“You sure you’re up for this, boss?” The worry lines on the driver’s normally placid face reflected his mounting concern.
“I’ll be fine, Jimmy. If I could make it to the Moon and back, I can make it to the fourth floor with a damned elevator.”
Few students stopped to watch the old man step out of the limo. Of course they might have paid more attention if they’d known who he was. Major Frank Buchanan’s face had been plastered on cereal boxes as well as on every TV set on the planet. He reached into his pocket for a pain pill and swallowed it without water and then leaned heavily on his cane as he walked slowly into the Physics building and found the elevator.
His knock was answered immediately by a middle-aged man who looked much more comfortable surrounded by books than in any of the places Buchanan had been stationed. He directed the former astronaut to a couple of chairs that had been placed across a small table and then carefully locked the door before sitting down across from him.
“So, it’s true? They lied all those years and called me every name in the book and I was right after all.”
Buchanan’s craggy face broke into a small smile. “Yeah, you almost fucked up everything. I’m surprised someone hasn’t taken you out by now.”
“I was sorry to hear about your…condition.”
“You ought to be happy. I probably wouldn’t be here if I had months left and not days. It’s hard to believe I’m one of the last ones still alive who left this planet and returned in one piece. Maybe I’ve been around too long.”
“Have you brought any documents with you? I am particularly interested in the memos and that report you mentioned.”
Buchanan reached into a coat pocket and pulled out a thick envelope. “If I were you, I’d make copies of this stuff and then hide them where they’ll be safe. I’m not joking when I say people have died for knowing just a fraction of what’s here.”
The professor’s hand shook as he took the envelope. He stared at it for a couple of minutes without speaking and then reached for a video camera that was on a bookshelf. “You said you wanted me to record what you have to say?”
Buchanan nodded. “Nobody’s going to believe you no matter how great a reputation you might have. You’ll need a video to prove you didn’t cook up this story on your own. Even with the video, I’m sure NASA is going to say that I was on meds and hallucinating and not in my right mind.”
“I agree. That’s why I asked you for copies of some of the internal memos as well as some of the photos that showed up missing when I put through that Freedom of Information request.”
“I’ve given you enough ammunition here to make some of those hotshots shit bricks. Promise me you’ll be careful. You can’t trust anyone. I’m convinced a couple of my buddies were fed up and ready to talk, and that’s why they’re dead.”
Professor Aaron Starling pressed the record button on his video camera as the former astronaut began to speak.
“It started long before we went into space. I know you’ve heard about the flying saucer that crashed in Roswell, but let me tell you how that led to the formation of a group known as Majestic-12 and how they’ve managed to keep a lid on everything. I’m not proud of the fact that my fellow astronauts and I let them muzzle us. You worry about your family and your reputation when you’re young. I’m too old now to worry about those things. I outlived my only child, and I don’t have much time left myself.”
Buchanan felt his strength waning, but he forced himself to go on as long as he could. He popped another pain pill and grunted his appreciation when the professor helped him up. He saw now that he hadn’t noticed that the office’s walls were covered with star charts including a large poster that read WE ARE NOT ALONE. He smiled and nodded before staggering toward the elevator. He knew he’d be sick that night, but he always completed his missions. He noticed Jimmy talking on his cell phone. When the driver spotted him, he quickly hung up and headed in his direction to give him a hand.
On the way home Buchanan looked at Jimmy’s taut face. “Is everything alright? Did you have a fight with your girl friend?”
Jimmy bit his lip before replying. “Nah, I just found out that my landlord’s going to raise my rent.”
“Can I give you some dough to tide you over? I’m sure the good ole USA isn’t paying you that much to drive an old man to his doctor appointments.”
“I’ll be okay. It’s been a real honor driving you, sir.”
“I’m not dead yet,” Buchanan reminded him.
“Not yet,” the driver muttered to himself while keeping a smile on his face.
The bearded man with his head covered in the traditional manner smiled and waved a greeting as he drew closer to the SEAL team. Jack recognized him and started to relax, but then he saw a dark shadow radiating from the figure and realized what was about to happen. He shouted for his men to move back and began firing his weapon just as the suicide bomber’s belt crammed with explosives blew up. All was quiet then except for the sounds of the dying and wounded until the whining sound of a siren grew louder. Only then did Jack become aware of the sharp pain in his hip and the fact that he lay face down on the dusty Afghanistan street.
Jack Starling’s broad chest glistened with sweat as he forced himself awake. He shook his head like a dog shaking off water after a swim. The SEAL recruiting poster on the wall reassured him this was his room and not the Valley of Death or even the hospital in Kabul. He slowed his heart rate by meditating until he felt himself gain control, and then he picked up the pad of paper and pen on his nightstand and dutifully recorded the nightmare beside the date. Doctor Wilson always asked for his log before giving him a prescription to refill the pills that occupied a prominent place on his kitchen counter. He ignored the jackhammer in his head and lay facedown on the floor.
Jack counted out his one hundred pushups and three hundred sit-ups. He added some clapping pushups until his body finally felt loosened up. The full force of the hot water messaging his scalp while he showered finally eased his headache. He dutifully took his Paxil along with a couple of Aspirin and studied himself in the mirror. He wondered what Mom and Dad thought when they saw him. Definitely not a chip off the old block, that’s for sure. He looked about as much like them as a Rottweiler resembled a Chihuahua. Tony, his SEAL team leader, called him Ivan Drago after the heavily muscled blond Russian boxer in Rocky IV because he knew Jack hated that comparison. Okay, he admitted that he looked like the chiseled actor who played Drago, but he wasn’t a damned Russian. A SEAL shouldn’t have to prove that he’s an American through and through to anyone. After what he went through over there, he didn’t owe civilians anything; in fact, at the very least they owed him a fair shot at a job. He glanced at the suit he’d worn to yesterday’s interview. It now lay lifeless on the floor where he’d stripped it off the minute he came home. How many times do I have to listen to bloodless wimps tell me I’m not quite right for a job or even worse, overqualified because of my leadership experience? He remembered now what that pompous overweight asshole had said while looking over his resume. “We don’t need trained killers to manage our Navy contracts.”
He hadn’t had much of an appetite in months, so he contented himself with finishing the remaining coffee in the pot and then taking out his lighter and lighting a cigarette. Breakfast of champions, he thought and smiled as his eyes caught the triton image on the lighter. He considered that his good luck charm. How else could anyone explain how he survived the traitor’s attack?
Even though Jack now received a monthly disability check, he spent most of his time job-hunting by knocking on the doors of San Diego contractors who did business with the Navy. Today would be different, though. He put on a fresh shirt and jeans and picked up the scrap of paper containing the address of the coffee shop where Pete Moon wanted to meet him. The bright midmorning sunlight surprised him until he realized that he’d lost several hours because he’d finally fallen back asleep after turning off his alarm. He studied his apartment’s parking lot and looked for passengers seated inside cars before stepping away from the door. That’s one lesson Afghanistan had taught him.
The Starbucks off Governor and the 805 was empty except for several student squatters who occupied tables within power cord distance of the few electrical outlets. Apple laptops or iPads and oversized coffee cups filled their small tabletops. He wondered if he had looked that clueless as a college student. His eyes passed over a man sitting with his back against a wall, and then they returned and studied him before he decided that must be Pete. The men of SEAL Team Five were like brothers until the day their world exploded, yet Jack barely recognized him. Although he couldn’t be a day over twenty-five, Moon’s salt and pepper colored hair now displayed far more salt than pepper. The dark circles under his eyes and the way they flitted left to right and back again made him look like a cornered raccoon. Jack noticed a much darker than usual red glow around his friend as he rose and they embraced. Their hug lasted long enough that some people turned and stared until they self-consciously took their seats.
“I should have visited you in the hospital. I meant to do it,” Moon said.
“Forget it. You were there when it counted.”
“Is anyone from our unit still over there?”
Jack shook his head. “I heard they even forced Dixon out. I always figured him for a lifer.”
“I know you’ve got your own problems, but I have to talk to someone.”
Moon spoke with far more hoarseness than Jack remembered. He didn’t respond immediately but watched as Moon wiped the perspiration from his forehead with a frayed handkerchief even though the room’s air conditioning had caused some of the students to don sweaters.
“Time is one thing I have plenty of right now. No one wants to hire me.”
“Give me a break. You came out on top at your father’s college. You’ll find something. I’m hoping with all your smarts, you’ll know what I should do.”
“What’s all the mystery? You wouldn’t tell me anything over the phone.”
He suddenly rose from his chair. “Just a second. I’ll be right back.”
He brushed past Jack and hurried out the door. He thrust one hand in his pants pocket and kept it there while he did a slow one hundred-eighty-degree turn and studied everyone he saw. Apparently satisfied, he returned and took his seat.
“Are you expecting someone?”
“No, I’m just making sure we’re alone. Remember how you always warned everyone about Ahmed? You did that eye squinting thing and saw a black cloud around him.”
“Yeah, I remember. A lot of good that did.”
“None of us blame you. Look around and tell me if you see anything unusual, one of those bad colors you used to look for when you questioned the ragheads.”
Jack surveyed everyone in the room and then shook his head. “Everyone’s cool. You were the only one who believed me about the color thing.”
Moon shrugged. “That’s because you never fingered the wrong guy. What I’m going to tell you sounds like some kind of science fiction movie. I just want you to hear me out. I’m cold sober. I haven’t had a drink in weeks.”
“Now you’re starting to scare me.”
Moon’s jaw tightened. “You damned well should be scared. Do you remember Anderson? He left about a year before all the shit hit the fan.”
“Sure, he always led us with a stick up his ass and insisted on following every rule in the book, but at least you could depend on him to do his job. He would have been okay if he didn’t kiss up to Tony every chance he got.”
“I ran into him right after the brass ran us out. He knew all about it, but it didn’t bother him none that we wouldn’t turn on you. He offered me a job.”
“So? That’s good, right?”
“I thought so. He worked for a contractor that some government agency hired to do top-secret security work, and I had the clearance. It seemed like pretty easy money for the work, so I took it.”
Jack let his breath out slowly. “Okay.”
“Just let me tell it my way even if it takes a while. We were assigned to a unit stationed in New Mexico near the border with Colorado.”
“Not much there. I’m guessing your job was to keep tourists away from an airbase.”
Moon smiled for the first time. “That’s what I figured, but it didn’t work out that way. You ever heard of a secret base in New Mexico?”
Jack shook his head
“What I’m going to tell you is above top-secret. Our government’s been lying to us for over fifty years. It’s working with aliens who are conducting experiments on us.”
“Oh come on! I don’t know what you’ve been drinking or snorting, but that’s just bullshit. You’ve seen too many X Files reruns.”
Jack started to stand, but Moon grabbed his arm and pulled him back into his seat. His hand shook.
“Just hear me out and then you can decide whether or not to help me. You owe me that.”
Jack glanced at his watch and then shrugged. “We’ll do it your way. I’ve got an appointment with my shrink in a couple of hours, so I don’t have all day. Let’s hear it.”
Moon studied Jack before continuing. “I’m part of this unit, mostly ex-SEALs and Rangers, so I’m feeling pretty good that we can handle anything, you understand?”
“We fly into this small airfield, and everywhere I look I see guards locked and loaded. Our leader takes us to the side of the mountain where there’s a huge elevator big enough to hold a truck. We go down for a long time, so long that I’m thinking maybe it was broken and we are going to crash. Jesus, I’m thinking, this damned thing might never stop. When it finally does stop, we see soldiers wearing uniforms that I don’t recognize. These guys are huge, and they’re built like you except with dark hair and brown eyes.”
Jack sighed again. He looked at his watch, but Moon continued his story at the same pace.
“Suddenly I’m on my own because I make a wrong turn. That doesn’t bother me none. I figure I’d take a shortcut and catch up before anyone notices. The passageways down there aren’t marked. I look through a window and I see a room with a woman inside. She has tubes running out of her mouth, and it looks like she’s sleeping. That’s when I see them.”
“You’re going to tell me you saw aliens, right?”
“I turn the corner and I see the biggest, ugliest thing I’ve ever seen. It sees me and presses something on its belt, and suddenly it looks like one of us.”
“Maybe you just imagined it.”
“I act on instinct and start shooting. Suddenly it’s a freaking monster again and bleeding green goop. Two others that look like soldiers wearing the same type of uniform turn the corner and begin firing at me. I hit the ground and roll around the corner and we have ourselves a firefight. The rest of my guys find me, and all hell breaks loose. With all the shooting, my guys begin to see dead aliens, and that freaks them out.”
“They saw the monsters too?”
“Yeah. Anderson himself shows up a few minutes later and tells us to retreat. We make it back to the elevator and out of the tunnel. Meanwhile he tells us not to say a word. He says we really didn’t see anything.”
“I’ve heard that one before.”
“Yeah, but this time the brass put us in separate rooms and questioned us for hours. This doctor told us that we were victims of hallucinations caused by an experimental biochemical weapon. He said that they would have to reassign all of us since we’re now susceptible. Then this guy wearing a black suit and smelling like he’s CIA came into our room. He stared at us like we were lower than shit and said that the weapon is top secret, and the good ole USA would lock us up and throw away the key if we say anything.”
“But you knew you saw something?”
“Yeah. On the way back home I got this vibe that something’s not right. You know the feeling. Anderson went from being all buddy-buddy on the way there to avoiding me and not looking me on the way home. I went to my apartment, but I couldn’t shake the feeling. So I waited until dark and then I climbed out my back window and checked into a dump of a motel where I could pay cash with no questions asked. The next morning I turned on the news and found out that my apartment was gone, blown higher than a kite. The reporter said I must have left the gas on, and that’s what caused the explosion. You know me well enough to know that I never use the oven. If you can’t fry it or nuke it, you don’t want to eat it.”
“And you know it’s too much of a coincidence, right?”
“I know they’re after me. I need a place I can stay for a little while until I figure things out.”
Jack glanced at his watch. “Sure, stay with me. It’s not much of a place, but you should be safe. There’s still plenty of time for me to run you over there now. You can relax, maybe take a shower, while I go visit my shrink.”
The two men left the Starbucks and drove toward the freeway ramp. Neither noticed when a black sedan left the parking lot and then began skillfully following several car lengths behind. Chapter 3
Pete sat in the front passenger seat and periodically checked his side mirror. He tracked one car in particular, but then let out a sigh of relief when it exited the freeway. He answered Jack’s questions while his eyes never left the mirror.
“I’m traveling light. I won’t be with you very long. I just need a day or two, and then I’ll move on.”
“Do you need any cash?”
“Thanks, but I cleared out all my accounts yesterday. I’m not taking any credit cards with me either.”
“Too easy to trace me. I’ll probably take a bus.”
“Where are you going?”
“It’s better if you don’t know. I just need to keep my head down low for a while until they forget about me. I wish I could get over my nightmares.”
“You’re not the only one with nightmares.”
Pete entered cautiously when Jack unlocked the door to his apartment. He thrust one hand in his pocket and then walked slowly through the living room and into the kitchen. He entered each room much the way the two of them moved through houses in Kandahar Province. He took his hand out of his pocket and started to relax only after examining every room thoroughly. Jack left him with the promise that he’d be back in a couple of hours.
The VA Hospital referred most of Doctor Felicity Wilson’s patients. Jack studied the other people in the waiting room but thankfully he didn’t recognize anyone. Even though he looked normal, he knew he wasn’t right inside. All the patients in the waiting room were defective products the Navy sent back for repair. Unlike other Navy equipment though, the shrinks couldn’t fix him by simply tightening a screw or replacing a battery.
Doctor Wilson brushed the red bangs out of her eyes and asked her usual questions. Nightmares? Headaches? Panic attacks whenever anything seemed out of the ordinary? Jack gave his usual responses while observing that she never hurried him and seemed to hang on every word he said.
“I’d like you to try to take some of the visualization exercises we’ve been practicing a step further now. Just before you go to sleep, think hard about how you could change the nightmare to give it a better ending. It’s not easy, but it will help you move past this bump in the road that’s keeping you from recovering.”
“Better ending? Don’t you think I’ve thought about that? If I ignored Tony’s orders and blew away Ahmed the day before he attacked us, I would have saved two members of my team; unfortunately, the Navy would have convicted me of murder; you’d have one less patient, and we wouldn’t be having this conversation now.”
“What about well before the attack? Isn’t there anything else you could have said to convince Lieutenant Franklin to listen to you and not to Tony?”
“Based on what? If I told him that I disobeyed direct orders because someone projected the wrong colors in his aura, he would have locked me up in the loony bin long before Ahmed blew himself up.”
“We’re not going to have the conversation about colors and auras again. I don’t believe in that stuff or in astrology.” Jack detected an unusual note of exasperation because usually she had a lot of patience with him.
“I can’t help what I see. By the way, you’re pink, just in case you’re wondering.”
“I’m going to assume pink is good. As far as your visualization, just use your imagination. Let’s say that you found proof that Ahmed was a double agent and showed the proof to Lieutenant Franklin.”
Jack shook his head slowly. “You’ve never been in the service. Part of the SEALS’ code that we live by is that we never go over a superior’s head. I did that. I did it for the right reasons, but I did it.”
“But you were right, and your commanding officer was wrong.”
“Not if you read the official report. Franklin and my team leader closed ranks and covered themselves. It was my word against theirs.”
“What about your men?”
“What about them?”
“Didn’t they back you up?”
“Sure, that’s why they’re all civilians again. I appreciate everything you’re trying to do for me, but I’ve thought about nothing else but this for months now. I can’t think of anything I could have done differently. I know I did the right thing.”
“You mean when the attack came?”
“Yeah, then and before.”
“But you blacked out.”
“I saw the results when I snapped out of it. My team told me what I did, and I believe them and not the brass.”
“You must have done something right. They awarded you all those medals.”
“Didn’t you ever hear of ‘blood money’? Every time I look at those worthless pieces of metal I think of how different things would be if someone believed me before the traitor decided to pull the pin.”
Doctor Wilson continued probing him while writing notes as he answered. Finally she glanced at her watch and sighed.
“We’ll have to pick this up again at our next session. I’ll call in a refill to your pharmacy. Just try some of those visualization exercises and use your imagination. You’re a good man, Jack. You need to stop beating yourself up. Eventually, you’ll realize you have nothing to feel guilty about.”
She rose and shook his hand before pulling him closer and gently patting his back a couple of times before releasing him. Doctor Wilson had to be close to his mother’s age, but no one ever accused Marjorie Starling of being nurturing. Jack started for the door and stopped when he noticed a framed photo of a man wearing an Army uniform. He studied it and then saw the resemblance to his psychologist.
He waited, but Doctor Wilson didn’t speak although he did notice her eyes glisten. He turned and left, closing the door softly behind him.
Jack thought of Doctor Wilson on his drive home. She called him at home after one traumatic session to ask if he were feeling better. No other physician had ever done that. He’d give her suggestions a try even though he knew they wouldn’t work. Pete, Ricky, Bill and all the others were alive, and that’s what counted. He’d just have to live with what happened to Hank and Joe. He saw their images in his dreams every night.
When he thought about Pete, he remembered their conversation that morning. Nothing ever shook up that little guy because he never worried about things the way most people did. He never read a newspaper or a book, and certainly not any science fiction. In fact, for a minute Jack wondered if his friend could even read. Once Pete confided that he’d joined the service so he could finally have a decent pair of shoes and a winter coat. He’d downed the Navy chow like he was in a gourmet restaurant. He never spoke about government conspiracies, black helicopters, or expressed views on anything related to politics. He just did his job until something scared him bad enough to push him over the edge. Maybe the military really did invent some kind of biological weapon. That made a lot more sense than anything Pete said, Jack thought as he drove home.
Pete had stood up for him at the hearing, and now he would help his buddy any way he could. Maybe Doctor Wilson could treat him, Jack mused as he parked in his usual spot in front of his apartment. He pulled out his key as he reached the door and decided to make some noise so that he wouldn’t startle his friend. Pete was probably armed and jumpy enough to take a shot at him if he surprised him. He turned the key back and forth several times before opening the door.
No one answered, and he saw that his coffee table had been tipped over. Jack stood stock still for a few moments and listened very intently. He heard someone’s TV blasting a commercial for Geico Insurance but otherwise nothing but silence. He had learned to rely on his ears when searching homes in Afghanistan, so he stopped occasionally to listen as he headed toward his bedroom. His heart pounded when he saw his sheets on the floor and a red stain on the wall near his light switch. The small table near his bed now lay shoved against the closet door. He moved cautiously, checking the bathroom and then the kitchen, but those rooms looked undisturbed except for a damp towel hanging over the shower door.
Jack went back into the bedroom, forced open the sliding closet door that had come off its tracks, and reached all the way to the left until he found his old raincoat that had a tear in the lining on the inner side of one pocket. The tear created a secret compartment inside the lining. He put his hand into one of the deep pockets and then into the lining and pulled out his Sig Sauer along with three extra magazines. He always kept the gun loaded. Jack knew his friend could take care of himself, and he had a sudden thought that chilled him. How many men had it taken to overpower him? Some people must have followed us back to the apartment. Whoever they were, they probably were watching me right now.
Jack double-bolted his door that night. He placed his gun under his pillow, the same way he did on those many nights when he slept in hostile territory.