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Orbfall - The Slate Chronicles - Book 1

By Ted Lambert All Rights Reserved ©

Scifi / Action

Chapter 1

The Kill-Quad seemed to materialize out of the fog pervading the city that night, and took up their positions on the path in front of me. Not a very professional setup, part of my brain sent a flash update. Not good for containment or improvisation. I’d faced four or five of these Quads before, and I’m sure Hamp had as well. We were still breathing, and I fully intended to be breathing when this attack failed. As it most certainly would, even though tonight I was alone.

One of them looked comfortable, like he knew what he was doing. He stood balanced on the balls of his feet, arms relaxed, hands hanging loosely. His eyes shifted quickly between my eyes and my pocketed hands. Smart: eyes often telegraph next moves, and hands are threats. I needed to keep my own eyes on this guy.

To his right was a big teenage kid with a pimply face, mean eyes, and pockmarks all over his cheeks. He had spent some time in the gym, attested to by the way his t-shirt molded itself around his upper body. A three-foot chain swung slowly back and forth in his right hand, his posture aggressive.

Further right still was a thin, hard looking guy, late twenties. He had a pinched face and looked to be wound-up pretty tightly. His hands were hidden in the pockets of an over-large black windbreaker with “Oakland Raiders” stenciled in over the left breast. On the end hulked a black man in a muscle-shirt. He probably owned the gym, or lived there, anyway. I couldn’t recall ever seeing anyone as ripped. His pectoral muscles jumped back and forth, left to right, behind his form-fitting t-shirt.

We stared at each other for a bit, the four of them and me. But mainly the communication was between me and Balance. “We don’t have to do this,” I said, my eyes always on the balanced one. I had a habit of jingling my keys when I’m deep in thought, and I shifted them around a bit now. I carry a big circular key chain with about twenty varieties of keys on it.

“Why you talking at me?” he spat, around a nasty grin.

“You’re the only one that has any idea what you’re dealing with,” I said, somewhat mesmerized by the massive chest twitching happening a couple of guys to his right. Angrily I jerked my attention away. Lapses like that left me angry, and often bruised.

A quick moment of doubt crossed Balance’s face, and was quickly replaced by bravado. I lowered my opinion of him.

“Let’s find out,” he said. “Waste him, Watts.”

Watts, apparently something of a misnomer, was the thin guy in the Raiders windbreaker. He didn't have the gun in firing position in his pocket, my first and only good luck of the night. Setting aside a brief flash of relief that they were not going to come at me four on one, I ripped the keys out of my pocket and snapped them at Watts’s face. As he was struggling to get the large gun out of his windbreaker’s pocket, he didn’t notice until far too late. A shot tore harmlessly out of his pocket into the ground in front of him. He glimpsed my keys coming towards his head, twitched to the side, but not quickly enough. A satisfying, fleshy 'smack' sound, and Watts was rolling on the ground with his hands over his eyes. I hoped I’d scraped or popped one of them - it would give me more time.

For a split second, Balance, Muscle Shirt and Pimple Face all looked befuddled at their fallen comrade, giving me the second or so I needed to shift around to Muscle Shirt’s right side. As a result, we were all temporarily in a straight line. A quick forward move and I caught Muscle Shirt with a solid right to the solar plexus. I gave it about a seven. As he doubled up, I helped his nose meet my knee with a firm push on the back of his neck.

I had to get to the kid with the gun, and fast. That gun would be out of his pocket before much longer.

It’s hard to take a blow on purpose, but I didn’t see another choice.

Balance hadn’t entered the fight yet, but Pimple Face would get to me with that chain before I could get to the cursing Windbreaker, who was still on his back pawing at his eyes. About the best I could do was minimize the damage. As he swung, I jumped. Instead of my head, the chain hit me across the hip, and it hurt like a sonofabitch. Occasionally my back gives me trouble, and when pain radiates down one of your legs, or takes up residence for an hour or so in your balls, you’d rather be anyone else. The chain whip was a sharper pain, and I knew I’d be wearing a tremendous bruise the next day, but I’d survived much worse.

As planned, I drove my leading foot down on Windbreaker’s neck, and it gave a clearly audible crack as it snapped.

Pimply Face heard the crack. Again, he made the mistake of looking down. Two short left hooks, one to the body, one to the chin, and Pimples was out. Punches don’t have to travel far to do a lot of damage.

Breathing hard, I wiped my forehead and rubbed my chain-whipped side.

“Your call,” I said to Balance, who was simply watching. “Shall I put Muscles and Pimples here to sleep, or will they let us dance?”

No answer was forthcoming, so I stepped over to Pimples and placed my foot on his neck.

“No,” he said, and glided toward me. He was, without a doubt, very smooth, and probably very dangerous. A wicked right cross came at me out of nowhere, and quickly.

Expecting something of the sort, I sidestepped, turned with his motion, and pushed him. He didn’t quite fall, but did look surprised that he’d missed.

We circled a bit, each looking for the right engagement point. He threw a pretty crisp right hand lead, which I ducked, and a left cross, which I didn’t. Seeing stars, I let loose with an uppercut that should not have connected, but his momentum carried him right into its path. He sat down hard as his power was momentarily cut. I kicked him in the forehead a couple of times and he was out. This pissed me off, because now I couldn’t talk to him about why he and his squad had tried to hurt me.

A pretty standard Saturday night.

Chapter 2

As my breathing returned to normal, I decided to wait, and not force the police to come to come to my apartment again. That tended to irritate them, which I didn’t need. They occasionally had their uses. It would be a race between Balance waking up and the cops getting here. I tapped Muscles and Pimples again with the butt of my own Glock to make sure they stayed in la-la land, and kept an eye on Balance.

The cops won. The patrolman first on the scene a half hour later must have been a new guy. I didn’t know him. He looked at me, and at the three injured guys and one dead guy around me. He unsnapped his holster, his hand hovering near it at all times. Good, I thought, he was cautious. He’d probably survive on the job a while. I stayed extremely quiet and motionless as he approached, with both hands in plain view in front of me.

Once I had him convinced that things went down as they actually had by describing the fight in complete detail, he visibly relaxed. I continued pointing out the physical evidence that supported my story, like gouges in the ground, flattened grass, and my ever-growing hip bruise. He then did his job and put me through the standard routine, asked that I accompany him to the station for paperwork purposes, which I declined. He got all my personal information, told me to stay in town for the duration of the police investigation of the incident, an investigation that would never happen, as it turns out.

I was probably more curious than he was regarding why I’d been attacked, but it could have been the result of any of my work over the past decade.

Anyway, I’d already waited for him to arrive on scene, my hip was killing me, and my placating sensibilities only went so far. I wanted to soak in a hot bathtub for about an hour. He suggested again that I go to the hospital for my rapidly bruising right cheek, which I declined – I won’t go to a hospital voluntarily for any reason. My brother, a medical profession oddity – psychiatrist and surgeon -- practicing his trade nearly a country away, told me once that hospitals are places people go to die. I’ve never forgotten.

Even South Bay prices were in the stratosphere, to rent or to own. I particularly valued a friend’s influence in getting me the entire second floor of a triplex that cost me only my spleen every month. I was almost perpetually a month behind on rent, and always hungry for paying gigs. If I fight, I want to get paid.

Turns out I was pretty grateful to that cop for the delay and to myself for being so thorough with him in walking him through the evidence. Rounding the corner of my street, still rubbing my hip, and starting to make some connections about what had probably happened in the park, my building blew up.

Well, not the whole building, but certainly the second floor, which was all mine. “Was” is the appropriate word, as it didn’t exist anymore. Debris still rained down. Rage fought to find a way out of me; there was no path, so all I did was sit there and tremble, and mutter a few curses that singed the azaleas my across-the-street neighbor had so lovingly planted a year ago.

OK, not so typical a Saturday night after all.

Chapter 3

Either Hamp’s monolithic snores or the sun through the apartment’s uncovered living room window woke me. I wasn’t sure which, and didn’t much care. I was definitely grumpy. His couch has too many bumps, not enough stuffing, and is about four inches too short for me. I felt like an abused pretzel. A homeless abused pretzel. My hip and jaw hurt.

Making myself a quick omelet from the last three eggs I found in his fridge, I poured a glass of orange juice, made some toast, and sat at his tiny round kitchen table. I was finished, and examining my wounded hip, now showing a glorious rainbow of colors, when the seismic snores ceased. A few minutes later, the man-mountain that was Denny Hampstead squeezed through the kitchen door.

“Hey,” he rumbled.

“Morning.” I kept poking and prodding my bruise.

“Coffee.” Hamp’s primary caloric source is coffee. Few people I have met have matched his prodigious consumption.

“Make it yourself,” I said.

“Hmmpf. You sleep in my home, you make the coffee.”

“First, you have an apartment, and a cruddy one at that. It’s hardly a ‘home’. Second, bite me.” Like I said, grumpy.

Hamp sort of vapor-locked for a moment, processing my refusal. He usually gets his way, being as big as he is. Then he slowly began making his coffee.

“Least I got one,” he grumbled. “Nice bruise.”

A few minutes later, his first cup was gone and his second nearly so. He slowly ambled into the day. Once there, he asked “What are we gonna do?”

I reconsidered what I’d spent most of that restless night considering, wondering if I could stomach putting my friend in harm’s way again. I didn’t see a different answer, regardless of how I viewed the situation. He’s a big boy, in lots of ways – and if he decided to, he’d help if I wanted it or not.

“You in?” I asked.

“Yep.”

I thought for a minute. “First, I need some clothes, and some other essentials. I am not sharing your toothbrush under any circumstances. Second, I’m going to have a conversation with Braxton. “Third” depends on what I find out during “Second.”

“Lemme guess. For ”First”, you need some money, right?”

“Yep.”

“You need me before tonight, you know where to find me.”

“Right.” I took the wad of bills he handed me. “Thanks.”

Hamp didn’t respond, but poured a third cup of coffee and went back to his bedroom to dress.

A few minutes later he came out, dressed in a nondescript gray suit. Shiny red tie, starched pale blue shirt, black Oxford wing tips.

“You talk to Braxton, you get the opportunity, mention our last chat,” Hamp said. “He’ll still remember it.”

“Ok. We’ll be having our own discussion.”

“I expect so.” Hamp opened his door. “Be careful,” he said as he left.

“Usually am,” I replied to the closed door.

Chapter 4

Driving away from town, across the bridge, and into the east bay, the buildings got less new and shiny, slowly giving way to lower-class housing. Later, after a few miles, came the refineries and warehouses. I turned off a badly maintained two-way highway.

I parked near one of the less dilapidated buildings. Two stories, red brick. his was the nondescript center of Braxton’s local operations. He ran drugs, numbers, and girls. Like the scum-slingers of most slightly-above-average operations of his type, he usually was just clean enough to avoid doing serious time. He’d been in a down-state institution on a few occasions, but mostly his delivery boys and girls did the jail time, all of which was minimized due to age and State statute. Great system we have. I do believe it does the right thing more often than not, but when it misses, it misses big-time. On the other hand, the ‘misses’ were where I made my living. This line of thought was giving me a headache, so I got moving.

I climbed a set of rickety stairs, built poorly out of two-by-fours, and I thought briefly they may not hold my weight. Up on the landing area, I saw lots of dark red stains on the platform. I looked for and found the guy watching me from the second floor. Fine – this time I didn’t care if he knew I was coming.

Jimmy Fingers met me just inside the massive doorway, sized for unloading eighteen-wheelers. I doubt it had been used for them for quite a while. All Ferris Braxton’s deliveries would come in much smaller size vehicles – beat up VW bugs, Nissan Sentras, and sometimes in the stomach cavity or intestines of a human mule.

Jimmy raked me with his eyes. “Slate.”

“Jimmy. How’s the cheek?” Last time Jimmy and I had met, I’d broken his left cheekbone with a picture perfect right cross I’d thrown from my knees. It nearly broke the knuckle on my right middle finger, which was sore for a week after. Jimmy’s jaw had been badly broken.

He started to raise his hand to his cheek, stopped. His eyes got cold, and deep fury rose in his face. “Watch your back, asshole.”

“Always do, Jimmy. Be good for you to remember that. Healthy.” I smiled at him. I think he knew he couldn’t take me straight up. I certainly knew it. “I’m going to talk to Ferris.”

“Ain’t here. Piss off.” He motioned to the muscle above us.

“Is here. Ride’s out front.” Braxton pissed off local law enforcement by driving a late model Mercedes S600. “He’s not stupid enough to let you drive it, and you’re not stupid enough to have me shot. Ferris would be angry, and he’d break more than your cheek.” With that, I shouldered past Jimmy and headed for the stairs off to the far corner, which led up to Ferris’s office. I’d been there only twice before.

Jimmy didn’t come after me, though I was listening carefully. The top of the stairs led past the guy with the sniper rifle. “Got that thing registered?” I asked of the Hispanic banger behind the trigger. He gave me the finger.

I went past him, to a door of burnt mahogany that was way out of place for the warehouse. So was the office; it was richly furnished. Ferris’s secretary was at her desk. This time, she was a rather top-heavy blond wearing a tight bare-midriff tube. I guess it was her turn. Ferris rotated his stable through his front office. I wondered who he was trying to impress, or if he just wanted to bang someone new each month, and not bother to go beyond his office door to do it.

“Oh, you’re big!” she exclaimed, lifting her eyes from People Magazine, which sported Tom Cruise on the cover, holding a big vial of champagne.

I smiled at her and walked by. Alarmed, her voice rose an octave as she said “Wait, you can’t…”

“Sure I can. And I won’t even get you in trouble.” I turned the knob, which wasn’t locked, and walked in to Ferris’s office.

He was on the phone. I caught part of his conversation before he registered that someone was entering unannounced, and then further registered that it was me.

“…send her on up around four o’clock today, and I’ll try her out. Shit! No, not you, some garbage just came in that I gotta take out. Call me back.” He hung up and glared at me as the secretary came in behind me. Ferris had a lazy left eyelid that didn’t open as far as his right. Made him look a bit demented and confused. This month’s secretary followed me in. “Mr. Braxton, he didn’t stop or listen to me, he just, like, came on through, how rude!” She stood off to my side in a huff.

Braxton’s eyes never left mine. He was quiet for maybe thirty seconds. Then, “Sherry, take off your top.”

“What?”

“Take off your top. Do it now.”

“In front of him?” Braxton slowly shifted his gaze from me to Sherry. She hesitated a moment, that peeled off her top. I kept looking at Braxton.

“Now your skirt. Leave your shoes on.”

“Mr. Braxton, I…” she started to say, and Braxton’s eyes got a few degrees cooler. She did what he asked. I remained perfectly still, my stare never straying from Ferris’s eyes.

“Bounce a little bit.”

Sherry started to sniffle, but she started making tiny jumps. Thirty seconds later, I was still staring a hole through Ferris, and he was shifting his gaze between Sherry’s bouncing bosom and me. Kind of a surreal scene.

Finally, Ferris got the idea that I was not going to look at Sherry, and he tired of his misdirected demonstration. “Get out and get dressed.” Sherry snuffled a bit, got her things, and left. I didn’t hear the door close.

“Shut the fuckin’ door!” Braxton yelled. The door shut. I kept staring at him.

“Whaddya want.” Silence from me. He started bouncing his heel, so his entire leg shook. I waited some more.

“It’s all about power,” Ferris said, nodding his head towards Sherry’s desk.

I kind of liked the way this silence strategy was working, so I kept doing it. I’ve rarely gotten in trouble by keeping my mouth shut. On the other hand, I’d come here to cause a bit of trouble. Confusing myself a bit with this internal argument, I decided to let it wait for later.

Ferris stared back. We stayed that way for a while. I was just starting to settle in for a good long skirmish, when he reached over and punched a button on his phone. “Jimmy, come show Slate out.”

I gave a sad little shake of my head, but did step back to the side of the door. Through the door, I heard Jimmy ask Sherry if she saw a gun, and Sherry said she hadn’t seen one, but gee I was big. Jimmy called her a stupid slut, and barged through the door, gun in front of him. I took the revolver from him, twisting sharply enough that I caught his index finger in the trigger guard. It snapped quite loudly as it broke. He cradled it, calling me a dirty bastard. I put the gun in my coat pocket, and hit Jimmy with two quick left hooks, and he was out.

I shut the door, went back to my prior spot, crossed my arms, and resumed my stare at Ferris. My breathing quickly returned to normal.

Chapter 5

“You dumb fuck,” he eventually said.

I broke my silence. “Hey, at least this time I hit him on his right side. Wouldn’t want him to have the same side broken twice in a row.”

“I had an agreement with your mongoloid friend. I haven’t done shit in your neighborhood, either one of your neighborhoods, and you come here and threaten me.”

“Way I heard it was Hamp beat you until you screeched like a dying chicken, begged him not to kill you, and he told you that if you ran anything even close to him, he would take a piece of you every week and mail it to your mother.”

Ferris got all red, and reached for his desk drawer. “Don’t,” I said evenly. He stopped. “Now, we both know you did do something in my neighborhood yesterday, and I’m here to take it out of your ass.”

Truth was, I was kind of confused that he didn’t get defensive from the moment he saw me, but I had to find out. “Why’d you do it?”

“Do what? I ain’t done shit up there. None of my people has either.” He actually looked me in the eyes when he said it, and he wasn’t lying. Shit.

I reconsidered on the fly, and decided to make something out of my morning after all. “Ferris, you miserable pile, you’re going to do something for me,” I said. “We both know you sent one of your cute little Kill-Quads for me, and it worked out for them about how it always does.” Seeing the doubt in his eyes, I went on. “But for now, you’re going to shake your entire oozing organization and find out what went down in my apartment last night. This is NOT open to negotiation.”

“Get out, and fuck yourself on the way.”

“You’re going to shake your entire puss-producing organization and find out who blew up my apartment yesterday,” I said again. His eyes widened a bit. “If you don’t, both Hamp and I are coming back, and all you’ll be when we’re done with you is a puddle. Do you understand me?”

He kept up the tough act for a few seconds to save some face. Then I saw through his body language that we had a deal.

“Tomorrow night enough time?” I politely inquired.

“Get out.”

“Good. See you then.” I left, closing his door firmly behind me.

Waiting until I had almost cleared the outer office door, Sherry pushed her wad of tissues into a desk drawer, and softly called me back and asked me why I hadn’t looked at her.

“Because he was already taking enough from you.”

She got confused. “What do you mean?”

I gave her a small, genuine smile. “Think about it. Once you figure it out, if you want to stop everyone from taking more until there’s nothing left, give me a call.” I left her my card. Plain and white, it reads “Richard Slate, Consultant.”

Chapter 6

I do not like to fight. I do not like to hurt people. My avocation often demands it. I look at it like desk jockeys must look at the hours they spend widening their rear ends – it’s a means to an end, pardon the pun.

Rubbing the sore knuckles on my left hand, I turned north to head up the peninsula.

Big kids in school are usually targets. I was a big kid. Still am. Not as big as Hamp, but big enough. If big kids are not bullies themselves, they’re picked off by the bullies. Anyone who can kick the big kid’s ass has to be tough, right?

For me it was all about trial and error. First, I used my size to avoid beatings. When that didn’t work, I started wildly flailing back. When that didn’t work, I invented what I later learned were basic boxing skills. When they didn’t work, I learned to fight dirty. When that didn’t work, I got smart. When that didn’t work, years later, I studied some techniques from small men who scared me more than anyone I’ve met before or since that no one would ever classify under a candy-apple label like jujitsu, karate, or Tae Kwan Do. Finally, I realized that none of that crap mattered, and I learned to shoot. I can shoot a quarter (that means five rounds in a space the size of a quarter on a paper target) from 800 yards, and am no slouch with a good handgun, either.

The depressing thing about all of it is that I’m very capable, and never really wanted to be. But like I said, it’s part of the job.

Wondering why I was going over my skills inventory, and concluding it had to do with my encounter in Ferris’s office, I got off the highway nearly halfway up the peninsula. I headed for the newly forming financial district.

Chapter 7

A while ago I did a very nice thing for a very old lady that involved some very un-nice people trying to extort her out of her house and her dead husband’s very large estate. She had a peculiar way of encouraging me to talk about things I didn’t want to talk about. Ms. McPherson was somewhere around eighty years old, and hadn’t slowed down a single tick. She was usually a step ahead of me in our conversations, which happened usually once or twice a week. I’d often buy her groceries for her, or cook her a good meal.

After we had first met, and I had convinced her tormentors to pick on someone else, one of our conversations turned to how I made a living, or more accurately how I wasn’t making much of a living. One thing led to another, and I now have something of a white knight, or more accurately a white queen, that gets me through those times where paying clients are a bit thin.

Hamp was a big help on that project. He of the Mesozoic size – I often wonder about and would like to see the impression he makes on folks who meet him professionally for the first time. Hamp works as an equity fund manager. His company, Broadbank, is one of the most reputable such firms on the west coast. He works on escalable folding equity divestitures, debentured sinking funds, leveraged buy-outs, options regression research, that sort of thing – he makes very good money. I sometimes imagine an opposing corporate weenie lawyer needing to battle first through the impression his size makes, then through his intellect, and I actually feel badly for the corporate weenie.

Outside of a true balls-in-the-air firefight, there are very few situations that two competent people can’t handle. Hamp and I did pretty well in the engagement I’d undertaken for Ms. McPherson. I took a bullet through the fleshy part of my thigh that still pains me now and then, and Hamp got a broken collarbone when four of them grappled him up close. He still says it was five, but that’s usually when he’s trying to impress a lady. We were two on about fourteen or fifteen in that case.

Hamp’s little girl, Melanie, nearly got hurt in that one. She was almost four at the time, and one of the scumbags made the monumental mistake of threatening her, to influence Hamp to in turn encourage me to stop messing in their plans.

When Hamp dislikes someone, they tend to end up dead. When he really dislikes someone, they only get to want to be dead. This fellow badly wanted to be, over the course of a couple of days. Today, he may be, I don’t know. Hamp was done with him when every bone not in his head or torso was broken, some in multiple places. I do believe he did some kidney work on the guy, but I’m not sure. I didn’t help him do it, but would have. I love Melanie too. I’m “Uncle Rich” to her, but I’d take a bullet for her any day and twice on days ending in “y.”

I do not know anything about her mother, and Hamp isn’t talking. I’ve tried getting him drunk enough, mad enough, sad enough, violent enough, and scared enough to tell me, and not one of them has worked. Maybe someday. I could find out easily enough. I know Hamp’s ex lives in Pittsburgh. I won’t do that, though. Like I said, Hamp’s my friend, and friends respect privacy.

Melanie comes out west to be with Hamp every other weekend, and I usually spend one of the two weekend days with them. Sometimes we go up to a Giants baseball game, or a Forty-Niners football game. Melanie’s a big tomboy these days, caught somewhere between toys and boys. Now there’s a fun thought – how about some teenage boy meeting Melanie’s dad? Fun. I hope I’m there.

Sunday afternoon after my unsuccessful chat with Braxton, I pulled into Broadbank’s underground parking area. I thought taking Hamp along with me to see Ferris that evening might provide Ferris further motivation to speak truth. Hamp has actually laid hands on Ferris. I have not. There’s something magical about that line of having actually hurt someone – somehow, a person believes you wouldn’t really do it, until you did it. I wanted to be sure Ferris had thoroughly ferreted through his organization and obtained any data hiding there so I could get some traction on finding who’d blown up my apartment.

Smiling, thinking about the conversation we’d likely have with the little rat, I punched the up button on the elevator. Force of habit, I had both hands behind my back, securing my revolver in my belt when the doors opened, and Hamp literally knocked me on my ass, in a full-out sprint as soon as the elevator doors opened.

His eyes were pinched and haunted. He wasn’t really there at all. He had a serious thousand-yard-stare working. I’ve never seen him as frightened, and believe me brother, I’ve seen him in a lot of situations. He vaulted over me and kept running.

“Hamp!”

He took three steps before turning around, and I was on my feet, gun in hand, scanning everywhere, attempting to identify whatever had him freaked.

“Hamp, what’s wrong?” He still wasn’t really seeing me.

“Hamp!?” Nearly yelling, now.

Finally focusing on me. His gravelly voice portended a coming storm. A big one. “Mel. They’ve taken Mel.”

Chapter 8

“Shit,” I grumbled, as a thought hit me.

Hamp turned away from the tiny oval window, and the entire row of three seats groaned as he shifted his weight. Commercial airline seats were definitely not designed for either one of us. Our shoulders nearly touched across the expanse of the unoccupied seat between us. He was still strung so tight I could nearly detect a hum coming off him. “What?” he grumped.

I’d been musing about how odd it was that I had been thinking about Melanie on the drive to Hamp’s office. “I missed my meeting with Ferris. He’ll be getting cocky again.”

“Ferris’ll keep.” He turned back to the window. Hamp had been mostly quiet through the evening, night, and morning. I’d done the legwork, and we were on the first available flight to Pittsburgh, a fair step from the Bay Area. Airline deregulation, meant to increase competition, offerings, and savings to the consumer, had basically done the reverse. Hamp’s credit card now had a couple thousand more dollars on it than it had yesterday, but it would be worth every penny if Hamp’s ex could give us any useful information in our new quest to find Mel.

He’d told me all he knew, which wasn’t much. A Federal Express package had been delivered to him in the midst of a financing meeting. He’d opened it to find a picture of Melanie against a dirty steel background, big bruise around her left eye. Bloody fingerprint on the geometric center of the snapshot. A yellow post-it note hung gamely to the picture.

“TOO LATE” it said. No demands, no instructions, just the implied threat that may have already been carried out.

“One of our own,” I said. He turned back and looked at me. I looked at my lap, kept talking, and in so doing broke one of my cardinal rules. “I lost Clara. You were there.”

Hamp nodded, but didn’t speak. “One minute sooner and we’d have had her out. You know that.” I sensed him nod again. “We do all we can most of the time, but when it’s one of our own, we do even more. You know that, too.” I looked up. He nodded. “We’ll get her. I promise. And, they won’t do it again.”

Hamp turned back to the window, and was quiet for a long time. The plane gently shuddered around us. I had almost drifted off when I heard his steely reply. “No. They won’t.”

Chapter 9

Two loud bangs, one right after the other, ‘bang-bang, had me reaching for my gun before I was fully awake. My gun was, of course, twenty feet below me in the baggage compartment. All I had on me was my permit. Hamp was up, rubbing the back of his head where he’d slammed it against the overhead luggage holders, scanning the passenger compartment.

The plane’s engines began screaming, as if on power-up for takeoff, then went entirely silent. People around us started screaming. I moved over to the window as the plane went into a steep downward glide. Hamp, still standing, slowly floated to the plane’s ceiling as the dive increased. The attendants frantically tried to calm the passengers down, impossible of course, as they were clearly panicked themselves.

I looked out the window, shook my head, blinked a few times, then looked again, sure that what I was seeing wasn’t really there. I saw hundreds, if not thousands, of large, circular, opalescent objects slowly drifting every which way. They were easily as large as the Boeing 757 plummeting with us in it. I picked one a distance away from the plane and watched for a few seconds. Its surface appeared reflective, quicksilver-ish. There were so many of them it appeared almost like an illusion, and they were all ultimately drifting to the ground. The closer they got to the ground, the rounder they became.

“Hamp.” He didn’t hear me over the general panic. “Hamp!” He floated, almost in free-fall, over to my window. His eyes were spooked. I suspected mine were as well. “Take a look out here. Is this an imminent death hallucination?”

Looking out, after a few moments, he wondered aloud if our plane had worked its way through one of those things. I hadn’t thought about that.

Suddenly, over my fleetingly remembered regrets that I would not get to have my conversation with Ferris after all, the engines spooled up again. The plane’s descent turned into a steady rise. Shortly thereafter, the captain came on the intercom. “Folks, I apologize for the scare. A crew never wants to deal with a situation like that one, but we have power back, and have requested landing privileges at the nearest airport, which at this point in our flight is our original destination, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

“All systems show normal, but we want to get on the ground as soon as possible and have the plane checked out. Please do exactly as the flight attendants ask you to. Again, all systems are registering as normal, and we expect no problems landing. Thanks again and sorry for the scare.”

A lady sitting a few rows back loudly asked an attendant what in hell the bubbles outside the window were. The attendant, too busy to have yet looked out a window, got the lady calmed down, and then took a look. The window she looked through was a couple rows ahead of ours, and I heard her softly exclaim “Jesus!” before making a quick path to the cockpit.

Chapter 10

Our plane rolled to a stop at least three hundred yards away from the terminal. I couldn’t quite put my finger on what was odd about the four double-wide tents sitting beside us on the runway, other than that they were there at all. My hand again moved unconsciously to my holster, and again found nothing there.

I elbowed Hamp. “Something’s up. Stay with me.”

“Like you’ve ever been ahead of anything,” he grumped.

The hatch was twisted open by the lead flight attendant, and I watched out the window as a rolling ladder was arranged on the tarmac to fit to the aircraft’s door. From the closest double-wide, four men emerged. As they approached the stairs, I marked two of them as security, being as large as they were, and two looked, well, academic.

The captain came over the radio. “Folks, we’re going to be briefed by the gentlemen coming on the plane right now. We were told by the tower to maintain position right here. I’m finding out right along with you all what’s happening. In any event, thanks for flying with us.” He sounded more than a bit distracted, and more than a little annoyed.

The four men entered the plane. The two large ones took up a defensive posture behind the two smaller ones. One of those surveyed the plane’s cabin slowly, carefully. He made a somewhat assessing eye contact with lots of passengers, including me. “Folks, we have a strange situation here. My name is Fallhouse. I am a physician. My associate is Dr. Booker. He is a doctor of a different sort, a PhD in Physics. We are scientists working with the Government of the United States.

“There are fifty-five people on this airplane, including crew. It was one of the least full of those in the air that intersected with one of the Orbs a year ago.

“Your families, where appropriate, were all notified eleven months ago that we had every expectation you would return safely.

“You see, today’s date is May 11. Your flight left June 16 of last year. By the way we measure time, you’ve been in the air nearly a year.”

Chapter 11

I finally figured out what looked strange about the trailers on the runway. They looked like they’d been there a while, and they had. About a year, if you believed Fallhouse. Sometimes I’m slow making sense of the details. Well, the details that don’t immediately impinge upon my continuing to breathe, anyway. Those I pick up on in a damned hurry.

Hamp picked up on one detail quickly. Not five seconds after Fallhouse ended his spiel, he was tearing up the aisle through the rest of the economy section, and had entered first class when the round from a gun one of the large men was holding took him in the chest. By then I was right behind him, and a second round that was meant for me also got Hamp, this one in his left shoulder. Two more caught him in the belly from guy number two. Hamp fell back on me, and I buckled from my forward momentum meeting his backwards momentum delivered by the bullets’ impact.

A quick glance to his chest and I realized that he’d been darted, not shot.

I was staring upwards into two dart guns.

“No more, please. We don’t have the time,” said Booker, as large fellow number one resumed his position behind Booker and Fallhouse at the plane’s hatch. His taking the gun off me, inconsistent as it was with what I’d have done in his shoes, kept me from reacting.

“Ladies and Gentlemen,” he continued. “You will be given more information once you have de-planed and assembled in T-one, which is tent one. The short of it is that we have been contacted by non-human intelligence. And we have a job to do. A nearly impossible job, it would appear.

“Please follow us in an orderly fashion. Enter the first tent you come to, again, designated T-one. There is room in there for a hundred people, so get comfortable. It is essential that we get you processed as quickly as possible.”

With that, Fallhouse and Booker de-planed. Booker paused a minute, as if he wanted to say something else to us, but did not.

A couple of long, measured glances at Hamp’s prostrate form, and large guy number one said in a distinctly German accent “Pick up your friend and bring him. Four burns is a lot. Even for one of his size.” He followed the others down the stairs.

What on earth is a German-sounding, armed security guard doing on a runway in Pittsburgh? Doesn’t the FAA have jurisdiction here?

I dragged Hamp out of the aisle and into an empty chair at the back of first class. Around assorted grumbles, one mumbled “what the hell?” and a few “watch its,” folks were doing what they’d been told. One guy started to get his luggage, was told to forget it by another fellow, and nearly came to blows before a stewardess got them calmed down.

Getting Hamp down the ramp and into the tent was a struggle. He’s big and I was tired.

Something else struck me as interesting – no other planes had used the runway since we’d landed. Odd – planes take off and land pretty-much non-stop at SFO, SJC, OAK, and most other cities I’d been recently.

The tent designated T-one appeared weather-beaten and faded, but state of the art inside. Solid structural supports buoyed the canvas walls. Soft but bright fluorescents lit the entire space. Chairs for at least a hundred were arranged facing a podium, making me wonder where the space came from. An optical illusion.

The podium fronted a large display that appeared to be fed by a number of laptop computers resting on surrounding tables. Hamp, next to me across four chairs, made sounds indicative of a return to consciousness.

Folks were mostly seated when Booker took the podium. “Ladies and gentlemen. I apologize for the discomfort you are surely experiencing. I am sorry, yes, but we do not have time to pay it any more heed than that.

“Our situation as a people has become dire.”

Chapter 12

His subsequent monologue and the inevitable incredulous question-and-answer session remain foggy in my memory, but the basics are these.

Back in June of last year (but of course today for us on the plane) US Air Defense nearly let missiles fly when radar detected millions of objects simultaneously materializing over the United States of America. Turns out they appeared over every part of the world, but that wasn’t discovered until later.

They floated peacefully to the ground, and expanded to nearly a hundred times their size.

By the time a somewhat coordinated effort was made to examine the things, thousands, perhaps millions of people had gone right up to them, tally-ho, and walked right on inside. A far smaller number than that made it back out. A few of those went back in again, and an even smaller number of them made it back out. None of that group apparently went back in again.

Nations, leaders of nations, diplomats, and monarchs conferred, often and everywhere. ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, MSNBC, Fox, and worldwide media were engaged by the governments, cautioning people to stay away from the opalescent black balls. I sometimes wonder why people are so eager to confront the unknown. I, on the other hand, approach it with caution, suspicion, and a gun.

A UN resolution was quickly passed to cooperate in the research. The survivors of initial forays into the spheres were collected on a worldwide basis, and they were flown by F16 Tomcat (courtesy of the US Government) to Salt Lake City, Utah. Salt Lake City was chosen because an inordinately large number of the spheres had landed in the Great Salt Lake desert, between Salt Lake City and Nevada.

Salt Lake was also a quick flight from Omaha, Nebraska, a wartime operations center for POTUS, the President of the United States. Salt Lake also sports an impressive military presence, including numerous Air Force Bases, and numerous chemical and high technology research facilities. No one knew in those early days what was going to be required for understanding these apparitions. They only knew they wanted options.

Late night comedians made very bad jokes about “The Mormon Invasion” and “God’s Balls Land In The Desert.”

The truth was, no other country was as well equipped to handle a world-wide research project as quickly as the United States. And no one knew how deadly important developing an understanding of these things was. Not back then, nearly a year and a couple billion people ago.

Chapter 13

I hadn’t seen Hamp since the briefing in the tent. Most of the night, I spent staring at the ceiling tiles, trying to grip the reality that I’d skipped over nearly a year.

All of us on that plane were given isolated rooms for the evening. Booker mentioned something about “minimizing pre-penetration contamination,” whatever the hell that meant. I wondered about that some, and eventually dreamed about full-body sized sterilized condoms.

I wondered if Melanie was still alive, and how much trouble Hamp and I would have leaving this facility. I knew Hamp wouldn’t stop trying to get to her, and the next step on that journey would be to get to his ex, somewhere in Pittsburgh.

I wondered how cocky Ferris was getting, (sorry, “got”) when I didn’t back up my promise to come see him tomorrow. Wait, tomorrow for me was now a year ago for him. I wondered if he’d even become confident enough to run some of his scams and sins through my neighborhood again. Part of me hoped so.

Mind-benders like that kept me awake all night long.

I wondered about Hamp’s ex, living in the same city that we had barely made it to alive.

The spheres – they turned out to be some type of immersive experience technology. The best visual-simulation minds on the planet have not figured out yet how they work. They do give a hell of a ride, though – Stage Survivors from the first three levels confirmed that for us. They were brought in during Booker’s initiation speech for us to see and ask questions of. No one had any questions, though – we were all pretty much vegetative from our flight.

Today, we were to be flown from Pittsburgh to Salt Lake City. We don’t know why, yet – we’re scheduled for a second briefing this morning. I hope I don’t have to chase after Hamp while he chases after his ex. Much as I was looking forward to learning about her, I was tired and hungry. I hoped he could wait until after breakfast.

Chapter 14

The first problem of the day came when Hamp learned we were to be flown back west, to Salt Lake. He was, at best, unhappy. I learned from one of the security guards later that he’d hospitalized four people, all of them security personnel. Hamp had, understandably, a serious problem with having lost a year in his search for Mel.

Our hosts (I wasn’t yet ready to call them captors, but was getting closer all the time) were savvy enough to have quartered Hamp and me at nearly opposite ends of the compound. I didn’t hear of his troubles until they wheeled in his chair and rolled it up next to my seat. Probably they thought I’d be a calming influence on him. He was in an honest-to-God straightjacket. I don’t think I’d ever seen one before.

“What in blue hell?” I muttered, and immediately began unbuckling him from the contraption. I stopped just as quickly when I heard the distinct sound of four hammers being cocked on four serious looking .45-caliber pistols, being held a few feet away and aimed at my head by four equally serious looking guards.

“Mr. Slate.” At the front of the room, the other doctor from the plane, the academic doctor, Booker, waited impatiently. “We do not have time for this,” he said, every syllable enunciated perfectly clearly.

“Do you have time for his rights?” I indicated Hamp, who had stopped struggling against the confining bands of the jacket. “There’s a big lawsuit waiting to be filed here for this treatment.” I am no flaming Civil Rights Activist, but Hamp and I had broken people up for far less than this. Honestly I was disturbed at how quickly I went for the lawsuit card. Not my style. I thought maybe I was more worried than I thought I was.

“No, Mr. Slate, there will be no suits filed.” He sounded weary of this topic.

“The Emergency Wartime Powers Act was invoked nearly ten months ago by President McGary, and is still in effect today. For those of you who are not aware of that Act,” he motioned to include the rest of the room’s occupants, which seemed to include only those of us from the plane yesterday, “the Emergency Wartime Powers Act allows the President to, among other things, engage martial law. Part of the act also, unfortunately, minimizes civil rights of civilians in such times. To the extent that civilians have tools and capabilities required to meet a clear and immediate threat to the United States of America, those civilians and tools may be encouraged to provide such services to their country.” He paused a moment. “We have decided, however, to process you and Mr. Hampstead right here, instead of flying you back to Salt Lake.”

It wasn’t where my mind was, but I blurted out a “Why?” anyway.

“Doesn’t matter, does it?” he replied.

Never one to ignore reason dispensed from the business end of any weapon pointed my way, I sat back down. “Calm down, buddy,” I whispered to Hamp. “There’s still time.” Hoping I was right.

Encouraged, huh?” I said, sarcasm dripping from every letter, making sure to project my voice so everyone in the room could hear me. “Sounds about right. Ok, go ahead and give us the Government’s reason to take away a few of the freedoms we have left.” I sat down next to Hamp.

Hamp looked at me with painful, wild hope in his eyes. Knowing Hamp, he probably wondered if I knew something he didn’t.

Booker, convinced that decorum had been restored, continued. “Well, people, it’s come down to you. Fifty-five people, the people on this flight, remain as our best chance.” He paused, gathering his thoughts.

“Best chance for what?” interrupted one of the flight attendants, a perky blond named Braithe. I remembered her strange name from the flight – she’d brought me a couple of drinks.

“There are still, obviously, millions, if not billions, of people left to send into the damn things, but you probably reflect the best chance.” He was talking mostly to himself at this stage. A long moment later, he looked over his audience once more.

“OK. Enough. The Orbs came down. The world tried to find out what they were. We failed, for over two months. Then, caused by nothing we can discern, they all opened, simultaneously. Partially opened. Electronic media devices opened simultaneously as well. DVD, Blue-Ray, CD, cassette, and honest-to-God eight-Track media ejected from all capable devices at the same time. They were recorded in the language in the country in which the media were ejected. No, we have not figured that out yet either. People played them, of course. People panicked, people died. We put our best people on them immediately, analyzing all conceivable parameters, but they were just what they appeared to be. All had the same simple message on them.

“They said, and I quote, “Solve the puzzle, layers all. Solve the puzzle, or you shall fall. Every bi-ped, old and young, every person, shall be gone.

“You have twelve months.”

Chapter 15

When Hamp and I boarded the United Airlines flight to Pittsburgh, state of the art display technology was plasma. You could buy up to a hundred and ten inch plasma screen that was no more than four inches deep. The depth, texture, and color clarity it offered was pretty fantastic. A lifelong technophile, I tended to keep up with developments like this one, although, at around nineteen thousand a pop, I didn’t own one yet. It was certainly on my “must-acquire” list of toys, though.

For larger displays, you could go to an enclosed dome and see visualizations in nearly three hundred sixty degrees that would make you almost believe you were in space, on a roller-coaster, or whatever the programmers wanted you to believe. IMAX theatres were also somewhat immersive, and they’d popped up at the Disney Parks worldwide and in some local shopping centers over the last while before we’d lost a year.

What we saw that morning blew all that crap away.

Booker took us into an adjacent room, and we sat down at terminals adorned with headsets and opaque goggles. Odd-looking things, they bent around the sides of the head so your eyes couldn’t make out their edges. The overall effect was to make your field of vision seamless, no matter your head position.

We’d thrown lots of questions at Booker, and he patiently answered them all. I think he told the truth, at least he didn’t think he was lying. I’ve interrogated lots of people, and you get the knack.

In a basketball or football game, you can often tell when the momentum turns, hopping nimbly from one side to the other. It’s a combination of factors, some of them not identifiable. The same thing happened during the session with Booker. At some point, most of us just stopped believing that he was telling the truth. In favor of what, I couldn’t say, but his story seemed to lose credibility. He let it go on a while after that. When questions eventually ceased, he led us into the room with the terminals.

He beckoned us all to take a seat.

Chapter 16

The stations had funky-looking headphones and sunglasses, as I mentioned, but upon closer inspection I saw they were one piece, not two. They were connected in a way that even upon close inspection I couldn’t quite see, like you can’t see wind moving through trees, only the results of its passage.

After everyone had taken a seat at a station, and there were exactly enough stations for the plane’s passengers, not the hundred Booker mentioned before – I wondered how they did that – Booker gave each of us time to fiddle with the headgear. He gained a couple of points for that in my assessment. He knew that we’d do it anyway, regardless of whether he was speaking or not, so he chose to let us explore a bit first. Smart.

“People,” he tried to get our attention.

“Please, may I have your attention. I’m completely aware you are all in some state of shock. Please believe me when I say I cannot care. We’ve already had one incident regarding one of you attempting to threaten regarding civil rights; please be completely convinced those rights don’t apply. People, it’s become a tradeoff of your rights, of ALL of our rights, against the survival of the human race.

“The short version is this. Everyone seems to have a name for the Orbs that descended. I shall call them Orbs; it’s short, one syllable, and doesn’t have the negative pre-disposition some names given them have: death chambers, testing grounds, death circles – there are hundreds. So for your purposes, “Orbs” it shall be.

“The first question everyone asked themselves was simple – what are they? The answer has become obvious, both from what they said simultaneously worldwide, and our subsequent death count. They are a test of us as a species. Something somewhere has decided we have to “run the gauntlet,” as it were, successfully, or we all die. Very simple concept, no?

“You will certainly ask me many more questions than you already have.

What happened to the year you were in the plane? The year that felt to you like a normal flight from Oakland to Pittsburgh. That one I can answer for you right now: I have no idea.

“There are something around five thousand planes in the air at any one time. The laws of probability indicate that only a small percentage of those in the air when the Orbs appeared would actually intersect with one of those Orbs. Yours was one of those; and as it happens, the last to be recovered. Turns out the actual number was ninety-seven planes. I am very unhappy to report to you that all of the passengers and crew of the other ninety six planes are either dead or detained as traitors to the United States of America, and in my opinion, traitors to the world. Detained, because they chose not to enter an Orb to try and save their species. President McGary has written an Executive Order to that effect, and I will show you video of that signing as well as a copy of the document itself, if you like. Should we all survive the next year, a prospect looking less and less likely, then the courts and the Congress will decide the appropriateness of the President’s action. You should be aware that nearly every other country has sent any citizens of theirs into the Orbs, willingly or not. At least you have the choice of going in, or going to prison.

“You are, like it or not, humanity’s best chance of survival.”

My brain was finally starting to work. “Why do people who were in airplanes that passed through an Orb survive, when people not in planes die?” I asked, loudly to make sure the entire room heard me.

“They don’t. They simply die at a slower rate. For every one million people who enter an Orb the first time that were NOT on a plane, the survival rate is less than one percent. The survival rate for those who were in a plane, in itself a terrifyingly small number, that survival rate is ten percent. And that’s just the first trip in. Obviously no one has completed the Orb. For those brave enough to have gone back in a second time, the survival rate drops to two percent and five percent; a third time it drops to nearly nothing and one percent. No one has survived stage four.

“I myself have gone in three times, and if I thought there was any chance of success at all, I would go in a fourth, but I have not been able to get past the same event in each of my first three visits.

“You see, that’s part of the challenge of the Orb. We have billions of accounts of peoples’ experiences in the Orb, and no two accounts are the same. The Orbs provide a different challenge for everybody in the details, but what we’ve come to call ‘stage’ categories do exist.”

The room was quiet while we all digested this incredible dump of information. My reaction was strange, even to me. I would have expected to be scared shitless. However, never having been one to have anyone’s will imposed on me without a fight, if I believed Booker, what we faced now was something imposing its will on the entire planet of people – my planet.

“How many human beings are left?” I asked.

“Approximately a billion,” Booked replied. “There was mass confusion, and no control, no tracking, no coordinated effort during the first months after Orb-fall. We estimate we lost nearly a sixth of the earth’s population during that time.

“By the time we had a rudimentary program planned, we had lost another billion souls. In the time it took us to get a worldwide data collection and a rudimentary learn-from-failure program set up, half the world’s population was gone.”

Silence.

Booker continued once he estimated we at least partially understood the gravity of the situation we’d flown innocently into on Flight Fourteen-Oh-Nine. “I know you all want to know about your families, what’s happened to them during the year you’ve been gone. I, or one of my staff, will speak with each of you individually beginning tomorrow morning. You will then be given up to three days to recover from your short flight, get some exercise, prepare your wills if you do not have them. At the end of the third day, I will ask each one of you a simple question. ‘Will you enter an Orb and do your best, or will you be labeled a traitor to the United States of America and be detained for what could be the rest of your life?’”

Hamp was clear across the room from me, but I could read his body language as if it were a sheet of paper in my hands. ‘What had happened to Mel?’, it screamed. I hoped their records were pretty good. If not, there were going to be a few more broken orderlies around by this time tomorrow.

“Please put on the headphones and press the Enter key. The monitors will show you and you will hear a comprehensive synopsis of the past year’s developments.”

Chapter 17

“Mr. Slate,” Booker began, looking at a file folder that sat on a utilitarian table for two, across from which I sat still in a mild state of shock from all I’d learned yesterday.

“No living family. No company affiliations. No criminal record, not that it would matter much at this point. Plenty of police reports with your name involved. Interesting. What, exactly, is it that you do?”

“Consult. Fix problems.”

“What kind of consulting?”

“The kind that frequently ends up in police reports,” I said.

He looked up at me from the file, with a somewhat bemused expression. “I suppose we’re not talking about consulting on how to run a production line better or sell more Buicks.”

“No.”

“Mr. Slate, let me assure you, nothing you tell me will, in any way, at any time, in any venue, be used against you.” He produced from the file a document signed by himself and by the President of the United States. I didn’t take the time to read the entire page-long document then, but read the important parts like amnesty for any crimes committed in the past or future, with the legal consideration being my willingness to take a walk inside a shiny bubble that had high odds of killing me.

“You say you fix problems. Well, we have a problem; a big fucking problem.” I’d never heard him curse before, but this discussion was more intimate than was speaking to all the survivors from the plane. I didn’t hold him in less regard for it; my mind just tucked it away as another fact. “We’ve had Navy Seals, Army Rangers, Special Ops, Army Sappers, and every highly trained and covert group from every nation enter those damned things. No one, obviously, has made it through. As a matter of fact, the survival percentage of these men with special training is not statistically different than those of housewives. The fact remains that no one has survived their fourth attempt.”

I had already decided I would go in. I was actually looking forward to it. Maybe part of me had a death wish.

“Booker, don’t waste any more of your time. I’m going in.”

A fleeting look of relief washed over his face. “Good. That’s good. Very good. A lot of your co-passengers are not being so compliant.” He looked thoughtful for a minute. There’s something else I’ve been given permission to tell you. The case you were working on a year ago, involving a Mr. Ferris, is closed.”

I startled and stood up, suddenly tense again. “What do you mean, closed? I still need to talk to him.”

“He was captured, indicted, and convicted of human-trafficking about nine months ago. He was given the choice of entering an Orb, or doing about sixty years in the California Penal System. He didn’t make it through the first stage.”

“Somehow I’m not surprised,” I mumbled. It was kind of nice knowing Ferris wasn’t going to be my problem anymore; no matter he’d been replaced by much larger problems.

“I’m talking to your acquaintance Mr. Hampstead next,” Booker continued. “I think, given the complexities of his situation, as opposed to the rather simple nature of yours, it might be helpful if you were there with me when I speak to him.”

“You mean you’re worried he’ll kill all the guards you have in there with you, kill you, and you think I may be able to keep him calm enough to prevent him from doing that,” I translated.

I don’t think Booker’s face was capable of looking sheepish, but he did manage a pained look. “Why lie? Something like that. Mr. Hampstead is a rather large, violent, and skilled individual, and what I have to tell him is not good.”

Chapter 18

Hamp sat across the same bare bones table across which Booker and I had had our last little chat earlier that day. I sat at the end of the table, with equal access to both Hamp and Booker.

“Mr. Hampstead,” Booker began.

I could tell Hamp was still barely hanging on, resisting his impulse to go postal, get the hell out of here, and resume his quest to find Melanie. The result was a fidgety, three hundred and twenty pound ball of muscle, skill, and bad intentions set on a shaky trigger fuse, a fuse that was already smoldering, and had been for a couple of days now. Intellectually, Hamp knew he couldn’t get out of the compound PGH had been turned into and resume his search; there was simply too much firepower aligned against him. Even with us as a team, he had to know we’d never make it. But still, he was barely keeping it under control. I could tell, even if Booker couldn’t. I had a decade of experience with Hamp as a partner and friend, and his hair-trigger state was clear as a crisp summer breeze to me.

“Mr. Hampstead,” Booker continued. Hamp’s eyes were everywhere but on Booker.

“Hamp,” I said loudly. He looked at me. “Hamp, listen to what Booker has to say. He’s a government fuck, but I think he’s a good government fuck.”

Hamp’s frame rumbled with a slight shake of a chuckle, definitely a step in the right direction. “He doesn’t have all the answers, or even all the questions, from what I can tell, but he’s trying. That’s what you and I do. Try and make things right. That’s what he’s doing. Now, he’s got some news about Mel that’s going to make you proud and homicidal, and that’s just what we need right now.”

Before my sentence was finished, and with a speed that belied his size, Hamp had Booker up against the wall of the small interview room, forearm across Booker’s throat, cutting off all but a small trickle of air. I sat quietly in my chair. If I got physical with Hamp, I honestly wasn’t sure what the outcome would be, but more importantly, this was a decision Hamp had to make for himself. If he wasn’t committed in his own mind, he’d be worse than useless. I’d have to worry about him as well as whatever awaited us in the Orbs. Something told me the Orbs would be enough.

“Hamp, stand down. Let Booker talk. He knows where Mel is, and he wants to show you.”

“What do you mean, ‘homicidal’?” Hamp asked, reluctantly releasing the pressure on Booker. Booker shakily regained his feet and took his seat again. Hamp remained standing, combat-ready, balanced on the balls of his feet, ready for orcs, demons, or mercenaries to come through the only door of the room.

Booker took over. “Melanie Hampstead was about the five millionth individual to enter an Orb, of her own free will, give or take a few thousand. From what I can tell, she had been kidnapped about a week before the Orbs arrived. You’ll probably be proud to know that she blew up the house she was being held in by sabotaging the gas line, and hiding in a subterranean bomb shelter built into the house. All four of her kidnappers were killed in the explosion, and she was on her way back to the Bay Area when the Orbs came down. She was in Denver at the time.

My mind told me that meant she was on a train or plane, on the ground, and wouldn’t have passed through an Orb like we did. I filed it away.

“She stayed there for nearly a month, keeping track of developments through the media and through some contacts of yours in San Mateo. She decided after over a hundred attempts to get in touch with you, Mr. Hampstead, that it was her duty to enter an Orb and try to succeed where millions had failed before her.

“She was one of very few, about ten thousand, who survived three attempts in an Orb. Ten thousand might sound like a lot, but ten thousand divided by well over a billion is nearly infinitesimal. Fortunately, even though everyone’s experiences in an Orb are different, after about a month and a half we figured out how to record an individual’s experiences in an Orb. I would like to show you Melanie’s four attempts. Melanie died in that fourth attempt, just like everybody had before her.”

The tent was nothing but rubble when Hamp’s rage subsided to a level that was barely manageable. I protected Booker throughout, using only non-lethal, passive defense, encouraging Hamp to break the already broken detritus one more time.

Chapter 19

Later, Booker led us away from the remains of the once interrogation-like room into an adjacent tent, with twenty or so workstations. They were the same setups on which we’d been brought up to speed on the previous day – from the Orb’s descent nearly a year prior, through the immediate chaos, to the controlled acquisition, sharing, and policing of information situation that was supposedly in place today.

As I’d mentioned when we used similar setups to “bring us up to speed” near the Pittsburgh airport, these looked, well, awesome. I don’t mean in the “that’s AWESOME, dude!” vernacular most kids spoke with these days. I mean each station sported awe-inspiring equipment. One hundred inch-plus plasma high definition monitors, cordless input devices I didn’t know how to use, high end Bose headsets and Sennheiser microphones.

“Mr. Hampstead, I’d like to give you the choice of watching Melanie’s sessions much like you would a regular Blu-ray movie, or to actually experience what she experienced as it happened to her, through her perspective. I would recommend for her first trip into the Orb, you simply watch it on the monitor. That will give you some context, and I can bring you up-to-speed on what little we know about defeating the first two sections, as she did. Then, if you’re up to it, and it will be difficult for you to experience, you can choose to watch or experience her second and third trip. It’s entirely up to you.”


“Watch it.” Hamp spoke very softly, for him.

Booker stood behind Hamp and me, in seats a comfortable distance from the huge monitor. We watched Melanie step through an enormous medieval-looking door, complete with supporting crossbars and latch holes.

We saw her from above, probably fifteen or twenty feet. I wondered briefly how it was recorded, then dismissed the thought as Melanie quickly ducked; darts had flown straight at her head from her left. Death number one averted.

Hamp had to be experiencing a myriad of emotions – seeing his daughter a year older than he’d last seen her, in mortal danger, but knowing she survived this encounter. Must have confused the big guy something awful, and I felt badly for him.

She looked different. Taller, more muscular, filled out. Amazing what a growing year does to a youngster. She’d probably punch me if she heard me calling her a youngster, though. Teenagers know it all; everyone knows that, but Mel had a good head on her shoulders to augment her physical skills.

She remained in a crouch, ready to move in any direction, trying to look everywhere at once. No more darts came through, and after a minute she relaxed a little bit and stood straight, obviously still trying to look everywhere at the same time. She did closely examine the wall to her left from which the darts had flown; from her stance I could tell she didn’t know if there’d be any more of the little nasties. She kept her head well away from the holes from which the first bolts had come.

Before her stretched a path, apparently looking like bricks inlaid with flecks of obsidian. The path was about five feet wide. On each side of the path, grass stretched away until it ran into various structures. Behind her, the door had soundlessly shut, meaning she was really in it now; no backing out.

Next to me, Hamp was as nervous as a turkey in November. I could feel waves radiating off him like heat.

“Settle down, buddy,” I said. “We know she survived this one.”

“We also know she’s dead.” Hamp said in a tone bereft of all hope.

“So Booker says, but let’s watch this and learn all we can, so when we shove it up these motherfuckers’ ass, we can tell them who is doing it to them.” Hamp gave me a grim little half-smile for that.

Mel had decided that staying on the path was not a good idea, so she’d taken a few steps on the grass to the right. Bad decision, as the grass began tumbling away to reveal a deep nothingness. She quickly took one light step on the already-decaying grass and jumped back for the path. Watching her, I was pleased she didn’t appear panicked, just calmly doing what she had to do.

She had plenty of momentum; with her jump she caught the path of brick in her midsection, and scrambled back onto it. Death number two seemingly averted.

The monitor now showed a brick path with nothing on either side, heading straight towards a dome-like structure some two hundred yards away. After taking a couple seconds to catch her breath, Mel started walking towards the dome.

There were probably a couple hundred yards between Mel and the dome. Randomly, and from differing angles, various implements of death came at her. Hamp tensed up at each one, even knowing that none of them got her. There were arrows, flaming arrows, grappling hooks from below, twenty pound weights from straight above. All came unerringly towards Mel, and without her taking the correct defensive movement, each could easily have killed her. She had started out at a brisk walk, but the closer she got to the dome, the slower she progressed, due to the frequency with which she was required to dodge some barbed monstrosity. I noticed something about all the projectiles, and it jangled around the back of my mind.

Finally, she was at the dome’s entrance. It appeared she didn’t know what to do, as there was no visible means of opening it up. A sound behind her, and she turned, ready to dodge yet again. Instead, the grass was coming back up, perfectly even with the brick path. She obviously took this as a sign she was temporarily safe, and turned back to focus her attention on the dome.

Naturally, an arrow immediately streaked towards her from directly along the brick path. Hamp yelled “Mel!” loudly, as if he really expected her to be able to hear him. Mel casually stepped aside, seemingly the last possible second, and the arrow clanged on the metal door of the dome and pushed it open a crack. Mel entered the dome. For her, stage one of the Orb was done.

Chapter 20

The screen went blank. Hamp startled as if he’d been tasered.

“That’s the first stage, or at least the first stage as Melanie Hampstead experienced it,” said Booker. “We’ve cross-correlated millions of accounts now, from all over the world, and they all have at least one element in common, which is progressing to some endpoint without taking one of those nasties you just saw Melanie avoid.”

Hamp was on his feet, and had grabbed Booker by his lapels quicker than I could stop him.

“Show me the rest. Right now.” Hamp’s voice was low, and approaching the danger zone I’d only experienced a few times, usually when it was the two of us against, well, many more than two.

I could not imagine the state Hamp’s mind at that point. He intellectually knew Melanie was already dead, but he’d just seen her negotiate a very difficult situation with grace, even aplomb. What it must be like seeing your daughter make you very proud and knowing at the same time she is gone must be approaching psychotic break territory.

I gently put my hands on Hamp’s shoulders. “Hamp.”

“Fuck off, Dick,” he growled. He never called me Dick, so I knew I had a fine line to walk.

“Listen to me. Priority number one was finding Mel. We found her. Booker tells us she’s gone, so we either believe him or not. That’s not the point. What’s the first principle of recon?”

“Gather all the intel you can,” he said by rote.

“And what are you NOT doing right now?”

“Gathering data.”

“Right-o, lardass. Let the man go so he can help us.”

Hamp let him go, dropping Booker the two feet or so he’d been effortlessly holding him in the air. Booker landed nimbly, neatly avoiding a tangle of power cables heading to the displays.

Lightning fast, Hamp threw a right cross at me. I caught it with my left hand, expecting something of the sort. As I caught it, I twisted it around behind him in a basic hold I knew he could break, but that wasn’t the point. I only needed a little time to say a couple more things.

“Listen, numb-nuts, you think a one-man wrecking crew is going to do anybody any good?” He twisted out of the hold, calming slightly, I hoped.

“Would Mel want us to do this?” I dropped the neutron bomb, and it had the desired effect. Hamp collapsed into a chair, which promptly broke, and Hamp ended up on his ass on the floor between a bunch of chair parts. I couldn’t help it, I laughed out loud. Booker, having regained his composure, started to laugh also, a tangled and barbed sound.

Hamp looked up with murderous intent in his eyes, but it quickly faded, and he started to laugh with us. The next minute or so was a very badly needed cathartic release of tension. Booker had to wipe away the tears by the time he was done. He’d lost some of his “I know more than you do” credibility, but gained some humanity in exchange.

“Gents, before I show you Melanie’s second stage, I want you to understand what we’ve learned about stage one. Not only for your own upcoming attempt, but there are valuable nuggets of information our compilation has uncovered. You need to know what they are.”

“You mean like the inscribed symbols on the door of the dome?” Hamp asked.

“Or the way each object Mel avoided would have likely killed her, but more likely crippled her?” I chimed in, bringing to the surface what had tickled my mind while watching Mel.

“Or the pattern the bricks of the path made, like a code?” Hamp continued.

Booker gawked back at us, mouth agape.

Chapter 21

“You two are certainly something of a surprise,” Booker said after a solid thirty seconds of reflection. “No one has picked up on those elements of stage one before. As a matter of fact,” he said, gaining some energy, “it took the computers cross-correlating around seventy cases before it let us know it had found a viable, repeating pattern. Interesting.”

He went somewhere in his head then, his eyes unfocused, and quickly returned. “OK. I really think seeing Mel’s experience in stage two will be very instructive.” He instinctively retreated from Hamp by a subtle change in his stance; his shoulders slid into a shrug, he took a half-step back, and his hands came up in a clumsy self-defense posture. He realized what he was doing, smiled, uneasily, and went back into a forced relaxed posture.

Hamp and I exchanged a glance, acknowledging fully we’d seen this same body language many times before. Mostly, it meant Booker was scared, but didn’t think he could do shit to protect himself from what was right in front of him. Truth is, he was right, but that didn’t matter. I don’t believe Hamp had processed Melanie’s death yet, and seriously doubted I could prevent him from killing Booker. Incidentally, it’s MUCH more difficult to protect someone else than it is to protect yourself.

“It’s an occupational hazard,” I said. Seeing Booker’s obvious question on his face, I continued, “Seeing detail. It’s a learned skill. Most people can develop it, and we have done so. The issue usually is that stress makes it less probable any subject will take focus their attention on enough surrounding territory that he or she can talk about it later, but Hamp and I have been trained to do so. Don’t be so surprised. You’ve seen our jackets.”

Booker nodded to himself. “Indeed,” he said. “I had my hopes, and it’s good to see them realized.” He moved to the station. “Would you like some time to get some food, then see Mel’s stage two, or would you prefer to plow ahead?”

He said the last with a somewhat fearful glance at Hamp, knowing he was on an immutable path towards showing Hamp his daughter’s death. I could tell easily that he didn’t want to be anywhere around when that particular piece of history was shown. Maybe I could work out something with him by then. That was two stages ahead; as I understood it, Mel had survived stages two and three, and then lost it when every other human who had made it that far had lost it, in stage four.

“Let me ask you something,” I broke in. “Have two people ever gone into an Orb together?”

“We’ve tried combinations of up to five at a time,” Booker replied. “What we got the time we tried five was four instantly dead bodies at the start of the stage. No cause of death has ever been determined. Apparently only one is allowed in at a time.”

“Have you tried different ways of getting another person in while the first is already inside?”

“Look, I….” Booker was obviously frustrated, but fought it down. “What are you thinking?”

“I have no idea,” I replied, something of a lie, but I don’t like revealing concepts until they’re a little bit more cooked. “I can tell you Hamp and I have survived together in many situations where neither would have survived alone, and that I doubt many other pairs would have lived, either. I strongly suggest you put some of the brainpower behind trying to figure out how to get us in together.”

“Okay. We started down that path, but lost lives researching it. A lot of lives.” He faded into himself for a blink. “But we can take another look. I’ll set you up with Fallhouse to talk about the likely causes of death, and we can talk later about the mechanics we’ve tried, and any ideas you might have.”

“Fair enough. Can we take a look at Mel’s second stage now?” I felt Hamp tighten up.

“Yes. Do you want to watch it, as you did her stage one, or do you want to experience it as she did?”

I deferred to Hamp. His eyes were still mostly feral, but I could see some internals beginning to work, as well. Hopefully spawned by my questioning of Booker about getting us both in together.

“Let’s watch it, again. I’m not sure I’m ready to be seeing out of my dead daughter’s eyes yet.”

Chapter 22

We hooked ourselves up to the headsets again, and stared at the monitor.

“This one’s a little bloody,” Booker said. “Again, remember that all that happened occurred in the Orb, and we’re still not sure what the fuck we’re dealing with. What I mean by that is that people who survive the second stage return to, uhmm, normalcy, in the place we are right now, whatever you want to call it, completely unharmed, and with all limbs attached, all holes filled.” Hamp stood up, upset and began to say something, but Booker overrode him with sheer volume. “But people who die in the Orb simply never wake up from the hookup. All their vitals are just gone; no heartbeat, no respiration, no brain activity.” He took a second to glance at Hamp. “Remember, Melanie survived this stage just fine.”

Hamp had no comment, but glared at him for a minute, and I finally had the impression he knew this was NOT Booker’s fault, and that he was trying to solve an unsolvable problem.

“Play the Goddam thing,” Hamp said in a bass-profundo monotone.

The screen lit up. We saw Melanie outside the door of what appeared to be a very large hemisphere, the top half of which was above ground. The door arched to fit perfectly with the dome-shaped structure. First guess – radius was about fifty meters. The entryway was directly in front of Melanie, a door of about ten meters height. There was no clear means of opening it, and we entered the playback with Mel just standing there, hands on her hips, looking at the big door.

We heard her say to herself “Damn, someone’s got a serious case of penis envy,” which was shocking, because besides some breathing and a couple of “shits” and “damns” we hadn’t heard anything during our screening of Melanie’s stage one experience. Of course, there hadn’t been much to talk about; she was just dodging barbed nasties as they came at her. I had a quick laugh, thinking of Ferris and his demise in stage one. Some of it must have been audible, because Hamp said “What’s so funny, Dick?”

“Nothing about this; I was just thinking of Ferris taking one of those stage one arrows up the ass.”

Hamp and I exchanged a smile, with a quick glance away from the screen. Now THIS was the Mel I know; a complete tomboy with a severe case of “I’m badder than you could ever dream of being, so don’t mess with me.”

She looked at it a bit longer, shook her head as if to clear it, then simply went up to the crease where the doors would open, and placed her hand on the right hand side. It immediately lit up, and the light exploded to encompass the entire doorframe.

“Please take two steps back,” a voice told her, seemingly emanating from the door itself. Mel did as directed, and the massive doors swung slowly open. Mel went into a defensive crouch immediately, and I was just as immediately proud, because I’d taught her to do that and to make it instinctual when facing an unknown number of enemies on unfamiliar terrain.

Nothing happened in front of her, so she slowly made her way into a cavern-like space the open doors revealed.

She waited a full two minutes before advancing through the doors; another procedural step that I took pride in. I’d always taught her to take what the enemy gives you – in this case, it meant thoroughly surveying what was on the other side of the doors before advancing through them. She did so. When she was immediately on the internal side of the doors, they SLAMMED shut behind her so quickly I wondered if they would have taken off a limb or a butt-cheek if the “contestant” had been any slower. Probably.

The area in front of her was nothing spectacular: a stone-inlayed flooring surrounded by a cloudy hemisphere resembling the top half of a sphere, consistent with the shape of the object she’d been studying on the outside of the doors. She immediately noticed the doors across from her, and the man that had stepped into the immense dome nearly the same time she’d entered.

He appeared to be about six feet tall, well-muscled, and comfortable in his own skin.

“Hello, little one,” he said. “Prepare to die.”

Chapter 23

Wearing nothing but tight, form-fitting shorts, the man moved towards the center of the circular arena. “C’mon over, little girl. Let’s get this over with quickly,” he said to Mel without a hint of emotion.

Mel took her time, examining the space to the left and right of her, no doubt thinking some type of nasty would be careening towards her, a remnant of stage one. She waited a good three minutes, making sure nothing came her way from one of the walls, floor, or ceiling.

Meanwhile, Mr. Shorts had moved to the center of the open space, and was standing on the balls of his feet, in perfect balance, waiting for Melanie to approach. “C’mon darlin’, we can’t start this dance until you enter the center.”

“Nice rhyme, asshole,” Mel said, eyes still surveying the entire perimeter and in constant motion. Again, I felt inordinately proud of her, putting all elements of her training into use. Hamp and I both leaned closer to the screen as one, in perfect timing. We both had a sense for danger, ingrained over long years and many cases together. Some say you can’t smell death. I’m here to tell you, you can.

Mel waited until she was good and sure no projectiles were forthcoming. “Girl, this test is about combat. Pure and clean, physical combat 101. There’s nothing to be worried about in here except me,” Mr. Shorts said. With that, he began a stretching routine of the major muscle groups, never once taking his vision away from Mel.

Mel began walking towards the center, ever so slowly, a step every three or four seconds. Once she approached the center, where Mr. Shorts was standing, she could see a luminescent circle drawn around him, probably twenty yards or so in diameter. I could almost read her thoughts; “OK, so space won’t be an issue here,” or something of that sort.

“What happens when I cross this glowing line?” she asked.

“Very simple. Then you and I fight to the death,” he answered.

She processed the info for a couple of seconds, then said “Any rules?”

“Sure,” he said. “Two things will get you past this stage. First, don’t die, and second, kill me.”

Mel stepped into the ring. Small, padded gloves instantly appeared on her hands. Not full boxing gloves, but they protected her third knuckles on each hand, up through her wrist.

Mr. Shorts quickly engaged, closing the distance between them with a fast, shuffling boxer’s motion. I noticed, and I’m sure Mel did too, he had a southpaw stance, no doubt designed by these fucking Orbs to make it more difficult. Fighting a left-handed person was always more difficult than fighting a right-handed person FOR a right-handed person, because your lead foot tended to interfere with the other fighter’s. I hoped Mel would do the right thing, and quickly.

She did! She slipped into southpaw herself, and shuffled her feet slowly but nimbly to engage with Mr. Shorts.

When they were in range, he popped a lightning-fast right jab that shattered Mel’s nose. An enormous flow of blood immediately began gushing out of her nose and into her mouth. She took a couple of seconds to move back out of range, and then said with a smile, “Can’t make it a fair fight, can you?” She clearly recognized the jab was thrown with more-than-human speed.

“Hell to the naw, Chicklet. Why should we? We need the best you got, not the pansies.”

Mel grunted at the bullshit reply, and used the thumbs of her suddenly-gloved-hands to set her broken nose as best she could, spat a large glob of blood and spit onto the stoned surface. I would swear on a stack of Bibles she made some decision in that few seconds, but damned if I knew what it was. I had an idea, though, that she had just quit hedging and pushed all her chips into the center of the table.

Ready to re-engage, Mel said “Bring it, motherfucker.” Her eyes were flat, dead, focused, and deadly. She shuffled back into Mr. Shorts’s range.

He pushed out another jab, and blur that it was, Mel ducked it low and landed a left hook straight to his groin. Very smart, I thought, testing how the Orb would deal with a potentially fight-stopping blow early on in the contest. I barely noticed Hamp’s quiet “Yes!” uttered to my left. I was too into the fight to pay anything else much attention.

Mr. Shorts doubled over, and Mel tried to take immediate advantage. She grabbed the back of his head, and got a good, solid grip of hair in both hands. She pushed down, hard, and at the same time brought her left knee straight up into his face. Faster than any human, his hands came up to block the knee, but he wasn’t quite fast enough. Mel had always been very fast with her legs. Her knee connected with his forehead instead of his mouth or his nose, which I knew were the targets she was aiming for.

I heard her mutter “shit,” at the same time twisting her body a hundred and eighty degrees, and jumped on his back while he was hunched over. She slid one arm around his throat, and tried to lock in a rear-naked-choke by grabbing it with her other hand. Again, he was too fast, and grabbed her ‘lock-in’ hand with both of his. He immediately jumped forward into a summersault, which had the effect of him landing on top of Mel on the stone surface, and I could see her grip loosen, as the air had been knocked out of her.

With nothing securing him to her any longer, he rose to his feet, and landed a vicious kick to her ribcage on the way up. Mel groaned, but fought it off and rose quickly to her feet.

“How do your nuts feel?” she taunted.

“How do your ribs feel?” he retorted.

“Nothing more than a stitch from a hard workout,” Mel said. “Is that all you’ve got?” she breathed out. “This is going to be easier than I thought.”

He wasn’t even breathing hard, although blood (simulated?) was flowing from a huge gash on his forehead due to Mel’s knee-strike. Soon, if he were human, it would impair his vision. And I KNEW Mel knew how to take advantage of that.

Indeed, she started circling rather than engaging, letting the blood flow do its magic. Mr. Shorts was forced to wipe it away, out of his eyes, every couple of seconds. Mel took advantage after about thirty seconds, and popped him with a couple of devastating right hooks. Each one hit cleanly, one to the head and one to the ribs, right when he was wiping blood.

Mel wasn’t breathing hard either now. She had found her fight rhythm, and that made me very happy and proud. Once you’re in a fight, there comes a time when you either consciously or sub-consciously make the decision to go “all in.” Mel had now made that decision, as I’d guessed earlier. Nothing else in her life mattered to her now; only killing Mr. Shorts. I began to smile.

Chapter 24

Mel was, to a greater extent than I’d ever given her credit for before, both very smart and very cool under pressure.

The next twenty minutes or so of this fight to the death was orchestrated by Mel; it was fought at Mel’s pace; and the outcome was as exactly titrated by Mel’s plan as if it were a college-level chemistry experiment.

Every time Mr. Shorts went for a submission or death-inducing hold, Mel would apply the correct counter-move. Meanwhile, she kept a close eye on the blood flow from his forehead cut caused by her knee. Every single time she judged his vision as sufficiently impaired, she either leveled a devastating kick to his ribs or head, or a from-the-toes right or left hook, similarly aimed.

It took about fifteen minutes, but Hamp also, sitting next to me, felt the momentum of the fight turn Mel’s way.

The dicey moment came at about twenty minutes in, when Shorts grabbed Mel’s left hook, spun, and quickly dislocated or broke Mel’s left arm at the elbow. She cried out in pain, but quickly controlled her breathing, took a couple seconds to dis-engage and go somewhere deep inside herself, and then it simply wasn’t an issue any more; just like Hamp and I had taught her to treat injuries during a fight. I was so proud, I almost burst. I could only imagine how Hamp felt.

Thirty or so minutes into the fight, after countless exchanges which Melanie slowly but surely got the better of, an opportunity presented itself. She’d just landed a left roundhouse leg kick to Shorts’s groin, which she’d been targeting for some time, and he crumpled to the ground. Melanie allowed herself to be shocked for about one half of a second, then immediately jumped on his back. She grabbed his chin with her right hand and the hair on the back of his head with her left, and put all her strength into twisting as hard as she could. The snap was audible, even to us observers, and Mr. Shorts went still, Mel screamed in pain as she further injured her left elbow, but I knew a primal victory roar when I heard one.

Melanie stood up, and uttered the words I will heretofore always remember her by. “Who’s next?” she said, broken left arm and all. I gave out a guttural cheer that made Booker and Hamp both take a step back. Hamp had to stand up from his stool first, of course, and that sent the stool flying backwards across the room. “Goddamn,” I said, still looking at the screen. “Is she something, or what?”

Hamp was breathing hard, I noticed, as he tried to hide a tear working its way from his left eye.

Chapter 25

“So, tell me more about the times you’ve tried to send in more than one person,” I asked Booker, as we were sitting around a small, circular table in one of the tents. Hamp was there too, looking better than he had in three days.

“I don’t think that’s the best use of our time right now,” Booker said. “We need to….”

“I really don’t care.” I spoke over him. “You need us to go in those Orbs, and everything you’ve tried so far has failed during the fourth stage, correct?”

Booker nodded.

“Well, welcome to Slate Consulting. Like it or not, you are now my one and only, my most important Client,” I said. “Here’s the deal. You tell me what I want to know, right when I want to know it, end of story. You’ve had literally billions of people die in those things, right?”

Another nod.

“Fees, we will discuss later.” A disgusted look crossed Booker’s face. “Whatever,” I said, acknowledging his disgust. “This is how I make my living, and I’m damned good at it. So now the needle shifts, and you go from running our upcoming operation to supporting it. Deal?”

“Deal.” Booker looked defeated, down but not out, which is how I needed him. Good.

“Do you have any video, or vital statistics recorded, or anything at all, on the people who tried to go in double or triple?” I asked.

He actually looked hurt. “Of course!” he blurted. “We had them all wired nine ways from Sunday, and collected everything we could, but nobody was alive when they came back out. No heartbeat, no brainwaves, no meaningful electrical activity.”

“How about body temperature?” I asked. “Did their bodies cool down at an expected rate, or did they come out cold as corpses?”

Booker looked at me, a bit surprised. “No, their body temperatures were what you’d expect with a recent death,” he told me. “They cooled down to room temperature at the rate consistent with their surroundings.”

“I want to watch one of their attempts, through their eyes.”

“Fine by me, but for the record, I believe this to be a waste of time when we have none to waste,” Booker said.

I sighed. “We’d better get on with it then.”

Chapter 26

We’d moved over a couple of tents, and Booker had called a sysadmin to pull up some archived data from around six months ago. That was the last time they’d attempted sending in teams, and the accumulated, associated deaths had encouraged him to the stop that line of research.

“Tell me what you know about this team,” I asked Booker.

“Two females, two males. All completely wired, since we’d started doing that around nine months ago. This was the last attempt at sending in multiple people, since the tradeoff between instant deaths and another try at the Orb seemed obvious at the time, given how many we’d lost at trying to get in groups.”

“How many times did you try?”

“Almost a hundred, resulting in over three-hundred deaths,” Booker related, solemnly.

“Ok, let’s take a look at the last group you did,” I said, and put on my headset. “Hamp, you watch too, and you know what to look for, right?”

“I may be grieving for Mel, but I’m not stupid, dumb-ass,” Hamp said.

I liked his spirit returning, so my caustic rejoinder went unspoken.

The screen sprang to life, and a scene identical to Mel’s stage one showed before us.

“Anything we should know about the team before you show us the clip?” I asked.

“One male and one female were both Navy SEALs,” Booker said. The other two were mountain free-climbers; climbed together for years. None had any significant medical conditions. All four were in good spirits. I personally supervised this insertion.” He paused for a moment, reflecting. “I was crushed at three of them being D.O.A.”

“Which one survived to run stages one and two?” I asked.

“The female Navy SEAL,” Booker replied.

I glanced at Hamp. “What do you think?”

“I think probably the same thing you do, which is the Orb crushes the will to live, or the spirit out of all but the one ‘candidate’ it chooses to run the stage. Somehow, that results in a dead body in this world.” I was shocked again by how sharply Hamp’s tactical analysis skills reflected my own. I was also concerned, because too much predictability in a team reveals weakness to a sophisticated enemy.

“Yeah,” I said. “Pay attention to the two males who died, as well as the one female. Let’s not have you worry about the gal who made it through.”

To Booker I said “Put Hamp’s perspective, or whatever you call it, in a male who died, and put mine in the female who lived.”

“We’ve never tried that before,” Booker protested. “We can’t afford to waste either you or Mr. Hampstead at this stage, so I’m going to have to refuse your request.”

“Well, then get out the handcuffs and take us to jail with the rest of the ‘traitors to the human’ race,” I said. “Because I have an idea how to beat the first part of this thing, and it has nothing to do with your ‘experiments’ so far.”

Booker looked defeated and deflated. “Ok, your decision. We’ll make do with the rest of them.” He must have signaled somehow, because then around ten guards came in with stun darts, the same kind that had taken Hamp down in the plane. “Lock ‘em up.” Booker instructed. “I’ll let you know when to take them to Omaha.” He got up and left the room.

Hamp and I made one of our instant, unspoken decisions, and decided to make our first stand right then and there. The ten had come in through two doors, one door on each side of us. Booker had exited through the one on his right, which slightly disrupted them getting in circular formation around us. As soon as Booker left, we hit the five coming through that door. Hamp had one down with a broken left elbow, and had darted two others before I even got to my first. He managed to get off a shot, and it ripped through the left arm of my shirt before I broke his nose, knocked him out and took his dart gun. Without any break whatsoever, I jump-rolled to the right, away from Hamp, and came up firing. I didn’t know how the gun worked, so I assumed semi-automatic, which is how I would have set it up. I took down three of those that came in through the left door with three throat shots, and was kind of proud of myself.

I shouldn’t have been. One of the remaining two hit me with a dart, which was sticking twelve o’clock high out of my chest. I remembered it took four of the things to take Hamp down on the airplane, so I just kept moving.

I nailed the other two from the door with darts, and they went down immediately, so I shifted my attention to Hamp.

Four of his five attackers were splayed on the floor, and he had disarmed the fifth. He was holding this unfortunate fellow against the wall, his fist around the guy’s neck, least two feet off the floor.

“Call Booker back, or your neck’s going to bend a whole new way in five seconds,” Hamp grumbled at the guy.

“Okay, okay, doing it now, okay,” the guy rasped out.

Ten or fifteen seconds later, Booker re-entered the room from the same door he’d exited from.

He surveyed the room. “Point taken,” he said, after a few seconds. “Let’s see what we can do.” He looked at the dart standing out of my chest. “Do you feel tired or inclined to fall asleep at all?” he asked.

“A little, but I’m fighting it off,” I said.

“Interesting,” Booker said. “Each dart has approximately enough dosage to make a three hundred pound mammal sleep for twelve hours.”

“Well, Hamp and I have taken some steps to inure ourselves against the most common anesthetics,” I replied. “We can ‘will’ ourselves to ignore the signals being sent to the brain,” I said, as I pulled out the two darts and threw them at his feet. “Don’t try any shit like that again, or you’ll have two highly capable and highly pissed off guys coming at you, not the Orbs.”

Booker went introspective for a few moments. “Understood,” he said.

“Let’s play that video.”

Chapter 27

Hooked back up again, Booker said “I’m going to give you a few minutes to get used to the sensation of looking out of another’s eyes, hearing out of their ears, etc. It’s basically a sensory training piece we put together months ago when we were trying to figure out how to best gather and correlate the massive amounts of data we were acquiring. Nobody has used it much since, and certainly no one has done what you’re going to do, or more specifically what Hamp is going to do, which is essentially being psychically inside someone who died in an Orb.”

He flipped a few switches, and suddenly I was a woman walking along the path of stage one. She had completed it successfully, because no barbed projectiles were coming at her. I knew I was female first because I noticed I had breasts; second because my stride was different due to the different hip structure between men and women. I’d heard and read about it, but experiencing it was a new experience.

Then it was over.

“Play it again, and longer, if you have it,” I said. I looked at Hamp, who looked as if he were going to say something. “Save it, bud. We’ll talk later about which one of us was cutest.” I sent a totally different message with my eyes, which he blinked twice to acknowledge message received.

I looked at Booker. “I thought mine died,” I said.

“She dies in stage two.”

“Right, I forgot.” I hadn’t; I wanted to test Booker’s command of his own material.

Suddenly, I was back on the path. This time, I tried to lock into what the woman was thinking, somehow, to make myself a blank slate (no pun intended). I could see what she saw, feel what she felt, smell what she smelled, and hear what she heard, but I could not get into her mind at all. Okay, that was disappointing.

I kept trying, but suddenly all went dark gray. I went with the flow for a while, and just when I was about to get cranky and take my headset off, when the familiar scene of the man in the combat circle came up.

“C’mon, little missy, let’s get this over with,” he said.

The woman whose body I ghosted looked all around the room, just like Mel did. She cautiously took a step, and nothing happened. Just like with Mel, the man said “Girl, this test is about combat. Pure and clean, physical combat 101. There’s nothing to be worried about in here except me,” eerily similar to what Mel’s combatant had said. This guy was a bit shorter, a bit thicker, but still looked highly capable.

She eventually made her way into the circle; the gloves appeared on her hands, and the combat began.

Her opponent unfortunately made short work of her. I inhabited her perceptions, but I didn’t feel the pain as her ribs cracked, her elbow was dislocated, her ankle broken, and eventually a devastating sternum blow was delivered that incapacitated her.

“Sorry, honey,” her opponent said. “Game over.” He then took her back, planted a knee between her shoulder blades, and pulled up on her forehead until her neck broke.

It shook me, but not because I felt the pain of the combat or the reality of dying, but because another human had died at the hands of these bastards. And maybe a little because her combat skills were so limited. I could have easily won the fight that killed that woman. My resolve hardened. I’d need to find another way.

Chapter 28

Coming out of the simulation, I noticed Booker wasn’t in the room with us. I quickly made note of all the strange symbols I’d seen during the woman’s death in stage two, which took me about a half an hour. I’d seen about twenty this time. Hamp did the same. I compared my list with Hamp’s - our standard operating procedure when we were on a mission but had a break - a little intel and operational planning session. Hamp had noticed one more than I had through his viewing of Mel’s visits to stage one and two, and the internal view we’d just had from the two others. Usually I picked up more on the details. That worried me; I knew they were important, I just didn’t know how or why yet. If we’d both missed one or more, I had a bad feeling it would come back to bite us on our respective asses later.

Our combined list was now nearly a page full of odd symbols. Both of us had been trained to have very strong memories for numbers and pictures. Our lists were identical down to the last dot in a symbol, except for the extra one Hamp had that I didn’t.

“Where’d that one come from?,” I asked, pointing to his extra symbol, an inverted letter “V” with dots on both sides of the bottom.

“Was on the door the fighter came out of, in the bottom right hand corner.”

“Dammit,” I said, and I meant it. I couldn’t afford to miss anything.

I glanced at Hamp. He’d apparently seen the same sequence I had, since his first candidate had died in stage one.

Hamp was still shaking his head. “Stupid, stupid, stupid,” I heard him mutter.

“What’s stupid?” I asked.

“She missed so many opportunities to damage that little sonovabitch,” Hamp bemoaned. I knew he was right, of course – my body had tried to make the right moves at the right times as well, which affected the outcome of what we experienced not a bit. It did result in nice bruises from the restraints, however. I was a sporting colorful bruises on both ankles and both wrists from the restraints, and I deduced Hamp was also, since he was rubbing his wrists and ankles.

Still no Booker.

“Where do you think he is?” Hamp asked.

“I don’t know, but I’m beginning to trust him a bit more,” I said. “I really believe he’s heart and soul into beating this motherfucker.”

“Mel beat stage three,” Hamp said, and was quiet for a few moments. He looked up at me. “Rich, I don’t think I can take watching her die right now.” He hung his head, looked embarrassed and almost crushed. “Will you watch that one, and tell me every detail about it after?”

My mind was racing. I really needed two sets of eyes on every stage to garner every detail we could. But, c’mon, what wouldn’t I do for this man who was every bit a family member, if not genetically?

“Of course, bud. I’ll do that. But you realize Mel survived stage three, according to Dr. Hooker.”

Hamp smiled a bit at my dumb play on words. “Thanks man.” Subdued. I wasn’t looking forward to watching it at all.

Booker burst through the door at that moment, slightly out of breath. “Sorry I wasn’t there when you came out,” he huffed between breaths. “We just came as close as we’ve ever had to someone surviving the fourth stage. I was alerted just as you went under, and I had to go watch. I’ve decided this guy’s experience is the one you’ll watch before you start the Orb, not the one I’d selected before. He gives you a good five more minutes before he died.” Booker looked like he’d been on some happy gas – completely inappropriate in my book.

“Hey, asshole,” I said to him.

“I, ah, what ...?” he replied, clearly taken aback.

“Someone else just died, and you look like a kid on Christmas morning. Give him some respect.”

“Ah. Right. What you don’t understand yet, Mr. Slate, is the sheer enormity of deaths I’ve seen. I’ve personally watched over ten thousand, and there have been billions. A statistically insignificant portion, at best.” He wiped his sweaty brow. “I apologize if I seem crass and unconcerned with this latest death, but believe me, I was living and dying with him as faced the stage four challenge. I was, and am, crushed that he didn’t quite make it. He had the bastard bloodied and nearly beaten before one of the basics he didn’t cast….” All of a sudden, he looked scared, like he’d told us too much.

“Never mind that,” he said quickly. You’ll see it soon enough. We just have to move through Mel’s stages three and four, and then we can have a real strategy session on how you can both begin your attempts at the Orb.”

“Hey, Shaggy,” I said. “I thought you’d figured this out by now. We’re going in together, or not at all. Your ten unconscious and broken security people in the other room – I thought we’d made our point with them.”

Booker turned an alarming shade of purplish-red. “You simply don’t realize what you’re asking,” he said. “One hundred percent, that means EVERY GROUP, that has tried to go in as a team has been methodically and with no mercy INSTANTANEOUSLY reduced through an unknown mechanism down to one. Instant death. I simply cannot risk one of you two dying on me without a serious effort at the stages. I cannot and will not.”

“Then bring in a bunch more of your security guys. You have two choices: both of us, or neither.”

Booker and I engaged in a staring contest, reminding me fleetingly of the similar contest Ferris and I had engaged in a couple days ago for me, over a year ago for Ferris. Stakes unimaginably higher, but I won the staring contest with Ferris, and the result was the same here. Convincing yourself you’ve already lost, believing it in your heart, and projecting it onto your psyche was an immensely successful Samurai technique, and it worked here.

He finally broke, as I knew he would.

“Understand,” he said, “you are literally risking the fate of the human species with your ego by forcing this issue. Are you completely certain you want that on your conscience as you prepare and eventually enter this fucking thing?”

I looked him dead in the eye, not having blinked since we began our latest little power struggle. “I’ve never been surer of anything.”

He defied me for a moment, then visibly deflated. “Okay. We have to move on to stage three. Take a half hour, visit the mess hall, get something to eat, and be back here in an hour. We’ll continue then.”

Chapter 29

Stage three turned out to be something of an anticlimax, after all the action of the first two.

Booker had returned, and we were again set up in the nifty playback stations.

“What, no restraints this time?” I asked, as Booker moved to start the sequence we’d be watching.

“No, there’s no need for that with this stage. Stage three is entirely mental. You’re both going to watch Melanie play a game of chess.”

I actually bit my tongue trying to hold back a bark of laughter. “You shitting me?”

“Unfortunately not. The Orbs are every bit as mental as they are physical. Stage three is the first time we experience that. By the way, did Mel play chess much?”

I thought about that a bit before answering. Obviously he knew she survived the stage, meaning she won the match, but Booker was after something else, and damned if I knew what it was.

Hamp fielded this one. “Rich and I have played all sorts of strategy games with Mel since she could understand the rules. We do chess, Go, Go-Moku, Aware, and lots of others.” He actually sounded a bit cheered. I was glad for that, knowing what was ahead of her in stage four. We never entered tournaments or anything, but I did know Mel beat me two or three games out of every five. Hamp was probably happy because he didn’t have to watch his daughter bleed.

“Okay, let’s do it.”

He set up the initializing sequence, and Hamp and I donned our headsets.

After the initial, seemingly unavoidable few seconds (or minutes; who could tell?) of total gray haze, the image came sweetly into focus. Mel had just entered what was obviously another stage. Ahead of her was a stone path just as in the first two stages, leading to a smaller hemisphere of translucent material. Sitting in the center of this one was a simulacrum of a man, whom I thought resembled the man Mel had killed in combat in stage two.

Obviously chess is a mental game, and I thought this was a cheap shot by the Orbs to rattle those trying to beat it.

“Hello again,” Mel said.

“Hello, sweetie,” said the Orb’s player.

“How does your neck feel?” Mel asked, with a bit too much testosterone. I thought she was trying to rattle her opponent, but I’ve never been too good at figuring out what females are thinking.

“Just a little LOL there, darlin’,” the Orb player said. “You showed tremendous patience and quite a bit of daring in surviving in the last stage. Credit to you; you’re stronger than you look. But you’ll be just as dead if you lose this game.”

“T’weren’t nothin’,” Mel said, adopting and somehow mocking the west Texas accent the Orb had adopted. “That guy wasn’t even the toughest fight I’ve won that wasn’t a computer.”

“Oh, I’m no computer,” the Orb player said. “I’m an authentic learning-enabled, stochastic, decision-making, non-digital, unlimited-memory growth-capable model of candidate verification.”

“Oh,” Mel said, as if that explained everything.

Mel stepped right next to the edge of the inner hemisphere. “What’s the deal here, huh? You going to attack me again as soon as I step through the barrier here?”

The Orb player beckoned Mel to the chair across from him, where a table and a chess board immediately appeared. “No, not this time,” he said with a smile. “This stage is very simple. Just beat me in a game of chess.” He sat down at his end of the table. “Black or white?” he asked, and looked up questioningly at Mel.

“Black,” Mel said. I knew that was the best choice for Mel. She always had a knack of playing off my attacks when I played white with some subtle and deadly counter-attacks. In chess, white moved first, and black second. This naturally set up the dynamic of the white player being the attacker until he decided to set up a multi-move attack, while the black player usually sat back and counter-punched until an opening occurred.

What the Orb didn’t know was that Mel had developed over the years an aggressive counter-attacking style that had led to my losing many matches. She had taken some of the Masters’ strategies playing defense over the past decade or so, studying the matches online, and incorporated them into her own aggressive style. I had always thought she was better when playing white, but she loved black. Loved it enough that this time, she’d bet her life on it.

Mel took her seat, the black pieces arrayed before her. She gave them a good hard look, and stayed that way for a minute or so. I don’t know what she was thinking, but I was thinking that her life rested in her ability to move those pieces around an eight by eight grid over the next couple of hours. Oddly enough, her opponent didn’t taunt or interact with her in any way for those couple of minutes.

Finally, in a conversational voice, he asked “Are you ready to begin?”

Mel snapped out of her trance immediately. “Knight or King’s pawn?” she asked; the two most common openings.

“Oh, let’s try something a bit different this time,” he said, and pushed the Queen’s pawn two spaces forward.

Chapter 30

Two and a half hours later, Mel’s opponent reached out to one of his few remaining pieces, the King, and tipped it over, signaling his concession of the match.

“Well played,” he said. “I have not run into that variation of the Kasparov-Big Blue match before. It is now part of our permanent strategic plan for this stage. You won the match, but you made it harder for anyone to duplicate your success this stage. Congratulations.” He reached his hand across the table in a handshake invitation.

I thought I detected just a bit of petulance in his words and body language, which sort of confirmed my suspicions that our antagonists were not entirely digital – there was some emotion in there somewhere. Alien or not, they didn’t like to lose.

Well, good. Neither did I.

Mel reluctantly returned the handshake, recognizing her victory as pyrrhic at best. I saw her shift her center of gravity in preparation for the handshake to be prelude to another combat activity, but sometimes a handshake is just a handshake.

Our screens went dark, and I removed my headset.

“Hamp, we have to reconsider this thing,” I said.

“Yeah, I agree,” he replied. “I thought it was all one big war-fest, but it appears they’re screening us for more than just reflexes and the ability to kick some ass.”

Booker, standing behind us, was atypically silent. I turned to him. “Any special insights about that chess stage you care to share with us?”

“A couple,” he said. “First, every time somebody wins stage three, it makes it more difficult for the next winner, as you saw and heard yourself. Second, sending two people in to that stage makes no sense, as chess is a one player game. That’s a very good reason, but the least important of the reasons I still hesitate to send you both in simultaneously. I don’t know how the Orb would react; it might just kill you both on the spot. I know I’ve already agreed to that stipulation, but we may want to revisit this decision when the time comes.”

His use of “when” didn’t escape me. Whether he was trying to build us up for the first two stages subconsciously, or if it was just a slip, it was still good to hear.

“I can’t think of any reason to disagree with you, except for one outside possibility,” I said.

“What’s that?”

“Let’s take that on when Hamp and I have made it there, ok?”

Booker didn’t like it, but he swallowed it.

“Well, gentlemen, I am truly sorry to say it, but our time is short and getting shorter all the time. I need to go integrate everything the candidate who just set the new record for survival in stage four into that stage’s prep. There is really only one thing left for you to watch, which is Mel’s stage four visit.” I saw he was careful to keep his eyes only on me.

I glanced at Hamp. He was clenching his hands so tightly they were completely white, and his torso was curled over them as if praying.

“I’ll be watching this one alone, Mr. Booker,” I said

“Again, I disagree,” he said. “More eyes are better, and it might actually motivate Mr. Hampstead to see the visualization.”

As I started to get up, Booker put up a hand, palm out. “Please, calm down. If you two truly believe it’s best this way, then that’s how we’ll do it.”

I sat down again. My real worry about watching what was to come was not my emotional attachment to Mel. Although my pain remained very real and deep, I have accepted her death. I was petrified that I might miss a sign, like I did before, and THAT could have fatal consequences later.

“Hamp, go get some rest. Booker, spool that baby up. Let’s rock and roll.”

Hamp left, head down. Booker said “You and I have some things to talk about after you watch Melanie’s attempt at stage four.”

“I know. Let’s do this,” I said, and slipped my headset back on to watch my best friend’s daughter die.

Chapter 31

I watched Mel walk the now-familiar path up to the shining hemisphere in the center of the Orb. She walked with a confidence – likely a confidence borne of beating three stages of this thing, and certain she could beat the rest. My heart skipped a beat.

Again, the same simulacrum faced her. A part of my mind wondered if the Orb thought it gained some advantage for having a, what, a “candidate” face the same likeness again and again. Maybe it was something subconscious, as in “you keep defeating me, and here I am again, so why don’t you just give up?” sort of thing. I don’t know.

Again, Mel stopped short of entering the inner hemisphere, and regarded her opponent. His outfit was somewhat absurd. He wore a tall wizard’s cap with a large, white cotton ball on its peak, a long sparkling cloak adorned with crescent moons, stars, and exclamation points, and shoes made of some shiny material, the toes of which curled upwards into a spiral and snapped left-right-left when he walked. He held a long obsidian staff pointed straight upwards in his right hand. It was topped with a purple crystal. He looked like a caricature of a wizard right out of a comic book.

“Hello again, asshole,” Melanie said.

“Such hostility!” Shorts replied.

“What, you want a hug?” Mel replied sarcastically. “You’ve tried to kill me twice, and I’m expecting that’s my reward if you best me in this fucking stage as well.”

“Of course. We only need the best the human race has to offer. By definition, the best are those who successfully complete all ten stages we have prepared for your species. What’s wrong with that?”

“If you really want to have a rational conversation about YOUR race killing billions of members of MY race without any choice or exercise of free will on our part, I’d be happy to. Something tells me you’re not.”

“Of course not. We’re recruiting, and only those who survive the entire series can be of use to us. So let us begin. Please step inside.”

Mel did not. Instead, she decided to push the boundaries, and I loved her all the more for it. “What happens when I enter?” she asked.

“Magic combat.”

Mel looked truly frightened for the first time in all the instances I’d seen her in the playbacks. “What?” she asked.

“Magic combat. If you don’t know any magic, all the better for me, hee-hee,” Shorts chuckled.

“What happens if I don’t enter?” Mel asked.

“You have three minutes to enter, and if you haven’t entered by that time, you will by default have been deemed to have voluntarily forfeited the stage, and your consciousness will be separated from your body.”

“Are you willing to tell me how to cast a spell, or do magic?” Mel asked.

Shorts looked chagrined. “Think it, and it will happen,” he replied. “But it must be a crystal-clear, powerful thought, untainted by panic, euphoria, or anything in-between. Some find a concentration point helps, such as a wand.” He gestured with the staff. “Others prefer to hold completely still and fight without the distraction of moving.”

Forty or fifty arrows were instantaneously flying directly at Mr. Shorts from every direction. Mel hadn’t entered the hemisphere yet, but she had obviously tried her hand at an attack.

“Clever girl,” Mr. Shorts replied, as the invisible shield he had around him deflected all the arrows, which fell to the floor around him in a jumble of broken sticks.

An enormous Morningstar, a steel ball ten feet wide, with one-foot-long spikes surrounding it, appeared out of nowhere and struck the hemisphere just in front of Mel. She shrieked, jumped back involuntarily, eyes wide and breathing heavily.

“It’s not a level playing field until you step in,” Mr. Shorts said. “You can attack me with anything you can think of, but it won’t hurt me unless you’re inside the sphere. I can scare you, but I can’t hurt you until you’re inside. And then, baby girl, we will have some serious fun.”

Mel went to that place deep inside her for a couple of minutes, since that’s all she had left, getting her heartbeat and breathing under control.

She stepped into the arena.

Immediately the Morningstar was attacking her again, along with various other implements of death, both physical and psychic. The physical ones were stopped by a shield Mel had apparently cast before she entered, but the psychic ones started to get through. Mel froze, and was somehow able to think into reality a shield against psychic attacks. Maybe five seconds had passed, and she was finally able to take a breather. She had launched no attacks of her own, and appeared exhausted and a bit lost. Shit.

“Uh- huh,” she breathed, as she sat down for a moment’s rest.

“Just a tip, sweetie,” Shorts said. “Spells don’t last forever. The more force and clarity of thought you put into them, the longer they’ll last. But wouldn’t it be cool if your physical body shield, which is pretty nice, I’ll admit, failed just before my Morningstar took a swing at you?” he ended with a snarl.

“Why are you so angry?” Mel asked, while mentally checking off her spells to see which ones needed reinforcing.

Mr. Shorts struggled to maintain his calm. “Because all of my encounters in this stage have been over by now. You’re a tough cookie to crack,” he said.

“Try this,” he said.

Suddenly Mel was pushed upwards by the earth under her feet close to fifteen feet, and left to fall. Mel was clearly surprised; both by the rising earth, and by Shorts’s claim to have killed every human that made it to stage four within thirty seconds or so of entering the fight.

I could see the confusion on Mel’s face, and a little bit of terror seeping in.

She went deep inside again as she crashed to the grass-covered ground. Mel knows how to fall, but was surprised when her magic shield against physical attacks rendered the impact harmless. She got to her feet.

“I do like that shield,” he said. “What words did you say when you cast it?”

Mel was doing another inventory of her spells, re-enforcing where needed. Apparently you can cast non-verbally, as she never spoke aloud.

“Won’t work,” Mel said. Suddenly Mr. Shorts’s left arm, with a small explosion at the shoulder, fell to the ground. He appeared stunned, and quickly cast another spell himself.

“Interesting,” he muttered. I haven’t had to cast that one for many worlds. Try this.”

Mel dropped to the ground in agony. I couldn’t tell what was wrong.

“Get……the…..fuck…..off…..of….me,” she grunted, and finally was able to stand up again.

“Cheap trick,” she exhaled, and immediately tried to do something in response that didn’t work. It did, however, steal Shorts’s attention for a moment, during which Mel tried something else.

I was feeling enormously frustrated at seeing only the results of this mental jousting. I began to understand a bit of how Booker viewed the Orb, this stage in particular. Feedback was almost impossible unless the candidate spoke everything out loud, which was slower than thinking it. It also had the obvious downside of letting the opponent know what you were cooking up for him.

Shorts staggered, muttered “Nice one,” and parried with something of his own.

Blood spots began appearing all over Mel’s exposed skin. She ignored them, apparently preparing an attack of her own, and the playback of the stage attempt stopped. I turned around in my chair angrily. “What happened? Play the rest of it!”

Booker said, “I’ve been debating all the time since you arrived whether to have you watch it straight through, or stop it here to give you critical information. I honestly didn’t know what I was going to do until I just did it.

“This particular point is where my colleagues and I believe Melanie Hampstead lost the stage, and her life, even though it continues on for another few minutes.” He lowered his eyes. “You watch the rest of it and we’ll talk about it.”

Chapter 32

As a bit of adrenaline left my system, I was able to think more clearly about what Booker was saying. Why stop the playback? What possible benefit could it offer me compared with a continuous viewing? I asked him.

“It’s a double-edged sword. The reason I was late when you and Mr. Hampstead came out of viewing Mel’s third stage, as I mentioned at the time, is that a man survived longer than anyone had, including Mel, in this stage, stage four. I showed him Mel’s attempt at stage three, and it was the last viewing he had before going in. So you might naturally ask me the following: “If he survived longer than anyone before him, including Mel, why would I break that momentum and stop your playback?”

“The reason is simple. Yes, he survived longer, and yes he learned how to survive longer, mostly by watching Mel. But still, ultimately he didn’t make it. And in this game, almost doesn’t count. So at the last second I made the call to stop the playback, have a discussion about the decision she made in the fight when she made it, and hopefully you’ll be able to beat that bastard with the advantage of what you’re about to see, knowing why and how Mel lost.

“They gave us a year to complete this thing, and we’re well into our eleventh month. We’re out of runway, and way behind schedule. If we were going to complete it in a linear fashion, stage one through stage ten, and we still don’t know if that’s how it’s going to play out past stage four, we should be through stage seven by now.

“So, I had a tough choice to make, and this is it.” Monologue completed, Booker collapsed into a chair across from me. I removed the headset, and tried very hard to coax my adrenaline-infused brain into gear.

“Ok. You said this was the place where Mel lost the fight. How? Why?” I asked.

“The ‘how’ is probably a combination of bad luck and her own instinct to go on the offensive. As you’ll see, she ignored whatever it was that started the pores on her skin bleeding. That’s likely attributable to some ingrained or taught instinct to quickly assess an injury, decide if it’s a real problem that must be dealt with immediately or something that can wait until later. She went right back on the offensive, having decided it could wait. As it turned out, that was a fatally bad decision.

“The ‘why’ is what we’ve started calling time-release-spells, at least within the construct of this stage. That means spells which have more than one immediate impact. It’s subtle, and only one who has been told about them or seen them in action would know about them. As you heard, of all the people who have made it to stage four, the vast majority are killed within the first clash as they enter the hemisphere, where the opponent overwhelms the candidate with both physical and mental attacks. Your mind has to be strong enough to withstand one or two of the psychic blasts, and be able to construct some sort of defensive spell for the psychic attacks on the spot. You saw Mel do that. What we and Mel didn’t know at the time she went in was that time release spells even existed. And that’s what has me fearing the death of our species; what else don’t we know? We don’t have the manpower or the time to do this trial and error. We’re close coming to the point where we’ll need a ‘hero’,” he spat out with disgust, “and the scientist in me rejects that as a possible solution. I don’t believe that such a person exists.

“Mel’s bleeding is stage one of a time release spell, and that’s what kills her. She needed to take care of it immediately, and she didn’t. She kept up the offense. You’ll notice her opponent goes on, and stays on the defensive as soon as he sees she doesn’t deal with the time release spell.”

“Aw, shit.” I said, insightfully.

“Indeed.”

“Get me a terminal so I can record all the symbols I’ve noticed in this stage, so I can concentrate on the combat from this point out. Maybe I’ll get lucky and see something.”

Booker held out his laptop to me, word processing program already open. I took it, typed about a page of single-spaced text, and handed it back to him. “I’ll add all the weird swirls and dots later,” I said. “I want to watch the rest of this.”

“Put your headset back on.”

Booker punched the sequence of buttons that would resume the playback.

Immediately I was back, watching Mel from a third person perspective and she was starting to leak blood from essentially everywhere. Not quickly, but steadily.

The spell she was readying when the playback was halted took effect, and suddenly Mr. Shorts lost all his fingers and toes. They just fell to the ground.

“What the hell?” he muttered, and conjured another defensive spell.

Way to go, baby, I thought. Mel had apparently launched a series of spells, because Shorts was blasted back against the wall of the hemisphere, and his eyes defocused for a second or two with the impact. The final spell Mel had cast started pulling Mr. Shorts apart in five directions: both legs, both arms, and head started pulling away from his torso. The panic on his face was almost comical, at least to me.

The second stage of Shorts’s spell started. By this time, Mel was completely covered in blood. Even her hair was dripping blood that had seeped out of her scalp.

Mel realized it was now a serious problem. She took a second to glance at Shorts, and saw him struggling to devise a counter to her drawn-and-quartered spell. She focused inwards, trying to get a handle on what was happening to her.

She began to stop the bleeding, starting from her head down. To her immediate pain and my horror, all the rest of the blood turned quickly to blue flame.

She cooked for a few seconds, a mere few millennia to me. Shorts had by this time countered Mel’s spells, and seen the second phase of his spell take effect.

Burning is one of the most painful ways a human can die. It’s a medical fact.

Shorts regarded her agony with something akin to respect, and immediately launched another spell.

Mel of course had no control left whatsoever, and each of the hundreds of steel bolts Shorts had launched at her found their way home.

I screamed and tore off the headset as Mel turned into a human pin-cushion.

Chapter 33

I didn’t trust anyone but me to relate Mel’s epic tale to Hamp. I did so in the empty mess hall of the compound, and got exactly the response I didn’t expect. Hamp dropped his head to his folded arms on the picnic table, and began to sob. I put my hands on the back of his head, and said nothing.

It continued for a solid fifteen minutes, and he finally began to taper off.

Psychiatrists may be mostly full of crap (except my brother, of course), but the grieving process seems to be universal. Except for Hamp. He tore through shock, bargaining, emotional release, preoccupation with the deceased, guilt, depression, resolution and readjustment, and centered right in on REVENGE. I don’t think psychiatrists list that one on their grieving process chart. But then again, I didn’t expect anything but that from Hamp.

“I cannot wait to face that stage four motherfucker,” he said, a couple of tears still in his eyes. He hadn’t bothered to wipe any tear tracks off his face. Right then, I wouldn’t have wanted to be anything associated with the Orb for any price.

“Yeah,” I said, still slightly teary myself. “Our concern now has to be to get Booker to put us in together. It’s clear the system, or Orb, or whatever the fuck you want to call it, separates the body from the conscious mind whenever two or more try to go in together. One of us is going to have to defeat that process. Any ideas?”

“No. But I pity anything that tries it on me.”

I hoped it was Hamp, but I suspected it was going to be me. Hamp had terrific motivation; so did I, but his was deeper. I’ve never had a child. He has, and this thing killed her. I hoped it was Hamp, but feared the Orb knew he might have a slight advantage and go for me.

We sat quietly, grieving Mel together, for about an hour.

Finally, I broke the silence. “I expect Booker will want us to start this thing soon. The only playback he might want to show us is the one where the dude got further than Mel, but maybe not.”

Hamp looked up, solid resolution in his eyes. “I’m ready right now,” he said.

Booker was apparently off studying some more video. Hamp and I remained the lone occupants of the mess hall.

I walked out of the hall, and went in search of Booker. He wasn’t in the tent where we were, confirmed after a brief walk through. At the next tent over, no guards attended the door, and I entered.

I don’t think I was expected, as all eyes of the seven or so people in the room were absorbed watching the combat on the screen. It showed another candidate in stage four, going at it against a loin-cloth wearing giant of a simulacrum. I wound my way around the back to where Booker was standing. He didn’t notice me, and I decided to watch the stage along with the scientists. Watching the event in two dimensions was not as immersive as it was through the headsets, but the plasma rendition was damned good.

It wasn’t going well for the candidate, although he had appeared to have survived the initial blasts Booker said were S.O.P. for the stage. His left hand was gone, and he was bleeding from a number of penetrating wounds. His opponent was not in original condition, either. He was fighting from his knees, as his shins and feet had been taken out by some spell. He had absorbed an apparently fatal slash from right shoulder to left hip, which on a human would mean entrails spilling onto the ground. I remembered the extra speed the Orb granted itself in Mel’s physical combat stage, and wondered if this was its equivalent. I wished Hamp had come with me, since he hadn’t seen any immersive or even two-dimensional magical combat yet.

Booker noticed me then, and I saw some anger flit across his features, quickly followed by a “what the hell” type of shrug. Guess we really were getting down to the short strokes with this thing.

The candidate then did something that had the scientists whooping with delight. I looked at the screen, and the simulacrum had been tossed back against the boundary of the hemisphere, and he stayed down in a crumpled heap. Blood was pouring out of his ears, nose, and even his left eye. Both arms appeared broken in multiple places.

“Okay,” I heard him spit out along with a large amount of blood. “Enough of this shit.” He went silent for a couple of seconds, and the candidate literally exploded from the inside out. The physical shield he’d cast caught all the parts of him. The end result was a brief sphere of red and white bone pieces, help up by the shield, which almost immediately collapsed into an awful mess on the grass.

“Dammit,” Booker said. “Not as long as the one I want to show you and Hamp, but he added a couple of twists we haven’t seen before.” His eyes were haunted.

“What in blue hell was that last bit?” I asked.

The haunted factor increased in Booker’s eyes. “I have no idea. Some failsafe no one has triggered before would be my immediate guess. We’ll have to factor it in to your strategy before you get there.”

“I told Hamp,” I told him.

“How is he?” Booker asked, genuine concern his countenance.

“Mad. He wants to go in right now.”

“Interesting.” He thought for a minute. “Well, all things considered, there are worse strategies than sending you two in now.” He thought some more. “Hamp has had no exposures to stage four, correct?”

“Right.”

“Let’s bring him up to speed with all we know, show him a few stage four attempts, and get you two started.”

Chapter 34

Booker, Hamp, and I had spent most of the last two days together. The amount of time he spent with just us two should have told me something about the weight of the hopes being heaped upon our shoulders, but it didn’t occur to me. We had gone over stage four, viewed both the exploding man and the survival-time-leader’s attempts, and Booker took the better part of an entire afternoon going over everything he knew, and everything he suspected, about spell casting.

The rational part of my mind was acting like a screaming monkey, doing handstands and cartwheels and throwing feces. This was fucking ridiculous! Spell casting? Really? But I’d seen the results of not being effective at it myself, and they were no joke. I told the monkey to piss off, and he whimpered away to another corner of my mind.

Hamp and I combined our symbology lists, compiling them by stage and by type. He had eventually decided to watch Mel’s stage four attempt, and he had picked up two symbols I had missed in the exploding man’s attempt at stage four. I shouldn’t have been too surprised at that given my emotional investment in Mel, but it didn’t stop me from being angry at myself. Booker confirmed a pointed observation and question from Hamp, in that the same symbols were in the same places in every stage, regardless of the candidate. I asked Booker to dedicate as much computer power as he and his cronies could spare in trying to crack whatever code we had uncovered. It would probably be important later; I could just imagine standing in front of an Orby with an Orbster gun pointed at my head, saying “draw all the symbols from stage three,” with a faulty memory resulting in an energy bolt to my brain.

Hamp and I spent two long nights talking about something we knew nothing about, specifically what a possible defense might be against the perfect fatality rate of multiple candidates entering at once. We didn’t get far in those discussions.

We did, however, come up with what we thought was a pretty good list of defensive spells to cast immediately upon entrance, or even before entrance, to stage four, and we both practiced saying them in our minds as quickly and forcefully as possible. We also cooked up what we hoped were a couple of apocalyptic offensive spells, and practiced them too.

A couple of good nights of sleep later, we were seated in one of the tents with Booker and Fallhouse, the physician who had boarded our plane with Booker a few days ago. We hadn’t seen him since orientation. I wondered why. I asked him.

“When someone sustains an injury in a stage, any stage through three at least, their injuries are gone when they successfully defeat the stage and exit the hemisphere. I want to know how and why,” I asked. “They just show up at the entrance to the Orb, in the exact condition as they entered, if I understand correctly.”

“My team has been working exclusively on that problem for nearly nine months in the hope of discovering something to give future candidates a better chance at succeeding. So far,” he said with a defeated countenance but perfect diction, “we’ve discovered ‘dick’.”

His pedantic tone of delivery, concluded with such crudity, caught me by surprise, and I had to laugh.

“What’s so funny?” he demanded, somewhat defensively.

Hamp told him, pointing at me, “That’s his name!”

“I prefer Slate, Mr. Slate, or Sir,” I replied with faked, righteous indignation, “but in this case I don’t really think it matters anymore. Call me the Queen of England if you want. I’m still going to rip that Orb a new asshole, and drive a half-track complete with machine gun turret sideways through it.”

All three of them laughed at that one.

“The only anomaly we’ve found so far is that a survivor of stage three has more of certain chemicals than a survivor of stage two, and ditto stage two versus stage one,” Fallhouse said. “I have no idea what it means.”

“Would the names of the chemicals help us in any way?” I asked.

“Not that I can conceive of,” Fallhouse said.

Chapter 35

So it all came down to this. Through all of our “training,” I realized now that I’d never been close to a real Orb. One of them stood in front of Hamp and me now, a shining, opalescent, quicksilver ball of death sitting lightly on one of the runways of Pittsburgh International Airport.

I suddenly thought of an inconsistency with the briefing we received a day or two after we landed. “Hey,” I said, “why were we never taken to Salt Lake, like you said we would be in the briefing?”

Fallhouse fielded this one. “Salt Lake is working with half the survivors of your flight, the other half stayed here,” he said. “You probably don’t remember Booker telling you that you and Hampstead would be processed here.” I detected something in his voice, and called him on it. “I just think we can do it better here,” he said. “They wanted to split up Booker and me, and that made no sense at all. We’re the ones that got the data collection and correlation data together in the first three months, and in some ways our divergent ways of thinking complement each other. I lost the battle with the White House on keeping everyone here, but I won on keeping Booker and me together.”

I looked at Booker, and he nodded his agreement with the explanation.

“Last chance to do this rationally,” Booker said then, naked fear taking shape on his face.

“How far has ‘rationality’ got you so far? Three stages out of ten?” I said, no trace of sympathy in my voice. I knew instinctively and completely we had a better chance together than alone, even if the opponents we faced were doubled, or even quadrupled.

“Which is the only reason I’m allowing this,” Booker said. “Give me ten minutes to get back to a station. Absolutely no going in before then, agreed?”

“Agreed.” We synchronized watches, and began ten minutes that felt like ten months. Booker gave us a walkie-talkie, looked at us for a long moment, and I could tell he was debating if he should take one more shot at trying to get us to make separate attempts.

Finally, he just said “Luck” somberly, and left.

Hamp and I were quiet for a few moments.

“Ok,” I said, “let’s just concentrate on getting both of us into the stage alive first. We’d be the first to accomplish even that.”

“Yup.”

“If it’s a sense of separation you start to feel, if it’s you they try to weed out, just pound at it with raw emotion, like we talked about – throw all your willpower at staying in your body, whatever that means. I don’t think they’ve protected against that. Unless, of course, it’s not about strength of will, but purely chemical or bio-mechanical. Then the one of us that survives will continue on, for Mel, and kick all ten stages’ asses. Agreed?”

“Yup.” Hamp didn’t seem to want to talk. He was always the first one through the door, or the first foot on the battlefield. Sometimes that’s why I think he chose the ultra-competitive hedge fund environment as his day job – when he wasn’t solving some other problem or helping me with one of mine.

We talked for a couple of minutes about strategy in the first, ‘flying implements of doom’ stage we were about to enter. Sharp things didn’t seem to begin flying or swinging until the candidate took the first step along the path surrounded by grass, and Mel had a type of landing area she appeared into when she ran the stage.

I didn’t want us to get ahead of ourselves, despite the time pressure. Hamp wanted to talk about the combat of stage two, and how much fun he was going to have in it, but I’d have none of it. “Keep thinking like that, and you’re going to have a flaming arrow up your ass and a mace in your skull in no time.”

“That’s the trouble,” he retorted. “Usually there’s a ‘brains’ and ‘brawn’ part of an operation. You think you’re both.”

“Fuck you, buddy. I’ll take you on one-on-one when this is over, either on a chess board or in the ring.”

Hamp smiled, like the canary that just ate the cat. “Rocky II, huh? I can’t wait. But not no-holds-barred. I still want my friend alive and capable when you tap out.”

I snorted.

About seven minutes had passed, and our handset hadn’t squawked yet that Booker was in position.

Almost hesitatingly, Hamp asked “Is there anyone you want me to contact if the Orb wins the lottery and you die?” he asked.

“Just Ms. McPherson,” I replied, “my white queen. You?”

“My ex. She deserves to know what happened to Mel. If she hasn’t already been killed by this fucking marble,” he said, gesturing with his thumb to the Orb.

I looked at my watch. Nine minutes and fifty five seconds had passed when the walkie squawked at us. “Booker here. Enter whenever you’re ready. Good luck.”

Chapter 36

We decided to put our right hands on the Orb at the same time. Instantly, we were on the landing area of stage one, and then all my lights went out.

I felt like I was in a tug-of-war with something far stronger than me. I could feel my, what, my ‘person-hood’ being pulled away from my body. The closest thing my mind could even compare it to would be a deep slash belly wound where intestines leave the body, and I was the intestines.

I flailed for a moment physically, trying to find something to grab onto to halt the outward flow of me from my body, but there was nothing to grab onto in the gray, nothing-ness of the space I was being pulled into.

With ever more of me slipping away each second, I had an ‘a-ha’ moment, mentally connected the dots and juxtaposed what was happening to me with stage four, the magical combat stage. I visualized into reality my body, lying crumpled on the floor next to a concerned and honestly a somewhat disappointed-looking Hamp. That picture became clear in my mind. Then, I visualized the “me” that was slipping away as a second copy of me. I forged what I hoped was an unbreakable chain between my real body and the copy, made of large, heavy links.

The motion away from the ‘me’ on the ground back with Hamp stopped. I looked down at Hamp, and God bless him, he immediately started pulling the chain. Link by link, foot by foot, Hamp was pulling me towards my body. Once I had forged the connection in my mind, the grayness began clearing up, and I was having a true out of body experience, watching Hamp pull me back down, one hand over another, with my crumpled other body next to him. I was glad he was as big as he was, because the chain I’d visualized was a big mother. I realized it probably didn’t have to be; nothing was pulling against Hamp the other way.

I wondered what would happen when my ‘essence’ came near the meat that was my body.

Grabbing the link nearest me, I started helping Hamp bring me back. With two of us, the process went much faster, and in five minutes I was standing next to him, my crumpled body on the ground next to us.

Hamp could obviously see the two of me. “I always thought one Slate was plenty,” he said.

“Thank you, and fuck you very much,” I said. “Any ideas what I should do now?” I was truly perplexed, standing next to a prone version of myself.

Hamp tried to touch me, and his hand went right through my shoulder. Then he bent down and touched the other me, and his hand met solid flesh.

“Yup,” he said. “Lie down next to, er, nearby, um, inside the ‘you’ that’s on the ground.”

“Good idea!” I said, and meant it.

I began to lie down next to myself. The problem was, the closer I got, the more it hurt. I was a good foot away from my body, and every nerve was on fire. I inched forward, and yelped in pain. I tried to go further, and simply couldn’t. My brain simply wouldn’t let itself hurt that much. A brick wall might just as well have been between my body and me.

Hamp, never one for niceties, simply stepped around me, picked up the ‘me’ he could touch, and dropped it on me. I blacked out.

Chapter 37

I awakened, only one of me, to Hamp dribbling water in my face. He’d apparently caught on quickly and thought into existence a glass of water.

Still feeling oddly disconnected, I slapped away the water and tried to sit up. “Knock it off,” I said. “I’m here.”

“About time,” Hamp grumped. “By my count, we have about forty five seconds until things start flying at us,” he said.

“Right,” I said, tried standing up and shaking off the separation effects. There really were none, except mentally. I kept looking around for the other me, but I wasn’t there.

“Ok, so we’ve talked about this. Last chance to change our strategy. Each of us crosses separately, to minimize the chance of my dodging something you can’t see because you’re directly behind me, and vice-versa, right?” I confirmed.

“You already had your little adventure,” Hamp said. “I get to go first.”

“Go. I’ll make myself small.” Our working theory was the Orb would only try to take out the person who started the path, not anyone on the starting block. Of course, we were the first two ever, at least on Earth, to successfully begin a stage together. I put my back against the wall, with one knee down, ready to launch in any direction should anything come my way. I wondered if Booker was cheering somewhere, watching us.

Meanwhile Hamp had started the path. Two arrows came at him at the same time and the same speed from his left and his right. He flattened on the path as they intercepted and shattered. We’d worked out a verbal code beforehand, just in case one of us saw something the other didn’t, but we also agreed not to overuse it and trust in the other’s ability. I knew Hamp could handle many more than two simultaneous threats, so I said nothing.

I felt a stone in the wall behind me start to move, and was curious if it was going for me or Hamp. I slid left, and an iron bolt shot out directly at Hamp from the open space the stone had uncovered. Looked so far, at least, like our guess that this stage only went for one at a time was correct. Hamp was about one quarter across the path, and had to twist into an inverted V-shape to avoid about four incoming at the same time.

The Orb got nasty then. Three arrows spaced equidistantly along the path came at him from the front, a giant ball of stone from above, radius probably five feet, three steel bolts from the panel beside me shot at him from the rear, and two javelins were shot his way from both left and right. As if this weren’t enough, a Morningstar suspended from nothing I could see started a pendulum swing directly at Hamp, from his right.

I decided to use one of my warnings. He probably knew about all of them, but I wanted to make certain. Indeed, he took a step off the path back and to the right, which was about five feet wide in all the times we’d seen it, at the same time I yelled “UNDERNEATH BACK!,” meaning the only safe place for him was underneath the path, a step back. He timed it perfectly. As the grass he stood on fell away into nothingness, he timed his leap just right and caught the path from below, hanging in a “Y” shape.

Once all the weapons had run their course and hit nothing, I watched Hamp climb back up on the path. Good thing he was wide. It was not an easy maneuver to climb on something you’re hanging underneath, with a five-foot wide grip.

As he was almost there, swinging his leg on top of the path, a speedy arrow came out of the top somewhere. I missed it too. It buried itself deeply in Hamp’s right butt cheek.

He barked out a monstrous “SONOVABITCH!”

I couldn’t help myself – I sat down so hard laughing that I bruised my own ass.

Chapter 38

Booker, Fallhouse, and virtually all the other scientists and technicians from the Pittsburgh station were hooked up, watching Hamp and Slate’s attempt to do what none of millions had done before, namely enter an Orb together and have more than one survive to attempt the stage.

Booker yelled “YES!” the second the chain appeared, and watched the sequence until Hamp dumped one Slate into the other.

“Couple of fuckin’ idiots we are,” he said to Fallhouse. “Give me one good, bad, intelligent, stupid, or indifferent, one goddamn reason why we didn’t think to train them ALL to apply stage four techniques to stage one.”

Fallhouse couldn’t answer, so he didn’t, but offered an excuse. “Too close to the problem, I suppose,” he murmured.

“Completely unacceptable,” Booker muttered. “We likely could have saved millions of lives.”

“He said he solves problems,” Fallhouse murmured to himself absently, as he watched the two Slates lying on the ground together.

“What’s that?” Booker asked.

“I said, ‘He said he solves problems’,” Fallhouse repeated. “Maybe I should take him out before the combat stage and see if his so-far unique abilities apply to our other Gordian knot…..” he mused.

“No,” Booker responded. “Our current and ONLY problem on the radar screen is this Orb. Common sense tells us the Orbs are linked. Personally, I don’t give a shit right now that you’re concerned about rising lead and mercury levels in stage survivors. By your own calculations, they don’t become fatal in a linear fashion until stage ten is complete, correct?”

“Back-of-the-napkin calculation only,” Fallhouse replied.

They continued raptly watching as Hampstead made it through the congestion, hung, climbed up, and took the arrow in the rear end.

“Well, there’s a bit more mercury for Mr. Hampstead,” Fallhouse said. “What’s that sound?”

“That’s Slate laughing at him,” Booker said, just before a booming “FUCK YOU, DICK!” came booming though the speakers. Hamp pulled the arrow out of his right gluteus maximus muscle.

They watched on, as Hamp relatively easily avoided the remaining twenty or twenty five objects hurled his way, and made it safely to the other side.

“Hamp!” they heard Slate call. “Remember that Mel nearly took one in the back when she was over there! Stay frosty until I get there!”

“Copy that!” Hamp yelled back.

“And don’t touch that damned wall! We don’t know what will happen if you touch it and I’m not over there with you!” Slate yelled across the chasm.

“Copy that too!” Hamp replied, ready to continue his dance with death on the other side.

Slate got to his feet, and stepped up to the beginning of the path across the chasm. Again, all the grass on either side of the stone path had re-appeared after Hamp’s passage.

Slate gathered himself, and started to move forward. Just before his momentum would have carried him onto the path, a shield, right out of a Roman gladiator movie, appeared by his left side, lying on the ground.

Slate paled perceptibly, looked across at Hamp. In perfect harmony, both Hamp and Slate uttered a softly spoken “Oh shit.”

Chapter 39 (translated to English for the recruit)

The Onyxian equivalent of a lieutenant had watched Slate rescue himself at the beginning of stage one, concurrent in time but millions of miles in space away from Booker and Fallhouse. As the ages-old regulation required, he immediately picked up the comm and had his voice routed to the senior officer on board the six-mile-wide interstellar recruitment ship, a grade roughly equal to that of Colonel in the United States Military.

“Sir,” he said when Colonel Rtzff picked up, “we have a successful completion of challenge one on world three.”

“What percent of the planet’s population remains?” Rtzff asked. His ass was on the line. He was far under quota in this rotation, and was not harboring much hope for any of the three worlds on which his ship was currently recruiting. He frankly wanted to get it done with and move to a more productive solar system.

“Approximately fifteen percent, Sir,” the lieutenant responded, “corresponding to approximately one billion entities.”

“Hmmf,” grunted Rtzff. “What a backwards ass system this one has turned out to be.”

“Yes, sir,” agreed the lieutenant.

Restating the obvious, Rtzff gave the required order to the lieutenant, “If they make it past challenge two, you will alert me immediately.”

“Of course, sir.” Rtzff broke the connection.

Rtzff went back to scanning the latest updates across the transieve about the Great War, taking place nearly a dozen solar systems away. It was not going well. Frankly, they were losing. Rtzff was bitter he was not chosen for a combat role, but a career officer, he took his recruiting post seriously. And he was way behind schedule.

Chapter 40

I looked at the shield for a solid minute. The sheer fact it was there struck in me a deep chord of terror. I didn’t know why.

I was faced with a classic ‘Prisoner’s Dilemma’ situation. If I tried to run the path without it, the immediate assumption was that too much would come my way for me to survive. If I took the shield, it almost certainly meant that much more would be coming at me than if I left it sitting there. Shield-less, that meant almost certain death. No good choice, and one had to be made.

“When in doubt, move forward!” Hamp yelled across to me.

“With or without the fucking shield?” I yelled back.

“Pansy like you should probably take it,” he retorted.

I didn’t dignify that with a reply, and kept thinking.

The wall behind me began slowly pushing forward. I hadn’t seen that happen in any of the playbacks I’d viewed. I guesstimated I had about a minute to make up my mind until the wall forced me onto the path.

Trying to get inside the head of a species you’ve never met, barring only second-hand contact via their species killing billions of your own, is not an easy task. I had about a half a minute. Essentially, it boiled down to this: either take the shield with nearly perfect knowledge I’d be more heavily assaulted than any before me, or don’t take it, and take the risk.

Finally I went with the logic that said the Orb wouldn’t have put the shield there unless it was necessary to survive. I grabbed it, and started running down the path. I ran three steps, glanced up, and came to a dead stop. More bolts, arrows, spears, javelins, and every other long pointed weapon I’d ever heard of, plus a bunch I’d never seen before were streaking my way. I couldn’t see through them to the perimeter of the dome, so thick were they in the air.

“Hamp!” I yelled, wanting another set of eyes on this situation ASAFP.

“Nowhere!,” he yelled.

“Fucking great,” I muttered, and made myself small again. I laid down on the path and went fetal, sincerely hoping the stone beneath me wouldn’t disappear or let anything up from below. Fortunately the shield was full sized. Although not all of me fit underneath it, I managed to get my torso, head, and most of the rest of me underneath before the steelstorm began. Imagine being under a large cooking kettle, then having twenty acid rock drummers practicing their solos on the kettle.

I screamed to fight both the noise and the pain as many bolts invaded every exposed part of me. My feet were both rendered completely useless, my left elbow was pierced at least five times, and my right shin took many inbound as well. I laid there for an eternity or two, until the noise finally stopped. I waited a few more minutes before peeking my head out, which of course prompted a steel bolt shot from behind Hamp. Off his game, and wondering if I was alive, he completely missed it until it drove straight through the fleshy part of his left thigh, back to front, and sped unerringly towards my head. I lowered the shield, took the bolt, and immediately crawled on hands and knees out from under the shield.

“Shit!,” I heard Hamp yell, and I caught him going down on his right knee out of the corner of my eye. I had a bad feeling I was going to resemble a freeze-dried sea anemone before I could crawl the remaining ninety percent of the path.

I crawled, shimmied, and shook my way foot by foot. I’d guess for every five weapons I dodged somehow, I took one. One of the scary little men I mentioned before had taught me how to mostly ignore pain, and I was using every ounce of knowledge I’d gained on that subject. More importantly, he’d taught me survival triage, which is essentially the ability to sacrifice body parts clinically to stay alive as long as possible. I took three in the legs to avoid one in the belly; one in the belly to avoid one in the chest, one in the chest to avoid one to the head.

Hamp did try to help me. He tried to come towards me from the end of the path, but a barrier of some sort, invisible, stopped him. I didn’t feel as bad as his face said I should, and that scared me a bit. I thought of Melanie as a bolt took me through the right shoulder.

My real worry now, with the finish line in sight, was bleeding out or becoming unconscious before I got there and was able to put a hand on the wall. I hurried as much as I could given the state I was in, and I could see the finish line not too far ahead. I hoped.

Something enormous, I never saw what it was, fell on my lower body from above. It took my legs off with it just above the knees. It tore through the path after tearing through me, leaving a hole into the void, fortunately not taking my torso with it. That one nearly knocked me unconscious and off the path.

Using my mostly useless hands and by wriggling my hips, I collapsed across the line, a good trick while you’re already prostrate, and all weapons in flight towards me veered towards Hamp instead. I honestly believe the Orb calculated me as dead.

Hamp dodged most of them, but when it was done his left leg had about twenty weapons embedded in it, both arms were badly wounded, and he had taken one through his gut. That one had to hurt.

The pain was now officially excruciating and my ability to stop it was gone. I would have been unconscious without Master Li’s training. I told Hamp “Pick me up, and put what’s left of our hands on that Goddamned wall.”

“You don’t look so good, Richard,” Hamp said.

“You look great yourself.” I groaned. “I’ve always wondered what it would be like to be impaled,” I said, “and now I think I get the general idea.”

Neither of Hamp’s hands was wounded, but his arms were a mess. He gave a massive grunt of pain when he picked me up. “You’ve lost some weight, Dick,” he said.

My rejoinder went unuttered as Hamp used one hand to guide what was left of my right hand to the wall, and touched the wall with his left.

Everything went gray.

Chapter 41

“Damn, that was intense!” Hamp grumped, exhausted. I was so glad to have my legs back that I didn’t even mention the relative ease of his completing the first stage to mine. Despite Fallhouse’s and Booker’s assurances, the execution of the stage was so real, some part of me believed I would come out of the Orb in the state I’d finished it, legless, then promptly die. I thought my run was a bit worse than Hamp’s, but who am I to say?

We never actually blacked out, but suddenly we were standing outside the entrance to another Orb, which I suspect was stage two inviting us in. Booker immediately came over the comm in our ear inserts, and said “Well done! Damn well done! Mr. Slate, we’ve never seen anyone’s vitals go so low, and frankly their body take so much damage, and still complete the stage. Mr. Hampstead, absolutely amazing dexterity for anyone, let alone one your size. Great job to both of you. DO NOT enter stage two, the Orb in front of you, until we debrief stage one. I will meet you in the mess hall in twenty minutes. You must not touch that Orb!”

“You ran that stage, Booker,” I said. How many wounds did you take?”

“Many fewer than you did, but you had more incoming than any single attempt since we started monitoring ten months ago. You are atop the list by, hang on, um, by a factor of four point three,” Booker said, sounding somewhat impressed. “That’s 430%! I wonder if the Orb calculates….” He cut off then, hopefully on his way to us.

“I’m out; do NOT enter stage two until we debrief,” Fallhouse said, and the little walkie closed.

We walked away from the Orb and made our way to the mess hall. Both of us were massively hungry, and filled two trays completely full of steak, chicken cordon-bleu, spinach salad, potatoes au-gratin, corn and nearly everything else we could get our hands on.

We ate in silence until Booker showed up. Wouldn’t have surprised me if it were within five seconds of the twenty minutes he’d given us.

He talked and we ate. At some point Fallhouse joined us.

“Okay,” Booker said as he sat down next to Hamp, across from me. “You have now seen for yourselves the inside of an actual Orb stage, first hand. An Orb is virtually indistinguishable from reality. The sensory perceptions are the same, the pain of injury is the same, the physics seem to be the same.” His voice became less convinced when he said the last part.

He re-adjusted the way he was sitting, nervously.

“Let me ask you – did you notice all the same signs you did as when you were watching someone else run the stage?”

Around a mouthful of food, I garbled out “I got a couple more, actually,” I said, “crawling on my hands and knees along that path. There were two hidden pretty well on a couple of the smaller stones in the path, which, by the way, killed my knees. You see any others, Hamp?”

“Smorglsdash,” Hamp replied around what looked like a complete slab of rib eye, rare.

“Didn’t think so,” I said.

Booker practically bounced around the table, whipped out a blank pad of paper and a pencil. “Draw them for me, now, please,” he said urgently. I shifted my eyes briefly to Hamp, who shrugged his shoulders and kept on chewing.

“What’s the urgency about?” I asked.

“I’ve taken fifteen of the past twenty minutes to verify with as many other countries as possible, and it has happened worldwide. No new candidates can enter the Orb at stage one. And no one who hasn’t successfully completed stage one can enter stage two. Draw,” he shoved the pencil into my hand. “Draw accurately, draw fast, but accuracy is more important.”

I started to draw the new symbols I had seen, and Booker kept talking. “You realize what this means, don’t you?” He asked, a tint of panic shading his voice.

“I can think of at least two obvious implications,” Hamp said, having finally swallowed the cow. “First, we’re so far behind schedule that they’re giving up on us, and shutting the Orbs down. If that’s the case, then Dick and I should be fighting in stage two right now.” Booker’s haunted look deepened. “Second, Dick and I broke phase one.” Hamp actually chuckled, and I picked up a new worry - my friend’s sanity.

“What happens when a new candidate tries to enter, now?” I asked.

“Instant death, apparently caused by something we have no data on yet. But, we had one of our third stage survivors try stage one again, alone, minutes ago. He had been prepped fully to compete successfully in stage four, and he knew how you anchored yourself and survived as a couple.”

“You are awfully cute, Dick,” Hamp said, which eased my mind about his sanity. He was still just on a combat high.

“And he died.” I wanted confirmation.

“Immediately. No view came through after he entered, and….. hang on,” Booker was listening to his earpiece. “Copy that, out,” he continued, “and we just completed testing the equipment that records all candidate experiences in the Orbs, everywhere. They’re functioning perfectly. It appears stage one has shut down, worldwide.”

Chapter 42

“Is stage two still open?” I asked

“I don’t know,” Booker said. “I’m more worried about our total candidate pool right now, and if we’ve captured all the symbology from the stages we’ve seen. If the whole game is done, it’s done, and we’ll all be dead soon, so that’s not a good choice to spend a lot of energy or thought on.

“We have fewer than three thousand people, worldwide, who are survivors of any or multiple stages. This is happening real-time, and there is multinational uproar to put you two in stage two right now, and I mean right fucking now. I am not willing to do that.

“Although you’re physically fine, for example, Mr. Slate, I know for a fact you are suffering psychic trauma for having lost your legs less than a half an hour ago. That you have them back is immaterial.”

“Not to me,” I muttered, and finished drawing the extra symbols I’d picked up on. I was pretty sure they were correct.

“Of course not; my point is your minds need time to recuperate and ‘catch up,’ even if your bodies don’t. I’m holding firm on this against the world for you. Hell, for all of us. Throwing you into combat right now makes no sense at all. And like I said, if stages two through ten are shut down now, it doesn’t make much difference, does it?”

After a moment of silence, “I could fight.” Hamp threw it out there.

“I have no doubt you could, but you could fight better tomorrow after a night’s rest, and that’ll let me get you more data before you go in, and hopefully get the world to calm the fuck down a little bit.” I was starting to take a liking to this little scientist, doing his part to save the world to the best of his ability.

“Fine,” I agreed. “More food, sleep, and kick some Orb ass in the morning.”

Hamp laughed out loud. “Got any napalm?” he asked Booker.

Booker cracked a smile. “I like Robert Duvall. At least in that movie. Nine a.m. sound like a good time to fight tomorrow? It is, after all, ‘in the morning’…”

I gave a worried looked to Hamp. “Have we ever….?”

“I don’t think so.”

Booker went back into his haunted look. “What’s happening? What’s wrong?” he stumbled.

“This could be a serious problem,” I said, struggling mightily to keep a straight face. “Hamp?”

“Absolutely,” he agreed, “big problem.” He also was trying and failing to keep a grin off his face.

“What? What is it? Are you wounded? Are you dizzy? We can get you to medical in four minutes …”

“No, no,” I said, finally letting my smile go. “It’s just that this is the first time either one of us has set an appointment with someone to fight, and they’re not running.”

Booker laughed long and hard. “Now, that I believe,” he said.

He got thoughtful again, laughter giving way to reality. “Considering tomorrow, we don’t know how the Orb is going to react to you both entering again. It could try the same on you, Mr. Hampstead, that it did to Mr. Slate, upon your entering the stage. Or it could do nothing at all. I seriously doubt it will let you both fight one individual – my guess is three or four. Remember also they juice up their speed to give them an advantage.”

Hamp and I looked at each other, with identical expressions on our faces. We already had that pre-combat vibe working, and I almost felt badly for whatever we faced tomorrow, however many they threw at us.

“No, Mr. Booker,” I said, “the advantage tomorrow, maybe for the first time in your last year, will be ours.”

Chapter 43

I don’t know about Hamp, but I spent the night restlessly. Many thoughts bemused me. I was actually excited to go into physical combat with the Orb, or its representative, so that didn’t bother me. What bothered me, and makes me good at what I do, is that I know what I don’t know. In this case, that translates into not knowing how many we will be fighting, what the implements would be, if any, or if it would even follow the pattern and be a combat stage.

Unfortunately, no answers were forthcoming. I spent that restless night on a night when my body and mind probably needed as much good solid REM sleep as it could get.

I met with Hamp in the mess at oh-six-thirty. I got there first, had my plate heaped with breakfast foods when I saw him walk in.

“How you doin’ today, Honey?” I asked.

“Feelin’ nasty. Didn’t sleep well. And fuck you,” he replied with a smile.

“Are you as excited as I am?”

“That’s why I didn’t sleep, Dick.”

“And what’s up with calling me ‘Dick’ now? Seems it came on, oh, about when we got on that damned plane.”

“You prefer “Mr. Slate,” “Rich,” or “lard-ass?” he asked.

“Rich.”

“OK, Dick, you got it.” He went and got his food. I was just happy he seemed to have compartmentalized Mel, at least for now. I had to admit, I couldn’t wait for stage four.

But thinking like that would get me killed today. Pure and simple combat, with someone probably larger and faster than me, and most likely we would be outnumbered.

Hamp returned to the table and we instantly got into ‘pre-firefight’ mode.

“If it’s one on one for both of us, then we make short work of it and start thinking about chess,” Hamp said, mouth again full of food.

“Not a hundred percent, but almost that sure it won’t be so fair. I’m thinking at least four, and all of them as fast as that fuck that Mel killed.”

“I wonder if she killed anything at all,” Hamp mumbled.

“Yeah, I’ve been having the same thought. Why waste perfectly good soldiers when a program can sort your laundry for you,” I said.

“Well, hell, let’s just do what we always do when we don’t know what to do,” Hamp said.

That kind of woke me up. “Wow. Now that’s a fucked-up sentence even for you, Troglodyte.”

“Works for me.”

Booker joined us a while later, around eight o’clock.

“Morning, guys” he said. After the preliminary niceties had been covered, he said “Let’s put today in perspective. We’ve only seen four out of ten stages. We have barely a month and change left. Of the four stages we’ve seen, what you’re going to do in fifty five minutes or so is the second most dangerous stage, but it’s probably the one at which you’re best equipped to perform well. Be confident, but above all, put aside any sense of fair play you might be harboring. Kill whatever is in front of you as fast as you can, and get out of the Orb.”

“That’s the plan,” Hamp said eagerly.

We finished our breakfast, made for the lavatory to splash some final wake-up water in our faces, and approached the Orb twenty minutes early. Both of us immediately began loosening up our major muscle groups with a series of complicated stretches I’d taught Hamp after Master Li taught me. Supposedly, it rendered you loose and limber, but upped the flow of energy throughout your body. I’d never been able to absolutely isolate that singular effect, but I’d certainly felt it in combat.

“Mindset,” Hamp said, but meant it as a question.

“Multiple bogeys, likely hand to hand, potentially airborne but possibility of non-projectile weapons possible. Space constrained with two of us and maybe more than two of them. One of us might be mentally drained if we have to do what we did at the beginning of stage one. Factor that in.”

“What about spells?”

“Cast defensive class one and two, but do it right when you enter, and do it fast. Then forget about it unless we’re attacked that way. This is a physical combat stage as far as we know.”

“Help each other?”

“Hell no. They’re way too fast. Sing out if you’re disabled, then the other will do the best they can.”

“Fast or slow to enter the Orb?”

“Make your own call. I’m going to look around a bit first for symbols. We might not get another look at this stage.” Booker gave an approving quick nod of his head that I caught out of the corner of my eye.

Finally I looked at Hamp. “No mercy. At all. Take ‘em down fast and hard. Do the work you did way back when that fucker threatened Mel, but do it faster and harder than you’ve ever done it before.” I sensed Hamp’s attitude ratchet up a notch. Secretariat being given permission to find that extra gear no one has ever seen.

He looked back. “One other thing,” he said. I gave an inquisitive look, and his face was rock hard.

“We. Will. Not. Lose.”

Eight fifty nine ticked by on my watch.

I gave a two second glance at Booker, who was trying to act brave. His eyes held an enormous measure of fear. I didn’t let it affect me. “Hypothermia,” I said to him.

“What?” he asked, startled out of his fear.

“Chill. We got this.”

Hamp cracked a smile. We bumped our fists together, lifted our right hands, held them about six inches from the wall. I did the countdown: “Three, two, one, touch.”

Chapter 44

The now-familiar Orb color gray permeated our new stage. We were on a platform very similar to stage one. I looked quickly around and located Hamp, and was gratified, hell – relieved, that we didn’t have to do the chain thing twice. Apparently there would be no struggle for survival as a group, now that we had accomplished it once in stage one.

I turned to him to say something along the lines of “Why don’t you stay with me while I look around for more symbols,” when he gave the loudest, from-the-gut, bestial roar I’d ever heard, and ran forward into the inner hemisphere.

The amalgam in the center of that hemisphere had just started to say “Hello Gentlemen, this stage is simply about physical combat…..” when Hamp rushed in at full speed. Stupefied, I just watched.

The Orb fighter recognized early the threat Hamp posed, but you gotta realize that Hamp at full wingspan was WIDE. Hamp ran directly at him. Right about at the word “combat” uttered by the Orb, he had to pick a direction to dodge Hamp’s massive on-rushing attack. He darted inhumanly quickly to his left, but not before Hamp’s right hand got a handful of the Orby’s shirt.

Hamp reeled him in, and absorbed a couple of frighteningly fast and powerful punches to the stomach. Hamp pulled him across his body, sunk to his right knee, and gripped him around the crotch with his left hand. He easily lifted him above his head, with the Orby’s face upwards, and pounded him down on his right knee. I could hear the back break from where I stood nearly thirty meters away, outside the combat sphere.

“Take your time looking around, Dick,” Hamp said, not even breathing hard. “I got these motherfuckers for now.” He smiled. “I feel GOOD, for the first time since you told me about Mel.” He smiled. To the Orb, he screamed at the highest volume I’ve heard from a human, “C’mon you pussies, that all you’ve got?”

I turned towards the wall to my left, beginning a military-grade quadrant by quadrant search. I kept in mind all the stage two symbols we’d seen, and was only looking for new ones. It took me about halfway around the interior before I found some new ones, and they were well-hidden. Given that most candidates went right for the Orb in a straight line, it was not surprising that symbols would be clustered right behind the combat arena. I committed them to memory.

In the circle, three Orbsters had materialized around Hamp. I took a glance at him every two or three seconds to make sure I didn’t need to get in there. I needn’t have worried.

“You ok?” I asked as I saw the three appear.

He snorted. “The day I can’t take three is the day I ask you for a mercy killing,” he barked back – he was fucking mad.

I couldn’t help myself. I knew I should be searching for symbols, but I had to see how Hamp would handle three of them.

Three on one is a dangerous game for the one, obviously. More so when the three are computer- enhanced killing machines. Hamp negated part of this advantage by rushing the first one to appear, if only by a fractional second before the second and third simulacrum. Hamp overwhelmed the first of the three, with a combination right hook and left roundhouse kick to the head. I noticed Hamp aimed the kick at the place at where the guy would be if he were to dodge to the logical safe area. He crumpled to the floor, and Hamp broke his neck with the same jump technique I had used on Windbreaker, a lifetime ago.

The other two were nearly on him by then, and he went to ground and rolled toward them like a log. Surprised, they were both tripped up and fell to the ground. Hamp had one of their necks broken before I could even look away for more symbols.

“Still ok?” I yelled towards him.

“Not even sweating yet!” he yelled back.

I was about seventy-five percent of the way around the perimeter.

I resumed my search, and committed to memory three more symbols I hadn’t seen before.

Hamp meanwhile, decided to test the remaining Orb. He walked up to him slowly, arms held wide at shoulder length. “C’mon, asshole,” he said to the Orb agent. “Let’s do this close quarters.”

The amalgam smiled. “My pleasure, Mr. Hampstead.”

They closed.

At about eighty-five percent complete in my symbol search, I turned to watch the ring.

Hamp and the fourth fighter closed, left hands pawing the air, testing each other out. Quick as lightning, the Orb went for the takedown, and achieved a grappling hold around Hamp’s midsection, going for the takedown. Oh shit, I thought, but not for Hamp.

Hamp hopped as he had to, to keep his balance against this computer-enhanced opponent, and as soon as he had the opportunity, he clasped his hands together and pounded them down on the Orby’s spine. The first blow caused its grip around Hamp to loosen, and the second blow caused a familiar crack of the spine, probably around the third or fourth lumbar vertebra, and I yelled “Nice!” at Hamp. Hamp completed the job by breaking his neck. He gave me a thumbs-up.

I continued my search for symbols, got all the way around, found one more, committed it to memory, and joined Hamp in the ring.

Unfortunately, no one else appeared after about thirty seconds. Hamp still wasn’t breathing hard, but he had broken a sweat.

Repeating his daughter, he roared “Who’s next?”

Five Orb fighters appeared just as I entered the ring, equidistant from Hamp and me. I worked my way to Hamp in the center, and asked Hamp “How you doing?”

“Never fucking better in my whole fucking life!” he said.

“Good,” I said. “Possum or full on?” I asked him, figuring I already knew the answer.

“Full on,” he said eagerly.

“Who you want?” I asked, as their outer perimeter shifted, and we shifted to keep all five in sight.

“All of them,” Hamp answered, and I said “Ok, I’ll help you whenever you need it.”

The next five minutes was Hamp at his absolute best, his peak, his rage all focused into ultimate destruction of those responsible for his daughter’s death. I watch three of them grapple Hamp at once, and not be able to move him from his balanced stance. I saw him break two arms at once, a move I’d never seen before. I saw him snap a neck and a back within two seconds of each other, with a speed I’d also never seen a human achieve. I saw Hamp absorb about five kicks to the ribs and groin, and not affect him a bit. A neck twist, another crack and another Orby down. Two left. Hamp faked a lunge toward one to draw the other in, grabbed the first one by the armpits, and use him as a mace to bludgeon the remaining Orby, who flew to the edge of the fighting perimeter. Hamp casually cracked the neck of his simulated mace. The last Orb fighter stood up.

“That’s quite enough, Mr. Hampstead. You have successfully completed stage two,” the last one said.

“Not quite,” Hamp said. He chased him down, the Orby actually trying to avoid rather than engage. Hamp closed off the semicircle, grabbed the last Orby by his shoulders and grappled him into a standing choke. With a massive clench of his shoulders and arms, he wrenched the head completely off.

Hamp let out a primal scream, and the bloody head left a red, wobbly pattern as it rolled unevenly across the floor.

“Now that’s what I’m talking about,” I muttered. Hamp roared at the top of his lungs to the top of the inner hemisphere, arms held to his sides, palms up, time and again. Catharsis.

Chapter 45

Sitting again with Booker, over cups of coffee in the mess tent. Booker sat on my side of the table, across from Hamp. Hamp seemed somehow more stable, more at peace, than he had in some time.

“OK, gents,” Booker said. “That was some display.” He reached down to his briefcase and pulled out another pad of paper and handed it to me. “Mr. Slate, please again draw as accurately as you can any new symbols you saw.”

“Dammit, Booker, you nearly completed this stage yourself,” I said with a bit of irritation. Didn’t you get any of these?” I began drawing, again.

“I only got one this stage,” he said, and looked down, a “tell” of some level of shame. I have to admit I was eager to try my hand at combat with these Orb assholes, and didn’t look as carefully as I should have.” He shifted his attention to Hamp. “Matter of fact, I don’t know why I lived.” He looked up at us. “I saw two of them coming at me, then they stopped, and I was outside the Orb. Oddest thing we’ve recorded so far.”

“Mr. Hampstead, that was by far the most lop-sided, horrific, stupendous, and magnificent example I have had the honor to witness in thousands of viewings of stage two. Frankly, I’m still astounded. You rendered harmless, or killed if you prefer, nine of these Orb combat bastards all by yourself.”

“I was ready for more,” Hamp said. “I was actually kinda disappointed they stopped coming in after the five joined when Dick entered the ring.” He leaned back in his chair and it groaned under his weight, as he stretched his arms way back over his head, fingers interlocked.

“I must say, you had the entire observation team cheering when the Orb went on the run with one fighter left alive in there,” Booker said. “No one has decapitated one of them before. We all were thrilled,” he continued. “I recognize it as a base, reptilian brain sort of response, but fuck it. We loved it.”

“Happy to please,” Hamp said. Then he got a bit serious. If I’m right, chess is next. Do you think we can get away with doing a joint entry into that phase? Will I have to play against my own opponent, or will Dick have to play too?” He asked with a strange tone I hadn’t heard him use before.

“I have absolutely no way of knowing,” Booker said. “All we can do is put you in. How would you rate your skills at chess?”

“Probably about a five or six out of ten,” Hamp replied, and the strange tone was back. “My biggest weakness is I get impatient and go on the attack, and sometimes get burned.” There was that strange, hard to identify tone again. “Most often by Mel,” he said, and caught his breath as he realized that would never happen again, “but Dick catches me more often than not.” Hamp turned away for a couple seconds, composing himself.

Booker turned sideways to me. “Mr. Slate, please make every attempt in stage three to be the one playing the game. If there are two chessboards, try and play both. Let’s push this Orb to the limit and see what happens when we don’t run the maze like good little rats.”

I agreed.

“If Hamp has to play, he’s no slouch,” I said. Hamp gave me a strange glance. “I usually beat him, but the Orb doesn’t seem to play at master or grand master level, based on how I saw Mel pick it apart. There almost seems to be a setting they can dial in on, you know, looking five moves ahead, looking seven moves ahead, that sort of thing.” I looked at Hamp. “You’re good at five or seven; it’s only when I go deep to ten or eleven that you get fucked.”

Hamp laughed. “Hey, man, I can try. I know I can do it; it’s more a patience thing.”

Booker told him, face stone-cold, “Don’t let your impatience exterminate the human race.”

Hamp started to get angry, and as quickly as it started, it defused. He looked like a chastised little boy, but with a tiny smile tickling the corners of his mouth.

“Absolutely right. This is for all the marbles,” he said. “I won’t fuck up.”

Booker’s eyes de-focused as he took another message across the coms unit in his ear, and he went pale. “I’m not sure what this means, guys, but stage two is now shut down worldwide, along with stage one. Nobody who hasn’t completed stages one and two can enter stage three. If I had to make a guess, I’d say our time is running out and they’re shutting them down based on some algorithm regarding chances of success in the Orb if a candidate isn’t past two stages yet. We can’t let you two get caught behind. How soon will you be up for some chess?”

“There’s another possible reason,” I said. “Maybe it knows Hamp and I are the only ones capable of finishing the thing, and it’s shutting down the planet’s chances until we either finish or fail.” I wasn’t happy about that theory, but it did kind of make sense.

“My God,” Booker said. “I hope you’re wrong. Fallhouse has this “hero” theory, and according to that, we should all just put a bullet in our brains right now.”

“What’s the theory?” I asked.

“He doesn’t believe it will come down to one or two or even ten people being capable of completing the thing. He’s held that position right from the beginning. He thinks there are millions of people who can do it, and we’ve just been unlucky so far in not finding one.”

“Sounds shaky to me,” I said.

“Well,” he replied, “my focus is more singular. All I want you to do now is win a couple games of chess. We have all matches ever recorded for you to look over if you want.”

“I want to watch every match the Orb has ever lost,” I said, “then I want to go in. But considering that the stages didn’t shut down once the first person completed the first stage months ago, there’s no way to know why it’s acting how it is. We have to make sure we don’t do anything wrong and not be able to enter the other stages. I’m starting to get a feel for this thing.”

Hamp smiled.

Chapter 46

“C’mon, guys, there’s really no way to call a game of chess, and the move by move accounts may appeal to some, but the vast majority of people couldn’t care less about how subtle a strategy is to bitch-slap the other player’s Queen in seven moves,” I said, to the cheering scientists and chess masters-and-above who had just watched me beat the Orb. There was really only one trap I almost fell into, and one chance I didn’t take that would have led to an earlier victory.

I wanted to play a monotonous, defensive, opportunistic match, and that’s what Vasily Anatovsky, a chess grand master in the observation room, told me I had done, and done very well, for an “amateur.” Ok smartass, I thought, let’s see you get your bony ass through stages one and two to have the OPPORTUNITY to lay your life on the line and play your life’s passion against this machine. Never going to happen.

Turns out even though Hamp and I were allowed into stage three together, we both had to play separate games. My request to play both was flatly rejected by the Orb, the same amalgam that would play both of us, apparently. I tried to convince Hamp to go first, that way anything it learned by playing me it couldn’t use against him. He would have none of it, though.

As soon as my match was complete and the black King turned over by my opponent, I found myself outside another Orb, presumably number four, but instead of rushing into magical combat I quickly found my way to the observation tent in time to watch Hamp choose black, and begin his match.

Twenty minutes later, and I was red and ashamed. Well, hell. Didn’t I feel like an instrument that’s been worked hard and put away wet. Turns out Hamp had been playing possum, one of our two-versus-many combat strategies, against me for years. Vasily Anatovsky greeted him by name when he entered the room after his match ended about fifteen minutes later, and they kissed each other on each cheek, Russian-style. “Absolutely ruthless, and utterly brutal,” Vasily congratulated Hamp.

Hamp had been playing internet matches with Vasily for years, and going easy on me in our matches. “Dick,” he said, when I picked my jaw off the floor, dusted it off, reinserted it into my skull after watching him obliterate the Orb player with ease, “I’ve been carrying you for years on the board. I’ve been honing up your defense, and trying to get you to go for more aggressive attacks, trying to always get you to think just one more move ahead. You’re better at it deep in the shit than I am, but I’ll cream you the next ten chess games we play if we survive this thing,” he said.

Booker got a little heated. “Mr. Hampstead,” he began, “you portrayed yourself as a weaker player than Mr. Slate, even to me. That kind of subterfuge may work on any given stage, but overall, you have to trust me. If you keep anything further from me, it will probably get you killed.”

“Yes, boss,” Hamp said with feigned meekness, and I knew he was full of shit. “Just one thing,” Hamp went on. “Once we make it past stage four, then we’re on new ground, correct? You have not even seen, or have any friggin’ idea, what stages five through ten are comprised of?”

Booker nodded.

“Well then, new territory means new tactics, and maybe even whole new strategies. Rich and I have moved your program further than anyone before us.” Booker nodded again. “So, to quote a little green fella, ‘my own counsel will I keep.’”

I saw Booker working himself up to argue the point, and jumped in.

“Booker, Hamp, we’re on the same side here. We’ll tell you everything you need to know from our experience, I promise you that. But while you’ve lived the Orb for the last year, Hamp and I have successfully completed hundreds of missions, large and small, for both the good old USA and individual clients. You’re going to have to trust our mutual survival instinct more than you do your computers and statistics.”

I turned to Hamp. “You sonovabitch. You were carrying me in all the chess matches we played?” Hamp tried to keep a stone face, but a small tick at the corner of his mouth gave him away. “OK, fine. You’re a better chess player than I am. Something tells me this magic combat stage we’re facing will take a little more than two-by-two thinking, even if you can think fifteen moves ahead. Now impress me and do it in three dimensions. Which actually leads me to another question, Booker.”

Booker turned to face me, and Hamp became a warrior again, not a dog getting his nose slapped with a rolled-up newspaper. “I’m almost convinced Hamp and I should do this stage alone. We barely understand the basic principles of magical combat. If we get in there, and have to face multiple magicians, the number of variables increases exponentially. We have nothing to go on; no way to plan. Individually, we’ve worked up what we believe are some pretty potent offensive and defensive spells, but I’m thinking we do it alone. Of course, the counter argument is if the first of us wins and the stage shuts down, then we’re totally dependent on one of us doing the next six, uncharted stages alone. I’m not sure I’m willing to take that risk.” I gave him a ‘what are your thoughts?’ look.

“I’ve been thinking about that too,” he said. Since we’re running out of time and options, I think it’s more important to consider the next six stages than play it safe with stage four. I say you both go in and do what you do best.”

“OK,” I said. “I don’t need much convincing.” I turned back to Hamp. “So when we were both in there, waiting to begin, and I asked the Orb if I could play both matches, what were you going to do if it said yes?”

Hamp smiled and said “Knock you out, and play them myself.”

Chapter 47

This Orb gleamed menacingly in front of us the next morning. It wasn’t different from the first three, but knowing what awaited us inside wasn’t exactly motivating.

This was the last Orb we had any intelligence on.

It was also the last and only Orb someone had failed, and walked out of alive - Booker. We’d talked about that with Booker for hours yesterday, and he wasn’t much help. No explanation was given to him; he said a spell beheaded him, and he found himself on the grass outside. He’d tried it three times with the same result, even after casting a protective impenetrable spell around his neck.

Booker complained to us that Fallhouse had had a field day that lasted the better part of a week. He ran every test he could to find a discrete difference between Booker and anyone else who had failed in stage four, meaning everyone who made it that far. A week later, he gave up, because Booker had to get back to work on the Orb and candidate experience correlation, and Booker had threatened to do Fallhouse physical harm.

The ‘indispensable man’ theory, as unsavory as it is, could well be the reason. After all, there has to be a reason we’re being forced to run the Orb. They must want some survivors capable of doing whatever they’re looking for. Even so, there must be something special about Booker that the ones running the Orbs want. Impossible to say. As far as I know or care, it could be some specific gene marker in his DNA. The reality is Booker survived three Orb deaths, whereas no one else had survived even one Orb death, thus making him unique. To my regret I didn’t know how to take advantage of that knowledge. Per my SOP, I tucked it into that “Urgent But Not Required For Immediate Survival” file in my mind. I knew I’d have to be more creative and resilient than I’d ever been to survive stage four.

“Ok, gentlemen, here’s where we discover a lot of things. Mr. Hampstead, I will admit my hopes for you in this stage have risen since your skill at chess has been ‘outed.’ On the other hand, this stage requires thinking ahead in three or four dimensions, and chess is a two dimensional game. Mr. Slate, frankly I expect you to best the record in this phase, if not declare an outright victory.”

“Wow,” I said. “Your pep talks suck.”

“Reality is what it is,” Booker replied. “If you die, I’m still stuck here trying to figure out a way to beat this thing.”

“Hey Dick, I have an idea,” Hamp said.

“Bring it.”

“How about if we both survive this stage and do the next six as well?” Hamp said.

“I like it; it hadn’t occurred to me before,” I said with a roll of my eyes.

“Booker, from all the replays I’ve watched of this stage, with every candidate that makes it past the initial blasts that seem inevitable, it becomes a battle of attrition, and the Orb has the advantage because it knows all the tricks and invented the damn stage. We’re going to try and change that dynamic,” I said.

“What do you mean?” he asked.

“As far as you can tell, the Orb combatant is susceptible to physical combat damage, right? We know a spell can hurt it, but what about a hands-on approach?”

“No one has tried that before,” Booker said. “No one has survived long enough to get close enough to try.”

“Well then, this should be interesting,” I said.

I looked over at Hamp. “Get the first five spells ready to go now,” I said. “I’ll do the same, and I thought up a couple interesting spells last night that will help you get to the fucker.”

“And if there’s more than one?” Hamp asked.

“Nothing succeeds like success,” I shamelessly stole the quote. “We do the same thing until they figure out a way to stop us. Then we’ll go to plan B.”

“That’s four or five new spells,” Hamp said distractedly, but he wasn’t complaining, he was thinking how it would work out tactically, and how he could keep that many spells in mind.

“That’s right. Whatever shape you’re in, our survival will probably depend on our ability to cast those last spells at the time the Orb figures out what we’re doing, which will probably be one of them dying.”

“You guys are certainly confident,” Booker said, with a warning tone. “Don’t assume anything. It could be your death.”

“We gave all that up last night,” I said. “We’re prepared to die. But if we do, it’ll give you and your team lots to chew on for the next poor bastards who go into this ridiculous stage.”

“Un-huh,” he said. I handed him a sheet of paper we had drawn up overnight, outlining the spells and their intended effects that we planened to cast in the first part and hopefully the second part of the contest. He read it slowly, making sure he understood the implications, and the further along he read, the further his eyebrows went up. “You guys don’t do things half-way, do you?”

“Never,” I said. To Hamp, “Ready?”

“Lock and load,” he said.

We touched the wall of the Orb, with perfect coordination.

Chapter 48

Hamp and I popped into the starting area, and I immediately yelled to him “Cast those fuckers, fast!” He looked like he was concentrating, and that was good. I ignored the opponents; there were two of them, equidistantly spaced across from Hamp and me. I paid them no attention as I cast four or five spells, three offensive, two defensive. The good news was I felt no mental blasts, or physical damage.

Hamp went to his knees, and I wondered why. He said “lost my balance, Dick,” and a glance his way confirmed he had no missing appendages or gaping wounds.

“Hello, gentlemen,” one of the two sorcerers said. “It’s a rare pleasure to face two opponents on a recruiting mission, and I thank you very much for the opportunity of killing you both,” he said, and his partner disappeared. “My colleague will return if needed.”

“Great,” I said, not concerned with or granting his words any weight at all.

I immediately launched into the offensive component of my spells, and simultaneously felt internally the asshole’s spells shattering against the defensive spells I had cast. It felt like someone tapping on my shoulder to get my attention.

“Hmmph,” the sorcerer grunted. “Your shield is as good, maybe better, than your friend’s daughter’s was.” I figured he said that just to shake me up, and I have to admit, it worked.

One of my two offensive spells was akin to a trash compactor, complete with protection against magical protection, kind of a double-layer spell, and I was immensely satisfied to see the sorcerer immediately compacted to a square of flesh and bone about one foot by one foot, blood, internals, and bone squished every which way, and presto, he was out of the competition.

His partner instantly popped back into existence, looking somewhat angry. “Who cast that?” he demanded, and I noticed him looking around the space, not at Hamp or me. Hamp and I pointed immediately at each other and said “He did!” I don’t think the new sorcerer believed either of us.

Hamp said “Get this fucking damper off me.” I couldn’t see anything around his body, but he was straining mightily just to stand up. I projected the thought of Hamp simply standing normally on the slight swell of turf, and pushed the thought hard.

“Urgh,” he muttered, or something similar. “Is it gone?” I asked. “Yep, thanks.”

I felt spell after spell shatter against my shield, and consequently felt my shield was weakening just a bit. I took a few seconds and reinforced it, and thought of something nasty. I cast it along with the shield.

Hamp was keeping the other sorcerer busy with a barrage of obvious attacks, plus one we’d come up with in our last strategy session – a sort of Trojan horse, as well as a series of subtle, elemental spells. I got the idea from the bastard that got Mel.

The ground under him disappeared, and the air pressure around him was suddenly gone. Blood began coming out of his nose, ears, and eyes. He fell into the hole, and I heard a curse in some language I’d never heard before.

In the momentary respite, I asked Hamp “You ok?”

“Yeah,” he replied, “I never needed that arm anyway.” I looked at him, and his right arm was gone to the shoulder.

“Did that fix itself, or did you do it?” I asked.

“I did it, but it wasn’t exactly elegant,” he said. “I just cauterized it.”

“Well, fix the goddam thing,” I said hurriedly.

The sorcerer had climbed out of the hole, but the blood on him caught fire as I cast the spell I’d internally dubbed “This One’s For Mel.” Unfortunately, he put it out easily. “Well,” he said, “apparently monkeys CAN learn.”

“You ready Hamp?” I barked out.

“Do it,” he said, flexing his new right arm. He’d taken care of fixing that damage himself.

I put all my concentration into two things, reinforcing my defensive structure, and making an impenetrable tunnel from Hamp to the sorcerer. Hamp began sprinting towards him immediately. I could see some real fear on the sorcerer’s face for the first time. When Hamp was halfway there, I ignored my shields and instead cast a spell we’d worked on, but weren’t at all sure would work. The intent was to let the sorcerer’s magic spells remain in place, but strip him of one sliver of defense – flesh. No missile or nuke could get to him, but the plan and hope was that Hamp could.

He did. We’d figured if it worked, it had to be fast. Hamp delivered. He snapped the guy’s neck by grabbing hair and chin, and brutally wrenching clockwise. Just to be sure, he picked him up and broke his back over his knee, same way he took out one of the nine he’d killed in stage two.

Hamp stood there, wanting to bellow another primal scream, but I yelled first. “Hamp! Get back on the clock! Three, six, nine, and twelve o’clock!”

“Get your defenses up; time for plan B,” I bellowed at him.

To the new sorcerers, after catching my breath, I said “So, assholes, two on two isn’t good enough for you? It takes six of you to take on two of us? If you want us dead, just make us dead. Attrition shouldn’t be what you’re looking for if you’re recruiting – we just kicked the shit out of two of you, we can do it again for you four. But something tells me it’s not totally free for you to lose people in here, whatever the fuck you are. You really want to lose four more?”

Nothing. No spells, no combat, nothing. The four of them stood around us equidistantly. My speech had some impact because I noticed two of them halt bizarre hand movements clearly associated with some type of spell.

“Hamp,” I said as softly as I could, “strengthen your defenses.” “Gotcha,” he replied.

Out of the wholeness of the Orb, a voice rained around us. “Mr. Slate, you raise a good point, and I think you’ve proven your abilities here. The four of you, begone.”

The four sorcerers disappeared. “I look forward to the next few tests, where we’ll see if your species can approach the tolerances we require. Congratulations on being the first of your species to survive this far.”

And suddenly, we were outside a shiny Orb, most likely stage five, and Hamp was reaching slowly towards it. “Hamp, you touch that Orb, and we’re going at it right now,” I said, exhausted. Hamp laughed. “Just kidding. Great strategy, Dick.”

“Hmmph. I’m just glad we didn’t have to go into plan B,” I said, now fully recognizing how exhausted my brain was. “I’m not sure I had it in me to go through with all that weird shit.”

“Oh yeah. You would’ve,” Hamp said. “I’ve never met anyone with deeper reserves than you, and that includes the Unit X guys I still play with.” His disposition darkened. “I wonder if any of them are still alive.”

“Booker probably knows,” I said, and then, “I’m so hungry I could eat the asshole out of a dead elephant.”

“Mess tent, prepare for onslaught,” Hamp said, and smiled. “You realize,” he said, “we just did what millions, if not billions, of people failed at, right?”

“Yeah,” I said. “So what else is new?”

Chapter 49

Standing on the outside of the entrance to stage five, where no human had gone before, the temptation to put my hand on it was almost irresistible, and I understood then what had driven Hamp to do the same thing. I may have even raised my hand, because Hamp’s meat-hook hand was immediately on my wrist, and he muscled me away from the Orb. “Take her easy, Rich,” he said. “It’s late, and I’m tired and hungry, just like you.”

“What?” I mumbled, then recognized my upraised hand and Hamp standing between the Orb and me. “Wow.” I said. “You gotta help me with my impulse control sometime.” He snorted.

“Well, on that one we might have some trouble,” Hamp said, “because yours is much better than mine.”

I chuckled, just as Booker came over the coms unit with a near-scream of “Yes!!! Way to go, men! We have to have a serious debrief ASAP, before you even think of going into five. I also don’t suspect you got many symbols, but screw it, you’re the first in five hundred twenty five thousand and some odd, roughly, to survive stage four. You also were communicated to from those running the Orbs, which no one has ever had happen before, and we need to go over that as well. Come to the mess, please.”

**

“Booker?” Hamp said, politely.

“Yes?” came the impatient reply.

“Fuck you, and fuck this entire thing. We need a rest. We might just take tomorrow off.” Hamp seemed a bit grumpy.

“Absolutely not poss …” Hamp shut off his comms. I heard the rest, though, “… possible,” he said. “You’re tired, and the planet’s lost three-fifths of its population? Ridiculous,” he completed. I turned my comms off as well.

I was most certainly hungry, and followed Hamp to the mess, loaded up a tray with everything I liked, and even some items I didn’t, and we made our way to a table.

Hamp and I had about ten minutes of uninterrupted, completely single-minded eating before Booker and Fallhouse came hustling up to our area in the mess. We were drawing quite a crowd, and could hear comments like “I heard these guys just beat stage four,” “no fucking way,” “now we finally get to see stage five,” and similar comments.

Fallhouse saw the madhouse it currently was, and that it was only going to grow worse. Consequently, he stood up on a table next to ours, and said rather authoritatively to people both near and far, “Quiet, people, Quiet!” and gave the buzzing a chance to diminish a bit. “Yes, it is true. Mr. Hampstead and Mr. Slate have just popped the biggest puzzle we’ve faced in eight months. And for that, I suggest we give them a standing ovation, and more importantly, get them rip-roaringly drunk tonight.” I happened to glance at Booker when he said this last part, and Booker’s face got darker.

The standing O took a good ten minutes, and that’s a long time for people to clap for you. I actually started to become a bit embarrassed. Hamp just kept eating. “Come to the bar tent in an hour, and we’ll all tie one on for all the ages!” he said, and the crowd cheered and began to disperse.

Questions came from all sides: “How’d they do it?” “What happens when a wizard dies?” “What spells did they use?” – you name it, it was asked, and all at once.

Fallhouse found an even louder register in his voice, which to me at least was impressive from this little man. “The viewing of the first successful stage four attempt will be available tomorrow at noon. You’ll all get your chance to congratulate Mr. Hampstead and Mr. Slate over the next few days, if not tonight. Now, please allow us to debrief them, and let them eat in peace.” For the most part, the crowd obliged.

Booker went away in his head then, as something came over the comms line. “Now THAT’s interesting,” he said. Stage four is still open. I wonder what the hell that means.” One, two, and three were closed after we bested them, and four stayed open.

Booker took a seat next to me, and brought out the omnipresent drawing pad and pencil. “Since that was physically the longest time you’ve been in an Orb, I’m assuming you have some good stuff for the computers to grind on,” he said.

“Absolutely,” I replied. I had made it a subliminal priority to find as many of these symbols as I could, to the point where my brain was becoming somewhat multi-threaded in the Orb; part of it fought for survival and part of it recorded everything that even looked vaguely like a symbol.

I shoveled a heaping spoon of mash and gravy into my mouth, wiped my hands on my napkin, and started drawing.

“You know,” I said to Booker and Fallhouse, “these symbols are following a pattern.” Booker spit out a complete mouthful of coffee all over Hamp, and Fallhouse literally fell out of his chair. He’d taken a bite of a hamburger, and Booker had to perform the Heimlich maneuver on him, he had sucked it down so hard without chewing. I think he might have ended up with a broken rib after Mr. Heimlich’s magic had its way with him.

Once we were re-settled and no one was dying, Booker said hesitantly “Could you repeat that, please?”

Hamp and I looked at each other and laughed, long and hard. “You telling me you haven’t shown these things to Vasily yet?” I said incredulously. You have one of the greatest two-dimensional thinkers on the planet on your team and you don’t show him a two-dimensional puzzle?”

Booker looked and Fallhouse, and Fallhouse looked at Booker. Nowhere to run.

“Um, we’ll be sure to do that tonight, and from now on,” he said a bit defensively. “I’m not sure you’re appreciating the worldwide project management skills it took to bring this thing this far, and we now have instantaneous sharing across the world of stage attempts. I am absolutely positive I have made many mistakes, cost thousands of lives, and I would give anything not to have my job. But I do.” Wow, was he defensive.

“Look, Book, I didn’t mean that to be as insulting as it came out. My world is pretty simple – survive and remember. I couldn’t have done what you’ve done. I apologize.” Sometimes I’m just wrong, and consider it a move into adulthood when you can admit it. Maybe there’s hope for me after all.

“Absolutely forgiven.” In a much brighter tone, “You guys won! I want to hear every last detail of how you changed your plans once you were in there. I compared the sheet you gave me to what actually happened, and no battle plan survives first contact with the enemy, I get that, but it was a textbook victory. We MUST understand it, especially if they’re leaving stage four open and we can get a few more to plow the ground with you over the next few days.”

Hamp joined the conversation. “One thing I can tell you immediately,” he rumbled, “is that it is mentally, uh, what’s the word beyond ‘exhausting’? Dick and I came out of that combat, and we both actually started to put a hand on the next Orb before the other one of us stopped it. Stupid as he is, there’s no way he’d do that in his right mind. I might have let him, but he did most of the heavy mental lifting in there. I just broke shit up.”

“And very effectively,” Fallhouse added. “But that’s very interesting. I want a brain scan of you tomorrow morning, to compare to the one you had prior to entering stage four. Actually, maybe tonight before the alcohol clouds your brains. That’s an avenue of research we’ve not spent much time on, with all the bodies coming out.”

Booker had had enough. “GENTLEMEN!” he barked. “Need I remind you that the planet and our species is on the line? For all we know, they could close stages four and five tonight, and burn Earth to the ground. We simply cannot afford to wait one extra hour before we go for five.”

“I disagree,” Fallhouse said calmly. “These two have provided input we’ve received nowhere else, and stayed alive longer. They deserve a rest day, and I might find something in an MRI or CAT scan that could give us a hint that’ll be useful in later stages. We cannot miss this opportunity. That it gives them a day of rest is immaterial. I also want Slate to talk with Hampstead’s buddy Vasily, and get as far as they can on the symbology of this thing. There might be something there we know nothing about, and it sounds like Slate is already ahead of us and all our supercomputers.”

“Awww, shucks,” I said. But I was incredibly tired, and couldn’t give it the snottyness it deserved.

“If you’re going to test us all day tomorrow,” Hamp intoned like the voice of doom, “then we’re going to need two days off.”

Booker made my night by turning a remarkable shade of purple, finishing his last cup of coffee in one gulp that absolutely must have scorched his throat, and blasted away from the table and out the tent flaps. I knew that image would easily get me to sleep tonight.

“Now,” I said to Fallhouse, “you said something about getting drunk, I believe?”

Chapter 50

The lieutenant in charge of monitoring the progress of recruits through stages one through five was again on duty as Hampstead and Slate beat stage four. Indeed, it was his voice that Slate had taunted and heard reply, by pointing out that they had already won two vs. two, and four vs. two wouldn’t prove anything other than a matter of degree. The basic skillset was there, and the lieutenant couldn’t overlook that. Frankly, he could be court-martialed and killed for it. It was one of the improvements in the system he’d been trying to get put in the books for some time, with little success.

After calling off the four sorcerers in the stage four combat and ending the stage, he immediately opened a coms channel to Colonel Rtzff, and as soon as Rtzff answered, announced, “World three has just defeated challenge number two.”

“Well, I’ll be damned,” Rtzff replied. “Sometimes you have to go through a lot of chaff before you get to the wheat,” he said, in a somewhat grotesque mockery of agriculture on the planet they’d been monitoring for decades. “Maybe this system won’t be a complete waste of my valuable time after all. Can you confirm, lieutenant, that all backups are secure, and that possible re-insertion remains feasible?”

“Of course, sir,” the lieutenant responded. He had already completed this; it was standard operating procedure. It had been standard practice for centuries, and no entity that ever made officer grade would ever forget it. The consequences of ignoring this particular protocol were deaths of entire family lines, and the lieutenant had NO intention of imposing that on his lineage.

Colonel Rtzff said “I want to watch the recruits who defeated problem two, in ten minutes, in my private viewing cubicle.”

“Yes sir, I will have the sensory experience transferred immediately to your quarters,” the lieutenant responded. “Would you like them available to the entire recruiting contingent?”

“Not yet,” Colonel Rtzff responded. “Five and six are absolutely crucial for successful recruits in addition to solving all three problems, and we don’t want anyone who can’t take a little pain or disassociation to raise any false hopes for us on this god-awful trip,” he said. “Let’s see how they handle five and six first. Then, we might be able to raise morale on this boat by showing the crew.”

“Yes, sir,” the lieutenant responded. He had grown rather fond of these two tiny humans, and their will to live. He hoped they had what it took to survive stage five. Six was almost easier than five, in his opinion. In any event, he hoped their pain tolerance was high.

“Would you like me there to watch with you?” the Lieutenant asked Rtzff. “There is some creativity in approach here I’ve never seen before, and you may have questions about either what they did or why it worked given our programming.”

“Yes. Meet me in my quarters immediately after you secure backup for your station.”

“Yes sir. Out.” The Lieutenant barked out an order for backup immediately – it didn’t do to keep Colonels waiting, and he was somewhat excited at being on duty when the second major problem of the recruiting set of stages was solved. Two-thirds of the way there, and this planet may actually provide more fodder for the Great War if they can solve the third problem, coming directly at them, and soon.

His backup arrived, and he hot-footed it to Colonel Rtzff’s quarters.

Chapter 51

Two CAT scans and a couple of hours later, Hamp and I were engaged in a drinking contest amongst hundreds of people gathered at the party. As usual, we were among the last five still vertical. I think I have a broken connection between my stomach and my brain, since I don’t get drunk. This has pissed Hamp off for a long time; he outweighs me by a good hundred pounds. He figures, and logically so, that he should be able to drink me under any table anywhere on the planet, and he never has. Matter of fact, I’ve driven him home and carried him to his bed more times than I can count. It’s quite a workout.

I didn’t see Booker anywhere around, but Fallhouse was passed out on the floor. He gave up consciousness after about ten beers and shots, and I was only a bit surprised to see him join in the contest. It didn’t take much imagination to see his hair about a foot longer, a hair-band around a long and un-kempt mass, and a bong raised to cover his nose and mouth. He had probably been a free spirit before his muse had led him to his true medical calling.

Regardless, two shots later, I remained as sober as if I’d been drinking Perrier all night, and two of the final five gave up the ghost. Hamp looked at me with a distilled glare, and said one more time, “Fuck you, Dick.” I gave him an innocent smile.

The last guy next to Hamp and me dropped with the next three rounds, and I told Hamp “I quit, you win.”

Same response, “Fuck you, Dick.”

“Listen, bud. I know you can outdrink anything on two legs. But I’m asking you to stop. You and I know we have to be on our toes in a couple of days for stage five. The more you drink now, the less use you’ll be to all of us then. So you win, ok?”

He smashed the glass in his hand by squeezing it, giving himself a couple of pretty deep lacerations as a result. “Fuck it,” he mumbled, and stumbled out of the tent. I followed to make sure he made it to the right tent. For a change, he went to the right cot and lay down, as always hanging well off the end, and went right to sleep. Holding my breath, I took off his boots and his socks. I covered him with a blanket, and then dressed his hand wounds, which were pretty deep. I’m sure all the alcohol in his system kept Hamp from feeling a thing, and probably kill any infection he may have acquired. I then went to find Booker.

I found him in the stage-watching lab, and he was still pissed. There was a pile of glass in the corner, and I assumed a few minutes ago that the glass pile had had a purpose for existing.

He whirled on me when I came in. “God damn that man. Doesn’t he see we’re on a timeline here?” he asked both rhetorically and spitefully – an interesting combination.

“So who’s ultimately in charge at this facility, and actually, of the whole response world-wide?” I asked.

“Both of us,” he replied. “We’ve been all over the world in the past eight months, looking for the people we’re going to bet our species on. It looks like we’ve found you,” he said, and I couldn’t tell if he sounded scared, angry, defeated, or triumphant.

“Sounds like my fees just went up,” I cracked. Booker immediately turned on me and tried to smash my face with a stapler. I disarmed him, twisted him neatly into a rear naked choke, and said “Stop.”

He sagged immediately. “I apologize.” He picked up the stapler I’d let fall to the ground, and rubbed his knuckles into his eyes. “Fallhouse, gifted fuck that he is – I don’t think understands the time pressure we’re under,” he grumped.

“I think he does,” I said. “I think he manifests it in different ways, is all. You and I both know everybody deals differently.”

“I know. And I feel like a shit for wanting you to put your life on the line tomorrow in some God-knows-what-happens stage, without any rest. So a couple of days off it will be,” he finally acknowledged. He sniffed the air a bit. “So, you’ve been drinking,” he said critically.

“Yes, but it’s never affected me in the least. I don’t know why, but I bet Fallhouse would want to know that bit of weirdness about my body chemistry. Unfortunately, he’s ass-up drunk himself right now, about six tents over. Why don’t you wake him up early tomorrow, maybe with a bucket of water in the face, and see if he wants to learn any more about why?”

Booker actually smiled. “Good idea. Want to be there?”

“No,” I said, “I need to be on good terms with the people who hold my life in their hands.”

“Noted,” Booker said, but I could tell part of him wondering where the hell he was going to find a bucket.

“For the record, and before we formally debrief,” he asked, “what made you think you could create a tunnel through all the magical protection, and second that you could get Hamp to be able to lay hands on that wizard?”

I thought about it. “In combat, if a stalemate develops my first rule is, if it might work, try it.” I thought a bit more. “More than that, it was a stage about magical combat, not physical. I thought if we could change the rules a bit, we might have a puncher’s chance.”

Booker thought about that a bit. “Change the rules, huh?” he said. “I’m very glad you were right,” he replied. “But I don’t suppose there’s any chance of getting you two to discuss these strategic approaches with me before you enter a stage?”

“You’ve never seen anything beyond where we are. I always agree more minds are better, but Hamp and I do pretty well on our own. We’ll ask for help when we feel we need it, but the shorthand answer to your question is ‘no’.”

“Figured as much,” Booker muttered. He looked up. You think it’s too late to get a drink?”

I smiled at him, a genuine one this time. “Nope. I’ll even join you.”

Chapter 52

Two days later, the stage five Orb rested indifferently in front of Hamp and me. Damn. I needed to stop personifying these things. They’re just neat TVs. It’s what’s behind them that wants us dead.

Neither one of us was hung over, which was nothing short of miraculous for Hamp considering how much alcohol he’d put through his system two nights previously. I guess a big body like his processes alcohol faster than a smaller one. Or he has an extra liver. Hamp had told me he’d about pissed the porcelain off the toilet twice two nights before, when I’d put him to bed, and that gave me a chuckle. As for me, as I mentioned, there seems to be no connection between alcohol and my brain, so maybe I’m just always impaired.

The last two days had been a continuous conflict management seminar in practice, with Hamp and me on one side, Booker on another, and Fallhouse on yet a third.

Bottom line was, we were going into the Orb, and nothing they could say would change that. Simple logic – send someone else, they die. Send nobody, we all die. No one knew the timeline; only that sooner was better.

Booker said “Gentlemen, no one has seen what you’re going to face. There’s nothing left to be said but do your best, and above all, make sure you survive.”

Hamp and I shared a glance. ‘Do your best?’ Really? Neither of us said anything, though.

Fallhouse said “I want to get more monitoring on these guys, but I don’t see a way how.”

“Well then, it’s irrelevant, isn’t it?” I chipped in.

“Onwards.” Hamp intoned, in his deep baritone. Hence, here we were, in front of stage five.

Both of us, now in a practiced movement, put our hands on the Orb at nearly exactly the same time.

We found ourselves looking at the inner Orb again. This time, there were two seats, reminding me of dentist chairs, sitting in the middle of the inner Orb.

“Hello, gentlemen,” said Mr. Shorts. I was really getting sick of that guy. “Nice to see someone of your species in stage five. I really look forward to testing you here,” his tone was not the pleasant ‘how can I help you’ of a Starbuck’s employee. More of a Marquis de Sade Grande flavor.

“Do I get to be-head you again?” Hamp asked graciously, compelling me to laugh. Un-unnervingly, Shorts laughed right along with me.

“Not this time, Mr. Hampstead. Today’s stage will all occur in your minds, and in these chairs. I’d like you both to ask yourselves a question,” he continued. “Has any one of us lied about what any stage was to be about, once you passed through the membrane? What I mean to ask is, do you trust me that this stage is not about killing me, but about sitting down in these chairs, letting me hook you up, and then seeing how you do in a simulation?”

“No,” I said. “Nobody has lied to us. Yet.”

“Let me reassure you I will not break that trend, and that trend will never be broken during these trials, and certainly not during this stage. I give you my word.”

“And I give you my word,” Hamp replied, “that if I’m able to stand up after sitting down in that chair, that I will kill you.”

“Fair enough,” Shorts said. “I don’t expect you to be able to stand, or frankly, to be able to move at all. I expect you both to be bone bags that need to be disposed of.”

“I’ve met many people in my life,” I said. “You are not among them. Fuck you, and let’s get this started.”

“One procedural question before we begin,” Shorts said, as Hamp and I entered the inner hemisphere. “A huge percentage of the time, there is only one candidate undergoing this stage.” My mind immediately made a connection it should have made weeks ago – our planet was only one of many that these fuckers were ‘recruiting’ from, and obviously these guys were the big boys on the block. I forced the certain and sudden confirmation of other intelligences in the universe besides Shorty’s fucked-up race back in my mind for future analysis. “In your case, you have two. Would you like to be able to utilize each other’s resources during the phase testing?”

“What type of resources?” Hamp asked, although I was sure he knew.

“Mental resilience, pain equalization, shared ‘will-power,’ that sort of thing,” Shorts said absent-mindedly as he started putting straps around my arms and legs, probes to my temples, underarms, and groin area.

“Yes,” I answered for both of us, “we want the ability to utilize the other’s resources.”

“OK, no problem.”

He spent the next ten minutes or so hooking us up, and I spent that same time looking around and committing symbols to memory. There was only one spot I couldn’t see from the chair. It was behind some server equipment, although I couldn’t swear to its usage, and I got nine or ten memorized. I unstrapped, ignored a quick ‘Hey!’ from Shorts, and walked over to the symbols I needed. I came back. Shorts eyed me warily.

“Alright, Shorty, what’s this setup all about?” I asked.

“I hope you had a good night’s sleep,” he said, back in sadistic mode. “Here we test your pain tolerance. We can simulate and test anything from flaying you alive to burning you completely, from broken bones one by one to slow, parasitic pain in your gut eating you alive. In reality, the test takes only an hour or so measured by Earth’s time, but it’ll seem much longer to you – I guarantee it,” he sneered out the last of his monologue.

“Hey Shorty,” Hamp said. Shorts turned to him. “Get ready to lose your head in about an hour,” Hamp said, with a bit more steel than I’d heard in his voice for a while.

Meanwhile, I was wishing I’d taught Hamp more of Mr. Li’s compartmentalization exercises. On the other hand, I’d seen Hamp with two broken arms, multiple fractures, multiple penetrating wounds, face four Cubans armed with K-Bar knives, and take them all out with only his feet. I immediately went to that part of my brain where only core functions mattered, and I could put pain in a little box deep inside where I could feel it, not feel it, or use it as the situation called for.

“You two studs ready?” Shorts called out as he made the final connections to the server set up to serve up lots of pain.

“Spark that fuckin’ think up,” Hamp said. “And you can spend the next hour saying goodbye to your head.”

Shorts sneered, and flipped a switch.

Chapter 53

Weird. That was the only way I could describe it to myself. Next to me I hear Hamp screaming, and that was very distracting, but as for me, I felt nothing. Not a goddamned thing.

One second I was listening to Shorty say “you two studs ready?” and the next I was on fire, head to foot. I clenched up, trying to put the fire out, and it actually took me a few seconds to realize I wasn’t feeling anything besides the chair beneath me and the restraints holding me in place. I could smell flesh and hair burning, and even see it turning black on my legs, crotch, and stomach, but I didn’t feel a thing.

I immediately sent some energy to Hamp, some to kill the pain, but even more to help him realize the pain wasn’t even real. Just some phantom bullshit delivered through some electrodes.

Hamp’s mind was racing, out of control, and I couldn’t get a hold of it. I mentally screamed “MELANIE” as hard as I could and suddenly there was a focus point. I grabbed it as if my life depended on it, and pushed some logic through it. Immediately he caught on to my thoughts, and sucked a massive amount of energy from me. Enough that I started to feel a little bit crispy, but Master Li’s training kicked in, and I put those feelings of pain away to bleed off later. His screaming stopped, and I could see Hamp in my mind trying desperately to grab onto his limited training for compartmentalizing pain. I told him to calm down, mentally, and just realize it’s a fake, trumped-up sensation, nothing more. His physical body was safe as a firehouse, being tricked into thinking it was in pain.

I felt him grasp that concept, but like all worthy skills, it takes time and practice. I remembered Master Li breaking my forearm with a lightning strike, and my femur with a ridiculously casual kick, and me falling on the ground. That was near the end of my time with him, and I was able to stand back up on one good leg, and say “thank you, Master, for the lesson.” He had smiled, and then went about setting my broken bones with utter calm.

The fire ended, and ironically enough, the broken bone sequence started. Hands first; there are twenty seven bones to break there, then the arms and legs, which account for thirty bones, and on we went from there through the bones of the ribcage, back, and spine.

Hamp was a fast learner, and even though some of the pain got through, he picked up how to deal with it in a big hurry. We got through that part without me needing to prop him up.

Next was an acid bath. Hydrochloric, if the voice I heard through my headset was accurate; no reason to doubt it. Most definitely an experience I don’t want to replicate in reality.

I was ok; Hamp had a little trouble with that one, and I had to send him some more of my energy and a bit of tactical advice about where to store the pain when the compartment you’d set up filled up.

Next came a simple full-body lashing. No problem for me, and little problem for Hamp. I heard Shorts mumble “sonofabitch” to himself during that phase. I don’t think he expected his subjects to be able to hear him during testing, somehow. He was not a happy camper.

Finally came a twist that I almost didn’t catch in time – freezing to death. Of all the ways to die, this was the most peaceful. You simply go to sleep as your extremities shut down and blood flow is routed to your core and critical central organs. I sent Hamp a message on the order of “Don’t pay attention to it; just stay awake and alert,” and he was already dozing off. I sent him a heated, barbed mental cattle prod, and he uttered a loud and guttural “Whatthefuck?!” but it did wake him up, and he managed to stay that way.

Finally, we were through. Shorts went through the motions of unhooking us from the multiple wires and sensors we were attached to, and he was not in a good mood.

“Hey, Short Stuff,” I taunted. “Do you think you could survive that series without checking out yourself?”

He sniffed. “Of course,” he taunted back haughtily. “We’re made of sterner stuff than you meatbags.”

“Let’s find out,” Hamp said, and as soon as he was free, he wrapped up Shorty in a bear hug, and brother, believe me, there is no escape from a Hamp bear hug.

I may have misplaced a couple of the electrodes, but we got Shorty in a chair and hooked up to the simulator, and I slammed the switch I’d seen him throw for initiating the sequence. He immediately started screaming.

Hamp looked to me, and we both started laughing. “Let me look behind these servers over here for any more symbols, and let’s get the fuck out of here.”

“You the man,” Hamp responded, and decided it would be fun to poke Shorty in the ribs while he was being cooked alive. By the chuckles I heard, Hamp was having a great time.

Sure enough, there were two symbols I couldn’t see from the seat and missed during my pre-stage walk around, and I memorized them. That made a total of around twelve from this stage, and that was a lot for my short term memory to hold. I spent some more time, ignoring Shorty’s screams, and made sure I had them committed to memory. When I was ready, Hamp knew it, and said “Ready to go, Rich?”

I said “Absolutely. Let’s blow this fucking chamber of horrors.”

“Not quite yet. I made a promise to this little creep, and I’m going to keep it.” So we waited for the session to be over, and I spent the time making sure I had all the symbols firmly in mind.

After an hour the sequence ended, and true to his word, Hamp picked up Shorts to kill him, but his simulacrum was already dead. “Dammit,” Hamp said half-heartedly, and dropped him back in the chair.

We touched the inner hemisphere wall at the same time, and were immediately outside stage six, which intoxicatingly offered itself for entry.

As one, we turned our backs on it and headed for the mess.

Chapter 54

“Well,” Booker said, “that was certainly entertaining.”

It turns out the monitoring technology Fallhouse had put on us prior to the stage didn’t pick up anything that went on in our minds, just like we couldn’t get into the minds of the people we shadowed when we were learning about the Orbs. Result? Hamp and I had to relive all that crap again. All Booker and the team saw were our vitals going crazy as each new test of pain was inflicted upon us. As the M.D. of the group, Fallhouse voiced his opinion.

“I wonder if it’s even possible for anybody without expert compartmentalization skills to survive any of these experiences,” he ventured. “They’re testing our mental savvy as well as physical,” he added, redundantly.

Hamp answered him. “I don’t think anybody could,” Hamp said. “My entire body was on fire, I felt my hair burning, my eyeballs pop and run down my charred cheeks, I felt my fingernails and toenails crisp and pop off my hands and feet, then thank Dick here, he threw me a line, and kept me from dying right there, probably just from simple shock.”

Speaking mostly to himself, Fallhouse wondered if he could send in someone who was heavily sedated with opiates, to see if that would help. Opiates do operate directly on the chemical level, I knew from the multiple times I’ve recovered from serious injury.

“No way to know but try,” I said. “I’m just glad I don’t have to do it again.”

Booker pushed the pad my way, and indicated I should get drawing. “When you’re done, may we please spend some time and go over the periodicity you’re seeing in these? We have a sample set of well over a hundred now, and the computers still cannot see anything but randomness.”

“Garbage in, garbage out,” I said, and got busy drawing.

“What do you mean by that?” he said, defensively.

“It means you probably have diagnostic programs looking at all these symbols from every perspective EXCEPT the one that matters – a repeating algorithm of increasing complexity and multiple viewpoints for each successive stage,” I muttered, more interested in drawing correctly than explaining correctly.

“Notice how the curls in the stage one diagrams go both counterclockwise and clockwise, but they only cover ten to fifteen percent of the circle. Same with the dots. They trace an obverse pattern, not necessarily a circle, around the curls. Ditto for the triangles. Shit, Doc, just figure it out,” I said, head still bent over paper, drawing.

Hamp saw Booker go into ‘stunned’ mode, and he saw a light go on somewhere in Booker’s head reflected on his face. “Hey Doc,” he said. Booker turned to face him. “He does stuff like that sometimes, sometimes in the middle of a firefight. He’ll see a pattern of the enemy’s attack that nobody saw as possible before the fight, and he’ll make instant adjustments to it to allow us to win. That’s why I’d follow him into Hell and we’d come back with Satan’s balls.”

Booker barely heard him. He was muttering to himself in programming language, figuring out how to better the analysis programs that were studying the symbols.

Fallhouse gave us an “another great job, guys,” and continued staring at his plate, deciding if he should actually eat something in here. I finished up my symbol drawing, then my first tray of food, and got up to get another.

Hamp was well into his third tray, and Booker simply stood there muttering to himself. He shook himself out of it after a couple of minutes, and muttered “Oh my God.” His face had turned white, and I was concerned he was going to pass out.

His tone was serious enough to get me to lift my face from gorging on my second tray of food, and mutter “What?” through a mouthful of food.

“Nobody does another phase until we reprogram, and re-analyze the symbols we have through level five,” he proclaimed.

“Why the hell not?” Fallhouse asked, eager to continue our current string of successes.

“Because if we do, there’s no possibility of survival. None at all. Consider these symbols another stage in itself. If we don’t beat them soon, we will lose a stage, and the planet. I can’t believe we’ve made it through five stages without the benefits of the messages contained in the symbols. We are either the stupidest or luckiest species in the Galaxy.

“These symbols tell us what’s coming next and how to best prepare for it.”

“What, and everyone’s just supposed to know how to capture their meaning automatically?” I asked.

“No, like I just said, I have to think it’s some sort of test in and of itself,” Booker replied. He was still thinking how to massage his analysis programs. “The earlier in the ‘recruiting’ a species figures out the symbols, the easier the remaining stages become.”

“I have an idea you might want to try, if you haven’t already,” I suggested.

“I’m all ears.”

“I know that, but do you want my idea?” I cracked.

“Smart-ass. Yes, of course I want your ideas.”

“Analyze them not serially, and not sequentially. Place all the stage one symbols in a group, and look at them from every possible angle: sequentially, backwards, end-to-end, make them transparent and look through them all, look at the front and obverse of each slide the same ways you look at the originals, rotate them all together and separately, you see what I mean,” I said, not really thinking about how to strategically optimize analyzing the symbols, but I was going back through all the stages in my mind making sure I hadn’t missed anything. I have a nearly-photographic memory of action sequences. I can’t recite the Bible or a textbook for you, but I can tell you where every item was in every fight I’ve ever been in. Weird, huh?

“All I want to know is one thing,” Hamp said.

“What’s that,” Booker asked.

“Does this mean Dick and I get another day off tomorrow?”

Chapter 55

Booker and Fallhouse had clearly been up all night; they were wearing the same clothing they were in the mess hall last night. Booker appeared frazzled, but moderately triumphant. Fallhouse looked like he’d just pulled an all-nighter for the MCAT.

We were in the mess again, I was protein-loading on bacon and ham, and Hamp, well, he was just drinking coffee. I think he was on his tenth or eleventh cup. Didn’t seem to affect him in the least.

“Get anywhere?” I asked in Booker’s general direction, but included Fallhouse in my question with a shift of my eyes.

“Oh yes,” Booker said. “Probably, we got to a place you don’t want to hear about.”

“Lay it on us,” Hamp said, mainlining coffee.

“First of all, we’ve missed a significant number of symbols,” Booker said unhappily. “Starting with the first stage.”

“How do you know?” I asked.

“Because when interpreted correctly, the symbols form complete sentences. For example, you just completed stage five, and it turns out you caught all the symbols from stage four. We cracked the code; the message from the stage-four symbols was “look behind the machinery in stage five.” Luckily, you did that anyway, while waiting for the short guy to live through the stage himself, or die in the stage, as it turned out. The symbols from the first couple of stages do not form complete sentences. The stage-one symbols we have, for example, say ‘Prepare to (blank) to the death.’”

“Did we get them all from any other stage?” I asked.

“It appears we captured them all from stage five, which is great, since obviously six is next,” Booker said, although his face was a bit crestfallen.

“Why the long face?” I asked.

“Well, if you believe our translation, it doesn’t appear stage six is survivable by our species,” Book replied, deadpan. “Also, there’s nothing to suggest that an apparently innocent clue from an early stage could combine with a symbol from a later stage to enable us to complete an even later stage.”

“How about two through four?” I asked.

“I’m not sure that it matters, as I said, but some were complete, some not. From all that we’ve retrieved, they were all pointers on how to best survive the next stage, which you two have obviously done.”

“There isn’t anything deeper?” I asked, disappointed. “Anything about the whole Orb itself, reasoning, logic, anything besides fortune cookie messages? Have you applied linguistic programming to them all, analyzed them all as a whole and as stages yet?”

“We’re getting to that next,” Booker said, again a bit defensively.

“So do we go in before you’re done playing with binaries, or after?” I asked, stuffing in more bacon.

“Well, the clock is still ticking, which means we should probably try it. But I’d far rather have the racks complete all the combinations and permutations of the symbols first. Which means, I don’t know. What do you two think? You’re the ones with your asses on the line … literally,” he said.

“Well, time’s a-wastin’ today, if you want us to attempt six,” I said.

“Pay up,” Booker said to Fallhouse, who drew twenty dollars out of his pocket and handed it to Booker. They looked up after Booker had pocketed the money. Booker said “Fallhouse thought you’d, ah, opt out once you knew there were things you don’t know about the five stages ahead of you. It was a sucker’s bet; he doesn’t know you like I do.”

“’Preciate’ the confidence,” I said, but I’d just as soon hear the message from five, and go for stage six. How many days do we have left?”

“Twenty seven, including today.”

“Well, screw it and everything associated with these gonads,” Hamp said. He stood up, walked over to the silver coffee urn, and refilled his cup again. “What’d’ya say, Rick? Wanna beat another one of these things today while we’re still fresh?”

I turned to Booker. “What did the stage five message say?”

“It said, and this is exact, ‘Ignore what you’ve lived with all your life, it doesn’t matter here. Orientation is irrelevant. Embrace it quickly or embrace death.’”

Hamp looked up, baffled. “Whafuck?”

“Don’t know,” Booker said.

“I’m straight as linear interest,” Hamp said, in what I hoped was a joke. “I’m not interested in doing anything with another man, let alone another species.” Obviously he zeroed in on the ‘orientation’ component of the symbol’s advice. I shot him a ‘you’re an idiot’ glance.

Booker looked at him with a sort of ‘What’s next from this guy?’ look on his face. “Well, you might be right. For all we know, it could be a test of our reproductive capabilities in zero or negative gravitational fields, for all we know.” His repeating himself revealed his agitation to me more clearly than any body language could have.

“Dick here doesn’t get anywhere near enough, even in our regular gravity, so we could be screwed,” Hamp said, and neatly caught the pastry I threw at his head and took a bite.

“Well, Mr. Slate, it seems the decision is again with you. Do you wish to take on stage six before the racks have completed their analysis of the symbols, or do you prefer to wait?”

“With twenty-seven days left, and five stages left, I don’t really believe we have a choice.” I said, back to business. “I can only assume there will be an increasing number of symbols in each successive stage, which, from a recall standpoint is fine, but from a data processing perspective, worries me.” I laid it all out there for Booker to defend or support, as he chose.

“I’ve ordered in ten times the processing power we have today, and it will be installed by the end of tomorrow,” he said. “So, the question is, do you want to wait until then and see if we get anything from a multi-stage perspective, or do you want to go now? Frankly, I will support your decision either way, since you’re the ones who have improved our odds, if even infinitesimally, by completing the first five stages.” This didn’t appear to be a large concession from Booker. I felt as if a wave of trust, which had been building behind a line of clouds, had finally crested and broken into view.

“I say we get what we can out of stage six today,” I said. Let’s find out what this orientation crap is all about, and get your racks some more data to play with. Something tells me these stages are going to get progressively more difficult, not easier.” I looked at Hamp, who responded with a ‘Whatever’ shrug of his shoulders.

“Fine,” Booker said. “Let’s go.”

We finished up breakfast, and within minutes were within a few feet of the stage-six Orb.

“Anybody want to change their mind?” Booker said, and it sounded almost desperate to me.

Hamp answered for both of us. “Fuck that. Let’s go.” As one, we reached out our right hands and touched the Orb.

Chapter 56

I understood before I even fully entered the stage. Hamp and I were floating in what appeared to be the middle of an enormous space, probably a sphere, since I could see the walls a good distance away were slightly curved.

My stomach gave a little heave, and I told it to calm the fuck down. Hamp was wildly trying to achieve equilibrium, and I loudly gave the order “Freeze!” in command voice. His training took over, and he immediately stopped flailing, and the result was a cessation of his wild movement. Only the residual momentum from his thrashing movements affected his final, slow circular rotation.

“I’m gonna barf, Rich,” he said.

“Unless you want to be fighting in it, I recommend you don’t,” I replied.

“Right,” he said, and after a few moments of internal struggling, said “incoming from my six o’clock low!”

I quickly got Hamp in sight, made some subtle adjustments to keep myself momentarily stable, and saw four humanoid shapes coming at us from underneath Hamp. They appeared to be wearing some type of propellant, as I could see blue flame coming out of some type of backpacks they wore. Unfortunately, they also each had some type of sword. As they traversed the space between our groups, I made out a scimitar, a long sword, a foil, and what looked like a cross between a mace and a hedge trimmer. I wondered how the hell you used that.

They were quickly closing the gap, but the combat part of my brain told me we had nearly a minute before they’d arrive. I did a quick three-hundred-sixty-degree scan for more hostiles, but these four were all I could find. At least for now.

“Hamp, you figured out how to move around yet?” I shouted.

“Yeah, but there’s no fuckin’ leverage!”

“I know – we’re going to have to supply our own. You know, elbows over shoulders, grab and spin, all that ju-jitsu crap. Create your own power!” I told him.

“Like twisting that little guy’s head off,” he muttered. “Got it. It’ll be really important to take away a couple of weapons first. You take the first one we get, and I’ll use the second,” he said.

I didn’t argue. He was bigger, stronger, and could probably just crush one of these guys, assuming he didn’t lose a limb first from one of their edged weapons.

They weren’t assured victory, though. Thinking it through, their main advantage was their initial momentum, which they’d attempt to turn into vicious first strikes with their weapons. They came at us two by two, and that gave me an idea.

“Hamp!” I yelled, “see if you can make your way over to me!” There was a very light gravity field, but I couldn’t tell yet which way was up or down. I mentally assigned the direction from which they were coming at us as down, hoping my internal combat tactics computer would factor us being on high ground, always a good thing in combat. First advantage, us.

Slowly, twenty or so seconds later, Hamp and I were secured to each other with wrist grips. “When they’re about ten feet away,” I said, “push off me as hard as you can, with both your hands and your feet. But try and make the push-off as close to the same with the hands and the feet. Ok?” We got our palms together, and coiled up so the bottoms of our feet touched each other as well.

Our timing and power were good – seconds after we both pushed, the first pair sliced through the space we’d just left. Hamp had pushed harder than I had, so physics dictated I’d be moving away faster. My plan was to get us to opposite sides of the inner surface of the space we occupied, and find out what we were dealing with. Second advantage, us.

The second pair immediately made adjustments to their little backpacks, and peeled off after us, one to me and one to Hamp. The first two were also adjusting their packs, and by the looks of it, I’d have about ten seconds to disable the guy heading my way, get his weapon, and prepare for whatever happened next.

A girl I’d been with a long time ago was into skydiving, and I was always eager to pick up a new skill I might need someday. We’d made over a hundred jumps together before our relationship’s parachute failed to deploy, but I’d taken away knowledge of how my body reacts in zero gravity, or free fall, which is nearly the same thing.

The fellow with the hedge clipper was almost on me; he pushed a button and it turned into something similar to a chainsaw on a stick. Its outer rim spun terrifyingly quickly. I knew it would slice right through any part of me it touched.

Since I had nothing at hand, and my arms weren’t long enough to reach him around his weapon, I relied on deception. Orienting my body as if I was going to push off to the left, I let him nearly get within reach of me, then quickly changed position and pushed off to the right.

His instinctual response was what I’d hoped it would be – he immediately made a V-shape with his legs and oriented himself to bounce off the wall after me.

I grabbed his left ankle as I flew past him, and with momentum on my side he never reached the wall. I quickly broke his ankle across my shoulder, which distracted him from using the odd weapon. The numb nuts actually let the weapon go, and it stayed fairly close to us since he hadn’t pushed it away.

Bent into a shape that allowed him to cradle his ankle, he exposed his back to me, which I immediately took advantage of by climbing up his propulsion system hand over hand until I could reach his head. By then he’d figured out what I was up to, but it was way past too late. “Hey, don’t ….” he started to say, and that was about when I snapped his neck.

The weapon’s floating position required me to spend a few critical seconds to get back to the wall, reposition, and make a push towards it. Guy number two was already on me, and as I grabbed the weapon and flicked the same toggle the first guy had to get the thing’s edge spinning, a blast of pain flashed up my left leg. It’s an odd thing to see your foot plus a few inches of your leg float past you, surrounded by blood bubbles, but that’s the view I had as I twisted around to face guy number two. Unfortunately, he had enough time for a second attack, this one a stab through my left shoulder.

I roared with the pain, wondered how Hamp was faring on the far side of the weightless sphere, and my hedge-clipper-of-doom clanged against the scimitar. Oddly enough, the trimmer ate through the scimitar with almost no resistance, and I had a lightning fast moment to be grateful its business end had never touched me.

I contorted the opposite side of my body, and chewed through guy number two’s ankles. Two feet floated free. He screamed his pain as I sheared off the arm holding the scimitar, then quickly separated his other arm from his body.

I flicked the weapon off, let it go gently, and wasted no time getting the propulsion system off the remains of its prior user. He was still alive, but not for long, with all major arteries pumping out red spheres of blood at a tremendous rate.

Finally I had time to look across and see how Hamp was doing. One guy was down and out, but apparently Hamp wasn’t as comfortable in zero gravity as I was. It looked from my vantage point a battle of attrition was being waged. Hamp was minus his right forearm, and his right leg was badly broken, he held the long sword in his left hand, but that’s all I could tell in that quick glance.

The propulsion machine was easy to operate; within a minute of experimentation, I had it on and was flying across the sphere’s space to help Hamp out. My internal computer told me I’d reach them in about twenty seconds, and I readied my weapon, whatever the hell it was.

My leg hurt like hell, and my shoulder was burning and bleeding. The fellow Hamp had dispatched floated by me and I had time to see he essentially had no throat. Hamp has a strong grip.

One second later, the slight gravity field I mentioned not only reversed, but intensified. Suddenly, we were all falling towards our new “down.” Hamp had made sure his opponent’s back was towards me as soon as he saw me coming.

As we all fell together at what felt about twice normal Earth gravity, I kicked Hamp’s opponent away, so every foot he fell pulled him further away from Hamp and me. “Grab onto me!” I shouted, and started slowing my descent with the backpack’s power. “Don’t slice me with that fucking thing when we land!”

Hamp wrapped his legs around my waist, barked out a snarl at the pain this caused his broken leg, and grabbed my shoulder strap with his left hand, the long sword tucked through his belt.

I pushed the power up to full on the pack, and did as good a job as I could in bringing us down in a controlled fashion. My wounds were pure agony, which I compartmentalized again, and concentrated on how to get us down with the awkward weight distribution Hamp imposed on our falling mass.

We landed hard, and with our combined injuries we both let out new streams of invective that should have melted everything within hearing distance. I lifted the trimmer above my head and toggled it on, not knowing what to expect.

First order of business was to locate the remaining bogey, which didn’t take long, as he was already on us, and he pushed the foil right through my gut. I felt it get stuck on bone, probably my backbone, and my legs went numb.

“Son Of A Bitch!” I roared again, and brought the hedge clipper down vertically as I crumpled. The wound in my stomach actually made me want to curl up in the fetal position, so ironically it helped me with my attack.

The last bad guy was still trying to dislodge his foil from my spine. I don’t think I ever want to see someone split apart right down the middle again, but it certainly worked. Four bad guys down, two good guys up. Bloody and missing pieces, but up.

I was lightheaded from the blood loss, and the pain was getting hard to ignore.

“You ok?” I asked.

“Need more work on fighting with no gravity,” Hamp huffed, pain riding his voice. “Where the hell is the way out of this thing?”

We looked for the telltale pad, and of course it was clear around the sphere from where we were.

With his broken right leg, and my missing left foot and lower leg that I couldn’t feel anyway, we had to stumble and crawl (Hamp stumbled, I hand-crawled) our way a good mile or so to get to the pad. I remember blacking out from blood loss and internal injuries, and I remember Hamp carrying me a while, wondering how he did that with a broken leg. Finally we were there.

A thought hit me. “Fuck – the symbols! I haven’t seen any!” I couldn’t walk, but I rolled over and looked around as much as I could.

“Hamp, did you see any of them anywhere?” I asked, still looking around.

His answer faded as I passed out again.

A few minutes later Hamp slapped me awake. “I don’t think we can wait any longer, Rich,” he said.

I had to agree.

I put my hand on the pad, and wearily asked Hamp “Top Five?”

He put his hand on the pad and, as we popped out of the sphere, I heard his voice say “Close, but certainly Top Ten.”

Chapter 57

“Not a single one?” Booker whined.

“So sorry, old chap,” I threw back at him in a crappy English accent, “It was an awfully big space, and I was terribly busy bleeding out, being paralyzed, and dying. Sodding bad luck, mate,” I said, angry.

Fallhouse shot Booker a dirty look over his cup of coffee. The four of us sat around what had become our table, equidistant from the entrance and the food. Hamp was mainlining coffee again; he was on his thirteenth or fourteenth cup since we’d come out of stage six.

“It might interest you to know that we’ve set up a string array of bio-medical monitors around the egress points of every Orb,” Fallhouse said, a non-sequitur of massive proportions.

I looked at Hamp, who stared back at me with almost completely vacant eyes. He’d eaten two trays full of turkey, stuffing, and cranberries as soon as he realized, again, that miraculously his injuries had been healed upon exiting the sphere. I got the feeling that for him it was like a big game, and he was enjoying it. I wish I had his ability of not thinking about what failure meant.

I, on the other hand, was starting to get seriously pissed off at whatever was running Mr. Shorts. I was tired of continually getting mortally wounded. Compartmentalized or not, pain had to be dealt with sometime, and I had quite a reservoir of it to bleed off.

“Four stages, and twenty-five days left,” I mused. “An average of one every six days.”

Booker glanced up at me, rocking back and forth, barely noticeable. “The next one. The next one,” he repeated to himself six or seven times.

“What about the next one?” I asked.

“I feel like I did right at the beginning of this nightmare, right back where started, over eleven months ago,” he moaned. “Not your fault that you got none of the stage six symbols. That was an awfully big space, and you literally had no time. Fallhouse here tells me if you had stayed inside any longer than you did, you would have completed bleeding out, and it’d all be over right now. Knowledge courtesy of his bio-medical arrays.

“But the issue is, ever since the first person made it through stage one, we’ve had something to work with. At this point, we know nothing at all about the next stage, and have zero time, zero time to get that knowledge.

“I do know you two need a break. My orders are that we will not make the stage-seven attempt for three days,” he said, and I could tell it wrenched a part deep inside for granting those three days.

I was not going to complain. I had some internal garbage I needed to purge to get back on top of my game. I also had some facts rumbling around my mind that felt as if they needed to be put together, but they weren’t going to come together by themselves. I could use some time to let them simmer.

Hamp just kept drinking coffee. I think he and I needed to spend some time alone, for both of us to get rid of some gunk that had been building up between us since, and even a bit before, Melanie’s death.

Fallhouse and Booker were, by that time, staring daggers at each other. Whatever argument they were having I wanted no part of, unless it directly impinged on my continued breathing.

“I am going to sleep. Anybody that tries to wake me up in the next sixteen hours better have another world-ending problem on their hands,” I said as I stood up and began the trek to my tent. To Booker and Fallhouse, I said “I recommend you put your computers to work immediately on an open-ended query. We know they’ve tested our dexterity, our mental creativeness, our ability to absorb pain, our skill at what appears to be a universal game like chess. There must be a way you can get your racks to take a guess at what they’re likely to be testing for in the last four stages.”

Booker again looked stumped and stupefied, as if someone had just told him the sky was blue.

“I, I never, I hadn’t thought of it …” he managed, before he went away somewhere deep in his brain again.

To Hamp, who was glaring at me, which was rare in and of itself, I said “H-bomb, just get some sleep. We’ll work it out after we’ve had some sleep.” I left the tent. I could hear Booker and Fallhouse arguing as I left, and I heard the inevitable chair crashing to the ground as Hamp stood up to leave.

Chapter 58

Late the next day I was working out a few frustrations in a tent set up as a gym. Booker told me that months ago, the gym tent was standing room only, and hopes were riding sky high that the Orb would be cracked in a few weeks. Now the gym was nearly empty, and that saddened me. I was in the zone, where only punches and kicks and the sound they made thudding into the heavy bag mattered. Back in the day, I could kill the bag until my body literally quit from lack of energy. Now, the trance tended to end while I still had a little reserve left.

I threw another five-punch combination, and knew I’d reached that point.

I held on to the bag, took in a few deep lungs-full of air, and turned around to exit the ring.

Hamp was sitting on a fold-up chair that had not been occupied when I began working the heavy bag, however long ago that was. I used a towel to mop off the sweat from my head and torso, then went over to my friend.

He was quiet, so I brought another folding chair over and collapsed into it, letting myself feel the good pain of the long workout.

We sat in a companionable silence for a few minutes, which I viewed as a good sign. I would like to see Hamp up there knocking blue hell out of the heavy bag, or working the speed bag; hell, even practicing his ground game or spells. Instead, I could almost see the funk he was wallowing in. I needed him out of it, and quickly.

“What’s up,” I asked, neutral-toned, and continued massaging my now aching calves and thighs.

“You know you beat that thing for four hours,” Hamp grumbled.

“How many of those hours were you watching me?” I asked.

“Nearly all of them. I’ve been thinking,” Hamp said.

“Always a dangerous pastime,” I quipped.

“Only for you,” Hamp replied. “Shorty mentioned they were ‘recruiting’ in the pain phase, you remember? I also want to thank you for the help in getting through that. Once we beat these motherfuckers, I know now your mind games are just as important as the what’s-fun part to me.

“Will you teach me more?”

“As much as you’ll take, my friend, as much as you’ll take,” I said.

He shifted in his seat, and I knew something, or some things, were really bothering him.

“Rich, what are they recruiting for?” he asked.

I put some of my thoughts in speak-able form. “Do you remember the spell stage, where one of the assholes said something like ‘it’s been a long time,’ or ‘many worlds,’ or something similar? I’m sure Booker has figured this out but hasn’t bothered telling us. I believe we’re being ‘recruited’ as a species to be cannon fodder for these fuckers in a war a long ways away from here.” There, I said it. What had been bothering me for days.

“That’s not my worry,” Hamp said, and I literally jumped out of my seat.

Looking down at him with my gloved hands on my hips, I felt like I did when I’d learned that he’d been carrying me like a sack of wheat when we’d played chess. Deceived, and pissed.

He remained sitting, shoulders slumped, glaring resentfully at the floor.

“Then ask yourself why they’re recruiting,” he said, tone consistent with doom.

I just glared at him. “You wanna get in the ring and go a few rounds?” I asked, knowing I was playing with fire.

“No, Rich. I want to talk, not fight.”

“So talk.”

“If they have the technology and the resources to run these recruiting trips to one world, ours, then that means they’re doing it all over the fuckin’ galaxy. Why aren’t they putting all those resources to work fighting their enemies?”

I sat back down. I hadn’t thought that far. Then it hit me. “They’re losing.”

“Yeah. So even if we survive, we become front-line waste for these fuckers.”

“Shit.” I needed to think.

“When did you figure this out?” I asked, angry again at having one of my blind spots brought into the light.

“About when we saw the orientation film. Before I knew Mel was dead. Before we ran a single fucking stage. Before you did.”

“Yeah, I admit that, all right,” I said, taking my medicine as gracefully as I could.

But I was a quick learner too. “So that means even if we win, we lose,” I said, finally feeling a sliver of hope. “So, Mr. Denny Hampstead, put back on your tactics 101 hat, and tell me what that means we have to do.” I smiled, because I knew. I just didn’t know how.

“What are you thinking, you sonovabitch?” Hamp asked me.

Chapter 59

The Lieutenant nearly popped out of his seat in excitement when the two tiny humans, who looked like they were well on their way towards dying, somehow made the six kilometer death march around the perimeter of the sixth screen, or ‘stage’ as he’d heard the humans call them. This, along with the pain tolerance they had shown in the fifth screen, made him seriously wonder if the tiny beings on this planet could actually make a contribution in the Great War. What type of contribution he couldn’t fathom, but historically ALL species that were able to survive the scrubbing process was helpful in some way in the ongoing combat against the Enemy.

Only a Lieutenant, he had carefully built a solid network amongst the vast recruiting flotilla, and knew the War was going badly. He ached with each defeat, and desperately wanted to contribute by finding another species they could sacrifice to push the ultimate defeat a bit further away in time. It did seem, at this point, only a matter of time, but the Lieutenant would never give up to the Enemy.

As the humans pressed the exit pad to the sixth stage, he was simultaneously pressing his communication console to alert Colonel Rtzff. Rtzff immediately answered the alert.

“What, Lieutenant?”

“Sir, the two Potential Recruits we’ve been watching from world three have survived the fifth and sixth screens,” replied the Lieutenant.

“Okay! Now we’re getting somewhere with this fragment of a planet. Again, send the sensory experience to my private cube, and meet me in my quarters after your shift. I want to plan a viewing for the senior staff, and depending upon their opinions of the likelihood of these ants making it through the last four scrubs, make it available to the entire ship.”

“Already done and waiting for you, Sir,” the Lieutenant responded. “I would be honored to assist with the logistics of your ranking officers’ viewing.”

“Copy that, Lieutenant, well done. Put yourself in for the viewing session as well,” Rtzff went on. “You’ve done excellent work in this God-awful system. Carry on.” Rtzff broke the connection, suddenly recognizing the need to change his thinking from how to protect his rear-end based on an unsuccessful trip, to how to maximize his find if these insects actually completed the scrubbing process. He was also well aware of the recent turn of events in the Great War that had put them on the defensive, and likely losing, side. It had been a somewhat desperate move to recruit from these outlying systems in the first place. It would be a massive boost to his career if he could bring another species to the table.

Rtzff slithered over to his dispenser on the opposite wall, and took a massive hit of the highly illegal stimulant he’d been abusing for a long time. He felt he deserved it, and silently cursed these humans for taking so damned long in showing some promise. He cursed aloud; he should have just asked the Lieutenant when his shift was over. Now he’d have to look it up, and that seemed like a lot of work. Instead, he took another large hit, this time of a depressant, and decided he’d simply nap until the Lieutenant awakened him.

Chapter 60

“You mean to tell me, you really don’t know?” I goaded Hamp. If this was what had been making him so grumpy over the past couple of days, then he was going to take some major crap from me over it.

“C’mon, Dick-less Wonder, spit it out,” Hamp said. “Don’t make me beat it out of you.”

“Now there’s a capital idea!” I said. “Let’s box a couple of rounds, just like the old days before any of this shit happened. No kicks, no wrestling, just boxing, for fun, like we used to.”

“Headgear?” Hamp asked, finally warming to the idea.

“Probably wise, given humanity’s fate seems to have been crapped on our shoulders; we wouldn’t want to permanently injure each other.”

“You wear it if you want,” Hamp said, “I’m going to knock you goofy with or without it.”

“Both of us, or neither,” I said, and I meant it. I still somehow thought that since Hamp had lost Melanie, he hadn’t truly internalized all that was riding on our continued success in the Orbs.

“Fine,” he grumbled, “you won’t lay a glove on me anyway.”

“Your mama,” I said, which was really an empty retort because I knew Hamp’s mother, and I loved her like my own; she had passed about a decade ago from an aggressive cancer. Not as aggressive as these fucking Orbs, I thought, and that actually made me grin. Picturing these Orbs as a cancer, and us as the little stem-cell induced smart-bombs with their names all over our warhead bodies as we smashed and thought our way through the maze brought a little smile to my face.

We laced up the gloves, and I couldn’t get that image out of my head. Something about a smart-bomb, symbols, cancer, my partnership with Hamp; they all kept revolving around in my head like some three-dimensional puzzle with one piece missing.

Hamp snapped me out of it with a verbal “ding, ding,” simulating the beginning of a round. We came together across the boxing ring. There was no need to feel each other out; we had sparred thousands of times, teaching each other all we knew. That was why sparring was really only exercise for us. Neither one of us wanted to hurt the other, but it never hurt your ego to land a good punch every now and then.

Both right-handed, we traded and blocked numerous jabs, uppercuts, right-crosses and left hooks. After about ten minutes of lightweight sparring, we’d worked up a good sweat, when both Booker and Fallhouse ran into the tent screaming at us to stop fighting each other. We ignored them and kept sparring, and I landed a good right to Hamp’s midsection. Compared to the kicks he’d absorbed from the enhanced Orb fighters, it was nothing, and he just said “nice shot,” before catching me on the chin with a quick left jab.

“Are you guys too stupid to live?!” Booker bellowed at the top of his lungs.

Something about his wording meshed with the puzzle spinning around in my mind, and I froze in thought. Unfortunately, my body froze too, and the next thing I knew Hamp’s right hand caught me square in the temple with a blow we both knew I’d have easily blocked if my mind had been in the fight.

I crumpled like a sack of potatoes, knocked completely unconscious.

Chapter 61

I regained consciousness on my cot, in my tent, alone. No one was watching over me, and I sat up slowly. Even Hamp’s half-punches were pretty damned brutal. I knew we had only been sparring at half to three-quarters speed, and with no bad intentions. Now I just had to remember why the hell I’d stopped defending myself in the ring.

In the minute or so I had before Fallhouse and Booker tore through my tent flap, I had almost re-connected the dots, but lost them the instant the two scientists entered.

“Shit,” I muttered. It was gone, and I’d have to re-create it again. I quickly grabbed a pencil and wrote down all my last few thoughts, and then Fallhouse was screaming at me.

“You are, without a doubt, the most careless, bumbling, inadequate, idiotic, shameless excuse for a human being I have ever met!” Fallhouse bellowed, and actually threw a punch at me.

Booker was behind Fallhouse, and missed his grab of Fallhouse’s right elbow as he drew it back to deck me. Even half-asleep, it wasn’t more than reflex to catch the punch with my left hand and twist Fallhouse down to the floor. He immediately began loudly venting his pain, telling me to let him go.

“Not before you promise not to hurt yourself again by attacking me again,” I said. “Ever. I might hurt you next time.”

“Fine! Fine! You’re breaking my fucking elbow!” he yipped, and I let him up.

“Now, what is your major malfunction?” I asked.

“You two could have killed the whole human race!” he almost shouted.

“Well, gee, Doc, it seems to me we’ve done more to save the human race in three weeks than you’ve done in nearly a year,” I said to him, rubbing my temples, which had begun to throb, and still struggling to wake up completely.

“You unbelievable bastard!” Fallhouse roared, and made it to his feet, seemingly ready to take another run at me. Booker locked him up in a bear hug from behind, and a “Shut the fuck up.”

Fallhouse squirmed out of Booker’s grip, twisted around, and threw another punch, this time at Booker. Booker, though surprised, nimbly hopped backwards out of range. Fallhouse had put everything he had into the punch, and by missing everything his momentum tipped him over, again to end up on the floor.

I shot over to him quickly and sat on his back, to his pain and surprise. “Chill out, Doc,” I said, making no move to get off of him. “I think it’s about time we had a little chat.” I looked around the room and still no Hamp. “Booker, go find Hamp and bring him in here. Now.”

My face must have betrayed how serious I was, because Booker didn’t say a word. He just exited the tent to find my friend. Fallhouse stayed silent, and I slowly kept putting together more pieces of the puzzle that had frozen me completely when we were sparring.

A few minutes later they came through the door. I was still sitting on Fallhouse’s back, and he was getting angrier by the second.

I saw a small smile play at the corners of Hamp’s mouth. “What’s goin’ on, Rich? Why’d you let me tap you on the head like that?”

“The PhD impersonating a rug here attacked me as soon as I woke up,” I said. Hamp raised his eyebrows.

“I don’t know why,” I responded to his unspoken question. “But I do know we have to have a better distribution of labor around here, or we’re all dead.”

Booker calmly asked me what I meant.

“Simply put, you guys are not carrying your weight.”

Booker’s posture immediately turned defensive, and my butt felt Fallhouse’s increased struggles to get me off of him. “Get the hell off of me, you arrogant ass!” he yelled.

“You promise me on your beloved education and accomplishments you won’t make a fool of yourself again, I will let you up so we can have a crucial conversation,” I said.

“Yes,” he gritted out through clenched teeth. I got up. So did he. I deliberately turned my back on him, found the edge of my cot and sat down. “Everybody sit down, on what I don’t care. Chair, floor, table, just sit.”

They did. Hamp looked like he knew what was coming. He was probably right. The Intel assholes running the mission for us on an off-the-books op in Cambodia in 2008 had almost gotten us killed, and we had to hoof it over a hundred miles through densely-populated, guerilla-filled terrain to complete our objective. Our body count on that little journey had entered the triple digits when I’d stopped counting.

“Guys, this is not rocket science, and maybe that’s why you can’t understand it,” I began. “You’ve had a year to figure some things out that would have saved hundreds of millions of lives, and you didn’t. I didn’t say ‘couldn’t,’ I said ‘didn’t.’ We’ve had to gather the symbols you used to translate messages. You’ve had millions of hours of viewing time of others dying in this thing; why didn’t you capture all available data and start analyzing it before I told you to?” Booker shot Fallhouse a glance, and I caught it.

“Do you know the first thing about project management?” Fallhouse blustered. “Do you have any idea of how complex it was to align even friendly governments around a single, coordinated response to the Orbs and stop the mass suicides that were going on as people just walked up and went in, not to mention the North Koreas and Libyas of the world?” Fallhouse was practically yelling at the end of his barely-literate tirade.

“I’m certain it was a challenge, maybe the biggest challenge, maybe even part of the ultimate solution to the Orb. But that part’s over now, Doc. You need to change your mindset, both of you,” I said, including Booker with a wave of my hand. “Face it, you are resting on your past accomplishments and making us blindly wade into these last stages.

“What do we have, twenty-four days left? Four stages remain, and I’m not setting a foot in another one until you’ve done some of the tightest thinking in your lives.” I gave a wry little smile. “Consider this a stage all for yourselves.”

“Factor in these items: one, they are recruiting for something. Assume it’s a war. Two, they’re testing us for something different in each stage. We may not even know what that something is. Figure that out for us for stages one through six. Three, interpolate probable scenarios for the next four stages. I want to see the top four for each of the last stages organized by probability for each by tomorrow night. We will refresh that list of top three possibilities after we complete each of the next three stages, assuming of course we’re still alive. Four, my guesses at the qualities they were scrubbing humans for in stages one through six are agility and quickness, physical combat, mental combat, out-of-the-box combat, pain tolerance, and fighting in differing gravity fields. For God’s sake, even Hamp and I have solid guesses at what we’ll see next!” I had calibrated my voice to rise slowly to command tone through this monologue, and ended up with a voice that would tolerate no other possible response than agreement.

“Now get the fuck out of my tent and go do your jobs. Give us something to work with. Dismissed.” I turned and found the pencil and paper I’d been using to try and recreate the solution I’d almost remembered. I think they left; I don’t know. I was too lost in thought.

Chapter 62Sixty Two

“Highest probability, some type of puzzle-solving exercise. Second highest probability, weapons testing. Third highest, reproductive assessment. Fourth highest, ability to take orders.” Fallhouse curtly concluded his little speech in the mess tent at our table, at nine p.m. the next night. He sat down and began eating, with no eye contact whatsoever.

Both he and Booker were sporting new bruises; Fallhouse had a deep purple and yellow bruise surrounding his left eye, and Booker had walked in as if he’d taken a shot to a very sensitive area, along with a smaller bruise on his chin. Both their hands had scabs and bruises on the knuckles. I was happy to see they’d apparently worked out their differences in a constructive manner.

I shot Hamp a glance, as I knew he was going to make a comment right when we saw them. I gave him a slight left-to-right shake of my head, and although he didn’t like it, he shut it down.

“Ok, thank you very much,” I said. Fallhouse gave me a quick, furtive, and almost malicious glance. I ignored it.

“Have you set up a program to search and analyze every single in-Orb experience you have recorded?”

“Yes,” Booker replied. “Results will be in later tonight. Remember, we have hundreds of millions of high-resolution, varying length data to search through. Not an excuse, just a fact.”

“Understood, and thank you,” I replied. I turned to Hamp. “Guess we were pretty much in the ballpark, my friend.”

“Yeah, my bet’s still on some type of weapons testing. We’ve already shown ‘em we can survive most combat, so it makes sense we should move on to their tools of war.”

Booker seemed edgy. I was way past out of patience. “Spit it out,” I ordered.

“You going to tell them, or am I?,” he asked Fallhouse.

“Go ahead.” Fallhouse never even looked up.

Booker took a deep breath. “A set of heavy metals have been building up in your bodies since you began running the Orb,” he began. “As you may or may not know, life on Earth in human bodies is not consistent with high levels of these chemicals. The short version is by the time you complete level ten, your physical bodies should be dead.”

Not easily shocked anymore, I said “Ok. Good to know, but I’m not feeling any different. You, Hamp?”

“Nope.”

“Then for now it’s a non-issue. What else?”

Fallhouse actually raised his head and chanced a glance at Booker. Clearly he’d expected a more virulent reaction than he’d received to the news.

“Why aren’t you angry with us for withholding this information from you?” Booker asked.

“Why don’t you grow the hell up!” I said, angrily. “We’re dead anyway, what difference does it make how? What matters is how we respond to the hand we’re dealt, not the final outcome.”

“Fuckin’ A,” Hamp agreed.

“So how will it work?” I asked. “We’ll pop out of stage ten and crumple and die, or is it more of a death over a long time?”

“We have no way of knowing,” Booker replied. “The composition should actually be impacting you now, but it’s not. Neither is it affecting Hamp. It could easily change over the next four stages, so I hesitate to say anything about it except that if it continues at its current rate of increase, the final levels will be inconsistent with life.”

“Nice double-talk, Doc,” I said. “Right now, that’s like a fart in the wind; it stinks to smell it, but it’s gone fast. Something to worry about later. You agree?” I said to Hamp, who nodded his head.

“Cards on the table time,” I said. “What else do you know you haven’t told us?”

“Literally nothing,” Fallhouse said, sounding almost human.

“What did you expect us to do, kill you out of spite?” I asked Fallhouse.

He took a moment to answer. “Something like that. I apologize. I’ve under-estimated you from the beginning.”

“Forgiven. Now please add to your research any possible way of negating the effects of overdoses of heavy metals.” Fallhouse started to say something, but I cut him off. “That’s not the priority now, so do it only on downtime. But it would be good to know.

“Hamp, you ready to beat these fuckers again?”

Hamp took in a shallow breath, spit on the ground, and stood up.

“Let’s go,” he said.

As we were walking out of the tent, Booker said “One more thing you should know. Stages around the world are now shut down through stage five. Aside from you, we have four survivors of the first five stages that are currently running stage six. By the time you complete seven, or tomorrow morning, whichever comes first, I will have all of them at this facility. We may want to compare notes and experiences between all of you. Good luck in seven.”

Hamp and I exchanged a glance, then exited the tent and began the trek to the next Orb.

Chapter 63

The Orb stood before us, once again. I was sick of seeing the damned thing, and irritated at myself that I couldn’t reproduce the ‘a-ha’ moment I had in the ring before Hamp knocked it right back out of me. I took three deep breaths, denying my body the breath it craved at the bottom of each exhale for five seconds, as Master Li had taught me. It has a remarkable way of clearing the mind.

“What do you make of the stages shutting down after we pass them?” I asked Hamp, strangely hesitant to enter stage seven.

“I think these alien fuckers know when the best of the best have beaten their little maze, and shut ‘em down once nobody better is in the pipeline,” he replied.

Well. Hamp certainly seemed to have his old, bullet-proof attitude back.

“Could be,” I said. I honestly didn’t think there was a better duo on the planet than Hamp and me, but didn’t want to appear too arrogant. But maybe some arrogance was called for about now. That’s the problem; I just didn’t know yet. Part of the mist was slowly clearing in my subconscious, but not nearly enough.

“Hamp, you should know that I had a flash of understanding before you hit me with that right cross,” I said. He froze immediately. “What was it?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I’ve been trying to recreate it ever since, with everything I have.”

“Do you really think it’s smart to do a stage without knowing?” Hamp asked.

“No. But I know time is running out, and we have four more stages to complete, or Earth is toast. It was something about the smart-bombs, symbols, cancer, my partnership with you, bud, and Fallhouse rushing in to ask us what in blue hell we were doing fighting each other,” I said.

I could see the analytical part of Hamp’s mind go into motion, as soon as I gave him all the data I had. His hand stopped a few inches short of the pad that would launch us into stage seven. “Holy shit,” he breathed to himself, but I heard it. I had always admired his ability to correlate numerous seemingly unrelated variables; it was what made him so valuable to Broadbank, Inc.

“What?”

“This is bigger than Earth,” he said. I knew that already, so I remained silent. “It’s also bigger than our little solar system. It’s probably at least Galaxy-wide, and maybe even bigger,” Hamp breathed, awed at the scope of the war.

“Rich, I think we’ve just been sucked into a conflict for our entire Galaxy,” Hamp said.

“I figured out that much,” I said, a bit perturbed at Hamp’s coming up to speed so slowly.

“Well, have you figured out that our Galaxy is crucial to these fuckers’ war for domination?” Hamp asked, looking at me with what I knew to be disdain.

“Uh, no, I know a war is brewing, but I haven’t figured out the scope yet.”

“If they don’t get us on their side, the enemy will,” Hamp said, “and that’s something we don’t want at any cost.”

“Why? “ I asked.

“Because the other side routinely eliminates all conscripted planets’ populations after their usefulness has been established,” Hamp said, with absolute confidence. “These guys don’t. They continue to use conscripts as cannon fodder, but at least they let the conscripted species live.”

“How do you know that?” I asked.

“Trust me, Rich,” Hamp responded.

I’ve put my life in his hands more times than I can count, and I made an on-the-spot decision to do the same in this fucked-up situation.

“Okay. But you’re going to give me an A to Z logic assessment once we kick the crap out of stage seven!” I promised.

“Deal,” Hamp said.

We put our hands on the Orb at the same time, and were instantly shifted into a firing range inside another Orb, with a bunch of weapons I’d never seen before resting on a table in front of us, and at least thirty weird-looking creatures thirty meters on the other side of the table, all pointing strange weapons directly at us. They were not advancing. Yet.

Our good buddy by this time, Shorts, was off to our left. He said “Congratulations again, on being the first of your species to achieve screen seven. I have no doubt you will fail here, and this is the last time we will meet.”

“I’ve killed you three or four times already,” Hamp said, and I’m really eager to add to that number, numb-nuts.”

“Admirable, but unlikely,” Shorts said.

“Before you,” he continued, is an assortment of weapons we are currently using to combat the Enemy,” he said, emphasizing the word “Enemy.”

“Why are they your enemy?” I asked.

“Because they are,” Shorts responded.

“Illogical, circular reasoning,” I responded. “Give me a good answer, or get the fuck off of our planet.”

“No,” Shorts responded. “You may prove viable after all is done. You survived stages most other races don’t, and have proved remarkably resilient.”

“Fuck you very much,” I said.

“Whatever,” he said. “As I said, before you is a selection of weapons currently in use in the Great War. Your survival in this stage depends on your ability to understand their usage, and quickly.”

“Why is this war so ‘Great’?” I asked.

He started to go on with his regular spiel, but then stopped and appeared angry, and maybe it was just hope on my part, but a little bit scared as well.

“Because, meatbags, for thousands of your years, we have ruled all we could find. Space is a big place, and a few hundred years ago we found a race that, uh, is taking longer to subdue than any in our history. But enough of that.”

He indicated with his hand to the creatures facing us with weapons. “In front of you,” Shorty said, “are likenesses of our Enemy, all equipped with fully functional weapons currently in use in our War. Your challenge here is to figure out how to use our weapons, which have been designed specifically to harm our enemies, in a set amount of time. If you don’t, their weapons will become harmful to you, and you will die.” With that, Shorts disappeared.

“OK, Hamp, let’s get these weird-looking fuckers figured out.” I picked up the biggest rife-looking thing I could, and started examining it carefully.

I vaguely noticed Hamp picked the opposite, a pistol type weapon, which had a number of odd-looking appendages clinging to the side of it.

My own weapon of choice, on the other hand, didn’t have a trigger I could easily identify. The part of it that faced me had a handle, a place for all five fingers, and a couple of switches that appeared to be selection switches. I picked up the rifle, which I’d mentally named it, and examined its stock, barrel, and trigger mechanisms more carefully. There was a selector switch, with different settings that I didn’t understand. There was also a multiple-trigger setup, which I didn’t know what to make of: three different levels of pull, one short, one medium, and one long, which required all three triggers be pulled at the same time to engage.

“Whatever,” I said to myself, and picked up the bad boy. I sighted down the barrel, and caught one of the Enemy in the cross-hairs. I wanted to get some sort of calibration for the power of the weapon, so I pulled only the first of the three triggers on the weapon. It engaged smoothly, with a consistent pull pressure until the shot was made, and the Enemy within my sights exploded with a burst of purple and green goo. The shot itself appeared to be some sort of red plasma, shaped like a test tube.

I said “Nice,” mostly to myself, and sighted another Enemy down the stock of the rifle, and pulled the first two triggers. That target exploded, as well as all other Enemies within about fifteen meters.

Hamp, meanwhile, had picked up a one-handed weapon, and was trying to figure out how it was used. It looked too freaking weird to me; it had multiple triggers, many settings for the barrel, and I hadn’t chosen it due to its complexity. Hamp, on the other hand, probably figured the more complex, the more powerful it must be. I saw him struggling with the settings, settle on what he thought was appropriate, aim at one of the Enemy, and pull off a shot. The Enemy he aimed at was instantly rendered into a black-green goo.

I heard him mutter “Cool!” and concentrated on my own weapon. It was oddly-shaped, to say the least. Its shape was triangular, with the smallest angle towards me, and opened towards the Enemy. There were a number of toggles and switches I could select from, all of them with seemingly activated-or-not status.

I looked up, and made a mistake. The Enemy was rapidly advancing towards Hamp and me. My immediate instinct was to open fire on whatever settings my rifle was set on; my rational combat computer ordered me to open a couple of other settings first and decide which was better. I’d learned through years of ops to trust that computer, so I toggled all three triggers and gave them a firm, equal pull.

A spray of energy of some sort erupted from the end of my rifle, and took out a good third of the Enemy approaching us.

Hamp yelled “Fuckin-A, Rich! Keep doing that!” but I wasn’t so sure, as replacements immediately popped into existence behind the ones I’d taken out. Hamp, meanwhile, was raining destruction on the Enemy one at a time from the pistol he’d chosen.

Against my better judgment, I flipped another switch, pulled three triggers at once, and instantly all the Enemy in my sights tripled. Fuckin’ great. Each of them had the same combat gear as the original combatants.

“Hamp, unless you truly kill them, they just multiply and keep coming,” I yelled to him. “I’m going back to the spray setting I tried first, just to keep them away from us – you figure out which settings on that thing actually take them out for good.”

“Good by me, I think I’ve got one that works,” he replied, and leveled a blast at a bunch of them. They exploded, and I didn’t see replacements anywhere.

“Good job! Let’s keep doing this until they either are all gone, or start firing back at us.”

Should have kept my damn mouth shut. A bolt of energy burned right past my left ear, and would have taken my head had I not turned it to strategize with Hamp. “Shit!” I yelled, and in Hamp's direction I bellowed “They’re live fire now!.”

“I know, Rich,” he said in an odd tone of voice, which made me risk another glance his way. He had a bowling-ball-sized hole in his left side, as if half the ball had eaten its way through him. Looked like it got his hip and rib cage; I felt lucky it hadn’t taken his heart. It appeared cauterized, since he wasn’t spurting blood everywhere. “You still functional?” I asked, continuing to spray the front line of the advancing troops with my rifle-like weapon.

“Of course!” he yelled back. “But it hurts like a bastard.”

“Deal with it. Try a different setting; see if we can get a mass of them dead in a hurry.”

“No, I like this one, and I think we’ll have time,” he replied.

I moved the multiplier switch back to its original position and kept shooting, except now it was hop and pop since we had incoming. Hamp just maintained his position behind a load-bearing pillar, darting out to shoot at every opportunity.

I went back to the first setting I’d tried, killed a couple Enemy with quick shots, and this time looked to the rear of the group to see if any of them re-appeared. I couldn’t see anything. So I sprayed the entire front line of them with the same attack, and nothing re-materialized. Thinking that this was too easy, between Hamp and me, in about three minutes we’d eradicated the entire Enemy.

Shorts popped back into the scene, and he was furious. “Why the hell didn’t you try more weapons?” he screamed. Every single other species tries at least five, and by then they’re overwhelmed. Why did you stick with two?” he bellowed at us.

“Tough shit, Short Stuff,” I told him, then made a grab for him. He shrieked, and disappeared.

“Hamp, cover me in case any of those purple and green bastards re-appear. I’m going symbol hunting,” I said. I found fifteen of them, mostly all hidden behind the mass of the Enemy’s troops. I memorized them, and yelled to Hamp “Have you seen the exit pad for this stage?”

Getting no answer, I ran back to the last point I’d seen Hamp. In addition to the bowling ball size injury, he had now lost his left arm, his right hip, and part of his head. He lay on the floor, I hoped unconscious and not dead.

At least the screen was close. I fireman-carried Hamp around the table, grabbed his right hand with my right, and put my left and his left on the pad. I thought, though I wasn’t sure, I could detect faint breathing and a pulse. We were gone.

Chapter 64

I finished drawing all fifteen of the symbols I’d seen in stage seven, and pushed the pad across the table to Booker. He wasted little time; he glanced through them with a couple of under-his-breath “uh-huhs,” like they were what he had come to expect, and immediately called over someone from his always-there security team. “Get these to Bosco right away. Double-time!” his voice rose as the security guy hadn’t left the table at a run.

“Notice anything interesting about them?” he asked me.

“What, the symbols from seven?” I asked.

“No, your nose hairs. Yes, the symbols, you troglodyte!” he added.

Too tired to do much else, I just gave him the finger. “Yes, I did notice. The curls are becoming more complete, and there are fewer dots. I’d have to take a closer look for anything more profound than that.”

“Well, Mr. Slate, there’s considerably more going on with the symbology than that,” Booker said. “But I’m not sure you knowing about them would help you any in eight through ten,” he added morosely.

“These are getting so difficult now, I think I have to agree,” I said. “I don’t really care about these fucking symbols anymore.” I put my head on my crossed arms.

Hamp, in an odd gesture, put a hand on my back and massaged my neck a bit. “Hang in there, Dick,” he said. “We’re almost home.”

I enjoyed the massage for a minute, then looked up and found Hamp’s eyes. “Make no mistake, big guy,” I said, “I’m good until we kick these motherfuckers’ asses.” I sat straight up, against my instinct to go fetal and go to sleep for a week.

“Booker, where the hell is Fallhouse?” I asked. “I want to know more about these heavy metals building up in my system, and I’m not happy about your decision to keep that from us until before the last Orb.” I scowled at him.

“Wouldn’t you rather know the translation of the fifteen symbols you found in stage seven?” Booker asked me, deflecting my question, and barely hiding his irritation.

I again felt that Hamp and I were the prized rats in his grand experiment; the one for which he thought he’d win the Nobel prize. My guess was that the people who decided the winner of that prize were dead by now. Ego takes its place right next to pride, I thought, a rule worth remembering.

“Yeah, of course I want to know what they say,” I replied. Maybe your ‘Mr. Bosco’ can tell us that quickly. Who the hell is he, by the way?”

“He is, or was, the top cryptographer in the former CIA,” Booker told me. “I made an urgent request to the President to get him on the team, as soon as I knew what was going on with these spheres,” Booker responded.

“How long until we hear from him?”

“Should be about two hours.”

“Well, until then, unless we plan another Orb assault in the next two hours, I’m going to get some sleep.”

“Amen,” Hamp appended. We left the tent.

Fallhouse tramped through the door after us. “Stages one through six are now closed down,” he announced. “Besides you two, we had an entire survival list of four before trying stage six. Two more died in stage six, and the other two just finished it about an hour ago. How does it feel to have twenty-five percent of the world’s hopes on your backs?” he asked as he stood there, I hoped rhetorically, or I was going to have to deck him.

I ignored him, as the information was interesting, but not important, as far as I was concerned.

“Hamp, you promised me that you’d shine a light on whatever you figured out before we entered seven. Spit it out.”

Two people approached us then, a man and a woman. Being hard-wired to do so, my eyes immediately took in the woman. Deep, auburn hair, pitch black eyes, about five feet eight inches tall, very slim, very fit, at least according to how cut up her arms were below her sleeveless shirt, and her graceful calves below her skin tight body suit, which both she and the man wearing. I headed back into the tent, and Hamp and Fallhouse followed.

The man wasn’t as big as I am, but peripherally I could tell he rolled smoothly, and I was aware he was taking in everything about the tent and everything in it as he made his way over to us. But my eyes were on the woman.

They had about thirty feet to reach us, and I couldn’t pull my eyes away from the woman for a single foot of that distance. Part of me that needed a drink was getting a full fire hose set on ‘max.’. I didn’t so much as look at the man until his hand was held out for me to shake, along with a rousing “Good morning, Sir! May I have the honor of shaking your hand?” he asked. “My name is Adam Singleton, Major in the United States Air Force.”

I took his hand, shook it firmly, “Richard Slate. Very happy to meet you.”

Singleton moved to take Hamp’s hand, and the girl stuck her hand out. “Sydney Braithwaite,” she said, and her grip was rock-solid as well.

“Richard Slate,” I said again, and took in her face. Definitely the blackest eyes I’d ever seen, and the contrast with her dark red hair and pretty smile sent a shock through me I hadn’t felt since Clara died, years ago. I made sure to let go of the handshake first.

I looked at Booker. “You said there were four survivors.”

“The other two didn’t make it in stage six, as Fallhouse just informed up. Sydney and Adam haven’t had the pleasure of taking on seven yet. Maybe you and Hamp want to watch, before you get to knowing each other very well.”

I saw Sydney’s eyes harden, but she said nothing. “Booker,” I said in an ominous tone, “We are people, not bacteria in your petri dish. Now I’m going to ask you to apologize to all four of us, and I better hear in your voice that you mean it, or you won’t leave this tent without a broken nose.”

Booker blew up. “Goddammit, you still don’t …” He stopped then, because he had to raise both hands to cradle his shattered nose. Adam had backfisted him without taking a step or making another move. I had to admit, he was freaky fast.

Adam and I locked eyes for a second, and I gave him a slight nod of thanks, and approval for backing me up. He returned the nod, and the look in his eyes let me know he was tired of being a lab rat too.

“Fuck!” Booker spat a sizeable glob of blood and saliva onto the floor. He grabbed a bunch of napkins off the table and held them to his nose.

“Better set that now, or it’ll be even uglier than it was before. Want me to do it?” Hamp asked.

Without waiting for an answer, Sydney locked Booker’s arms behind his back. Hamp quickly grabbed Booker’s face in his bear claws, and set the broken nose with his two thumbs. Booker yelped in pain. Hamp wiped the blood off on Booker’s shirt, stepped away, and Sydney let him go at the same time. “Now maybe the napkins will do some good,” she said, and handed him a fresh wad from the table.

“How about that apology?” I asked.

Booker looked at each of us in turn for a second, looked at the floor, and said “I apologize” with what I judged was some sincerity.

Fallhouse had not moved a muscle during this entire exchange. He’d gone a pasty white, and I gave him fifty-fifty odds of fainting. I doubt he’d ever seen such casual violence rumble up out of nowhere so quickly in his life – most people haven’t.

“Fallhouse,” Hamp prodded him.

“What?” he asked, trying to make it back to the here and now from wherever the level of shock he’d experienced had taken him.

“Anything you want to add?”

“Um, no. But you might want to share what worked and what didn’t, I mean, tell Sydney and Adam the weapons you chose and why, how they work, that sort of thing …” he stammered out.

“When are they going in?” I asked.

“As soon as Booker and I, sorry, as soon as we ALL decide they’re ready.”

Sydney sat down and looked me straight in the eyes. “Tell me everything you remember about seven.”

Chapter 65

“Pity the weapon selection wasn’t the same,” Hamp said, dispassionately.

We had de-briefed Adam and Sydney for a few hours prior to them entering seven. Unfortunately, they had to figure it out for themselves, because neither of the weapons Hamp and I had used was among those available for their selection.

Sydney and Adam were one of the few pairs of people who had paid close attention to our completion of stage one. They had quizzed Booker for the better part of a day before he had simply cut them off, which was probably the right thing to do, since they were covering the same territory for the third time. They weren’t a couple; they were just progressing along their way to running the Orb at approximately the same pace, and once they’d seen Hamp and me enter together, they’d decided to try it as well.

They’d successfully managed to enter the stage together, and it had been Sydney who’d had to fight to get herself back to her body. Where I’d visualized a chain, she’d used a simple lightweight rope, and had made it back in under half the time I’d taken, meaning they both had much more energy left than Hamp and I had had to avoid all the projectiles. Adam had used the same approach that Hamp had; when Sydney couldn’t get close to her ‘other’ body, he just picked her up and dumped her into her prostrate form.

Neither one of them had taken nearly as much damage walking the path as Hamp and I had. Their rationale had been that since Adam was so much quicker, she should be the one to take the shield. Good plan, bad break – it hadn’t appeared. He waited until the back wall of the Orb had pushed him onto the path, then made his way across. He faced nowhere near the sheer volume of crap that had come at me. This pissed me off. Probably had something to do with how smooth he was in avoiding all the incoming he dodged. He made it seem a whole lot more effortless, took only a few minor wounds, whereas I lost my legs, was punctured damn near everywhere, and would have bled out in about another fifteen seconds.

The trouble was, it was impossible not to like the guy. He was unfailingly respectful, always ready to exercise, spitball ideas, discuss new partnerships, you name it. I didn’t like how close he appeared to be to Sydney; that’s for damned sure. I wondered if it would be a problem, and decided to hope that it would.

It was the next morning. Twenty days left to go, three stages, and we were stuffing our faces with all foods of the breakfast type. The topic-du-jour was how many of us went into eight at the same time. Total catastrophe on one hand, many skill sets on the other.

Hamp and I were arguing for no change; two and two. Why change a successful formula? Sydney was arguing to go in with me and Hamp with Adam. “Look, guys,” she said, including all six of us, since Booker and Fallhouse were eating with us as well. “Hamp and Adam offer a great combination of grace and power; Rich and I offer a formidable combination and a broad range of skills.”

I felt a warm glow that she wanted to go in with me. Fuck. I think I was falling for this woman. Put it aside.

“The first rule of any op is ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,’” I said. “And the second rule is ‘no battle plan survives first contact with the enemy.’ We’ve completed seven of these things, and we have to expect they’re tracking our progress pretty closely. Eight through ten are probably going to be the hardest of all of them. We keep doing what we’re doing now.”

“I agree they’re expecting us to continue on status-quo, so let’s mix it up for them” Sydney argued, convincingly. “If they expect us to carry on, they’ll plan for that.”

“Maybe,” Hamp added, “but that’s not relevant for me. I’m with Rich, either with you two or without you guys. Debate’s over for me.” Sydney shot him daggers, and he smiled his apologies to her.

“Do we have any input in this at all?” Fallhouse asked, looking at Booker and then at us.

“Not really,” I said, “but I’ll listen to what you have to say.”

“These things are so far ahead of us technologically, they’re indistinguishable from magic, to quote Dr. Asimov. We really don’t have any idea what we’re up against, and haven’t been from day one. Trying to apply our logic to theirs is like comparing kumquats and Corvettes. It’s a useless exercise. So I’m with Slate – keep doing what’s working until we’re forced to change.”

I thought Booker was going to stroke out on us right there, during Fallhouse’s comments. Whatever he was going to say was costing him a great deal.

“I agree,” he choked out.

“Adam, you’re the last to voice your opinion about this,” I said. “What do you think?”

“Don’t know, don’t care,” he smiled. I’m trained to be the perfect foil – I can do it all, but I fill in the skill set gaps my partner’s missing.”

“Trained by whom?” I asked, my curiosity piqued.

“Can’t say.”

“Um, dude, the rest of the world is pretty much gone,” I said. “Does it really matter anymore?”

“Does to me,” he said.

I shrugged it off. “Got a bit of a big head on those shoulders, bud,” I said. He gave me a strange look.

“Booker, you said earlier that there was more going on with the symbology we got out of seven. Tell us what you meant by that. Now.”

With a shrug of his own, Booker said “The symbols you collected in seven translated say “Prepare to make impossible command decisions.”

Hamp was nodding his head, almost imperceptibly.

Sydney and Adam were also exchanging glances; none of the four of us was surprised.

“C’mon, Hamp, let’s go work out. I need to talk with you.” I got up to go change into my gear.

“Mr. Slate?” Adam asked politely.

I turned around. “Uh-huh?”

“I’d love to spar a few rounds with you while we wait. Think we can do that over the next few days?”

“Sure.”

“No,” Hamp, Booker, and Fallhouse said in unison, sounding like a bad trio, and Sydney and I cracked up laughing.

“Probably a good decision,” I said, reconsidering, when the chuckle-fit was over. “The last time I boxed, Hamp knocked something important right out of my head, and I still haven’t pieced it back together yet.”

“I’ll be happy to spar with you,” Hamp said.

“Great!” Adam lit up like a Christmas tree.

Chapter 66

“What do you think about all this?” I asked Hamp, as I slid out of a judo hold and rolled into a reversal, Hamp’s head and left arm caught in a triangle.

“I don’t think much anymore,” he said, as he relaxed into the hold. I knew it was a pre-cursor to his whipping his head back and pushing to the rear with his left foot, and I countered both without much thought.

He also took the counter moves without much, if any, thought, and just broke my hold by grabbing my clenched gloves and pulling them away from his body with his free left hand. Sometimes I forget how strong this beast really is. I rolled to my feet and took the neutral, balanced stance jiu-jitsu requires at its core.

“Rich, tell me all the things you were thinking of before I clocked you the other day,” Hamp said, and didn’t re-engage. I relaxed my stance, too. Sydney and Adam were watching us at ringside.

“It was something about a smart-bomb, symbols, cancer, our partnership, and then Fallhouse and Booker came in and were yelling about us being too stupid to live while we were sparring,” I said, because that was all I could remember. “I was thinking of us as a little stem-cell smart bombs, these alien assholes as a cancer on the human race, and the symbols, which I don’t think we’re getting all the meaning from.”

Hamp froze up, and literally didn’t move or even blink for at least a minute.

“God,” he rumbled under his breath, still not moving. It was the Bank Executive who stood before me now; he even reached for his non-existent tie to play with – in some ways it appeared he was having a small seizure.

“Hey Hamp, you al—“ Adam started to say from ringside.

“Shut the fuck up!” I whispered, loudly. I didn’t want to interrupt Hamp’s thought process, whatever it was.

Adam took it in stride, even appeared a bit embarrassed, and shut up. Sydney was looking at me, giving me a kind of ‘what the hell IS this guy?’ type of look.

Hamp stayed that way for a good two or three minutes, not moving, not blinking, somewhere deep inside. Sometimes even I forget that he is one of the best minds in investment banking; he made millions of dollars each year for Broadbank. That’s why they paid him so much. He didn’t give a shit; he drove an ’88 Camaro, lived in a studio apartment, and his only sign of making that much money manifested in the clothes he wore to work.

A frozen tableau: Hamp stuck in mid-stride, playing with a non-existent tie; me standing a few feet away from him; Adam and Sydney squirming in their chairs.

He came out of it.

“Uh, Rich?” he said.

“Yeah?”

“Two of us are going to die in the next stage. But there’s a cookie in the code of these fucking Orbs. That’s what the dots have been directing us to; not the overall translation, and not the swirls. The dots are what we need to concentrate on.”

“Booker!” I yelled, as loudly as I could.

He came tearing through the door about three minutes later. “What?” he huffed.

“I want ALL the processing power you can generate to concentrate on the dots in the symbols I’ve been drawing for you. Not ninety-nine percent, one hundred percent. Analyze them every way from Sunday. DO IT NOW!” I barked, and to his credit, he didn’t even ask why. He just ran out of the tent.

“Hamp,” I asked him gently.

“Yeah, Rich,” he said, still half in his analytic mode.

“Can we do another stage before we get the analysis back?”

“I think we have to,” he said. “We don’t have the full code yet. I don’t think we’ll have it until and unless someone survives stage nine.”

And that was not just one more stage, but two, I thought. Oh shit.

Chapter 67

“Talk to me, Hamp,” I said.

“Rich, you’re going to have to trust me on this, or learn multivariate regression analysis across multiple intersecting data arrays and some basic string theory in a big fucking hurry,” Hamp said.

“Well, I’m not dumb,” I said, and Hamp shook his head.

“I can point out patterns and likely scenarios, but you won’t see the statistical inevitability of eight, nine, and ten without a thorough grounding in the mathematics behind them to understand it.”

I thought about it for about two seconds. “Well, you’ve followed me into hellholes based on nothing but my instinct before, and now I guess it’s my turn,” I said.

I looked at Sydney and Adam, still sitting ringside.

“You guys have a choice to make right now,” I said.

“Hamp is a senior guy at Broadbank,” I said, “and he is a savant in taking data points and guessing …”

“Not guessing, interpolating,” Hamp said.

“Fine, interpolating, results based on minimal data,” I said. “We’re betting the entire human race on this, so be fucking sure that if you decide to trust him, it’s all-in. A half-assed attempt or semi-belief won’t do anybody any good and will probably get us all killed.”

“Well, you made it through seven stages as a team,” Adam said. “I’m ok taking on the next stage or two based on Hamp’s insight.”

Hamp said “Trust me, I know I’m right. I should have seen it sooner, it’s just designed to make you react, not think. Probably around four or five I should have had it.”

“Doesn’t matter now; we are where we are,” I said. So are you going to give us all math lessons for three weeks, or what?”

“No, I just need to make a few notes for Booker’s racks to chew on while we do eight, then based on who’s left, I want to make sure if I’m not one of them whoever is alive has enough to work with.”

“You said two of us were going to die in eight,” Sydney said. Her voice trembled a bit. Not much, but I heard it. “Why?”

Hamp thought for a few seconds about how to explain it in the simplest possible terms. “Ok. I’m ninety-nine percent sure no single individual could have made it through stage four, the magic combat crap, without the subject species, um, that would be us, figuring out how to get more than one person into the Orbs together. Similarly, there is a type of congruity, or pattern, to all the stages. The simplest one to see is a physical fight and a mental fight; those were two of the stages we did that were connected by at least one variable, right? Well, there are at least ten to the ninth power – that’s a big fucking number, by the way – of variables that we can’t know based on the number of stages, given that the first one was what it was, so …”

Adam interrupted him “That doesn’t make sense, just because we dodged some stuff in stage one doesn’t mean …”

Hamp cut him off again, with no malice, just his speaking voice. “Shut the fuck up. I’m looking at a variation of work done nearly a century ago by some bright dudes named Planck, Dirac, Lorenz, and Feynman. It all breaks down to how matter reacts once you realize that, for example, a cat can be both alive and dead at the same time until you open the box it’s in to find out. It’s called a variation of special relativity.

“Once scientists accepted that special relativity was on firm observational and theoretical ground, people thought that one of Schrödinger’s equations of quantum mechanics didn’t agree with some of the others, therefore quantum mechanics as it was so successfully developed in the 1920s was not a reliable description of nature when the system contained particles that would move at or near the speed of light. Later last century, people pushed more theories out there …,” he paused, and I broke in.

“Hamp, shut up. None of us gets this shit but you. Draw what you need to draw – Adam, please get him some of that paper over there behind you.”

He got it, and we watched Hamp draw stuff a lot weirder looking than the symbols I’d been memorizing and jotting down. About a half an hour later, just as he was finishing up his notes, by far the longest of which was what to do if he wasn’t there to direct the research, Booker came rushing into the gym tent.

“Hey, guys, the dots analyzed all by themselves are showing some really deep implications. I don’t know how long this will take to turn into something actionable….” He paused for a breath.

“We’re way ahead of you, Sherlock,” I said, and handed Hamp’s notes to him. He took a quick glance at the first page, was about to keep talking, then he just sat down right where he was, and was immediately lost in Hamp’s notes.

Sydney asked Hamp if there were any hints about timing for the last three stages.

“We have to do eight soon – I’d recommend tomorrow. Like I said, two of us are probably going to die in eight, so make whatever peace you need to make tonight. Nine and ten are absolutely black holes to me until I see what’s in eight. If I’m right, I’m going to be spending tonight writing a lot of shit down for you guys to think about before you go into nine.”

Adam stood up and stretched. “How long will that take you?” he asked Hamp.

“A few hours, why?”

“I would be honored if you would spar with me, since this sure looks like the last time I’m going to have that opportunity.”

Hamp’s face showed the internal struggle he was having, and he didn’t answer for a few seconds.

Then his face lit up, and he said “Why the fuck not? Dick here sure didn’t make me work up a sweat, the last time we sparred.” He ignored my uplifted middle finger. “What speed you want to go?”

“All out, but obviously no broken bones or other damage that’d compromise eight,” Adam said. “I haven’t been able to let loose on a sparring partner for a long time.”

Two ‘fuck you’s and one ‘absolutely not!’ had absolutely no effect whatsoever as Adam and Hamp climbed back into the ring.

Chapter 68

Hamp’s nose exploded in blood, and he said “thanks.”

There was definitely something beyond bizarre, and somewhat shameful, about watching two people fight each other, when they should arguably be saving everything they had for eight. Most would watch and say it was a savage fight, but Sydney and I could tell these two were just touching the outer limits of their respective arsenals.

Before he was really out of math and into mangle mode, Adam had pushed a freaky-fast jab right into Hamp’s nose. It hadn’t been broken that many times, and it woke Hamp right up. That’s where the “thanks” came from. He hawked a glob of blood to the floor, and complimented Adam, which is right about when Hamp grabbed Adam’s next punch, reeled him in, lifted him over his head, and tossed him out of the ring.

Adam knew how to fall, and he slapped the ground hard as he fell to bleed off the momentum.

Sydney was mesmerized. She leaned towards me and said “I’ve never seen Adam off his feet, ever.”

I gotta admit I didn’t actually see Hamp catch Adam’s punch. It happened at a speed I wasn’t looking for, somewhere in another time zone.

Adam was fine; he bounced to his feet and said “Awesome move!” He went to climb back in the ring. Booker was almost apoplectic, trying to get into the ring between these two deadly men and stop them from what in his view was certainly signing the Earth’s death warrant. Sydney was holding him in place without too much effort, so I concentrated on the exhibition I figured I was about to see. If Hamp’s speed was anywhere close to Adam’s, then unfortunately for Adam it’d be a quick sparring session. I know from personal experience that Hamp can put you to sleep without any permanent damage very quickly.

Adam climbed through the ropes and into the ring. Hamp gave him the courtesy of not attacking him as he was climbing through the ropes, which Adam was prepared for. His eyes never left Hamp. He gave him a nod and a smile, which Hamp returned.

“Pretty fast for a big guy.”

“Pretty good punch for a little guy,” Hamp retorted, setting his nose again and snorking another glob of blood and mucus outside the ring.

“Let’s see, I’m not really sure I like my odds with you on the ground,” Adam said. That being said, he launched a blur of a leg kick, designed to take Hamp’s face off. Hamp was no longer there; he’d squatted and shot out a leg and swept Adam’s sole support leg out from under him. As he was falling, Adam shot out another quick jab that didn’t have much on it because he had no leverage, but it caught Hamp squarely in the solar plexus, and he doubled over.

“Damn,” Hamp said, catching his breath. “I now know why they say speed kills. Nice shot.”

Adam had landed squarely on his ass, and he stood up and rubbed it. “Uh, yeah,” he said. “You must be able to see into the future a bit, Hamp. That kick catches everybody.”

“I have an idea,” Hamp said. “Instead of beating each other up, let’s work on some isometric combat.”

“Come again?”

“You wrap me up in any hold you want, and I’ll try to break it. Then reverse. It’s great training for when you get kidnapped.”

“You’ve been kidnapped?”

Hamp shot me a glance. “More times than I like to admit. But it’s this shit that gets you out of it.”

“Basic hold,” Hamp said, and told Adam to lock his arms around him in a bear hug. “Keep your balance, but keep your arms locked, preferably around my elbows so they can’t bend, and try not to let me get you to the ground.”

Adam did what he was told, but Hamp was just too big. Hamp bent forward, trying to get Adam’s feet off the ground. Hamp gave a little grunt, which told me bending over was harder than he expected it to be. Adam slid around to the side, keeping his grip, and making the wrist reversal required to keep his hold.

More on Hamp’s side now than back, he had to be cautious of any number of counter moves Hamp could make. As it was, Hamp strained away from Adam, then exploded back into him. Problem – Adam wasn’t there; he’d anticipated the move. While Hamp struggled against gravity for no more than a second, Adam was back, and had his hold secured again.

“Sonovabitch, Dick!” Hamp said in a conversational voice, and found my eyes at ringside. “He’s faster than you!” Adam grunted a muffled “thanks” while trying to maintain his hold around Hamp’s middle.

Hamp decided enough was enough, broke the hold by what appeared to be a shoulder shrug and a deep breath. He flipped around, caught the astonished Adam by the lapels, flipped him around, and got his own bear hug on. Within two minutes of struggling, Adam went limp, and Hamp immediately let go. He looked at Sydney. “Are you as good as he is?” still holding Adam up.

“I say better, but we’ve never fought it out. Never seemed the smart thing to do,” she said, her concerned eyes on the rapidly-awakening Adam.

Hamp stood him on his feet, made sure Adam was all there, and stuck out his hand. “Adam, thanks. You are now one of two people I can learn from.”

Adam shook his hand, and said thanks. “Who is the other one?” he said, rubbing his elbows.

“Dick over there,” Hamp motioned to me with his head.

“You friggin’ people,” Booker said, near the end of his rope. “Sometimes I think we’d be better off if we just let the world end.”

Chapter 69

The next morning, all six of us stood outside the opalescent, shimmering Orb. There was no need to say anything; this one scared us all, even Booker and Fallhouse. Booker had made a bit more progress on Hamp’s dots, but not enough to provide anything remotely useful for this attempt.

Hamp appeared none the worse for wear after writing half the night, then meeting with Fallhouse and Booker for a couple of hours after that. He was absolutely on combat time, as I suspected I was too.

Three stages, fifteen days left.

“Stage seven just closed down world-wide,” Fallhouse said in a small voice.

“No surprise.”

“No, but I thought you should know.”

Everyone seemed to be waiting for someone to say just the right thing prior to entering eight. An uncomfortable thirty seconds or so passed.

Hamp broke the silence. “Well, God favors the drunk and the stupid,” he said, grabbed my hand, and shoved them both out to touch the Orb.

Sydney and Adam startled; they quickly followed, Adam’s question of “Which one is drunk and which one is stupid?” evaporating in the mist.

The four of us found ourselves on an elevated island in the middle of an enormous cave. A very hot cave. The island stood centrally located in a large, round circular hole, the sides of which came to the same vertical level as the island we were standing on. The cylindrical space around and beneath us was bisected twice, with each quarter of the hole being at least fifty feet deep, and the walls separating each quarter pie-wedge appeared as about as wide as balance beams, with no handholds leading from the island we occupied to a perimeter ledge, at least a hundred feet away.

“Let’s get to the edge of this thing, fast,” I said, put my foot on one of the pathways between the fifty-foot-deep chambers.

Next thing I knew, I was waking up what I think was a few minutes later, Adam and Sydney’s face looking at me as I came to. “Electrical field of some sort,” Sydney answered my unspoken question. I shook the fog out of my head and tried to stand up.

Hamp was looking on the ground for something to throw at Shorty, who’d appeared on the outer ring, smiling. Hamp found a small rock, and hid it behind his back as I finally finished up.

“Hello, asshole!” Sydney yelled across the chasm.

“Hi sweet-cheeks!” Shorty cheerfully replied.

“Okay, what’s the deal here?” I yelled.

“I love this stage!” Shorty yelled. “I specifically asked to be the one to tell you about this one. No other species has gotten under my skin like you fucking humans have,” he admitted. “And there’s no escape from this one.”

“Just tell us,” Hamp rumbled in his “trouble’s coming” voice.

“You guys have been dorking around with the symbols we’ve left you, and you’re not the brightest stars in the Galaxy, that’s for sure. You’ve missed plenty. That’s why this stage is here. It lets you catch up, if you think you need them. Your choice.”

“How do we get them?”

“You get four chances,” he spread his hands to indicate the four open spaces below us. “It’s a dynamically-updating system, meaning if you get any out of the first one, they’ll be removed from the second and only the information you need will remain. The problem is, only one of you has showed a memory capable of handling and accurately recalling these basic drawings, and there are four chambers.”

“So I’ll do all of them,” I said.

“You’ll be dead,” Shorty said. “I’ll turn off the e-field on any one of them you choose. The wall separating the chambers will tilt at a forty-five degree angle and you can run down the ramp it will form as it lowers. The symbols you need will be at the bottom, which will also start an aggressive lava flow that will fill up the chamber. The walkways won’t let you back up past the halfway point, so it’s ‘good-bye’ dipshit humans.”

I was convinced, more convinced than ever, that we did indeed need those dots. Not necessarily the symbols, but the dots. The piece I don’t think Hamp nailed, even with his non-Euclidean string theory quadruple summation partial integration bullshit math, is those dots. They were our ticket out of this mess; I knew it the way muscle memory knows a good golf swing.

“So you’ll let us out of this stage right now?” Sydney asked.

“Sure thing, darlin’!” he said. “But will you even have a chance in challenges nine and ten if you don’t get that information? On the other hand, you’re so fucking stupid I doubt the information would do you any good.”

“Huddle up, people,” I said, while Sydney gave Shorty the double finger salute, and Hamp nailed him right in the forehead with the stone he'd picked up. "Fuck you!" Shorts yelled, and Hamp smiled.

“I think this is where we say goodbye,” I said to three angry faces.

“Can anybody repeat, verbatim, what they hear, under stress, an hour later?” Three non-verbal “no’s” answered my question.

“Here’s the strategy, then. I run a little less than halfway down each aisle with each of you. You get to the bottom, and describe exactly what you see to me, in each symbol that’s down there. Don’t worry so much about the squiggly lines; I want to know exactly where the dots are in relation to the circles. Break them into four quadrants, upper right and left, lower right and left. Do as many as you can before the lava gets you. My advice, which is chicken-shit coming from the one of us that’s probably going to live through this, as soon as you have enough lava on the bottom of the cylinder, is to dive right in. It’ll hurt like hell for about two seconds, then it’ll be over. Don’t burn up a little bit at a time, that’s the worst possible way to die.” I gave a silent and swift prayer for Mel.

Shock from three set of eyes stared back at me. We all knew we were signing up for a death mission when we first entered stage one, but it had never stared us in the face quite so starkly as right now. They all knew it – and we'd all faced it before. One by one, a curtain went down in their eyes, and Hamp, Sydney, and Adam accepted their fate.

Chapter 70

I grabbed Hamp’s wrist, and he grasped mine. No simple final handshake or hug for us. Hamp lived like a Spartan, did business like one, fought like one, and was now going to die like one.

“We did a lot of good things together, Richard,” he said.

“A couple not-so-good things, too,” I said, with a weak attempt at a smile.

“Fill the world with good guys and bad guys, and I know which side we’re both on, even if the dead, good old U.S. of A. didn’t see it that way sometimes,” he replied, and broke our forearm grasp. He took to peering down each of the four pits, trying to decide which one had the most or hardest to see symbols at the bottom.

I nodded. Sydney was not crying, but silent tears made their way down her lovely face. She made no move to wipe them away. Adam stood at rigid attention; one soldier showing ultimate respect for another. His gaze was exactly six inches above my head, fixed on a point in space. No parade-rest for him; he stood stock still, awaiting orders. For the first time in my life I was sorry I had nearly perfect action memory.

“I think this is the one, Rich,” Hamp called out. I walked over to the edge and looked down with him. There wasn’t enough light to be completely sure, but there appeared to be a large collection of notes all the way across the base of the far wall. Far more than the other wedge-shaped spaces had.

“Ready when you are, my friend,” I said.

“Let’s go.”

I let him get three paces ahead of me, so whatever barrier came down would hopefully come between us, and not fry me in the process. As soon as Hamp started across, ‘across’ turned to ‘down,’ I had to jump backwards to maintain my position on the rising backside of the ramp. As Hamp crossed the midpoint, nothing happened, and he stopped, as if to verify Shorty’s words were truth.

“Don’t!” I yelled at him. “We can’t afford for you to be unconscious even for a few minutes!”

Displeased, Hamp kept trekking down the now forty-five degree angled ramp until he reached the bottom.

He was right; the symbols adorned the wall nearly all the way across the arc that transcribed its perimeter.

“Should I go right to left, or left to right?” he yelled back to me.

“Right to left,” I said, my only logic being that the Orbs spoke to each nation in that nation’s language, and English is read left to right, so the more advanced symbols should be on the right.

I had stopped a few feet short of half way, and I wasn’t a crispy critter yet, and decided to stay put.

The very second Hamp left the incline and placed a foot on the ground, a strong flow of lava started creeping outwards from a large opening in the central column. It made its way quickly towards Hamp. He looked at it once, then ignored it. He sprinted all the way to the right, and started barking out information in a staccato fashion. “Two hemispheres, two dots upper right. One circle, two dots lower left. Three circles, five dots around perimeter….” And so on.

After two minutes or so he had worked his way back to the base of the ramp, having covered half the ground. The lava was mere feet away, and I watched Hamp’s pants catch fire. Lava is damn hot; I could feel it from where I was, at least fifty feet away. “Shit!” he yelled, in anger, not pain. I saw him spend a few precious seconds compartmentalizing the pain.

“Have the others strip before they start!” he yelled to me.

It cost him ten or eleven seconds to strip, after which he ran about five steps to his left and leaned in towards the wall, his body forming a triangle with the wall. Goddammit, I thought. I knew he’d do something like this. No way he’d take the easy way out.

He leaned back as far as he dared, still maintaining one hand in contact with the wall, and kept barking out symbols from where he’d left off. He’d done about three more when the lava reached his heels.

He paused for a second or two, doing the best he could with the pain, then kept on reading. By this time he was reading the symbols right in front of him.

I had an inspiration, and tried to cast a spell to turn all the lava into lukewarm bathwater, but Shorty yelled down from above “No-oh-oh! Good idea, Mr. Slate, but this is the one stage you can’t do that in!”

Hamp’s legs were gone from the knee down, and the angle he’d formed with his body against the wall let him keep barking the code back to me. I could hear the pain in his voice, now.

He had probably five or six more he could possibly see from his position.

“Hamp! Just fall back! We’ll get the rest!” Sydney shouted. Hamp kept up his recitation of the symbols, as I’d known he would. There was no way in heaven, hell, or anything in-between he was going to stop until something stopped him.

“Three circles! Five dots straight line across!” he yelled.

His hair was on fire by this time, and the lava was about to his midsection, which I knew was the end. His leverage would be gone, and he’d sink. I just wish it’d happen fast. There was only one more he could possibly see, and he pushed back on the wall to tilt away from it and hopefully get a better, final view. On his final, slow tumble into the lava, he yelled “Four circles, one dot in the center of each!”

His momentum carried him over, and he crumpled into the lava, a brief flare-up marked the spot of his demise. As he had throughout his life, he’d accomplished his mission.

Shorty laughed.

I climbed back up the ramp, which was slowly returning itself to its resting position. With each step, I boxed up both my agony at Hamp being gone and my hatred for Shorty. By the time I made it back to the central island, I had become nearly human again, not six-foot-three-inches of exposed nerve.

“Oh my God, that was the bravest, most horrible thing I’ve ever seen,” Sydney said, clearly in shock, which I could see both in her pale countenance and her monotone voice. I made a decision.

“Sir,” Adam questioned. I gave him a glance. “Do you need to write down all the information Hamp gave you?” he asked me.

“No need. I’ve got it.”

“Which is next?” Adam asked.

“Let’s go take a look,” I said, because I doubted these fucking Orbsters had counted on Hamp getting nearly as many as he did.

There remained three quarters of the pie.

Chapter 71

Adam, superb soldier that he was, knew that if Sydney didn’t make the next attempt soon she never would. We made eye contact, and confirmed our mutual knowledge with a simple nod of heads. Hamp’s death had rocked her to the core, and neither of us had time to figure out the best way out of it for her, except straight fucking forwards.

“Let’s examine the remaining three areas for symbols. Remember, the more the better,” I said.

The one directly across from Hamp was the clear winner. Sydney still peered into the place where Hamp had immolated, unmoving.

With another suicidal appearance, Shorty popped back in and said “You guys don’t even have a chance, why try?”

Nobody responded.

“Hellloooooo?” he continued. We didn’t respond.

“You’re done; you’re dead; your entire planet is carbonized and cauterized and you just don’t know it yet!” he continued to taunt.

Eventually I glared out across the perimeter to him. “I was hoping it would be Hamp that would get his hands on the real you, but I guess I’m going to get the pleasure,” I snarled. Shorty’s face betrayed a half-second of doubt and he took a half-step back. After a few seconds, he just said “You’re just dead ashes talking,” and popped back out of existence.

Sydney was shaking, and I walked to her, faced her, and put my hands on her shoulders. “Sydney! Soldier up!” I yelled.

Her training kicked in and she went to full inspection stance, complete with thousand-yard stare.

“Soldier! Your mission RIGHT NOW is right behind you! DO YOU RECALL Hamp’s call methodology for relaying the signs to me? YES or NO?”

“Yes SIR!” Sydney responded, already breathing better. Good.

In a lower voice, I asked “Do you remember Hamp’s strategy? By that I mean running to the right side wall and starting there, then getting as far as you can to the left before the lava catches you?”

“Yes sir.” She was noticeably calmer now.

“Sir!” Adam shouted across the island. He was staring hard down the pits to our left and right. I joined him.

“Richard, I don’t believe there’s anything in this section.” I looked long and hard, and I had to agree.

“Even better, I don’t believe there’s anything in the one to Sydney’s left, either.” We both walked over, spent a few minutes carefully examining that lower wall in the dim light. “Unless they’re chalked on, instead of carved into the wall like Hamp’s were, I do believe you’re right, Mr. Singleton.” That earned me a pitiful smile.

I looked even harder down into the section of Sydney’s upcoming demise, and could make out symbols just barely past the half-way point. She could do this, I knew.

“Ok, Sydney, this is a shitty deal, and we don’t have a lot of time to debate this. You have come further and contributed more to humanity’s survival than anyone on this earth, and I personally believe there will be a place for you in the next world that honors this literally unbelievable status you have earned. You have my eternal respect. I have a question for you. Are you ready to die for humanity RIGHT THE FUCK NOW?” I shouted the last part.

“Yes SIR!” She yelled back.

“Ok, let’s go,” I said, and she stripped and led me to the walkway that would start moving the instant she stepped on it. Just before she took that step, she sprinted over to Adam, and gave him a kiss. A good, long, hard kiss. I could see Adam trying not to respond, but eventually he couldn’t deny her the last kiss she would ever have. They broke. “Give ‘em hell, Marine,” Adam said, and also refused to wipe the tears from his eyes; they left dusty trails down his cheeks. Sydney brushed them away. “I never wanted to live forever, anyway,” she smiled at him, and hustled back over to me. “Let’s go,” she said, with absolutely no modesty at all. This was a military mission.

Sydney’s experience at the bottom of the pit mirrored Hamp’s in almost every way. The only two differences were that she did not have to brace herself against the wall at the end, since she was a faster talker and a faster relayer-of-information than Hamp was, and the way she went out. I was left standing safely less than one-half the way down the path. Once again, I felt like a worthless coward, knowing that commanders since the dawn of every war on every planet have probably felt the same shitty way.

Once she had finished, she simply turned around, assumed full military inspection posture again, and saluted me. At the forty-five degree incline, it was difficult for me to stand and return the salute, but I’d be damned if I wouldn’t return it. I did so.

I watched her until the lava ate away her legs, pumping all the energy I could into her. Shorty hadn’t said magic didn’t work in this stage, just that I couldn’t turn the lava into bathwater.

Her eyes conveyed a silent but heart-felt thank you to me, as I was pounding her with all my energy. At that point I didn’t care what it did to me. I wanted her to go out as painlessly as possible.

That worked until the lava made it up to her ribcage, and her eyes told me she wanted to break the salute and lose her fucking mind, but she didn’t. She held the salute until she was completely covered with lava, and gone. Just gone.

I had nothing left. I collapsed to the ground, and held on to the sides, hoping Adam would come and get me when the ground leveled out. It would of course start tilting again as soon as he set foot on it. Fuck it. Not my problem. I concentrated on holding on as strongly as I could to the path. I felt it flatten, heard Adam tell me to get the fuck back to the center, then felt it begin to tilt again.

Next thing I knew, I was in the center of the island, Adam had a broken femur with a ‘pop’ I heard even in my depleted state, and we were outside, stage nine sat right in front us, beckoning us to enter with an evil, quicksilver’s glee.

Chapter 72

“Sir, it appears to be confirmed. We have identified a new recruit planet!” The Lieutenant popped open an against-regulations bottle of Lipsanthe, a heavy intoxicant from their home world, and poured both himself and Colonel Rtzff a heavy shot.

Rtzff was overwhelmed. He suddenly had to change his plans from how to retire gracefully from the military in which he’d spent his adult life, and how to scapegoat his Lieutenant, to possible advancement and command of the entire recruiting fleet.

“Challenge three passed?” he inquired formally.

“Yes sir,” the Lieutenant responded. They made the required sacrifices in test eight, and that completes the three challenges any species requires to become eligible.”

“Call an all-hands mandatory meeting, on the viewing deck, and show their last attempt where challenge three competence was exhibited. Hell, show all the sessions that confirm these humans can be of use to us. Prepare processing for re-insertion, and I would like you to join the Command Presence on the stage for the presentation, Captain.”

The Lieutenant, now a newly-minted Captain, was exuberant. “Sir, may I point out that we’ve also discovered on this system that time-stasis has proven statistically more successful than immediate recruitment? This could change our recruitment practices Galaxy-wide. Also, I have begun re-insertion of all those candidates whose telemetry may be of use to us. They are being gathered in Storage Facility Alpha.”

Rtzff, having been bombed out of his mind most of the past week, understood at some level that his new Captain was on to something. “Of course I understood that,” he mumbled around a mouthful of stimulant. “Write up the statistics in a presentation I can give that even Regional Command can understand, then go over it with me in my office tomorrow before the ship-wide celebration.”

The Captain, having already done so, said “Will 2800 hours be acceptable, sir?”

Rtzff, however, had taken another deep, powerful hit, and was asleep on his couch.

Chapter 73

Melanie awakened, very surprised, on a cot in a room larger than any she’d ever seen before. To her, the space seemed as big as about ten Moffett Field dirigible hangars, having seen that special hangar while her father was stationed there a couple of lifetimes ago. She got to her feet in a hurry, and saw a few people throughout the enormous space, but none close enough to speak with.

Her last memories were of about a thousand pointed weapons entering her body from nearly every angle, and now as she inspected her body for each of those thousand spots, they itched something awful. Her first truly coherent thought was something along the lines of ‘Damn, all I had to do was turn all that blood into water and no fire would have started in the first fucking place.’

Well, it appeared that for whatever reason, she was going to have another crack at these bastards, and this time things would go differently, she vowed. She sat back down on her cot.

She wondered if she’d be given another shot at that stage four bastard. She wondered where she was, and suddenly with a slight popping sound of displaced air, people were appearing on cots all around her, looking as confused as she felt. Not that there wasn’t space for them; this hangar alone seemed as if it could house tens of thousands comfortably, if not more.

“Think, Mel, THINK,” she said to herself. What did she know? She knew she was dead, at least dead in a simulator so real it was like life itself. How long ago did she die? She had to think about that one for a while, but to her it felt as if it had just happened. As a matter of fact, she could still feel the residual pain of her death receding, as slowly as the tide. Why was she still alive? Well, if she died in a simulator, like billions had before her, and since the bodies had been kept by the military for eventual military burials, she supposed there were only logistical reasons she couldn’t have somehow been reunited with her body, and they were easily overcome by a race capable of producing the Orbs.

Hers was a small cot, seemingly standard military issue with a paper-thin mattress and blanket, with an even smaller end-table that contained exactly nothing. All she had in her own little space was a set of dog-tags, similar enough to recognize, but like none she’d seen before. The first line read “Hampstead, M.” The second line was a little more cryptic. It read “L.P. SFIU.” The third tiny line said “Place your thumb on the back of this tag and then touch your cot’s frame with it.” The fourth line was an active timer. “You have twenty-nine seconds remaining to do so.”’ She watched it tick down to twenty-eight, then twenty-seven.

She thought hard for a few seconds, her logic being something akin to “hell, they’ve already killed me once,” and then she pressed her left thumb against the back of the dog tag, then the tag against the frame of the cot.

“Secured,” it immediately said in a small voice. “Welcome to the Heathen. Stay within ten meters of the cot, and you will be instructed what to do next within the next ten hours.” The tag turned a dark red. She looked at it for a moment for a tiny speaker, but she couldn’t find one.

A large black man a few cots down had apparently done this nearly the same time as Melanie, as she heard him say “Fuck Dat!” and start walking away from his cot to explore this giant space. Mel yelled at him to stop and return to his cot, but that only made him angrier, and he kept right on walking.

Mel got under her cot, which shielded her from most of the bone and tissue his exploding body sent her way. Fortunately for her cot’s sake, he had been walking the other way, and little of what used to be his body had messed up her bed.

She cleaned it up with her cot’s blanket, and sat down to wait.

A few cots down, someone had popped into existence, and decided to let the forty-five second clock count down to zero. Big mistake. This time, Melanie took the full brunt of the exploding blood bag that used to be a human being. She took no wounds, but there was a load of used-to-be-human to clean up. She got to thinking this might not be an uncommon event, and rigged up some of her blankets in a “V” shape over her cot to capture whatever incoming gore may be coming her way in the next ten or eleven hours.

As she relaxed and tried to get some sleep, she wondered how her Father and Uncle Rich were doing with the Orbs. She actually felt sorry for any of them her Dad could get his hands on. A smile teasing the corner of her lips, she fell asleep.

Chapter 74

“You know,” Booker said with a slight hitch in his voice, “Hamp’s and Sydney’s actions are easily among the most courageous and honor-filled deaths the country has ever seen.”

“Yeah, I and was privileged to send both of them to die,” I rasped out, still not having made peace with myself for the entire stage eight sequence of events.

“You really had no other choice,” Fallhouse said, in a tone I’d never heard him use before, which I assumed to be his bedside manner.

“I’m not going to go through it with you on a couch, Doc,” I said. “I knew what had to be done, and I did it. I would have sacrificed Adam too if the situation would have required it. Hamp got so fucking many symbols that only two of us were required to die.”

I recalled for a minute – Hamp had said that two of us were going to die in stage eight; but he hadn’t said which two, or why. Now I could assume he knew he’d be one of them, because he could withstand a lot of pain, and because he knew he could capture and recite more symbols than anyone else. Face it, Richard, even more than you, yourself. What in hell had led him to figure out after seven that led him to believe eight was a sacrificial stage, and would we be willing to do it?

A vague thought began forming in my mind. I knew better than to try and force it to the surface; quite the contrary, I did everything I could NOT to think of it. I imagined Fallhouse with no clothes on (ugly picture), I imagined Sydney with no clothes on, no imagination there, I had seen that vision with my own eyes, and absent the horror of the situation, it was a memory I’d hold dear until I died. The point is, I did NOT try to force the nascent idea to the surface of my mind – I did everything I could to let it form on its own, in my subconscious; it would come out when it was good and ready.

Booker was there too, of course. “We’ve got fuck-all about stage nine,” he said. I know you got many symbols from eight, and I need you to get them to my team immediately so we know what we’re dealing with, at least whatever they gave us,” he concluded weakly.

I took an immediate half hour and drew out every symbol that Hamp and Sydney had verbally relayed to me in eight. Fallhouse immediately left the room and sprinted to the computer racks, and the woman that was tasked with making sense out of the apparently random.

“What have your racks of computers come up with on the fifty-or-so symbols we got out of eight?” I asked.

Booker looked as embarrassed as I’d ever seen him. “It’ll take a while before they’re all integrated into the schema we’ve developed; but the short answer is, we ain’t got shit,” he said, and in language that was so far away from his normal language that it startled me.

“Excuse me?”

“Nothing. Nada. Zero. Ziltch. Snake-eyes,” Booker was effusive in his admit of defeat. “We’ve been able to see and analyze the pictograms, the swirls, even the thickness of the fucking lines, but the dots have formed a completely random pattern from stage one. Random, Mr. Slate, is random. I’ve had the finest analytics programs and programmers in what remains of the CIA, Homeland, FBI, and London’s intelligence services examine them too, and believe me, they’re random.”

“No. They’re not.” Their pattern had been tickling my brain for three or four stages now, and with the relatively huge dump of information from eight, my subconscious was beginning to pick up the pattern. Not quickly, maybe not quickly enough, but I was convinced if I managed to stay out of my own head for a while and give it some space to process, I’d have it in the next few days.

“What makes you think that?” Booker asked, rather aggressively.

“Back off, Doc, and give me a while,” I said, with a dangerous rumble to my voice.

He finally caught my drift and my tone of voice, and backed off.

“Can I suggest you work, ah, quickly?” Booker asked. “We have two stages left and only ten days.”

“No, I thought I’d take a couple of weeks in Maui,” I responded caustically.

Booker shut up. Fallhouse, taking Booker’s cue, took the hint and also shut up.

“We need to go through Hamp’s notes ASAP; the ones he wrote in case he didn’t survive eight.”

“I’ve already taken the liberty of beginning to process them. Approximately half of them are in understandable English; the other half is in mathematics so advanced I’ve asked Vasily if he can help. He has been able to, but we’re now scouring the planet for someone who can help us with the rest,” Booker replied.

“Give me the English parts, and a verbatim copy of the math shit,” I said.

Booker had foreseen my request, and handed over both items. “Just for your knowledge,” he continued, “I’ve compiled the notes our team has made to date on the math portions, in the margin. “Good luck.” He stood. “We need to go after nine tomorrow or the next day at the latest, since we want to take as much time preparing for ten as possible.

I looked up at him from my seated position, not sure whether I was going to kill him or thank him.

“I understand,” he said, and turned and walked away, probably picking up something of my volatile state-of-mind at the moment.

“Ok,” I said to myself, “let’s think this fucker out.”

Chapter 75

Rtzff, still slightly drunk from over-indulging the night before the Stage-Viewing (an occurrence ever more common this trip), stood before nearly the ship’s entire personnel contingent, around twenty-three hundred officers and two-thousand deckhands of various rank. Key functions such as Navigation, Detection, Shielding, and Circulation had critical staff on their stations on duty, and they were listening over the coms channel, which they were none too happy about, but by the luck of the draw they’d had to stay on duty while their redundant counterparts happily took part in the Viewing. Those on station would get to view it later.

The Viewing was a centuries-old tradition amongst the proud recruiting flotilla of Onyxia, the home world of all that was right and true in the collection of systems and intelligences universally called the Heathen. Once a planet proved itself through surviving the ten stages and the three key challenges, the entire crew would gather and watch the stages being successfully completed, and raise a glass to toast the species next to be sacrificed in the Great War, and if there was time, even watch some of the re-integrations of the souls to the bodies that were separated in the trial spheres. Not everyone would be resurrected, however – that was left to an equally ancient computer that assessed the potential of the candidate against the needs of the great war machine.

Much of the equivalent of beer and wine would flow; the galley would whip up a grand feast, and the Viewing would take place over a solid eight or nine hours.

But it had to be kicked off first, and that’s why a tipsy Colonel Rtzff stood before the microphone-like device in one of the medium-sized upper-deck viewing rooms. The bottom of the ship, of course, was for re-integration and storage of the newly-recruited race for transport to one of the many training facilities spotting the targeted Galaxy.

“Crew and Officers of the Seeker,” he said, naming the ship they’d been together on for nearly a decade, “we have not had our fair share of luck on this rotation.” He paused for the boos and catcalls to wind down. “Until now!” he shouted, and got a tremendous cheer. “As you all know, we are here to share in the joy of finding another species we can use to combat the no (fucking appendage) limp (fucking appendage) homosexual worthless pile of shit no load no guts incapable bastards of Satan’s spurned lovers, the Yulars!” His spew of profanity prodded his audience to a frenzy, and he let it go for a few minutes. “Let me assure you, though they are tiny, they have succeeded in stages that have us re-examining the programming for the stages, and that hasn’t happened in how long?”

“TWO YEARS!” came back the emphatic shout from the assembled crew.

“How long?” Rtzff egged them on.

“TWO YEARS!!” came back the reply, even louder than the first time.

“Now, some of you might have heard that we’ve suffered a few major setbacks recently, and I will not lie to you; that is true. Our twenty- to sixty-degree flank has been breached, and the fucking Yulars have broken that line and are making a massive push to turn the breach into a rout. I can tell you they will not succeed. Our estimated projections of their push were right on target, and reinforcements will shortly be pushing them back towards the garbage pit they call home!”

Another massive cheer erupted from the huge audience, which numbered over two thousand from the enormous recruiting ship.

“Matter of fact, this particular species has survived the screening process and may play a critical part in the re-taking of Sections Twenty to Sections Sixty. The Yulars have used massive weaponry and bombardment to break our lines, and high command has suggested we counter-attack not with force, but with guile, and that is precisely the quality these humans have shown in the stages that require it; make no mistake, they’ve shown naked strength and force as well, but innovativeness and guile are far harder to come by. If we’ve discovered such a species, we would be moved well up in the recruiting fleet, and given much more viable systems to recruit from!”

The cheering didn’t even pause for a full minute, and Rtzff smiled to himself. That was his goal – he wanted to be leader of a full quarter of the recruiting flotilla, and this could well be his ticket home. He still had the difficult task of connecting with the resurrected, converting them to their cause, and obtaining death-before-defeat commitment from millions-to-billions of earthlings. But he’d done it before with other species. And he would do it again. Death is a powerful motivator, especially after your ‘recruits’ had already experienced it.

“All Right!” he bellowed. “Let’s show the first stage of the successful candidates from Earth.” Chairs rose from beneath all of the thousands of viewers, and Hamp and Slate’s run through stage one began playing on the same immersive technology screens available to Flight Fourteen-Oh-Nine Passengers; screens were immediately surrounding around every entity in the room.

As the playback began, Rtzff quietly left the stage, made his way back to his oversize quarters, took a few more hits, and fell asleep.

Chapter 76

Melanie slept hard and slept well. Apparently dying really takes it out of you, she thought as she awoke and, in time, uncovered the “hood” of her make-shift tent.

She had been able to warn the others who had popped into existence on cots up to three away from hers about the two fatal actions she knew about, so she had a little pod of people who didn’t do anything stupid and get themselves dead (again) immediately upon reincarnation.

They ha