Category Archives: Rise of the Judge

Crossroads, Part Ten

Continued from Part Nine

Snyder climbed out of his bed, and grabbed his backpack from under the bed. He tiptoed into the latrine and changed into his red and gray Portland Trailblazers hoodie and black cargo jeans.

Snyder crept outside the barracks. He looked around. Nobody but the guard at fort’s front gate. He needed a way out of here, one that wouldn’t be picked up by security, or by the guards. He looked over at the generator room and ran to it.

He examined the door. The lock mechanism contained a tag reader. Good luck to Recruit Snyder getting in there.

Snyder jogged to a window and looked for security sensors. None, just a dumb window. He pulled the window open. He smiled. And an even dumber person who last closed it didn’t bother locking it. Snyder climbed in.

He hustled to the electronic control area and ran down the list of functions. Hmm. “Schedule outage.” Interesting.

He pressed the button.

A female voice said, “Password authentication required.”

If they were smart, they’d used random characters, but most folks seemed to find that type of password impossible to remember. He’d have to take one shot and make a break for it when it didn’t work.

He typed in, “J-I-R-E-L.”

The screen blinked. “Authentication accepted.”

He set a forty-five second blackout on the West Perimeter fence. The lights would go out and he’d scale the wall and be outside the fort before the lights came back on.

Snyder made his way towards the obstacle course. Footsteps echoed in the dark.

He ducked behind a barracks and peered out.

A Private First Class was walking towards the guard post. That meant the guard currently on duty would be heading back to his barracks.

Snyder got up a few minutes later and crept through the darkness, arriving at the obstacle course. A wooden supply room held the equipment. He tugged on the padlock. Apparently they decided this equipment wasn’t worth protecting with modern technology. He retrieved a small lock pick from his wallet.

He jimmied the lock open and grabbed a grappling hook from the wall. He looked at his watch. Ten minutes to spare. He opened the door, peaked outside, and quickly closed it. The captain was coming.

The footsteps grew closer until the captain stopped. The sound of a match lighting followed. Snyder pushed back the absurd idea that the captain would burn him alive.

Tobacco smoke wafted into the room. Snyder sniffed. It was like the pipe tobacco the old men at Grandma’s church smoked after the service while gripping about the former altar boy they thought deaf.

Snyder resisted the urge to cough. He reached for the wall and carefully removed a gas mask from it’s hook and placed it over his head.

Six minutes later, footsteps walked away. Snyder stuck his head out the door.

In the clear. He removed the gas mask, grabbed the grappling hook, and dashed to the wall. He hit it with a minute to spare. He looked up at the wall and noted the flight path the hook would have to take.

All right, only going to get one shot at this.

The lights went out.

Snyder threw the hook. It hit the top of the fence with a firm clank. He climbed up and over the fence and pulled the hook back over behind him.

Five seconds later, the light came on.

Snyder traipsed triumphantly through the woods outside the fort. He’d done it.

“Evening, Snyder.”

His blood turned to ice.

Continued…next Thursday

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Crossroads, Part Nine

Continued from Part Eight

After their nightly walk, Cutler pulled a small, somewhat circular pink device from his pocket. “Here, put this in your ear.”

Snyder put it in his right ear, and classical music began streaming. “Hey, what is this? I thought we weren’t allowed media players during basic.”

“I got an exception from the captain,” said Cutler. “Classical music can improve your thinking and reasoning skills and give you an edge. Don’t use this while drilling or in class. Just tonight and when you take the GED tomorrow.”

Snyder grunted. Personally, he preferred classical country such as Toby Keith; at least when he didn’t have to impress any gang-bangers. But it was definitely worth a try if it might give him an edge on his test. “Thanks, Sarge.”

“Get some sleep, Snyder. You’ve got a big day tomorrow.”

Snyder stood by the instructor’s desk as Sergeant Cutler read his test results.

“I’m sorry,” said Sergeant Cutler. “I was wrong. You are an idiot.”

Black-hooded executioners entered the classroom. “Your gallows await.”

They grabbed Snyder’s arms and dragged him out of class, down to the Boise greenbelt. Someone tossed a noose over the lone massive pine tree.

Snyder flailed. “No! I don’t want to die!”

Tío Rodrigo screamed, “I’m going after all your gang, one by one, and you won’t be able to stop me!”

Snyder cursed and struggled, but couldn’t break free of his executioners.

The leader of the Canadian recruits smiled. “Hey boys, looks like the Yank’s gonna go.”

The French punk waved Grandfather’s copy of the Constitution and lit it afire.

Tío Rodrigo dropped the noose around Snyder’s neck. “It is my pleasure!”

The noose began to tighten. A kitchen knife flew through the air, cutting the rope.

Mama Borden screamed, “Anny! Run!”

Snyder burst through his attackers and made a dash for Ann Morrison Park. He scrambled up the tree heavy with large, oval nuts.

Pain shot through his back, and he fell. And fell. And fell . . . .

Snyder screamed and sat up, soaked in a cold sweat. He looked at the clock. “2300 hours.” No way am I sticking around for this.

Continued…next Thursday

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Crossroads, Part Eight

Continued from Part Seven

Snyder sat with several recruits in a chamber full of tear gas. Snyder’s gas mask protected him from any ill effects, but that wouldn’t last. He’d read up on this. When he left the chamber, he’d have to take off the mask and then Cutler would ask a question. If Snyder got it right, he was fine. But if he didn’t, then back with the mask and into the chamber for another fifteen minutes before he would get to try again.

“Come on out!” shouted Cutler.

Snyder and his fellow soldiers went to the edge of the room.

Cutler said, “Remove your mask before leaving the chamber.”

Snyder took a deep breath in, held it, and pulled off the mask.

The gas assaulted his eyes. He scrambled out the door, tears running down his face. He repeated mentally the answer to every question he’d read that Cutler might ask: name, rank, Imperial identification number, unit number, home town.

He stood in line as half his colleagues got sent back.

Snyder was feeling a little better when he got to Cutler.

Cutler said, “Snyder, how do you determine the hypotenuse of a right triangle?”

Snyder’s face fell. “You’re not supposed to ask that.”

“I told you I would be harder on you. Get back in there and next time, have the right answer.”

Snyder grunted, put his gas mask on, and walked back into the chamber. He closed the door. Side A squared + Side B Squared = Side C squared.

He muttered this for the next fifteen minutes. Hopefully Cutler would ask the same question.

Continued…next Thursday

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Crossroads, Part Seven

Continued from Part Six

Snyder ducked behind ferns and a vine as a bayonet blade came flying towards his head. He stabbed his attacker in the back. The attacker fell to the ground and Snyder delivered a final blow to the shoulder blade of the holographic opponent.

The opponent disappeared and so did the jungle, giving way to the black grid of a hologram chamber. Snyder removed his goggles and hung them up at his station.

He sighed, what he’d give to see this tech available on the open market, at affordable prices, before he was too old to really enjoy it . . . .

Sergeant Cutler said, “All right, men. Fall in!”

Once they had all lined up, Cutler asked, “Any questions on your first visit to the Bayonet assault course?”

Snyder raised his hand. “Sir, with all due respect, is this necessary? I checked the library, and the bayonet hasn’t led to a combat fatality since before the Empire.”

Cutler shouted, “One hundred and twenty push ups, Recruit!”

Snyder hit the ground and began counting off. Cutler got down in Snyder’s face and glared. “Soldier, do not question our training methods! You will learn to use the bayonet. Your life may depend on it some day.”

Snyder panted. Sure and maybe he also needed to learn fencing and how to throw a spear. “Right now, my life depends on passing the GED!”

Sergeant Cutler growled. “Your life depends on staying in the military three years. With a smart mouth like that, you won’t cut it. Soldier, you will pass the GED, I’m certain of it.”

Snyder sighed. That made one of them. Despite Cutler asking GED questions while he took Snyder on nightly jogs, and at the afternoon GED classes, there was no way a guy who got straight D’s in his second year of the ninth grade would pass without more study. Give me about twenty years, and I’ll have it licked.

Continued here.

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Crossroads, Part Six

Continued from Part Five

A few days later, the bugle blasted reveille. Snyder groaned, turned over in his bunk, and looked at his watch. 0300? What the heck? Reveille wasn’t supposed to be until 0500. Sergeant Cutler burst in fully dressed.

Does that guy ever sleep?

“Up and at ’em, soldiers. We’re having a special assembly at 0530 hours. Required attendance.”

The female soldier in the bunk above Snyder groaned. Cutler said, “Soldier, give me five push-ups.”

What a pushover. Didn’t he even remember his own basic training?

After breakfast and the morning exercise, the recruits from his company entered the assembly hall. A giant portable holovision “picture window” filled the entire stage. Inside said holo-window, a larger-than-life colonel stood at a lectern preparing his notes. “Please, take your seats.”

Snyder found a seat with his platoon four rows from the back. His shadow sat beside him naturally. At times, he couldn’t tell whether she wanted him to protect her from certain other guys in the platoon, or wanted him to break one of Sergeant Jirel Cutler’s cardinal rules: no hanky-panky.

The Colonel at the lectern said, “I am Colonel Leopold Lewis. My apologies to recruits in the Pacific and Mountain Time Zones and for our friends at the Naval training center in Hawaii. I’m sorry to get you out of bed. However, I think you’ll find what you’re about to experience worth the disturbance. Here to explain the core values of our Imperial Armed Services, we have our commander-in-chief.”

Snyder stood and cheered along with virtually everyone else.

Lewis continued. “The World knows him as a winner of the Noble Peace Prize for his work on human rights. America knows him as Time’s Man of the Year for two years running and People’s Sexiest Man Alive for the past three.”

The females scattered in the audience cheered, apparently at all locations, from Lewis’ pause. But only his shadow’s squeals threatened to leave him deaf.

It took a minute, but the female recruits eventually remembered they were supposed to be tough-as-any-guy soldiers, not groupies.

Colonel Lewis said, “I know him as a good soldier, a great statesman, and a faithful prince, Earth’s  future King, Donovan the Steward.”

The twenty-one-year-old world leader entered the picture in dress uniform and with his raven hair tied back in a ponytail he’d grown out in belated rebellion. Donovan took the place of the exiting Lewis. “Thank you, soldiers, sailors, and Marines of the Empire and thank you, Colonel Lewis for that fine introduction.

“Perhaps the greatest change I’ve introduced as Steward has been in the core values of the military. My predecessor defined the core values as KILL:Know who’s in charge, Insure the death of terrorists, Loyalty to the Steward,Laziness means death. The KILL model had some interesting ideas, but produced great enmity between reasonable Americans and the Empire that could have been avoided.

“Because of this, I’ve introduced the LEAD model.” Below the Steward, words appeared as he spoke them:

Loyalty to the people of your province, and to the Empire as a whole.

Achieving personal excellence

The Steward delivered an inspirational speech on the LEAD model. It was different than other speeches he’d seen the Steward give. The Steward seemed ready to pound the podium like Mama Borden’s pastor.

When the Steward got to “Ethics,” Snyder leaned forward.

“During my predecessor’s reign, ethics were never discussed. It was considered of little importance, which is why he felt free to betray America and the Empire. We’ve had to correct many of his errors. You are the new army, an ethical army that will understand its ethical obligations.

“An ethical soldier is the pride and glory of the Empire. An unethical one is the greatest friend terrorists ever had. I want my army—make that our army—to be loved, respected, and honored across the globe. If we’re to do that, ethics must be our first priority, and it must be a way of life.

The Steward held up a spiral-bound book. “Your ethics handbook is your guide to life, your source of truth in all situations. It was put together by the finest minds in the world from the disciplines of philosophy and religion. I want us to be proud of what we do, and we’re not going to have that if we do not have an ethical base.”

“Should you run into any ethical problems that you cannot resolve at the local level, feel free to contact my military affairs office, and we’ll make sure that it’s resolved.”

Snyder made a mental note of the number flashing in the air, as if to remind him this was only a live holovision feed. This would be a real change, a huge change, in the way the Imperial Army operated. He could hardly wait to tell Mama Borden.

When the speech ended half an hour later, Snyder spotted Sergeant Cutler frowning in the corner. Cutler called out, “Everyone report to your drill sergeants. Thank you for your time.”

Cutler spent the next hour drilling them on the handling of their weapon. Cutler had them use rubber guns so an idiot wouldn’t kill anyone if he mishandled it.

Cutler said, “All right, good work, men. We’ll meet in 15 minutes in Classroom 12C and review the sexual harassment policy. Until then, you’re dismissed.”

Everyone but Snyder broke off to enjoy a few moments of free time. Snyder walked after Cutler. “Sir, can I have a moment of your time, sir?”

Cutler said, “What is it, Snyder?”

“I was wondering what you thought of the Steward’s presentation, sir.”

Cutler looked upwards for some reason and walked a few steps. “It was interesting. There’s one area it could have used improvement on.”

“Sir, what was missing, sir?”

“Everything he wants you to do, he wants you to do for you. Be ethical, because it will make you feel good. Achieve excellence, because it will make you look good. But Armies are made to fight battles, and in the midst of a battle, will you risk your life so that you look good? Will you die for a promotion? Where I come from, we were taught about love and putting others before yourself. And if a soldier can’t find that love for others, they’re not worth a dime.”

Man. And he thought the Steward had sounded like a preacher.


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The Devil’s Fool, Part Six

Continued from Part Five

Cold night air blew past the Defender. Couldn’t Aggei Aganovich find a less drafty place to conduct business? Closer to town would have made more sense, too.

Aggei entered the building, his large, rotund frame nearly bursting out of his suit. He slapped down a briefcase.

The Defender pulled a small camera from his white trench coat’s inner pocket and began recording. His friends at the militsiya would need proof to convict Aggei. Though they might need more than that with the corruption of the courts.

Aggei and the dealer each only had two men present. The Defender smiled. The others must still be recovering from their last encounter with him.

Aggei opened the case of drugs, and the dealer a case of cash. The Defender clucked his tongue and stopped recording. This would be enough for honest courts.

He slipped infrared goggles over his black mask and lobbed a small smoke bomb into the midst of the drug tradesmen. He jumped over a large crate and delivered a punch to the drug dealer’s torso.

The dealer laughed.

A fan dissipated the smoke. The drug trafficker stood near a crate with a remote control. Dozens of armed men emerged from the crates.

The Defender dived behind a forklift as a hail of bullets followed him.

Aggei said, “At last, it will be the end of you, my predictable friend.”

And here I thought Aggei was the predictable one. Hefelt the wall. A termite crawled onto his finger. He shook it off. Good thing Aggei goes for the rundown warehouses.

The Defender reached into the pocket of his white trench coat, pulled out a small vile of fast-acting acid, and poured it on the wall behind him. The acid ate a sizable hole in the wood. He jumped onto the forklift, turned it on, placed it in reverse, and jumped back behind the forklift and out through the hole and into the alley before the massive machine could block his exit.

He dashed to his specially-equipped white 1991 Volkswagen van, but skidded to a halt. All four tires had been slashed. He whirled away. Now what?

Aggei Aganovich and thirty armed men came marching around the corner with guns drawn.

Aganovich smirked.Your arrival here wasn’t unnoticed! You won’t get far on slit tires, especially with a potato in the tailpipe. Give up. You won’t escape, you’re outnumbered hopelessly, miles from anyone who could help.”

Not everyone. Almighty God, save your humble servant.

The Defender turned back towards the van to make a break down the road.

An American called from above in English, “Mind if I cut in?” A blinding flash of light came from the sky, and standing before the Defender was the Sword.

He rubbed his eyes. The greatest of all heroes, here in Russia? Saving his life?

The Sword grabbed the hilt of his glistening blade. It zoomed the Sword up in the sky and rapidly fired laser beams after Aggei Aganovich and his men.

Aggei ran towards a boat docked on the river. The Defender ran towards Aggei and arrived at the riverbank a few seconds after Aggei left the dock.

The Defender grabbed a knife, rope, and a set of handcuffs from his white trench coat before tossing it aside along with his white dress shirt. He jumped into the water, swimming towards the boat.

Aggei fired into the water. The shot glanced past the Defender, who dived underwater. Bullets continued to stream down from the boat.

The Defender surfaced for air to the left of the boat and threw his knife at the boat’s motor. The motor stopped. Aggei cursed and turned his gun on the Defender, who dived back underwater and swam towards the adrift boat. Aggei fired repeatedly off the stern.

The Defender swam under the rickety boat and slammed his body against the hull. The boat capsized, and Aggei landed in the water. The Defender grabbed Aggei’s gun and placed it in his pants pocket. Aggei struggled in the water. The Defender punched Aggei in the face, ending the struggle.

He turned sideways to the current and towed Aggei towards the riverbank. He tossed Aggei onto the bank and proceeded to handcuff and hogtie him.

The Defender patted the immobilized drug lord. “Don’t go anywhere.”

He raced back to the warehouse. Aggei’s henchmen had been tied up in groups of four, hanging from the building, shouting in Russian, demanding to be let down.

The Sword stood near the fourth group. The Defender panted as he caught his breath near where he’d dropped his trench coat and shirt. He was actually going to speak to the greatest legend living on Earth?

What if his English failed him despite all the years of study? No, this was not the time to be intimidated.

Perhaps a little wit would work. “You wrapped them so nicely.”

The Sword asked, “Know anyone who can pick up the present?”

The Defender picked up his coat and removed a cell phone from his inside pocket. “Major Karmokov will make sure they find their way to jail.”

Call him, and then I have urgent business with you.”

The Defender’s heart leaped. The Sword had business with him? How could he have attracted attention from the great Sword?

Stay calm, Sagunov. The Sword is only a man, not God.

Continued here.

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Crossroads, Part Five

Continued from Part Four

At 1800 hours, Sergeant Cutler entered the barracks. “Attention.”

Snyder stood at attention, but the rest wouldn’t be getting any cigars. He’d have to make sure that everyone knew how to stand by tomorrow. He couldn’t let his platoon look bad. Snyder dropped to the ground and started doing push-ups. The whole platoon would have to for such a pathetic line up, so he might as well get a head start.

Cutler peered down at Snyder. “Um, drop and give me, uh, six.”

Snyder stopped. Six push-ups? “Sir, do you mean sixty, sir?”

His platoon glared.

Cutler growled. “I am the sergeant, I know what I mean. You give me sixty for being smart, everyone else give me six.”

Snyder grunted.

Cutler cleared his throat. “We will work on that tomorrow. How to stand, salute, all that. No mail for tonight. Everyone be sure to observe Light’s Out. Recruit Snyder, once you’re finished with your push-ups, come see me outside.”

“Sir, yes, sir.”

Snyder walked outside and found Sergeant Cutler waiting.

The sergeant said, “We are going to take a little run. Keep up as best you can.”

Snyder had to run at his top speed to keep pace with Cutler. The sergeant hadn’t broke a sweat, or panted. Must take incredible discipline.

After forty-five minutes, near the motorpool, Sergeant Cutler turned. “Halt!”

Snyder stopped. The cool night air began to soothe his burning lungs.

Once Snyder caught his breath, Cutler asked, “You know why I did that?”

Because you’re on a power trip.

“Sir, tell me, sir.”

“You have never been challenged in your life, Snyder. Your siblings and teachers tell you that you’re stupid, but your actual problem is you’re too smart, and don’t like people talking down to you. You are a punk because nobody has made you be something else. That is changing here. I am going to demand more of you than I will anyone else, because you have got the potential for greatness if you don’t waste it.”

Snyder raised an eyebrow. “Where did you get this information?”

Cutler folded his beefy arms. “Where did you find out about basic training?”

Snyder shuffled his feet. “Sources.”

Cutler smiled. “I’ve got my sources, too. Now, let’s get back to the barracks.”

Snyder grunted. So, Cutler has decided to be my new daddy. Who asked him to? I get more than enough of that from Cerulean.

Cutler said, “Snyder, what specialties are you going to pursue?”

“Sir, haven’t decided, Sir.”

“Have you thought about Intelligence?”

Snyder laughed. “Sir, I just need to up my IQ to 125, and pass the hardest logic and technology aptitude tests on the planet, and then I’m in. Easy as cake, Sir.”

“Has your IQ ever been tested?”

Snyder sighed. “Sir, I’m a high school dropout dodging a hate crime rap. Seeing as I’ll hang if I don’t pass the GED, that test is kinda central to my thinking, sir.”

“I see. But we will test your IQ, too.”

Snyder laughed. “Sir, I can be a smart-aleck, sure, but I’ll be thankful to break a hundred. Maybe I should just go to infantry school, sir.”

“Because you’re afraid of failing?”

Snyder snapped, “I’m not afraid of anything, fool!” He forced the fight out of his stance. “I mean, Sir, I’m not afraid of anything, sir.”

“Good. Imagine your days spent gathering information, and then putting together that information and separating the vital from the trivial. That’s Intelligence.”

If only that could happen. “Sir, I’ll never be good enough, sir.”

“Either you are or you aren’t. But you won’t know if you don’t try.”

Continued here.

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Crossroads, Part Four

Continued from Part 3
Snyder awoke in a white room filled with gauze, bandages, and anti-septic. A figure  sat at the foot of his bed. Cerulean?

His vision focused. No, not Cerulean, the face was all wrong. Just a sergeant.

He groaned. “What happened?”

The sergeant said, “Four Canadian recruits beat you up. When I came in, they were still trying to get your book away.”

Snyder reached into his shirt and pulled out the Constitution. “Thank God.” Snyder bit his lip. Such stupid old habits could get him killed.

The sergeant said, “They were pretty bold to do that in a room filled with mostly Americans.”

Snyder nearly laughed. “Sir, you’re forgetting that we’re taught in school that nationality doesn’t matter. That we are first and foremost citizens of the Empire. For most back there, we might as well have been fighting over whether Meridian High was better than Capitol.”

“I’m glad to see you’re okay. You’ll be able to start training with the next recruits, once you’ve recovered.”

Next recruits? He wasn’t going to let some stupid Canucks lay him up.

He climbed down off the table. His head throbbed. But no way he was backing out. “Sir, I want to go now, sir.”

“You’re a tough kid.” The sergeant stood silently a moment.

He nodded. “Okay.”

He turned to Snyder. “Come on.”

Whatever, as long as he got back and showed those Canucks.

The sergeant led Snyder to a common area with four barracks on either side.

The sergeant said, “Fall in, son.”

Snyder walked to the end of the coed troop lineup and took his position. The sergeant delivered his opening message. It was pretty much the same speech as he’d watched online, though this drill sergeant was less harsh, and even seemed nervous. He might just get out of Basic without getting his back striped at the flogging post for the unpardonable sin of insubordination.

The sergeant came and got in Snyder’s face. “What is your name, soldier?”

Snyder bellowed out, “Sir, A. L. Snyder, sir!”

“What does A. L. Stand for?”

“Sir, Awesome Lover, sir!” A chorus of laughter went through the ranks.

Snyder dropped and began doing push-ups. “Sir, how many, sir?” Snickers came from the men around them.

Snyder looked up at the puzzled sergeant, who said, “Forty will be fine.”

Forty? Piece of cake. He’d been doing eighty every morning since he was twelve.

Soon enough, Snyder was back up.

The sergeant said, “Now, let’s get to your bags.”

A cart with 120 bags on it was brought in by two Privates First Class.

The sergeant said, “You have seven minutes to get your bags off the cart.”

This had been online, too. The exercise was meant to get them to work as a team.

Dashing forward, Snyder reached the cart first. He grabbed a bag, looked at the label, and tossed it at the mad dogs.

“Lexus Montgomery!” He grabbed another. “Toyota Seu!”

With everyone else pushing and shoving like rioters, he had to let the others in on the secret. He stood on the cart. “Listen! You’re not going to get through 120 bags looking for your own. We help each other, we get it done. We don’t, we won’t.”

The others began copying him. Within five minutes, everyone had their bag.

The sergeant said, “Well done, that’s a record, men. I have your platoon assignments here. Dinner will be at 1700 hours, lights out at 2130.”

Snyder resisted the urge to grimace. Or in American English: dinner’s at five and be in bed by nine-thirty.

Later, Snyder and his platoon claimed their bunks in the barracks. He stole into a bottom bunk. The lone female in his platoon lobbed her duffel bag into his top bunk. The shorn female recruit sent him a smile filled with admiration and trust. He had that effect on the ladies. But Contrary White Boy only went for fine sistas that Mama Borden threw fits over if he got caught dating them.

Another teen recruited from JD leaned into his bunk and said with a slight Arabic lilt, “You did great out there, man. How did you know?”

Snyder smiled. “Sources. I got everything here figured out, bro. Stick with me, and you’ll make it through this thing.”

The young man slapped hands with him. “Count me in.”

Continued next Thursday

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Crossroads, Part Three

Continued from Part Two

Snyder snatched an old wooden chair near the fireplace and looked around the waiting room. His fellow camo-clad and buzz-cut shorn recruits fidgeted like they were in Sister Fran’s ninth grade math class, or something equally boring.

Snyder looked down at his green uniform. He wasn’t a punk kid anymore, he was a soldier.

If only Mama Borden and Cerulean could find even a little enthusiasm. All the other guys had been dropped off by relatives bursting with pride. But Mama and Cerulean? They proposed going on the run. But how much worse could the Imperial Army be than all those breeders Mama Borden had done her double agent thing in? She’d even been responsible for harvesting organs from products of unwanted pregnancies not unlike yours truly.

Still, Mama and Cerulean’s response beat what his other six Borden siblings suggested: letting him hang. Such loyalty a guy got by being born the wrong skin color.

Snyder looked down at his watch. How late was the drill sergeant now? Ten minutes? Last time he checked, it’d been eight. He needed to read.

He reached into his pants pocket and pulled out the leather bound copy of the US Constitution his grandmother had given him. It was the only thing of Grandmother’s that hadn’t been unceremoniously hawked by her drug addict daughter-who had been so repentant upon discovering her enslaved, frozen fertilized egg redeemed to become such a fine young hoodlum, she tried to sell him back into slavery.

Snyder opened to the title page, which had a small blood spot. Grandmother had said it’d come from his grandfather at the Battle of Richmond, where he and a few thousand brave souls stood against President Ivan Dimitriov’s unconstitutional decision to surrender U.S. sovereignty to the, ahem, Eternal Empire of Earth unilaterally.

Thankfully, Ivan was gone now, hung like the traitor he was. Who cared if he’d committed the crime Prince Donovan had accused him of? Sure, it’d be like him reporting Cerulean, but Ivan had slaughtered patriots and saints alike. It was justified a million times over for all that Ivan had taken from him. He’d downloaded the collector’s edition holographic still of the hanging to his PictureFrame.

He began to read the first page of the Constitution. We the People of the United States of America, in order to-

Another recruit ripped the Constitution from his hand. “What’s this, eh?” The recruit bore the crests of Europe and Canada on his army jacket’s sleeve. “Oooh, look here fellas, the US Constitution.” The Canadian spit on the page. “It says in here that Yanks should be able to own guns and millions died as a result.”

Snyder jumped up, fists clinched for a beat-down. But if he screwed this up and got kicked out, he’d be on a one way ticket back to Boise, Idaho, where he’d get hung for a hate crime. Snyder glared. “Give me my book, Canuck.”

The Canadian turned to three fellow Canuck recruits. “Hear that, the Yank wants his book back.”

“Let ‘im come and get it,” said one with a French Canadian accent.

The first Canadian tossed it to the Frenchman, who threw it on the ground and stomped on it. Snyder turned. 1, 2, 3 . . .

“Oooh,” said the first. “What’s the matter, lil’ Yank a coward?”

4, 5, 6 . . .

“I zink I’ll use ze pages for rolling joints,” said the French Canadian.

7 . . . Ah, who was he was kidding?

Snyder jumped the first Canadian, knocking the jerk and himself both to the ground. He grabbed the leg of the French Canadian and pulled him down. He grabbed the Constitution, stuffed it down his army-issue tight green tank, and stood.

Two arms wrapped around his legs, and he fell. He couldn’t let them have it. He turned on his stomach and rolled into a ball, clutching the Constitution to his chest.

As the four Canadians beat him, the lights went out.


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Crossroads, Part Two

Continued for Part One

Crunch, crunch. The dry, sparsely buttered toast disappeared slowly as Jirel nibbled on it in his booth in the cafe’s darkly lit and almost deserted back corner. How many days had he been left waiting here? 100? 200? In all that time, the divine nod to do a good deed had been sorely infrequent.

How long, Lord? How long?

Sometimes, the silence deafened. Others, it whispered. Steady, steady.

So, he waited. And lamented.

Ding-a-ling! An old man entered, walking with a slight limp, and headed straight for Jirel.

The man settled into the booth across from him. “Jirel?”

He wrinkled his nose and nodded. Who told the man? “And you are?”

“Jonathan Smith.”

Jirel coughed. Lies smelled so rotten.

At least he could still smell them. A most unfortunate deception; Smith probably felt he had good reason. “All right, ‘Mr. Smith’, what are you doing here, and how do you know my name?”

“I’ve come with a Word for you.”

What have I done to deserve this humiliation, Lord? Why send a mortal to speak to one who has stood before Your throne? “Speak on.”

“God is not punishing you, Jirel. He’s brought you here on a mission.” The old man pulled a manila envelope from his vinyl jacket and placed it on the table. “You’re a sergeant in the Imperial Army.”

Jirel swallowed. “What?”

“There’s a boy who needs your help to become a man.”

Jirel arched his eyebrows. “What do I know about being a man? I can hardly teach him to be what I am. He’d sooner learn how to be a bird.”

“You don’t have to know, you just have to help him.”

Ignoring the messenger, Jirel petitioned Heaven. “Why, Lord? What am I doing here, cast from my proper abode and trapped in this tent? Are there no saints available in all of Heaven and Earth?”

Smith sighed. “It may be my fault. Thanks to my Ecumenical Patriots’ Council, it’s against most churches’ doctrines for Christians to serve in the Imperial Military. A few serve secretly, but either in such low ranks, or they are so badly compromised by the oppressive environment, they’d be useless for this assignment.”

Jirel swallowed. And also beyond the general perimeters of the host’s commanders. Their mansions, like the King’s, were visible to mortal eyes, but not meant to abide in this world. “I see. Who is it?”

Smith pushed the envelope towards him. “Open it.”

Jirel slit the top off with a fingernail and pulled out a picture of a male human about sixteen years of age with a ragged dark blond mop of hair and aquamarine eyes.

The waitress came to the table. “Sir, will you want something?”

Smith waved away the menu extended to him. “Two egg whites and grape juice. You do take American, I trust?”

The lady smiled. “We prefer it.”

“Thank you kindly.”

After she walked away, Jirel gestured to the boy’s picture. “As you were saying.”

“That’s Annunciation Leslie Snyder.”

Smith chuckled. “But don’t think of calling him that. Snyder goes by his last name only. I knew his grandmother. A dearer saint and a dearer patriot has never graced this earth.”

“More saintly than Teresa of Calcutta and more patriotic than Betsy Ross?”

Smith laughed. “So hyperbole is out. She’s as dear as anyone I knew. Rescued her grandson from a breeder and devoted herself to raising him. A couple years back, her daughter euthanized her and kidnapped the boy, but he got away and fled to his surrogate mother and her son Cerulean-faithful Baptists his grandmother willed him to. He’s been staying with them until recently.”

Jirel rested his back against the red leather of the booth. “What changed?”

“Snyder reached the perfectly rational conclusion that the police today are corrupt and incompetent, especially in regards to the city’s gang problem. So the lad took matters into his own hands and formed his own gang. Sometimes, they worked with the police, but when the police refused to work with them, ‘justice was done.’

“The problem Young Snyder has run into is that his brand of justice the law considered a hate crime when he tried to hang a local child molester. The Imperial prosecutor wanted to hang him, but the arresting officer felt sorry for Snyder and had enough leverage with the prosecutor and judge to get the case suspended. Rather than being executed for a hate crime, he needs only finish three years in the military and he walks away a free man with no criminal record.”

Jirel nodded. Most Gracious and Holy Lord, how great you are to lay up mercy in the human heart towards whom you will to favor.

The waitress brought out the egg whites and the grape juice. Smith nodded. “Thank you, ma’am.” He cut his eggs into bite-sized pieces. “This time in the military will include some of the most important decisions of his life.”

Like the most important one. “Where does his soul stand?”

“Until a couple years ago, other than being bored to distraction in class and getting into scuffles in the schoolyard over his given name, Snyder was the model Catholic lad. Since his grandmother died, he’s withdrawn from God and the Church. I’ve heard him around town, talking with other boys about how great things will be once the old coot-that’d be Emperor Herald-keels over and Prince Donovan can rule justly.”

Jirel grimaced. “So, he’s fallen into worshiping the prince?”

Smith took a sip of grape juice. “He’s grabbing onto hope wherever he can find it. So, Jirel, are you in?”

Jirel pressed his lips together. Why did he not feel God directing him? Maybe, this man was not really of God? What if Smith had consulted with the enemy, and that was how Smith knew him? Perhaps this was yet another attempt to make Jirel fall.

No, he would have smelled the enemy’s stench. Smith had to be a saint who had not yet traded his corrupt tent in for the mansion awaiting him in eternity. Only the Blood could get a mortal smelling this clean. Fear and self-pity were getting better at sneaking up on him unawares, but divinations were among the least subtle of evil’s breeds. His senses couldn’t have become that dull.

But the man could have come on his own, and somehow guessed, perhaps misused a gift of the Lord.

Jirel looked up to Heaven. Master, please. I need direction. Show me what to do.

A quiet rumbling came, a slight affirmative nudge. Jirel looked down. “I’ll go.”

“Splendid, I have your uniform in the car, along with your identity papers, and bus tickets. You’re Staff Sergeant Jirel Cutler of Army Intelligence. You’ve been sent to Fort Columbia on temporary assignment to take recruits through basic training.”

Cutler. To be given one name had been honor enough, but two? The Lord abounded in generosity.

He lowered his head respectfully to the child of the Most High. “Sir, I have no training in the Imperial Army and no experience training soldiers. Who am I to teach? Who am I to give men orders? Where I come from, it is the other way around.”

Smith finished his egg whites. “Don’t give in to doubt. God will show you what to do and how to act. Submit yourself and He’ll guide you as He always has. Now, come, let’s get your gear, Sergeant Cutler.”

Cutler and Smith went to the front counter and paid their bills.

Out in the parking lot, Smith opened the trunk of his red hybrid hatchback and pulled out a suitcase. “Given that this place is friendly towards American currency, I’d recommend changing into your uniform at the next stop on the bus. Now, give me your strong hand, Sergeant Cutler.”

He extended his left hand and stared at the bulge in his wrist indicating a microchip “tag” tied to an International Commerce Account. To obtain it, humans had to deny God and pledge allegiance to that impostor, Emperor Herald.

Jirel trembled with the urge to claw it out. “What’s this?”

“An untagged Imperial Sergeant would be quite suspicious, but you’ll never have to sign anything. It’s one of our bypass chips.”

Smith pulled out a black rectangular device. “All right, the chip is programmed with your data. Your ICA balance is $2350.12, in international dollars, of course. Every two weeks, you’re paid $1100 plus benefits, with $600 left after taxes.”

Jirel swallowed. “I see.” He touched the lump in his tent’s wrist. Lord God Most High, I don’t understand what you’re doing to me, or why, but I will do as you command.