The Human Cost

by Jon Wesick



At 2:00 a.m. Arjuna Diebold, who preferred his middle name Matthew, drove along Narva Street and parked in front of the Order of the Lotus compound. A dozen years had passed since he’d left earth for Tau Ceti’s second planet Jonah, although due to the complexities of relativistic physics Matt had only aged a few months. Even though his job put Matt’s life at risk, it beat toiling for the insurance bureaucracy on earth. On this warm night Matt broiled under his protective vest and the sports jacket he wore to conceal his pistol. Cobra had sprinkled him liberally with bourbon to add authenticity to his drunk act. The liquor helped disguise the smell of Matt’s nervous sweat. He stepped out of the car and staggered toward the gate.

Phoenix Jones lay hidden in the back seat with a laser rifle. Her skin was as dark as the black fatigues she wore.

“He’s on his way,” she spoke into the mike on her headset.

“Copy,” said Cobra.

He and the mercenaries had parked their vehicles on Tartu Road and were walking toward the rear of the compound. The image of the neighbor’s backyard glowed green in Cobra’s IR goggles. His eyes scanned back and forth searching for any dogs, whose barks could tip off the guards. Cobra’s tranquilizer gun would deal with any such emergencies.

Matt zigzagged his way to the gate and cast nervous glances at the eight-foot whitewashed concrete wall topped with jagged broken bottles. He pounded on the door. A clean-shaven guard wearing a khaki uniform with a cross on the left lapel opened the door. He hooked his thumbs in his black leather gun belt and asked, “May I help you?”

“Yeah, I want to see Reverend Affliction.”

“Sorry we’re closed. Come back on Sunday for the service.”

“I don’t care if you’re closed or not!” Matt put his foot in the door and raised his voice. “You’ll wake him up and tell him to release my daughter!”

“Listen friend, I don’t know what you’re talking about. But if you don’t get out of here, you’re gonna be sorry.”

By now several guards had gathered by the gate. Matt grabbed the first guard by the collar and pulled his face within an inch of his own.

“Tell that cocksucker to release my daughter right now!” Matt screamed.

A nightstick struck Matt in the kidney. He doubled over and crumpled to the ground.

“You think you can mess with me, puta?” The guard let loose with a vicious kick to Matt’s ribs.

Matt clutched his knees to his chest and tried to protect his head, while the guards’ nightsticks thudded on his knees and elbows.

The ground shook with three swift concussions. Wump! Wump! Wump! Cobra’s mercenaries had blown the back wall.

“Stay there and don’t let that one get away,” the lead guard ordered a pimply-faced teenager.

He and his men ran toward the explosions, leaving the teenager behind to watch Matthew. The crack of laser rifles’ electric discharges sounded. Intent on keeping his pistol trained on Matt, the young guard didn’t notice Phoenix approach from behind. She clubbed him to the ground with the butt of her rifle.

The smoke from the explosion cleared. Cobra’s team rushed through the gap blown in the back wall behind the prison building. Dragon ran toward the northeast corner of the prison. The rest headed to the southwest. A mini-gun opened up from inside the bunker, almost catching Cobra in the face with a hail of lead. The air filled with the gun’s ripping sound and the buzz of projectiles whizzing past. Bullets thudded into walls digging out chunks of concrete and sending them flying.

“Blade, Titan, Hacksaw, follow Dragon. Whiplash, stay here with me,” said Cobra.

Meanwhile the guards approached from the east.

Phoenix heard the mini-gun.

“Shit, they’re pinned down. C’mon.”

She raced around the side of the office building, where Phoenix would have a clear shot at the bunker. Matt limped after her. When they were in position, she lobbed a grenade at the bunker. It exploded impotently outside. The bunker’s reinforced concrete walls shielded those inside from the blast. Phoenix began squeezing off shots at the bunker. Crack! Crack! Her laser traced red lines in the misty air betraying her position. This drew the mini-gun’s fire. Rrrip! Matt and Phoenix dived for the dirt. The mini-gun stitched the office building, showering them with splinters from its wooden walls.

Dragon reached the northeast corner of the prison in time to catch the guards running toward the back wall. She began firing her laser. Crack! Crack! She hit two of them, burning smoking holes in their chests. They lay dying on the ground.

“Aaagh! Aaagh!” One on the guard’s screamed.

Cobra saw the mini-gun turn its fire away from him. He sent Whiplash running toward the bunker, while providing cover fire to keep the rest of the guards at bay. Whiplash flattened himself against the wall and inched his way to the window. He tossed in a grenade and stepped aside to avoid the hot gases and pieces of shrapnel it blew through the window. He jumped through the opening, firing at anything that moved. The mini-gun had been silenced.

Meanwhile, Cobra and Dragon caught the remaining guards in a crossfire and made short work of them. Titan, Blade, and Hacksaw ran past Dragon to the prison entrance. Titan kicked the door and tossed in a flash-bang. The mercenaries shielded their eyes from the sudden burst, then ran through the door yelling at the stunned personnel inside.

“Down! Down! Face down on the floor! Move and you’re dead!”

Blade and Titan rushed forward to search the cells, leaving Hacksaw behind to hold the guards at gunpoint. Titan stopped at each gray steel cell door and peered through its tiny wire reinforced glass window.

He located the hostage behind the third door having recognized her from her picture.

“I found her.” Titan called to the young woman, “Stay away from the door!”

He blew it open with a small plastic charge. The hostage lay on a bare, urine-soaked mattress. Her face was bruised and discolored. One eye had swollen shut.

“It’s OK,” Titan said, “We’ve come to get you out of here.”

He lifted her to carry her out of the cold concrete-walled cell. Meanwhile, Blade had found the keys and freed the other prisoners.

“They’ve got the hostage, and are on their way out. Let’s do the same,” Phoenix said, when she heard the report on her headset.

She and Matt retraced their steps toward the gate, Phoenix in the lead. Matt saw someone with a weapon in a doorway across the street.

“Get down!” Matt reached into his waistband, drew his pistol, and leveled it at the figure. In the fraction of a second before he squeezed the trigger, he realized the neighbor only held a portable phone. Shaking he put his handgun away and followed Phoenix out the gate.

They sped away in their car, as the sound of approaching sirens got louder and higher in pitch. The billionaire would be grateful to get his daughter back. After they paid the mercenaries, he and Phoenix would have enough money left over to marry and open the detective agency, they dreamed of.



Six months later Matt woke early. Tempting as it was to remain under the crisp cotton sheets next to his sleeping wife’s warm body, he forced himself to get up. He gazed back at the smooth ebony skin Phoenix’ sleeveless T-shirt left bare on her shoulder. They were a good match. Having seen enough of peoples’ weaknesses in her work, Phoenix had shed most of her unrealistic expectations.

Matt slipped into his loose khaki pants and black short-sleeved shirt, then walked five blocks to an isolated spot on the beach’s clean white sand. 6:00 a.m. The sky was beginning to glow orange near the eastern horizon, silhouetting Nova Angeles’ skyline. Soon the yellow sun, Tau Ceti, would rise bringing light and warmth to the white stone buildings. Matt heard a bird’s cry and looked up to see a brilliant flash of orange, green, and purple feathers. It was a rainbow skua. They had been common, before a thoughtless colonist smuggled seagull eggs to the planet Jonah. The gulls reproduced rapidly, competing with the skuas for food. A billion years of evolution had been short-circuited in just decades.

Matt stood with his knees slightly flexed, centered his concentration on his tan-tien, and began the slow fluid motions of Taiji. He shifted his weight to his left and raised his arms slowly while inhaling the fresh sea air. He circled his arms to his centerline and let them fall like pearls through oil. Matt stepped through movements with poetic names like Grasp the Bird’s Tail, Repulse Monkey, and Part the Wild Horse’s Mane. He wondered how many people were practicing the same motions at that very moment. It seemed like the form was a living breathing being that manifested through its practitioners. Instead of Matthew executing Wave Hands Like Clouds, Wave Hands performed Matthew. As he heard the voice of the waves and clatter of rocks from the water rushing back to the sea, Matt reflected on how his life had turned out. He finally felt at peace after years of struggle. The painful memories of his service in the interstellar war against the Ngaroc and his narrow escape from the massacre at Epsion Eridani seemed distant. He’d never thought he could be so happy. He loved his wife, lived in a beautiful location, and enjoyed his work.

After forty-five minutes Matt felt settled and ready to face the day. He thought of returning home for breakfast, but Phoenix was no doubt tired from last night’s stakeout. In order not to disturb her sleep, he stopped instead at a café near the detective office.

Matt gazed through a plate glass window at the cars crowding the street outside the café Traffic had gotten worse recently. A few years ago citizens had proposed banning automobiles altogether in order to keep Nova Angeles from becoming like its namesake on earth. Tau Ceti’s fledgling car industry donated heavily to city council candidates’ campaigns putting an end to such ideas. Matt sipped bitter hot chocolate and took a bite of his churro while examining the news tablet. He read the text on the thin piece of white plastic. The city council had defeated a plan to build a subway. Matt pressed the page-forward button. The strike that had shut down interstellar shipping looked like it would last a while longer.

Matt set the paper down, got up, and left a few colorful bank notes on the Formica table. The bell that hung on the café’s plate glass door rang when he exited to the sidewalk. When he turned toward the office, Matt felt a sense of dread. Something seemed to pull him in the opposite direction. Whether it was instinct or sixth sense, Matt got the impression he should return home. He convinced himself he was being irrational. Their rich client, Mrs. Stevens, didn’t like to be kept waiting. She would be coming by at 9:00 to pick up the report on Phoenix’s surveillance of her teenage daughter.

He walked the two blocks to the office building. Rather than wait for the elevator, Matt opened the painted steel door and took the stairs. He liked to think he could make his way in the world of greed and power that lay behind the polite society’s facade, much like he navigated the stairwell that hid behind the phony wood veneer of the lobby. Matt grasped the blue painted steel handrail and climbed a flight of stairs, his footsteps echoing from cinder block walls. He exited on the second floor and walked down the hallway to the office of the Jones - Diebold Detective Agency, unlocked the door, and found a white envelope on top of his gray sheet metal desk. The envelope contained the photos Phoenix took of Mrs. Stevens’ daughter in a variety of intimate poses with other women. These confirmed Mrs. Stevens’ suspicions about her daughter sexual orientation. Personally, Matt would have preferred to let the poor girl alone, but a job was a job. Private detectives with too much conscience didn’t remain in business long. Matt sat down to type a summary.

When he heard the door open, he looked up expecting to see Mrs. Stevens. It wasn’t her. Matt was shocked to recognize a tall man whose blond eyebrows were paler than his skin - Peter Skovgard.



“Peter! Fancy seeing you here,” Matt exclaimed.

“Hello Matthew.” Peter extended his hand. “Long time no see. Of course, figuring the effects of time dilation, maybe it hasn’t been that long after all.”

The tall Swede resembled a harmless college professor in his tan sports jacket with elbow patches.

“What brings you to Tau Ceti?” Matt asked.

“Unfinished business, having to do with the POWs from Ross 614. What I’m about to tell you is classified. Before we continue, I’ll need you to sign these forms.”

Peter placed his aluminum-walled briefcase on Matt’s desk and opened it. He removed an LCD tablet and handed it the Matt, who scrolled through the text. It was a confidentiality form like the one he had signed on the Ngaroc home world Dudjum. Matt signed with the stylus, pressed his thumb to the white pad beside the keyboard for identity verification, and returned the LCD tablet to Peter.

“So they’re finally going to release the records of the dead POWs, right?” asked Matt.

“The Ross 614 POWs weren’t dead.” Peter shook his head, looked at Matt sadly. “The Ngaroc infected them with a fatal virus and stored them in cold sleep. If the war went badly, they planned to release these prisoners, thus spreading the virus to earth and its colonies. Liaison Yarta admitted this to Michael Atwood. They agreed on a plan in which Lieutenant Colonel Tanaka would accompany a Ngaroc task force to Ross 614. He would pilot a shuttle to the space colony and confirm the identities of the POWs stored there. The task force was to destroy the colony, after the colonel transmitted his report. The risk of transmitting the virus was deemed to be too great if Tanaka returned, so he volunteered to die with the prisoners.”

Matt sat quietly, while anger climbed to his shoulders and neck. He had given his all to discover the POWs’ fates only to have his own people sign their death warrant.

“You bastard! You lied to me!”

“It was Atwood’s plan. In any case, you eliminated any chance I had to tell you the truth, when you cold-cocked him outside the conference room.”

“What do you want?”

“One of the POWs is still alive. I believe you knew Hanako Takahashi. Colonel Tanaka escaped with her. We believe they’re here on Jonah. I need you to help find them.”

Matt tried not to betray the uncertainty he felt about his reluctance. He had put his feelings of guilt about abandoning Hanako at Epsilon Eridani to rest and had made a life for himself. He didn’t want to go chasing her once more.

“So you’re going to kill them too? No offense, Peter, but I don’t want any part of this. I don’t trust you. I don’t want to work with you.”

Peter took some photos from his briefcase. He laid the first on Matt’s desk. The young woman pictured appeared healthy. She had shining dark eyes, short sleek black hair, and glowing olive skin.

“This is one of the Ngaroc test subjects. The virus remains latent for ten years. During that time the patient appears perfectly healthy. In the last few months of life, the virus becomes contagious.”

Skovgrad placed another photo on Matt’s desk. It was hard to tell that she was the same woman. Her leaden skin had shriveled around her skull. Blood oozed from the corners of her sunken eyes.

“The patient gets chills and feels dizzy. Her joints ache, and she might think she has the flu. The virus destroys the internal organs. Just eats them away. The patient bleeds through her skin, loses consciousness, and dies in a few days. As far as we know, it’s always fatal. There’s no known vaccine or cure.”

Peter laid more pictures of dead test subjects, men and women of all races, on Matt’s desk. “If we don’t find Colonel Tanaka and Private Takahashi soon, human life will cease to exist on Jonah. It’ll make the Black Plague look like a picnic. Who knows where else it’ll spread, Earth maybe. I know we lied to you Matt, but humanity needs your help.”

Matthew searched hard for a convincing excuse not to help, but the pictures haunted him. He could not refuse.



Ross 614 System - Twelve Years Earlier

Ichiro Tanaka placed the patch on his arm before zipping his khaki coveralls. The microprocessor on the bandage monitored his circadian rhythm to deliver medicine to his bloodstream at the optimum times. It was the best the doctors could offer, but it wasn’t good enough. The numbness and palsy that had been held in check for so long had returned. Tanaka held out his hand. It used to be rock steady. Now he couldn’t stop the tremors, a latent effect of Whiz Kid poisoning.

During the war he had taken part in an experiment. The military had developed a drug that speeded reaction time. Tanaka was eager to try it, since a fraction of a second could mean the difference between life and death in a dogfight. He never thought he’d have a problem, until his overdose. He had been leading a fighter wing in the skies of Wolf 359’s third planet, when he lost control of his limbs. Somehow Tanaka managed to eject. Search and Rescue found him and took him to a forward hospital. The doctors saved him from paralysis but couldn’t salvage his flying career. His reactions were too erratic. Tanaka’s superiors transferred him to military intelligence, where he used his combat experience to evaluate captured Ngaroc aircraft.

Tanaka knew this was a suicide mission, but he volunteered anyway. It was only a matter of time before the drugs failed, and he lost control of his body. He preferred a soldier’s death to slowly wasting away in a wheelchair.

The trip to Ross 614 had been uneventful. Peter Skovgard accompanied him aboard Endeavor and delivered a full briefing. Upon arrival Endeavor and its escorting Ngaroc starship took up station by the three-mile long metallic cylinder that constituted the space colony. The Ngaroc starship’s commander radioed orders to the colony’s crew. They were to cooperate fully with Colonel Tanaka.

Tanaka tied on a white headband as a symbol of his determination and made his way to Endeavor’s shuttle bay. When he was just outside the doorway, he overhead a conversation. “Captain says he should take one of the maintenance pods. Let’s give him Number 4. Its propulsion system needs an overhaul. Might as well save ourselves some work, since it won’t be coming back. I wonder who’s going to get his bunk.”

Tanaka seethed. Like most Japanese, he didn’t appreciate sarcasm. He contained his rage by waiting in the hallway for a few moments, then stepped around the corner his emotions hidden behind a well-practiced mask of indifference.

Two crewmen, wearing interstellar navy deep-blue jumpsuits, sat in a small office that’s window afforded a view of the shuttle bay. Both stood and saluted, when Tanaka entered.

“Right this way, sir. We have your vehicle prepared.” One of the crewmen motioned the colonel toward the shuttle bay.

Tanaka recognized the voice. He studied the crewman for a moment, making it a point to remember the crewman’s face: cowlick, red hair, and ears that stuck out too far. Tanaka turned and entered the shuttle bay.

Endeavor’s shuttle bay was a huge white room illuminated by harsh neon lights. It contained two craft capable of atmospheric reentry, as well as several spherical service pods used for external repairs. Evidently Tanaka would pilot one of these to the space colony.

Colonel Tanaka nodded to the crewmen, who escorted him to his craft. He entered, sealed the pod’s hatch, and strapped himself into the pilot’s chair. Escaping air hissed as the shuttle bay depressurized. The sound ceased in a few seconds, and the shuttle bay doors opened to the blackness of space. A moveable platform conveyed Tanaka’s craft outside Endeavor’s hull.

Tanaka pulled a lever to release his pod from the platform. He fired the small maneuvering rockets, propelling his craft into the emptiness of space. Dwarfed by the enormous silence that enveloped him, Tanaka heard only his own breathing. The deathly quiet screamed his insignificance. The pod moved slowly toward the giant silver cylinder that hung above reflecting red light from Ross’ two suns. The colony resembled a giant ruby set among thousands of tiny diamonds gleaming on a black velvet background.

Tanaka approached along the cylinder’s axis, firing his thrusters to match his craft’s spin to the colony’s slow rotation. A large door opened at the cylinder’s base. He piloted his craft through the door into the dimly lit docking bay. Two Ngaroc in white spacesuits motioned him, maneuvered the pod to a platform, and secured it. The doors closed slowly, and Tanaka heard the hiss of air pressurizing the bay. He looked around the room. Several Ngaroc maintenance pods were docked inside. One delta-shaped vehicle drew his attention. Its flat-black radar-absorbent finish seemed to suck light from the room. Tanaka let out a low whistle as he admired the sleek unarmed interstellar transport. Humans had code-named these small swift craft “Twister” during the war. The Ngaroc used them to carry generals and high-ranking officials.

The Ngaroc deck hands gestured for Tanaka to open the pod’s hatch. He paused for a moment, knowing there would be no going back once he unsealed the passageway. He took a breath, exhaled slowly, then turned the latch.

Tanaka slung his backpack over his shoulder, stepped out of the pod, and followed the deck hands, who led him out of the shuttle bay. He pulled himself along, hand-over-hand, behind his guides, grasping the handrails to keep from floating off in the weightlessness at the cylinder’s axis. They arrived at a bank of elevators. Each of these traveled along a different radius. After a few minutes the door to one opened, and the three entered. The Ngaroc did not share the human compunction about staring in an elevator. Both gawked at Tanaka and made him uncomfortable. Tanaka felt growing resistance in his legs as the colony’s artificial gravity increased the further they descended.

Finally the elevator bumped to a stop, and the doors slid open. Tanaka followed his guides out into the panorama that spread before him. He stood on the inner surface of a cylinder. The ground curved gently upward to his side and formed an arc that circled a mile over his head. Red light from the suns entered through huge windows and was focused by long parabolic mirrors on fields of plants that seemed to hang from the walls and roof. Mechanical robot drones moved through the fields. Tanaka knew these would not fall, but couldn’t control his anxiety at having tons of unsecured metal directly overhead.

He followed his escorts into the small white building that housed the lead Ngaroc’s office. The commanding officer dismissed Tanaka’s escorts, held a black box to his throat, and said, “I’ve been ordered to cooperate with your investigation. What do you require?”

“I need access to the human prisoners to collect fingerprints and DNA samples. It may take a while, so I will also need a place to stay.”

The CO spoke into a phone at a frequency too high for Tanaka to hear. A few minutes later a Ngaroc female wearing a black headset entered. Like most Ngaroc females this one was shorter than the males. Tanaka wondered whether the bald spot on her forehead was hereditary or due to some medical condition.

“Corporal Chambda will see to your needs,” said the CO.

The Ngaroc officer dismissed Corporal Chambda and Colonel Tanaka.

“The enclosure that houses the prisoners is about a kilometer away. We can drive,” Chambda said.

She led Tanaka to a small electric cart. They drove along a roadway occasionally passing other carts. Corporal Chambda stopped in front of a pale green corrugated metal warehouse.

“They’re in here,” she said.

Fluorescent lights illuminated hundreds of white, coffin-sized cryo-couches inside the warehouse. Each had a glass window that revealed its occupant’s face.

“You may open the door to each couch for a few minutes without compromising the prisoner’s suspended animation,” Chambda said. “That should allow you enough time to collect your samples.”

A black man’s face showed through its frosty glass of the first container. Tanaka set his rucksack beside it. He removed a notebook computer, portable DNA analyzer, and several white fingerprint cards. The colonel found the latch and swung the door open. He pressed each of the sleeping soldier’s fingertips to the card and fed it into the computer. The prints matched those of Captain Frank Dalton, one of the missing POWs. The computer displayed a photo that looked like the man in the capsule. After putting on latex gloves, Tanaka snipped a bit of the man’s hair, placed it in the DNA analyzer, and closed the cryo-couch’s lid. After five minutes, the analyzer confirmed the DNA belonged to Captain Dalton. One missing POW accounted for. Three hundred ninety-seven to go.

Colonel Tanaka identified thirty-four prisoners in four hours then uploaded his results to Endeavor.

“I need something to eat and drink,” He told Corporal Chambda. “I have some food on board my shuttle.”

“I’ll take you back if you wish, but we could also eat at our canteen. I think you’ll find our food palatable.”

They drove to the Ngaroc mess hall, entered, took plastic trays, and joined the cafeteria line. Tanaka was surprised, when he was given two slices of pizza.

“We started serving pizza to make the prisoners feel at home, then we kind of got hooked on it ourselves,” Corporal Chambda explained.

He followed her to one of the long gray linoleum tables and sat across from her on the attached bench.

Tanaka drew curious stares from the half dozen Ngaroc eating at the time. The pizza wasn’t bad. Its fishy tasting TVP sausage was a bit unusual but appealed to his love for sushi. He wondered how it would be with a bit of wasabi Corporal Chambda’s statement puzzled him.

“Why would you make pizza for prisoners, who are in suspended animation?” Tanaka asked.

“Periodically we wake them to verify they’re suffering no harmful side-effects from prolonged cold sleep.”

“Are any awake now?”

“One is. Do you wish to see her now, or would you prefer to wait?”

Tanaka’s first reaction was to let the prisoner wait. It seemed kinder not to get the woman’s hopes up only to leave her trapped in her cell for days. He thought a bit then decided her interview might help his investigation.

“Take me to her,” he said.

They drove to a small thick-walled building. When Corporal Chambda rang the buzzer, a Ngaroc guard peered through the reinforced glass window in the steel door before letting them in. The guard led them down a hallway and opened the door to the prisoner’s cell.

“Hanako, there’s someone here to see you,” Corporal Chambda called into the room.

She waited outside with the guard, while Tanaka stepped into the room.

The small room’s concrete walls had been painted high-gloss yellow. An Asian woman sat atop the dark gray blanket on the single bunk. She wore olive drab trousers with legs cutoff below the knee, where her legs were missing. The woman turned her head toward him. Her features startled Tanaka. She resembled Hatsu Takahashi, who he’d met skiing in the Japanese Alps. Hatsu had been a good match for the young pilot. She was fearless on the slopes and had even tried out for the women’s Olympic downhill team. They’d had a brief affair, before he shipped out and lost contact.

“What’s your name?” Tanaka asked.

“Pfc. Hanako Takahashi.”

A daughter? Tanaka struggled not to betray his shock. He had a daughter! Why did he have to find her now when he had a duty to perform and only days to live?

“Thank you.” Hanako shifted her body toward him. “I thought everyone had forgotten us, but you’ve finally come. God, I must look a mess.” She adjusted the purple yarn that held her long black hair in a ponytail and continued. “I can’t wait to get back home. Has the Bay Area changed much? How long has the war been over, a few months?”

“The war’s been over for twenty-seven years.”

“Twenty-seven years? But why haven’t they let us go?” Hanako looked puzzled as she searched for clues in Tanaka’s expression. The truth slowly dawned on her. Saucer-eyed she stared at him. “We’re never going home, are we?”

“Of course we are. I’m here to take you back.”

“Will I be court-martialed for collaborating?”

Hanako wrinkled the skin between her big brown eyes. Tears rolled down her cheeks. Tanaka sat beside Hanako, held her, and kissed her on the forehead.

“Of course not,” he said. “They know you’ve suffered enough. Everything’s forgiven.”

Tanaka asked himself who was more worthy of life, his daughter, who had endured years of hardship, or the spoiled ungrateful bureaucrats who ordered her death. He had prepared to eliminate the POWs, but couldn’t murder his own child. Tanaka made the hardest decision he ever made in his life. Screw his duty! He would save his daughter.



Peter had booked Matt on a 1:00 p.m. flight from NAX to Abilene, so Matthew returned home to pack. Matt couldn’t avoid waking Phoenix, since he’d stored his suitcase in the bedroom closet. She lay on her left side, her unruly tangle of frizzy black hair tucked under the white down comforter she had pulled to her chin. Matt couldn’t resist bending over and placing his lips on the tiny bit of her flesh that was uncovered. In this case he happened to smooch the side of Phoenix’s nose. She rewarded him with a smile as big as Montana. Phoenix yawned, stretched her arms over her head, and wrapped them around Matthew’s neck, drawing him to her. She kissed him full on the mouth. Lulled by Phoenix’s warm soft embrace, Matt closed his eyes. Then he felt cold steel encircle his wrist and heard the click of Phoenix fastening the handcuff to the brass bed’s frame.

“C’mon Phoenix, I don’t have time for this right now.”

“Are you resisting arrest?”

“No, officer,” Matt replied reluctantly.

“We can either do this the easy way or the hard way. What’s it gonna be?”

Matt opted for the easy way. The quarter inch of stubble under her arms showed when Phoenix reached overhead removing her sweatshirt to expose full breasts with dark brown aureoles. Time blended into a delightful blur of erotic images: the warm wet feel of her lips on Matt’s scarred shoulder, slipping his fingers under the waistband of her white cotton panties, how she caught her lip between her teeth, beads of perspiration on her legs, and making love with his shirt hung on the handcuff chain that secured his arm to the bed frame. Yet even when Matt was inside Phoenix, the warmth of her skin made him long for Phoenix. When he came Phoenix squeezed him tightly and whispered, “Yeah.”

She unlocked Matt’s manacled arm and kissed the palm of his hand. They lay naked together basking in the pleasant glow that comes after sex. Matt rested his head on Phoenix’ shoulder while she held him close wrapping warm dark arms and legs around his pale body. Matt drifted into an almost narcotic sleep. He woke fifteen minutes later and glanced at the clock. It was 10:00. He needed to start packing.

“I’ve got to go to Abilene for a few days,” Matt said.

He got out of bed, slipped on his pants, and dragged his overnight bag out of the closet. Matt pulled shirts off their hangers.

“What’s up?” Phoenix asked.

“I’ve got a case.”

“Why didn’t you talk to me before taking it? We’re supposed to be partners after all.”

“It’s a government thing. They didn’t give me a lot of choice.”

“Oh Matthew, you always have a choice. You’re not digging up the POW thing again, are you? You did all you could for them. Why can’t you see that?”

“I can’t discuss it, Phoenix, but it’s important.”

“They always say that to get people to do their dirty work, and they always shaft them. Use your head, Matthew. How come the world never gets any better after those heroes’ sacrifices? Why don’t you let the government screw someone else over for a change?”

“I’ve got to do this, Phoenix.”

“What about us? Did you stop to think that I might not want you to risk your life? Oh, what’s the use? Go ahead! If our marriage means so little to you, just go ahead!”

“Can’t you see that the world doesn’t revolve around you? Lots of people could die! Can’t you get that through your thick head?” Matt screamed.

Phoenix got out of bed. Her breasts swayed, as she walked to the drawer and retrieved the key to the home armory. She stepped out of the bedroom and returned moments later carrying a plastic case, which she tossed on the bed.

“At least take this,” she said.

Matt opened it. The case contained a flechette pistol and several ammunition clips. Since the weapon was made of fiberglass, the airport x-ray wouldn’t detect it.

“Great. Give an angry man a gun.” Matt closed the lid and placed pistol case in his overnight bag. Phoenix didn’t respond, leaving Matt to pack in strained silence.



Tanaka sat on the bed and held Hanako. Her warm tears wet his shoulder. He longed to tell her he was her father, but hesitated. Telling her now would be too much of a shock and could lead to recriminations about his absence during her childhood. They didn’t have time for these, if they wanted to get out of here alive. He would wait.

Tanaka knew the Twister in the shuttle bay was the key to their escape. He could fly it. Assuming he slipped past Endeavor and its escort, what would he do next? He and Hanako could search for a habitable deserted planet, where they could spend the rest of their lives. Finding such a place would be difficult. Even if they found one, what would they do for food? Would they introduce the virus into the planet’s ecosystem? If so, they might leave a plague waiting to infect the next humans to set foot on the world.

There had to be another way, but what could it be? Tanaka recalled the viral encephalitis he had contracted when he was a child. He had never been so close to death. His head and body ached with unbelievable pain. Tanaka would have done anything to stop it. Yet it continued despite his doctors best efforts to cure him. Obaa-san (his grandmother) told him to pray to Yakushi-nyorai (the Medicine Buddha). He had done so and had gotten better. Tanaka had read of the temple Yakushi-ji on Tau Ceti’s second planet, Jonah. The statue on its altar had been built in Japan in 800 AD. Buddhist faithful on earth had donated it to the temple on Jonah. The figure was said to be responsible for several remarkable cures.

Tanaka settled on a plan. They would hijack the Twister and fly it to Jonah, where they would contact the news media from orbit. The government would be too embarrassed to kill them, once their plight became known. Somehow they would arrange to visit Yakushi-ji. Perhaps they could obtain isolation suits in orbit. Surely the Medicine Buddha would show compassion for someone as worthy as Hanako. After the visit to the temple they would return to quarantine in orbit. If it was the Buddha’s will that they die, so be it. At least Tanaka would have done all he could to save Hanako’s life.

Tanaka called to Corporal Chambda in the hallway. The Ngaroc entered Hanako’s cell.

“This woman has revealed important information,” Tanaka said. “I need to return to Endeavor with her. We will require two spacesuits to isolate us from Endeavor’s crew and ensure we do not transmit the virus to them.”

Corporal Chambda brought a wheelchair, which she maneuvered next to the bed. Tanaka moved to help Hanako into the chair.

“I can do it!” snapped Hanako.

She lifted her body from the bed with trembling arms then lowered herself over the edge into the chair. Tanaka followed as Corporal Chambda pushed the wheelchair outside to the electric cart. Hanako struggled into the front seat. Corporal Chambda folded the wheelchair and stowed it in back. They drove to the elevator.

Corporal Chambda stopped the cart and helped Hanako out of the front seat and into the wheelchair. The three entered the elevator and ascended to the cylinder’s axis. Colonel Tanaka didn’t know whether the corporal could read human facial expressions. Nevertheless, he kept his face blank so as not to betray his racing thoughts. Once they reached their destination, Corporal Chambda led the humans to a storage area, where empty white spacesuits stood like phantoms next to the walls. Tanaka found one in his size. He pulled it from its Velcro restraints and held it in front of his body. The torso was a bit too long and the legs too short, but it would do. Finding a suit for Hanako was easier, since she did not have to worry about fitting her legs. It was a bit awkward getting into the suits in the weightlessness at the space colony’s axis. Eventually Tanaka and Hanako managed to dress themselves.

They met Corporal Chambda in the hallway. “I’ve arranged for the dock workers to cycle the air lock for you,” she said. “I suppose I’ll see you again. If not, it’s been pleasant working with you.”

Chambda returned to the elevator that would take her back to the surface.

Carrying her Lexan helmet, Hanako followed Tanaka to the maintenance pod. Even though she was crippled in gravity, she maneuvered well in weightlessness. Once they were inside, he closed the hatch.

“Strap yourself into the passenger seat and seal your helmet,” said Tanaka. “Be prepared for a sudden decompression. When I give the signal, follow me to the delta-shaped Ngaroc vessel. Once inside, wait for the cabin to pressurize, then remove your helmet and strap yourself into the acceleration couch.”

“What’s going on? Why do we have to transfer?”

Tanaka paused to ponder what he could say to get her cooperation. “We don’t have much time to discuss it. My superiors sold you out. They’re saying you’re all dead. I need to return you to human space to prove you’re alive, so the rest of the prisoners can be saved. Do what I say, if you want to get out of here.”

Tanaka cinched his seat belt tightly and radioed Endeavor.

“This is Colonel Tanaka. Something strange is going on here. The Ngaroc seem upset. I can’t talk now, but will call back later. Tanaka out.”

He broke contact and locked his helmet in place. Tanaka turned the red arming handle for the hatch’s explosive bolts, then waited with his finger poised over the trigger. Air hissed out of the shuttle bay. The two Ngaroc dockworkers approached the pod to maneuver it free from its restraints. Tanaka pointed to the hatch. One of the Ngaroc looked puzzled, and Tanaka pointed once more. When the Ngaroc pulled himself over to investigate, Tanaka jammed his finger down on the trigger, blowing the hatch open. The pod’s atmosphere rushed through the opening and accelerated the door like a cannon shell. It slammed into the unsuspecting Ngaroc, smashing bones and bursting arteries. The crushed body floated lifeless near the wall.

Meanwhile Tanaka gripped the other worker by the throat with one of the pod’s robot arms, while tearing the worker’s spacesuit with the other. His body writhed and then hung limp from the mechanical arm. Within seconds Tanaka was out of his seat leading Hanako to the Twister docked twenty feet away.

Tanaka knew they didn’t have much time before the rest of the Ngaroc came to investigate. He muttered, “Come on! Come on,” while the airlock on the Twister cycled. Finally the square light glowed and the outer hatch opened. Tanaka shoved Hanako inside and followed, stabbing the button that closed the outer door. They waited for more precious seconds, while the air lock pressurized to match the atmosphere inside the Twister.

When the airlock’s interior door opened, Tanaka rushed to the pilot’s couch, strapped himself in, and tore off his helmet. He familiarized himself with the Ngaroc controls, while Hanako found a seat.

“Once you’ve strapped yourself in, hit the triangular switch on the right armrest,” Tanaka said. “This will lower the couch’s cover. The couch will fill with fluid to protect you from the acceleration. The fluid must enter your lungs. When it covers your mouth, exhale and breathe it in. It’s oxygenated, so you won’t smother.”

Tanaka pushed the switch on his armrest. The cover extended over his couch and the enclosure filled with liquid. Tanaka tried not to panic, when the liquid covered his face. He held his breath as long as he could. Finally he fought back his gag reflex, forced himself to let go of the stale air in his lungs, and took a deep breath of the liquid. His body shuddered before Tanaka found that he could indeed continue breathing.

Tanaka fired the maneuvering rockets and eased his craft out of the shuttle bay, then maneuvered slowly past Endeavor toward the Ngaroc starship. He doubted that Endeavor would risk an interstellar incident by firing on at his vessel, especially after his distracting radio message. Nevertheless, he was encouraged to see Endeavor still rotated to preserve its artificial gravity. Endeavor’s rotation would complicate its gunners’ firing solutions. They would have to stop its spin to aim their lasers accurately. That would buy him precious seconds.

The immediate danger was the Ngaroc escort. If the personnel on board the colony had tipped them off, the escort would open fire any second. Tanaka set a course past it. The wedge-shaped Twister floated slowly by the white spherical escort, its navigation lights blinking. Tanaka’s prayed for another few seconds.

It wasn’t quite true that the Twister was unarmed. It had one powerful weapon, its fusion drive. Once the Twister passed the Ngaroc escort, Tanaka fired his maneuvering rockets rotating the Twister so its exhaust faced the Ngaroc ship. He kicked in the fusion drive and blasted the escort with a plume of hot radioactive plasma. The exhaust hit the spherical starship with the force of a hydrogen bomb, breaking it to a cloud of radioactive debris. The Twister’s powerful acceleration pressed the couches hard against their supports, but the buoyant force of the fluid inside kept its passengers safe.

Tanaka fingered the controls on his armrests to preprogram the autopilot for random evasive maneuvers. He hoped surprise and confusion would delay Endeavor’s shooting. After a minute the finite speed of light would make it impossible for Endeavor’s laser gunners to track the Twister’s zigzag motions. By the time they aimed at what they saw, the Twister would already be elsewhere. Due to its superior acceleration the Twister could then easily outrun its pursuer.

Still, a minute was a long time. How long before Endeavor’s captain overcame his confusion, stopped his ship’s spin, and began shooting? Tanaka pointed his exhaust in Endeavor’s direction hoping plasma from his fusion drive would attenuate any laser pulses fired his way. He watched the clock. Starting the evasion sequence too soon would immediately draw Endeavor’s fire. Yet if he waited too long, the Terran starship would make quick work of him. It was a desperate gamble. 20 seconds - Tanaka began the evasion sequence, released chaff, and launched several decoys.

Endeavor fired a salvo of heat-seeking missiles. Most shot wide. However, one locked on to one of the decoys. On interception it exploded filling space with light and pieces of metal that interfered with Endeavor’s long-range sensors.

Endeavor’s lasers filled the heavens in a futile attempt to stop the fleeing spacecraft, but by now it was too late. The Terran ship fired missiles and lasers at the space colony, vaporizing it before she lit her fusion drive in a desperate effort to follow the Twister to its destination..

When the Twister reached critical velocity, Tanaka activated the magneto-hydrodynamic funnel that fed interstellar gas into the hungry fusion engines of its Bussard ramjet. He set a course toward Tau Ceti. Tanaka, Hanako, and the deadly virus they carried would arrive in twelve years.



After their escape Tanaka drained the liquid from their couches, allowing he and Hanako to breathe air once again. He doubted they’d need to use the couches for the remainder of the voyage. All they had to do now was wait.

Tanaka’s throat ached from the tubing that had sucked the fluid from his lungs. He and Hanako had stripped off the Ngaroc spacesuits as well as their wet clothing. While their clothes dried, they sat wrapped in blankets. Hanako had pulled hers over her head, so she looked like a Bedouin. The need to tell her she was his daughter nagged at Tanaka. Even if telling her at the space colony would have been too much of a shock, it wasn’t true anymore. He felt so awkward, especially since he hadn’t been there to protect her when she was a child. Why would she want to speak to such a miserable father? Still, he had to do it. The longer he waited, the worse it would get. Tanaka steeled himself

“Hanako, is your mother’s name Hatsu by any chance?” he stammered.

“Yes, how did you know?”

“I knew her in Japan. We met skiing in Nagano. You look just like her.”

“What was she like, when she was young?”

Tanaka took on a wistful look as he gazed up at the ceiling. “Your mother, she was fearless - a very aggressive skier, who loved speed. I was a cocky young pilot on leave. She put me to shame on the slopes.” Tanaka paused for a moment. “Strong legs. She had very strong legs.”

“You loved her, didn’t you?”

“Yes, before I went off to war. Tell me, what is your birthdate?”

“May 3, 2079”

That was eighteen months after he left. Tanaka didn’t know whether to be relieved or disappointed. Should he save her now that he knew she wasn’t his child? Probably so. Changing plans once he was committed went against Tanaka’s training. To attain victory a warrior must remain single-minded.

After a long silence Hanako added, “You thought I was your…”

“No… Maybe. I thought you might have been, but it’s not so. The timing’s all wrong.”

“Is that the only reason you rescued me, because you thought I was your daughter?”

“Of course not,” Tanaka replied, although he wasn’t totally sure he believed it. He changed the subject, “Hey, I found some rations. They’re not too tasty, but they’ll keep us alive. Why don’t I fix us some?”

He turned away, finding privacy in the cramped cabin by busying himself with the food.



Lieutenant JG Steven Rothrock spit into his facemask then reached over the side of the Zodiac to rinse it in the Matsyan Ocean. He fitted it over his face and secured it by tightening the rubber straps. Rothrock clamped his SCUBA gear’s mouthpiece between his teeth and blew to clear it of seawater. He leaned back over the side and fell into the water with a splash. Rothrock oriented himself, then descended, kicking toward the giant spherical metal frame he’d helped build. The only sound he heard was the periodic explosion of bubbles, when he exhaled.

As a member of the interstellar navy’s construction battalion, Lieutenant Rothrock was more accustomed to building in space than in the open ocean. The feeling of weightlessness was the same, but he wasn’t used to dealing with currents or watching for whisker sharks.

Lieutenant Rothrock was tired from working sixteen-hour days to get the one-kilometer diameter sphere built on schedule. To make matters worse, the specs required signals to arrive at five hundred locations on its surface simultaneously to within a fraction of a nanosecond. He was sick of government projects. Bureaucrats delay for months due to inefficiency, then tell you to get the job done yesterday. At least his CO had promised him two weeks’ leave after he finished the job. He was taking one last look before getting back to Nova Angeles. Rothrock looked forward to spending his leave with Monica, the hot blonde bartender he’d met before getting called away.

Rothrock could only dive to the top of the sphere using SCUBA gear. To go deeper he would need a small submarine, like those placing nuclear charges on the sphere’s surface. He wondered why anyone would want to make such a bang in the middle of the ocean. At least it would be far from civilization, so no one would be hurt.

Lieutenant Rothrock was mistaken. He didn’t know that the nuclear bombs’ detonation would form an explosive lens that would compress the water inside the sphere to the size of a proton and create a mini black hole. Once formed it would suck up the oceans and continue feeding on matter, until it devoured Jonah, its inhabitants, and all traces of the Ngaroc virus. Neither did Lieutenant Rothrock know that the detonator’s timer would be triggered, once all the nuclear charges were placed. The planet would be destroyed in two weeks, unless Hanako Takahashi and Colonel Tanaka were found.



Tanaka’s improvised plan disintegrated as soon as the Twister established orbit around Jonah. The blast from the decoy’s destruction had ripped away his antenna, leaving him unable to contact the planet’s news media. To make matters worse a planetary defense corvette boosted into orbit and was hot on his tail. The situation looked bleak.

Tanaka couldn’t tell whether they tried to hail him, before they started shooting.

”Get in the escape pod,” he ordered.

He fired his fusion drive, kicking the Twister into a higher slower orbit. Once the corvette passed underneath, Tanaka set the Twister on a collision course and rushed to the escape pod. He clanged the hatch shut and pulled the striped lever jettisoning the survival vehicle. They were gone with a whoosh, descending toward Jonah’s sparsely populated southern continent.

The corvette’s captain pulled six g’s, maneuvering hard to port to avoid impact with the onrushing Twister. Once they were clear, the angry crew took revenge on the Ngaroc vessel by lancing it with battle lasers. It exploded filling space with shards of metal, plasteel, and other debris. The distraction worked to Tanaka’s advantage, occupying the corvette’s crew long enough for the escape pod to get away.

Hanako and Tanaka never saw what happened. Friction from the atmosphere heated and ionized the escape pod’s ablative heat shield, making the air outside the window glow an opaque pink. When the air outside got thick enough to slow the vehicle, its parachute deployed. Tanaka scanned the barren ground below and noticed a highway. He examined the pod’s survival supplies during the slow descent to the desert floor. There was water, food, an alien first aid kit, and a small bag of jewels. He also found a pistol with a grip that fit Ngaroc hands better than his.

The pod hit the ground with a sudden jolt. Its passengers were shaken but unhurt. The white parachute drifted slowly down and settled on top of the pod. Tanaka opened the hatch and stepped out to clear away the nylon parasol. He helped Hanako from the pod. How could he get her out of here? He scanned the tan sand and clumps of greenish-gray sagebrush that stretched to the horizon. Tanaka reckoned the highway was about fifteen miles to the south. Hanako couldn’t walk. Even if they had a wheelchair, its wheels would get bogged down in the soft sand. Still, they had to move quickly. Tanaka was certain the corvette had radioed their position to the local authorities. He was about to hoist Hanako into a fireman’s carry, when he heard the thump and felt the vibrations of the approaching choppers. It looked like it was all over. Tanaka fingered the Ngaroc pistol and prepared to make his last stand.



“What do you mean they let them go?” demanded Matt.

He, Peter, and a half dozen other men from the Public Security Bureau sat around a blond wood table in a windowless room. The plane trip to Abilene had left him short-tempered. He had shared a seat in coach with a fat guy, who had a racking cough and an appalling lack of personal hygiene. Peter rode first class. Matt had a splitting headache, because he hadn’t had the change to rent an oxygen mask on the plane. Once they arrived, they rushed to the Interstellar Federation Building without stopping for lunch.

“The planetary forces fired on Tanaka’s vessel, because it was Ngaroc,” Peter replied. “They still hold a grudge over Tau Ceti’s occupation during the war. The ground forces in the south didn’t expect the survivors to be human, let alone escapees from a POW camp. They treated Private Takahashi and Colonel Tanaka like heroes, even bought them first class tickets on a flight north.”

“You didn’t radio ahead with a warning?”

“We felt it best to keep the virus secret to avoid panic. I’ll let Special Agent Anderson fill you in on the manhunt’s progress.”

Special Agent Stuart Anderson’s close-cropped hair, brown sports jacket, white socks, and striped tie made him unremarkable to look at. Matt guessed he was in his mid-twenties. The agent stood by the white board in the front of the room.

“Thank you, Mr. Skovgard. As you know the fugitives flew to Port Satisfaction. Nansen Air uses it as their hub city in the north. Now, a man with a woman in a wheelchair is bound to draw attention. If I were Colonel Tanaka, I’d be anxious to blend in. We interviewed doctors, hospitals, and medical supply houses to see if anyone matching the fugitives’ descriptions bought prosthetic limbs. We hit the jackpot. The owner of Progressive Biomechanics on Market Street said our subjects came in four days ago. He had to place a special order, which is due tomorrow. We’ve got the building under surveillance in case the couple shows.”

“I’d prefer to capture the fugitives alive, but we’ve got to stop them however we can,” Peter said, “Spilling blood increases the chance of spreading the virus. If you have to shoot, use your neural disrupters.”

“Couldn’t we set up a few snipers to pick them off from far away with a well-placed laser shot to the head?” asked Agent Anderson. “It’d cauterize the wound, so there wouldn’t be much bleeding. We’d have a better chance of stopping them.”

“We’ve been through this before,” answered Peter. “Use the neural disrupters. Matthew, I want you to be on hand in case anything unexpected happens. You know Private Takahashi. She’ll trust you, and you may be able to convince her to surrender. I’d like you to ride with Agent Malone and myself.”

A man with long brown hair hung to his shoulders and two days’ worth of stubble on his chin waved from the back row at Peter’s mention of his name.

“OK people,” Peter continued, “that’s all. Those of you on stakeout, go to your shifts. I’ll see the rest of you at 08:00.”



Peter drove Matt and Agent Malone to the stakeout the next morning. He parked their nondescript car behind the tan and blue Matsyan Telecomm repair van that served as the command center. Peter carried a pink cardboard box of donuts and several cups of coffee into the van, with Matt and Malone bringing up the rear.

Inside the van two tired agents monitored the surveillance video from the cameras located in and around the Progressive Biomechanics office. The male’s suit jacket hung on the back of his chair revealing the pistol he wore in a black Kevlar holster on his waist. His tie was loosened and the top button of his shirt open. The female agent’s powder blue pantsuit appeared neater than her partner’s clothing.

“No action last night.” She handed the headset to Peter.

Peter offered her a donut from the box. She accepted and bit into one. Powdered sugar stuck to the birthmark beside her mouth. She sipped coffee from a Styrofoam cup leaving red lipstick on the rim.

“No thanks. Toilet’s busted. My bladder’s about to burst.” Her partner waved away the coffee.

The night shift agents left, leaving the three newcomers alone in the van.

Peter put on the headset and checked in with the other units. He scanned the dozen video monitors arrayed in front of his desk and then transmitted, “Look’s like the coast is clear. Change shifts.”

One of the monitors showed the agents who had remained in the office overnight being replaced.

Agent Malone wore an olive drab military surplus coat that smelled of mildew and stale sweat. Matthew mentioned that he didn’t look like a PSB agent.

“I’ve been undercover,” was Malone’s reply.

Matt helped himself to a donut and offered the box to Agent Malone.

“I never eat before an engagement. Keeps my mind sharp,” Malone said. He took a black plastic pistol from his waist holster, ejected the battery clip, and touched the leads of a multi-meter to its copper terminals. “I never trust the power level meter on the weapon. Learned that the hard way, when I was in the Special Forces.” Malone jacked the battery pack back into the butt of his pistol and replaced the weapon in its holster. “Damn Mickey Mouse neural disrupters! They’re inaccurate and don’t have much range. Give me a good Smith & Wesson dye laser pistol any day. Hell, I’d even settle for an old-fashioned sawed-off shotgun. Still, the ND ought to be good enough to fry that slope and his gimp bitch. You ever see anybody get hit with one of these? Shuts down the nervous signals, so the victim is brain dead by the time he hits the ground. Body just lies twitching, while the bowels let go. Sure glad I won’t have to clean up that mess.”

Matt didn’t appreciate the comments, but kept quiet. Agent Malone looked like someone you didn’t mess with. Malone tore the lid from the donut box and wrote on the back with a magic marker, “Vet needs help. Please give what you can. God Bless!”

“Guess I’ll take up station,” he told Peter then climbed out the back door to panhandle near the Progressive Biomechanics office’s entrance.

Stakeouts are boring. It wasn’t Matt’s job to watch. He wished he’d brought a book. Matt limited his coffee intake. Peter didn’t want the team giving themselves away with too many trips to the bathroom. The plan was simple. Two PSB agents were stationed in the office. Several others loitered outside in various disguises. Once Hanako and Tanaka entered the office, the agents would converge with their neural disrupters drawn on the couple. Peter hoped the fugitives would surrender without a fight, once they saw they were outgunned and “buried in blue.” The agents would then place the couple in a special isolation van and whisk them to the level IV biohazard containment facility at Fort Benjamin Leary. The PSB probably wouldn’t need Matthew’s help. He was only there to aid identification and in case of the unexpected. But when did anything ever go according to plan?

Five minutes before Progressive Biomechanics’ closing time the agents on the swing shift arrived and stepped into the communications van. Peter turned away from his monitors.

“Look’s like they’re not gonna show.” Peter turned back and saw a yellow taxi pull up on monitor 3, which displayed the scene from the street in front of the office. “Wait a minute! This could be them.”

Matt held his breath, while Peter zoomed in on the cab. Colonel Tanaka exited the cab. His light gray jacket could cover a pistol. The driver, a heavy Latino in a long tan overcoat, got out, opened the trunk, and removed a collapsible wheelchair. He set it up and pushed it to the passenger side rear door.

“It’s them,” Peter spoke into the microphone on his headset. “Don’t approach, until I give the go ahead. Let’s try to take them, when Tanaka has his hands full.”

The driver opened the door and helped a dark-haired woman into the chair. She was thinner than he remembered, but Matt still recognized Hanako. He searched her face for a hint of the qualities that had made him love her, but Hanako’s expression appeared vacant; her eyes seemed hollow.

Rather than turn Hanako over to Tanaka, the driver pushed her toward the front door. Tanaka stayed behind for a moment and scanned up and down the sidewalk.

“Damned do-gooder!” Peter said. “OK everybody, wait for them to get inside before making your move.”

The three entered the front door. Progressive Biomechanics’ office was separated into two parts, a store to the left and a waiting room to the right. The store catered to those too poor to afford the latest prosthetics. Wheelchairs parked in the aisles. Shelves held aluminum walkers and white toilet seats. The waiting room was a bit more cheerful, having several colorful chairs arranged around a table upon which lay a few dozen magazines.

“May I help you?” the man behind the counter asked.

“We’re here to pick up my wife’s prosthetic legs. The name’s Suzuki,” Tanaka replied.

“Please wait a moment. I’ll see if Bob’s available to do her fitting.”

The driver pushed Hanako into the waiting room, just as a physical therapist wearing pink sweats escorted a mother and her eight-year-old son from the back. The therapist was a trim woman with chestnut hair, clear skin, and brown eyes. Her black plastic nametag read “Theresa.”

“I don’t know how to thank you,” the mother said. “Jimmy’s artificial arm is almost as good as the real thing.”

“It’s important for him to do plenty of movement, so the on-board microprocessors can get lots of feedback,” replied Theresa. “Once this happens, he’ll become more agile. We can also adjust the pigment, so it blends in a bit more with his skin tone.” She turned to the boy. “I’ll see you next Tuesday, Jimmy. Don’t forget to do your exercises.” She took a sheet of paper from her clipboard and handed it to the boy.

Tanaka caught sight of a movement on the street through the plate glass window. Something seemed wrong. When two large muscular men appeared behind the counter, Tanaka’s martial reflexes kicked into action. He didn’t wait for an explanation. Instead he drew his pair of flechette pistols: one in each hand, and fired at the PSB agents behind the counter. When they intercepted their targets, the rocket powered needles sounded like a cluster of firecrackers. Tanaka blew a six-inch hole in the first agent’s chest. The second caught a blast in the face. Blood stained the wall behind where they had stood. The mother screamed and fainted.

The taxi driver shoved Hanako further into the waiting room out of the line of fire. Tanaka pivoted into a crouch and fired a salvo through the front door, as Special Agent Rachel Ferguson was about to step through. She pulled back at the last instant, just in time to avoid a face full of exploding needles and broken glass.

Tanaka grabbed Theresa around the neck and held his pistol to her temple.

“Clear the street or the woman dies!” he yelled.

Peter and Matthew raced from the van and took cover behind a car. Matt crouched behind the trunk and gasped for air, while his heart thudded at full speed in his chest.

Peter put the bullhorn to his mouth. “Colonel Tanaka, this is Peter Skovgard. Don’t do anything rash. Let’s talk this over.”

A shot came from inside the building.

“I’m not interested in talking,” screamed Tanaka. “The next shot goes into her head, unless you clear the street in three minutes.”

Matt took the bullhorn from Peter.

“Colonel Tanaka, Hanako, it’s Matt Diebold. I’m unarmed. I’m coming in. I just want to talk.”

Matt put the bullhorn down and walked slowly toward the front door with his hands away from his sides. With each step he felt more frightened. He wondered what he was doing and hoped no one could see him shaking. Matt entered the door.

“Hanako, I know how betrayed you must feel.” He spoke with a slow calm voice. “I suffered on Ganga, too. You’ve got to turn yourselves in. You just can’t infect everyone on this planet. Nobody’s gonna hurt you. They’ll take you to a containment facility, where you’ll get the best medical care. Colonel Tanaka, I know you don’t want to hurt that woman. You’re a soldier and an honorable man. Why don’t you put the guns down?”

“Infection? Containment facility? What’s he talking about?” Hanako asked from the waiting room.

“Don’t trust him,” Tanaka said. “They were going to kill us before. Now they want to cover up their crime by preventing us from meeting the reporters.”

Still Matt could see Tanaka’s hesitation from the way he relaxed his grip on his weapons.

Matt began to think he might actually be able to pull this off, when Agent Malone burst through the door with his neural disrupter drawn. Tanaka dove for the floor the instant Malone squeezed off a shot. The neural beam painted Theresa, who fell to the linoleum in a death seizure. Tanaka rolled, trained both pistols on Malone, and fired several rounds at the undercover agent, whose body exploded in a spray of gore.

Aghast at the carnage, Matt crouched in the corner. He turned in time to see the taxi driver approach, but he was too late to stop the Latino’s rifle stock from striking his head. Matt saw a bright flash. Then everything went dark.



The sound of rollers woke Tanaka at 6:15 the morning after the massacre. He reached under his pillow for the pistol, rolled out of bed, padded to the motel room’s window, and lifted the edge of the curtain to peer outside. A fat blonde woman in purple skated past on roller blades. Tanaka let the curtain fall.

Hanako sat upright and alert on her twin bed. “What’s going on out there?” she whispered.

“Probably nothing. I’ll go investigate. Take my other pistol. Don’t let anyone other than me in.”

Tanaka stepped into his pants and pulled on a shirt, leaving it untucked to conceal the pistol tucked in his waistband. He walked out of the motel room into the bright desert morning and closed the door behind him. The fat woman skated past with a cheerful, “Good morning.”

Tanaka descended the stairs and crossed the parking lot to the lobby. He entered the dining room, sat at the counter, and asked for two orders of pancakes to go. While he waited, he scanned the headlines on the news tablet. On page three he saw a surveillance photo of himself from inside the Progressive Biomechanics office. The headline read, “Gunmen Sought in Hostage Shooting.” Tanaka feared someone would see the article, so he quickly hit the page-forward button several times.

“Your order’s ready.” The waitress’ voice shocked him back to the present. She handed him a plastic bag containing two white Styrofoam boxes. “That’ll be 8 credits 65 cents. You want extra syrup with that?”

“No thanks.” Tanaka took the bag, handed her a ten-credit note and said, “Keep the change.”

The woman sipping coffee at the next stool asked, “Mind if I take a look at the news tablet?”

“Of course not.”

Tanaka handed it to her. He exited the diner, controlling his urge to flee and draw attention to himself. Tanaka forced himself to breathe and walk slowly. Maybe the woman wouldn’t read the article. Maybe she wouldn’t recognize him. He tried to appear nonchalant climbing the stairs. If he and Hanako left immediately, they could be miles west on the transcontinental freeway by the time the police arrived.



Matt came to in a room with pale green walls. He glanced down at the white sheets and up at the holovision mounted on the wall. The institutional interior convinced him he was in a hospital. He got up and walked on unsteady legs to the bathroom. Matt caught a glimpse of his reflection in the mirror. The left side of his face was bruised and swollen. The skin around his eye was purple surrounded by a sickly yellow-green. He downed several glasses of water to soothe his parched throat before returning to bed. A few minutes later a nurse wearing floral scrubs entered his room.

“So you’re finally awake. That’s quite a nasty bump you’ve got on your head. I’ll go find Dr. Evans. He’ll want to speak with you.”

She left. Moments later a clean-shaven young man wearing a deep blue shirt and colorful tie entered the room and shook Matt’s hand.

“Hello, Mr. Diebold. I’m Scott Evans. Glad to see you’ve come around. How are you feeling?”

“I’ve got a bit of a headache.”

“That’s not surprising.” Dr. Evans took a penlight from his pocket and shined it into each of Matt’s pupils. He grunted then held up a finger, which he moved left, right, up, and down. “Follow my motions with your eyes.” The doctor seemed satisfied. “You’ve suffered a fractured skull along with a nasty concussion. The good news is that there’ll be no permanent damage, provided you take it easy for a while and stay out of brawls. I’d like to keep you overnight for observation. You can leave in the morning.”

Dr. Evans left. Matt turned on the holovision, but watching it made his head feel worse. He felt drowsy and drifted back to sleep.

Sunlight streaming through his window woke Matt at 6:00 a.m. He sat around for an hour, then ate a mediocre breakfast of cold eggs, toast, and canned fruit cocktail. One of the nurses stopped by at 8:00. “There’s someone here to see you,” she said.

Like most female PSB agents, Special Agent Ferguson appeared businesslike. She dressed in a tan pantsuit with her chestnut hair tied back in a barrette.

“I hope you’re feeling better, Mr. Diebold. I don’t know how much you heard about what happened. It wasn’t the Bureau’s finest hour. Colonel Tanaka used the hostages as human shields and shot his way out of the building with the help of the driver, who turns out to be a hired gun out of Port Satisfaction named Emilio Gonzalez. The agents on the scene opened up with their neural disrupters, but only managed to kill one of the hostages. There was a car chase. The fugitives evaded pursuit by crashing through a crossing gate moments before the arrival of an oncoming train. Peter Skovgard’s been fired for his handling of this fiasco. Do you have any idea where Colonel Tanaka and Private Takahashi could be heading?”

“I don’t know. Maybe we can figure something out, when you get me back to headquarters.”

“That won’t be necessary. We’ll take over from here. In retrospect we should have never let you go in there. Don’t worry about the hospital bill. The Bureau will pick up the tab.”

“I’d like to see this thing through,” Matt argued. “I can still help you. I know these people. Private Takahashi was a friend of mine.”

“Sorry, it’s out of my hands. Don’t worry. We’re professionals. We can handle it. We’ve arranged a first class flight back to Nova Angeles for you. Is there anybody you’d like us to call?”

“No, I’ll just call my wife,” Matt murmured.

After Agent Ferguson left Matt phoned Phoenix, but there was no answer. He thought he’d take a cab from the airport, but then remembered his neighbors, the Lees. He’d met Alan Lee, a retiree who lived close by Matt, at the Chinese opera.

A slight balding man answered the vidphone on the third ring. Alan Lee was about sixty-five years old, but his skin was smooth making his face look much younger.

“Hey Alan, it’s Matt. Listen, could you pick me up at the airport at noon? Phoenix isn’t home.”

“My God Matthew, you look terrible. What happened?”

“I got into an altercation with a cab driver. It looks worse than it is.”



The flight to Nova Angeles was relatively painless. Matt refused the complimentary champagne. He had to avoid alcohol due to his concussion. The Lees met him at the gate. Alan insisted on carrying his suitcase.

They had him home within forty-five minutes. Mrs. Lee brought over a quart of egg-flower soup, which she stored in Matt’s refrigerator.

“You poor thing,” she crooned. “Here, this might help.”

Mrs. Lee removed a laminated 3”x5” card from her purse and handed it to Matt.

“What’s this?”

“It’s Bhaisajyaguru, the Medicine Buddha. He’ll help you get better.”


“Do you need anything?” Alan asked. “We can stay, if you want.”

“No, I’ll be OK. Thanks for everything,” Matt answered.

The Lee’s left. Matt set the card down on the kitchen table and noticed a note from Phoenix.


“Dear Matthew,

I’m staying with Anne for a few weeks. I know you feel you have to pursue this POW investigation, but I can’t stay around and watch you hurt yourself. I think it’s better, if we give one another a little space for the time being. I have things at the office under control and would appreciate it if you don’t call me there.



PS I know it sounds like a lie under the circumstances, but I still love you.”


Matt let out a sigh and collapsed into his chair. He sat for a while then walked numbly to the front door to retrieve his suitcase and carry it to the bedroom. He began unpacking by putting his dirty clothes in the laundry basket. He removed the plastic case containing Phoenix’s pistol. He stared at it for a moment, then placed it on the bed.

Back in the kitchen he heated a bowl of Mrs. Lee’s soup and carried it to the table, where he sat spooning it listlessly into his mouth. His gaze settled on the laminated card. He picked it up to examine the picture of the blue-skinned Buddha sitting with his legs crossed on a lotus throne. The figure held a pink five-lobed fruit in his left hand.

“I wonder if you can cure a broken heart,” Matt mused.

He turned the card over. The back side displayed a drawing of a temple gate. The large black incense burner on the walkway looked familiar. Where had he seen it before?

Of course! The dream he had in deep space about Hanako and the colonel. Matt read the text. The temple was called Yakushi-ji and was located in El Cerrito.

Matt powered up his computer and ordered, “Find information about Yakushi-ji in El Cerrito.”

“Would you like a brief or extended listing?” asked the computer after a moment.


“Verbal or hardcopy?”


Yakushi-ji is named after a temple constructed on earth in 718 AD by the Japanese Emperor Tenmu as an offering to heal of Empress Jito. The monks at the original temple donated the Medicine Buddha on the altar to Jonah, when they heard about the hanta virus outbreak during the last century. Thousands of people, mostly of Japanese descent, visit the temple each year hoping to have their illnesses cured.”

That had to be it. Matt searched for Agent Ferguson’s card and said “Shit” when he realized she hadn’t left him one.

He dialed the PSB on his vidphone. The logo, a golden shield on a blue background appeared on the monitor and a woman’s voice answered, “Public Security Bureau. May I help you?”

“This is an emergency! I need to get in touch with Special Agent Rachel Ferguson.”

“I’m sorry, sir. Agent Ferguson doesn’t work out of this branch. Hold on. I’ll transfer you.”

A man’s voice came on the line. “This is Agent Wilson. Can I help you?”

“Listen, I know where Colonel Tanaka and Private Takahashi are going. They’re heading to a Buddhist temple called Yakushi-ji in El Cerrito. You’ve got to get there in time to capture them.”

“What’s this all about? Colonel who? How do you spell the name of the temple?”

“Just contact Agent Ferguson. Tell her Matt Diebold says to get her ass to Yakushi-ji. That’s Y-A-K-U-S-H-I-J-I.”

Matt ran to the bedroom and grabbed the case lying atop the bed. In a few moments his was racing east on the freeway.



It took two hours to reach the temple. Matt had donned a dark blue sports coat to hide the pistol he’d tucked into his waistband. He felt the two extra clips in his left pocket as he walked from the parking lot toward the entrance. An old Japanese woman sat behind the glass in the ticket booth. The sign in the window said admission cost one credit. Matt handed over the money, and the woman gave him a ticket illustrated with a colorful photo of the temple.

Kiosks whose owners sold soft drinks, snacks, medallions, and incense lined the path that led through the trees toward the gate. A middle-aged Asian man lit a fist full of incense sticks and placed them vertically in the brazier in front of the gate. He clapped his hands twice, bowed, then walked around the smoking cauldron to enter.

Matt followed without performing the ceremony. The gate had four walls supporting a gabled roof covered with light green cylindrical tiles. Doorways had been cut in two of the walls to form the entrance and exit. Four huge wooden figures stood in the corners glaring down at the center of the room. One of these statues held a lute. Another carried some kind of parasol. Matt barely came up to their knees. He feared one would lift his foot and squash him on the cobblestone floor, but he made it into the temple compound without difficulty.

Matt followed the signs pointing the way to the Medicine Buddha Hall. He admired the architecture and noticed a wooden fish suspended from the rafters of one of the buildings. He climbed the concrete steps that led to a wooden platform outside the Buddha Hall, took off his shoes, and placed them on the brown wooden rack by the doorway.

Matt felt the smooth wood floor through the thin cloth of his socks. He stepped into the dimly lit building, walked to the dark brown wooden box in front of the altar, and tossed in a coin. It slid down the incline and vanished through a slit to land inside with a thunk. He sat alone on a red upholstered bench against the back wall, shivered in the room’s cool interior, and buttoned his jacket.

There was nothing to do but wait. Matt smelled the pine-scented incense and gazed around the room. A wheelchair parked neglected in the corner. Statues of two standing attendants flanked the Buddha figure on the altar. The gold leaf that covered these figures had rubbed off, revealing the dark brown wood underneath. The statues were somewhat larger than life-sized and seemed to exhale the faint odor of history. The Buddha’s face looked stern and angry. It made Matt uncomfortable.

A bald-headed monk entered the room. He had narrow features and was quite pale. He’d never win a fashion contest. Yet Matt felt an instant liking for him. The monk handed Matt a misshapen cup of green tea on a wooden saucer.

“I thought you might like some tea.”


The monk padded out of the room. Matt took a sip, savoring the tea’s weedy aroma and earthy taste. He sat in the silence drinking the warm liquid. When he finished, he set the cup down and looked up. This time the Buddha appeared to be smiling. Matt almost expected him to wink.

The monk came back. “I’m sorry, but we’re closing now. You’ll have to leave.”

“OK. When do you open in the morning?”


Matt got up suddenly and was overcome with dizziness. He slumped back down on the bench. “Sorry, it’s been a rough day.”

“Hop in. I’ll give you a lift.” The monk patted the seat of the wheelchair he brought over. He pushed Matt out the entryway and down the ramp, after pausing for Matt to retrieve his shoes.

Matt remained silent until they got close to the gate.

“Do you mind if I ask you a question?” said Matt.

“Of course not.”

“I served in the Ngaroc war and saw friends slaughtered in battle. The savagery sickens me. I still struggle to reconcile my disgust for violence with the need to defend my people. Sometimes I curse the God who declared murder a sin in a world where we must kill to survive. Why must a soldier face such a terrible choice?”

The monk stopped pushing the chair and slowly turned to look at Matt with unblinking eyes that matched the color of his ash-gray robe. Time seemed to slow. Matt’s disorientation got worse. He felt drained and weak. The birds stopped singing, leaving a silence that was filled by the monk’s voice.

“The samurai used to say the sword serves two purposes. The first, to destroy one’s enemies, is called ‘the sword that kills.’ The second, to sacrifice the sword wielder’s instinct for self-preservation, is called ‘the sword that gives life.’ When you became a soldier, you forsook pacifism and vowed to selflessly wield the life-giving sword to protect the public. Put aside your self-doubt and serve the greater good.”

“Soldiers have wielded swords for thousands of years. Yet all they’ve done is add bodies to a pile of corpses. How can I know I’m not doing the same?” asked Matt.

“Be free from attachment and aversion. Understand the true nature of all things is constant change. You cannot hold on to anything. When you know that life, death, peace, and war are like this, you will be able to act with an impartial mind. Then the birds will sing again and flowers will blossom even in the snow.”

“Were the screams of the Nazi concentration camp victims empty, because the SS guards murdered them impartially? If the rebels in the second interplanetary rebellion had succeeded in raining asteroids down on earth, would the world have been any less dead, because the engineers lacked emotion when they modified the asteroids’ orbits?”

“You cannot understand Emptiness by means of the intellect. Just act without a gap of thought, like when you reach for a pillow at night.” The monk resumed pushing.

Time started once more. The birds resumed their songs, and Matt heard the sound of cars on the road in front of the temple grounds.

They reached the parking lot.

“Will you be all right driving?” the monk asked.

“I think so. I’ll stay at a nearby motel.”

“You might try the El Cerrito Motor Lodge. Take a left at the light. It’ll be on your left after a half mile.”

“OK. Thanks for the ride.”


That night troubled by dreams of Hanako’s smiling eyes and thousands of corpses Matt slept lightly and wrestled with his bed sheets. He woke at midnight with an idea. It was a long shot, but he made the phone call then fell back to sleep.

Next morning at 6:00 a.m. he downed a cup of coffee that burned his stomach. Matt returned to the temple by 7:00. Reading a news tablet so as not to attract attention, he sat on a green wooden bench by the entrance and watched people come and go. Several hunched-over old ladies entered the gate. None resembled Ellen McMasters, Hanako’s former cellmate. Evidently last night’s phone call never penetrated the PSB’s lackey barrier. Matt was on his own.

A half-hour later Matt bought a box of soymilk and some rice cakes at one of the stands. A group of black-haired school kids arrived dressed in dark blue sailor suits. Matt fumbled with the cellophane wrapping and was about to bite into one of the cakes when the fugitives appeared. Tanaka pushed Hanako toward the entrance just like in Matt’s dream.

Matt dropping his snack, sprung from the bench, and ran toward the couple. He reached toward the small of his back for the pistol in his waistband.

“Hanako!” he yelled.

Matt held his handgun in both trembling hands and sighted down the barrel at the colonel. The sound of his pulse thundered in his ears. For a moment the fates of three people and a world balanced on a knife-edge..

Time moved in slow motion. Smoke from the bundles of incense rose from the black iron cauldron. A long cylindrical length of gray ash fell from one of the yellow incense sticks.

Tanaka turned and slipped his hand under his jacket. Matt squeezed the trigger. Sounding like a cluster of firecrackers the exploding needles shredded the colonel’s flesh. Blood splattered on the dark wooden gate. The colonel fell.

Hanako clutched her arm, where a stray needle had struck. Blood oozed between her delicate fingers. Matt started toward her and then stopped, because he feared the virus.

“Hanako, I’m sorry.” His voice broke. “I’m sorry I left you on Epsilon Eridani. I love you. I’ve always loved you.”

Matt searched Hanako’s for some hint of forgiveness, but she only slumped her head forward. Her arms fell to her lap. Someone had dressed a Buddha statue in a red cloth hat and cape. The figure stared passively at Matt’s anguish.

“Drop the weapon!” came a voice from behind.

Matt placed his pistol on the gray flagstone and clasped his hands behind his head.

“Kneel down!”

The police handcuffed Matt’s hands behind his back, put him face down, and began searching his pockets. One of the officers moved toward Hanako.

“I wouldn’t get any closer, if I were you,” said Matt. “They’ve both got a deadly virus.”

Of course the officer didn’t listen. He stopped Hanako’s bleeding before the biohazard team arrived. It probably cost him his life. Personnel in white containment suits with clear plastic hoods sealed the area, placed the colonel’s corpse in a body bag, and wheeled Hanako to a white unmarked van. After that they sprayed the blood with disinfectant to kill the virus.

The PSB quarantined Matthew along with the witnesses to ensure no one was infected. The bystanders were allowed no contact with the outside. Matt suspected anyone who tested positive for the virus would quietly disappear.

Agent Ferguson visited the day of Matt’s release.

“Can I see her?” Matt asked.

“I’m afraid that won’t be possible,” said Agent Ferguson. “Hanako never regained consciousness.”

“What’s going to happen to her?”

“We’ll keep her isolated and give her the best medical care we can. Eventually the virus will take its toll. Let me remind you that everything having to do with Private Takahashi and Colonel Tanaka is classified.” Agent Ferguson gave him a deadpan look. “We’ll credit your account with your pay.”

“I’ll be changing the name on my account to Arjuna Diebold,” said Matt. “That’s the name I was born with.”

All his life Matt had avoided that name, the name of the Mahabharata’s warrior hero, and the destiny of bloodshed it implied. Now it was too late. Destiny and regret had found him anyway.



Arjuna Matthew Diebold returned home and found no trace of Phoenix. He dialed Phoenix’ mobile phone. There was no answer.

“Damn, she changed her number,” he muttered.

He dialed Phoenix’ friend Anne’s apartment. Anne’s face appeared on the monitor after a few rings. Her brown hair cut in bangs straight across her forehead, freckled nose, and wide eyes gave the impression of youth and naïveté.

“Hi Anne, it’s Matt Diebold. Is Phoenix there?”

“I’m not sure she wants to talk to you.”

“Would you check please?”

Anne left Arjuna hanging on the line. After a few minutes she returned. “Phoenix is a little busy right now, Matthew. She says she’ll meet you at the Java City coffee shop on Wilshire at 6:30.”

“OK, tell her I’ll be there.”

Arjuna thought the drive would only take a half hour, but he hadn’t counted on the traffic. The mass of vehicles jamming the road turned the freeway into a sluggish river of impatience and frustration. At 7:15 he was still stopped behind a truck several exits north of Wilshire. The flat panel video display of the road ahead on the truck’s back door showed traffic stalled for quite a distance. There was nowhere to go, so he inched his car along with all the others. He felt tempted to lay on his horn in a futile protest against his powerlessness. Eventually he passed a car stalled on the shoulder and traffic cleared enough for him to reach the Wilshire exit. The delay had been caused by thousands of motorists slowing down to gawk at some guy changing a flat tire by the side of the road.

Arjuna drove slowly down Wilshire, looking for a parking spot. The driver behind him sounded his horn and gunned his high-powered red sports car around Arjuna and squealed his tires as he did so. Arjuna looked up to see the driver’s extended middle finger through the receding car’s rear window.

By the time Arjuna got to the coffee shop, there was no sign of Phoenix. He ordered a Dragon Well tea and waited for twenty minutes, hoping she’d check back. She didn’t.

Arjuna decided to eat downtown, so his drive wouldn’t be a total waste. He strolled down Wilshire’s crowded sidewalks and settled on an Italian deli that offered, “Rigil Kentaurus style pizza.” The man behind the counter wore a white T-shirt and apron stained with tomato sauce. He appeared Greek or Arabic due to his dark curly hair, swarthy skin, and the stubble making a dark shadow on his face. Arjuna ordered a slice of cheese and mushroom. The attendant slid a spatula under the round aluminum pan and lifted a slice, which he placed in the black metal oven.

While his pizza was being heated, Arjuna sat at a table sipping water from a paper cup. He looked around. A blonde woman interrupted her conversation with her boyfriend to lift a triangular slice to her mouth and take a bite. Strings of yellow cheese stretched from her mouth, when she placed the slice back on its paper plate. The couple sat on the same side of the table, so they could hold hands. Arjuna studied them while trying to imagine how to patch things up with Phoenix. The woman wore tight jeans and a pink angora sweater that revealed the navel winking from her flat belly. Her boyfriend’s hair was cut short. Must be military, Arjuna thought. He confirmed this suspicion when he noticed a blue Construction Battalion tattoo on the man’s forearm. Arjuna decided to call Phoenix and apologize for being late.

The attendant brought Arjuna two slices of pizza along with Parmesan cheese and dried pepper flakes.

“I decided to give you an extra slice, since I made you wait so long,” he said.

Arjuna’s throat tightened and his eyes brimmed with warm liquid that blurred his vision. He blinked quickly to fight back the tears, but it was no use. Gratitude streaked his cheeks in gentle rivulets.



© 2004-2005 by Jon Wesick.  I've published over ninety poems in small press journals such as Pudding and Slipstream and was a runner up twice in the San Diego Book Awards. My short stories have appeared in Lullaby Hearse, MiniMAG, Tidepools and Vortex of the Macabre. And of course, Aphelion Webzine published "The Last Abbot." I have a Ph.D. in physics and have worked in medicine, software, and communications.