An Interview With Science Fiction and Horror Author Timothy Johnson

Timothy Johnson is a cross genre author whose first novel, Carrier, was published in 2014 by Permuted Press.  It’s a great example of the potential that cross-pollination between genres can bring to a writing project, and anyone interested in doing the same should definitely check out what he has to say on the subject.  Enjoy!

-For the readers who are unfamiliar with you and your work, would you mind describing your personal background and what influenced you to become a professional writer?

There isn’t much intrigue in my personal background. I had an average upbringing with loving parents, and I was privileged to live in an environment where I could let my mind wander. When I was in my mid-teens, it was almost a snap decision that I went to my dad and told him I wanted to learn to play the guitar. I’d felt the pull toward the arts for a while, of course, but I remember vividly walking into my father’s garage, the smell of gasoline vapors and grease, and telling him I didn’t want to play baseball anymore. I wanted to play music. He gave me that Clint Eastwood squint and said, “okay.”

I had a guitar a week later, and I practiced as often as I could. I started writing songs, and then I joined a band. I was going to be a rock star.

I didn’t become a rock star. I went to college instead, and while I had aspirations of carrying on my musical career, some part of me knew that was over. On a whim, I took an intro to creative writing class, and I found many of my musical skills carried over. There’s a rhythm to words. There’s a structure to storytelling much like composing a piece of music. And there’s harmony. I started writing poetry because it was a natural transition, and then I started pursuing fiction. When I committed myself to that identity of being a fiction writer, it felt right.

 

-What are you looking for your readers to get out of your books, and what tools have you found to be most effective?

I want to move readers emotionally, and I want to share ideas. Perhaps more important, I want my readers to arrive at new ideas that never even occurred to me. I want them to see the ideas I missed, and in the hidden meanings of my stories, I hope they find a truth that resonates with them.

The tool that’s perhaps most effective for me is the brake pedal. It’s easy to get your fingers rattling over the keys, but if you let your digits get away from your thoughts, you’ll find you’ve written drivel you don’t care about, and your writing will have no heart or soul. So stopping and focusing on the ideas that are in front of me help me develop them. It’s like bricks and mortar. You have to have a solid foundation before you can start building vertically. You have to make sure that brick is aligned right before you can slap mortar on top of it and place another brick.

-How would you describe your path to publication?

My path to publishing Carrier was a confluence of random events. In other words, I was lucky.

I wrote Carrier over the course of about three years. It was off-and-on, but during that time, I never was doing it with the objective of publishing it. It was all about the legacy of it, simply writing this thing and making it exist. Through a few channels, I had made professional acquaintance with a fairly well-known apocalyptic horror author, and it came up in conversation that I had written a novel. He graciously offered to put me in touch with his contacts at Permuted. Of course, I said, “yeah, that would be great!” So he queried the former Permuted owner, Jacob Kier, on my behalf. Jacob turned me down because he already had another novel that he thought was too similar.

Oh well.

Fast forward a year, and Permuted was acquired by investors who were looking to grow the company aggressively. I queried them, and this time, they wanted my book.

An author friend of mine, Nick DeWolf, described the writing process as analogous to sitting in traffic. I thought that was the best metaphor for writing that I’d ever heard.

Generally speaking, I get to my computer late in the evening. I open up whatever I wrote yesterday, read over it, delete some of it, add to some of it, and when I get to the place I stopped, I just keep going.

-Do you have any future projects that you would like to tell your fans about?

Why? Do you know any?

I’m wrapping up a sci-fi/horror novel, and I have a few short stories in the pipe. The problem is finding the right outlet for them.

 

 

-What do you know now that you wish you knew starting out as a writer?

 

I started out in a fairly supportive literary community. I wish I’d known how rare that was. Over the years, I’ve met some amazing people, but writing, as in the writing process, is an extremely solitary experience.

 

 

-My favorite part of Carrier was the long, slow ramp-up of tension prior to the novel’s climax. How do you balance the need to keep a reader’s attention with the desire to set the right tone for the book?

 

Trust.

I feel like the most important lesson I ever learned is that I’m not actually in control of this story. My reader is. I’m conveying various bits of thought patterns and sensory data, but the experience is only real on the receiving end where the story might be competing for the reader’s attention with Facebook and the TV that’s on in the background. So I have to trust my reader to follow through and to push on with the pace that I’ve set. I think that, as a writer, once you let go of the illusion that you have any control over the reader’s experience, you unchain yourself.

In many ways, I know Carrier was ill-advised for a first novel or even for a novel to achieve mainstream success. It violates a lot of formulas, but that’s what I wanted.

I wanted to showcase that there could be a measure of static in the environmental noise that could appeal to readers and pull them through. I wanted to show them images through a veil and invite them to lift it. I wanted apprehension and tension to be the bulk of the story, and I hoped that when readers arrived at the station where the train would take them away, they’d be ready for that release, and it would be satisfying.

 

 

-Which genre do you feel more comfortable writing in; Horror or Science Fiction? How do you incorporate the qualities of one into the other?

 

I describe myself as a sci-fi transplant. I’m a horror writer who keeps getting sci-fi ideas. But I really see the genres as having a harmony with each other. Sci-fi is setting and world building and technology. Horror is tension and fear and atmosphere. They marry each other in ideas, and those ideas are the heart of my stories.

 

 

-What do you feel is necessary for a solid multi-genre novel?

 

Stories are about the characters first. Without interesting characters who drive the story, there isn’t enough for readers to fall in love with. Heart and soul are necessities for a solid multi-genre novel.

Beyond that, everything has to be justifiable. You’re telling a story on a spaceship in the future. Okay, why not present day on an island? What about the spaceship is meaningful? Similarly, you have zombies in your story. Why not vampires or werewolves? What about your monster choice strikes the chord you are looking for?

I think bridging genres is as much about understanding what you’re trying to accomplish as it is about passion for the subject matter. An allure to the fantastic or the frightful will only get you so far. When you suck people in, you have to release them as a different person.

But I guess that’s the same for any genre. It’s just what makes a good story.

 

 

And that’s it.  Thanks again to Tim for taking the time to do the interview.  Here are some links:

 

Author’s Website

Author’s Amazon Page

More Interviews

 

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Defend Us in Battle

Here are the first few chapters of my third novel, Defend Us in Battle.  If you’d like to read the rest, or just have feedback, feel free to contact me.

Chapter 1

And so I begin the fifth journal chronicling my life of service to Rome. My name is Claudius Severus Faenius, and I am a soldier of Rome. If I am dead, stranger, and you come upon this volume either on my person or among my possessions, I humbly request that you remand it either to one of my fellow Centurions of the Ninth, or, should that prove impossible, make every reasonable effort to return these pages to my family outside of Carteia in Southern Hispania. I ask you this as a fellow Roman, so that my family might learn of what I accomplished in my absence and know that Rome did not sell my life cheaply.

 

I threw myself into the dirt as the rocket-propelled grenade whizzed over my head. I struggled to spit the grit out of my mouth while I got on a knee and started to scan the ridgeline behind the enemy compound for threats. So far, the entire mission had been a giant cluster. We’d been late getting the news that one of the High Value Targets that we were after had just surfaced in a known enemy compound just over the Af-Pak border. My worst fears were confirmed when I heard the telltale sound of a .50 DSHKA heavy machine gun open up from a fortified fighting position well above us.

I could hear the rounds impacting around me as I crouched behind a boulder. Nearby, I could hear the frantic sound of our Air Force JTAC as he attempted to establish comms with the A-10 that was supporting us. Evidently, he succeeded because a moment later a sound that more closely resembled the noise of a truck engine without a muffler than a machine gun filled the sky as the aircraft’s GAU-8 rotary cannon stitched a trail of dust along the ridgeline perpendicular to our position.

I looked to my left and right, ensuring that the rest of my squad was alright. When my two team leaders gave me a thumbs up sign, I radioed the Platoon Leader and let him know that we were alright.

“Two-Six, this is Two-One. We’re all up.”

“Two-Three is up,” came another voice on the net.

There was some heavy breathing as someone took a second to catch their breath before speaking. “This is Two-Seven,” my Platoon Sergeant said. “We have one minor casualty with a ricochet at my position, but he’s patched up and good to hook. Tell the JTAC thanks, Two-One.”

I looked over and gave the Air Force JTAC a thumbs up, which he returned.

“Roger,” our Platoon Leader said in his thick Detroit accent sounded back over earpiece. “Once Weapon squad is in position, first and second squad will bound up to the compound. One-Three, ya’ll have outer security.”

He was soon answered by a chorus of ‘Rogers’ and the platoon started to manuever. Our Platoon Sergeant and the Weapons Squad Leader directed our heavy weapons team as they lay down disciplined bursts of fire on the compound while we approached, shifting fire while we advanced. We bounded up by fire teams; one team covered the advance of the other from behind boulders or from inside ditches while the other team advanced. I could see that third squad was doing the same thing parallel to us as we advanced toward the compound. Whoever was in there was about to have almost twenty Army Rangers smashing down their front door.

“Man, what the fuck?” my alpha team leader said as we scanned the windows for telltale signs of enemy combatants. “The Pred’s been looking at this house for four fucking hours. How did they miss the DSHKA crew on the ridge over there?”

“Thermal blankets… spider holes, who knows?” My musing was interrupted when muzzle flashes erupted from one of the darkened windows on the second level. My team immediately returned fire, pouring lead into the opening to little effect. Afghan compounds are built like small fortresses with walls made of thick clay and narrow windows to give defenders plenty of cover, perfect for defense against superior numbers and firepower.

Still, a clay wall can only do so much against an M203 Grenade launcher. One of my guys pumped two of the things into the window with the stubby, underslung weapon in less than ten seconds. The grenades detonated with a muffled whump and our two squads resumed the advance. Soon, we were stacked along the dubious safety of the outer wall. I tapped the Platoon Leader on the shoulder and motioned for him to get to the rear of my squad’s stack. I admired his enthusiasm, but he had the less experience with this sort of thing than anyone else in the platoon. He’d been back from his last deployment for only six months and attended RASP four weeks after getting back, but even so, he had a lot to learn about this sort of thing.

To his credit we moved. I eyed the other squad leader, Staff Sergeant Tidwell on the other side of the doorway and counted down with my gloved hand. His breaching man came up with a prybar and wrenched the double door open and second squad poured into what overhead imagery had indicated was the building’s courtyard.

There were three men waiting for us in the courtyard, their weapons trained on the gate. One was quick enough to fire off a short burst of AK-47 fire before the three of them were taken down. I was passing through what we call the ‘fatal funnel’ just as the third enemy combatant was collapsing to the ground.

We Rangers excel at this kind of work, logging hundreds of hours in our simulated urban shoot houses between deployments, and very few enemies anticipate the psychological effect of a sudden, violent breaching operation. All we need is a split second for the enemy to fumble for his safety, rack a round, or just try to figure out what the hell’s going on, and the room is ours. The rest of our two squads poured into the courtyard, covering all of the windows and doors and responding instantly to short, clipped commands and hand signals.

I got the nod I was looking for from the PL and had my squad stack on the main entrance to the building’s interior as the two fire teams from the other squad cleared the outbuildings that lined the courtyard. There as a burst of gunfire behind me and I whipped my head around just in time to see four Soldiers emerge from one of the aforementioned outbuildings signaling one enemy KIA. The bastard must have been either hiding or waiting for us to begin breaching before attacking us from behind. Regardless, he wouldn’t be a problem now.

I felt the pressure of the man in front of me as he leaned against by body in a silent signal for ‘ready’ that originated with the point man. I responded by leaning back against him, sending the unspoken signal back to the front. Once we were all in place, the breach man extricated himself from the stack and was about to aim a kick directly beside the cheap stamped metal door handle, when I grabbed him by the loop on the back of his body armor and pulled him away from the door. We both lost our balance and nearly fell on our asses while the rest of the squad looked at us in alarm.

I gestured at the top right hand corner of the doorframe where a small half loop of black wire could be seen protruding from the inside. My breaching man’s olive face grew pale as he realized how close he’d come to getting blown to pieces. They’d obviously rigged the door when the firefight began, knowing that we’d almost have to come in through the main entrance. In their haste, it appeared that they’d failed to notice that a small section of the command wire had folded back outside of the door when they closed and locked it. Of course, it could all be a clever decoy as well. The bitch was that it would take too long for us to figure out which it was.

So, we were going in the window. I shook my head at my bravo team leader when he took the lead position beside the only window facing into the courtyard someone wearing full battle rattle could hope to squeeze through. If someone had to go in first, it was going to be me. One of my guys crawled beneath the window and tossed two flashbangs through the opening. I counted to three and leapt in after them as soon as I heard them detonate.

The air was still smoky and stinking of chemicals when my feet touched the floor inside the house. I saw three men on the ground all reaching for their weapons. One grabbed his rifle and turned it toward the opening, even though his eyes were still closed. I fired five quick rounds into his head and torso as I moved into the corner and the rest of my squad poured through. The other two didn’t have time to get their hands back on their weapons before my men were on top of them. Using quick, efficient movements, two of my Soldiers secured their wrists with zip ties as soon as all of the doorways were secure.

We passed through a large communal kitchen with large pots still heating rice above propane heaters. The room was clear, but I could hear gunfire echoing through other parts of the house. I knew that our other squad not involved in the cordon was in the building as well. The PL requested a Tacrep, which I relayed to my team leaders. We were all fine. Unfortunately, it sounded like second squad had taken a casualty.

There was no time to stop clearing the house and surrender the initiative to the enemy now that we were inside. Still, I couldn’t help but monitor the radio as the Platoon Sergeant and medic rushed forward from where they had been treating the earlier light casualties to retrieve the casualty. I sighed with relief when the voice of one of second squad’s team leaders came across the net and confirmed that it was only a graze and Sergeant Janos, it had to be him since he was the team SAW gunner, was moving under his own power.

Once you start clearing a house, things get disorderly quickly, especially if you don’t know the layout. It’s really easy for stacks to become disorganized or mixed between teams and squads once the bullets start flying and the detainees start needing to be guarded. My squad was already down two guys, who had remained in the front room to guard our initial prisoners and direct follow-on forces. We couldn’t afford to stop though. It would give the enemy time to coordinate their defense and set up kill zones. We needed to clear the house quickly and violently or else we’d have more serious casualties to deal with soon, and plenty of them.

As such, we were moving up the stairs to the second floor of the compound with a slightly understrength squad. We kept our rifles trained just above each other’s shoulders as we ascended the stairs in two columns. My ears rang as a 5.56mm round flew by my head into an enemy that had been moving to cover the staircase. My eyes flicked to Specialist Christman, who had already put his rifle back on safe, barely breaking his stride as he continued up the stairs. He was a good kid. He’d been with the unit less than a year and there was a good chance he’d just saved my life.

I continued to monitor the progress of the casualty evacuation efforts on the first floor as we began clearing rooms. The first two had nothing in them but a few ratty mattresses and dilapidated pieces of furniture. I took lead on the third room, smashing it in with a swift, economical kick the instant before my squad piled into the room. Gunfire erupted almost immediately. There were half a dozen heavily armed insurgents clustered around a massive assortment of high-end weaponry. Time always seems to slow down when I’m in a firefight, and the detached, analytic part of my brain noticed that there were boxes of stinger missiles, sniper rifles, machine guns and a recoilless rifle spread about the room. I dove for cover behind a flimsy set of shelves and opened up on the insurgents as my squad followed me through.

Several bullets snapped by my head as we switched our M-4s to full auto to gain fire superiority. The two insurgents that had wrongly felt that they would receive divine protection, thus obviating the need for cover went down in a hail of gunfire as the remaining four melted into cover. The room was connected to the one next to it by an enlarged doorway, giving the enemy space to fall back and return fire.

One of my guys went down with a gunshot wound to his leg. A team leader dragged him back into the hallway while the rest of my squad piled into the room, laying down a steady stream of lead at the remaining insurgents, who were now hiding behind desks and piles of munitions. A box of flares somehow managed to ignite which in turn caused a box of ammunition near one of the crouching insurgents to begin cooking off. Everyone in the two adjoining rooms, Taliban and American alike, threw themselves flat as the ammunition shredded the box in which it was contained and ricocheted off the walls.

The noise was deafening and the smell of cordite hung thick in the room. The haze cleared after about thirty seconds to reveal two additional insurgents torn apart by their own ammunition. The third figure knelt in the middle of the room. He was in a protective crouch, hands and legs beneath the folds of a traditional-looking robe that would have looked far more commonplace farther west in Iraq, where I’d spent my last three deployments. His robe was tattered from the shrapnel of bullet fragments and shell casings, but no blood seeped into the off-white fabric and he seemed miraculously unhurt. He had an AK-47 loosely cradled in his arms.

“Drop the weapon and lay down on the ground,” I shouted, my voice still sounding strange in my head as my ears continued to ring. For good measure, I repeated the command in Pashto, and then again in Arabic. The rifle clattered to the floor, though the man did not look up at me as he discarded his weapon, nor did he make any move to get down on the floor.

I repeated my command once more, I was unwilling to take my eyes off of the prisoner, but burning with a desire to go check on my wounded squad member in the hallway. I hadn’t even gotten a chance to see who it was, and I was acutely aware that I was failing as a leader.

“Who got hit?” I shouted, without taking my eyes off of the still motionless insurgent.

“Christman,” came the reply. “It’s bad Sergeant. The artery’s severed. We need to get him down to Doc.”

“Fuck, alright.” I had no time to play games with this guy. I told the only other soldier that was still in the room with me, a buck sergeant named Guilford that had somehow fallen in on my stack in the confusion to cover me while I cuffed the insurgent, thankful that there were no other rooms to clear. I moved toward him at an angle so as not to block his line of sight.

Only as I approached did the enemy combatant look up at me, revealing his face for the first time. He definitely wasn’t a local. Blue eyes stared at me above a long, light brown beard. Still, a good percentage of the high-level facilitators of the insurgency weren’t Afghans or even Pakistanis, so it wasn’t particularly surprising that there was an obvious foreigner in the compound.

“Show me your hands,” I commanded, wanting to secure him as quickly as possible so I could go check on Christman. I heard him groaning faintly as the others lifted him and prepared to take him down the stairs. He didn’t move. ROE and my conscience both prevented me from killing him even though he probably deserved it given the atrocities that this cell had committed over the last six months.

He started moving a split second before he was in arms reach, a knife seeming to materialize in his hand. I was ready for him to try something and immediately fired three rounds into his body. Instead of convulsing on the floor, he threw the knife at Sergeant Guilford, hitting him just below the clavicle. Guilford stepped back reflexively, hands clutching the blade. Before he could do something stupid like pull the knife out of his upper chest, the strange man did it for him. He gestured with his hand, and the knife flew out of Guilford’s body and back into his hand as if drawn by a powerful magnet. Guilford doubled over, shouting in pain and clutching at his injury, which was staining his body armor red with blood.

The robed man spun on his shield and came after me next, knife flashing as I backpedaled, trying to bring my M-4 to bear while simultaneously blocking his thrusts. The knife seemed to take on an eerie bluish light as he attacked, though I might have been imagining things as adrenaline pumped through my system. With one hand, he grabbed my rifle and wrenched it from my grip, sending it clattering across the room. He slashed at me again, opening a massive gash on my upper left arm. He tried to follow it up with an eviscerating blow just below my body armor, but swung wide. I tried to hit him in the stomach with my uninjured arm, and was rewarded with a jolt of pain running up my arm as my knuckles collided with some type of armor.

Thinking fast, I tried to find purchase on his exposed arm only to realize that it too was encased in armor, with an articulated joint at the elbow. How he was able to move so easily in his while my own did nothing but slow me down was a complete mystery to me. He tore his arm free from my one-handed grip and sent me reeling with a powerful backhand. Before I could go very far, he seized my injured left arm, twisting it with impossible strength. I almost blacked out with the pain and could feel my bones twisting below his grip. He stared at my exposed shoulder and the tattoo that adorned it. It was the mark of the Roman legion, a stylized ‘P’ over an ‘X’ surrounded by a wreath and crowned by an eagle that I’d gotten right after Ranger School. He smirked at me and slackened his grip as he positioned his knife against my neck.

“Indignus,” he said still smiling as he prepared to cut my throat. The detached part of my brain thought it was strange that the last thing that I would ever hear was the Latin word for unworthy.

Suddenly, the man began jerking violently. As the knife moved away from my neck, I could see Guilford propped up with his back against the wall, holding his M4 with his off hand and pouring lead into the man’s back. None of it seemed to hurt him, but the impacts of the rounds still rocked his body. He lifted me off the ground with one arm as he turned to face Guilford. His grip slackened and I took advantage of his momentary distraction to head butt him in the face with my helmet, pushing off the ground with my legs to add momentum to the impact. I felt his nose break and he staggered backward, face awash in blood just as Guilford’s rifle went dry.

He howled in pain and glared at me, eyes burning with hatred. Despite having been shot with several dozen rounds of ammunition and surviving an explosion that reduced his two compatriots to pulp, the man seemed to be more or less alright. I grabbed one of the fallen terrorists’ rifles as Guilford struggled to reload with his one good hand. He gestured at his discarded knife, in an attempt to return it to his grip again, but I stomped down on it with my boot. I could feel the knife wriggling beneath my foot like it was alive. The instant before the knife worked its way free, I drew a bead on him and pulled the trigger.

The 7.62 millimeter ammunition slammed into the man’s body with far more force than the bullets from our M4s had, blowing chunks of his tattered robe off to reveal a sleek, articulated suit of dull metal armor beneath that looked like it covered most of his body. I’d never seen anything like it. It looked impossibly advanced and portions of it glowed with the same dull, blue light that the now discarded knife had possessed. Even though my ears were ringing from the multiple close-proximity gunshots, I could hear shouts of alarm from downstairs and knew that help was not long in coming. That was good, since neither Guilford nor I were in much condition to continue fighting. I could feel blood running down my arm and struggled to blink away the black spots that were clouding my vision.

The armored insurgent continued to rock back, each impact forcing him back in the direction of the piled weaponry in the adjoining room. He shielded his head with one arm, not that I was in any condition to attempt such a difficult shot. As he fell back, he fumbled for something beneath the folds of ruined robes. It was a small sphere that began to pulse menacingly as he twisted it in his hands.

My weapon went dry as he tossed the sphere, aiming for the bare floor between me and Guilford. Something in his fancy armor must have finally shorted out due to the repeated blows it had sustained from Guilford’s and my gunfire since sparks began to shower out of the shoulder joint as he was midway through the motion of throwing what I assumed was a grenade of some sort. The sphere arced gently in my direction instead. Without even thinking, I reversed the grip on my AK-47, barely feeling the heat of the barrel through my ballistic gloves and struck the flying grenade like it was a poorly-thrown softball.

I didn’t even take the time to see where it had landed. I was already sprinting toward the door, grabbing Guilford by the strap on the back of his armor as I went. He’s already lost a lot of blood and was barely strong enough to move his legs in an effort to assist my progress. We flopped side-by-side onto the floor just outside and around the corner from the doorway and waited for the blast. The shout of frustration from the armored insurgent was cut off by a deep whump that sounded nothing like any of the thousands of explosions I’d heard over my short career.

Instead of feeling a shockwave, I nearly jumped out of my skin when I began to feel myself being dragged back into the room. My first thought was that the relentless armored insurgent had somehow survived the concussion of the grenade and was pulling me back into the room to finish the job. I looked over my shoulder and saw something far more horrifying. The area around the grenade was folding in on itself as if it was water going down a drain. The armored man was already halfway enveloped by the growing vortex, and I could see his body becoming impossibly distorted as it continued to suck him in. My hands scrabbled to find purchase and I noticed to my horror that Guilford had lost consciousness and was sliding freely by me.

With a shout of frustration, I grabbed ahold of Guilford with my injured left hand just as my right hand found purchase on the doorframe. The pain was indescribable. I could literally feel the damaged muscles from my arm begin to tear and the blood, which had been falling to the floor now flowed sideways in the direction of the terrifying vortex. The screams of the dying man were cut short as his body was finally consumed by the growing black sphere.

All around me, I could hear timbers splintering and clay breaking as the walls and support beams of the house were subjected to forces that they had never been meant to endure. The house was collapsing and I could hear shouts of alarm from the rest of the platoon on the floor below. I could feel my grip slackening on the doorframe.

The pain in my arm was indescribable as I struggled to maintain my grip on the unconscious Sergeant Guilford. The walls around me continued to crack from the force contained within the strange grenade until the floor around me collapsed. The strange twisting effect enveloping the room disappeared as Guilford and I went crashing down along with several tons of wood and masonry. Something hit me in the back of the head, forcing my helmet over my eyes and I fell unconscious.

 

Chapter 2

It is fitting that I begin this journal just as the Legion begins a new Northern campaign. The Picts are growing increasingly restive as a new generation comes to power that has yet to taste defeat on a large scale. Such is the way of these Barbarian tribes. They have no written history, only stories. As such, the exploits of their warriors grow with the years while tales of ignominious defeat are slowly forgotten or explained away by elders eager to make excuses for their defeat and their tribes’ low circumstances. Thus arises the need to resow the seeds of fear in the hearts of the heathens every fifteen or twenty years.

 

The next several days were a blur, not least of all because I was heavily sedated most of the time. I flew first to Bagram Airfield, where they stabilized me enough to make the trip to Germany, where I remained in intensive care for several days while my injuries were treated and doctors monitored my body for signs of infection. I spoke with several members of my platoon on the phone during my more lucid moments. The platoon was hurting after the raid on the compound took a turn for the worse, and our Battalion commander had sidelined them until further notice. I imagine that it did more harm than good in some respects since it forced them all to dwell on any mistakes that they might have made during the attack.

The good news was that one of the senior Taliban commanders for the whole region had been pulled out of the rubble of the compound, along with four of his top lieutenants and an enforcer that kept most of the region at least tacitly supporting the insurgency through fear alone. The bad news was that half of my squad had been killed by whoever it was the Taliban commander had been meeting with. Before I left for the States, a couple of men in civilian clothes stopped by my room to speak with me. They asked questions about the raid and the events leading up to the explosion while a nurse hovered nervously just outside the door.

I told him as much as I could about the raid and what we’d seen inside the house. I told them about the European-looking man that had been with the Taliban fighters. The consensus was that he was probably a Chechen mercenary or something, but obviously there was no way of telling for sure. Eventually, the suits thanked me for my time and wished me a speedy recovery.

After being monitored for a few more days, I was deemed stable enough to make the flight back to the states. My parents were waiting for me when I got to Walter Reed, along with a few members of my unit’s rear detachment. Together, they helped me in-process and begin my long, painful recovery. My mother seemed overwhelmed throughout the whole ordeal, but my father remained calm, sitting beside my bed for as long as he was allowed. After a week and a half, they had to return to Texas to look after the restaurant, and I was left more or less to my own devices.

Once it was clear that I would indeed be able to keep my arm, the physical therapy began. I have to admit, up until that point, I felt pretty bad for myself. Still, seeing some of the guys who were undergoing therapy at the same time as me was nothing short of inspiring. Most of them had been injured by IEDs, ether while driving or while they were dismounted on patrol. As such, there was an inordinate number of soldiers in that hospital with mangled arms and legs, oftentimes struggling to learn how to use a new prosthetic or something equally painful and difficult.

Day after day we struggled alongside one another, fighting to return our bodies to some semblance of what they once were. In the end, I gained full mobility of my arm. I was one of the lucky ones. For some, even something as simple as feeding oneself would be a difficult task for the rest of their lives.

The physical therapy did more than just heal our bodies. Many of the guys, myself included to be honest, were struggling with feelings of guilt, shame, and inadequacy. While we were performing our exercises, our trainers encouraged us to interact with each other and share our feelings. It helped. Maybe more than the exercises themselves in all honesty.

By the time I got out of the hospital, my arm was fine, but I was still suffering mentally. Feelings of self-recrimination and guilt were a constant part of my life. I spent as much time as I could with the other recovering casualties in order to keep my memories at bay. Perhaps if I’d been faster, I could have stopped the strange man from detonating the charges hidden throughout the house. Maybe I could have overpowered him and kept more of my platoon alive.

The doctors told me that it would take years for my arm to return to full functionality and hinted strongly that I should begin looking into a support position that interested me so that I could continue my service.

I knew the feelings of doubt would eventually eat me alive, just as I knew that I would one day have to be able to be alone without sinking into depression if I ever wanted to lead something resembling a normal life, so I turned to an old standby to get me through the nights when I just couldn’t fall asleep.

My mom, ever the devout Catholic, left her rosary with me when she left. I began praying with it every night. The repetition and patterns were soothing and helped me relax enough that I no longer lay awake at night waiting for the sun to shine through the curtains. Even though I’d gone to a Catholic high school, it was safe to say that my faith had lapsed during my time in the Army. I resolved to put an end to that. I sought out the chaplains in the hospital in hopes that they could help me reconcile the faith of my childhood with the things that I had seen on my four deployments. I began attending mass regularly. By the time I was pronounced fit enough to return to limited duty at my home station, I already knew what I was going to do.

 

Chapter 3

I look forward to bringing the fight to the hearths of the Picts after so many years spent arriving at farms and villages a day late and having little to do but bury bodies. This spring, as soon as the snow melts, the Ninth will be marching into Caledonia to end this scourge on the good people of northern Britannia, and in doing so, my cohort will bring great honor to Rome and the Ninth Spanish Legion.    

 

The day I left the United States Army, I did the most rebellious thing that I could think of; I boxed up the last few belongings in my apartment on the outskirts of Columbus, Georgia, dropped them off at a Goodwill store, and began the long drive north where I would spend the next four years of my life learning to be a Catholic Priest. My mom was excited. My dad was confused, but supportive. My platoonmates’ reactions ran the gamut. Some were pleased that I was trying to do something I believed in, while others made jokes that were stale back in the ‘90s. Still, my decision was my own. After eight years of fighting and killing, I wanted something different. I wanted a sense of peace. I wanted to become a man of God.

I quickly found that my time in the Army had prepared me well for life in Seminary. Attention to detail, concern for others, teamwork, and discipline were all considered virtuous, just as they had been when I was in the Rangers. I had some trouble adjusting to the rigors of academic life during the first year. My online bachelor’s degree did little than waive an initial entry requirement in that regard. Still, by year two, I hit my stride and during my third year, I climbed steadily both in overall class rank and in the estimation of my peers and teachers.

Three months into my final year, I received a summons from Monsignor Colwin. I remember my footsteps echoing down the long hallway on my way to his office while the faces of seminarians who went on to achieve great things in the world looked down on me from their portraits. I spent very little time in this wing of the main building, as it was devoted primarily to administration and other tasks that a former NCO like me had little use for.

I knocked on the solid wooden door to Monsignor’s study and waited for him to invitation to come in. When I heard Monsignor’s voice through the door, turned the metal handle and entered his study. I never really understood why, but Monsignor Colwin had always seemed to take an interest in me. Perhaps it was due to my background, but he would never pass up a chance to ask me where I stood on moral and ethical issues. He was a tough grader whenever it fell to him to look over one of my papers and would almost invariably call me to his office to elaborate on the finer points of my arguments. Initially, I’d found the fact that I would inevitably find myself having to defend a paper I’d written from the questions and criticisms of one of the Seminary’s senior-most instructors to be, delicately put, an enormous pain in the ass. Later, I began to realize that the one-on-one meetings forced me to be thorough in my research and form my arguments and positions with care.

Although it had been several months since I’d seen the inside of Monsignor Colwin’s office, but everything was still where I remembered it. A portrait of the Madonna was in the place of honor behind his large wooden desk that was probably older than I was, and the rest of the wood-paneled office was lined with portraits of saints, various diplomas and certificates, and a simple unadorned cross between the office’s two windows. His had some personal touches on its surface. There were pictures of several school-age children that were probably nieces and nephews along with some older-looking photographs from his time as a missionary in Central America.

The man sitting in one of the office’s overstuffed armchairs perusing one of the books from Monsignor’s corner case stood out like a sore thumb. I guess that’s not a great metaphor. He had all of the trappings of one of the many middle-aged priests that came and went from the Seminary on one errand or another, but something about the man’s eyes caused my instincts to take notice. Most men and women don’t have that look. They want to go about their lives occupied with their own personal struggles. They are sheep, in other words.  However, some men are wolves, who seek to harm the sheep, and a few are sheepdogs, who seek to protect them. The problem is, they can be hard to tell apart at a glance. I was not sure who the stranger in Monsignor’s office was, but I could tell that he was no sheep.

He was of medium height iron grey hair. Even though he was well into middle age, I could tell that he had a fit, rangy frame hidden beneath his loose black clothing. His icy blue eyes and the scar that bisected one of them were the only features that distinguished him from any other reasonably fit fifty-something. He was looking back at me with the same appraising look that I was doubles giving him.

“Dario,” Monsignor said, snapping me out of my reverie. “I am glad that you received my phone call to meet me here. When it went straight to voice mail, I feared we would be waiting for some time.”

“I apologize for the delay, Monsignor. I was praying the Rosary with a few of my classmates and had my phone turned off.

Monsignor Colwin waved his hands in dismissal. “No apology is necessary, Dario.” He gestured at me to sit in one of the two armchairs in front of his desk. “As members of the clergy, we must look to our relationship with God and those he has charged us to minister to above all else. Help yourself to some coffee.”

For the first time, I noticed a steel carafe sitting on the small table between the two chairs along with two ceramic mugs with the school crest and a modest assortment of cream and sugar. While my hour of prayer and meditation had left me feeling refreshed and energized, I felt it would have been rude to turn down Monsignor’s offer since it looked to have been prepared especially for me.

I poured a mug and sipped appreciatively while the two older priests continued to watch me. Just before the continued silence became awkward, Monsignor Colwin cleared his throat.

“I suppose you’d like to know why I called you in here this evening, Diego.”

I nodded. “I imagine it is to discuss my options after graduation.” It was a well-known fact throughout the seminary that my post-graduation plans were not yet set in stone. Most of my classmates had a solid idea of how they wanted to serve the Church as early as their second year, but I was still undecided. On one hand, my time in the Army had left me wanting to live a life of peace in some quiet parish far from any excitement or change. A part of me wanted routine, predictability, and the ability to put down roots and grow in my faith. There was another part of me that feared committing to any one place and wanted to continue to live a life where every day would be different and challenging. These two sides of me had been at war for three years.

Monsignor Colwin smiled at me, “You come to us from a rather unique background, Diego. You went to a public school and applied here while you were fighting in Afghanistan. You almost missed your first semester because you were recovering from injuries at Walter Reed, and you pay your tuition through the use of the GI Bill.”

All of these things were true, and caused me to stand apart from my classmates. Few were tactless enough to hold it against me, and most gave me far more respect for my previous career than I thought I deserved, but nothing he said was false.

“Your background is why I mentioned your name when one of my old colleagues from my missionary days gave me a call. I’d like you to meet father Ryan Donegal. He works with a rather unique organization within the church that keeps an eye out for promising young prospects.”

The man sitting in the corner from the bookshelf rose to his feet with his right arm extended. I copied his movement and we shook hands. His grip was firm, not overpowering, and wrinkles appeared around his eyes as he shook my hand and smiled.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. McAfee,” he said in a strong Irish Brogue. “Monsignor Colwin and I are in agreement that you might be an excellent fit for an organization that I represent.”

I was surprised to hear that my future was being discussed by the Seminary’s leadership, but tried not to show it.

“Alright,” I said, glancing at Monsignor Colwin, who was watching the two of us intently. “I’m open to suggestions. I guess it’s no secret that I’m still undecided about what I will do or where I will go once I leave seminary.”

“That’s a good start,” father Donegal said, rising to his feet. “My legs are feeling a bit stiff. Would you mind walking with me while I explain who it is exactly that I represent? I don’t want to impose on Monsignor any more than is necessary.”

“Nonsense,” Monsignor said. “If you need to use my office, I am more than happy to knock off early tonight.”

Father Donegal smiled and shook his head. “That won’t be necessary. Besides, I still need to take the measure of young Mr. McAfee here and I find that the outside air helps me clear my head.”

I didn’t really have plans for the evening as it was, so, with a nod of encouragement from Monsignor, I followed Father Donegal out of his office, through the front door, and into the night. Once we were out of the main quad and beyond the earshot of any of the staff or students that might be running late night errands, Father Donegal finally began to speak.

“Monsignor Colwin is good people,” he said without preamble. “When he tells me that he has a good potential candidate for my organization, I tend to take his word more seriously than most.”

I allowed myself to smile at the compliment, but I was still very curious about just who it was that Father Donegal represented. Something about the way he spoke said Vatican, but my internal alarm that informed me as to whether or not I was interacting with someone capable of doing great harm to anyone who crossed him, even though he walked with a slight limp.

“So you were with the Rangers, were you?” he asked me.

“I was. Seven years, give or take. Three deployments to Iraq, one to Afghanistan.”

He nodded respectfully. “What made you get out?”

“Well,” I said, “my last deployment got cut short when I took some shrapnel to the leg. By the time I got out of the hospital, I just wasn’t feeling it anymore. It was like something was missing. I had enough saved up from my time in and qualified for GI Bill benefits, so I figured that I would try to serve in a different way.”

“Noble,” Father Donegal murmured. “Far more so than I was at a similar age, though it pains me to admit it. Are you a man of peace then?”

“I wouldn’t say that exactly,” I said. “There are things worth fighting for, worth dying for even, it’s just that watching your friends get blown up with weapons paid for by money given to foreign governments to feed their poor or shot in the back by the people that we’re trying to help, or called occupiers when we do nothing but spend treasure and blood to improve the lives of those that hate us… it makes you stop and think.”

“I’m no stranger to fighting for causes that fail to live up to their ideals,” Father Donegal said, eyes growing distant. “Many of those that I work with feel the same way and wanted to use their skills to really make a difference.”

“I see,” I said. “What exactly do you think I would be able to contribute?”

“Let me cut to the chase,” Father Donegal said without any additional preamble. “I’ve already seen your admissions file and your performance while at Seminary is further confirmation that you are the type of person that my organization is looking for. You are selfless, courageous, able to think and react quickly in ethically ambiguous environments, and believe in the Church and our mission here on earth. I could go on, but suffice to say, you are the type of candidate that we look for.”

“For what sort of work?” I asked, giving him a sidelong glance.

“Whatever sort of work is necessary to protect the Church and the flock,” Father Donegal said simply. “What do you think is the greatest threat to the Church today?”

I paused to think. There were plenty to name. “Our good name is under attack from all sides,” I said. “That, and for the first time in a long while, no one in power seems interested in protecting Christians, either at home or abroad. Here, they get shouted down whenever they stand up for their beliefs, abroad, well, it’s even worse in places like the Middle East.   People are turning their backs on values that make a society strong because they require discipline and personal restraint. It’s hard to say which of these problems is worst.”

“Aye, we live in dark times. True, life has never been better for more people, but things do seem to be taking a turn for the worse, don’t they? That tends to weigh on men’s hearts and make him cruel and petty. Rest assured though, the Church is not sitting idly by while the barbarians pound on the gates so to speak, and I believe that you could have a part to play in our efforts to make the world safe for people of faith.   You’d be at the tip of the spear, as you Americans are so fond of saying.”

It was an interesting offer, but that part of me that simply wanted to live a quiet life far removed from any semblance of excitement or danger was shouting in alarm somewhere in the back of my head.

“It’s an intriguing offer, Father, but I have a commitment to the Seminary. Perhaps in a year or so, I might consider it, depending on what the work entailed.”

“Cold feet, eh?” The older man said. “It is understandable that you might have reservations about jumping into anything blind. That sort of caution is common among old soldiers like us. Not to worry. I’m not hiding a contract in my back pocket waiting for you to let down your guard. We only take the most qualified, motivated, and willing of applicants. What I do have for you is an offer.”

“You sound like you’ve made this speech before,” I said with a wry grin.

“You could say that,” he replied.

“Alright then, what do you want me to do, Father?”

“I have two more stops to make here in North America,” Father Donegal said. “After that, I’ll be flying back to Italy, hopefully with you and another likely prospect or two in tow. I’ll show you our facilities, let you talk to some others who have decided that the mission is worth the sacrifice, the cause is just and all that, and let you make up your mind from there.”

“What about my studies here? Will I be able to bring my things with or see my family before I go?”

“Regretfully, time is of the essence, though Monsignor Colwin and I have been acquainted for many years. He will see to it that your studies are not impacted and that your belongings are sent over should you choose to remain with us.” He then produced a plastic card from his pocket. “As for your family, this card will allow you to fly down to Texas and see them for the weekend without putting you out for the rest of the semester.” I started to protest, but he waved me off. “Think nothing of it. It is my way of thanking you for your time. Visit your family. Even if you ultimately choose not to come with me, it is the least I can do.”

He left me holding the frequent flyer card. “I must be going, but will return in a week. If you choose to join me, I will be waiting in Monsignor’s office, catching up on old times. Until then.” With that, the strange Irish priest was gone. I stared dumbstruck after him and pocketed the card, knowing that I had a lot to think about.

Chapter 4

Nearly every one of our reliable scouts and spies north of the Empire’s border agree that there is a massive enemy offensive in the offing. Hopefully, our campaign north will blunt the attack before it occurs and throw the enemy into disarray. We have identified the tribe and chieftain that is issuing the call to war. His name is Alphan and he leads a people known as the Caldnadari. They have a well-earned reputation as fierce and canny warriors and control one of the largest remaining settlements beyond Imperial borders. Our auxiliaries tell us that the Caldnadari are considered a people apart, even amongst the northern barbarians. They are said to possess mythical powers and abilities that allow them to disappear during times of danger and are even said to wield strange weaponry blessed by their heathen gods. Such tales might suffice to bend their superstitious and weak-willed neighbors to their will, but it will do little to protect them from the Ninth when we come calling.

 

I’d like to say that I pulled a John Wayne, set my jaw and stepped into the unknown with a firm sense of purpose. I really would, but reality is more complicated than movies and stories. I prayed about it, I tried and failed to pry more answers from Monsignor. I searched for Father Donegal on the internet without success. While I didn’t appreciate the hush-hush nature of Father Donegal’s recruitment strategy, I had to admit that it worked. I was curious. I was excited. I wanted to know how I had been chosen over so many others. I also knew that regardless of where I ended up, I would always wonder about the hard-bitten Irish priest who showed up in the dead of night and offered me an open-ended chance to make a difference above and beyond what I was capable of doing himself. I didn’t want to wind up regretting not taking the time to see what he had in mind.

Finally, I took Father Donegal’s advice and went back to Texas for a few days to see my family. My mom wasn’t exactly thrilled that I was thinking about going to Europe, but my Dad seemed to understand. Naturally, I kept the details of what I would be doing in Europe hazy, since I didn’t know much more myself. I had a chance to see my brother and his new family, though my sister was too busy with classes to make it up to see me. I understood. I’d missed every single one of her graduations over the years. Feeling better, I headed back to Pennsylvania to meet Father Donegal.

We flew out two days later. Evidently, his other two stops hadn’t been successful because I was the only one travelling with him. Father Donegal didn’t talk much on the plane ride from Pittsburgh to Milan. That was just as well, since I was going to be missing a week of classes and didn’t want to fall behind. We stopped in Shannon, Ireland once we crossed the Atlantic. I’d been there before, heading to or coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan, so I was well acquainted with the airport. If Father Donegal had any strong feelings about returning to the country of his birth, he didn’t display them openly. His face remained impassive even as we flew over London, the English Channel and the Ardennes forest before finally flying over the Alps.

Even though I’d flown this route plenty of times to and from deployment, the weather had always been poor or we’d made the trip in the dark, so the amazing views held my attention for most of the second leg of the flight. I’ve never been one to wax eloquent at the wonders of God’s handiwork as so many of my classmates were able to, but I felt humbled and inspired as I watched the sun set over the Alpine peaks while we began our descent into the city of Milan.

We did not stay in the city long. A hired car took us to a reasonably nice hotel near the airport, where I was afforded my own room. After half a day of flying, I really wasn’t tired, so I took out my e-reader and did some light reading while a soccer match droned on in the background. After an entire hour with no goals scored, but numerous poorly-faked injuries on both sides, I turned off the TV and focused on some classwork. After all, I didn’t want to fall behind in case the mysterious Father Donegal’s proposition turned out to be less intriguing than I expected.

I was reading some of Thomas Aquinas’s work in the original Latin. That sounds more impressive than it actually is. Growing up, I spoke Spanish whenever I went to visit my mom’s relatives in Houston, so I picked up the language fairly easily during my first year in Seminary. After about an hour and a half, the mental effort finally made me tired enough to try and get some sleep.

I received a knock at my door early the next morning, after getting only four hours of sleep. Getting by with less than a full night’s sleep is one of the most valuable skills one can learn in the Army, and after a cup of rich, aromatic coffee from the café beside the hotel, I was ready to go.

A different hired car took us out of the city and into the countryside. As the driver loaded our bags, I noticed that he was missing a hand. He spoke to Father Donegal in fluent Italian and it was clear that they were well acquainted. They spoke animatedly about trivial things like soccer as we drove out of Milan. I knew enough Spanish and Latin to follow along, but not contribute.

Northern Italy isn’t as well-known for its gorgeous countryside as their Tuscan neighbors to the south are, but I still found that the land around us still possessed an austere beauty. Signs of human settlement began to fade away as our Fiat followed the narrow, twisting highway into the highlands that separated the coastal plain of Northern Italy from the Alps. Much like our plane ride, Father Donegal remained silent and taciturn, revealing very little about our ultimate destination or the purpose in taking me there.

Eventually, the highway began to run along a fast moving river. On either side of the long, narrow valley the Alps loomed over us. Small villages were strung along the low ground, with terraced fields rising above them. If it hadn’t been for the architecture and relative prosperity of the towns we drove through, I would have thought I was back in Afghanistan. We drove through another town and I took the time to look at some of the signs. I noticed that many of the signs had two different languages written on them. One was obviously Italian, while the other looked vaguely French. I’d taken French for two years in High School though, and was surprised that I couldn’t recognize some of the words.

“Where are we?” I finally asked, gesturing out the window to Father Donegal.

“Welcome to the Aosta Valley,” he said. “It’s an Autonomous Region so far north that they don’t even speak Italian anymore. It’s one of the last places on Earth where you can hear people speak a language that was once spoken all through southern France and northern Italy. It’s isolated, we have good relations with the local officials, and very few people have ever heard of it, which all serve the purposes of my organization very well.”

That explained the strange signs, I thought. Father Donegal didn’t look like he had much else to say, so I returned to looking out the window. Finally, after several hours and a quick stop for lunch, we arrived at the base of an imposing outcropping overlooking a long, narrow valley that branched off of the larger valley through which we’d been travelling. Perched precariously on the edge of the cliff, was what I could only describe as a modest-sized castle. It probably hadn’t seen any sieges or warfare in its day; the architecture took its cues from sixteenth century cathedrals more than anything else, but the walls, towers, and spires all had a distinctly gothic feel to them and the entire building blended rather seamlessly into the surrounding mountainous terrain.

The car started up the winding drive that led to the castle. At one point, the road meandered close enough to the edge of the cliff that I could see into the valley. It was even smaller than it looked, but had a flat floor which looked to contain an airfield. My suspicions were confirmed a moment later when an unmarked C-130 cargo plane flew over the castle before turning gracefully in the air and executing a perfect landing on the short runway. The road veered around a bend before I could see anything else, but the gears in my head were already turning. Father Donegal remained quiet, but the ghost of a smile hovered around his lips.

Finally, we reached the entrance to the castle. We drove through the gate and parked alongside several other cars in the surprisingly spacious courtyard.

“Let me be the first to welcome you to the Castillo de San Michele,” Father Donegal said, gesturing expansively to the walls around us, his Irish accent temporarily subsiding as he pronounced the Italian words. “There is a good deal to show you, but before I do, I once again require your reassurance that you will not divulge anything that you see here.”

Truthfully, I was already beginning to see what kind of organization it was that Father Donegal worked for, but my curiosity to see just how expansive the effort was had me completely overwhelmed.

“You have it,” I said before I could stop myself.

Father Donegal peered at me once more before motioning me to follow him. The driver was already unloading my meager set of belongings when we entered the front door at the opposite end of the courtyard.

“Excellent,” he said, clapping his hands together. “I always enjoy giving the tour to first-timers.”

We walked through the stout oaken doors and entered an impressive front hallway. The plaster-covered stone walls were lined with a great many portraits and paintings along with a handful of busts and statues. Almost a dozen doors led off in various directions to other parts of the castle. “First, a word about our facility here,” he said as our footsteps echoed across the flagstones as we made our way to one of the large doors. “It was originally built by a minor Milanese noble who was well- acquainted with the Borgia family back in the bad old days of the sixteenth century. He built this place over an abandoned salt mine and used the tunnels and caverns below for all manner of nefarious deeds.”

I wanted him to cut to the chase and tell me about whatever mysterious organization it was that operated out of this place, but I’d always liked history as well, so I held my tongue.

“Eventually, court intrigue caused the castle fell into the hands of a rival family who in turn sold it to a succession of owners. Over the centuries, it was a mountain retreat, rebel stronghold, military outpost, and waypoint for mafia smuggling routes the USSR before the Church purchased it in the 1970s due to its extensive underground network of tunnels and caverns.”

“What use did the Church have for a place like this?” I asked. “The 70s weren’t a very friendly time,” Donegal said. “The cartels and narco gangs were just starting to get their hooks into the local governments and the communists were everywhere, stirring up trouble. Needless to say, neither of these two groups had anything but antipathy for the Church. The former saw us as a threat to their efforts to secure power while the latter saw us as a tool of capitalist oppression or whatever turn of phrase their Soviet handlers told them to use.”

I nodded, waiting for father Donegal to elaborate. I was surprised when he stopped in front of a portrait of a young looking John Paul II, his face looking down on us with a benevolent expression.

“Anyway,” he continued, “The Pope knew that he wouldn’t get help from anyone in the international community on this one. The governments in South America were either corrupt, incompetent, subverted by the Communists, or some combination of the three. America was fighting in Vietnam, and Europe was waiting for the Soviets to come screaming out of the Fulda Gap. So instead, he decided to do something about it himself and founded the Saint Michael Battalion. Our first commander thought that this would be the perfect place to stage and train, and the Pope bought it outright.”

“So you’re telling me that John Paul the Second, John Paul the Second, established a secret Army to fight the communists in South America?”

“Aye lad, though Army seems a little grandiose if you ask me. At the time, there were fewer than fifty of us, including our intel staff. Our initial membership consisted of some of the more aggressive members of the Swiss Guard, a few former members of the United States military and French Foreign Legion, some burned out cops from South and Central America, and…” he paused and coughed. “One very misguided kid from Belfast who was an expert at smuggling things across contentious borders.”

It was surprising news to say in the least, and I consciously had to force my mouth from hanging open.

“I can say with some degree of confidence and no small measure of pride that we did some good down there,” he said. “Sure, there weren’t enough of us to stop every death squad and two-bit gang shaking down the local parishes for money, but our network of informants was top-notch and we did a good job putting the more dangerous gangs in the ground. We’d hit them at night with everything we had and be out of there before the dust settled. Eventually, most of the bad guys got the hint and stopped deliberately targeting the Church. Sure, there were some priests that decided it was better to collaborate with their oppressors, but for many others, our mutual friend Monsignor Colwin included, we were heaven sent.”

His eyes grew distant for a moment, but I wasn’t about to interrupt him and divert his train of thought. “There were plenty of us that didn’t make it back. We lost a quarter of our strength during one mission in Colombia, but we regrouped, rearmed, and continued after them. I’d estimate less than one man in twenty made it out of the jungle once we found the bastards again. The driver with one hand, his name’s Fritz by the way, was there too. Lost it throwing a grenade back into a guard tower. Besides him, and me of course, I’d say that there’s fewer than half a dozen of us old timers still working with the Battalion.”

I felt my stomach drop and my heart begin to race as it all sank in. Now I knew what they wanted from me. With my training and background, they were recruiting me. They wanted me to join the Vatican’s secret army. “This is what I’m here for?” I sputtered. “You want me to join, what did you call it? The Saint Michael Battalion?”

Father Donegal pursed his lips. “You’re not one to let a man build up to the crescendo of his story before cutting in, are you lad? To answer your question, yes. That’s the long and short of it. We need good, experienced, faithful fighting men, now more than ever. You fit the bill.”

“It’s a lot to take in,” I said. “This is a big commitment, you can’t expect me to give up everything I’ve worked for these past few years in the blink of an eye, can you?

“Saint Peter did.” Father Donegal said. “Still, neither of us are saints and I understand completely.”

He opened the door and ushered me through into another, narrower hallway. Unable to contain my curiosity, I glanced into one of the partially open doors and saw what looked to be several office desks pushed against the walls complete with high-tech laptops and printers. Only one person was working this late, and we were already past before I could see anything more. More people were entering and leaving other rooms ahead of us, looking at me with curious expressions and exchanging polite nods with Father Donegal, who seemed to be at least acquainted with everyone there. Some were wearing civilian clothes, while others were wearing fatigues or clerical collars.

“Everything save our basic administrative offices is below the ground,” he said. “Our lodging is mostly up in that direction,” he said, gesturing over his shoulder where I could see several well-built figures, including a woman, walking up the stairs wearing workout clothing.

Eventually, we made it through the narrow hallway and into an oblong room that looked to be located on the back side of the castle, overlooking the narrow mountain valley below. Modern plate glass windows gave an excellent view of the sun as it set and the view of the valley and the airfield below was fantastic. The C-130 was already taxiing into a large hangar, and I could see the headlights of several vehicles moving below.

“This is quite the facility you’ve got here,” I said.

“It does nicely,” the priest agreed. “For doing good, we do well. Most of the cartels don’t care if we knock off a few of their goons, but if you hit them in the pocket book, they take notice and back off, but you haven’t seen anything yet.”

He led me to one of two pairs of steel doors located on the far side of the room, which turned out to be a freight elevator. With a push of a button we began to descend. Judging from the instrument panel, I could tell that there were at least eight levels. It took almost a full minute to reach our destination, so I already suspected that we were heading into the mines beneath the castle. When the doors opened, the sight before me was breathtaking.

 

Chapter 5

A week after we crossed the border, a band of savages with twice our number attacked my cohort when we were scouting on the far side of a narrow creek. One of the tribunes, Cladus, eventually rode to our relief at the head of a column of auxiliary cavalry, but not before we killed over forty of them while losing only three men. The tribes at the top of the world breed fierce fighters, but they are no match for good Roman training and discipline.

 

It looked like something out of a science fiction movie. I’d expected a dingy hollowed out basement with a few computers and some dust covered maps, but what I found instead was an ultramodern command center at least the size of the castle’s front entrance with tunnels stretching out in several directions. Father Donegal smiled at the expression on my face and gave me a badge to place on my shirt.

“Procedure, you know,” he said apologetically. We walked into the command center, where a half dozen individuals were typing furiously on keyboards while satellite imagery, individual faces, and news feeds in a dozen languages fought for space on the screens above us. I whistled, which drew looks running the gamut from ‘bemused’ to ‘irritated’ from the various analysts sitting at the computers.

“This is the beating heart of our operation,” Father Donegal said with pride, “And a far cry from where we started it is at that.”

The analysts were all wearing some variation of cargo pants and casual, collared shirts, except for one guy who had a bright, Hawaiian-print shirt and another man with crisp, pressed military fatigues and a stern expression who occupied a desk with a single small monitor and three densely-covered white boards arrayed behind him. He snapped to attention as soon as he spotted Father Donegal.

His uniform was immaculate. He had iron grey hair, a trim physique, and a strong face accentuated by an aquiline nose. His olive skin had deep frown lines across his entire face, which only deepened when Father Donegal moved to embrace him like a brother.

“Sir, this is unseemly. It does not befit a commander to show such affection in front of the troops.” Several of the ‘troops’ were smirking behind their monitors as they watched the exchange.

“Nonsense Sergeant Major,” Father Donegal said, eyes sparkling. “Besides, it’s been years since I commanded the Battalion, that honor belongs to another now. I’m nothing more than the most senior of the Battalion’s chaplains now.” He turned to me. “Mr. McAfee, allow me to present Sergeant Major Diogo Sebrosa, once of the Brazilian Army, and for the last five years, the Battalion’s Sergeant Major.

He gave me a quick once-over and smiled briefly before beginning to speak English in a thick accent. “Ah, American Rangers. Good outfit. You will do well here if you can make it through the initial training.” He looked me over again. “Again, if. I will be watching your progress closely. I accept only the best into my Battalion.” With that, he spun on the heel of his immaculately shined boot and returned to studying a complex web diagram covered with photographs and lines that covered one of his whiteboards. “We have a development in Colombia that I would like your input on when you get a chance, Father.” He said after staring at the complex web of photographs for another moment or two.

“Of course,” Father Donegal said.

I looked at Father Donegal with newfound respect. “You’re the one in charge here?”

“Was. Was the one in charge here.” He lifted one of his pant legs and revealed a high-end prosthetic. I’d assumed his limp was the result of some long-ago injury, but never would have guessed that he had a prosthetic leg.

“An operation in Nigeria went south back in two-thousand three. After I got out of hospital, I decided to step down and become one of the unit chaplains. I also handle recruitment for most of the western hemisphere. Even if I’m not strong enough to lead the Battalion in combat, I still help where I can. Shall we?”

After saying farewell to the Sergeant Major and the rest of the staff in the command post, Father Donegal took me around the rest of the underground complex. They had a modern range, a well-stocked arms room, a garage that opened out onto the runway in the valley below, and everything else a small, competent military unit would need. Afterwards, he took me back up the elevator to the castle proper where he showed me the mess hall and the living quarters. The tour turned somber when he took me to a long hallway with pictures of members of the Battalion who had fallen over the past four decades, but an adjoining room contained countless photographs and mementos from missions that had gone well. There were pictures of smiling refugees, warlords being bundled into the back of NATO armored vehicles, and countless others.

“We try to give local police forces or UN peacekeepers the credit whenever we’re able,” said Father Donegal after telling me one particularly hair-raising story about a raid on a Filipino crime lord who had decided to branch into human trafficking in the late ‘90s. “It serves two purposes. For one, it helps us keep a low profile and keep those whose work supports our own from turning against us. Secondly, it helps us preserve both manpower and our morality. Most drug lords, warlords, or any of the other false lords that profit from misery and bloodshed have two things in spades. The first is vulnerabilities that can be exploited if someone takes the trouble to find them. The second thing that they almost invariably have are great heaps of enemies and rivals. Often, we’ve found that it takes only the smallest sign of weakness for the local authorities or sometimes his own lieutenants to take one of these bastards down.”

He looked at me with an odd intensity in his eyes. “We’re not in the business of taking lives, Mr. McAfee. Whenever possible, we leave that in God’s hands. We are not some globetrotting death squad that smites the Church’s enemies in the dark of the night. He look for people doing real, physical harm to the faithful and apply just enough pressure to topple them an convince whoever fills the power vacuum that it would be in their best interest to leave the Church and its people alone. Besides, many of the guards, drug dealers and low-level flunkies that we would kill if we operated more brazenly are involved simply because they have no other options. This is something the whole Battalion takes very seriously.”

“What about foreign militaries? Has a mission ever required you to fight soldiers from another country?”

“I know what you are hinting at,” Father Donegal said. “Your tactfulness and concern speak well of you. The Pope and our earliest leaders decided that we would never pursue lethal action against the soldiers of another country or its law enforcement personnel unless they are actively participating in atrocities against innocent civilians, thus waiving their status as protectors of the people.”

That was good to hear, and Father Donegal saw me relax. I would have walked back to Milan if he’d said anything different or if I’d picked up the slightest hint that he was being dishonest.

“I’m embarrassed to admit it now, but as a young member of the IRA filled with piss and vinegar, I was the most vocal opponent of this policy back in the early days. I dreamed of leading the Battalion into action against the British soldiers occupying Northern Ireland and meting out righteous vengeance for their many atrocities. I saw reason eventually, but not before I said some truly regrettable things to both my superiors and the Pontiff.”

His face was red with embarrassment. “I saw the light eventually, of course. Therein lies the road to ruin to say nothing of the dissension that it would sow within our own ranks if we began indiscriminately attacking a member’s countrymen. Rest assured, you will never be asked to harm another American soldier or peace officer, nor will anyone else in the Battalion.”

I smiled with relief. I had no intention of joining some kind of death squad, even if it was a very well-equipped death squad with noble motives.

We stayed in the room for some time while Father Donegal continued to regale me with anecdotes from the Battalion’s history. It was, to say in the least, incredibly interesting. If Father Donegal’s word was to be trusted, the unseen hand of the Saint Michael Battalion had shaped numerous key moments in history over the past forty years, though the stories that Father Donegal seemed to tell with the most passion were simple ones where the Battalion had been able to right a wrong, depose a local warlord, and save innocent lives. He was an animated storyteller, and, while I knew what a recruiter’s pitch looked like more than most, I couldn’t help but find myself drawn into his stories.

“I honestly can’t see how you guys get away with half this stuff,” I said between stories about toppling a particularly unpleasant drug lord in South America who liked to extort money from local churches, and a virulently anti-Christian politico from India who did far worse until his former enforcer turned state’s evidence against him.

“You’re right,” Father Donegal said. “If word ever got out that the Catholic Church had a secret army running black ops across international boundaries, things would get bad. As such, we’ve gotten very good at operating discreetly and have a network of associates the world over who aid us as well. It is less of a burden than you might think.”

My mind flashed back to the restrictive rules of engagement established by well-meaning bureaucrats that had gotten so many good people killed over the years, many of whom had been friends of mine. “Your solution to secrecy is to keep everyone on a tight leash?” I asked.

“No. We operate like a scalpel rather than a cleaver, only striking points of vulnerability when and if we can get away with it without harming the innocent. When you think about it, things really couldn’t happen any other way.”

“Because the world would find out if you tried anything too overt.”

“Because our own people would disown us if we strayed too far from our mission,” Father Donegal countered. “We only recruit those with strong moral fiber into our ranks. They ensure that our actions are altruistic and that we do not take lives needlessly. That in turn helps keep us hidden. If someone ever took issue with the moral direction of the group, they could easily reveal our existence to the world. Thus, our own members both protect us and keep our operations just.”

It made sense in a strange sort of way. They wouldn’t have been able to keep themselves concealed from the public eye for so many years otherwise. I followed Father Donegal out of the room as we continued our tour.

Eventually, we ended up in the chapel, which was located on the ground floor and overlooked the valley. There was room for maybe fifty people in the pews, but the space was intimate and well-kept. I suspected that I would be spending plenty of time in here over the next week while I contemplated my future.

Father Donegal broke the silence first. “Well, that pretty much sums up your orientation. I know you must still have some questions, though.

I certainly did. I paused for a moment to gather my thoughts so as not to sound tactless.

“I don’t recall signing any forms or giving any type of consent to join this organization,” I said carefully.

“That’s true. You are not obligated to join us here, and even if you agree, you will need to successfully complete our training program before we consider you a full member of the Battalion.” Father Donegal agreed. “What is your question then?”

“Well, I think it should be rather obvious. If I am not obligated to join and can, in fact, leave whenever I want, why are you telling me all of this? If any of this information made the news, any of it at all, it would be a PR nightmare that the Church hasn’t seen in a generation. You people have no idea how I’m going to take this. You’ve effectively admitted that the Church is funding a clandestine organization that violates the sovereignty of dozens of countries on a weekly basis and performs offensive military operations without any oversight or accountability in violation of every international law and treaty I can think of. Isn’t that a–heck of a secret to entrust with someone on the outside of your organization?”

Father Donegal flashed me a thin smile while he waited for me to finish. “You’re making a hell of an assumption if I do say so myself.”

“How so?”

“You’re assuming that we started vetting you when you and I had our first conversation back in America. In truth we’ve been watching you for far longer.”

“And how long would that be.”

Father Donegal paced over to a picture of a much younger version of himself and another man of similar complexion surrounded by what appeared to be a native tribe from somewhere in the Amazon basin. I recognized the man almost immediately. It was a much younger-and thinner, Monsignor Colwin. He waited until the recognition dawned on me. “You see, we have a network of clergy and devout laypeople who know about us spread all around the world. Most are people we have worked with in one capacity or another over the past four decades. Whenever one of them approaches us indicating that they have a likely prospect, a long vetting process begins. We feed them questions and hypotheticals to see whether the candidate is indeed someone that would be willing and capable of joining our organization.”

I thought back to the long conversations I’d had with Monsignor Colwin over the past several years. He’s always seemed interested on where I stood when it came to questions about the ethical application of violence, the role of the Church in defending the faithful, and the role of the faithful in defending the Church. What had at the time seemed to be rather innocuous ethical questions and questions about how I thought I could best serve the Church now looked much more like a deliberate survey of my personal beliefs now that I had the advantage of hindsight. I had to admit, the old man had done an admirable job concealing his true objectives.

“By the time I approached you,” Father Donegal said, “the question was no longer whether you would be willing to join us, but rather whether we wanted you to join us. I’ve been doing this for a long time and I know the type of person that we need for the Battalion’s record of success to continue. You were the only one I found worthy on that particular trip.

Father Donegal was right about me. For the first time in years, that voice in the back of my head pleading with me to live a life of ease and seclusion was silent. Instead, the other side of me, the sheepdog, the part that wanted to protect the innocent and bring justice to people that made a living hurting others hurtled to the forefront of my mind.

“I always hate this part,” Father Donegal said. “I’ve spent the last several hours showing you what this organization’s purpose is and what we are capable of. Now I feel morally obligated to make sure you understand the downsides, of which there are plenty, should you choose to join us.”

He began to tick off items on his hand as if he was reciting a list of chores that needed to be complete by the end of the day. “If this organization is ever exposed, we and everyone affiliated with us will face criminal charges from dozens of law enforcement agencies the world over. Nations will compete for custody over us and our clandestine allies in government will remain silent. You will need to deceive your family and friends as to the true nature of your assignments, telling them instead that you are studying Catholic doctrine in Italy. Most importantly,” he paused and looked me in the eye. “The Church will lose a priest with a great deal of potential. You could do a great deal of good should you elect to return to Seminary and complete your training there. Perhaps the day would come when we would have need of your assistance in the form of intelligence or support, but the Battalion would have no claim over you. Think over everything I’ve said and come back to me when you have an answer.”

With that he walked out of the chapel. Now that I was looking for it, I could notice the hitch in his step. The arm that I’d almost lost began to tingle and I inadvertently put my other hand over the spot where the Chechen stabbed me with his strange knife.

I sat down in one of the middle pews and looked up at the cross above the altar. After a few moments of reflection, I knelt down and prayed with a conviction and intensity that I had never felt before. Me entire worldview was completely different than it had been even a few hours ago. Here was my chance to make a difference in the world by doing what I was best suited to do. Still, it meant giving up almost four years of hard work and turning my back on my past life. Was it worth it? Could this tiny organization hope to stem the tide of suffering that seemed more and more likely to engulf the world? I prayed for guidance, for a sign, for advice, for anything really.

I saw a shadow flicker across one of the stained glass windows on the side of the chapel. Curious, I walked over and opened the window, using the small metal latch that was in need of some oil. There were two birds perched on the windowsill, just out of reach. One was holding a sunflower seed in its beak while a larger bird was advancing on it threateningly. They hopped around, each flapping their wings as they danced along the narrow windowsill.

Suddenly, in a flurry of motion, the larger bird launched itself at the smaller one, forcing the seed out of its beak. It nearly fell off the windowsill and onto the rocks below, but it stopped bouncing at the very edge. Confident and assured in its victory, the larger bird strutted over to the discarded seed. Before it could pick the seed up in its beak, there was another blur of motion and the larger bird disappeared in a puff of feathers, as a third, even larger bird of the same species hurtled into it. They both tumbled off the ledge and disappeared in a cacophony of indignant squawks and flapping wings. The smaller bird looked around furtively for a few moments before hopping over to the edge of the windowsill and recovering the discarded seed. The entire exchange took less than a minute. I’m not arrogant enough to presume that God sent me a sign that evening in the mountains of northern Italy, but my mind was made up and I knew what I had to do. I left the chapel and went to find Father Donegal.

The Pythagoreans

Here are the first five chapters of my first novel: The Pythagoreans.  If you’d like to read the rest or just want to share your thoughts, please contact me.  Enjoy.

Chapter 1

The mist clung to the waters of the Adriatic Sea. Normally, when the fog was this thick, most shipmasters would prefer to remain anchored rather than risk collision with one of the many rocky outcroppings that dotted the coastline of southern Italia. A single small ship cut silently through the water in defiance of the elements. The sleek galley sailed low in the water, its hull and sails darker than most ships of its type. A small man of forty-two years with dark hair and eyes clung to a rope on the ship’s prow, searching for the signal that would indicate that his customers were in place. Compared to the payout, the risks associated with this voyage were nothing spectacular and barely merited a passing thought. He had seen far worse in his two decades plying the Mediterranean Sea smuggling goods past avaricious magistrates and warlords to individuals who wanted what they wanted with no questions asked.   If tonight’s drop went smoothly, he and his crew would soon be in Thebes or Tarentum or any one of the more disreputable ports that dotted the Mediterranean where they could find sanctuary and new business.

Due in no small part to his keen eye for talent, not to mention his knack for knowing a good deal when he saw one, Anech had traded in his leaky flat bottomed barge that he had once used to travel the estuaries of the Nile Delta, looking for work wherever he could find it, for a sleek Phoenician galley he called the Heron. The ship was well-built and fast, boasting two sails and a dozen oars on each side, more than enough to power the craft quickly and efficiently regardless of the weather. As outstanding as his ship was, his crew was even better. Anech recruited his crew from all across the Mediterranean, generally taking on a man or two whenever he made a port call. The crewmen waiting silently for his signal were clad in trousers, tunics, and breechclouts made out of furs, leather, linen, wool, and gods only knew what else, representing almost every nation in the known world that depended on the sea for their livelihood.

Unusually for one who worked on the water for a living, Anech was a fervent devotee of the god Anubis. He found it fitting that just as the entrance to the underworld teemed with souls both good and bad, the inns and taverns of every port city were rife with sailors of varying quality looking for work. Just as Anubis would weigh a man’s heart on his scales to determine his true nature, Anech was always able to see past the usual boasts and bluster and weigh the measure of the man before him. Looking around at his men, he was well and truly pleased. This was the best crew that he had ever had. They were discrete, loyal, and competent to the last man. A few more runs with this lot, and he would be able to return to his village in the swamps near the mouth of the Nile to live out his days in comfort.

Even though his eyesight was beginning to fade as he grew older, Anech was still able to spot the brief flash of a lantern about two bowshots from the ship. He recognized the prearranged signal and gestured to his crew to begin work. Crewmen quietly scurried about the ship, striking the two sails and moving their illicit cargo toward the railing. The crew lowered a rowboat into the water and the two carefully-selected rowers climbed down a rope ladder and took their place at the oars, one in front, one in back, with room enough in the middle for cargo. The crew moved quickly, displaying the calm economy of motion that can only be achieved by a group of men that is accustomed to working closely together. The anchor dropped and the cargo was made ready, all in complete silence.

His navigator signaled with a discreet nod once the sails and their associated lines were stowed satisfactorily. He was the crew’s sole Hebrew, and went by the name of Binyamin. Almost fifteen years ago, Anech had bought Binyamin from a slave market in Sidon. Prior to his enslavement, Binyamin had lived as a street urchin until he had been captured for minor thievery by the local authorities. Even after more than a decade of sailing together, Anech did not know much about the man’s personal history. Judging by the ease with which Binyamin was able to learn new languages and his ability to read and write a variety of tongues, Anech suspected that he had never been entirely truthful about his background, but did not press the young man on the matter.

Occasionally, a customer would react in surprise when they learned that the Egyptian smuggler’s third-in-command was a Hebrew. According to whispered stories told around evening cooking fires, that same god had once wrought incredible destruction throughout Egypt despite the protection of Osirus, Ra, Horus, Anubis, and a dozen other deities. Despite Binyamin’s ancestry, Anech has known a good investment when he saw one, and gave the boy the opportunity to buy his way out of bondage by working aboard his ship. Binyamin stayed on, and soon became one of the most versatile members of the crew. He could mend a sail in the morning, coax nigh unimaginable speeds from the Heron all day, and then negotiate a recalcitrant merchant into a corner as the sun set.

To his right, tugging on one of the sides of his long moustache stood Thraxos, the giant Minoan. Anyone unfamiliar with Thraxos simply assumed he was born of some unwashed tribe of savages from north of the Danube river. Actually, Thraxos had no more Barbarian blood in him than Anech, and hailed from Crete. Such trivialities did not stop Thraxos from dressing in trousers and tattooing his body in strange patterns. He said it helped keep the crew in line. Anech had one seen Thraxos beat three men unconscious in a tavern brawl when he had suspected that they were colluding against him in a dice game.   Anech hired him on the spot, and Thraxos had proved his worth many times over in the ensuing years, serving as the Bosun at sea and an enforcer and bodyguard while on land. Thraxos was extremely loyal to his Egyptian employer, and ensured that his will was carried out regardless of circumstance.

Thraxos stopped stretching to glower at two men who were lowering jars filled with the fine Cretan wine into the waiting rowboat.

“If either of you bastards spills even a drop, I will tie you together and throw you overboard. I do not give a rat’s asshole whose worthless tribe kidnapped whose great-great-great grandfather’s pet goat, and neither does anyone else on the ship,” he growled in a harsh voice that still managed to carry across the length of the galley. A crew member that had been in the act of stowing the smaller of the ship’s two sails moved a few steps further away from the massive, baldheaded Minoan.

Naturally, he was talking to Vertus and Brondan. The two hated each other for reasons the rest of the crew did not entirely understand. Vertus was a stoic Illyrian with a hard, pinched face while Brondan was a loud, boastful Gaul with red cheeks and wide shoulders from the northern reaches of the Adriatic. They had been hired onto the crew around the same time, and had never been able to stand one another. Still, Vertus was an excellent thief, and Brondan had an encyclopedic knowledge of the patchwork of Gallic tribes that inhabited the northern Mediterranean who were always happy to trade their exquisite ironwork for luxuries from the East. For Anech, the individual strengths of the two men outweighed their combined burden. The men glared at one another continued to lower the fragile clay pots down to the waiting hands of the two men in the rowboat.

As always, Anech had two of his best men going ashore. Shore work was dangerous and required both subtlety and a willingness to commit violence at a moment’s notice. Since he needed to depend on his agents ashore to react appropriately to a variety of situations, he only entrusted a handful of his men to handle such delicate work. One man, Daryus, was an Anatolian who had traded spices in a past life. When his ship had been destroyed by sea bandits, Daryus found himself a pauper begging for coppers on the streets of Corinth. Anech had hired him for his business acumen and knowledge of eastern trade routes, and relied on him heavily when it came to securing favorable concessions during the delicate negotiations that were a near daily occurrence in the life of a smuggler. The other man, who went by Hanno, was from the area around Carthage, a city settled by the Phoenicians much as the nearby city of Croton was settled by Greeks, whose respective homelands could support far fewer mouths than the banks of the Nile. Though still fairly new to the life of smuggling, Anech felt that he showed great promise, and he wanted him to see how things worked ashore.

Anech watched with approval as Daryus deftly maneuvered the last of the heavy jars of wine into the rowboat; not an easy task in the pitching sea. He used an oar to push off the side of the boat while Daryus undid the line. As the men rowed past the front of the galley, Anech waved to get Daryus’ attention.

“Remember what we discussed about the particulars of the trade. I have worked with Patroclus in the past. He is a fairly honest merchant but he will try and squeeze every bent copper from you before agreeing to a price,” he said in a low voice.

Beside him, Binyamin chuckled wryly as he coiled a rope around his forearm, “He’s in a tight spot. If he tries it, we’ll tell him we’ll take these jugs further south and see what the Syracusans will pay.”

From the boat, Daryus nodded in agreement. “Even if we charged him twice as much, he’d still turn a profit with the taxes they’re asking for whenever a ship docks in port.”

“Either way, any less than fifteen drachmas a jug, and I am taking it out of your cut,” Anech said, dark eyes twinkling even in the early morning gloom. Behind him, a few of his crewmen exchanged wry glances. His men knew that he would never pay them less than their fair share, though he often threatened to garnish wages or worse. Thanks to Thraxos, Anech almost never had to play the part of tyrant. The two smugglers began rowing in tandem toward the shore, which was barely visible in the mist.

The carefully maintained rowboat was truly the workhorse of smuggling operations such as this. In situations where a city’s port was closely guarded, the Heron would generally travel several leagues up the coast from the city in order to anchor and offload their wares far from prying eyes. The city of Croton in particular was a very popular destination for smugglers like Anech. Its ruling council levied massive taxes on ships entering its port, causing many merchants to make extralegal arrangements with smugglers to obtain goods more cheaply. The City Watch was both aggressive and well equipped, but the risks associated with doing business were well worth it to Anech.   The rowboat kept the merchants honest; if they tried to betray the smugglers, they would only seize a small fraction of the Heron’s wares at the cost of thousands of Drachmas in future lost business, as smugglers often discussed the trustworthiness of various merchants among themselves.  Even so, Anech still felt a knot in his stomach when he sent his men into the lion’s den. From long experience, he knew his hands would not stop shaking until both of the boat’s trips were complete.

Chapter 2

On a hill overlooking the beach where he had been informed the smugglers had arranged to make landfall, Galankos, Captain of the Croton City Watch, waited with eager anticipation. He saw a group of three men with a large wagon waiting on the beach, eyes fixated open the sea. Periodically, one of them would uncover a lantern, let it shine briefly, and then cover it again. That alone would be enough for Galankos to apprehend the men, one of whom he could tell was the odious little Patrocles even from here, but he wanted the smugglers as well. An athletic man with a close-cropped beard and several prominent scars on his arms and face, he moved easily under the weight of his armor. Spread out along the ridgeline, another dozen city Watchmen kept themselves concealed from view, looking askance at their commander.

Generally, he would leave missions like this to a trusted subordinate, but Galankos had suspected Patroclus of working with smugglers for a long time. With his grubby clothing and constant fidgeting whenever a patrol walked past his shop, Patroclus had always aroused equal feelings of disgust and suspicion in the fastidious watchman. In a way, the smugglers and the local merchants that were enabling them were taking money out of Galankos’ own pocket. The City Watch helped to ensure that the merchants and ship captains paid the taxes that in turn supported the City Watch. If he could make an example of Patroclus, tonight would be a very good night indeed. Galankos slowly sank back behind the crest of the hill so that only his head was exposed.

His patience was soon rewarded. One of the three men started gesturing out to sea, and even though the fog was still too thick for Galankos himself to see the approaching smuggler’s ship. It was almost time to spring the trap.

He turned to the youngest member of the watch and said, “get the fire started. When I call, light the signal and we can catch them all tonight.” He smiled for a moment, “Men, if we do this right, no one will notice if a jug or ten of Patroclus’ wine ends up in the barracks.”

With a muted growl of approval, his men went into action. Galankos and ten armored Watchmen with shields and short swords began to make their way down the hill, using a small draw to conceal their movement should one of the men on the beach turn around. Meanwhile, his archers fanned out along the ridgeline until they could range the entire beach. The youngest watchman remained in place, struggling with his flint and tinder.

The guards’ movements were well-choreographed. They moved silently and efficiently, like the professionals that they were. A decade ago, before the war with Sybaris, the City Watch was made up of rank amateurs much like that of a more established Polis on the Greek mainland. Croton, however, was on the ragged edge of the civilized world, and needed fierce, seasoned warriors like Galankos to protect its people. Galankos spent the first the early years of his life serving as a mercenary across Asia Minor, fighting for Greek and Persian alike. A run of bad luck found him penniless and desperate on the streets of Croton on the eve of its war with Sybaris. Galankos, needing the money, joined the men of the Polis for the duration of the war alongside several thousand other mercenaries. At the time, Galankos had planned to defect to the Sybarite army at the earliest opportunity, but surprisingly, Croton eventually emerged victorious even though they were caught flatfooted at the outset of hostilities.

In the wake of the conflict, the council of One Thousand felt it wise to institute a permanent City Watch, which Galankos was all too happy to join. He rose through the ranks quickly by making the right friends in the right places. Within ten years, he commanded the entire watch, and quickly set about expanding its power and influence. With his new position, he was able to obtain all of the money, power, and the luxuries that accompany such things that he could ask for. His home was both large and well-appointed, and he had quite the hoard of ‘gifts’ from merchants and informants buried in the courtyard. He ran the guard with an iron fist, but they respected him. They knew very well that he was responsible for their prosperity, even if his expectations and standards were high. Hard men from all over the Hellenic world vied for a position in the watch.

Tonight, gods willing, the latest arrow in his quiver would be tested in combat. Built in Athens, the Artemisium was a massive trireme worthy of any of the great Poleis. The ship carried nearly one hundred and fifty rowers, along with another fifty marines for ship-to-ship action. It was less than a league north of the beach, well concealed in a narrow cove. When the fire was lit, it would make short work of the smuggling ship while it was anchored. Every Greek city worth anything had at least a small flotilla of warships, but until now, Croton had lacked a warship of comparable quality to naval powers from the mainland such as Athens or Thebes.

For a moment, Galankos felt a twinge of nervousness. This was a massive undertaking based on the word of one informant. If something were to go wrong… No. He stopped himself. The men on the beach saw something out there on the waves, and this night would be one of triumph. He felt like a wolf closing in on a flock of sheep as he continued stealthily down the hill, the moment’s hesitation forgotten.

By the time he reached the bottom of the hill, he could make out the shape of a small rowboat approaching the shore. Staying in cover, he and his small group of watchmen advanced closer toward Patroclus and what had to be two of his house slaves. The donkey strapped to the cart brayed indolently, probably upset at the disruption to its daily routine. A jolt of excitement ran through him. Just a few moments more, he thought. He always loved this part. He loved it just as much as he had when he had impaled his first Armenian savage twenty years ago when he was a mere boy of sixteen. From here, all was in the hands of the Fates. He had but to play his part, and the bones would fall where they may. He found the uncertainty thrilling.

The rowboat paused before reaching the shore. The two men inside guided the boat in a semicircle with their paddles before rowing the ship backwards toward the sandy beach. Professionals, preparing looking for a quick getaway. Galankos’ breath quickened as he watched the boat run aground in the surf. Two men jumped out, dragging the heavily laden craft further onto shore. From his vantage point at the foot of the hill, he was still not close enough to hear what the men on the beach were saying, but from their body language, he could tell that they were haggling for the ship’s contents.

Just then, a gust of wind briefly lifted the fog revealing a sleek Phoenician galley anchored close to shore.

Now was the time. With a voice tempered in the thunder of half a hundred battles, he bellowed, “In the name of the Council of One Thousand, sovereigns of the free Greek city of Croton, I command you to raise your hands and submit to our custody,” behind him, a massive bonfire came to life, bright enough for the crew of the Artemisium to see. The five men on the beach spun around and stared at the watchmen. One of them began to run away from the swordsmen who, in their view, must have materialized less a javelin’s throw from where they were standing. Galankos gestured toward the running figure.

“Take him down,” Galankos cried again in a clear, ringing voice. Half a dozen arrows peppered the ground around the running figure, one of them passing so close as to pierce his cloak. With a shriek of fright, the criminal whirled around, checking his body for a protruding arrow. His moment’s hesitation proved fatal. The next volley ripped through his body, killing him instantly. The man fell, convulsing, to the ground, his blood oozing into the sand. Galankos ripped his gaze away from the fresh corpse in time to see the smugglers attempting to push their boat back into the water. Not so fast, he thought.

The guard captain and his men sprinted toward the shoreline, blades drawn, shields flashing in the sun that was just beginning to rise over the sea. The heaviest of the lot, the merchant Patroclus, fell blubbering to his knees, chins wobbling. His men aimed a few passing blows with the pommels of their swords at the sobbing merchant as they ran past him into the surf. The third man, still holding his lantern, was already clambering into the boat with the two smugglers, as they began to row, oars pushing off the sand just below the surface. Galankos reached the boat first, splashing through the thigh-deep water. He dropped his shield and grabbed the man with the lantern by the hair, using him to vault into the boat. The lantern went out as the man fell backwards into the water. Galankos heard a gurgling scream from the would-be accomplice as one of his Watchmen slit the man’s throat.

He paid the violence taking place behind him no heed. After taking a moment to regain his balance, he sized up the two men seated one behind the other in the boat. He suspected that they were both easterners, judging by their loose clothing and olive skin. To their credit, they reacted quickly. The closer of the two men, with a plaited beard that denoted him as some kind of Persian, drew a knife from his belt and slashed wildly at Galankos. His oars splashed into the water as he pressed the attack. Galankos thrust his hips backward to avoid the knife, and fell bodily onto the smaller man. The Persian crumpled, mouth colliding with his knees as he dropped his knife.

The other easterner was already preparing to swing an oar at Galankos’ head. Thinking quickly, he wrapped his arms around his quarry, and, pushing off with his left leg, rolled into the shallow water. The sounds around him became muffled as his head was swallowed by the sea. The Persian kicked and struggled, but was unable to right himself before Galankos’ hands closed around his throat. Straddling the smuggler, Galankos arched his head back, breathing in the cool salty air and bore the Persian under the water. Within moments, the man’s struggles grew weaker, and bubbles soon ceased to escape from his mouth. Galankos felt a thrill run through his body. He knew that this was the real reason that he would always accompany his men on missions such as these. There was nothing quite so thrilling as the act of taking another man’s life.

It took another moment or two for the excitement of the kill to recede enough for Galankos to get his bearings. The other easterner was out of the boat now, splashing in the surf.   The man was bigger than he looked. He brandished a large oar as if it weighed no more than a walking stick. He had wild eyes and his long beard that glistened with seawater. He swung wildly at four Watchmen as they attempted to surround him. One of his men moved too slowly and doubled over when the oar connected with his breastplate, knocking the wind out of him. Another Watchman seized the opportunity and tackled the smuggler. The other two quickly piled on and brought the man down into the waves, short swords sliding in and out of the smuggler’s body, darkening the water around them. Galankos nodded with approval as his men helped the injured Watchman out of the water. From the way he moved, he looked to have a cracked rib, but he would be able to recover.

He saw the smugglers’ galley crawling with activity. Where was the Artemisium? As if he had summoned it with his thoughts, he heard the muffled thud, thud, thud of the warship’s drum as a single large mast became visible through the slowly vanishing mist. The mast resolved itself into a ship that had no peer for hundreds of leagues. It incorporated all of the latest shipbuilding designs and techniques from the Greek mainland. The ship was so majestic that Galankos momentarily regretted his decision to accompany the land force and leave command of the ship to one of his lieutenants. It was too late to reconsider, of course, and Galankos had never particularly liked sailing, so it was all for the best.

The ship came fully into view. Its ram alone was the size of two men laid end to end. No eastern ship could stand before a Greek warship if it was making speed. Bathed red in the early morning sun, the Artemesium raced toward the galley, which had struck its sails so as not to snap the line securing it to its anchor. Too late, the sea scum realized their folly. The Artemisium would smash them where they stood. Galankos smiled to himself not long now, he thought. His informant would be rewarded handsomely, and his patrons in the Council of One Thousand would surely bestow great honors upon him, perhaps allowing him to finally recruit the additional score of men that he had requested two months ago. Today was going to be a good day. Maybe he would allow a few of the smugglers to live if they surrendered quickly enough. He looked across the water and saw a man on the prow of the ship staring back at him, even as his crewmates began to scramble about the deck, surprised by the massive Greek warship that to them must have appeared out of nowhere. If the gods were kind, that man and his whole crew would be begging for their lives before the sun was fully risen. Galankos made a mental note to put a good word in for the fruit vendor that had given him the needed information to set up such a perfect ambush as he stared intently out to sea.

Chapter 3

Binyamin struggled to maintain his composure. He could not let the crew see him come unraveled by the massive trireme bearing down on them. They were the closest thing to family that he had, and their opinion of him mattered more than anything else in the world, even his own personal safety. If any of them were to survive this sudden and dramatic reversal of fortunes, the next several moments would be critical.

He had watched in horror as the City Watchmen descended on his two crewmates and the Crotonians that were waiting for them on the beach. Daryus never stood a chance, though Hanno had struck at least one watchman before he too was overwhelmed. Their apparent leader, wearing an imposing crested helm, still stood thigh deep in the water, watching the Heron intently. Binyamin had seen him wrestle Daryus under the water, never to resurface. Behind him, his men were both pulling the rowboat full of wine onto the beach and retrieving the corpses in the shallow water. Smuggling was a risky business. Any one of the unscrupulous merchants, spies, information brokers, or fellow smugglers who formed the network through which deliveries were arranged and contracts sealed could have turned them in. The circumstances of their betrayal would never be known to Daryus or Hanno. Binyamin hoped that the unknown traitor’s soul would burn one day for causing the deaths of the two good men.

Binyamin could already the faces of the archers stationed at the mighty warship’s prow. It was coming on too fast, propelled forward by what had to be two hundred rowers straining as one beneath the tall ship’s deck. He could see that there were fifty or more oars on each side of the massive ship as it cut through the waves and receding mist like a knife. Their fluid movement, coupled with the large, stylized pupils painted on either side of the ram made for an intimidating sight. Binyamin struggled unsuccessfully to keep images of the ram smashing into the side of the Heron from his thoughts.

Worst of all, there was nothing more Binyamin could do with his sails. The main sail was flapping feebly, while the supplementary one that aided in steering was barely catching anything. The futility of his efforts gnawed at his insides as he struggled to think of a solution. In a few more minutes, the Greek ship would be close enough to attempt to ram them or pepper them with flaming arrows until they would be forced to surrender. Binyamin silently promised himself that he was not going back to prison. He felt useless. Worst of all, what little wind there was came from the east, which would push them back if they tried to flee directly away from the coast. Instead, they had to tack and wait for the trireme’s to reach them.

Thraxos bellowed orders as men scrambled to unfurl sails. Brondan cut the anchor line with his axe, while the other smugglers unstowed the galley’s oars below deck. The Heron only had one-fifth of the compliment of oars compared to the approaching trireme. There was almost no wind for Binyamin to capture with his sails, though he tried desperately to coax even a little speed out of the Heron with the pitiful amount that barely managed to move the sails. Slowly, the Heron began to move through the water. Binyamin gave the captain a look of resignation. They both knew that they could not hope to build the speed they needed in time.

The sun was coming up now, but the color was slightly off. The usual oranges and yellows were muted by a large group of clouds to the east. Binyamin had spent almost half his life on the water, and he could tell when the rising sun was obscured by a bank of storm clouds well before the wind inevitably picked up or rain began to fall. Like a bolt of lightning, inspiration struck. The plan was desperate, but no one else in the crew was a strong enough swimmer to even consider it. There was a slim possibility that this oncoming storm could be used against the warship. The chances of him living until the sun was fully risen were small, but this might buy time for his crewmates to escape.

“Vertus, I need you to take over the mainsail,” Binyamin shouted as the Illyrian ran by. Vertus stopped and gave Binyamin an incredulous look as he grabbed the line Binyamin was holding without complaint. “The wind’s coming over your left shoulder. Keep the sail flush to the wind even if it changes direction. I need to talk to the Captain.” After a cursory inspection to see if Vertus was managing the sails correctly, Binyamin scrambled back to the rear of the ship, grabbing a long coiled rope as he went. Anech, who in many ways was more of a father to him than his own had been, gripped the rudder, face grim.

“Binyamin, what are you doing? We need more wind in those sails,” the Egyptian shouted as Binyamin approached him, rope in hand.

“We both know it will not help,” Binyamin said, glancing back at the oncoming trireme. “I am going to try something. If it works, the rest of the crew will escape. If it does not, we will all be dead anyway,” he continued as he knotted the end of the rope around his waist. Anech had always looked out for Binyamin, and the young Hebrew could see the look of concern on his mentor’s face. He had been part of the crew since he was a small boy, and Anech never neglected an opportunity to teach the Hebrew everything he could about the smuggling business, much as a father would teach a son his trade.

“The Heron has never let us down before. Some god or another will smile on us before much longer,” said Anech without much certainty in his eyes.

“We do not have any other options,” Binyamin replied, securing the other end of the rope to the back rail of the Heron. “If I make it, I will head for the shore and lie low. After I jump, cut to port as hard as you can.”

Anech looked at Binyamin for what they both knew was probably the last time. “You’ve always made me proud, boy.”

Binyamin nodded back, “The gods want us to make our own luck today.”

Another volley of arrows rained down on the Heron, causing the two men to duck. Near the front of the ship, a man screamed in surprise and pain. It would only be a few more moments before the Greek warship was close enough to ram, bombard, or board the much smaller Heron. Binyamin took one last look around the ship that had been his home for more than half his life. He knew every nook, cranny, patch, and contour of the sleek craft, and this could very well be the last time he ever saw it. Thraxos noticed the activity at the rear of the Heron and ran to where Binyamin and Anech were crouched. His eyes grew wide when he saw the rope tied to Binyamin.

“You’ve always been a crazy bastard, Hebrew,” he shouted as yet another volley of arrows peppered the deck, sending the few men that were not manning oars below decks scrambling for cover. He flashed a smile, “If you pull this off, Poseidon will have no choice but to welcome you into his halls, whether you believe in him or not.”

Binyamin returned the smile. While he and Thraxos did not always agree with one another, they had a great deal of mutual respect. “You keep those scrolls of mine safe and dry. I will be wanting them when I get back.”

Thraxos shook his head, “No one would want them even if we did try to sell them. I’ll guard them as long as I breathe, though it might not be for much longer if they catch us,” he said, motioning at the oncoming trireme with his head.

Anech cut Thraxos off. “May your God protect you son, as he has thus far. We will be back for you, so keep an eye to the sea and watch for us.”

Trying to look more confident than he felt, Binyamin looked at the two men one last time before vaulting over the edge of the Heron. The water rushed up to meet him, and Binyamin fought his body’s sudden urge to expel his breath as soon as he hit the cold water. The crisp noise of the world above the surface was replaced with the strange muffled sounds of the sea.   He kicked his legs and pulled the seawater behind him with his arms, propelling himself deeper into the black depths. The disorganized splashes of the Heron’s oars were replaced by the rhythmic crash of the trireme’s oars as it cut through the water close behind. The shadow of the warship blocked out the feeble morning light as it passed over Binyamin’s head. Though out of reach of the oars, the oars’ collective current still buffeted Binyamin’s compact frame. Fighting the urge to panic, Binyamin floated beneath the surface, trying not to imagine the jaws of some monstrous sea creature closing around his helpless body. Just as his lungs began to scream for air, he felt the tug of the rope wrapped around his waist. He was now being pulled through the water by the Heron.

As his body began to convulse from lack of air, Binyamin clawed his way to the surface. The light of the surface came closer as Binyamin’s vision grew darker. His head finally surfaced, and he choked down several breaths of fresh air before he could see and think clearly. Once he gained his bearings, Binyamin saw that his plan had worked well so far. Anech had turned the Heron sharply away from shore at just the right time. The trireme was now interposed between the Heron and himself. Binyamin watched in abstract fascination as the uniformed crewmen scrambled to match the smaller, nimbler ship’s tight turn. In doing so, the warship was forced to slow, which in turn allowed the Heron to pull Binyamin closer. The sensation of cutting through the water with little to no effort was very odd, and the rope rubbed painfully around Binyamin’s waist. The rear of the warship loomed up before him, and Binyamin tried to angle his body so that he could hit the ship as close to the rudder as possible. As the rope dragged him closer, a portion slipped underneath the rear left side of the ship. Thankfully, it did not become tangled in the ship’s rearmost oars.

The rear right side of the trireme loomed before Binyamin like a wooden wall. He had judged the speed of the ship perfectly; he would strike the ship between the last bank of rowers and the right rudder. This close, the sheer size of the warship was impressive. Three banks of oars made the current almost irresistible. Binyamin knew the oars on the other side of the ship must be reversing course to allow the ship to turn more easily. From the water, Binyamin could see the last several banks of rowers straining at their task. Fortunately, their eyes were focused away from him, either marking the cadence of a drummer that could be heard from further up the ship or on the drama unfolding through the oar ports on the opposite side of the ship. Binyamin began to fumble with the knot around his waist moments before hitting the side of the ship. The rope fell away and he hit the wooden side of the ship with a wet smacking sound.

Unlike the Heron, which had one rudder, the Greek monstrosity to which Binyamin now found himself clinging had a rudder on each side of the back end of the ship, enabling it to turn relatively well for such a long craft. To his right, a veritable forest of oars splashed rhythmically into the water. To his left, the flat wooden rudder creaked under the strain as it guided the trireme into a tight left turn. Like most ships’ rudders, the design was not intricate. A long pole was bolted to the side of the ship in such a way that it could swivel freely. Above deck, a perpendicular handle allowed an operator to turn the flat rudder in the water. Oftentimes, the left and right rudders were attached so that they could be used by one crewman. Looking down, Binyamin could see that the submerged portion of the rudder was the size of a large table and belted in iron.

The pole attached to the rudder was as big around as his forearm, so Binyamin had no problem finding purchase. Binyamin climbed up the rudder hand over hand, using the crossbars that secured it, or the side of the ship to support most of his weight. After what seemed like an eternity, he reached the railing and looked over. As he suspected, the two rudders were attached to one another by a jointed metal bar. The helmsman was pulling on both rudders at once, trying to bring his ship back in line with the fleeing Heron. The rowers were all below deck, where they would be protected by arrow fire, and the few crewmen and marines on deck were mostly clustered farther up the deck observing the Heron. While he had been climbing, the ship had successfully turned and was once again beginning to gain on the Heron. A man who was obviously in charge due to his ornate armor and imposing helmet had just finished barking orders to the helmsman and was making his way back to the archers at the front of the warship.

Binyamin dropped his head back behind the rail to quickly formulate a plan. The layout of the ship was still clear in his mind. If he could overpower the helmsman before the rest of the crew reacted, his plan might work. After taking a moment to collect himself, he pulled himself over the railing and padded towards the helmsman, bare feet slapping the deck. When Binyamin was only two steps away, the man began to look over his shoulder. Binyamin seized his helmet and lifted it off his head, bringing it back down swiftly. The helmsman crumpled to the ground, barely making a sound. For the moment, Binyamin was in control of the ship.

He kept the ship’s course steady. There was almost no wind in the Greek ship’s sails either, but that would soon change if his guess was correct. The sail was unfurled, with two very slack ropes keeping it more or less perpendicular to the ship. Binyamin knew that he would have only one chance to attempt his plan. He kept quiet and prayed that the men on deck would continue to focus on the Heron and not look back to see who was now piloting their ship.

His breathing quickened as he saw a ripple play across the surface of the water. There it is! It was time to act. Using all of his weight, Binyamin pulled the metal bar that attached the two rudders, causing the ship to turn right, back towards the shore.   The deck lurched under the crewmen at the front, knocking several off their feet. One of the archers lost his balance and fell off the front of the ship. Below deck, the rowers shouted in alarm. Several oars slid out of their ports into the sea as oarsmen jostled one another. At the front of the ship, several of the crewmen were already regaining their feet, shouting in anger at whatever idiot was steering the ship so poorly. Their anger turned to surprise, and then back to anger as they realized that a smuggler had somehow made his way onto their ship and worse, was now steering it back to shore. The ship’s captain, ornate helmet askew, began gesturing wildly at Binyamin. Four or five archers took aim while several others scrambled to recover their bows.

They never got a chance to fire. After its violent turn, the trireme was in a very vulnerable position. It was perpendicular to the steadily increasing wind with a fully unfurled sail. The first powerful gust that heralded the oncoming storm was caught in the sail, causing it to twist so that it was now running parallel to the length of the ship. The deck began to lurch beneath Binyamin’s feet. At first Binyamin and the crewmen preparing to pepper his body with arrows tried their best to maintain their balance, but the angle of the deck soon became too extreme. One enterprising sailor attempted to grab a line to pull the sail so that it was not catching the full force of the sudden gust of wind. Too late, the crewmen scrambled to regain control of the sail and the line flew from his grasp as he too began to tumble overboard. The oarsmen below decks panicked first. Some scrambled above deck, while others wasted no time in wriggling their way out of the holes cut in the ship for their oars. The men above deck, Binyamin included, were now sliding toward the edge of the ship as the deck tilted under their feet. Binyamin grabbed ahold of a spare piece of rope and saw the unconscious form of the helmsman hurtle past him into the water. The man’s armor was heavy and he sank like a stone, with only a few bubbles marking his passage.

With a mighty smack, the ship’s large striped sail hit the water. The cloth spread out enough to stop the ship from fully capsizing as the thick mast creaked and groaned under the strain. Feeling vulnerable and exposed dangling from the now vertical ship’s deck, Binyamin let himself drop into the water, careful to avoid entangling himself in any ropes or knots of frantic sailors. An accomplished swimmer, he had no problem moving his arms and legs in such a way as to keep his head above water. All around him, men struggled to stay afloat. It was clear that some men were able to swim quite well, while others were far less skilled. The lucky ones were able to cling to the edges of their ship.

The armored marines were fighting to remove their greaves and breastplates as quickly as possible before their strength failed them and they slipped below the surface, though most were no more successful than the unconscious helmsman had been. Regardless, any attempt to apprehend Binyamin was, for the moment at least, completely forgotten. Binyamin knew that this state of affairs could not last long. As soon as some modicum of order was restored, the sailors would begin searching for the man that had all but destroyed their vessel. As if he needed any more convincing, a quick glance out to sea showed that the source of the sudden strong gusts of wind, an ominous bank of dark storm clouds was moving towards the shore. Worse yet, he could see flashes of lightning within the clouds, though the cacophony around him prevented the sound of thunder from reaching his ears.

Binyamin looked skyward and murmured a quick prayer to his peoples’ God, entreating him to grant the crew of the Heron safe passage through the onrushing storm. Through his actions, his brothers were spared from death or capture at the hands of the men now struggling around him. It would all be for nothing if the Heron floundered in heavy waves and sunk. Binyamin stopped reflecting on his friends’ potential fate when a massive forearm closed around his neck, nearly dislocating his jaw in the process.

Down Binyamin went, into the depths of the sea. Blood rushed in his ears while his lungs screamed for air. The oarsman, he had to be an oarsman due to the size of his arms and lack of any cumbersome armor, continued to squeeze the life out of him. With his last measure of strength, Binyamin drove his elbow into the man’s stomach, forcing him to expel a massive quantity of air bubbles that floated upward into the vanishing light. Taking advantage of the man’s temporary disorientation, Binyamin spun around without fully breaking the man’s embrace. He looked into a pair of angry eyes that stared back at him from within a dark, bushy beard that covered most of the man’s face. Even though his vision was blurred by the sea around him, there was no mistaking the murderous intent behind those eyes. Binyamin seized the man by the beard and smashed his forehead into the man’s nose repeatedly until the oarsman’s grip weakened. The blood that filled the water around his head was warmer and thicker than the seawater around the rest of his body. The oarsman continued to sink deeper into the sea and his ruined face continued to glare up at Binyamin until his form was swallowed up by the blackness. Binyamin frantically clawed his way back to the surface. His vision narrowed until he felt like he was looking through a knothole in a piece of wood. Still, he kicked and pulled the water downward with his arms until his head finally broke the surface. Whether from the desperate underwater scuffle or the ensuing frantic effort to get back to the surface, Binyamin’s shoulder screamed in agony every time he tried to move it. He glanced about at his surroundings and noticed that a sizable portion of the crew had successfully scrambled onto the half-capsized hull of their once proud ship. Most of them were staring out to sea at either the vanishing Heron or the approaching storm, faces filled with a combination of rage and dread.

The storm was moving toward the stricken ship at a seemingly impossible speed, and Binyamin could now not only hear the sound of not so far-off thunder, but see the shapes of individual storm clouds. Even unhurt, Binyamin knew that he had no chance of reaching the shore before the storm hit. After looking about for a scrap of wood or oar that he could use to keep himself partially afloat and finding none, Binyamin began the laborious process of swimming toward shore. To conserve energy and avoid straining his injured shoulder, Binyamin swam on his side, legs kicking like those of a frog’s, while one arm reached forward and pulled the water past his body. He had barely made it two ship lengths when he felt the first drops of rain hit his skin. The waves would come next, long before he could reach the dubious safety of the rocky shore.

Chapter 4

“Brace yourselves,” Thraxos shouted as a massive wave crashed into the front of the Heron.   Anech grabbed hold of the nearest railing, barely feeling the freezing water wash over his body. He had no idea how that crazy Hebrew had managed to nearly capsize their pursuer, but Binyamin had bought his crew a chance at salvation, undoubtedly with the cost of his own life. As long as he lived, Anech knew that he would never forget the sense of awe that he had felt as he watched the massive ship suddenly tip over in the onrushing wind. Maybe there was something to the man’s strange, solitary God, who the Hebrews believed held sole dominion over the earth. Indeed, even in Anech’s home village deep within the swamps of the Nile, people still told stories in hushed tones of the nearly inconceivable disasters that had befallen the people of Egypt many generations past when they had held the Hebrews in bondage.

Anech snapped out of his reverie when another wave came crashing down on the Heron, and cold water caused his thin linen tunic to cling uncomfortably to his body. He would not let Binyamin’s sacrifice be for nothing due to his own lack of initiative. A few more hits like that, and the Heron would capsize of break apart. Anech was startled by a tearing sound above him. Looking up, he saw that the Heron’s steering sail was ripped almost in half due to the storm’s powerful winds. At last, he felt his grief, fear, and frustration wash away and he began to act.

“Brondan,” he screamed over the rushing wind and crashing waves, “get that sail down.” Brondan did not seem to hear him, but readily understood Anech’s frantic gestures toward the rear sail. Thraxos, Vertus, and three other crewmen followed and began furling both the steering sail and the mainsail. The ship continued to lurch violently as Anech made his way to the ladder that led below deck. Before he could begin to descend, Anario, a Balearic islander who was also the ship’s most experienced oarsman popped his head out of the square opening.

“Sir,” he yelled, desperation adding a gut-tightening note to his normally calm voice, “It’s bad down here, Sir. Two of our oars are snapped clean off, and we have water coming in through the ports. The men at the benches have water up to their waists, and it is rising fast.”

“Seal up the ports,” Anech replied with as much calm as he could muster. If the hold filled with water, they were done for. Anario nodded and splashed back into the hold, barking out orders with a few curses in his native tongue complementing the distinct blend of Greek and Phoenician that was understood by almost every man that sailed the Mediterranean.   Above deck, the sails were successfully stowed. Anech ordered the tops pried off several barrels of expensive Cretan wine. With a sigh of sadness he watched as the precious liquid was poured overboard. He then helped a crewman tie rope cradles around the barrels as if they were about to be loaded into a waiting rowboat. As each one was completed, Thraxos, Vertus, Brondan, or one of the other three crewmen still above deck would lower it into the hold, where Annario would ensure that it was filled to the brim with water. That done, the men would haul it up, muscles in their arms and shoulders straining, and pour it over the side.

Slowly but surely, despite the driving rain, and crashing waves, the Heron stopped wallowing. Below deck, the rowers successfully sealed the oar port covers shut with wax and pitch. It would be a laborious process to reopen them when the storm passed, but the hold was no longer in imminent danger of being flooded. At last, Anech gave the order to move the remaining wine, provisions, and other cargo into the ship’s hold to keep as much weight below the waterline as possible. That way, he hoped, a large wave might not bowl the Heron over without warning. Their best course of action was simply to wait out the storm and pray for the best.

With one last fearful glance, Anech followed his men into the ship’s hatch, closing the door after him. As he descended the ladder into the darkness of the cargo hold, he murmured a silent prayer to Anubis. He wondered if the tension and nervousness that was roiling inside him would be similar to the way he would one day feel when he stood before his god awaiting judgment. The wind and waves howled and splashed around them. For the first time since he had seen the man on the beach brought down by a hail of arrows, Anech could not feel his heart pounding in his chest. Around him, his crew murmured in hushed tones listening intently to the sounds of the storm and looking about apprehensively with every pitch and roll of the ship. The entire place smelled of sweat, vomit, and salt water. A few chanted prayers to whatever set of gods the people of their homeland worshipped, while most simply stared at their blistered hands or the water that was still pooling around their ankles.

Thraxos was in possession of the sole lamp to not be completely submerged, and moved from man to man, offering encouragement and approbation in equal measure. Slowly, a small modicum of cheer returned to the exhausted sailors. Before long, someone in the back of the hold began singing the first stanzas of a popular, if somewhat crude, sailing song in a rich, low baritone. Thraxos quickly jumped up and began bellowing out the lyrics enthusiastically, rhythmically clapping his hands and stomping his feet, looking at the other crewmen as if they were acting like grumpy old women for not joining in. By the time he got to the second verse, the entire hold was bellowing out the lyrics. Brondan looked askance to Anech before prying open one of the surviving wine casks, and the crewmen were soon passing wine around in small cups made of metal or wood. The cramped confines of the hold took on a festive atmosphere as the men shouted out the refrain, which involved a Babylonian princess with beautiful, dark eyes sailing off with a sea raider. Of course, the Babylon had fallen to the Persians years before any man aboard the ship was even born, but no one had ever bothered to update the tawdry lyrics. The Heron continued to pitch and roll while the men drank and laughed in defiance of the elements.

Anech was a lucky man to have someone like Thraxos on his crew. Not for the first time, he reflected on how the two of them complimented each other perfectly. Thraxos could handle the crew just as well as Anech could handle the complicated network of contacts and trade that kept food in the crews’ bellies and coin in their pockets. Of course, losing his navigator was going to make it harder to make ends meet, but Anech allowed himself a small measure of optimism. He smiled as Brondan passed him a cup of wine, and took a tentative sip. Thraxos, face flushed from wine and loud, toneless singing made his way over to where Anech was sitting.

“It looks like we just might make it,” he said to the captain.

Anech nodded in agreement, and noticed that the Minoan was holding an oilcloth-wrapped bundle under his arm. Thraxos followed Anech’s gaze and offered him the bundle.

“It’s Bin’s,” he murmured. “Anario grabbed it before someone set that crate of spices and incense on it.

“Good,” Anech replied, relieved that at the very least, his former navigator’s most prized possession had made it through the day’s adventure unscathed. Thraxos gingerly peeled off the oilcloth to reveal a linen strip wrapped around two intricately carved wooden sticks. As Anech looked on, Thraxos carefully pulled the two sticks apart, exposing line after line of densely packed Hebrew script painstakingly inscribed onto the thin cloth.

“I will never understand why he paid almost a year’s wages for this thing when we went to that market outside of Athens,” Thraxos said as his eyes wandered over the lines of incomprehensible lettering. “I mean, he has tried to tell me a few times, but it seems like a collection of old wives’ stories about his God punishing his people and little else.” He began to roll the linen cloth tightly between the two sticks again, keeping a bemused look on his bearded face all along. “Still, he was a good man, and he died protecting this crew. If he found the strength to do what he did thanks to the words written in here, it might be worth keeping.”

“Of course we will keep it,” Anech responded, perhaps a little too quickly and angrily. Then he explained, “The scroll chronicles the entire history of his people. If you unroll it right to left, and if you know the sounds each bit of script is supposed to make, you can learn the entire story of Binyamin’s people. This scroll is probably several centuries old, from before the time when Babylon destroyed the Hebrew’s country and took most of them off in chains. It is a rare and beautiful object, for those who know what they are looking at.”

Thraxos nodded in understanding and finished replacing the scroll. “What is your plan sir?” he asked, looking to the Egyptian. “The sea is calming. I think we are through the worst of it.”

Anech had to agree. “The storm is moving to the south and the west. We will unfurl the sail, and ride the winds that are driving it towards Syracusa. We will sell our remaining wares to Alcadimes or one of the other merchants in the city that will give us a good price. With what we get there, Brondan should be able to find us something worth trading for on the Gallic shore, which in turn should put enough gold in our pockets and cargo in our hold to come to Croton,” as he spoke, Anech was mentally tallying facts and figures, taking everything from the cost of provisions, to prevailing currents and winds, to the bribes he would have to pay port officials in Syracusa to look elsewhere while they repaired the Heron. He excelled at this kind of work, and Thraxos struggled to keep up as Anech continued to lay out his plan. Most of the crew was attempting to listen in on the conversation by now, eager to find out what their captain had in store for them.

“We owe our dead that much,” Anech continued. “I do not care if it takes us a year or more to get back here. We will look for Binyamin, and if we get the chance to find the one who killed Daryus and Hanno, so much the better.”

Thraxos, along with the now silent crew, all nodded in agreement, and continued to wait out the storm.

 

Chapter 5

Galankos tried not to duck as a gilded plate sailed past his head and crashed into the wall behind him. For a moment, his urge to attack the man who had nearly hit him with the ornate dish was almost overpowering. The Captain of the City Watch knew that his livelihood and perhaps his very life depended on maintaining his composure until the meeting was over. As such, he willed himself to stare forward impassively, despite the overwhelming fatigue in his muscles and the fact that he had barely managed to change out of his soaking wet field uniform, let alone get some sleep, before being summoned to the large house that stood just up the street from the city amphitheater. He had seen far more theatrical tantrums during his time as a palace guard for a Persian Satrap. If he could hold his temper around obnoxious foreigners like those, he could withstand Cleon’s wrath as well.

After the capsizing of the Artemisium, Galankos had no other options but to turn out most of the watch to assist in its recovery. The criminal element of Croton caught on quickly and seized on the opportunity to spend the entire morning causing mischief of various sorts throughout the city despite the wind and the rain. Stores and homes were robbed, and old scores were settled. Five citizens and twice again as many slaves were dead, and while no women of note had come forward to say that they had been raped, Galankos was sure that someone would before long. Indeed, the sole ray of hope from the entire night was that the storm had washed the Atremisium into much shallower water before it finally hit the bottom, only partially submerged. This in turn allowed more than half of the two hundred man crew to successfully reach the shore with their lives. They were half drowned and miserable by the time they crawled onto the beach, but they would eventually recover.

Galankos returned his attention to the red faced man in front of him. The mercenary commander of the City Watch was a seasoned killer, and as such, had a habit of instantly appraising the physical strength and martial bearing of just about anyone he encountered. The white-robed individual that was currently screaming at the top of his lungs appeared to have little of the former and even less of the latter. That was not what made him dangerous, though. Galankos knew from long experience that his appearance as an unassuming member of the Council of One Thousand was a deliberate deception. He maintained the look and mannerisms of a soft-spoken, collaborative politician eager to advance the prestige of his home city because it suited him. The colonists of Greater Greece were understandably suspicious of domineering individuals who sought to amass great amounts of personal power. Many had fled the more established cities on the Greek mainland and surrounding isles to escape the yoke of such tyrants. In fact, Croton’s most famous resident, Pythagoras, had fled one such tyrant when he rose to power on the island of Samos. As such, if a man in Greater Greece wanted to amass great power over his neighbors, he would have to do so covertly. No one was better at it than Cleon. Galankos knew full well that the man he was facing was a monster much like himself, and even more adept than he at concealing his true self behind a mask of civic duty.

In fact, Cleon was arguably the most powerful man in southern Italia. Although he only cast one vote out of, well, one thousand, any time there was an issue that needed settling in the city, Cleon almost always had the final say. Cleon had carefully constructed a network of political allies over the years, and at the most recent count, four hundred twenty-three other council members could be counted on to vote in lock step with Cleon regardless of their own personal beliefs. This meant that Cleon or his allies would only need to convince a handful of council members to vote alongside them while their opponents would need to convince hundreds.

For the last ten years, these tactics had worked quite well. Cleon was not above using the personal grudges or petty ambitions held by council members to leverage their votes against his rivals. Those who voted with him knew that, if they were loyal, their own projects would eventually be ratified as well. As such, Cleon and his followers had amassed great wealth over the years. If a blacksmith was being driven out of business by a rival or foreign imports, oftentimes he could simply go to Cleon, and in exchange for a sizable “gift,” watch with glee as the part of the city where the rival worked was declared to be off-limits to industry of that sort while imported ironwork was taxed heavily when it arrived in the port. Of course, this in turn made the tax collectors very pleased to support Cleon’s ambitions as they received a percentage of the revenue that they collected or as grudging merchants would say, extorted, from the populace. He would have done very well in the Persian courts of Galankos’ youth.

Croton was an important port and was the sole gateway to the ever growing market of Greek farmers in southern Italia, and as such, Cleon’s taxes did little to dissuade merchants from dropping anchor in Croton’s harbor. They simply raised their prices, and passed their expenses on to the Greek farmers struggling to create new lives for themselves and their families on the peninsula. The farmers were not fools, and they sometimes got the idea that they could separate themselves from Croton politically. Of course, those were the times when Galankos might send a few of his less scrupulous Watchmen into the countryside to remind recalcitrant farmers about how vulnerable they were living so far from proper civilization. It was easy to leverage the farmers’ collective dislike of the goat-herding mountain tribes and lay the blame at their feet.

Of course, Cleon had his rivals. Chief among them were Milos, the old Crotonian war hero that had once led Galankos and thousands of others, both mercenary and citizen, in a fight for survival against the neighboring city of Sybaris. Also, there was Bromycles, a blacksmith that enjoyed the support of many of the merchants and craftsmen that felt that they were being dealt a great disservice by the unnecessary laws and expenses levied by the ever-growing Crotonian government. Fortunately, even these two would occasionally disagree with one another, further weakening their own positions while strengthening those of Cleon. If Galankos was going to be punished for the morning’s failure, it would be in no small part due to the potential humiliation that Cleon’s rivals would attempt to heap upon him.

Galankos reassured himself by thinking about the difficulty that Cleon would experience if he tried to replace him. As Cleon and his cohorts passed more laws, the necessity of a strong City Watch to enforce them increased as well. Galankos had served alongside Cleon in the war against Sybaris, and had supported the ambitious young man when he argued vocally against Milos’ rash strategies in response to the overwhelmingly powerful Sybarite land and sea forces. Though Milos had ultimately been vindicated by his success, the people had short memory and rarely called Cleon to task for his long ago strategic blunders.

Cleon had learned from his mistakes, and as one of his earliest allies, had installed Galankos as City Watch commander as soon as he was politically able to. He used the minor threats of Samnite raids and pirates from the northern Adriatic as an excuse to build a standing City Watch and an accompanying small fleet of warships. To date, the Watch consisted of two thousand men and four, technically three now, Galankos thought ruefully, permanent warships. Half of the watch was stationed in Croton itself, while the other half was garrisoned in the surrounding farming settlements. In exchange for ruthlessly enforcing Cleon’s laws, and often ignoring those of his rivals, Galankos had amassed far more wealth than even the most powerful mercenary field commanders in Anatolia could think of earning.

For these reasons, Galankos considered himself an important strand in Cleon’s intricate web of plots and pawns, but knew full well that the man’s temper made him unpredictable. Therefore, he listened with great deference as his benefactor vented his frustration.

“All this, for a boat full of smuggled wine!” Cleon concluded his rant. Eyes wide, chest heaving, he waited for Galankos to explain himself.

“Councilman, we are interviewing the surviving crewmen from the Artemisium as we speak. It will not be long before we find out exactly what went wrong. From what we have been able to piece together so far, we know that one man was seen jumping from the ship. My lieutenant assumed that he was attempting to flee, but according to one of the men stationed on the deck that we fished out of the sea a few hours ago, he was somehow able to seize control of the ship’s helm. He then used the incoming wind from the storm to capsize the ship before the crew could react. The only question is how he got onboard in the first place. We do not believe that the attacker survived, but my men are combing the beach regardless.”

Cleon cut him off. “Do not waste my time with speculation. When you find the answer, tell me. Until then, I need to find a way to keep the stewpot from boiling over. Do you have any idea what kind of situation this has put me in?” Galankos could tell that Cleon was starting to get angry again. “That bastard Milos will use this against me at next week’s meeting. He will question the necessity of a standing City Watch and ask why we are spending a bull’s weight in gold for warships and weapons when the people are not being kept safe. I will need to call in dozens of favors to silence him. Worse yet, Patrocles is cousin to councilman Artanos. If I let him go unpunished, others will try their luck smuggling. If I punish him publicly, I will lose the support of a key ally. I might even have to give him a years’ exemption from the cloth tax to keep him on my side…” he trailed off, mind fully occupied with the complex set of deals that he would have to make to maintain his agenda in the council.

He turned his back on Galankos and took a few steps towards the window that overlooked the Amphitheatre. The morning’s rain storm had washed it clean. The stone seats and arches glistened in the setting sun. “Galankos, you know as well as I that at your age, starting over as a mercenary in Asia Minor with no contacts would be a death sentence. The only reason that I am keeping you at your post in light of this disaster is that you have been loyal to me for these ten years. I do not have the time to train and groom a replacement, though I could if I had to, I suppose.” He turned back toward Galankos, “we are done here for tonight. Tomorrow, I want your men to start salvaging the Artemisium. If you cannot get it afloat, break it up for scrap wood. I will not have my enemies chuckling into their sleeves every time they see the greatest ship on the western coast of the Adriatic languishing on a beach.”

Galankos finally spoke, “It will be as you say, Councilman.” Before spinning on his heel, he asked one final question. “What do you want me to do with Patrocles, Sir?”

Cleon did not even blink. “Break his legs. Yes both of them. One above the knee, one below. Leave him at his cousin’s and say that he was resisting arrest. Tell him that he is lucky to have such an esteemed relative. Otherwise, he would be outside the walls waiting to see if the wolves or Samnites would get to get him first. Give Artanos my compliments along with a jug of that wine, and tell him that I look forward to his support next week. He will get the message; I am sure of it.”

Galankos allowed a ghost of a smile to pass across his lips. He would be alright after all, not that he could say the same for Patrocles, who was lying in a pile of his own shit in the southern gatehouse. The fatigue that had wracked his body before was nearly gone for the moment. No one had ever accused Galankos of having a hands-off approach to leadership. This next part would be fun.

Out To Twist

Here are the first five chapters of Out to Twist, my 2014 NaNoWriMo project.  Enjoy.

Introduction
It’s unfortunate that I even have to include this disclaimer at the beginning of this work of fiction, but it’s 2015 and this is where we’re at as a society.
Yes, this book contains Muslim villains (and heroes). No, that does not make this novel inherently racist.
It is my opinion that dismissing any work of fiction containing Muslim antagonists as ‘racist’ or ‘Islamophobic’ is ignorant at best and intellectually dishonest at worst. If you would like to have a civil conversation about the matter, feel free to contact me.

Chapter 1
Rain fell on the roof and windshield of the patrol car as patrolman Vito Altamori and his partner, Hector Ortega drove back to the station. They had been responding to a call about an armed robbery, but by the time they arrived, the suspect had been long gone. They still went by the book and collected statements from the clerk and several witnesses, and Hector was already hard at work on the police report in the passenger seat as the pair finished up their patrol route. They would turn their report in at the end of their shift
“You alright, V?” Hector asked as his partner took one of his hands off of the wheel to rub his eyes.
“I’m fine,” said Vito as he resumed scanning the sidewalks and passing vehicles for anything suspicious. Fall was coming, which meant that crime would be dropping off slightly due to colder temperatures, but the neighborhood that they were driving through was never quiet. Even though he was growing tired, he did his best to stay alert. Even though the patrol car sat much lower to the ground than the MRAP that he had once driven through the streets of Tikrit, the job remained largely the same; look for anything suspicious, and deal with it appropriately. At least he had a night in his own bed to look forward to as soon as his shift ended.
“How’re your classes going?” he asked his partner.
Hector shrugged. “They’re going alright; at least they are when I can make it. Going to class when I’m working full time is what makes it tough.”
“Well if you think getting to class is the toughest part of getting an architecture degree, you’re way smarter than I am,” said Vito. “Are you still thinking about quitting?”
Hector shrugged again. “I don’t know, man. Right now, I’m just taking it one day at a time, you know? The job just isn’t what I thought it would be.”
That was a sentiment that Vito could understand. He’d lost track of the number of times he’d thought that exact thing during his time in the Army, and even now as a cop in his hometown. He wanted to help people and feel like his life had meaning, but there was just so much red tape and bullshit that there were times that he felt more like a bystander than someone who was supposed to be protecting people.
They rounded a corner and drove by a small parking lot sandwiched between two run-down apartment buildings. He almost missed the cluster of men standing in a circle at the far end of the lot. Vito’s instincts immediately went into overdrive. There was no reason for a group of young men to be standing around in the middle of a parking lot at two in the morning while it was raining outside. He’d been to a briefing just two days ago where he’d been told by a department lawyer who had never worn a uniform in his life that this kind of thinking was unproductive and unwarranted. Nope. He was going with his gut on this one.
“Hector, look over there,” he gestured and slowed the car. Hector looked up from the laptop and followed Vito’s finger to the back corner of the parking lot.
“Yep,” he said. “Looks pretty sketchy to me. Wanna check it out?”
Vito was already on the radio calling it in. He pulled forward just enough to keep the distinct silhouette of the patrol car out of the group’s line of sight. Pojanski and Mullen were a few blocks over and began to make their way to Vito and Hector’s position. Traffic was light, so it was only a few moments before the second patrol car turned onto the street perpendicular to Vito and Hector’s vehicle.
“What are you thinking it is?” asked Hector.
“Narcotics, most likely. These guys don’t know or trust each other. Otherwise, they’d be meeting somewhere more private.”
Hector nodded in agreement. Chicago was a historic hub for all kinds of commodities including the full gamut of illegal drugs. Cocaine from South America, meth from Mexico and Appalachia, pot from all over, it was all CPD could do to keep a lid on the worst and most violent of the gangs that made their money through the drug trade.
Pojanski’s distinct nasal voice came over the radio. “We’ll circle around and cover the alley in case they bolt. Are you good with making the approach?”
“Absolutely,” said Vito after receiving a nod from Hector.
“Sounds good,” replied Pojanski over the radio. His car pulled through the intersection and disappeared from sight. In less than a minute, he called in to say that he was ready.
“You ready?” asked Garcia.
“Let’s get it over with,” said Vito.
He turned on the lights on top of the patrol car and put it into reverse. The darkly clad figures were still clustered in the back corner of the small parking lot. As soon as the blue lights began reflecting off the walls of the surrounding buildings, the young men spun around just as hector bathed them in blinding white light from the floodlight mounted on the passenger side of the patrol car.
For a split second, they all froze in the bright light, mouths open in shock. Vito, looking past Hector, could see that his suspicions were correct. There were two groups of six men present, one group was wearing the baggy clothing and bright colors that marked them as members of one of the larger Mexican drug running gangs active in the city. The other group was far less flashy. They were wearing plain street clothes, looking for all the world like they were simply students or office workers on their morning commute. Looking down, Vito could see two duffel bags at the feet of the gang members, while the tallest member of the other group had a backpack that he appeared to be in the act of handing to the gang members. Before he could even get out of the car, the men scattered and all hell broke loose.
Several of the gang members pulled pistols out of jackets or waistbands and opened fire. Hector cursed and dropped low into his seat as a bullet struck the searchlight. Vito rolled out of the car, giving Hector space to crawl out of the driver’s side door. Before his partner could wriggle completely free from the car, a bullet struck him below the shoulder. Garcia shouted in surprise and pain as Vito drew his pistol and fired three quick shots in the direction of the muzzle flashes. There was very little light in the alley, and Vito’s limited night vision had been robbed the second they fired up the searchlight.
“Garcia, are you alright?”
His partner grunted in response as Vito helped the smaller cop make his way over the center console and through the driver’s side door. Looking down at his injury, Vito could see that Garcia’s injury was rapidly bleeding through his shirt. Not good. Hector’s eyes started to glaze over and Vito fumbled in his pistol belt for one of the half-dozen trauma tourniquets that he had kept when he got out of the army two years before. He already had the straps set up so that he didn’t have to awkwardly cinch it tight around his arm. Instead, he gave it a quick pull and tightened it as hard as he could before wrapping the strap around the arm. The Velcro on the two sides of the strap kept the tourniquet from sliding as Vito twisted the little handle and tightened it further. Garcia gritted his teeth as Vito secured the winch after checking to make sure that the injury was no longer immediately life-threatening.
“Don’t move, bro. Better for it to hurt a bit than have you bleed out,” he said to his partner as he made sure that the bleeding had largely stopped. Vito pulled his gun back over the hood of and assumed a low firing stance behind the car with the engine block between him and anyone else who might want to take a shot. It had taken him less than twenty seconds to get the tourniquet on his partner, but the situation in the courtyard was already almost irreparably out of control.
Men were scattering in all directions. Several had broken one of the ground-floor windows that faced the parking lot and were climbing through. Naturally, the two nearest streetlights were out, making it hard for the two police officers in the other car to acquire a target that they could confirm was armed and dangerous. From inside the car, they could hear Pojanski shouting into the radio.
Vito scrambled for the hand mic. “Pojanski, we have shots fired at our position. Several suspects are cutting through the alley heading toward your position. Garcia is down but responsive. Some of the suspects are definitely armed.”
“Got it,” Pojanski responded. Pojanski might sound ridiculous on the radio, but Vito knew that the fifteen-year veteran was very cool under pressure.
Vito pulled the first-aid kit out of the car and turned to Hector. He pulled out a bandage and wrapped it around Hector’s arm, just to be safe. His partner groaned as he pulled the bandage tight.
“Are you good?” he asked his partner.
“Good enough,” said Hector as he pulled his weapon out of his holster and began scanning the parking lot. His normally steady hands trembled from loss of blood, but he could still at least lay down covering fire, even though Vito didn’t think he had a chance of hitting anything more than twenty feet away in his current state.
There were several cars parked in the lot, and Vito used them as cover while he bounded into the lot to scan for any remaining suspects. His radio cracked back to life. It was Mullen, reporting that he and Pojanski had run down one of the gang bangers who had tried to use the back alley to escape.
One down, thought Vito as he advanced further into the lot with Garcia covering him from behind the patrol car. Unfortunately, the guys that had broken the window and escaped through the apartment building were probably long gone. Vito swept his light through the broken window, seeing only a folding table and a broken chair, confirming that the apartment was abandoned. Vito sighed with relief. It could have gotten ugly if anyone had been in there when four or five armed gang members had smashed their way through the apartment.
Vito heard footfalls behind him and spun around, gun drawn. Across the lot, he saw two figures disappearing down a second alley that had not been visible from the street. Vito called it in over the radio and began sprinting after them. In a few seconds, he was through the lot and in the alley. The buildings pressed around him and the smell of old garbage forced Vito to breathe through his mouth. He reached the street and whipped his head back and forth, looking for any clue as to where the fleeing suspects could have gone. There! About two hundred yards away, a door slammed shut.
Panting hard, Vito sprinted toward the building, barely pausing to glance at the sign above the door. About one resident in three was middle-eastern in this part of town, so the fact that the sign was mostly in Arabic was not unusual. He had never bothered to learn the alphabet while he had been in Iraq, a fact that he now regretted slightly. Still, he called up the address on his radio before trying the door. It was unlocked. He rolled his eyes skyward when he saw that the door opened into a narrow staircase. After running a quarter mile in a Kevlar vest, stairs were not something that he was in the mood for. He pounded up the stairs anyway and stopped when he saw the room above. Row upon row of carpets were separated by a partition in the middle of the room. It was a mosque, an Islamic place of worship. Shit. This was another place where his old and new jobs were similar. You weren’t supposed to go in a mosque without permission from higher. Even if you thought there was something fishy going on in there. He stopped to listen but couldn’t hear anything.
Just when Vito was beginning to think that he must have picked the wrong door, he heard muted voices coming from behind a door near the back of the mosque. There was just enough flickering light coming into the darkened main room from under the door that Vito could see shadows darting back and forth across the threshold. He took a moment to catch his breath before padding up to the closed door. He was outnumbered and he could smell smoke. Were they destroying evidence? He knew that the element of surprise was his best and probably only option if they were armed. He put his back to the wall and pivoted on his left foot, smashing the sole of his right shoe into the cheap wood by the doorknob. The wood splintered with one kick, and Vito bust into the room.
The two men jumped up from their work. They had been feeding papers and disks into a small metal wastebasket on a windowsill. The wastebasket had smoke billowing out of it into the early morning sky. “Hands in the air,” yelled Vito. The fire continued to burn as the two men slowly got to their feet, hands raised. In the corner of the room, Vito could see the backpack that had been in the parking lot. The zipper was undone and he could see several crisp stacks of bills poking out of the top of the bag. It would have to wait. He tossed the two men his handcuffs and instructed them to put them on while reading them their Miranda rights. For their part, the two men remained quiet, though their eyes burned with defiance.
A quick look into the wastebasket confirmed that the papers and disks in it were already useless as evidence, but he saw several folders and binders that had been left untouched. For a moment, Vito considered trying to go through the papers or take some with him, but he was by himself with two potentially hostile suspects. Taking his attention off of them would have given them an edge. No. Better to take them down then sort everything out.
The three of them made their way back down the narrow staircase, out into the cool autumn air. As they walked down the stairs, Vito was fairly certain that he saw one of the men look back over his shoulder. When he turned around to see what he was looking at, there was nothing there. The lights of several patrol cars illuminated the street in flickering blue light. Several officers rushed up to help with the two handcuffed suspects. Hector had driven their patrol car to the scene, but was now being loaded into an ambulance. He looked worried as the paramedics loaded him into the back of the vehicle. Pojanski had taken charge of getting Vito’s two arrests and the gang banger that he and his partner had grabbed back to the station.
As soon as Pojanski and Mullen had the two men in the back of his car, Vito turned back to the building.
“Come on,” he said. “There’s something you guys have to see up there.”
“Altamori, hold up,” a voice called out from behind him.
Vito spun around just in time to see the precinct’s Captain getting out of the passenger side of a squad car. He did not look amused.
Shit.

Chapter 2
Achmed’s heart pounded as he listened to the receding footsteps of the cop and the two members of his group that had fled to the mosque after the deal went bad. The evening had started out perfectly. They were supposed to meet the Mexicans that night and buy the chemicals that they needed to carry the plan that God himself had doubtless revealed to him. The gang was involved in the manufacture and distribution of methamphetamine, a stimulant enjoyed by many of the godless heathens that populated the United States. Unfortunately the police had shown up at just the wrong moment and ruined everything. Two of the gangers pulled out guns and started firing, not wanting to get caught selling chemicals to a bunch of middle-easterners.
Their sudden flight had left Achmed and his compatriots in the lurch. Nasir, Mohammad, and Rasheed had gotten by a second police car that had been circling around behind the lot while the officers were handcuffing one of the gang bangers. Achmed, Mahomet, and Faisal had headed back to the mosque, two blocks away. Fearing that the plan had been exposed, and the police were aware of the plot, they began destroying the diagrams and photographs that they had put up in the back room of the mosque while they planned the attack. It was clear that Allah was going to test him before allowing Achmed to carry out His divine will.
Fortunately, Achmed had been in the supply closet when the police officer arrived and apprehended Nasir and Mahomet. As their footsteps receded down the steps, Achmed stole out of the closet and peered out of the window overlooking the street, doing his best not to be seen from the street. There were already three squad cars outside and he was willing to bet that more were on the way.
He crept away from the window into the room that the Imam had allowed the group to use to plan their operation. Since they were all students living in campus housing or dorms with little to no privacy, a quiet place to prepare had been paramount. To his dismay, he saw that they were only halfway through destroying their blueprint, diagrams, and photographs. He knew he couldn’t continue to burn the papers and keep his presence hidden at the same time, so he collected the pile of incriminating documents and proceeded to the mosque’s small restroom. He continued to shred and flush the evidence as he made the call that he hoped would be his group’s salvation.
The phone rang twice before being picked up. “Yes?” said a voice on the other end, obviously just roused from sleep.
“Walid, it’s me,” said Achmed, voice urgent.
The voice immediately sounded more alert. “What happened, did everything go alright?”
“No. We were unable to pick up your brother at the train station, so we went home. Now there’s a garbage truck blocking our way, so we cannot leave the house.”
“Shit,” responded the voice. They had rehearsed the code words previously. It was a trick that Achmed learned in Afghanistan. His uncle had always insisted on using innocuous code words when they were delivering their shipments of Chinese-made weapons to the mujahideen in Khost and Logar in hopes that it would foil the technology that the Americans used to listen to radio and cell phone signals.
The imam, who was little older than Achmed, would sit in rapt attention for hours while Achmed regaled him with tales of his battles against the infidels that were, admittedly, slightly exaggerated, had loved the idea of code words. Still, the sheer panic conveyed by the man’s frantic breathing on the other end of the line put Achmed on edge. He was clearly a man who had doubts about Allah’s support for the plan, which could make him into a liability down the line.
“Listen,” said Achmed tersely while he flushed another several handfuls of shredded documents down the toilet. “I need you to call your friend that works in the sanitation department and have him move this truck so that we can get out.”
“I’ll call him, but it might be too late,” said the imam.
“Just get it done,” said Achmed, hanging up as he continued to shred and flush documents.
Last year, the local city alderman had stopped by the mosque hoping for an endorsement from a pillar of the Muslim community before the citywide elections. Achmed, newly arrived at the time, had advised the imam to strike a deal with him and request that he intervene in instances where the police were harassing Muslims. Such incidents were rare, so the alderman happily agreed. Now it was time to see if the crooked politician would keep his word.
He was already back in the mosque’s back office, pulling photographs of buildings off the corkboard that took up a good portion of one of the walls when his phone began buzzing.
“Yes?” he said, after pressing the green button on the touchscreen.
“Alright, it’s done,” said the Imam. “He’s making a call to the local station to delay the search.” He’d dropped all pretense and wasn’t even trying to stick to the agreed-upon code words. “This was way too close.”
“He’d better get there fast.”
“He will, I reminded him that our voting bloc was the one that put him over the top. He knows that he’ll need us again before too long. Are you still up there?”
“Yeah, not sure if I can get out without someone seeing me. I’m taking the trash out of the office right now.”
“You’d better get everything out of there. I’m not getting arrested for this.”
Achmed bristled at the comment, “Now isn’t the time to be getting cold feet. God will decide whether or not you go to prison. They’ll be back up here eventually, and if they find me, it could get bad.”
“Alright, I’ll figure something out,” said the imam, fear and anger mixing in his voice. “Keep cleaning out the office. I’ll stall them as long as I can.”
Achmed groaned inwardly as he looked around the cluttered room. He had a long way to go before all evidence of the plot was discarded. Worse, it meant that he and his followers would have to start again, virtually from scratch, and that was if and only if he could somehow slip out of a building with one entrance surrounded by cops. It was going to be a long night.

Chapter 3
“This isn’t good, Altamori,” said the Captain as the two handcuffed men were led away. “The station has already gotten a call about a baseless police raid on an Islamic house of worship. I’ve been at work since eight o’clock yesterday morning, and when this breaks, I’ll be dodging calls from reporters for the whole day. The press is gunning for us and we just handed them a whole lot of ammunition.”
Vito, who had been riding a wave of adrenaline since the first shots were fired, tried to conceal the look of shock on his face. “Sir, they were up to something. Twelve guys meeting in a dark lot at two in the morning? Shots fired? My partner hit? I don’t know what they were buying, but if you go upstairs, you’ll see that they had a bag of cash and were in the middle of destroying evidence.”
The Captain paused, “Kid, you’re obviously hyped up right now, but you’re not in Iraq anymore. You can’t just go kicking down doors in mosques, rounding everyone up and calling them terrorists. That’s what you were implying, wasn’t it?”
“Whatever it was, there’s plenty upstairs that will tell us what they are up to.” He didn’t want to set off the Captain.
The Captain looked over to another patrolman, who was listening intently to a cell phone pressed up against his cheek. He shook his head before going back to listening.
“Too late,” said the Captain. “Judge just called. We need to wait for the Imam to come down before we are allowed to reenter the building.”
“That’s ridiculous,” said Vito. “There’s a room up there full of diagrams, photographs of buildings downtown, cash, you name it. Those fucking kids are up to something.”
“Well, you got them all, right?” asked the Captain.
“All of the ones that ran into the mosque,” said Vito as doubt began to trickle into his mind. Truth be told, he’d been so amped up from the shooting and the fact that he was alone with two restrained suspects that he had not checked the upstairs mosque as well as he should have. Then there was the one guy who had looked over his shoulder as they went down the stairs. Despite the low temperature of a Chicago morning in the fall, Vito felt a thin sheen of nervous sweat on his body.
“Well, good,” said the Captain, breaking Vito’s train of thought. “It’ll still be up there when the warrant comes through. You’re not in the Army anymore, Killer. No one’s ever had a problem with these folks until tonight.”
The phone rang again, and Vito tried not to listen as Lonergan turned away from him so that he could hear over the wind. “Are they talking?”
“Are who talking?”
“The guy Pojanski caught and the two from the mosque.”
“Nah,” said Lonergan. We’ve got ‘em in one of the overnight cells, but they either can’t speak English or are keeping their mouths shut on purpose.”
“Great,” muttered Vito. “Sorry for being short with you. It’s been a hell of a night.”
“I hear you,” said Lonergan. “You did right by your partner, and if anything you’re saying is true, then you’ll have a hell of a bust to your name. Just be patient. This is over both our heads right now.”
It took another three hours before the call authorizing the police to re-enter the mosque came through, by which point the sun was already coming up. A sizable crowd had gathered around the police cordon over the past forty-five minutes or so. Some were local residents that were simply curious about the commotion, but Vito could see that there were also a large number of angry-looking men, along with a few women in headscarves, pressing against the barriers and yellow tape. At that moment, three or four of them were arguing vocally with police officers manning the cordon.
As for the police, everyone was tired and clearly wanted to go home. A few of them had heard Vito’s conversation with the Captain, so rumors abounded as to the exact nature of the investigation. Vito had been the only cop in the mosque, and the Captain had tried his best to tamp down on any of the muffled conversations in case someone overheard, but most of the cops were eager to get in on a potential terrorism-related investigation and griped about all of the red tape keeping them from going up and searching the building.
The crowd was getting more and more restless. Several bearded men got in a shoving match with two of the cops manning the perimeter before their compatriots dragged them back into the crowd. The tension in the air was palpable. The Captain looked nervously at his phone and back out at the growing crowd. Finally, it began beeping loudly. With a sigh of relief, he pulled it out of his case and answered it.
Vito could see Lonergan’s breath rising as he spoke with whoever was on the other end. After several minutes he hung up and turned back to the assembled officers.
“Alright guys, we’ve got clearance to head up there and check things out just as soon as the resident Imam gets here. We’ve got a delicate cultural situation on our hands, and city hall is watching this real close.”
Several of the cops groaned, while a few others looked nervously at the increasingly hostile crowd. Apparently, they had interrupted morning prayers. While most of the men were still milling around outside of the cordoned area shooting venomous glances at the cops stationed along its perimeter, several had, in fact, taken out carpets and began prostrating themselves in the direction of Lake Michigan.
Finally, a young-ish looking man with glasses and a scraggly beard approached the cordon and waved at Captain Lonergan. Lonergan looked at a picture on his phone before walking over and shaking the man’s outstretched hand.
“Good morning, Officer. My name is Hassan Abdullah and I am the imam here at this mosque. I hope we can clear this issue up in time for at least some of my flock to make it in for morning prayers,” he said in a smooth voice with only the slightest trace of a foreign accent. Even though his voice was calm, Vito could see that his hands were shaking.
“Excellent,” said Lonergan. “Hopefully we will clear this up soon. Aside from the officer who initially followed the two individuals into your mosque, we have remained outside ensuring that no one can come in or out.”
“I see,” said the imam. “And what, may I ask, became of the two men that your subordinate dragged out of their place of worship? I have been told that they were last seen being bundled into the back of a squad car. Just so you are aware, my community will not tolerate this kind of harassment.”
“They were taken to the station five blocks west of here. For now, they are not suspects and are simply being held as possible witnesses to the shooting of one of my men. The rest depends on what we find when we head up these stairs.”
The imam nodded, face impassive. Again, Vito could see that he was extremely nervous about something from his tense posture and trembling hands. As he unlocked the door and opened it for Vito, Lonergan, and the three other cops that were going to accompany them up the stairs, the commotion along the perimeter of the cordon increased exponentially. Like a dam bursting, the crowd of angry onlookers surged forward as the cops along the perimeter clustered defensively together in groups of two or three.
“Tell your people to get back,” snapped Lonergan to the Imam.
The Imam nodded obligingly and called out in English and Arabic. The crowd slowed, but several bearded, scowling men remained in place, arms crossed and scowling, speaking in heated Arabic with the imam
“I apologize,” said the imam, voice absent of any real sincerity. “Some of the more devout members of the community are concerned about unbelievers walking freely within our place of worship. You don’t, by any chance, have any practicing Muslims in your group here?”
Lonergan shook his head.
“I suspected not,” said the Imam with a sigh. “My community is sadly underrepresented within the police force, which probably contributes to these pointless searches.”
At that, Vito lost his patience. “Pointless searches? I don’t know how or if you’re involved in this shit, but I’d be a lot more concerned than you are if someone was planning an attack on innocent people from my place of employment.”
“You and your compatriots are always planning attacks on innocent people from your place of employment,” snarled the Imam.
Before the situation could degrade any further, Lonergan stepped in. “Enough,” he barked. After glaring at the mix of police officers and bearded, Middle Eastern men in the landing he continued, “We’re going to go up and figure this thing out.” He turned to the imam and said, “I’ll let a few of your ah, congregants come up, to confirm that we are not disturbing anything. If there is something of religious significance that you do not want my guys to touch, you will handle it yourself while we watch.” You two,” he said, pointing to the two cops in the doorway, “watch these guys like hawks, alright?” Both officers nodded as they appraised the small knot of elders on the landing.
The group made their way up the narrow, creaking staircase, eyeing one another suspiciously the whole way. They got to the top of the stairs and the elders suddenly appeared agitated. Several moved to different parts of the room inspecting the sacrosanct portions and articles of the mosque while exclaiming angrily in Arabic.
“Get them back here,” Lonergan said to the imam. “Until I say otherwise, this is still a fucking crime scene.”
Apparently satisfied that the mosque had not been defiled by outsiders, the elders returned without complaint. All but two or three were apparently satisfied by the cursory once-over that they had given the main room and were escorted outside by the two officers that had been ordered to look after them.
Once they heard the door close behind them, Lonergan turned to Vito. “Alright, Altamori,” he said. “Let’s take a look in this back room so that we can get this sorted out one way or another.”
“Absolutely,” said Altamori, trying to keep his voice from trembling. For the first time that evening, he realized that this bust could potentially make his career, not to mention the dozens or even hundreds of lives that this chance encounter might have just saved. He hadn’t spent two of the last six years in Iraq chasing down religious fanatics with a death wish just to have them blow something up in his own back yard.
He opened the cheap wooden door that led back to the room where he had arrested the two men destroying the blueprints and diagrams several hours ago. He found it strange that the door was closed. He could not remember doing so when he had taken the two men out of the mosque, but his adrenaline had been pumping furiously at the time, so anything was possible. He looked about the room and saw nothing out of the ordinary whatsoever. The room looked, for all intents and purposes, like a modest office. The corkboard that had been covered with photographs and wiring diagrams was nearly bare, covered only by a few forlorn fliers in English and Arabic. The smoldering wastebasket was nowhere to be seen.
Lonergan elbowed his way past Vito into the room. “What’s going on here, Altamori?”
Vito couldn’t believe his eyes. “Sir, I’m telling you, it was all here; diagrams, blueprints, piles of cash, everything.”
The imam looked at Vito with a smug expression that conveyed an equal measure of pity and disgust. “It looks like officer Altamori was in too much of a hurry to wrongfully arrest two of my congregants to bother noticing that the nefarious plans in question were for a children’s’ trip to the Field Museum, and plans for a potluck at the community center. The news agencies and the mosque’s law firm will be hearing about this outrage, rest assured.”
The Captain looked at both Vito and the imam suspiciously before turning to the other officers who were craning their necks to look through the doorway. “Tear this room apart and shout out if you see anything. You. Come with me. We need to have a little chat in private.”
The assembled group of elders and police officers stared at Vito wordlessly as he followed the Captain back to his patrol car. This was not going to be good.

Chapter 4
The combine sliced through the rows of corn, its powerful diesel engine propelling it through the field. Eric Ingarson kept an eye on the gauges, occasionally adjusting the combine to keep the six rows of corn centered between the whirring blades. He glanced up at the sun, which was beginning to set behind the trees that lined the far edge of his field. This was the sixty-eighth time that he had harvested the field and knew that he had another hour before he would have to switch the machine’s lights on to keep harvesting.
At eighty-four, Eric was still lean and relatively spry. While he had one of those four-pronged canes with the tennis balls that someone had given him as a birthday present, he barely ever remembered to use it. He heard a thump underneath the combine and removed his noise-cancelling headphones long enough to confirm that there was nothing wrong with the combine before putting them back on. The Ingarson family had been working the same land since the eighteen-fifties. Over the years, they had found dozens of arrowheads and even a giant Potawatomie axe blade in the field, but chances were it was nothing more interesting than one of the large stones that sometimes worked their way to the top of the field. He put his headphones back on and turned up the volume of disc-man that he kept in the cab. His smiled as he listened to a blistering saxophone solo. He loved jazz music. Even though his life had changed drastically over the past three years, he knew that he would never stop enjoying the complex melodies of the old jazz masters like Count Basie and Duke Ellington.
As he reached the edge of his property, he pivoted the large vehicle with the ease that only comes with years of practice and began heading back in the direction of the farmhouse, harvesting the next six rows of corn as he went. Even though the combine was more than a decade old, and far removed from the cutting edge of agricultural technology, Eric still marveled with the speed with which the machine separated individual corn kernels from the cornstalks as they passed through the whirring blades and complex machinery in the bowels of the machine. As he got closer to the near edge of the field, he could see the entire Ingarson farm laid out before him. On the right, he could see the property’s two houses, the large, traditional clapboard farmhouse that he grew up in that he now rented out, and the newer, more modern ranch house where he currently resided. Directly in front of him, he could see his large barn with the new metal roof along with a silo that barely got any use nowadays. Behind the barn, there were two machine sheds and a low-slung building that used to house the pigs. After he’d been hired by the local high school to teach science back in the seventies, he’d sold the pigs and the building had been unoccupied ever since. In the current market, if you wanted to raise hogs and make a profit doing it, you had to go all in on it, and at his age, Eric had neither the energy nor the inclination to do so.
His farm butted right up against the small town of Chattaqua, Illinois, population seven hundred eighty-four. It was a nice town. He had grown up in Chattaqua, left for a few years to serve in the Army, but had returned when his father grew too sick to run the farm in the late 50s and had been there ever since. His grandkids, born and raised in the land of subdivisions and strip malls, had a hard time wrapping their heads around what life was like in a town with one bar, one restaurant, one gas station, and no stoplights, but Eric could not imagine living anywhere else. Chattaqua and the area around it had been good to the Ingarsons for generations.
He continued to watch the rows of corn as they shivered then fell in front of the combine’s blades and thought about how his job had changed over the decades and how it remained the same. Sure, the gear he used was different and made a lot of the work a little easier, but farming was farming and he doubted that it would change much even after he was gone. Unlike the farm, his life was very different now than it had been even five years ago. His body was finally starting to slow down. He had been an avid golfer and never had too many problems doing any of the long list of physical tasks that running a farm entailed. He hadn’t stopped baling hay or working under vehicles for hours at a time until he was well into his seventies, but after his wife had lost her long battle with lung cancer five years ago, it seemed as if a part of him just gave up. Every day, a new part of him ached and it was harder and harder for him to get out of his now-oversized bed each morning. Even his old injury from the Korean War, which hadn’t bothered him in decades, was starting to make walking difficult for him again.
His family was growing older too. His grandkids were almost all grown. His son and daughter both had great families. Sometimes, he wished that they had stayed in LaSalle county with him, but he knew that the good jobs and opportunities were all closer to the city. As such, he was the last Ingarson to live in the river valley had been home to his family since his great grandfather came over from Norway more than one hundred and fifty years ago. His oldest grandkid, Alice, had graduated cum laude from the University of Chicago, and had been hired by the Chicago Courier last spring. His six other grandkids were well on their way to leading successful lives of their own. He just wished that he could spend more time with them.
His son, Carl, was returning from the grain elevator in town. He was driving an open-topped tractor with two empty hoppers hitched behind him. Carl lived and worked in the western suburbs of Chicago, but came out every weekend to help him out with the farm, and Eric was not sure if he would have been able to complete the harvest on time if it hadn’t been for his help. On more than one occasion, he had breached the subject of what would happen to the farm when he couldn’t run it anymore with his son, but so far, Carl had stonewalled him. Eric couldn’t blame Carl for not wanting to talk about it. He knew that his son wanted to keep the farm in the family, but was also fully aware that Carl and his family would have to uproot their lives if he was to take over the farm full-time. He briefly considered discussing the subject with his son before he left for the night, but decided that it could wait until his next visit.
Carl expertly pulled the tractor alongside the combine while Eric extended the boom over the rearmost hopper. With a flip of a switch, the corn began cascading into the trailer in a golden wave, filling the massive trailer in just a few short minutes. As soon as the rear trailer was full, he pulled forward a few yards so that the corn began filling the front hopper. He knew from long experience that the combine could carry enough corn to fill one-and-a-half hoppers. He left the engine idling while he climbed down the ladder to talk to Carl.
“You doing alright, dad?” his son asked, concern on his face as Eric walked toward him.
“Yeah, I’m fine. Why do you ask?” said Eric.
“I don’t know, you just look tired,” said Carl.
Eric was feeling tired, but he didn’t want to talk about it. He would be able to get some sleep in a few hours and he could make it until then.
“How many more trips do you think we can make tonight?”
“I talked to Willy on my last trip in, the Gjoviks and Sandersons are still bringing soybeans in, so he’s keeping the elevator open for another hour.”
Eric looked at his watch and nodded. “If you have to get back, I understand.”
“It’s fine, Dad. I’ve got tomorrow off, and Maggie can get the kids ready for school, so I can get some sleep.”
Eric nodded in thanks. “You sure you don’t just want to spend the night and just head in tomorrow morning?”
“I’d probably better head in tonight. Thanks though.”
Eric understood. When the kids had been younger, Carl could bring them out on weekends and help out around the farm while his three daughters played with their Grandmother. Now that they were older and his wife was gone, so a combination of an intense schedule of after-school activities and the lingering sadness over his wife’s death that still seemed to affect the family kept them away more than he would like.
Eric tried not to think about things he had no control over as he began hauling himself back up the ladder to the combine’s cab. As his left hand closed around the rail at the top of the ladder, it started to tingle, as if he had been holding it above his head for several minutes rather than a few seconds.
Without warning, the entire left side of his body stopped working. His now-useless left arm lost its grip on the ladder and he lost his footing on the ladder. He did not have to fall far, and the dirt was fairly soft. Still, his right arm shot out instinctively to try to keep his head from hitting the ground first. He heard a crack as his body hit the ground, but his mind seemed to be working in slow motion.
His glasses had been knocked askew and his vision was out of focus. Still, he could see his son in his tan barn jacket standing over him, eyes filled with worry. He tried to say something, but the words forming in his brain did not seem able to make their way to his mouth. He could hear his son shouting indistinctly into his cellular phone, but try as he might, he could not make out the words. The pain in his head was so intense that he closed his eyes for just a moment.
When he opened his eyes, he could see red and blue lights flashing nearby. The blurry form that he knew was his son was helping several other blurry forms move him on some kind of stretcher. It was too hard for him to keep his eyes open, so he closed them again.
The next time he opened his eyes, he could tell that he was inside a moving vehicle. Someone was gripping his hand tightly and he had some kind of mask covering the lower half of his face. His mind was still moving incredibly slowly, but things were starting to make sense again. He heard his son’s voice from a long way off.
“You’re going to be OK, dad. Just stay with us, we’re almost there.”
The vehicle was beginning to slow down, though Eric had no idea why.
“I know,” he whispered. Just make sure the tractor makes it back in the shed before you lock up. I wouldn’t want anyone… messing with…” it was too much effort to keep talking, so he closed his eyes again and drifted out of consciousness.

Chapter 5
Vito taped the top of the cardboard box shut and turned up the volume on his laptop, which was sitting on a coffee table blasting a mix of classic and alternative rock. The sound of the protesters outside his door was a constant reminder of just how completely his life had fallen apart in less than two weeks. By the time CPD had gotten a warrant to search the inside of the mosque, there was nothing suspicious to be found. There were no burning piles of evidence, no mysterious bags of cash, or anything else that could back up Vito’s version of events. The two suspects that he had apprehended were engineering students at a local college with no priors. One had been born in the southwest suburbs, while the other was from Egypt on a student visa. Their story was that they were walking to the “el” after participating in a late night Koranic study group when they were attacked by a group of thugs. It was their word against that of Vito and his partner, at least until the first few reporters started sniffing around.
Even if no one believed him, Vito was certain that there had been a third person in the mosque that must have gotten rid of the evidence before they were allowed back in. That would certainly explain why the one guy had been looking over his shoulder as Vito took him down the stairs. Saying as much out loud just made him seem all the more desperate to keep his job.
The newspapers and TV reporters took it and ran with it. It had been the top story for a week. Ex-Army Cop Desecrates Mosque competed with Innocent Students Rounded Up by Troubled Iraq War Veteran after Traumatic Mugging for ratings. There was no mention of the mysterious deal taking place in the parking lot, no mention of destroyed evidence or the fact that it had taken hours for the police to get permission to reenter the mosque, and worst of all, there was no mention that Garcia had taken a bullet during the brief shootout. Against the advice of Mullen and Pojanski, Vito had tried to engage the first few reporters that had fired questions at him as he walked to the parking lot after his shift the next day, but quickly realized that they already had their minds made up. The story that they wanted to tell was one where a psychotic veteran with a grudge against anyone from the Middle East was detaining innocent college students instead of their attackers. If something didn’t fit, they wouldn’t report it.
Worse, one of the students caught up in the arrest was the son of the owner of Gholani Construction, one of the largest general contractors in Cook and Lake Counties, and holder of a number of important city contracts. When Nasir Gholani Senior heard that his son had been arrested under less than clear-cut circumstances, he’d raised an ungodly stink with his friends in City Hall. That was probably the foot-thick log that broke the camel’s back. Even if he’d been able to keep his job, the displeasure of such an influential player in Chicago’s political arena basically ensured that he would never see another promotion come his way as long as he was with CPD.
To his credit, Vito’s boss had fought for him, but the political pressure coming from city hall was just too much. The mayor was in for a tight primary race and did not want to lose a key demographic by making it easy for his opponent to portray him as being soft on over-aggressive cops. Within two days of the incident, Vito had been placed on administrative leave, and he had received a call that he was going to be officially terminated at the end of the month less than a month later. At first, Vito was determined to fight for his job, but a conversation with the union rep had dampened his resolve. Apparently, the rep had already been told by his bosses that a tentative deal had already been struck. Vito Altamori would go away, and in exchange, the law firm representing the mosque would not pursue a federal Civil Rights case. If he chose to stay, the union would not help him since he was only a three-year veteran of the force. Vito had been overjoyed to see that his mandatory union dues had turned out to be absolutely pointless.
This was actually his first time back to his apartment in a week. Some jackass had leaked his address online, and there had been a steady stream of hostile protestors outside of his building ever since. His mom had offered to let him come back and stay in her two-flat, and his brother and three sisters had all called to express their concern. He hadn’t wanted to get them involved though. Truth be told, his childhood hadn’t exactly been pleasant and he’d pretty much severed ties with his family when he’d joined the Army. He didn’t want to drag them into this.
Instead, he’d been living at Mullen’s place, in the spare room in his basement. Mullen had a wife and three kids, so there wasn’t much room to spare. Even though his co-workers had been forbidden from going on the record to say anything supportive of their disgraced colleague, dozens of cops had made small gestures to support Vito. He was going to miss working with them.
His landlord had been more than happy to terminate his lease early in light of what he liked to call the ‘screaming wackos’ that were camped outside of his building’s entrance, so Vito and a couple other cops had gone over to pick up his stuff to take to a self-storage place while he figured out his next move. Right now, two members of his squad, O’Brien and Nichols, were out front guarding a U-Haul truck from the dozen or so protestors in front of the building. Both cops topped out over six feet and made for an intimidating sight with their massive arms folded over broad chests. So far, the protestors, a mix of scrawny college students and members of the local Muslim community, had wisely decided to give them a wide berth.
“Where do you want me to put your kitchen stuff?” asked a desk sergeant named Helton.
“In here is fine,” said Vito as he gestured to a half-filled box that contained everything from socks to DVDs.
Garcia was there too, though his arm was still in a sling. “This is absolute bullshit, man,” he grumbled as he sorted some books into a different box.
Vito shrugged. “You know, I’m starting to get used to it. I’ll figure something out. I really appreciate the help, though.”
The cops all shook their heads or muttered that it was no big deal, but it meant a lot to Vito that they were willing to help him out with little stuff like cleaning out his apartment.
“They’re doing you dirty, and it’s not right,” Garcia persisted. “You guys should have seen him out there. He pulled me out of that car like I was a bag of groceries. I thought I was done, and he gets fired? He should be getting a goddamned medal if you ask me.”
“They didn’t though,” said Helton. “They didn’t ask any of us. City Hall says jump, and the Higher-ups do it.”
“Well come on now,” said Peters, a detective that worked in the same precinct, “they’ve got their retirement to worry about. They don’t care if a few good cops have to get fired to get them there.”
The griping was interrupted when the laptop on the coffee table started chiming. A popup indicated that Vito’s video chat program had an incoming call. He checked the name and pushed the ‘accept’ button. After a few seconds, a familiar face materialized on the screen. Vito recognized the man’s large, square head and shock of short blond hair.
“Harrelsson? How are you?”
“I’m doing pretty good Sergeant, uh, I mean V.” He looked a little embarrassed as he continued. “I saw your name on the news, man. That’s rough. What happened?” Don Harrelsson was wearing a mottled green set of fatigues. Vito could see that he was at a computer terminal in an unfinished, plywood building. He could hear muted conversations from the other soldiers that were sitting on nearby computers talking to friends and family as well. He described the past two weeks’ events to Harrelsson and watched as the young man appeared more and more crestfallen. He had been one of Vito’s Team Leaders during his last deployment before he got out of the Army, and he could see by the rocker on his chest that he had been doing alright.
“That sucks, man,” said Harrelsson when Vito had finished his story.
“Shit like this happens sometimes,” said Vito. “At least I’ve still got some friends who have my back. The cops in Vito’s apartment had gathered around the screen and a few of them waved to Harrelsson. “Where do they have you right now?” asked Vito.
“Logar,” replied Harrelsson. “Easy deployment this time. We get rocketed every once in awhile, but we’re mostly just training ANA and tearing stuff down here. That’s not why I called, though. You know my dad’s a cop out in LaSalle County, right?”
Vito nodded. He’d grown up in Roger’s Park, and had laughed at Harrelsson when he first showed up to his infantry squad as a brand new sergeant and told everyone that he was from Chicago. It turned out that he was actually from a small farming town two hours west of the city.
“Well,” Harrelsson continued, “he’s the chief now and is looking for a new hire. I mentioned you to him, but he said that he’d already heard about you on the news. I said they were lying and I’d call and get your side of the story. I can give you his number if you want to set up an interview.”
Vito was taken aback. He loved police work, but figured that no one would want to hire him since he was damaged goods. Helton slapped him on the back. “There ya go, man.” He turned to the computer screen. “You, my friend, just restored my faith in humanity. Thanks for your service and keep doing what you’re doing.”
Harrelsson’s pale face turned red. “I never know what to say back when people say that, but… thanks, I guess. It’s really great of you guys to be helping out Sergeant- I mean V like this. He’s a friggin’ hero, even if he won’t talk about it.”
Vito tried to keep his voice from sounding raw. “Thanks, man. I’ll give your dad a call tonight and see if he’s interested.”
“Sounds good,” said Harrelsson. “I’ll let him know what the real deal is right now. I’d better get going, though.”
“Hey, give us an address so we can send you a care package,” said Garcia over Vito’s shoulder.
“Sure thing,” said Harrelsson. “Just send a couple logs of dip for my squad and we’ll call it good.”
The cops all laughed and said that they’d see what they could do. After Harrelsson ended the call, they gathered around Vito, patting him on the back and grinning broadly. It did not take them long to finish packing up the rest of his stuff and load it into the waiting truck. The protestors made a pretty serious racket when Vito emerged with the last of the boxes, but they stayed out of the way for the most part. After a kid with greasy dreadlocks that had ‘wealthy suburbs’ written all over his expensive shoes and skinny jeans tried to spit on Vito, Garcia shot an elbow into his stomach with his good arm, causing him to double over and drop his ‘End CPD Racism’ sign.
“Probably shouldn’t have done that,” he said with a smirk. After they had dropped everything off at the storage facility, the group went out for a few drinks at a bar just up the street from Mullen’s house.
“To V,” shouted O’Brien, lifting a half-finished mug of beer over the center of the table. The rest of the cops all brought their glasses together, murmuring in approval.
“Just think. This morning we were helping you move out of your apartment and you had no idea what you were going to be doing or where you were going to be a week from now. Now, you’ve got a new job lined up, and if I’m not mistaken, that chick over there is checking you out.” Several of the cops turned in their chair to look in the direction O’Brien was pointing. “Jesus, don’t look all at once. That’s bush league shit,” muttered O’Brien.
“Sorry,” chuckled Garcia. “I guess those of us that were actually carrying boxes down the stairs are all too tired to pick up on your subtle social nuances.”
“Hey, I helped,” said O’Brien indignantly.
“Naw,” countered Helton. “You just stood around the truck in your little sister’s t-shirt and tried to look scary so those jackasses wouldn’t try to mess with it.”
“Whatever, guys,” said O’Brien. “I know you’re all just jealous of my athletic physique.”
“My ass,” said Nichols. “My eleven-year-old has bigger legs than you. You can’t just do curls in front of the mirror every day and say you’re an athlete.”
Vito had enjoyed more than one beer, and was feeling good about his lot in life for the first time in two weeks, and had stopped listening to his friends’ banter. Truth be told, he had caught the gorgeous brunette three tables over looking over her shoulder at him a couple of times already. What the hell, he thought to himself. What’s the worst that could happen if I go and talk to her? He got to his feet and made his way over to where the brunette and her two friends were sitting. One of her friends noticed him approaching first and whispered to the brunette.
She spun around in her chair, and Vito could tell that she was quite pretty. Her shoulder-length hair formed beautiful ringlets that framed her face, and she had gorgeous green eyes. Before he could open his mouth to introduce himself, the aforementioned eyes narrowed in recognition.
“I knew it,” she said, anger and hostility dripping from her voice. “You’re the guy that’s been on the news.”
This was not the reception that Vito had been hoping for or expecting. He opened his mouth, but could only stammer, “It didn’t happen the way that they said it did.”
The brunette rolled her eyes before continuing to glare at him. “It’s the twenty-first century, you know. It’s jerks like you that make the rest of the world hate us. If you can’t put your bigotry aside long enough to enforce laws and help people, you shouldn’t even be a cop.” Vito wanted to say something. He wanted to tell her what really happened. He wanted to tell her about his time in Iraq, how he had held the hands of close friends from his units as well as Iraqi soldiers and police officers as they had been evacuated after IED strikes, their bodies shattered thanks to violent psychopaths that wanted to return the world to the eighth century and would think nothing of beating and violating the woman in front of him for so much as looking at them the wrong way. He wanted to, but he couldn’t. He just watched impotently as the three women stormed off to find a table at the other end of the bar.
“Don’t worry about it man,” said Garcia when he shuffled back over to the table. “Any girl that gets her opinions from the news like that isn’t worth keeping around.”
“I know what I saw,” said Vito. “Problem is, people don’t want to believe me. I should have checked the place out more before I left.”
“You had two detained suspects in custody and you were alone,” said Nichols. “You made the right call. I believe you, I just wish I knew how the third guy slipped the net.” He took another long swig of his beer before turning back around to make fun of O’Brien’s tiny legs.
Even though the rest of the cops were distracted and talking amongst themselves, Garcia still lowered his voice. True, they were helping out a friend from work who had fallen on rough times, but there was no way of telling how seriously any of them took Vito’s claims. “Look man, you saw what you saw. I wasn’t there because, you know,” he gestured at his dangling arm, “but that shit was sketchy as hell. We both know that wasn’t no mugging. The bag of cash? What were they buying? Then you find all of those maps and blueprints and equations in that little room up there? Something big’s going to happen. I can feel it.”
“Me too,” said Vito. “Not that there’s anything I can do about it. If I say anything, they’ll just call me crazy or racist or say I have a grudge to settle.”
“Don’t worry about that. We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it. Besides, this time I won’t have a convenient gunshot wound to keep me from dangling right there beside you when they leave us out to twist. Tell you what, I’ll keep an eye on the ground, and I you get hired out in that hick town, you won’t be too far away. I’ll put some feelers out too. Some of these guys probably feel the same way.”
Vito nodded in thanks. Deep down, he hoped that he was crazy. Or paranoid. Or both. It was true that his time in Iraq hadn’t exactly left him with a glowing impression of Islamic culture, but his instincts still screamed that there was something horrible afoot, and that God or fate or something had placed him and Hector in a position where they could deal with it.
After a few more drinks, Vito got up from the table and walked out the building’s back door. He pulled out his cell phone and dialed the number that Harrelsson had emailed him. The phone rang three times before someone picked up.
“Hello?” said a low voice, words slightly slurred.
“Hello, is this Chief Harrelsson?”
“Yes it is. Judging from your area code, you’re not from around here. What can I do for you, city boy?”
“My name is Vito Altamori, and I was told that you may have an opening in your department.”

 

Aaaand We’re Back

I’ve made it back safely from another deployment. I learned a lot while I was over there, both about my profession and myself and I know that I will be able to apply that newfound knowledge to both my writing and my daily life going forward. Unfortunately, the flash-heavy requirements of the software used by WordPress and anti-blog filters on the networks fast enough to handle said requirements made it impossible to keep the blog up while I was gone. Now that I’m back and another NaNoWriMo is complete, that’s about to change.
While I was there, I completed another two books in addition to the dubious triumph that is my most recent NaNoWriMo project. Going forward, there will be a lot more in the way of author interviews and self-motivation stuff. I already have several essays complete and interviews lined up; I only need to polish them up a bit before they’re posted.
What about writing? Well, I’m almost done with year two of my six-year writing plan. The objective this year was simply to write as much as possible and crank out several novel-length manuscripts while solidifying the habits necessary to write often and well. By most accounts, I feel that I’ve accomplished those things, though it helped to be free of so many distractions for most of the past year. This next year will be the year I start to put some of my stuff out there. I’ve identified several writing contests that look both interesting and useful for developing writers and am currently outlining and writing shorter stories for those contests. It’s a bit of a change of gears, but I feel that it will be beneficial in the long run.
So, that’s about it. Look for more interviews and articles in the future and as always, if you have any critiques, suggestions, or general comments, post away or email me.

An Interview With Video Game Designer Sarah Northway

I’ve got a pretty cool interview for you guys this week. In December, a friend asked why I’ve been focusing so heavily on novelists for these interviews. I thought that they had a good point. Writers are active in a number of different mediums, and while I’ve interviewed authors active in a whole bunch of different genres, non-novelists have a good deal to bring to the table as well.

I made a New Year’s resolution of sorts to seek out writers from different mediums this year, such as comic book artists, screenwriters, and pretty much anyone else whose job it is to make people care about fictional people and universes. Video game designer Sarah Northway agreed to be the first participant. Sarah is a globetrotting, freelance game designer whose Rebuild series of games contain all of the ingredients to make a great story.

Let me put it this way: Have you ever watched a zombie movie and wondered why the characters were making the choices they were and thought that you could do better? The Rebuild games let you take command of a growing (hopefully) crew of post-apocalyptic survivor types and reclaim a city block by block, dealing with rival gangs, supply shortages, seasons, and of course, hordes of zombies as you do so. The characters all have names, bios, and a lot to say which, coupled with the ten or so ways to win the game, leads to a very story-driven experience. The first time I played through the game, I felt like I was in a book or a movie.

Sarah is also a pioneer in the indie game-design field which is experiencing many of the same changes that are taking place in publishing right now thanks to advances in technology and a general “flattening” of the industry’s overall profile.

So enjoy the interview.

-For the readers who are unfamiliar with you and your work, would you mind describing your personal background and what influenced you to become a professional game developer?

I’ve always loved playing games, but grew up in the 90s thinking the games industry meant long hours, no weekends, doing a lot of math, and working on a tiny piece of some sports franchise or superhero game. I became a web programmer instead and made games in my spare time for fun, until the games industry started to change thanks to online distribution. Smaller companies could suddenly make games too, and were doing much cooler, weirder stuff. They also had better work/life balances. I used the hobby games I’d made as a resume and got a job at one of those companies. A few years later I left to travel and make my own games like the Rebuild series.

-What are you looking for your readers to get out of your games, and what tools have you found to be most effective?

I want my players to tell their own story in my games. I’ve found procedural generation is useful for this, and in Rebuild nearly everything’s generated and events happens in (semi) random order. The gameplay also becomes a part of the story, and if I’m doing it right players will change how they play based on this story they’re telling themselves.

-How would you describe your design process?

I go through ideas phases where I write down all kinds of things I’d like to add to the game, organization phases where I prioritize and cull the ideas, then implementation phases. Rebuild is built of layers and layers of going around through these phases, starting with general stuff (add children) to more specific (event where a child wants to learn to shoot zombies).

-What do you do to make sure that your games have a compelling storyline?

I try to make the world feel consistent through everything. I want the minor events, the scarcity of resources, the zombie attacks to all reflect that same post-apocalyptic universe so you feel like you’re still in the story at all times.

-What are some common pitfalls that you see when it comes to storytelling in games?

If we’re talking beefs, I’m bored by long non-interactive cutscenes and linear storylines that are presented as if the player has some sort of agency to change things. I personally found it too easy to get carried away with storylines that sound good until I realize the player never makes a meaningful decision in them and are just witnessing the events.

-Do you have any future projects that you would like to tell your fans about?

Not yet! I’m planning to spend a year prototyping once Rebuild 3 is finished, so stay tuned for some weird random stuff. If any of it turns out, that’ll be my next game.

– What do you know now about storytelling in games that you wish you knew starting out?

I just wish I was a better writer back then in general. I still wish I was a better writer. It’d be faster if I didn’t struggle so much to find the words or figure out how to get the plot from A to B while staying in the realm of plausible. The words still sometimes get in the way and hamper the flow of my ideas… but I’m getting better with practice.

As always, thanks for reading. Feel free to email me with suggestions regarding questions or potential interviewees.

Sarah’s Website

The Original Rebuild Game

More Interviews

The Pythagoreans: Chapter 10

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Chapter 10

Damo was in the midst of leading a discussion on the application of mathematics to commerce between city states when she heard excited shouting from the courtyard. Her father was late, and she had begun to grow worried. He was far too old to be travelling so widely. She brushed a strand of hair from her forehead and dismissed the discussion. She and the other scholars began heading towards the stairs that led down to the courtyard from the third-floor classrooms. Instead of heading directly down, however, she headed to her family’s apartment in the wall to collect her relatives and make sure that they were presentable. It would not do for Pythagoras’ own family to look slovenly when he returned. Of course, Pythagoras himself would probably care little for such trivialities, but appearances had to be maintained.

She opened the door to Pythagoras’ personal apartments to find two thirds of its occupants already in the midst of preparation. Theano was her father’s second wife and was in the midst of dressing Telauges, her young son. All in all, her father could have done far worse in his selection of a new wife. Damo’s own mother refused to flee Samos with her father, and Pythagoras had spent more than a decade pining for her. Theano was a very smart woman, and while she was not particularly good looking, she provided excellent companionship to her father. Best of all, she positively doted on Telauges. Damo knew beyond any shadow of a doubt that the fact that her father finally had a son made him a very happy man. The two women smiled at one another as Theano picked Telauges up and began heading to the door.

She turned her attention to a pile of blankets haphazardly arrayed across a bed. She poked the pile of blankets and elicited a pained groan from within their folds.

“Bitale, wake up.” The pile of blankets stirred, and an arm came out of one of the folds to make a shooing motion. Damo was not deterred. She grabbed the blankets and pulled them off the bed, revealing her recalcitrant daughter. “Your grandfather is back,” she said as Bitale struggled vainly to locate one of the blankets. “Too much wine will do that to you,” Damo admonished, trying to keep a note of amusement to trickle into her voice.

Her daughter was remarkably intelligent, even by the high standards set by the school’s residents. Unfortunately, she lacked common sense. That lack of common sense was what caused her to stay late in town, carousing in inns until the sun came back up. Even if the community of learners did not pay very much attention to gender, some lines should not be crossed, thought Damo. Besides, it was only a matter of time before one of the boys she was constantly running around with got the wrong idea. Still, keeping Bitale from wandering was about as easy as stopping the tide from coming in.

As she sat up, still wearing her clothes from the day before, Damo could see a good deal of the girl’s father in her. The man had been a scholar from the newly-formed empire of Persia, who paid Pythagoras a visit while they still lived on Samos to discuss astronomy. Damo had been even younger than Bitale at the time, and was having a difficult time sorting out her body’s newfound…urges. The Persian astronomer had been more than happy to spend the summer assisting her in that regard, and Bitale was born the following spring. Of course, at that point, Bitale’s father was already well on his way back to Persepolis. She had inherited her father’s dark, curly hair and light brown skin, and seemed just as willing as he was to wander abroad in search of knowledge. Though she was barely twenty, Bitale was already one of the best artists and mapmakers at the school. She would have a bright future if she could only apply herself.

Satisfied that her daughter was finally awake and moving, Damo gathered up the dirty blankets and pushed them down a chute that had been cunningly built into the wall for just such a purpose. That should remove any temptation to return to bed, she thought as she exited the apartment. Two of her fellow Mathematikoi were already waiting for her when she stepped onto the wooden scaffolding that allowed access to the apartments and classrooms above ground level. They murmured a greeting to her and the three headed down the stairs to the courtyard, their footsteps causing the thick wooden planks to creak softly as they walked.

As she glanced between the two of them, she could not help but notice how different they were, both physically and philosophically. Oxander was shorter, older, and constantly seemed ill at ease. He was an excellent mathematician, and frequently collaborated with Pythagoras on geometric proofs and other numerically-based experiments. Though he did not appear to be much more than an irritable, middle-aged man on the surface, Damo knew that he was easily one of the five most intelligent men currently residing at the school. Nomidedes, on the other hand, was in his mid-thirties like Damo. He had dark hair that he kept fastidiously combed back over his small bald spot, and bright, calculating eyes. He was a sculptor without peer in Southern Italia, and his works were sought throughout both mainland Greece and the colonies. He had come to the school only a few years ago, and was already making a name for himself, having easily passed the examination to become a junior mathematikos and selecting, of course, to study sculpture as his artistic pursuit. He had failed his first attempt at the examination to become a senior mathematikos, but only by a slim margin, and was planning on trying again soon.

Oxander was the most probable successors to Pythagoras’ mantle of leadership, and as such were both eager to speak with the man as quickly as possible. Nomidedes enjoyed taking part in the internal politics of the school more than just about anyone else and even though his opinions carried little  She did not envy her father the decision ahead of him; each man would take the school in a very different direction. Oxander would probably seek to return the school to its roots and focus exclusively on esoteric subjects like mathematics, astronomy, and philosophy.

Nomidedes on the other hand, would most likely keep the composition of the school as it was, but would seek to increase its political influence and involvement in the affairs of the surrounding towns. He often argued against the long standing tradition that residents of the school not seek membership within the Council of One Thousand in nearby Croton, and instead rely on citizens of the town itself to agitate on the schools behalf. Pythagoras and the other mathematikoi were not lacking in friends within the city walls, such as Democedes and Calliphon the physicians and of course, Milos, her sister’s husband. Nevertheless, Nomidedes felt that the school would be a much better source of leadership than a shortsighted, greedy assembly of councilmen, and would seek more political power for the school by any means necessary were he to take charge.

Of the two, Damo trusted Nomidedes far less even though she did not necessarily agree in full with hidebound old Oxander. It did not help Nomidedes’ case that she constantly had to fend off his advances despite the fact that she was ten years his senior. The man was good looking enough to have his pick of any of the young maidens in town, and Damo was unwilling to flatter herself into thinking that Nomidedes was looking for anything more than a chance to count Pythagoras as a father-in-law and increase his chances of eventually becoming the school’s leader. From his body language and swagger, it appeared that Nomidedes was already trying his best to impress her this morning, as if they were still both teenagers. Not for the first time, Damo thanked Athena that for once, her headstrong daughter Bitale agreed with her and found Nomidedes as repugnant as she did.

The courtyard was full of activity. Servants bustled about while member of the school hurried down from classrooms and apartments. Looking out from the main gate, she could see the craftsmen and their families doing the same in the small village that had grown up around the compound. The entire community was filled with a festive atmosphere. The sight filled her with pride. With the exception of perhaps Nomidedes, it was not mere sycophancy that drew all these people from their homes. Her father was truly the beating heart of a community like none other.

Her good mood was slightly dampened when she spotted the Hebrew smuggler standing beside Epigeus and Antaros just outside the gate. Her instincts told her that the man spelled trouble for the school, though she had to admit that she had heard nothing but good things about him from those scholars that had taken the time to make his acquaintance over the last few days. Apparently, despite his unsavory background, the man was not only literate and multilingual, but also quite perceptive and interested in the inner workings of the school. She would see what her father had to say about it when he arrived.

Her father rode in a cart of his own design. Two horses pulled the four wheeled cart that utilized several thin pieces of Antaros’ bendable alloy for a smoother ride. A few of the younger scholars had accompanied him to Metapontum to keep the old man out of trouble on the road, and rode their own horses beside the coach. Damo knew that they would probably have done little good if any real trouble broke out; they all looked extremely uncomfortable after two days on horseback. However, the prospect of being selected to accompany the Sage himself on one of his many excursions was a powerful incentive that kept most of the younger students diligent in their studies.

Based on the other members of the party, it was clear that he had stopped in Croton before returning to the school. Milos and her sister Myia, were there along with the two physicians Democedes and Calliphon. Pythagoras kept many friends in the city, and the more learned and cultured of Croton’s citizens would often come to consult with him on matters ranging from philosophy to agriculture. While no one from the school was a part of the Council of One Thousand, Pythagoras was never short of advocates within the council.

Damo knew that all was not sunshine and roses, however. One councilman in particular, Cleon, was amassing a heretofore unprecedented amount of influence in the council, and using that influence to solidify his control of the city. Cleon had held a grudge against her father ever since Pythagoras’ arrival shortly before the Sybarite war. Milos had foreseen the Sybarites’ ambition and asked Pythagoras to help him devise a way to defend his beloved city. Cleon had argued that the Sybarites posed no threat, and was soon proven wrong when the Sybarites began marching for Croton with a massive, well-drilled army.

When the Sybarites did end up attacking, Cleon advocated for a suicidal preemptive strike that would have left Croton undefended and its army trapped. Again, her father had devised a better idea, and even though Milos was relatively inexperienced in military strategy, the former Olympic wrestler was able to lead the hodgepodge army of Croton to victory in the shadow of the city wall thanks to Pythagoras’ clever tactical innovations. Shortly thereafter, Milos had married her sister, and the two men’s fates were intertwined. Pythagoras founded his school, and the city had been more than happy to donate land and financial support to the man that had spared them from destruction.

Milos dismounted before helping her sister from her own horse. He was a good man, but not for the first time, Damo wished that he would do more in the Council chamber to check Cleon’s power grabs. She knew that it was a lost cause. The man was, at heart, an honest competitor and Cleon’s underhanded tricks never occurred to him until it was too late. Damo could see that Milos was carrying himself with a certain degree of tension, and guessed that the monthly council meeting had not gone well. What a pity.

The door to the carriage opened, and at long last her father emerged. A small step ladder unfolded, doubtless another ingenious innovation courtesy of Antaros, and Pythagoras made his way down the narrow steps with a small degree of difficulty. The man was more than sixty years old, and his age was beginning to show. His long beard was almost pure white now, though he still carried himself like a much younger man. His eyes sparkled as he saw Damo and Calliphon and he briskly made his way over to them, only stopping twice to embrace a few of the more exuberant scholars. Nomidedes and Oxander both opened their mouths to greet him, but Pythagoras swept by them to embrace Theano and ruffle Telauges’ hair. The young boy raised both of his arms and bounced on the balls of his feet. Pythagoras picked him up and Telauges promptly began tugging on his father’s beard. The old man and his young son both laughed. After a moment, he returned the boy to Theano and made his way over to Damo and Bitale who had only just made her way down to the courtyard.

As he approached, Damo could see that he was still keeping up with his silly custom of wearing trousers like a barbarian. He had picked up the habit during a trip to Dacia when she was still young, and continued to maintain that they were both comfortable and practical. Unlike many of his other personal habits, such as his refusal to eat any animal that lived on land, very few of his contemporaries seemed interested in mimicking him in that regard.

“Daughter!” he exclaimed, wrapping her in a surprisingly strong embrace. “You have done very well in my absence, I see. Everything looks excellent.”

Damo felt herself blush, “Father, you know as well as I that I had plenty of help from the esteemed scholars beside me. Perhaps you would like us to review the progress we have made while you have been gone once you have had some rest.”

“Nonsense,” responded Pythagoras. “Thanks to those ingenious springs that Antaros put in my covered cart, I slept like little Telauges for most of the morning. Let us get to it immediately!” Nomidedes and Oxander both looked a little nervous. Like her, they had probably been expecting that they would have most of the morning to prepare. Nevertheless, after Pythagoras gave a short speech to the assembled crowd in which he praised them for their hard work, and made sure that they understood that each person present played a role that was crucial to the school’s overall success, the senior scholars and men of note from the city all headed into the dining hall for refreshments and conversation.

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