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Chapter 31

My dad coughed in his favorite chair as I entered, battered and bruised. At least he didn’t have to see me like this again. It would worry him to no end and who knows what he might want to do. My safety would come first and that might mean alerting the authorities. I couldn’t let that happen and snuck into my room without waking him.

I placed the mysterious piece of paper on my desk and started to undress. A hot shower would do wonders and I figured the research should probably wait until I got myself in better working condition.

As I cleaned myself up and threw on some comfortable clothes, I eyed my recently stained combat gear and stuck it in my backpack. I’d have to destroy those clothes tomorrow. Not only were they ruined, but they might also contain evidence to the night’s events.

I zipped up the backpack and wondered again how Eye Patch knew I would be there. Then I thought of that cryptic closing shot from Matt. Were the two connected? Logic told me it was ridiculous, but my gut told me otherwise. I decided to ruminate on it for a while, grabbed Number Nine’s paper and jumped online.

The two sets of numbers on the paper read:

80423087432

77730283098

Here goes nothing, I thought, and punched in the first set.

Searching … searching … searching...

The screen suddenly went black and a moment later a sole cursor appeared and blinked impatiently. I figured a password was needed, but didn’t have one.

Why would Number Nine give me a login without a password, I wondered. He certainly wouldn’t expect me to guess, unless this was some sort of sick joke and he was in cahoots with Ms. Petrovich.

My brain acted quickly and the worst-case scenarios formed in my mind. I pictured some spook, deep down in an impenetrable bunker, chained to his supercomputer, already alerting a higher-up who wasn’t going to be too happy. Hell, for all I knew, that someone could very well be the persevering Ms. Petrovich. What luck!

I typed in the other set of numbers.

The cursor stopped and a few seconds later a news article appeared. Scrolling down revealed eight International Herald Tribune articles.

‘Neutron Bomb Devastates San Francisco’ headlined the first article from 140 years ago. Every kid in school learned it was one of those crucial moments in our nation’s history when it looked like all could be lost. The article proceeded to detail the destructive magnitude of the Advanced Neutron Weapons System, which once unleashed on the city, completely evaporated every living complex organism within a ten-mile radius, while keeping all buildings and structures intact.

A couple of days later, the headline read, ‘China Attacks, Venezuela Too’. Sensing extreme weakness, China and Venezuela, in cooperation with Panama, launched a naval and air assault on strategic targets aimed at crippling America’s will and ability to fight back. Economic collapse would soon follow as a result of suffocating demands placed on the once mighty nation.

This would not materialize, however. The U.S. responded quickly and, in turn, exploded a neutron bomb over Caracas, Venezuela, and demanded China withdrawal hostilities. China did not and instead, encouraged other nations to join. Three days after the initial salvo, the ancient city of Nanjing, China, became nothing but a snapshot in time. China rescinded immediately and even relinquished control of the Panama Canal. The strategic waterway was now back in the hands of the U.S., which had lost control a century-and-a-half earlier.

Despite suspicion and the natural tendency to blame China, the next article from about a year later had U.S. authorities tracing the explosion in San Francisco to a Multi-National Corporation based out of Germany. The Vice President of Operations had been arrested and admitted to masterminding the entire plot.

Evidently, the bombing was in response to the near failure of his company, which he attributed to an undue competitive advantage waged by U.S. companies as a result of restrictive European Union taxation policies. However, subsequent interrogations revealed he belonged to a much wider network of dissidents primarily revolving around an anti-capitalist agenda. Although the names of other high-ranking corporate espionage agents were not revealed, it was highly believed that he was in league with an intelligence operative from the Central Intelligence Agency.

I scrolled down.

The next article examined the results of a congressional investigation conducted a couple of years later. Many people not only wondered how one of America’s enemies got their hands on a neutron bomb, but were also curious as to how the U.S. had the means to deliver such a weapon. This curiosity stemmed from an Executive Order some forty years prior ceasing and prohibiting further development of the Advanced Neutron Weapons System. Evidently, a black operations project surreptitiously remained in the bowels of the Department of Defense.

‘San Francisco Again’ – The next article skipped ahead some thirty years and detailed the return of civilization to the once vibrant then ghostly city. Thirty-seven years had passed since that inauspicious day and the government finally declared it safe to return … and the people returned in droves.

‘Neutron Bomber Dies’ read the headline sixty-seven years after the bombing. Although most people reading the article weren’t alive when the bombing occurred, public outrage ensued when it was revealed that just before dying, the Neutron Bomber fingered CIA agent Marshall Aranautis as the double-agent who provided his group with the necessary technology. However, public interest waned after it was learned that Marshall Aranautis had died some thirty years earlier. An investigation into his alleged treason was never conducted.

I had a bad feeling I knew where this was going. Despite my apprehension, I continued.

The next article jumped forward to fifteen years ago and gave me the momentary hope I desperately desired despite knowing the outcome. It began: “It seems the tides of war have turned in favor of the United States. With dramatic victories on all fronts, one could argue that the ship which brought America’s hero home marks the end of the Chinese war machine. Colonel Mendoza, the apparent sole surviving crewmember, has returned to a hero’s welcome.”

The article continued to describe how the U.S. and, separately, China, had sent out competing exploration ships into the depths of space to search for the elusive Benadine Mineral. Fortunately for the U.S., the Chinese ship never returned. Colonel Mendoza, on the other hand, had located a small amount – enough to hold us over for the short-term – and reconnaissance missions were already underway.

Why couldn’t it end there, I thought, but reluctantly scrolled down and read a follow up article from two weeks later. The author described a solemn scene punctuated by an uncharacteristically apprehensive and pale President. Colonel Mendoza, apparently unaware of unfolding events, stood behind the President with a sly grin. The President cleared his throat and said, “My fellow Americans, the man you see standing before me is a genuine hero. His service to this country over the past decade is unparalleled. Without his recent grand endeavor and the sacrifice of those who served with him, we would not be as close as we are to securing that elusive energy mineral our way of life so desperately craves.”

The President paused as a few errant claps echoed. “However, it is with the greatest reluctance and with the heaviest of hearts that I dare to inform you that information has come to light that in a past life Colonel Mendoza was also Marshall Aranautis, the CIA agent the Neutron Bomber fingered as the double-agent who provided his group with the necessary technology to bomb San Francisco over 100 years ago.”

A collective gasp erupted from the crowd as the unfiltered information sank in. A perplexed look crossed Colonel Mendoza’s face as the President painfully glanced his way and grimaced at the sight of several Secret Service agents taking hold of his arms.

“The Attorney General is assessing whether charges of treason will be filed,” the President added. “I have nothing more to say at this point.”

I shook my head and wondered how this story had escaped me. I mean, why wasn’t this taught in school? More importantly, how in the world did the government essentially erase this from the cloud? The thought of having that kind of power sent a shiver down my spine.

The last article from a week later was succinct and read: “The Defense Department is confirming reports that Colonel Sterling Mendoza, the recently anointed hero of the Benadine Mineral mission, has been found dead in his holding cell of an apparent suicide. No further details are available at this time, but we do know that his wife and two young sons are nowhere to be found.”

I’m right here, I screamed inside and then re-read the last sentence … I had a brother?

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