Category Archives: Rise of the Judge

Unknown Mission, Part Seven

Continued from Part Six

Snyder walked to the door of Sergeant Cutler’s office. He knocked. Footsteps raced, a door opened and closed.

Cutler called out, “Who is it?”

Hmm. Cutler hiding someone? Odd. Couldn’t be a woman. The army didn’t care, and Cutler didn’t seem interested in that kind of thing. “Sarge, it’s Snyder.”

“Come in.”

The door opened and Snyder entered.

Cutler said, “What’s going on?”

“It’s about Joey Parker. He was-”

Snyder lowered his voice. “A Christian fundamentalist. One day, we found him and his family dead. I remember they said it was poison. Do you know what that means?”

Cutler said, “I don’t know for sure-”

The closet door swung open and a man wearing a white suit and a huge diamond ring walked out. “Oh, yes you do, Cutler. Don’t cover it up.”

“Sarge isn’t lying.” Cutler was the only person he knew who had never lied. Body language always gave liars away.

“Either that, or ol’ Sarge here is as blind as a bat.” The man extended his hand. His ring glistened under the fluorescent light.

Snyder put a hand up. “Wait a second. Who are you, and what are you doing in Sarge’s closet?”

“A man unaccustomed to having to wait on non-commissioned officers. As to what I’m doing here, your guess is as good as mine. Ask your sergeant.”

Cutler sighed. “I’ve already told you, I don’t know.”

“As long as we’re all equally in the dark. Look, kid, I’ll give you the straight truth. Let me guess. This Fundamentalist kid’s family wasn’t tagged.”

“Yeah, that’s right.” Protestants had this weird idea a microchip implant containing one’s financial data could somehow be their precious mark of the beast. Such kookiness was partly why Grandma won. Couldn’t get it from the official source without blaspheming, true enough, but there were other means to come by them.

“And they didn’t buy their food from the grocery store?”

“No.” How did this guy know?

“Then I know who do it. America’s traitor in chief. May he rot in Hell.”

Snyder frowned. “Why would Ivan have poisoned him? He could’ve just hung him.”

“Oh, he didn’t do it directly, kid. Ivan Dimitrov played both sides of the fence in the black market food game. In the name of Imperial Justice, he burned our farms, seized our cattle, and killed our delivery men. At the same time, when he pushed us out, he went in.”

Snyder arched his eyebrow. “So? What’s the difference between one black marketer and another?”

“Kid, I want my clients to live. Dead people don’t buy groceries. Nothing but quality ingredients here. But Ivan, he didn’t care if they died. He got his stuff by buying up expired items from grocery stores. Some working for him believed Christians ought to be wiped from the face of the Earth, so they intentionally contaminated it. Buying groceries at a Dimitrov black market was like playing Russian Roulette. All done at the behest of your grand government.”

The mob boss looked back and forth between Snyder and Cutler. “Heck of an outfit you fellas signed up with, huh? Cutler, call me when you figure out what you’re doing. I’m not gonna wait forever.” The mob boss left the office and the door shut behind him.

“You know we should probably report that guy,” said Snyder.

Cutler shook his head. “Technically, but an underworld figure can prove a valuable informant, even in our day and age.”

“True. I wonder if there’s any proof of what he said?”

“If there is, you’ll find it.”

Continued…here

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Unknown Mission, Part Six

Continued from Part Five

Anny walked over towards Joey Parker’s bungalow with Grandma behind him.

“Anny, that Mr. Parker is going to have to learn not to be so proud.”

“Joey says his dad doesn’t want charity.”

Grandma nodded. “Exactly. Maybe, it’s because we’re Catholic and they’re Protestants.”

“They let you build the bungalow.”

“Very hesitantly, and only after Mr. Parker insisted on doing work for it. There’s not enough work to keep him busy, and he’s a refugee.”

“You could leave food on his door step.”

“Anny, you’re a sweet boy, but Mr. Parker’s no fool.”

“Well, if he doesn’t want it, why do you keep trying to make him?”

“Son, everything we’re given is from above. God didn’t make us rich so we could have a big house. He gave to us so we would help others, including those too stubborn to take it.”

“You could have him build something.”

“I think I might be able to get him work in Idaho City. If he’s even still here.”

Anny nodded. That had him worried. The Parkers hadn’t been around in days.

Grandma knocked on the door. “Mr. Parker? Mr. Parker?”

Anny turned up his nose and waved his hand. “Ew. Something stinks.”

Grandma sniffed. “You’re right.”

“I wonder what it is.” Anny moved past his grandma and reached for the door.

“No, Anny, don’t.”

Anny Snyder opened the door. Joey Parker’s body fell in front of him.

Anny began to cry. Grandma pulled him to her in a tight embrace. “It’s okay, boy, it’s okay.”

Snyder awoke in a cold sweat. “No, Grandma, it isn’t okay.”

He grabbed a sports bottle from beside his bed and took a sip of water. His best friend had died along with his entire family. True to form, Grandma never told him why. One of her friends came by that night, and they shooed him to bed while they talked.

Behind the door, Snyder couldn’t hear much. He did hear one word, though.

“Poison.”

Continued…Next Thursday

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Unknown Mission, Part Five

Continued from Part Four

Snyder sat in his cubical, watching an action film on YouTube, the original public access netstation. A red alert flashed on his workstation’s touch screen, built right into the desk. He liked his screen tilted at a sixty degree angle. He pressed the red button and the movie clip gave way to a screen that read, “Threat Assessment. Code: A. Keywords: Donovan killing.”

Below that was a message from a Ferrari Banks to a Peter Packard. Snyder pressed a button to underline and bold the offending phrase:

Look, Pete, I know you’re all hot to trot about Prince Donovan, but I don’t trust him. I don’t buy that Bibles to Vietnam crap. The kid hung a man who’d been like a father to him. If I’m going to trust him, I need a better reason for Donovan killing the guy. Until then, as far as I’m concerned, he’s just another power-grabbing politician like his old man. And at twenty-two, he has plenty of time to become far more corrupt.

The paragraphs below rambled on about a coffee shop Ferrari purchased in Oakland and how Ferrari’s daughter was entering fifth grade. Snyder’s eyes glazed. This was another false alarm generated by the dumb retrieval system.

Snyder pressed the “Innocuous: No Threat” button. The message disappeared.

He took a sip of coffee from the silver thermos emblazoned with the Imperial crest; a roman eagle perched on the globe. Why couldn’t people just get over the hanging of Ivan already? He deserved to die.

For his grandfather, who died opposing Ivan’s decision to unconstitutionally insert the US into the Empire by presidential fiat. Did it matter why that traitor died? To too many, it did. Until their questions were resolved, the Steward would have 40% of the people distrusting him. Compared to Ivan’s 85%, that wasn’t too bad, but at his age, Donovan needed more unanimous support.

Snyder turned back to his movie clip. It finished with an explosion of a guy’s head against the screen as a hail of bullets streamed into it. Snyder smiled. “Now, that’s what I’m talking about.”

He scrolled through the comments.

One read, “Hey, this is totally violent. Check out Jesusistotallyawesome.com.”

Snyder spit out his coffee. He went to the website named and gaped at it.

A button on his toolbar said, “Report to Terrorism bureau.” Terrorism bureau would take down the website, as unconstitutional as that was.

Snyder sighed. Could he really do this? “Well, people have got to be careful what they say on the Internet.”

Grandfather died defending the constitution.

Stubborn conscience, it just had to pipe up, didn’t it?

Snyder looked at the right side of the page, at the link text,  “Find a church.”

Snyder clicked on the link.

An animated sixteen-year-old boy came on the screen. “Hey, amigos, Tivo Patterson here in Columbus, Ohio. There are a lot of cool churches and youth groups around here. I got this list from my parents and posted it so you can find a cool church, anywhere in the Midwest.”

Snyder’s jaw fell open. This stupid kid had posted the addresses of around 200 churches. Man, he’d be on the fast track to sergeant once he gave this information. Maybe he’d even commission.

Joey Parker stood by a tree. “You’re not gonna take me to the government, are you?”

Snyder sighed. No. He couldn’t do this to people who were like Mama Borden and Grandma. However, the website would have to come down-before anyone else stumbled on the big list-o-churches.

He surfed to the site’s host. “Free Portal Page” flashed in annoying neon green. He entered the admin area and was challenged for a password. He pulled up Password Breaker. Within ten seconds, he was into the back office.

Snyder clucked his tongue. “You get what you pay for.”

He deleted Tivo’s entire account, and coded it as a Terms of Service violation, not Terrorism. That way the military wouldn’t find out about it.  Snyder exhaled deeply as the deletion confirmation came up.

Snyder leaned back in his chair. To do: Violate reporting regulations and aid and abet enemies of the Empire.

Snyder looked up. Hey, I know we’re not on great terms, but I’ll make you a deal. I’ll make sure your people don’t get caught, you make sure I don’t get caught. Sound fair?

Silence is considered agreement.

Snyder sat still for a moment. Pleasure doin’ business with you.

Silence was a good measure of agreement. That was all he ever got from God.

Continued…here.

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Unknown Mission, Part Four

Continued from Part Three

Outside the bunkhouse, Snyder broke into a Cheshire cat grin at a familiar brown face. He saluted. “Sergeant Cutler, Private Snyder reporting.”

Snyder’s old drill sergeant returned his salute. “At ease. It’s good to see you.”

“I wasn’t expecting to see you again.”

“Neither I you, when last we parted, but turns out our next assignments providently coincided.”

“So you’re an Intelligence man who was sent to scout the new recruits.”

Cutler hesitated. “I go where my boss sends me, that’s all I can say. Anyway, your stuff arrived from the Military Intelligence Training Center. I put it in your room.”

Snyder arched an eyebrow. “You mean I get my own room?”

“Yeah, we don’t do bunks here. Some of the NCOs even live off base with their ‘significant others.'”

Cutler sounded as if he’d sucked on a lemon. It wouldn’t be much of a surprise if the guy turned out to be a double agent.

Cutler pressed a button on the wall and a door opened, revealing an eight foot by ten foot shoe box with a dorm-style bed, nightstand, blacked-out picture window, closet, and little room for more.

Cutler strolled to the luggage stacked against the closet and picked up Snyder’s guitar case. “They started teaching music at intelligence school?”

“Nah, my then-girlfriend gave me that, and I took lessons in town. Not that it was all that hard to learn. I quit after four lessons. The guy was going too slow and he bored me. Besides, I developed my own foolproof method.”

“Really?”

“Watch.” Snyder picked the HV remote up off the night stand and pressed the power button. The window brightened to display the courtyard outside. He replaced the live view with a country music video and then centered the image on the musician’s hands as he strummed the guitar strings.

After the song ended, Snyder switched the holovision back to window mode and picked up the guitar case. He pulled out the guitar, sat on the bed, and played the song.

Cutler put a hand to his chin. “So you watch someone else play the song and then  just repeat their movements.”

Snyder shrugged. “I still had to train my fingers. That took a week.”

“How long until you forget one of the songs you learn?”

Huh? Snyder scrunched his eyebrows together. “Forget? I haven’t forgotten any. I remember everything that’s happened since I was two years old practically.”

“Hmm. Interesting.” Cutler muttered under his breath. “You don’t know a Joey Parker, do you?”

Snyder sat on the bed. “Joey Parker . . .  Joey Parker . . . Joey Parker . . . .”

Ten-year-old Anny Snyder climbed a tree and drew in a breath of fresh air. He didn’t get to smell this when he visited Mama Borden in the city. But here, ten miles from Boise on Grandma’s acreage, Anny was king.

And could forget, for a little while, that he’d been denied his place as the youngest of eight Borden brothers and sisters on account of being born the wrong skin color. And denied his place at Andy’s side for unknown reasons. Grandma always broke down crying rather than explain whenever he asked about his twin. But that hurt never seemed far. The few pictures Grandma had of his brother weren’t nearly enough.

A small boy stood by a bush a few hundred feet away. Anny climbed down and ran towards the boy. The boy began to run away.

“Don’t run!” shouted Anny. “I just wanted to talk.”

The boy kept running, but Anny gained on him and grabbed his shirt. “Chill, kid. I just want to talk.”

The boy turned. “You’re not gonna take me to the government, are you?”

“Why would I do that?”

“I believe in Jesus.”

“So do I.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, but you can’t talk about it in school or Grandma and Mama will go to jail.” For confusing the heck out of him. Mama Borden thought she was so oh-so-clever and he had no clue, but she wanted him to be Baptist something fierce. Had been downright sulky ever since Grandma spilled the beans that he’d asked to be confirmed in the Church that liked him. Mama’s church stared at him like he was a heathen. But if he told Grandma about any of this, she wouldn’t let him see Mama Borden anymore.

The small boy glanced around. “So what do you do out here?”

“Let me show you. One of grandma’s friends built me this really cool tree house.”

The boy bit his lip. “I don’t know. I don’t even know your name.”

Anny squirmed. That Anny was short for Annunciation didn’t impress. Until a black eye dissuaded his peers, he usually had to put up with references to a certain classical Broadway musical. “It’s Snyder.  What’s yours?”

“Joey Parker.”

Snyder looked up. “Sarge, why did you ask me about Joey Parker?”

“I don’t know, Snyder. The name just came to my head.”

Snyder stared off into the distance. “Joey was a friend when I was a kid.” A stupid kid that believed in fairy tales.

“What happened?”

“He died.” Just like Grandma died. Her murderer tried to kidnap him and blurted a horror Mama Borden had later admitted was true. He and Andy had been ripped from the womb at six weeks along. He was tossed into the freezer and forgotten. Andy the breeder brought to term artificially and sold to the highest bidder. Four years later, Mama Borden helped Grandma rescue him from the freezer and unexpectedly bonded with the child she carried for another.

Cutler bowed his head. “I didn’t know what I was asking. Are you okay?”

“Of course, Sarge. Can we go to mess? Tomorrow’s my first day on duty.”

Continued…here.

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Unknown Mission, Part Three

Continued from Part Two

Private A. L. Snyder stood outside the office of the post commander. He eyed the plastic sign beside the door, which read, “Major Paul Dread.”

Snyder pulled his blue service cap lower over his dark blond high and tight, double checked to make sure his full dress uniform’s jacket and tie were straight, and knocked. This getup was extremely hot and so not his style. Only bright side was that the chicks agreed with his temperature assessment.

A harsh voice snapped, “Enter!”

Snyder went in. A somewhat pale, thin man sat behind the desk, also in full dress, but without the jacket. The major’s light blond hair, streaked with white, glistened under the dim light of the office and his smoky gray eyes were fixed on the computer monitor. He turned the laptop away from Snyder and continued to stare at it.

Snyder saluted and stood at attention. “Private Snyder, reporting for duty, sir!”

The Major ignored him, focusing on the computer screen. Snyder leaned sideways. That explained it. Several naked women filled the screen.

Dread closed the page and turned his head towards Snyder. “Private, at ease.”

Snyder placed his arms behind him and relaxed his stance.

Dread glanced him over disdainfully, almost leering. “So you’re the two bit gang leader from JD that some genius decided could be trusted in the Intelligence corps.”

“Sir, with all due respect, my assignment was approved by you, sir.”

The Major snapped the laptop shut and stood. “No, Private, it was not. It was approved by my predecessor, before he was transferred to Colorado. I had the misfortune to arrive to find a hate criminal on staff. Now, I’m no intelligence officer. This assignment was anything but my first choice, but I can read a file, and I’ve read yours. If you get out of line for one nanosecond, I will see to it that you are court-martialed, and rest assured a flogging will be the least of your concerns. You’ll be as good as dead when the Boise DA gets a hold of you.”

Snyder said nothing. He wouldn’t give the sickly-looking major the satisfaction. Less than three years in the military meant death by hanging. “Sir, may I know my duty assignment?”

The Major pressed a button on his phone. “Gooding, I have a new information tech for you. Meet him outside my office.” The Major turned to Snyder. “Now, Private, go outside the hall, stand, and wait. You’re dismissed.”

Snyder saluted, but Dread ignored him. Snyder marched out of the office and leaned his back against the drywall.

A somewhat portly red-haired captain arrived with Gooding on his name patch. Snyder stood at attention and saluted.

“At ease, soldier.” Gooding grabbed Snyder’s hand and shook it. “Welcome to the Hecht listening post. Come with me, and I’ll show you around.”

They walked down a dimly lit gray corridor to a steel door. Gooding ran his hand across the tag reader. “Admin mode.”

Gooding said, “Now place your hand on the reader.”

The reader said, “Private A. L. Snyder. Set access.”

Gooding said, “Set Access as E-2.”

“Access set.”

The door slid back into the wall.

Gooding and Snyder walked through, and the door closed behind them. Gooding waved. “Welcome to the Information Center, the heart of Military Intelligence.”

Emergency lights on the sidewall struggled against the gloom, making the hallway seem bright in comparison. Snyder looked up at theater-style rows of head-set donned soldiers, each in their own upward-facing cube. Steps in the middle went from the bottom row to the top row, with five cubes on the right and six on the left side of each row.

Gooding pointed to the right side of the aisle. “This is where you’ll start. Privates and Privates First Class begin as Info Techs. Your primary duty is threat assessment. At your workstation, you’ll get a little of everything: e-mail fraud, potential terror threats, even suspicious financial transactions. You may be asked to listen to a phone intercept where our computer has heard the use of a phrase that’s potentially dangerous.”

“How much do you track?”

“What don’t we track? The amount of data we have access to is classified, but unless people have been very careful, we can find out what they’re doing.”

Lovely, I’m part of Big Brother.

Gooding said, “Most of the stuff you get is innocuous. An e-mail gets flagged because the writer says, ‘That’s the bomb.’ If that’s the case, just hit the non-threat button and the e-mail will be discarded. If you’re not sure, ask Corporal Redondo. He’s over the Info Techs on your row.”

Gooding backed off towards the left. “If you mark an item as suspicious, it’ll be forwarded to a Specialist. We have Specialists in fraud, terrorism, technology, security, corporate crimes, and there’s a miscellaneous crime area for referrals to the IBI and local law enforcement. Corporal Redondo will you brief you further. He’s up on Z11.”

Snyder climbed the stairs. Two minutes later, he reached Row Z, and a few seconds later, seat 11, at the far right side of the row. An olive skinned man in his twenties sat at the desk.

Snyder saluted and stood at attention. “Sir, Private Snyder reporting at the orders of Captain Gooding, sir.”

Corporal Redondo stood and saluted back. “At ease, Private. I’ll show you to your cube. It’s Z6, right near the stairs. The new guy always sits there.”

Redondo led Snyder to Z6. Snyder sat down before the console in his snazzy navy blue ergonomic office chair. “This isn’t so bad. Why does the new guy end up here?”

A female soldier ran up from behind Snyder and on through a restroom door.

“Let’s just say this seat requires advanced concentration skills.”

Snyder nodded. “I see.”

“As soon as we have an opening, or you get promoted, I’ll move you. If you need anything, I’m in charge of the Z level.”

“Sir, is a corporal over each row, Sir?”

“On this side; a sergeant is over each specialist row. Come on, I’ll show you the break room.”

Snyder followed Redondo down the stairs. Redondo led him through a set of double doors. As they passed through the door, eight staff sergeants were seated behind a partial wall to their left with a sign that read, “Quality Assurance.”

Snyder turned to Redondo. “Do they check our work?”

Redondo nodded. “The average info tech makes nine hundred decisions a month. They randomly check ten of them. If for the quarter, you have not made at least 90% correct decisions, you’re put on probation. A second consecutive quarter with less than 90% correct and you’re out of intelligence. Generally, guys who wash out here become Military Police.”

“I’m not worried.”

“Not much to worry about. Your decisions are fairly easy. On average, soldiers on the floor get about 94% right.”

He would for sure. This high school drop out had been smart enough to make sure the military didn’t know how much he’d absorbed in Intelligence school. Turned out self-directed, self-paced study was anything but boring. Once he figured out how to hack their system, he could ensure he had the right grade, if necessary.

Snyder entered the break room. A vending machine filled one wall and a holovision window took up the rear with several plain white tables in the center. He walked over to one. “What’s this?”

“It’s an all-in-one game table.”

Snyder stared down at the plain white table. “If you say so.”

“I’ll show you.” Redondo reached beneath the table and handed Snyder a pair of silver-dotted gray gloves. “Put these on.”

Snyder nodded and put the gloves on.

“Name a game.”

“Pool.”

The table morphed into a billiards table, complete with racked pool balls. A holographic cue stick appeared in Snyder’s hand. He put one hand on the table and ran the cue stick between his fingers. “Whoa, amazing!”

“Just don’t hang out here all day. Come on, I’ll take you back to your duty station.”

They exited the break room. Redondo said, “So to sum up your expectations: You get up at reveille, you go to mess, you do two hours of physical training, or marksmanship, and then you come here. You have one half hour lunch break, which is brought in and served at your desk. You don’t leave until dinner. Your job is to respond to each situation within five minutes or less. Now, regarding personal use of the net-”

Snyder sighed. I know, don’t do it.

Redondo continued. “We don’t care.”

Snyder arched an eyebrow. “What?”

“You’re going to be here eight hours a day. Four of those hours will be spent on your official job. Just because you’re in the military doesn’t mean you’re not a tech geek, and we know what they want to do, and we lost far too many to big corporations. Most spend their time between alerts honing their skills, and in advanced training modules, but what you do when not responding to a situation is none of our concern as long as you don’t commit a crime.”

Sweet. He’d been promised continued access to the Intelligence school’s riches out on the floor. “Sounds easy enough.”

“Yeah, and, one more thing. Don’t misuse Password Breaker.”

Misuse the program that could give him access to any system on Earth? Perish the thought. “Understood, sir.”

Continued…next Thursday

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Unknown Mission, Part Two

Continued from Part One

Jirel sat at a vid-phone in a quiet corner of a nearly deserted cyber café. The drive-thru’s Instacook seemed to be the place’s biggest draw, as folks grabbed meals on the go. Vid-phone was rather pointless, since Smith didn’t use it, but he didn’t want to have this conversation on base. “What do you mean you don’t know anything about it? You healed the child and sent the father here. Didn’t you?”

“Nope, don’t do healings,” said Smith, seemingly through the dark window. “I’ve heard of a guy in San Diego, but never had the pleasure.”

“And I suppose you don’t know anything about that guy’s dreams.”

“‘Fraid not.”

“Could you ask Him? For some reason, He’s keeping me in the dark.”

“I could ask, but my initial feeling is that I’m not going to find out anything.”

Jirel sighed. “Don’t suppose the guy in San Diego would be any help?”

“I could track him down. I think all he knows is your name, but I could try.”

“I guess it couldn’t hurt. While you’re at it, could you check on these men?”

“Sure.”

“I don’t know who that other man is, but the first man was Nick Verducci.”

“White suit? Diamond ring?”

“Yes.”

“No need to check on him. He’s a big time underworld figure. The top supplier of black market food. He and Ivan were big time rivals before Ivan was hanged. The best I can say for Verducci is that he never sold tainted food. Ivan killed more Christians through food poisoning than he ever did through hangings.”

“As Ivan the Steward hung three million Christians, I doubt that’s the case.”

Smith laughed. “Oh, I forgot. You don’t get hyperbole.”

“What I don’t get is why I have two men, including a major crime syndicate figure, ready to do my bidding, and no idea what I’m supposed to do with them.”

“Give it time, my friend.”

“I miss eternity, Smith.”

Continued…here.

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Unknown Mission, Part One

Jirel sat in his office at the Hecht listening post in the desert outside Las Vegas, doing paperwork on a writable document reader the humans dubbed an Iboard. He frowned at the device. September 13, 79 YE. Meaning the 79th Year of the Empire. That blasted blasphemous date was on every page. It had supplanted the year of the Lord in reckoning time.

Jirel sighed. The evil one had humans so confused, only their scholars knew the date for certain. Most knew little more than to surmise they must be staring down the barrel at the 22nd century, if they weren’t there already.

Pushing papers while he waited for his seventeen-year-old charge to finish his intelligence training was tedious at best. Though, actually, a good twenty-one years had passed since Private Snyder’s conception. Poor kid spent his first four years on ice. Such cruelties humans could inflict on their own children.

Jirel signed the last report, got up from his desk, and began the walk back to his quarters. At least he could get a few hours of prayer in.

He exited the building and strolled down the sidewalk. He peered up at the gray sky and inhaled deeply. Rain would soon refresh the parched Earth. You send your rain on the just and the unjust. Holy is your name, My God, My King.

A particularly foul-smelling muscular man charged Jirel, clearly intending to throw him to the ground.

Jirel moved faster, however, and lifted the foolish mortal up in the air. “What do you think you’re doing?”

“You’re comin’ with me, Cutler. My boss would like a word with you.” The man pulled a syringe from his pocket and shoved it into Jirel’s arm.

Apparently, they didn’t know his true nature, or that it protected his tent against such attacks. He sniffed the pungent odors emanating from his attacker. Sure enough, murder. About a month back, two at latest, almost overpowered by the stench of deceit. “Who is your boss?”

“You’ll see,” said the man. “You’ll be out any second now.”

A minute later, the man laughed nervously. “Yep, any moment now.”

Jirel stared at the man he still held in the air. “Why don’t you just take me to your boss and we’ll talk?”

The man said, “I’m not in a position to disagree.”

Jirel put the man down.

The man led Jirel to the Post Exchange store, which had a black limo parked outside. Jirel walked over to the limo. The odors grew worse as they approached.

The muscular man knocked on the window. “Boss, I got Cutler.”

The window lowered to reveal a gray-haired gent in a white Italian suit permeated with the stench on his hireling, only far worse. He grimaced. “I didn’t expect him to be so vertical.”

“Well, he’s here, ain’t he?”

“No thanks to you, Mug. We’ll talk.” The gent beckoned. His diamond ring sparkled in the sunlight. “Sergeant Cutler, climb in. Let’s take a ride around the post.”

Mug stood outside the door and opened it. Jirel got in and sank into the plush leather of the seat, which greatly pleased his tent after a day in the hard office chair.

“So, Sergeant Cutler, what do you want?” asked the gent that also smelled of spilt blood and deception.

Jirel blinked. “What do you mean, what do I want? I didn’t call for you.”

The man’s expression soured. “Don’t play with me, Cutler. You want something, and I came all the way from Los Angeles so I can get a good night’s sleep.”

“What do you mean?”

“You’ve been invading my dreams every night. Scaring me with visions of woe and disaster if I didn’t help you, Sergeant Cutler. Only a few nights ago did I finally figure out your first name. I didn’t believe the Empire had machines that could control dreams, but I certainly believe it now. What government mission do you have for me?”

Jirel’s eyes widened. Lord, please give me wisdom. “I don’t have any information on this; let me consult my boss. I’ll get back to you. What’s your name?”

“You know my name.”

“My boss knows your name, but these type of things get complicated.”

The man fetched a business card. “Nick Verducci. I’ll be staying at Caesar’s Palace in Vegas. Can you see what you can do about the dream machine? ‘Cause I can be patient, but if you’re giving me nightmares . . . . ”

He leaned over and grabbed Jirel by the blue jacket of his dress uniform. “I can get very, very impatient.”

Jirel removed Verducci’s hands. “No need for threats. I’ll be in touch.”

Verducci stopped the car. Jirel got out and walked back to the listening post.

Upon reaching his quarters, he entered, turned around to shut the door, and took a deep breath. His was the only room in the entire listening post that didn’t smell of nearly every sin man had ever invented.

He reached for his Ekeys, a key-shaped black storage device hooked onto his belt on a ring with a few brass keys he’d picked up.

The lock mechanism clicked before he touched the button. Behind him, a man screamed, “Don’t even think about moving!”

Jirel sniffed. Odd. The room held only a faint trace of Old Spice. His senses had grown dull, but not that dull. “You didn’t happen to have a dream about me.”

“My son was sick. I took him to this prophet guy, and he healed him. He told me to head out here, get on base, and find Sergeant Jirel Cutler. That’s you, ain’t it?”

Jirel nodded. “Yeah.”

“So, what do you want me to do?”

Jirel sighed. “Let me check with my boss and get back to you.”

“You don’t know.”

“This is a bit of a surprise. I haven’t been consulted on this.”

“What do you mean? I assumed you worked for God like the prophet guy.”

“I do.” Jirel paused. “But I must have missed the memo. Give me your hotel and I’ll be in touch.”

“Wrong-o, I don’t stay in hotels; they’re crawling with bugs and other unpleasant things. I’ll be around, and I’ll find out when you’re ready. Now, I’m going to leave. You count to ten and then turn around.”

Jirel counted to ten. He turned around and the room was empty. How did this guy get out? The window was holographic and there was only . . . . He glanced up at the air vent. Um, no. He turned to the next culprit. The holovision. He grabbed the remote and checked the window’s vid-phone call log. Hmm, the hack had erased his call entry. It had to have been the holovision. It only transmitted scents humans could smell.

“Very funny, Smith.” Jirel grimaced and grabbed the card Smith had given him off he desk. “We need to have a little talk.”

Continued…next Thursday

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Crossroads, Part Thirteen

Continued from Part Twelve

Jirel stood before the soldiers who had made it to the end of Basic. “It has been a great eight weeks. You are now prepared to continue your service in the Imperial Military in your chosen specialties. You’ve learned to work as a team, you’ve been stretched beyond your limits, and thrived. You came here boys and girls; you leave here men and women.”

Jirel bit his lip. Some of them the wrong way. They didn’t know it yet, but despite his best efforts to enforce the rules, two of the female recruits were pregnant.

Jirel looked at young Snyder. “Some of you are bound for greatness. Remember the lessons you’ve learned here, and you will do well. You are dismissed.”

Snyder walked over to Jirel. “Thanks for everything, sir.”

“It was my honor. Come on, the bus to Boise will be here soon, and I’m sure your mother will be glad to see you.”

Jirel and Snyder talked as they walked to the bus depot.

Snyder said, “Can I have your address, so I can keep in touch?”

Jirel sighed. “I move around a lot, so that could be hard. I’ll see if I can contact you some time.” The odds were thin, but if he could, he would.

Snyder nodded. “Okay.”

The bus pulled up.

Jirel said, “This is it. Remember, you switch buses in Spokane.”

Snyder walked over to the bus, Jirel turned to walk away.

“Sir!” shouted Snyder.

Jirel turned. Snyder saluted, and Jirel returned his salute.

Once the young man boarded, Jirel watched Snyder’s bus pull out of camp. He spotted Snyder in one window with an odd longing in his eyes. Jirel sighed. Why must he get attached to these humans on these missions?

Jirel stood still, waiting for the Spirit to carry him away, preferably up to the throne. His assignment was over. He’d gotten the boy through basic. What else was there?

After half an hour, he walked to a public phone and pulled out the business card Smith had put in his pocket. Jirel dialed the number.

It rang. Smith answered. “Hello.”

Jirel said, “It’s Jirel. Snyder finished basic training. After two weeks off in Boise, he moves on to Advanced Training in New Mexico. Why am I still here?”

“Why, because your assignment’s not over, of course.”

Why are you doing it this way? Why all the second hand instructions?

Jirel sighed. “Where do I go next?”

“Report to Captain Rogers. You’ll be on a plane from Spokane to Las Vegas tonight. You’ve been promoted to First Sergeant and re-assigned to the Chic Hecht Listening post outside Las Vegas. Snyder will join you there in six weeks. He has many more vital decisions ahead, and he needs you.”

What had he done wrong? Why wasn’t he hearing from God himself?

Perhaps, I’m being trained in a way I can’t understand. Many times had he been sent to speak a word to humans that, “His ways are not your ways.”

It was hard on the other end of that advice, but it was time to take it and stop wavering. “I’m on my way.”

Concluded…next Thursday

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Crossroads, Part Twelve

Continued from Part Eleven

The next afternoon, Snyder sat at mess with his platoon. Sergeant Cutler walked over. “Recruit Snyder, this way.”

Cutler silently led Snyder out of the cafeteria and back to the testing center, where a man with lieutenant’s bars sat behind a desk.

Cutler and Snyder saluted.

The lieutenant said, “At ease, gentlemen. Recruit Snyder, I’ve graded your results. They were quite interesting.”

Snyder leaned forward. “Give it to me straight. How bad was it?”

The lieutenant chuckled. “Well, son, on the GED, I’m afraid you got every question correct. Your IQ came back at 175, which must be a disappointment if you were shooting for 200.”

Snyder grabbed the piece of paper and stared at it. “Nuh-uh.”

“Yes, huh. You are at the 99.9998 percentile of human intelligence. You are one in 722,000. There are perhaps 400 people in the entire province with your level of intelligence. You sir, are a genius.”

Snyder looked around. “Where’s the camera? This is a practical joke, right?”

He looked over at the smiling Sergeant Cutler, who said, “I told you.”

The lieutenant spread his hands on the desk. “Now, on the aptitude tests, you came up very strong for either Intelligence or the Military Police.”

“Sir, on the advice of Sergeant Cutler, I think I’d like to try Intelligence.”

“Excellent choice. I’m sure you’ll be a welcomed addition.” The lieutenant shook his hand. “Again, congratulations, son.”

Concluded…here

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Crossroads, Part Eleven

Continued from Part Ten

Snyder turned. Sergent Cutler stood behind him, arms folded across his field jacket. How had Cutler known? How had he gotten out here?

“Recruit, unless you’ve been drafted by the NBA, you’re out of uniform.”

Snyder took a step back and began to twirl the grappling hook. “Stay back.”

“At ease, Soldier. I won’t make you go back. This is your own decision. Let me ask you a couple questions, though. Why are you running?”

Snyder cursed. “Isn’t it obvious? No way can I pass the GED.”

Cutler laughed. “So, because you’re not smart enough to pass the GED, you bypass security systems, reprogram the generator, and escape from the Imperial Army.”

Snyder stopped twirling the grappling hook. And Cutler’s point was? He had street smarts aplenty. That hardly translated to book smarts. The stuff bored him to tears. Never seemed worth his time or effort. At least it hadn’t until his neck was riding on it.

Cutler asked softly, “And what were you going to do?”

“I’m going back to Idaho to take Mama Borden up on her offer to run.”

Cutler said, “So, that’s the life you want? Spending every day trying to keep one step ahead of the IBI and the Military Police? Some retirement for your mother, and some life for you.”

Snyder growled. “It’s a life.”

“But it’s not your only option,” said Sergeant Cutler. “You’re afraid — ”

Snyder raised the grappling hook. “I’m not afraid of anything, fool!”

Cutler coughed. “Don’t lie. You smell bad enough with the stench of fear on you without adding deceit.”

Snyder lowered the grappling hook.

“Now, the military doesn’t spend thousands of dollars training people, so we can hand them over to get hung. If you don’t pass this test, you can take it again, and I’ll work with you. I promise you that, as long as you don’t give up, you’ll pass this test. Will you try?”

Snyder dropped the hook. “All right.”

Cutler patted Snyder’s back. “Thanks for not quitting on me.”

“So what will my punishment be?”

Cutler sighed. “Kid, being up this late the day before your GED is punishment enough. Come on.”

They walked towards the front gate.

Snyder asked, “What will we tell the guard when they see how I’m dressed?”

Cutler shrugged. “Oh, that won’t be a problem.”
When they reached the gate, the guard lay sleeping on the ground.

Snyder arched his eyebrow. “Weird. He’s only been on duty like half an hour.”

“Guess some can’t take it even that long,” said Cutler, with a smile.

Cutler walked Snyder back to the barracks. “Now get some sleep.”

Continued…next Thursday

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