to the floor. Second, Scorpion had an affinity for elaborate hidden passageways.

   When the conference room’s floor sea-sawed to a forty-five degree angle. All five bodies slid down on their backsides a good ways.

    The team glided with ease along a pitched, polished cement floor. The slope navigated the travellers far beneath the Ozarks installation. Before anyone had the chance to get a friction burn the downgrade gently trimmed into a flat plane.

   Josh was the quickest one to get vertical. His innate impulses triggered him into helping Esmeralda up off her back. This chivalry unfortunately stimulated an altogether unmutual feeling between the pair. The CoverGirl model looked ready to pick up where she had left off in Josh’s flying car with her unwanted sexual advances. Josh simply wished to be a gentleman. Anything different would have been less than how he knew to act.

   While the Viper agent brought his mother to her feet Damion operated on his own agenda. Heather. In his twitterpated bewitched state he only thought about making a moment with her; even if they got recaptured. What did he care? Besides, the Free Republic of North America needed him bad enough they wouldn’t be stymied by one strike at a rescue.

   Damion’s attention somehow alternated from Heather’s beauty towards the live images of Josh bringing his mom to her feet. He unmistakably perceived in that example how the Viper agent separated duty from feelings. After witnessing that snapshot of a professional in action Damion decided that this guy wouldn’t let the group down. Josh really would be their rescuer.

                                    --

Chapter 14

    [_“How else did you think it would end?” _]

   ….Seth’s own fateful words before the two vehicles made impact. [_ _]

[_   _] That pretty much was his last memory before his forehead cracked against the steering wheel. The natural gas explosion that tore through the building shortly after the limo penetrated it actually lifted the long vehicle off the floor two feet before it landed on its never-flat tires somewhere in what used to be the kitchen of an eatery.

   Moments later Seth popped one bloody eyelid open. Surprisingly the A-pillars remained intact. The windshield however spiderwebbed because a steel floor joist had fallen and stabbed right through it. Seth shuddered. He turned his hurting neck to the left to see how close he had come to impalement.

   A barbecued, twisted beam spanned past the driver’s compartment down the middle section of the stretch limo and out the back. It hung, suspended in air…held in place by the windshield and rear window.

   Too close.

   Everywhere he could see, from his trapped point of view in the badly damaged state vehicle, there were fires.

   Seth wondered if where he now sat was his mind’s illusion of the past events which happened after he lost consciousness. The flames were very real though. The acute temperature in the car’s interior made his skin tingle. Seth sweated profusely. The only benefit he could see to being pinned down inside a sweat box was it protected his lungs from the choking acrid smoke on the outside.

   He definitely hadn’t woken up in the literal place called Hell. But it indeed was another kind of hell altogether.

   The first-responders were getting closer.

   Through the thick bullet-proof vehicle Seth laid in he could start to hear shrill sirens honing in on ground zero of the blast. He didn’t have long until firemen would hose down the place. More worrisome than the fire being put out though was the police. They would be there to apprehend the terrorist who dared crash the interior minister’s limo through a building. With her in it.

   He had to escape once more.

   The journey that took him through the U-bahn tunnels up until the fiery present wouldn’t end in cuffs. Seth may have been banged up, broken, left for dead. But the mission, no matter how wrong it had gone, _could _ be redeemed still.

   Seth could put a check in the box for their plot to masquerade as Spanish terrorists on a vendetta against the German government. What he didn’t know was whether or not the crash had killed German interior minister Sofia Keller. She no longer pointed a gun at him, the car wreck accomplished that much.

   Seth knew if Keller hadn’t died already that he would have to finish her. The authorities examining the scene with the mindset that this was the work of terrorists would immediately change their professional opinion on what kind of investigation it’d become if Keller was found alive still.

   Almost a full NBA shot clock had ticked down to zero since Seth regained consciousness. In those twenty-four thousand milliseconds he learned how hot the inside of a vehicle could get after a natural gas explosion and the ensuing burnoff fires, his shoulders hadn’t lost their head, and…Seth struggled mightily to tilt forward so his spine could rotate, enabling the neck to pivot…Sofia Keller hadn’t been seat-belted in.

   Seth stared at the small woman who looked to be in worse form than the body of her own limo.

   Yet, she lived.  

   The Mossad agent knew what dead people looked like. Working for years as a mobile asset for Israel with the job functions of judge, jury, executioner? He learned to walk the earth more as a grim reaper than an equitable member of the land of the living.

   All his targets had their judgement day coming to them. Sofia Keller might as well have been dead already.

                                        --

   

     

 

   Tonight she had risked it all. Two years of being in the junior cadet program with only  one more season left until graduation. The two deserving medals for being a quick study and consistent performer on the sim circuit would be stripped from her shoulders and given to another.

   Esther trudged along between two mercenaries on a premeditated lackadaisical walk of shame to the brig. Nearly halfway there she tugged hard, intent on loosening her right wrist from one of the guard’s vice grips. Sadly she earned a hard elbow in the ribs for her impotence.

   The detainee heaved to her left side and gasped.

   Ensuing the blow, her words, “I demand to see my mother!” were forced out from lungs burning for oxygen.  

   The emotions pity and sympathy which Esther hoped to find in an understanding and perhaps irate mom certainly wouldn’t be exhibited by her captors. They shook her out like a wrinkled piece of clothing in a straightjacket hold. Any wiggle room from before got ironed out.

   Esther’s body shuddered into submission. Her arms were held in place, crisscrossed close to her chest. The junior cadet’s breathing became progressively irregular and shallow due to the panic and stress of the untenable mediation.

   

   Roll call for junior cadets didn’t happen for another few hours. Not before the sun came up anyways. Yet all of Esther’s peers were standing in attention against either side of the corridor which led to the dungeon of Masada.

   Mandatory humiliation. Malach Kemper without question had ordered them to assemble.

   The whole ordeal seemed eerily controlled. Orchestrated. It was as if the whole event was planned to break her before she even broke the rules to slip top secret information to Azriel.

   How could Malach Kemper, director of the Kidon division at Mossad, have known her business before it even took place?

    Spies spying on spies . That’s what this was about. Nothing was against it in the rulebook because in truth the agency had a built-in provision which allowed for internal surveillance based on probable cause.

   

   When the association of Malach Kemper to the night’s outcome had been inseparably linked in her collective thoughts, Esther’s brainwork engaged on the antagonistic faces of the cadets who were woken from their sleep to see her trial.

   The only empathy she got was from her roommate whose round eyes, drooping chin and raised forehead skin displayed a certain numbness upon seeing Esther betwixt men in full gear. Even Esther’s not-so-secret admirer failed to show any displeasure at the proceedings.

   Finally there her mom was. Not necessarily late to the party, but strangely on the wrong end of things. Esther could metaphorically see herself moving through a rather orderly Mossad mob to the firing squad down the line.

    [_Why?….Stacy?….Have I been living a lie just like Azriel? _]

   The nightmare became more real than the time she spent awake.

   The cylindrical instrument she had seen Stacy use to incapacitate Azriel only a short while ago now came out to play with her life. Esther’s memories flashed before her eyes the nanosecond her surrogate mother’s painted nail depressed the button of no return.

    [_                                   _]

[_                              To be continued _]

   

     

       

     

   

   

       

   

 

   

 

 

   

   

   

   

   

   

     

         

     

         

     

   

   

     

     

 

   

 

   

   

   

 

         

   

   

   

   

   

       

   

     

 

 

   

       

   

     

   

   

   

     

   

   

                 

   

       

   

   

     

     

 

   

   

 

   

     

         

   

   

       

       

   

   

   

     

     

       

   

   

   

         

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

 

         

   

   

       

   

   

   

   

   

   

 

     

   

       

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

     

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

     

         

   

   

     

   

   

   

   

       

     

     

   

   

   

     

 

   

   

     

             

   

 

   

     

   

   

   

   

   

   

     

   

   

   

     

   

   

     

     

   

   

   

 

   

 

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

     

   

   

   


The Prognostication

In 2036 Azriel Markov's life changes forever. His Uncle Ephraim takes the boy under his wing and sends him off to school. Meanwhile Azriel is under close surveillance there. Eventually he's literally taken against his own will to Israel's central intelligence agency, Mossad, upon his uncle's request. At Mossad the fourteen year old Israeli teenager has his memories reversed by a surgery with an end goal of turning him against his own biological father who happens to be a veteran agency operative. While the plotting Uncle Ephraim wreaks havoc against the Markov family in Israel, Azriel's father Seth is on the mission of his life in Berlin. Before everything in Berlin takes place he teams up with a frequent mission buddy of his along with the man who originally recruited him into Mossad ten years prior. It all goes down to the wire in this continuation of the Before the End Series. Lives are lost, new enemies discovered...allegiances betrayed: The Prognostication.

  • Author: davidberko
  • Published: 2016-08-24 23:50:20
  • Words: 37542
The Prognostication The Prognostication