A Cry for a Hero [MultiFormat]
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eBook by Jonathan Womack
eBook Category: Suspense/Thriller/Romance Preditors and Editors Reader's Poll Top 10 Finalist
eBook Description: An act of carelessness on a camping trip causes things to go horribly wrong for Jack Ramsey. When a scavenging grizzly rips apart his camp, Jack plays dead to survive, and this triggers an out-of-body experience. Test-flighting his soul body, he discovers fantastic powers, then stumbles upon a terrorist's plot to destroy Boston, the Cradle of Democracy. Jack ignores the odds and answers the call by transforming into the superhero Ram, then uses his powers to fight the terrorists. Fiction's first out-of-body superhero, written before 9/11.
eBook Publisher: Charles River Press, Published: CharelesRiverPress.com, 2005
Fictionwise Release Date: March 2006
21 Reader Ratings:
"Towering Terrorists Thrillers, Batman! Womack has matured the comic book hero and penned a romantic adventure adults will love!"--Angela Wild, FantasyNovelReview.com
"A Cry For A Hero is an instant classic. Superman meets Ghost"--Dennis Latham, Author of The Bad Season and Driving with Ace
"In this mind-over-matter thriller, terrorists meet their match in an ordinary American with extraordinary powers. Jubilant, thought provoking, and most of all, fun! Hooray for A Cry For A Hero."--Mike Ryan, Author of Begin With Me and Boston Baked Churchill
"This novel will have your attention at "be dead." I was extremely pleased with Jonathan Womack's writing. Whether you read sci-fi, general fiction, romance or new age, you will find Mr. Womack's first novel worth your time. Even more interesting is the information on the book jacket. It explains a lot of where the author's ideas came from."--Vicki Murtaugh, Walden Books, Buffalo NY.
Originally titled Psi-Spy, the bulk of this story was written prior to 9/11. In the days following those events, I shelved the manuscript indefinitely, my "What if" premise taking on a frightening reality.
Nevertheless, time heals the heart not only of individuals, but of nations, and so, with changes added to reference the war on terrorism, Psi-Spy became A Cry For A Hero. I put it forth to you now, in memory of those who have fallen. * * * * PART ONE Discovery
One morning walking down the street
Where nobody walks, nobody can hear
I started listening to a sound so clear
To the world around me From the song "The World Around Me" --King's X * * * *
1 FATEFUL ENCOUNTER
JACK'S HEART FROZE. He'd drifted off to sleep when a clinkityclink sound jarred him instantly awake. Curled upon his sleeping bag, facing west, he opened his eyes. An August sun tanned his face, and a supple breeze carried scents of the Rocky Mountain high country.
He didn't know if the noise was benign or hostile, but his instincts told him danger. Lying still, he surveyed the campsite, fight or flight adrenaline pumping his veins. Kevin and Jim's unoccupied lean-to's were off to the right, and in the center of camp, a dying fire smoldered. On the far side of the fire was a woodpile and next to it, his 12 gauge Winchester shotgun, leaning against a tree, unloaded. The shells sat nearby on a makeshift table along with various camping supplies. He cursed himself for letting his guard down.
Forty feet to his left he spied the source of the noise, a huge brown grizzly bear, rummaging through food left over from a recent cookout. How could he be so careless? Leaving meat out in the open was just asking for trouble, up here where everything from bears to bobcats hunted fresh game. He'd been tired from a long day of hiking, and after an appetizing dinner of Hobo burgers and beans, he was ready for a nap. His buddies talked of heading down to the lake for some early evening fishing. Leaving them in charge of cleaning up may prove to be a deadly mistake.
His shotgun was 60 feet away. A mad dash might get him there in time to load two shells and get off a shot before the bear was on him. The scenario did not fill him with confidence, for even if he ignited both barrels at close range, it seemed an insufficient means to bring down the beast. It was by far the largest grizzly he'd ever seen, and looked as if it could eat him, Kevin and Jim with nary a belch. He considered other options as the bear huffed and pawed through leftover venison. It knocked over a camping table, scattered pots and pans clattering the ground. Grumbling appreciative bear speak; it licked at the cookware, savoring tiny morsels.
Icy fingers of fear caressed Jack's skin like a draft from a cold dark cellar, but he remained immobile, afraid of drawing the bear's attention. He searched in vain for a large stick within reach.
With a low growl that would frighten any god-fearing man, the mammoth carnivore knocked away an empty container in its search for additional treats, came upon a cooler latched shut. Claws honed lethal by evolution slashed open the lid as a chef might filet a fish, overturned the container on its side. The contents spilled to the ground, an assortment of raw venison, sausage, and steaks. Much like a slot machine gambler hitting the jackpot, the bear resumed its feasting, seemingly unaware of Jack's presence.
A break for the nearest tree was not an option. The Douglas Firs and cottonwoods within his view afforded no handholds to climb.
The predator slurped with satisfaction, blood juices from the raw meats frothing its chin. Jack knew the meal wouldn't last much longer and when the food was gone, the ravenous creature would come looking for a main course. Him.
He calculated a path toward Indian Point and the old rope-bridge spanning Queechay Gorge, a hundred yards distant. Once across the bridge, he would be safe.
The moment of now or never approached fast as he gathered his courage, ready to spring into action. But when he tried to move, he found that his muscles had stopped obeying. Fear had bound his arms and legs to stakes buried deep in the ground, leaving him helpless, at the mercy of a savage killer.
The creature made short work of the meats, batted away the empty cooler, growling with unsatiated hunger. It paused, nose up, sniffed the air.
It turned around.
It was now facing Jack, eyes locked, sudden realization dawning upon its primitive brain.
Like a nightmare turned real, the hulking grizzly lumbered its great bulk toward him, twelve hundred pounds of menace on a mission. Murderous intent gleamed from its eyes. Muscles capable of ripping a man in half rippled beneath its fur as it walked, bloody drool spilling from its open mouth. He had waited too long, for fear now had him in its iron grip and was not about to let go. The opportunity for flight had just come and gone; now death approached to claim its prize.
Desperation inched up his spine, his heart shuddered. The survival instinct screamed in his mind. Run damn you, run! But he could not. Like a winter chill, sheer terror crept into his bones.
The bear loomed closer.
Jack teetered on panic's edge, all but certain he was about to meet his end, here and now, a violent and horrific death.
The man-eater growled in anticipation. There was no escape. His father once said that if a bear ever came after you, "Don't run, just lie down and be dead." He didn't say "play dead" or "act dead", he said, "be dead."
He thought of his father and mother, and how he had been blessed with parents that provided him with love and support for all of his 29 years. They'd learn of their only child's gruesome demise from the county Sheriff or local preacher, leaving them devastated. Jack's heart cried out. No chance to say goodbye, or tell them how he respected and cared for them. Bitterness burned his soul and he cursed a god that could be so cruel, so uncaring. His death would be meaningless.
He couldn't let that happen, refused to give in. He'd always been a survivor and he was determined to survive this. His only chance, though slim, was to 'be dead', hope that the bear would believe it, and being convinced, wander off in search of its next meal.
He closed his eyes, held his breath, visualizing himself as a corpse.
The thundering stride drew near, nudged his legs with a large, meaty paw. Steel-like claws teased the fabric of his jeans. It lowered its head, sniffed at his feet.
Jack lie frozen, wrapped in terror's lethal embrace.
His heartbeat slowed to a crawl, thip-thumped inside his head.
The hairy mammoth trailed its nose up his legs, to his stomach, sniffing. It nudged him again, rolled him onto his back.
It slid its nose across his chest, snorting his scent.
Now, inches from his cheek, its hot breath buffeted his face like a medieval bellows. Slimy spools of saliva found their way into his nose and mouth, the nauseating stench threatening to trigger his gag reflex. He could feel its immense weight and power as it brushed against his chin with its cold, wet nose.
With a guttural growl, it raised its head and Jack braced himself for the inevitable crushing blow. A mighty roar shook his body, rocked his eardrums. A spray of bloody spittle from its huge maw rained down on his face and neck.
It sniffed again at his face for what seemed like an eternity. Then, as if hearing a call beyond human senses, the creature pricked its ears, wheeled around, and trudged off into the woods, its prize meal left unclaimed.
Jack remained motionless, disbelieving this unlikely twist of fate. He should be dead, a front-page tragedy in tomorrow's local headlines.
However, he would not meet his maker today. By some miracle, he'd been given a second chance. * * * *
Kevin Plummer and Jim Madigan stood by the shore, placidly casting their lines, enjoying the sunset, chatting about everything from girls to gears; two backwoods philosophers without much of a scholarly education. But what they lacked in degrees and certifications, they made up for in common horse sense. They weren't in the best of shape, Kevin at 5' 10" and Jim just over six feet, both men a good twenty-five pounds overweight, with full beards and long, bushy hair. If you put a fiddle and a guitar in their hands, you'd have a couple of robust mountain men and a hootinany. Neither one had any bites yet, but that mattered little to them. Fishing was a state of mind.
They'd been casting for half an hour when the silence was shattered by the bellowing rage of a ferocious animal. It came from the direction of their camp and even from this distance, the roar of the most feared creature in the woods was unmistakable. They exchanged an apprehensive look, dropped their fishing rigs, grabbed their rifles, began running up the path back to camp, armed and dangerous; thoughts of Jack being horribly mutilated driving them to the limits of their endurance. Any one of the three men would have given their life to save the other two, an unspoken trust formed from years of shared life experience.
The trail was a fifteen-minute walk, but as they ran, time seemed to slow down, stretching the path to infinity. They heard no screams or calls for help, but that could be a good thing, or a bad thing. Dread crawled down their backs like spiders run amok.
They picked up the frenzied pace. * * * *
The bright orange setting sun silhouetted a distant mountain peak as it descended into the horizon, casting an orange glow across the campsite. Jack tried to sit up, found that his body was too rigid for such a maneuver. He had no feeling in his arms or legs and his pulse had faded to a dead stall. He'd even stopped breathing. Oddly enough, he wasn't alarmed, and felt quite serene. His mind was clear and focused and for the first time in his life, he felt completely at peace.
A warm vibration tingled his toes. It felt like hitting your funny bone, only pleasant. It spread from his toes to his feet and a moment later his legs were filled with a warm buzzing sensation. He felt no apprehension, rather the wonderment of a child enthralled with discovery. He heard a faint hiss, like someone letting the air out of a tire. The vibrating effect moved up his torso, increasing in strength and amplitude as it spread heat throughout his chest, the hiss now a soft roar. It spilled into his arms, hands and fingers, as he lay spellbound. Rumblings in his ears grew louder as the vibrations intensified, moved into his head, his entire body trembling from the pulsating energy. He thought of an angry Atlas, holding up the world, trying to shake him from its surface. Like ripples in a pond, wave after wave of energy flowed from his head to his feet, then back again. This must be what it feels like to be electrocuted.
As quickly as it had come, the effect receded, then dissipated like morning mist under a warming sun.
A preternatural quiet settled over the forest. No leaf stirred, no sound, no breeze. Only perfect stillness.
How strange, he thought. He'd never heard of this happening to anyone before. Was it possible he alone had experienced this bizarre occurrence? It didn't seem to have any adverse effects, he felt fine. He wondered if there was information about it on the web and decided to investigate further when he returned home. For now, he'd best arm himself. He wouldn't be caught off guard again. Then he would find out if his friends were OK.
He stood, looked around the camp. Everything seemed normal. Hot embers glowed in the fire pit. Leftover flames flickered here and there, licking at black remains of half burned logs. Evidence of the bear's appearance littered the ground; the ransacked cooler, empty pots and pans, paper cups and plates. His shotgun shells were scattered in the dirt, their supplies strewn about as though a forest leprechaun had gone on a mad bender. He noticed large paw prints pressed into the ground. With his gaze, he followed them as they trailed across the campsite to his sleeping bag, some as much as three inches deep. That was no bear, he realized. It was a monster. He was a lucky man indeed.
What happened next surprised and confused him. Looking down, he saw a figure lying on his sleeping bag. That's odd, who would be lying on my ... ? It took Jack a moment to realize the figure was he. His panic returned in an instant. Could this be death? He didn't feel dead. How was it possible to be dead and yet alive? Confusion filled his mind as he tried to understand what was happening.
He held his hands in front of his face. They shined with silver luminescence and he could see through them. His whole body glowed with a transparent shimmer, much like ghost popularized in Hollywood movies. Incredible! Whatever had happened, he seemed to be in no real danger and none the worse for wear. His momentary panic subsided, curiosity taking hold.
Just then, his friends, Kevin and Jim, emerged from the path leading to the lake. He was glad to see they hadn't been eaten by the grizzly. They must have heard the earth-shaking roar all the way from the lake. They looked his way and ran toward him, shouting. "Ram, are you all right!"
"Yes," he said, but they seemed not to hear or see him, and stooped to the figure on the ground, ignoring him. He watched in fascination as they checked for signs of life, and finding none, began administering CPR.
Kevin tilted back the head, pinched the nose, covered the mouth with his own to breathe oxygen into the lifeless body.
Jim placed his stacked hands palm down on Jack's chest, began a timed pumping motion over the heart. "Come on Ram, don't give up on us." He put an ear over Jack's heart.
Still no beat.
Why did it have to be Jack, Kevin thought? Jack had been the peacemaker, the referee, breaking up occasional fights between the close friends, forever keeping the triad together. Whether a helping hand or encouraging word was needed, Jack was the 'go to' guy, and had more than once saved their hides. Jack Ramsey was the last person on earth who deserved to die.
As the seconds ticked by, they fought off increasing desperation, repeated the cycle: pumping the heart, breathing into the lungs, checking for pulse. Nevertheless, Jack's body remained rigid, lifeless.
Jack attempted to garner their attention. Guys, hey. It's all right, I'm right here and I'm OK. Can't you see me? The men continued their attempt to revive his body. Jack was about to tap Kevin on the shoulder when something drew his attention away from the frantic scene.
He looked up into the twilight sky.
A few cumulus clouds drifted past, highlighted by the red orange glow from the fading sun. Mesmerized, Jack felt drawn to the majesty of the world above as if he belonged there, filled him with an overwhelming desire to fly. Suddenly, like the fictional hero from Krypton, he floated 50 feet above the campsite where he hovered, looking down at the commotion with a detached interest. The sky called him with the soulful song of sirens, and without knowing how or why, guided only by instinct, he answered it. He glided off effortlessly and in moments soared high over a shroud of treetops. They sped below as he reveled in this newfound freedom.
Coming upon the lake where his friends had been fishing earlier, he slowed and hovered a hundred feet over the water, looking down on the panoramic scene. The trees, the grass, the lake, everything had a sparkle as if sprinkled with fairy dust. Its pristine beauty struck a gentle chord in the fiber of his being.
Giddy, he rose higher and looked west over the Rocky Mountains. A sliver of deep red clung to the horizon. Liquid rays of red orange light leaked over mountain peaks and flowed down slopes like a volcano spilling lava. He looked east, where rolling hills cascaded toward the Midwest flat plains. A river coursed through small, sleepy towns dotting the landscape.
The view filled him with awe, as if God had pulled away the curtains of his mind to reveal the true beauty of creation. All around him pulsed life-generating energy. It seemed to come from nowhere and everywhere. Even the earth, in some strange way, was alive. He was more alive than he'd ever been. He absorbed the splendorous vibe like a parched child thirsting for knowledge.
Gliding westward, Jack passed over Elbow, Colorado, his small hometown. It looked so peaceful nestled in the crook of a wedge-shaped valley. Warm glows of early evening lights spread from windows of homes and businesses. Street lamps cast soft amber pools on the roads and sidewalks as town folk went about their earthly affairs. From this distance it reminded Jack of his boyhood, sitting on the roof of the barn at dusk, watching fire flies air dance in the field below.
He swooped upward and onward, again to the west, watched in fascination as mountain peaks passed underneath, resembling great speed bumps on the road to paradise. Soon, the mountain range gave way to the Nevada desert flats. Gaining speed, Jack rushed toward the setting sun, flying faster and faster, reaching the coast of California in under a minute. He rose higher still as he soared above the ocean, the fading sun glaring off steel blue waves, the sense of freedom beyond exhilarating. No longer was he bound to the Earth by gravity. He could fly! He didn't know how exactly, or why, and he didn't care. It was the single most incredible feeling he'd ever experienced and he didn't want it to end. Nothing else mattered.
Rising to thirty thousand feet, he crossed the expanse of the Pacific Ocean in mere heartbeats, his sky-high vantage point presenting him with an incredible vista. Asia came into view. From this height, he could discern the islands of Japan and Okinawa, the coast of eastern China cresting the horizon.
With the heady delight of a test pilot exploring the limits of a new jet fighter, he turned upward into a straight climb, began spinning like a whirling dervish as he rose, ascended to forty thousand feet, slowed to a stop, then angled sharply into a nosedive. The air around him whooshed by as he plunged at the sea, then gently swooped into a level glide like a Blue Angel pilot performing an aerial stunt. He executed a few forward rolls, a backward loop the loop maneuver, and a ninety-degree turn at an insane velocity with little or no effort. This was amazing! He wondered how far he could take it. It was a New World waiting to be explored and he was the man to do it. He would learn all there was to learn here in this..." Where was he? What was this strange and beautiful realm? He was sure this was no dream. He was wideawake, fully conscious, and flying. He was still Jack Ramsey, with all his memories and emotions intact, but somehow he had become.... different ... more.
He could find no logical explanation for his condition, and it didn't fit the religion of his youth. He couldn't wait to tell his parents and friends about this wondrous experience.
At the thought of his parents, images raced along the speedways of his mind; having toast and coffee with mom; helping dad fix the tractor carburetor. Small moments that formed deep bonds with people he loved. And he saw ugliness. Bouts of anger and jealousy, things he did that made him ashamed. Times he had hurt others and the ripple effect of his thoughtless actions. A thousand moments flashed by in fast forward, overwhelming him in a sea of emotion.
He embraced all of it. Seeing his life from this perspective forever changed him. The soils of his mind now enriched, seeds of understanding sprouted vivid awareness. It was all so simple. The answers had been right there in front of him all along. He'd just been too blind to see. He wasn't unique at all. Everyone had a soul, and he now understood that all humans were spirits residing in temporary physical form in the earthly school of hard knocks. Or put simply, 'Spirit Class 101'.
Jack floated as he soaked in understanding, humbled by the simplicity of life's hidden meaning. When he got back, he would do everything in his power to live life to its fullest potential, with renewed appreciation, and insights as to his purpose here on earth.
When he got back? Back to where? Yes, of course, he had a body. And if he didn't return to it soon, he was under no illusion as to the consequences. His physical vessel could not survive indefinitely without his soul if he stayed 'out' for too long; there would be no going back. He'd be a stranded spirit eternally in search of a host. It may already be too late. As awesome as this state of consciousness was, it was time to go.
Again, following his instincts, he conjured an image of his body lying back at camp, expressed the desire to return, then sprang off at a speed that would make Einstein shudder. He arrived at the campsite, half a world away, in the time it takes to pour a glass of buttermilk.
Hovering over the clearing, he watched his two friends pound his chest in a valiant effort to resuscitate his dead form. * * * *
Several minutes had passed with no sign of life. Reluctantly, Kevin and Jim withdrew their efforts, regarded stoically the unmoving figure on the ground; a cold, dead husk of lifeless flesh that had once been their friend. Their world had just gone from serene to surreal, the full impact of loss sinking in. Jack was one of a kind. Their triad had been reduced to a wounded duo, like a broken milking stool, useless without the support of its third leg. Dazed and confused, they stood motionless; as though moving would be a sign of acquiescence to the unfair hand fate had dealt them.
Kevin took a deep breath, the weight of responsibility landing heavily on his shoulders. He knew the food smell had attracted the bear. Now, a careless mistake had cost him his best friend's life. He swallowed hard against blame. It fell to him to be the one to tell Mr. and Mrs. Ramsey of their son's tragic death, for it was his idea to come up here this weekend, and his oversight that drew the bear's attention.
He stooped to begin the unpleasant task of wrapping the body in a sleeping bag and placing it next to the fire where it would be safe from predators through the night. Tomorrow, they would carry it down the mile long slope to where Kevin's Jeep CJ-7 waited like an ever-vigilant sentry. It would be a long ride home.
Jack dove for his physical body and smoothly melded back into place. The vibrations returned briefly, then faded.
Kevin unzipped Jack's sleeping bag, feeling defeated. I'm sorry Ram, hope you can forgive me, wherever you are. And then ... out of the corner of his eye.... He gasped and almost jumped out of his skin as the corpse's eyelids slid open. He knew this to be a natural bodily reaction at the time of death, but as he watched, the elusive spark that separates the living from the dead appeared behind Jack's eyes. Relief flooded Kevin's face. Jack was alive.
Kevin chose to view it as a sign that the strong bond of their triad was invincible, because from his perspective, he and Jim had done the impossible, fixed the broken stool, the third leg now firmly reattached. And their friend, Jack Allan Ramsey, was back where he belonged. * * * *
AS DARKNESS DESCENDED UPON their home away from home, the sounds of nature permeated the encampment. Crickets chirped a staccato rhythm, imitating a miniature string section of a symphonic orchestra. Somewhere nearby, a hoot owl repeatedly queried to no one in particular, and a whispering breeze gently rustled overhanging branches as it dispersed the mournful wail of a wolf, howling at the rising full moon. A crackling fire cast shadows on the fringes of the clearing, hot flames emanating warmth and assurance. It burned in the center of camp like an elemental symbol of protection and safety, warding off hidden forest threats.
The three friends sat huddled around the fire, lost in thought, each with a loaded gun at arm's length. Jim whittled away at the end of a branch as if preparing another weapon to add to his arsenal. Kevin, usually talkative, quietly poked at the hot coals with a stick, coaxing more heat from the burning wood. "Well, looks like we could use some more timber on the barby." He rose and walked to the woodpile, picked out three hefty logs that would burn well into the night, returned to the fire, placed them teepee fashion over the small blaze.
Jack regarded the night sky, transfixed by its vastness. Stars glittered in the darkness. A thin line of orange flame trailed across the heavens as a meteorite blazed its final glory. He located the constellation of Orion, seven outer stars tracing the form of the mythical hunter, pulling back his bow, forever poised to release his arrow into the void of space.
He considered the distant, burning suns, how that light rushed through the infinite wasteland of space at a speed unsurpassed in the universe. He wondered if he might be able to go to those stars in his out-of-body state. It seemed more than a possibility. For in that wondrous realm, his soul was a precision engineered Maserati imbued with limitless speed. By comparison, one hundred and eighty six thousand miles per second, the unbreakable speed limit of the cosmos according to Einstein, was a broken down Model T Ford. Jack knew he was perched on the tip of a large iceberg. First chance he got, he would attempt to replicate the vibrations and do some exploring.
The men sat in silence, like allies who had survived a long battle together and now, the battle won, pondered their own mortality. None of them had spoken of the recent event, though it occupied their thoughts. Jim was the first to breech the subject.
"Man, from the looks of those prints, that bear must a' been a doozy."
"Yeah Ram, what happened here anyway?" Kevin said. "We heard a roar and hightailed it up here as fast as we could, figuring you were bear bait. But when we got here, there was no grizzly, and you were lying dead on the ground. I thought you'd be minus an arm or a leg, or at least a gaping wound. Funny thing was, you didn't have a mark on you."
Jack, pensive, offered no explanation, instead studied the fire.
Kevin continued. "Anyway, I'm just glad you're OK. Truth is, me and Jim shoulda' put that food away before heading down to the lake. We almost got you killed."
Jim nodded agreement, saying with his eyes what he couldn't express with words. Jack sensed their remorse and didn't harbor any ill will. He still trusted his friends completely.
Kevin voiced a heart-felt oath. "And I think I speak for Jim when I say we won't ever leave you hanging again. That's a promise."
Jack dismissed the notion of fault. "Don't sweat it guys. I know either one of you would run into a burning building to save me. I couldn't ask for better friends."
"Somebody up there was sure watching over your hide," Kevin said. "I don't know how else you'd explain an unarmed man sleeping in the woods surviving a run in with a hungry bear. If it had been Jim, then I could understand it. His hygiene would be enough to scare away any critter with two nostrils."
Jim harrumphed, verbal jousting part of the friendship. "Look who's talking. One fart from you and that bear would have dropped dead in its tracks."
Kevin studied Jack from across the fire. "So how did you pull it off?"
Jack paused before answering. They'd accept just about anything if he vowed it was God's honest truth, but he understood that his story was unbelievable at best. His relationship with his friends had changed. He didn't know how well he could relate his experience without appearing demented, didn't want to needlessly alarm them with his 'delusions of flying'. His well intentioned buddies might think that he'd suffered brain damage from his near death experience and commit him to the care of a mental institution. He knew he wasn't crazy and was in no hurry to end up in some "Schitzos 'R' Us" facility, trying, but failing to convince an overly patronizing nurse he could fly like the Man of Steel. For now, he would avoid details.
"I snoozed off before you guys left. When I woke up, there was this huge bear going through our stuff. My gun was too far away so I thought about making a run for the lake, but it was blocking the path. Then I figured I'd high tail it across the bridge to Indian Point. The bear had other plans. It came after me before I had a chance to run."
Jim took a swig from a near empty beer. "Wow, that's some scary shit, man. You had no gun, no knife, no nothin'. And this son of a bitch was comin' to eatcha?"
"Yep, thought for sure I was a goner, as terrified as a body can get. If you looked up 'scared shitless' in the dictionary, you'd see a picture of me lying on my sleeping bag, pissing my pants."
"So what did you do?" Kevin said.
"I played dead."
"You played dead?"
"When it came after me, I closed my eyes, held my breath. It was scratching and sniffing, trying to figure out whether I was alive or not. I think it roared to see if I was faking it."
"That sounded like one pissed off bear," Jim said.
"After that, it sniffed me some more, then took off into the woods."
Kevin, with a 'holy shit' shake of his head, said, "When Jim and I found you, you were as white as an albino in a snow storm. You had no heartbeat, you weren't breathing. I don't know how much deader you can get."
"Did you have one of those near death experiences?" Jim said. "You know, the light and the tunnel thing?"
"No lights, no tunnel. Just ... blacked out."
"Well, you must be about the luckiest person alive."
"Yeah, I suppose so. Thanks for bringing me back. I owe you both."
"Shoot, ain't no need to thank us." Kevin said. "We talked about carvin' you up and having you for supper, seein' as how the bear ate all the food. We didn't think you'd mind much, you bein' dead and all. Then we decided you were a bit too scrawny for our likes, and you'd probably taste like store bought chicken anyhow. We're pretty much red meat and potato guys."
"Don't listen to him, Ram. You should've seen ol' Red here run across camp. The way he jumped over the fire, he looked like mountain boy O.J. on his way to catch a wagon. And he couldn't wait to get his lips on yours. I'm sure I saw a twinkle in his eye when he was giving you mouth to mouth." Jim tossed Kevin an uneasy look. "Always wondered about you, Red."
"Next time, you do the kissin', I'll do the pumpin', shit-forbrains."
"Whatever you say, lover boy."
"All right guys, let's not start a feud," Jack said. "Save it for the bear. He might come back, and I already died once today. Who wants to take first watch?" Jack was well aware of their marksmanship. Either could shoot the hair off a gnat's ass at a hundred yards. He would sleep safe and sound.
"I'll do it," Kevin said, with a glance at Jim. "If I leave this Annie Oakly wannabe in charge of protecting my ass, I'll wake up dead for sure."
"Oh, no you don't. I wouldn't trust you to fight off an angry squirrel. What makes you think I could sleep with you standin' guard? I'd just as soon stick my head in boiling oil."
"You look like you already tried that. Hell, if you were any uglier, we wouldn't need these guns. You'd scare all the critters away."
The friendly barbs continued into the night as the three amigos ringed the fire, debating important issues, like the proper way to pour a glass of ale, and the passing skills of the Denver Broncos second string quarterback.
Around midnight, Jack headed off for his shelter as Jim added another log to the fire. Both Kevin and Jim would remain awake through the night, like sentries in a watchtower, prepared to meet any threat face to face, and conquer it.
Jack set his gun within easy reach and flopped on his sleeping bag, fatigued, but at the same time excited. His mind was filled with images from his recent adventure and he was eager to try again. He assumed the same position he'd been in earlier, on his back with his head to the north, his feet to the south. He closed his eyes, let out a deep breath, hoping to recreate the condition. But his explorations would have to wait. Sleep took hold the steering wheel of his mind and drove him to the quiet state of peaceful, uninterrupted slumber. * * * *
He awoke to the tranquil sound of water, trickling softly down a stream, only to realize that it was someone taking a leak at the edge of the clearing. It must be Jim because he could hear Kevin stoking the fire, half-humming, half mumbling a melody. Jack recognized the song, 'Going to California', a melodic mountain tune by Led Zeppelin.
Jim returned to the fire and Jack could hear the two men talking about the Denver Rodeo they had all gone to last weekend. Four years ago, a champion roper named Jesse Gonsalves had miraculously survived a plane crash. But his survival had come at a heavy price. His brother burned to death in the mangled twin engine plane, and Jesse suffered a broken back, two broken ribs and shattered forearm. They implanted steel rods in his back and arm to augment the bones, but the doctors explained he would never walk again.
Jesse refused to give up, vowed that he would not only walk, but ride again. Few believed it possible, but 'give up' just wasn't in Jesse's vocabulary. And four years later he won the roping championship against all odds. His triumph personified the indomitable spirit of man.
As Kevin and Jim continued their discussion, Jack's attention drifted back to his amazing discovery. The resounding joy experienced while flying was fresh in his mind. Now, after sleeping for several hours, he felt relaxed and alert, a 'mind awake, body asleep' state.
His heart beat slowed to a crawl.
His breath turned shallow.
In answer to his call, the tingling feeling appeared in his toes.
As before, the vibration grew stronger and faster as it spread up his body to his head. But this time, he wasn't violently shaken. The effect was softer, more focused. Maybe he was getting the hang of this.
He remained motionless as the vibration warmed and soothed. After a pair of minutes, the phenomenon took leave and returned from whence it came. If his guess was right, he should now be able to separate from his body. He stood up, looked down to see his physical form prone on the ground. He gave his glow a once over, his soul body shining with the same silvery sheen as before. He noticed something he'd earlier missed. A silver cord sprouted from just below his navel. The cord's opposite end was connected to his physical body where it was also attached below the navel. He instinctively knew that if the cord broke or snapped, he wouldn't be able to return to his physical vessel. A sobering thought. But with fear of the unknown put aside and curiosity firmly in place, he was ready to do some exploring. He took off like a shot, heading west.
The light of the full moon blanketed the landscape, the uneven surface of the ground rising and falling as he soared over it. Ten miles ahead stood a wall of bedrock one thousand feet high, formed before the dinosaurs walked the earth. He slowed as he drew close and hovered in front of the cliff face, intent on testing a theory. Cautiously, he reached out with a ghost hand, touched a finger to the rock face, feeling the smooth surface as if his hand had been flesh and blood and not intangible energy. A long time fan of horror movies, he'd seen enough to know that ghost could pass through material objects. At least, according to Hollywood. Sure enough, with a gentle push, his hand passed into the impenetrable facade as if it was a desert mirage. He reached his arm inside the rock, waving his translucent hand back and forth, feeling in a way that was similar to his sense of touch, yet different. This was better than fantastic. He had the absurd impulse to head into town tomorrow and run through the streets shouting, Hey everybody, guess what? You have a soul! Of course, no one would ever believe this and he would have to resist the desire to share his secret with anyone who would listen.
Wanting to experiment further, Jack withdrew his arm, backed away from the cliff, and with a 'here goes nothing', flew straight ahead on a collision course. Bracing for impact, he connected with the wall of solid rock.... and continued his forward motion, flying on through the mountain. Amazingly, he could feel the texture of the strata as he went, emerging minutes later from the other side.
As he surmised, his energy self was able to easily pass through matter. Most likely this included everything from fire and ice to feathers and iron. What would it feel like to pass through another person? He wasn't sure if he was ready to try that yet. Inanimate objects were one thing. Passing through a living, breathing man or woman was a whole 'nother ball game.
He took in the landscape as he floated midair, overwhelmed with the beauty of creation. Everything had a sparkle quality, as if he were seeing the energy signature of the atoms that bound the world together. Eventually, he wanted to see it all: the entire face of the planet. And when that was done, he would see about moving on to the other planets. So much beauty, so little time.
With his new ability to fly and his innate curiosity, Jack felt like a cross between Sherlock Holmes, and Superman. He smiled inwardly as he pictured himself with an 'S' shield on his chest and a deerstalker cap on his head, holding a meerschaum pipe to his lips as he flew headlong into adventure.
Looking down, he spotted an asphalt highway winding around the mountainside. He recognized it as route 46, a two-lane state road that led into Elbow several miles further east. An eighteen-wheeler drove along the snakelike thoroughfare on its way to a late night delivery. He decided to investigate and dove toward the lone rig.
He descended to half a dozen feet above the blacktop, gliding effortlessly as he approached the back of the tractor-trailer. On his right, the rock wall of the mountainside loomed dark, forbidding. To his left, the edge of the road dropped off sharply to a sheer cliff leading to a jagged canyon floor eight hundred feet below. The rim was lined with steel guardrail and a warning sign swept by, 'Slow. Dangerous curve ahead'.
The white hash marks dividing the two lanes slipstreamed beneath him, reminding him of his childhood. Against the wishes of his mother, his dad would often let him ride in the back of the pickup truck on their way into town. Jack, mesmerized, would look over the side at the white lines as they flashed by in quick succession. Sometimes he would stand up behind the cab, facing forward with his arms outstretched, hair blowing in the wind, and pretend he was flying. He liked playing the super-hero. All he lacked was a cape, leotards, and a damsel in distress.
He increased his speed so he moved slightly faster than the big rig, caught up to it, eased forward through the back door of the trailer section. The interior was packed with a load of feed, probably destined for the Agway store on the far edge of town. His sense of smell was not present in this altered state, for he detected no odor from the normally pungent animal chow. But he could 'see' and 'feel' material objects much like his physical body.
Gliding forward with his arms at his side, he exited the front of the trailer and entered the cab on the passenger side. He held himself there, matching the speed of the moving vehicle; his upper body inside the cab, his lower body protruding out through the rear window. If his Mom could see him like this, she'd probably say, in that firm but affectionate tone, "All right Jack, make up your mind, in or out."
He glanced over at the driver, a man who looked to be in his mid-fifties, face lined with deep creases, skin, leathery and marked with gray stubble that gave him an unkempt look, hinting at the long hours since his last shower and shave. A red cap on his head read "Feed the need at Kent's Feed Store." A CB radio was mounted under the dash and a half-burned cigar sat in the ashtray. The AM radio, turned to a country station where a heart broken cowboy sang a bittersweet ballad about a woman that had done him wrong.
The driver's head bobbed down, then up again, fighting his body's demand for sleep. The stage was being set for death and destruction to rear its ugly head and Jack sensed danger lurking around the next turn. He shouted at the man, Hey mister. Wake up. You need to wake up or you're going to get yourself killed! But it was no use. The driver could not hear him.
Imminent danger filled the cab as the truck neared the next bend; a 'U' shaped right turn rimmed with reinforced guardrail and beyond that, a seamless black void masking an eight-hundred foot drop.
The driver's chin dropped to his chest once more as the truck veered into the left lane. Jack reached over and pinched the stranger's right arm, unsure of whether it would have any effect. The trucker jolted as if stung with a taser, looked up to see the impending doom, stomped the brakes, cut the steering wheel hard to the right, valiantly tried to hug the turn and stay on the road. But his reaction was too late. The truck jack-knifed, skidded out of control toward death's open arms.
The sound of screeching tires and twisted metal echoed loud as the back end of the trailer fishtailed around the curve, crumpling reinforced guardrail.
The driver screamed.
The dark maw of the canyon opened wide, eager to swallow him and his rig. * * * *
3 MOUNTAIN SECRETS
AS THE TRUCK SLID OUT OF CONTROL, Jack bolted through the windshield and rose above the scene, battled by helplessness. The lurching behemoth brought to mind the twist and tumble of a hard running calf, snagged by the lasso of a skilled roper. He recalled how Jesse Gonsalves, eyes fierce with confidence, had rode his horse at full gallop, spinning his lasso above his head as he closed in on his target.
A shower of sparks lit the dark pavement as the vehicle careened around the bend, rear wheels slipping off the road and gliding through thin air, the bottom of the trailer grinding against the rocky ledge. It screeched to a halt, see-sawed precariously on the cliff edge.
Like a demon dragging a victim into the abyss of hell, gravity inched the trailer toward oblivion. The sound of groaning metal reverberated through the cab as the driver, seeing his only chance to escape, opened the door and leaned towards the safety of the road. But he was held fast by the seat belt. Panic-stricken, he fumbled with the release. In the next terrible instant, the cab and its occupant slipped over the edge.
Noooooo ... Blue lightning erupted from Jack's hand, shot upward over his head, coalesced into the shape of a lasso. He twirled the hooped tether once, twice, then launched. The sparkling rope rushed at the falling vehicle, slammed into it, banded a tight maelstrom of iridescent energy about its midst. Jack pulled hard on his psychic lasso, all his might hauling against the descent. The rig was immense, ridiculously heavy, but to his amazement, it slowed, and stopped, poised a hundred feet above the canyon floor, ass end down, cab-section pointed up. As an added impossibility, it began to rise, inches at first, then feet, resembling a rocket ship lifting from its pad.
Tremendous power coursed through Jack's astral body, every iota of his will focused into his astral sling. With supreme effort, he righted the up-ended vehicle mid-air, hoisted it cautiously to the top of the cliff. It sparkled with blue effervescence as he maneuvered it over the safety of the highway. But ten feet above the asphalt, the cascading energy field began dissolving, his thick, blue lasso shrinking to the size of a worn thread. Whatever this power was, it had its limits.
Eight feet, five feet...
C'mon Jack, hold on! He prayed, Just a little further.... And then, two feet above the road, his precarious hold collapsed and gravity took over. The massive construct slammed onto the pavement with a thunderous Boom! Tires exploded, shock absorbers shrieked protest as it bounced once before coming to rest on the barren highway.
Silence held the night.
Wind sloughed off the mountainside.
Jack floated down to land on top of the cab. He could sense extreme consternation coming from the driver, but that aside, he was alive and well. It seemed to Jack as though the subtle hand of destiny had shaped the last several hours of his life; the run-in with the ravenous bear, his wondrous out-of-body experience, and now, the encounter with the endangered truck driver. There was a higher power at work here, guiding him towards an unknown fate. This new insight incurred a surge of emotion, blowing through him like a Kansas tornado sweeping across the plains, leaving him profoundly humbled. He was a small piece in a large puzzle. His new ability had been given to him for a reason. His heart ached with joy as new revelations impacted his consciousness.
There was indeed a God. However, the creator of the cosmos possessed none of the traditional characteristics purported by most religions, had no ego, required no worship, and was not judgmental. Surviving physical death was not a reward based on deeds. Strict adherence to ubiquitous commandments did not earn one merit points for getting into heaven. Good and evil were strictly human concepts that did not apply in the after life, a place where learning and spiritual growth transcended the notions of mankind. Life after death was built into the system, a natural and automatic occurrence, independent of how one conducted one's life, and applied to all humans alike, whether atheist, Muslim, Catholic or Buddhist; murderer of millions, or nurturing caregiver. This crossing over process was a two-fold progression marking the span of a life, the first instance at birth, the second when the body expired. The soul repeated this educational cycle many times, as both male and female, until it had learned all there was to learn at "Earth School."
Further astounding his thoughts, Jack glimpsed a mind-boggling peek at a vast truth, that mankind was far from being alone in an otherwise lifeless universe. The cosmos teemed with life, trillions of worlds, harboring all manner of beings unimagined by even the most prolific science fiction writer.
Indeed, the living force powering all creation existed on an infinitely greater magnitude than he had ever imagined, far beyond his ability to comprehend.
Humbled, he reflected upon his life. Until today, he'd found no real sense of direction. Having graduated from college at twenty-two, he'd shouldered a pang of guilt at having spent the last seven years working at the farm under the security blanket of his parents, instead of pursuing better opportunities out in the real world. All that had changed. He had purpose, ready to face new challenges that lie ahead.
He thought of the awesome power inherent in the blue fire. Where did it come from? What exactly triggered it and what were its limits? Each new discovery brought on more questions.
The cab door opened, deposited the driver to the ground, looking like he'd just gone ten rounds with the devil. He hobbled a few steps, dropped to his knees, and vomited on the pavement, nerves all but shattered. Heaving a sigh of relief, he looked to the night. "Thank you Lord."
Jack watched the born-again-trucker climb behind the wheel and call the Elbow sheriff's department on his CB radio. No doubt Sheriff Wakeman would arrive on the scene in another thirty or forty minutes, full of questions and concern. Jack could imagine the look on the sheriff's face when the driver tried to explain exactly what happened. Maybe the trucker would come up with a good cover story to avoid complications as well as ridicule.
The driver alighted from the cab, strolled to the trailer hindquarters, lit several flares.
Standing atop the cab, Jack looked up to the stars, twinkling the way a string of Christmas lights does, each one a cosmic corridor to infinite possibilities.
Yes, he reflected, a very big puzzle indeed.
And with that, he leapt into the night sky, and was gone. * * * *
Jack coasted at ten thousand feet, admiring the view and wondering about the blue flame. Strong emotions, fear and panic, had somehow triggered the outburst of psychic energy. He hadn't been able to maintain the force field for long. The weight of the truck taxed the limits of his power. Could he learn to harness and control this strange force? This psi-fire? Was it possible to increase or decrease it the way volume is adjusted on a radio? If so, then it followed that a whole fleet of eighteen-wheelers could be lifted into the air as easily as a kid picking up his collection of matchbox cars. The implications were staggering.
He followed the trail of the mountain range south, towards Denver. The Grand Canyon was just a hop, skip and a jump away and it would sure be a sight to see under the light of the moon. It had been a few years since he'd taken a donkey ride to the bottom. Now he had an opportunity to see it from high above. He turned up the speed and ascended through a light cloud cover, quickly rising to twenty five thousand feet.
The full moon glowed yellow-gold, a beacon floating in the sea of space. Far below, a misty layer of moonlit cloud whorls weaved a golden hued carpet, a cushion for angels to rest their weary wings upon. High above, the stars whispered in his ear with the promise of untold mystery and imagination. He glided headlong through the scenic vista, his mind at peace. Life was good.
His astral sight seeing was suddenly interrupted when a vertical beam of light appeared in the distance, a thin, red line reaching up through the clouds at a slight angle. He couldn't locate the source of the beam, but he was certain it wasn't an ordinary searchlight of the type used to promote sales events. It wouldn't be strong enough to reach this high. What else could it be? He could think of no simple explanation for the bright shaft. Was it otherworldly, as in aliens? Some sort of a landing beacon? It was just ahead at one o'clock and he altered his course to intercept the anomaly. His Grand Canyon excursion would have to wait.
He slowed to an easy glide as he closed in on the beam, circling it twice before coming to a full stop fifteen feet away, trying to fathom its nature as he hovered in the air. The crimson tube was approximately ten feet in diameter and went as high as he could see, vanishing to a point somewhere far above. Steady waves of undulating blood red energy moved up its length and the air around him was charged with static electricity. He floated closer and was greeted by a strong radiation emanating from the beam that extended ten or twelve feet out. It made him queasy, as if he'd swallowed grandpa's snake oil. But, for good or ill, curiosity always won the "should I, shouldn't I" quandary.
He moved in, guard up, mind adrenaline pumping.
The radiation intensified. An angry red tendril reached out and embraced him with malevolence. Fear and rage bled into his soul, a spreading hatred as unrelenting as it was vile. It dragged him toward the beam, despair enticing. There is no hope. You can not fight it. Come into the beam where bliss awaits you.
Pulled to within a foot of the deadly shaft, the air around him sparked and sizzled, raw energy diamond-like in its purity. It was too strong, devouring him bit by bit. He had to escape before it was too late.
Jack focused his awareness, began spinning with the blistering speed of a tornado, worked himself into a super charged blur of motion, his shine a smoldering blue.
Though reluctant, the apparition receded into the light that spawned it.
Jack immediately backed away to a safe distance. He wouldn't make that mistake again. This altered state was prone to dangers he hadn't imagined and from now on he would proceed with more caution.
He'd gotten a quick vibe from his contact with the tendril, receiving information by osmosis. As though viewing a sneak peak preview at the neighborhood nickelodeon, fragments of images played on the silver screen of his mind. Somehow, incredible as it seemed, negative human emotions were collected and distilled into a cohesive force, then beamed to a location unknown, maybe to be used as a weapon of some kind. By whom and for what reason, he didn't know. But he was going to find out.
Taking off like a shot from a cannon, Jack dashed upward into the still of the night, pursuing the red tube of despair. He reached thirty thousand feet, and still the beam climbed skyward. In less time than it takes to cross the street, Jack soared to a height of forty thousand feet, trailing the beam as it bored a hole through the thick soup of the atmosphere. He wondered if it was aimed at a far off planet. Maybe aliens were using it as a psychic pipeline of communication, like two tin cans joined by a string. Or maybe they were the type that fed off our 'bad' emotions and used the tube to send food back to a starving world.
The beam stretched towards the velvet folds of deep space. He was determined to find its destination. But how far could he follow it? How long could he stay in his present state without endangering his physical body? It could survive for only so long without oxygen. But this was the mother of all mysteries and he was willing to push it to the limit.
He put the pedal to the metal and skyrocketed upward through the stratosphere, to the edge of space and beyond, until finally, three hundred miles above the curvature of the earth, he saw the beam destination. A large satellite came into view against the black background of space. He approached with care, wary of the radiation that had almost sucked him in. The device resembled an ordinary communications satellite. There were no identifying marks to indicate the country of origin. Two solar panels stood out from its side like high tech wings. A ten-foot dish collected the scarlet energy and channeled it through an onboard computer. Another dish, this one fifteen feet in diameter and adjacent to the smaller one, began to glow, growing brighter as it charged up, a hard pulsing dirge of doom and gloom. Then without warning, the main dish unleashed a bolt of red at the earth's surface. Like a surgeon's laser, it struck the Pacific Ocean midway between Hawaii and California.
Someone or something was controlling it. Whatever the purpose of the beam might be, he was certain it wasn't good. Jack had the distinct impression this strange energy form was beyond the range of human senses. And that he was only able to 'see' it because of his altered state. That implied that, other than the beam's faceless operator, he might be the only person aware of its existence. His curious streak, tweaked to maximum, insisted he find some answers.
He plunged through the atmosphere and down through the clouds, following the red tube to its source in the manner of a detective following a trail of blood.
The beam ended at a ridge in the side of a huge mountain tucked away deep in the Rocky Mountains. At its base, a two-lane asphalt road disappeared behind a massive steel door large enough for several trucks to pass through. The crimson wave came from somewhere inside the mountain. The evil ray, consisting entirely of psychic energy, passed unhindered through rock just as he had done earlier. He moved toward the ridge, alert, ready for anything. And then, five feet from the rock, whoomph! He collided with an invisible barrier, more than likely put in place to keep paranormal party poopers like himself from sniffing around where they weren't welcome. Upon closer inspection, he detected a faint shimmering effect that marked the boundary of the shield. It stretched out in all directions, no doubt surrounding the giant formation of rock. He pushed against the barrier. It had some give, like pushing against a mattress. But no matter how hard he tried, there was no getting through. There must be another way in. Every hideout had a secret exit, in case the bad guy had to escape quickly. And this was no different. It was just a matter of finding it.
With the grace of an Olympic diver, Jack dove at the rocky ground, plunged into it, through bedrock, tracing the near invisible wall of force. Five hundred feet below the surface he stopped and again pushed against the sparkling shield, but with the same result. It was just as impenetrable down here as it was above ground.
Maybe he could get under it. He followed the barrier down through the rock another five thousand feet where it stopped and turned, spreading underneath what must be the basement level. Like a car mechanic inspecting the undercarriage of an automobile, he searched the bottom of the shield for any opening that would allow him access to the inner secrets of the mountain. But there were none. The barrier was complete.
Or was it? Jack headed back to the surface and glided up to the ridge where the beam continued to pierce the night. Feeling the weight of responsibility, he inched closer, steeling himself for the inevitable onslaught of nausea. The movement of the blood red waves was hypnotic. He stared into the tube, watching them rise and fall. It was beautiful. Mesmerizing. Deadly. It would be easy to get ensnared if he wasn't careful.
He braced himself and moved into the center of the shaft. He was instantly blasted with winds of hurricane force, the current much stronger than he'd anticipated. Negative emotion concentrated a thousand fold bombarded him with anti-life energy. A contentious brew of despair and paranoia, rage and jealousy threatened to overwhelm him as he clawed his way down, struggling against the current as though wading through a river of tar in January. It was madness. Nausea like the cold stink from a slaughterhouse filled his senses.
Just when he thought it was beyond his limit, he was through. He floated away from the shaft to a safe distance, shaking off wisp of sinister energy that clung to him. He surveyed his surroundings. He was in a vast chamber large enough to hold several football fields. Barracks formed neat rows on one side, occupying half of the room. A large white building appeared to be a medical center and next to it, a grassy field where small groups of soldiers exercised and practiced maneuvers. In a far corner, a mess hall provided the inhabitants with food and drink. Military vehicles roamed about the narrow streets, hauling personnel and equipment.
At the top of the vaulted chamber, mounted from the rock ceiling was an antenna array much like the one he encountered in space. A ten-foot dish was the largest feature and it spewed the scarlet shaft out through the wall of the mountain. Cables and metal tubing led out in all directions, snaked their way down the curved inner walls where they disappeared into the ground.
Mystified, he floated down toward the base. Why would the military be discharging vile red force to an orbiting satellite, then redirect the energy to a point in the Pacific Ocean? Were they attacking a herd of militant whales? What had he stumbled onto? He wondered if he was in over his head. What started out as a curiosity had turned into a secret military plot, and uncovering it would be difficult for a lone farmer. Were there psychic spies that did this sort of thing for a living? Were they listed in the yellow pages? Probably not.
A gentle nudge grabbed his attention. Then again. It was more like a tug. He realized it was his physical body calling to him. A tug on his silver cord was his body's way of saying, Fun time is over pal, better get back soon or else ... But he'd come too far to turn back now. He felt confident that he could uncover the purpose of the beam and still have time to get back to camp before his body went into cardiac arrest. He ignored the call.
He scanned the area as he glided over the roofs of the one-story barracks. There must be a control center somewhere, though he couldn't detect any signs of one. He noticed two men in uniform emerging from an elevator. He made his way to the lift. The closed doors offered no impedance as he entered the compartment and turned downward, descending through the floor and down, undetected through the vertical shaft. He passed one level after another, counting some twenty levels below the cavern. As he went, he scanned for any residual dark force that might indicate a control room.
Approaching the twenty-first level, the faint signature of red energy bled into the empty shaft. It was coming from the other side of the elevator doors that led from the shaft into the hallway. This area had another force field around it, albeit weaker than the outer shield. He had some trouble getting through, but with a push and a shove, he emerged into a deserted corridor. No alarms sounded. So far, his infiltration had gone unnoticed.
A door on his left read 'Med. Supplies' and another, marked 'Latrine'. Next came a door to his right with a sign that read 'Psionic Control. Level Five Clearance.' Jack floated through and into a large room that resembled the control center of NASA, with a giant view screen on the far wall and rows of computer stations manned by technicians and military officers, their backs to him. Several guards stood at attention along the fringes of the room, unmoving. They could well have passed for a collection of statues on loan from the wax museum.
The screen displayed an overhead view of the Pacific Ocean with the coast of California on the right and Hawaii on the left. In the center, a green blip crawled at a snails pace toward the tropical islands. The officers and technicians were focused intently as a red beam lanced down from somewhere above and struck the object. It flared with a small burst of light, then vanished. Whatever it was, was gone.
An officer sat at the helm of a main control board near the back of the room. He looked up from his monitor at a general standing nearby.
"General Ferguson, secondary drone has been destroyed."
"Very good, major. Proceed to the next objective."
A new blip appeared on the screen, this one yellow and several miles north of the first target.
"Tracking airborne drone. Initiating charge."
The major worked the controls and issued commands while on his monitor, a red bar grew across the bottom of his display from left to right.
"Fifty percent." The red bar stretched further.
Jack felt acutely disturbed by what he was seeing. 'Airborne drone' could mean anything from a weather balloon to a remote controlled jet fighter. Could this be a new way to shoot down enemy ICBM's before they had a chance to deliver their payloads?
"Batteries to full. Drone target acquired. We have a lock."
"Excellent." The General gave the order, relishing every word. "Fire at will, Major."
Once again, the red beam lanced down from the sky and struck the yellow blip. It flared briefly, and was gone.
"The air drone has been destroyed sir."
"That was absolutely brilliant, Major. This project has exceeded my expectations. Your men should be proud. This weapon will save many American lives. Rest assured, your name will appear prominently in my report."
The Major straightened in his chair, obviously pleased at the high praise. "Thank you, sir. The men have gone beyond the call of duty to make the deadline."
"Can you be ready for deployment in seventy two hours?"
"If we begin preparations now, that should not be a problem, sir."
"Very well. I will supply you with the exact coordinates at that time. Carry on." The general turned on his heel and headed for the door.
"Yes, sir." Major Honeycutt's hands flew over rows of keys and switches as he barked out a command. "Lieutenant Lisenbee, commence shut down."
An officer sitting in the left chair of the two-man control station typed on his keyboard, then pressed a green button on his panel. "Yes sir, commencing shut down."
The main screen changed from an overhead view of the ocean to an electronic rendition of the array at the top of the chamber. A HUD, or 'Heads Up Display' along one side of the large screen provided technicians with a wealth of information as to the status of the experimental weapon. Various indicators receded as the beam generator powered down.
Sudden dread coiled around Jack. If they shut down the beam while he was still inside the base...
On the view screen, the red shaft of psychic energy winked out.
"Psi-one powered down, sir."
"Check shield integrity." directed Major Honeycutt.
"Shields at maximum, sir. All systems normal."
Jack darted out of the room, back to the elevator shaft and raced up to the main chamber. He reached the vaulted ceiling where the beam generator hung motionless; its batteries now quiet. He moved through the rock wall to the outside, reached the barrier and felt around for the hole, but the shield had closed over his escape route. He was trapped.
Suddenly, he jerked backwards, hard, like a trout caught on a fisherman's hook, slamming him against the barrier. His suffocating, physical body was desperately trying to retrieve him. In another minute, maybe less, his heart would seize from lack of oxygen. A cold swell of fear formed icicles that poked his gut, his panic rising. He had to get free and time was running out.
He retraced his route back to the control room, a plan forming in his mind. Major Honeycutt and the sergeant were still seated at the console. He scanned the main control station in an effort to find a shut off for the shield generator. The panel was filled with a plethora of colored lights and switches. He couldn't make heads or tails of them; nothing indicated how to power down the barrier. The pull on his cord was getting weaker by the moment. He had to act fast. What about the psi-fire? Could he use it to destroy the main control panel in the hope that it would disable the shield?
He focused and thought of the blue fire, aiming his ghostly hands at the console, a warlock casting a spell.
He strained with concentration. C'mon super powers, don't fail me now.
Still nothing. The fire was gone, leaving a cold, psychic ember in its place.
He couldn't die here and now, stuck inside of a mountain, a disembodied spirit roaming the hallways like a ghost in a castle. It wasn't right. He had so much yet to accomplish. What about the sense of purpose instilled in him earlier? There had to be another way.
Then it came to him. Something he once saw in a movie.
Moving in beside the major, Jack braced himself and ... Whoomph!.... stepped into Major Honeycutt's body. At once, he found himself sitting at the control station looking over systems checks; his perspective changed to that of the major. On his left, Lieutenant Lisenbee went about his duties. No one in the room noticed the invasion. He now had access to information regarding the psionic project. Key commands, codes and passwords were available via the mind meld. Again, learning by osmosis, Jack worked the keyboard like a pro, soaking up information at an incredible rate as he initiated the deactivation of the shield.
He'd been right. The beam was a powerful weapon that could destroy targets ranging from naval ships and jet fighters to warhead toting rockets. He had power at his fingertips; the power to wage death and destruction with the flip of a few switches.
The shield grid appeared on his monitor. Jack typed in the password for shut down and toggled a switch on the panel. The computer answered with a dialog box that popped up, 'Are you sure you want to shut down?' with 'yes' and 'no' choices. Jack reached for the mouse to click on 'yes' but his hand stopped midstream. The Major was not one to sit quietly. He fought Jack's psychic hold, trying hard to rid himself of the invader. Jack's life rested on his reaching the mouse but he was growing weak. He strained against the will of Major Honeycutt. His hand shook. Sweat broke on his brow; his face grimaced.
"Are you all right, sir?" It was Lisenbee, attention drawn by the strange behavior.
Jack's hand reached the mouse, moved the cursor ever so slowly over to 'yes', fighting every inch of the way. All he had to do now was to left click, and he would be home free. But his hand was not his own. The major fought back with warrior ferocity, and Jack was drained, losing the battle of wills.
"Sir, what are you doing?" The lieutenant was alarmed and it wouldn't take long to put two and two together.
Major Honeycutt's body shook from a war waged within. Jack focused all of his remaining willpower into the right index finger.
A loud klaxon went off, red lights and war cries.
Lieutenant Lisenbee jolted from his chair, drew a pistol, leveled it at Jack, shrieked a warning. "Sir. Move away from the controls now. I repeat, move away from the controls now or I will be forced to shoot!"
Jack let loose a scream that shuddered everyone in the room.
His finger clicked the mouse.
The monitor displayed an image of a shield collapsing the way a final curtain descends on a Broadway play, freedom but a moment away.
A searing blast ripped through his shoulder, hot, burning agony. The force of it slammed him off his chair and onto the floor. The sergeant had fired his weapon, striking Major Honeycutt square in the shoulder, the .45 caliber slug erupting from his chest just under the clavicle. Blood streamed from the gaping exit wound as if he was an overturned jug of cider.
Jack reeled, guilt spreading, pain stupefying. He could feel and hear the mind screams of Major Honeycutt.
What have I done?
The room burst into motion, rushing men, rushing weapons, rushing alarm.
With the pull on his silver cord nearly gone, his own body near death, Jack stood up and out of the major's body, bolted straight up, through twenty floors of sub-levels, into the chamber and out through the ceiling like a rubber band being snapped. An instant later, he was back at camp, safe and sound within the confines of his own body.