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The Sciopod Solution

A Novella by Michael Massee

       It started on New Year’s Eve.  Dukie Robinson was standing in the Happy Time liquor store on 125th street in Harlem.  His gun was aimed at the chest of the clerk behind the counter.  When the clerk reached for the baseball bat, that he kept for occasions such as this, Dukie pulled the trigger.  What happened next astounded both Dukie and the clerk.  Instead of sending a bullet into the clerk’s heart the gun began to come apart and fall in pieces onto the tile floor.  Within seconds what had been Dukie Robinson’s prize possession, a Phoenix semi-automatic compact .22 pistol, lay on the floor, a smoking pile of rust.  Needless to say, the clerk’s Louisville Slugger worked just fine.

       Meanwhile, out west in L.A., Officer David Spencer, a rookie policeman facing a hostage situation at a local night club, was told to hold his fire.  He was one of ten other cops aiming their guns at the front door of Los Globos on Sunset boulevard.  When the hostage negotiator alerted the officers that the suspect had agreed to surrender and was going to come out, the tension level increased.  The door slowly opened and a figure holding a gun appeared.  Spencer, sweating profusely, sure that the suspect was going to kill someone, fired his weapon.  But nothing happened.  The Glock 19 simply disintegrated in his hands as did the rest of the other officer’s rifles and handguns.  Smoking towers of rust dotted the parking lot, like little piles of metallic dogshit.  Fortunately for Spencer, the destruction of his Glock prevented the death of the hostage that the suspect had held in front of himself as a shield.  The gun Spencer thought he saw was actually the hostage’s cell phone.

       Out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, at the Waikiki Gun Club in Honolulu, Hawaii, every one of the people practicing at the target range experienced the destruction of their favorite weapon.  After the shock of this strange event passed, the cursing could be heard a mile away.

       In Afghanistan the Taliban could no longer fire their Kalashnikov assault rifles and sub-machine guns or their rocket launchers.  Even the bombs they strapped to their bodies were useless.  All their weapons, many manufactured in Great Britain and the United States as well as Russia, sat in smoldering heaps of rusting metal.  Many wondered if this was a message from Allah,.

       All across the U.S., from Maine to Oregon, from Texas to Montana, gun owners awoke on the first day of the New Year to find a handful of rusted metal pieces resting   where their weapons used to be.  In gun cases, back packs, handbags and locked safes---in closets, in attics and basements---in glove compartments and car trunks---in the drawers of desks and bedside tables---even in the freezer compartment of the kitchen refrigerator---all destroyed.

       Perhaps the most alarming aspect of this sudden destruction of every firearm on earth, and unarguably the most spectacular, were the explosions that began to happen on every continent.  In Kansas, the Hodgdon Plant, the largest manufacturer of gunpowder in the United States, blew up in a fire ball that was seen all the way to Wichita.  At the same time, it’s facility in Louisiana went up like a super-nova of Fourth of July fireworks.  And speaking of fireworks, every company that fabricated those cherry bombs, firecrackers and Roman Candles, enjoyed by millions during the Independence Day celebrations, disappeared in a blaze of glory. Also adding to the firestorm was the cousin of gunpowder, ammonium nitrate, which was an additive in fertilizer used worldwide.  Suddenly, fields and farm yards, compost piles and warehouses became rivers of flame.

       Every depository of gunpowder and ammonium nitrate in the world, in all the continents from Asia to Australia, erupted into smoke and flames.  It was a night and a day that truly rocked the world.  Fortunately, as it was the New Year, there weren’t too many workers on factory duty  so the injuries  were kept to a minimum.  Unfortunately, there were some deaths and that was one of the many unpleasant side effects of this bizarre event.

       Managers at the fifty or so military arms manufacturing plants around the world, including Lockheed Martin, Northrup Grumman and  Boeing  in the U.S., all were baffled to find that their weapons, large and small, in storage and in the factory, had turned into nothing more than a carpet of rust.

       Announcements from domestic gun manufacturers in Europe and the U.S. echoed the same news as that of the military weapons companies. Their inventory had turned into red dust.  Smith and Wesson, in the states, and Heckler and Koch in Germany reported opening shipping crates only to find them empty except for rust-colored metal filings.  Gun dealers, upon seeing and hearing the bad news, rushed to their businesses and found  their shelves stocked with boxes of rusty air. Even the guns with plastic bodies had turned into ugly shapeless globs of melted goo.  The walls of their stores, usually hung with eye-catching examples of rifles and pistols, were empty except for the display hooks and the faded shadows of what had once been there.  Pawn Brokers found nothing but metal residue in their satin-lined display cases where they had kept the few firearms that customers, in need of some quick cash, had left with them.
       And then there were the bullet makers.  Of the hundreds of companies that manufacture ammo, such as Red Bear and Liberty Ammunition in America, and Delta Mike in New Zealand, all found their work places either burnt to the ground, due to the exploding gunpowder, or their inventory of bullets reduced to empty casings.

       On the morning of New Year’s Day, Billy Joe Burk, proud owner of a Bushmaster AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, entered the side door of the synagogue Congregation Rodeph Sholom on Bayshore Boulevard in Tampa Florida.  His mission was to take out as many Jews as he could, even if it meant losing his own life.  When he reached the inside of the temple he yelled ‘Make America Great Again!’ and began to shoot.  However, when he pulled the trigger nothing happened.  Surprised and very confused, he began cursing  and tried shaking the rifle.  As he explained to the police later, “All of a sudden the fuckin thing started to get hot and I dropped it on the floor.  I looked down and it was like melting and then it was just this rusty puddle of broken pieces.  I bet that piece of shit was made by some stupid chink in China!”  When the security guards saw that his gun was useless they wrestled Mr. Burk to the ground and someone called 911.

       At the very same time that Mr. Burk was entering the synagogue in Florida, Lyle Ferris walked into Starbucks at 1500 Broadway, in the Big Apple.  In his back pack he carried a homemade pipe bomb.  Lyle had been fired as a barista from Starbucks (not the one he was standing in, however) for being rude to a customer and antagonistic to his fellow workers.  He felt that he had been treated unfairly.  “After all, the asshole who ordered the Venti; half-decaf, dash of hazelnut, one Splenda and almond milk, had complained that it wasn’t almond milk (it wasn’t) and that the coffee was too hot.  I mean, come on!  So what if I called him ‘a flaming faggot!”  And Shelia and Toby, the other baristas treated me like shit from day one!”
       Lyle had decided that Starbucks needed to learn a lesson.  He had researched how to make a pipe bomb online and even ordered a book entitled ‘Bomb Making Made  EZ’.  And it was easy.  He actually made two, one that he tested in an empty clearing in the New Jersey Pine Barrens and one for planting in Starbucks.  He had nearly blown himself up with the test bomb but he was pleased with the results.
       After putting his backpack on a chair and sitting at one of the small tables, he looked around at the hungover New Year’s Eve revelers nursing their Grandes and at the rest of the crowd that had watched the ball drop in Times Square the night before.  If he had any second thoughts about doing the deed they vanished when he saw the fake smiles on all of the baristas behind the counter.  Opening his backpack he gently removed his beautiful creation, disguised as a holiday gift in a silver box.  He slowly placed it on the edge of the chair and carefully flicked a hidden toggle switch that activated the bomb.  It was now alive and ready to explode when any curious person, spying the nicely wrapped box with the big red bow, picked it up.
       Lyle got up from his seat, put on his back pack and started to exit when he was stopped by a woman’s voice.  “Excuse me sir,” she said, handing him the gayly wrapped package, “You almost forgot your gift.”  Lyle fainted.
       When he came to he was surrounded by the Starbucks staff.  “You okay, man?” asked the manager, “We called 911 but they said they’re so busy with all these weird emergencies it may be some time before they get anyone here.”  Lyle sat up quickly and looked around for his package. “Take it easy, man. You looking for your present.  It’s right here.  Clara’s got it.” A sweet middle-aged woman stood behind Lyle smiling a wide grin as she held out the box he had disguised as a  gift.  “I’m sorry, sir but it seems to have melted, whatever it is.  Maybe it was a cheesecake or a bottle of something that broke because stuff is oozing out of the bottom.”  

       By the third day, of what the media had labeled ‘Gunnap’, World War Three was about to begin.  Russia accused the United States of sabotage, the U.S. blamed North Korea, Great Britain looked to Ireland as the culprit and Australia was sure it was China.  Switzerland maintained its neutrality. Every other nation was busy investigating every other nation trying to find out how and why this weapon and gunpowder annihilation was happening.  Since there wasn’t a gun left in the entire world that worked and any other device, that depended on gunpowder, was inoperable what could a country do to protect itself?  There were still plastique explosives like Semtex and C-4 that were now worth their weight in gold but they often needed a gun powder filled blasting cap to set them off. That was when the specter of the infamous ‘weapon of mass destruction’ reared it’s deadly head.  Shaky index fingers hovered over the dreaded red button.

              The United Nations called an emergency meeting on January fourth.  The members had to scramble to get there from the far corners of the world.  It was very strange to see representatives from many different countries arriving at the various airports surrounded by their security guards armed with machetes and clubs.

       James P. Dickerson, current President of the NRA issued a statement:

As we struggle to survive unarmed during these disastrous times I am reminded of the demands made by the various gun control groups.  Well, your goal has been achieved.  How’s that working for you?

       Riots had broken out in the streets as looters, seizing the opportunity to work unencumbered by the possibility of being shot, smashed store windows and broke down doors.  The police still had tear gas and tasers at their disposal but the public fired back with pepper spray, bottles and rocks.  In New York the NYPD Mounted Unit of twenty-two horses and riders was called into action and began trying to control the crowds.  It was the true definition of chaos.

       The President of the United States declared a state of emergency and ordered the scientific community to begin research into the cause of this catastrophe and to find a solution ASAP.  Leaders of the other First World Nations followed suit and drafted the best of their forensic scientists to come up with answers.  While the rest of the world continued to spin out of control, scientific investigators began examining the millions of rusted and melted pieces of what had once been firearms and bombs.  Any gunpowder that was found immediately burst into flame when exposed to the air.  For many of the scientists this only emphasized what appeared to be a rather futile mission.

       The Danakil Desert is located in north east Ethiopia.   It is one of the lowest and hottest places on earth with a daytime temperature of up to 122 degrees Fahrenheit.  It gets only about an inch of rain a year and the few lakes that exist are all crusted with salt.   The Afar Tribe are the only peoples who are hardy enough to work in this hell on earth and they survive by mining the salt which they transport out of the desert on the backs of camels for sale to the rest of the world. There is a range of mountains to the north called the Danakil Alps and resting among them is a volcano known as Mount Ayalu.
       About twenty years ago the Afar, unloading the salt bricks they had mined, told the buyers about the strange thing they had seen near Mount Ayalu.  During the night a blinding white light had flashed on and off at the base of the volcano.  At first they thought the mountain was erupting but, as the light was at the bottom of the volcano and was a pulsating white, they realized that this was something else.
        A few of the more superstitious among them thought it was an angry angel sent by Allah.  When they made an exploratory visit to the volcano, a week after experiencing the phenomenon, the light had stopped and there was no evidence of anything ever having been there.  Two decades later the event was all but forgotten.  

       While the President kept assuring the public that the government was getting close to correcting the gun problem the truth was that it was still a complete mystery. Using all the modern technologies available, from mass spectrometers and electron microscopes to chromatographs and different light sources, nothing helpful was discovered.  The ruined weapons were analyzed again and again but the tests only revealed the makeup of the materials used in their composition.

       Tommy Garcia and his girlfriend Rosalie were beginning to come down from a weekend of cocaine.  Being totally addicted to the stuff Tommy was starting to freak out.  As he found himself rather low on cash he knew he had to find a willing, or unwilling, it didn’t matter, donor who would contribute to the ‘Keep Tommy Stoned Fund.’  As he tossed and turned next to Rosalie on the lumpy mattress in her bedroom, he glanced over at her son’s toy chest.  It was white particle board with an alligator painted on the side and the boy’s name, Kevin, written in black magic marker across the green bumpy skin of the ‘gator.  Tommy was about crawl out of his own skin when he saw, lying among the Legos and the stuffed animals, the answer to his prayers.
       Later that day he entered the neighborhood CVS store and walked back towards the pharmacy.  There he was greeted by the pharmacist, a balding gentleman wearing horn rimmed glasses and wearing a nametag which read Ajeet Tendulkar.
       “How may I help you?” he asked in a soft baritone voice tinged with a slight Indian accent.
       “Give me all of your cash,” Tommy muttered, “and throw in a few bottles of
Percocet while you’re at it.”
       “I’m very sorry, sir, but I’m afraid I cannot do that,” Ajeet responded with the gentlest of smiles.
       “Hey man,” Tommy barked, “Don’t fool around.  Do you see what I’m holding in my hand, what I’m aiming at you?!”
       “Yes, indeed I do.  It seems to be a water pistol.  A fine replica.  I’d say a Colt 45, is it not?  Very detailed reproduction.”
       Tommy was devastated.  “No—no!  It’s real---and---it’s---it’s loaded!”
       “I’m so sorry but surely you’re aware of what has been happening.  You must have seen it on all the news.  They call it ‘Gunnap.” There are no real guns left.  They have all been destroyed.”
       Tommy wasn’t about to give up.  “Well, this is one that didn’t get---it’s still good.  So ante up or I’ll---I’ll shoot you.”
       He was still arguing with Ajeet when the police arrived and carted him away to the local station house.

       It was a  Physicist at Utrecht University in the Netherlands who made a small discovery that hinted at a possible cause of the world-wide disaster.  Dr. Eva Van Dijck was working late in her lab and had taken a short break.  She had brewed herself a cup of Earl Grey tea and was taking it  back to her workbench when she caught her heel on the cord of the high-intensity lamp clamped to her table.  The mug of black tea that Dr. Van Dijck was carrying went flying up over the workbench and landed on top of Evidence #2765, the melted rust-stained remains of a Beretta M9 semi-automatic pistol.  The porcelain mug rolled off the table and fell to the floor where it broke into several pieces.  The tea puddled around and over the carcass of the dead gun, much to Van Dijck’s disappointment, but knowing that she still had hundreds of examples waiting in storage she simply began the cleaning up process.
       After picking up all the shards of the broken mug, being careful not to cut her herself, she arose and turned to the mess on her workbench.  She was surprised to see the ruined weapon covered in a fine layer of some kind of white powder.  All of the tea had evaporated except for a few drops at the edge of the table.  Wasting no time, Dr. Van Dijck took a glass slide and, using  a small spoon, sprinkled a tiny amount of the powder on top of the slide and protected it with a cover slip.  When she put the slide under the microscope she discovered that the powder was composed of crystals.  However, they didn’t look like any crystals she was familiar with. After a quick look online at some photos of other common crystals she was still confused.
       Her next step was to try and determine the chemical and molecular makeup of these mysterious white crystals.  As tempting as it was to try and accomplish this on her own (and to become known as the person who saved the world and won the Noble Peace Prize) she realized that she had to let the rest of the scientific community know about her discovery.  She needed help.

       Economically the world was coming apart at the seams.  Since all of the world’s most powerful nations based their economies on the Military and now there was literally no military, there was nothing left; no factories, no jobs, no incomes, no profits.  It affected everyone.  A depression was beginning that could make the Great Depression of the 1930’s look like a Labor Day picnic.
       Bank robberies increased, in fact all robberies in general increased because if you found you needed a gallon of milk you just took it.  What was going to stop you?  A gun?  Store owners were using thugs to try and prevent theft but after a while they couldn’t afford to pay for this protection so the thugs beat up the owners and took whatever was left in the store as compensation.
       Trucks were being hijacked before supplies could reach their destination and therefor the  goods on the shelves of the supermarkets were dwindling.   Hospitals were running low on life-saving drugs.  Of course, a black market was quickly established where you could, for an obscene fee, purchase medicine, food and other necessities.  But this wouldn’t last long because money was beginning to become useless.  It had no real value. 
       The rioting in the cities continued with more looting and burning. Whole neighborhoods looked like they had been bombed.  Anyone who had half a brain carried a knife or a club.
 Many city employees had left their jobs. Trash was piling up in the streets and the police, having lost their firepower, were reluctant to go out on patrol.  Public transportation had come to a standstill.  The power plants were still grinding out electricity but for how long was the question.
       The rich had fled the metropolitan areas for the safety of their country estates but soon realized that it was only a temporary solution.  Trying to create, without weapons, a fortress against the madness that was heading their way was an exercise in futility.

       When the news of Dr. Van Dijck’s discovery of the white crystals, that appeared on the remnants of the ruined guns, flashed across the computer screens of every lab working on the crisis, there was a sudden run on Earl Grey tea.  Samples of the mysterious white powder were bombarded with X-rays, microwaved in spectroscopes, and spun in nuclear magnetic resonators.  The universal result of every test was that this white crystalline powder was composed of molecules  never ever seen before.

       The town of Unity, Oregon, population 71 and used to the simple life, adapted very quickly to the change.  It was, after all, a town inhabited by survivors.  They had lived through brush fires, the closing down of the lumber mill and the drop in cattle prices.  Their rifles, now made useless, were replaced with bows and arrows.  That meant that wild game was still on the table.  The lake and the river were still full of fish and the farmers had cows full of fresh milk.
       Hiram Granger, a Native American descendent of the Nez Perce tribe, ran Stratton’s General store and unofficially became the strategic commander.  His first order of business was to close off the only road into and out of Unity---Route 26.  Using Fred Napier’s bulldozer the townsmen placed boulders on the highway at both ends of town.  Patrols were set up to man the barricades and everyone took turns, including women and children. All the supplies still in the general store and the remaining gasoline at the Burnt River Market would have to be rationed.  “We’ll be losing electric soon,” Hiram announced, “so be prepared to rough it.  Let’s treat this like we’re all going camping and as long as we stick together we can get through this.”
       Unity is located in the middle of Baker County which is bordered on the east by the state of Idaho.  As anyone who is familiar with the history of Idaho knows, it  has been for a many years a testing ground for survivalists.  Hiram wondered what would happen when those anti-government anarchists discovered that their cache of weapons had been rendered absolutely useless.  “Just so long as they stay in Idaho,” he declared to the residents at a town meeting, “But if they decide to attempt an invasion, we’ll be ready.”

       The small team of Volcanologists studying Mount Ayalu in Ethiopia was headed by Dr. Tamsin Decker.  It was her job to monitor the seismic activity, the lava flow and the gas emissions of the volcano not only as scientific research but also for any signs of a possible eruption.  They were here, near the mountain, to be able to post a warning and therefor prevent or, at least, minimize a disaster.
       Dr. Decker did not mind the heat and the isolation.  In fact she preferred it to the madness that was going on in the so-called civilized world, the exploding gunpowder reserves (that had screwed up their seismic readings) and the mysterious ‘Gunnaping’.  Fortunately, no phantom enemy seemed to be interested in taking the volcano hostage so they really didn’t need the few weapons they had that had dissolved into rusted detritus while they were asleep on New Year’s Eve.   As long as their generators had enough fuel and the sun kept beating down on the solar panels they would be fine.
       Dr. Decker was studying the tilt level of the lava field on one of the many monitors in her office when she was interrupted by Negasi, her assistant.  The tall young man, who recently graduated from Addis Ababa University, and had become an invaluable member of the staff, cleared his voice.  “Pardon me, Dr. Decker.”
       “Yes, Negasi, what is it?,” Tamsin replied, not taking her eyes of the screen.  “The ultra-sound readings,” he hesitated, “There seems to be an anomaly.”
       “Oh?  Interesting. What’s going on inside dear old Ayalu?”
“I do not quite know.  I think you should look at it.  I mean, please check the monitor.  What I am seeing is a negative space located in the western face of the mountain.”
       “A negative space?”
       “A void, if you will.  It just appeared out of nowhere on the computer. I have never seen it before today.”
       Tamsin switched her attention over to another monitor.  It displayed a cross section of the interior of the mountain.  There was a simulated image of the volcanic core, a red-orange tube, surrounded by a blue-gray mass that represented
the rocky composition of the mountain.  Down to the left at the base of the mountain was a medium sized circle.  It was inky black.
       “Have you checked the probes?  Is there a possible glitch in the equipment?” Tamsin asked.
       “We have checked everything four times.  All the systems, the software, the cables, everything.  It is all working fine.”
       “So what do you think is going on?”
       “Well, if we analyze what the ultra-sound is telling us, and it is its job  to show us what is going on inside Ayalu---I would say that it is showing us---a cavern, an open space inside the mountain.”

       The scientific community now had a substance to work with.  They agreed to label it the Van Dijck Crystal in honor of its discoverer.   Hoping to find out how it worked, how it had destroyed billions of weapons, laboratories from around the world began attempting a myriad of tests.  They had no intact guns or bombs to use in their experiments so they continued to examine the existing damaged firearms.  It seemed that the crystals had eaten away at the metal like a high-powered acid.  It was also determined that when the chemical came upon any amount of gunpowder it ignited it.  In order to test this hypothesis several labs tried to make gunpowder. Modern gunpowder, known as a smokeless propellant,  is composed of many different chemicals including nitrocellulose and paraffin.  Unfortunately, the moment all the ingredients were combined to create a small sample of gunpowder it exploded in a bright flash of fire.  There wasn’t even time to spread some of the mysterious Van Dijck crystal powder on the sample in order to study the effects.  Every attempt ended in the same way---bang, whoosh!

       When the lights went out all along the East Coast, the National Guard was ordered to head to all the power stations.  When they arrived at some of the sites they found the generators shut down and no one in the buildings.  An officer located a note stuck on the unlocked door of one of the larger facilities.  ‘We need to be with our families.  Gotta keep ‘em safe. Sorry.’  The soldiers immediately began bringing the power plants back on line and electricity was restored.  However, brown-outs continued to happen through the next few days and would probably do so for months.

       The scientists at Mount Aylalu had rebooted their computers to see if the strange black hole on the image of the interior of the mountain was an error. It wasn’t.  It stubbornly kept reappearing no matter what changes they made in the color of the image on the monitors.
       Negasi, Dr. Decker’s assistant, spent several hours determining the size of what he believed the black void to be.  “I rotated the image 360 degrees so I could estimate its actual shape.  It is a circular cavity approximately 40 feet wide and 50 feet high.”
       “Can you detect if there is any volcanic activity inside this hollow?” Asked Dr. Decker, “You know, like escaping emissions, lava---”
       “Not really.  You will notice,” Negasi said, pointing to the monitor, “that the image remains totally black.  It is almost like there is something preventing the ultra-sound from penetrating this---this bubble.  Like there is a shield or something.”
       “Weird,” Dr. Decker uttered softly,” We really need to know what this is, if it is a precursor to an eruption or the beginning of a new fissure that will be spilling fresh magma out the side of the mountain.”

       With angry and frightened citizens on almost every continent marching in the streets and many world leaders being deposed and, in some cases, assassinated, the pressure to find a solution was beyond intense.  Nobel Peace Prize winning scientists were working day and night alongside their less famous colleagues.  Up to now the only thing they knew was that the Van Dijck crystals caused a reaction that melted metal (curiously only the metal and plastic that was used in the manufacture of guns and bombs) and that it ignited gunpowder.  How it actually accomplished this, where it came from and how it was dispersed was still a mystery.  Here was a compound composed of molecules never before seen that, within two days, had destroyed all the weapons on earth that depended on gunpowder.  Unfortunately, this meant that governments and even some private citizens were considering using alternatives such a nerve gas, plastique putty, high-power lasers (‘Death Rays’) and, most alarming, atomic devices.  The infamous red button loomed larger than ever.   

       There are 1,500 potentially active volcanoes in the world.  The country with the highest number is, surprisingly, the United States with 169 active volcanoes. Most of these are located in Alaska with the rest spread among the Western States, Mount St. Helens being one of the more famous.  Kilauea and Mauna Loa are the two most active volcanoes found among several others on the islands of Hawaii.  In fact the islands themselves were created by eons of volcanic activity.
       Dr. Decker had worked in Hawaii for a couple of years with Kaleo Tiller, a respected Volcanologist and author of several definitive books on the mystery and majesty of volcanoes.  Hoping that Dr. Tiller might have an insight into the enigmatic black smear on the computerized image of Mt. Ayalu, Tamsin decided to give him a call.  After finally getting access to a working phone line she made contact.
       “Dr. Tiller? Hi.  This is Tamsin Decker---”
       “Tamsin!  What a pleasant surprise.  I was just about to email you.  In fact I was just going to send out an email to several of our other colleagues as well.”
       “Well, here I am. I don’t know for how long. Phone service is so dicey these days.  So how are things? Have you been okay with this gunnapping madness?”
       “Yes, we’re alright.  No terrorists at our doorstep yet.  But there is something going on here that I wanted run by you and Peterson, also Tanaka and maybe Statzberger.”
       “Would it happen to be a problem with your ultrasound equipment?”
       There was a short silence before Tiller responded.
       “Are you having problems as well?” he asked.
       “There is a sort of a---black void on the images coming in from the sensors.  I was going to send you a picture---“
       “Is the sonar indicating that this---void is located at the base line of your mountain?”
       “Yes.  Is that what’s happening with you?”
       “The ultrasound is showing that both my ladies have these black patches on their lower sides---the sides facing west.”
       “Wow!  It’s the same here.  What do you think they are?”
       “I wish I knew.  It could be a bulge indicating a possible eruption  building up which is not something we want to happen.  But as both these black smudges are in the exact same position on the west side of both the mountains I believe they have to be something else.”
       “Do you have any idea how large they are?”
       “We calculate they’re about 30 to 40 feet wide by 50 feet high.”
       Tamsin looked at her monitor and felt a cold tremor climb up her spine.

       Mitzi Brownhart stared at the face in the bathroom mirror.  It had been a pretty face once.  Now it was just the pale, wrinkled, saggy-jowled image of her grandmother.  Mitzi was only 42 years old but she felt 90.   Well, what did you expect?  Between being deserted by her husband and left with two ungrateful teenagers to feed and clothe, and having lost her job, due to all the layoffs at the weapons plant, her world was rapidly falling apart.  All around her was chaos; electric brownouts, gasoline shortages, food shortages, crazy people running around with knives and baseball bats, no heat in the apartment, water the color of piss when you turned on the tap, nothing but really bad news on the T.V. or the internet (if and when they were even working) and cell phone service gone forever.  Alcohol and marijuana no longer helped dull the pain.
       Mitzi had toyed with the idea of ending it all.  She had a few Ambien left and some Codine  left over from that carpal tunnel operation two years ago.  Plastic bag over the head and goodbye cruel world.  She would have used the pistol her husband Eddie had given her for protection but this ‘Gunnapping’ stupidity had taken care of that. However, as the long days and longer nights passed she found herself feeling more angry than depressed.  In fact she found herself so enraged that all she could think about was getting even, revenge for what had been done to her.  But how?  She had thought briefly about doing in Karen and Brian but that wouldn’t make much of a statement and murdering her kids would just be murder.
       It was when she ran into her friend Barbara, on the garbage strewn streets of downtown Baltimore, and heard her talk about the President’s upcoming visit that an idea began to blossom in her enraged brain.
       “Yeah, the son-of-a-bitch is making a tour of some of  the messed up cities to reassure the public that everything is under control,” croaked Barbara,  “Ha!  Just look around. This is ‘under control?’  Things will never get back to normal.”
       Mitzi shook her head in disgust and pulled her coat tighter around her shivering body.  It was going to be a very hard Winter.  A lot of folks weren’t going to make it through to Spring, maybe even herself.  So why not go out in a blaze of glory.  And so she stood on that dirty sidewalk, in front of that burnt out shell of what was once a Starbuck’s and made a silent pledge.
       “I’m going to kill the President of the United States of America.”

       After many conferences with Volcanologists from around the world it was determined that an exploratory examination of one of these strange black voids  was necessary.  Almost every active volcano in every country had experienced the same phenomenon, a black oval-shaped blob about 40 feet by 50 feet located on the inside of the lower west side of the mountain.
       The plan under consideration was to drill a small hole deep into the side of the mountain at approximately the location shown on the monitor.  If magma began to spew out they would have an answer, not one they particularly wanted, but it would mean they could alert the area of a possible eruption. 
       Since Dr. Decker and her staff were the first to report the anomaly it was decided that the initial drilling attempt would be to Mount Ayalu.  That the volcano was in such a remote area was also a determining factor.  The next experiment after that would be performed on Mauna Loa in Hawaii by Dr. Tiller. Fortunately, new equipment had arrived at the Ayalu site around Christmas time  (Tamsin jokingly said it came from St. Nickolas) which included a much improved heavy-duty diamond drill and several state of the art Fire Proximity Suits to replace the outdated and tired ones that had been around for the last twenty years.
       Dr. Decker’s assistant, Negasi, along with a crew of four other volunteers, suited up in the aluminized, insulated Fire Proximity Suits which also had self-contained breathing apparatuses.  Hopefully, the suits would protect them from heat reaching up to 2000 degrees Fahrenheit.  Tamsin was in contact with the team by radiocom and would be watching the drilling process through the videos sent back to her lab by the cameras built into their helmets.
       The last eruption of Ayalu was recorded in the year 2000 so Dr. Decker felt that the only real danger to Negasi and his crew would be from fresh magma that could  come spilling out of the newly drilled hole along with toxic fumes.  Hopefully, the hazmat suits would be protection enough.
       On the morning of the sixth of January the drilling began.

       Mitzi glanced at her face in the rear view mirror.  “Looking pretty good for a dead person,” she chuckled, “A little blush and lipstick makes me look almost human.”  Her hair was curled and sat on her head like a misplaced puppy. “Too bad I gotta cover it up with my knit cap.” She was dressed in the dark blue suit she had found at the Salvation Army that she had planned on wearing when she went out on job interviews, for jobs that didn’t exist.  “Makes me look thinner.  That’s good.”
       The President was supposed to arrive in Baltimore at 1:00 pm EST.  His cavalcade was driving up from Washington and he was scheduled to give a speech in front of the War Memorial Building.  Mitzi had it all worked out thanks to her friend Barbara.  Barbara’s husband was a Baltimore policeman who just happened to be selected as one of the President’s motorcycle escorts and he  would be riding along with the convoy when it entered Baltimore.  Therefore, Mitzi figured he would have the skinny on the route, the number of vehicles, the arrival and departure times and what kind of security measures were being taken.  Knowing how clever Barbara was at wheedling information out of her husband and knowing how she loved to share such information with anyone who’d listen, Mitzi was ready.

       After drilling for four hours and after having to add several extensions on the 12 inch long diamond drill, Negasi felt a change in the vibrations, a softening as if the hardened lava was beginning to crumble.  The drill started to spin quietly and faster which was an indication they had broken through the side of the mountain.  As the drill was carefully removed from the tunnel cut in the rock, the sensors picked up a sudden rush of carbon dioxide.  However, no magma followed which was a good sign.
       “At least there is less chance of an eruption,” Dr. Decker relayed over the radiocom to Negasi and his crew, “but the gas is deadly.  Be very careful.”
       The next step was to insert into the hole a small halcyon lamp attached to a minicam in order to see what, if anything, was in the space.  The camera, with a cable trailing behind it, was strapped to a trolley and it quickly travelled through the small newly drilled tunnel.  When it reached the opening to the mysterious vault it stopped and sent back an image to Dr. Decker’s computer.
       “I don’t see anything, yet.  It is very dark and---wait!  Something just flashed, metallic---and there is something else---glistening---Oh, my god!”

       So here was the plan.  Mitzi would park at the North Gay Street Parking   Facility late at night before all the barricades were in place.  At 12:45 pm the President’s entourage would be exiting route 83 and turning onto Fayette Street, then driving West for two blocks and turning right onto Gay Street where it would stop in front of the Baltimore War Memorial Building.  When Mitzi could see the Presidential limos turning she would hurry back to her red 2002 Ford Fiesta and pull out of the parking lot.  Instead of turning left on North Gay Street she would make a right, which would put her going the wrong way, as Gay Street is a one way street.  The street would be closed to traffic by then so she would have a clear shot to the front of the War Memorial building.  She would blast through the wooden barricade, mow down any motorcycles blocking her way (hopefully not Barbara’s husband) and wipe up the sidewalk with the President as he exited his limousine.  There wouldn’t be any guns to stop her and if she was lucky the killing impact would finish her off as well.  Martyrdom!  No plan is perfect but Mitzi was sure this one would work.

       It was dark when the Better World Battalion from Idaho arrived at the wall of big stones that blocked highway 26 in Unity, Oregon.   The blockade prevented them from driving their SUVs and Jeeps into town but they took a walk around the boulders and pushed through the brush. To their surprise they were greeted by 15 citizens of the town each armed with a bow and arrows.  Every kind of  bow, from a high-powered Bowtech Realm SR6 to a Genesis bow in hot pink, was aimed at the chests of the uninvited guests.
       “Woah, my friends!” shouted Scott Rawles leader of Better World, “We come in peace.”
       “Like hell you do!” responded Fred Napier.
       “You’re  here ‘cause you want our gasoline,” replied Fred’s wife Helen, she of the hot pink bow and arrow.
       “Not at all,” answered Rawles, “We’re on our way to California.  Just passing through---well, trying to pass through but you folks kinda put a crimp in our plans.”
       “You’ll have to find another route, I’m afraid,” came a voice from behind the line of archers as Hiram Granger came forward out of the dark. “I recommend you go back the way you came and hook up with Route 84.  Drop down to Nevada.  Much faster.”
       “Well, thank you friend,” replied Rawles, “but that means using up a lot of our precious gas---”
       “You know, I don’t quite understand,” Granger interrupted, “why you were coming this direction in the first place.  You’re heading North, more in the direction
of Washington State than towards California.”
       “Oops, you got me,” Rawles said, in an ‘ah shucks’ tone of voice, “The truth is we’re really looking for recruits to join up with us on our way to California.  Thought we’d stop off at some of the little communities, like yours, all across the state.  Ask around to see if there are people like us who are really angry with our government and ready to bring it down.  There’s a movement starting at Fort Pendleton , that’s where we’re headed---a lot of unhappy soldiers---the revolution is coming, no doubt about it.”
       “Well, sir, thanks for dropping by but we are doing just fine.  I think I speak for most of the citizens of Unity when I say we aren’t interested in joining up with your group.”
       Rawles took a good look at the line of archers and sighed.  “Seems you got a fine looking army of your own, mister.  Ah, well, you can’t blame a man for trying.”
       “We’re just working on getting through this crisis together, safely and peacefully,” Hiram said in a calm but firm manner.
       “I understand completely,” Rawles replied, “Speaking of ‘getting through’ would it be possible for us to pass on through your town?”
        The line of archers took a sudden step forward as Granger answered. “I’m afraid not.  Sorry.  As you can see there are several tons of stone that would have to be moved.”
       “Well, okay then.  I guess we’ll be on our way.  I don’t suppose, however, that you could sell us some gasoline.  We got some containers---”
       “I told you that’s what they were looking for all along!” Helen Napier shouted.  Hiram put a calming hand on her shoulder.
       “It’s okay, Helen,” he said, turning to Rawles and his men, “I’m sorry, gentlemen, but we can’t spare any gas.”
       “Yeah.  I got it.  Gas supplies are dwindling all over.  Well, I guess we’ll just keep on going ‘till we can’t.”  Rawles signaled for his men to return to their vehicles and, with a tip of his cap, turned and followed them.  The sound of engines riving up was followed with the smell of exhaust as the Better World Brigade turned around and drove away into the night.
       “They’ll be back,” Helen muttered, “mark my words.”

       Gathering around the bank of monitors in the lab, Dr. Decker, Negasi and the rest of the crew stared at the images on the screens.  Glowing tubular shapes crisscrossed against the black background while something resembling icicles hung like transparent stalactites from what they presumed to be the ceiling of the cave.  It definitely was a cave.
       “I saw a globe---an orb---I mean something that looked like---I don’t know,” Dr. Decker exclaimed, “It was there for a second and then it wasn’t.  We need to keep an around-the-clock watch.  Record every minute.”
       Negasi was stunned by what he was seeing.  “We need to get in there, physically, find out what all of that is!” He pointed to the images. “Nothing in nature could have formed that!”
       “Due to the ‘Gunnapping’ madness we haven’t any explosives to blast an opening big enough to let us in and even if we did we couldn’t do it for fear it would cause a lethal eruption,” Dr. Decker explained.
       “Then we will borrow a Tunnel Boring Machine, one of those TBMs  they use in the salt mines. We only need a tunnel about three feet in diameter, wide enough to crawl through.  We have got to get inside that cave!”  Negasi could hardly contain his excitement.
       “I’m not sure---wait! Look---there---” Dr. Decker pointed her hand up to one of the monitor screens.  An iridescent orb peered out at them with what looked like several shiny black eyes.

        About a thousand very angry men, women and children were crowded in the park across from the Baltimore War Museum.  Bundled up to keep warm, many held signs that were certainly not pro-President: ‘WHEN WILL THE NIGHTMARE END!’  ‘GIVE US JOBS, NOT PROMISES!’  ‘EMPTY SHELVES = EMPTY STOMACHS’ and, perhaps the banner most representative of the mood of the crowd, ‘DO SOMETHING, ASSHOLE!’
       The police were trying their best to keep the irate herd of demonstrators behind the barricades.  The cops stood shoulder to shoulder holding protective shields and wearing helmets equipped  with bullet resistant acrylic visors, although no bullets would be coming their way.  There might be rocks or bottles, maybe even a Molotov Cocktail or two, but no bullets.
       When the presidential convoy turned the corner and started down Gay Street a roar arose from the park that could be heard ten blocks away.  The President, riding in the second car, wanted to believe the shouting was cheers of approval but he knew better.  He squeezed the first lady’s hand and steeled himself for what was going to be another unpleasant experience.
       What happened next, as reported on TV and the internet, was like something out of a bad action film.  The demonstrators were the first to see the flash of red zooming the wrong way down the street, heading straight for the Presidential entourage.  It smashed through the wooden sawhorses, sending splintered planks flying in all directions, and headed for the four vehicles just beginning to stop in front of the memorial.  The driver of the red car swerved to try and avoid running down a couple of the motorcycle cops but sent one of them flying anyway.  The door of the President’s limo had just been opened by one of the secret service agents when the red Ford Fiesta made contact with the first automobile. This was the one in front of the President’s car that was carrying more secret service agents. The impact was as if gnat had run into a rhinoceros---no contest.  The little red car was  not a  match for the steel reinforced, bullet proofed Lincoln limousine.  The light weight Fiesta simply pushed the heavy limo backwards into the President’s vehicle, flipped into the air and landed upside down on the street next to the third limo.  From a tinted window in the third automobile, a very startled Mayor of Baltimore saw the driver,  a woman in a wool knit cap, hanging upside down in the car.

       Tamsin had alerted Dr. Tiller about their success in opening a hole  in the side of Mount Ayalu.  She withheld what they had seen in the cave except to say that she would share that information with Dr. Tiller once he had tunneled into one of his volcanoes. She didn’t want to influence his initial reaction to what he might uncover plus she felt it was imperative to keep the Ayalu discovery secret for a while so as not to alarm the public.
       In the meantime Negasi was negotiating with the managers of the salt mines about renting their TBM.  Since the machine was very large, cumbersome and heavy it would take a day or so for it to be driven up the winding dirt road to the mountain side.  Negasi was impatiently counting the hours.
       A review of the images of the interior of the cavern, recorded during the last 24 hours, didn’t reveal anything new.  Since the camera was stationary and the lab technicians were not able to move its focus the picture remained the same.  The orb with the black dots did not reappear but there was a moment when a blur of something rushed across the screen.  They slowed the image down in an attempt to get a clearer view but it remained a blur.

       The President had called an emergency meeting of his cabinet members as well as  some of the scientists working on the ‘Gunnapping’ situation.  To say he was in a foul mood was an understatement---he was furious.
       “What the hell is going on?!  A month into this insanity and still no progress?!  Gentlemen, and lady, please tell me you have something positive to share with us today!”
       After an uncomfortable moment of silence one of the visitors spoke up.  It was a Professor from the UK,  a Dr. Alexander Higgs.  He was part of a team of international scientists working out of a lab in Falls Church, Virginia.
       “Mr. President, it may appear we are not making much progress but in fact we have made some important discoveries.  As has been reported to you, we now know the composition of the powder that has caused the disintegration of the weapons.  We know how it works and---
       “Okay, okay!  But where did it come from ? How do we rectify the situation?  How are we going to get back to normal, get our weaponry back, our guns?”
       “We believe the powder is air born and---”
       “But there’s no white dust blowing around.  No one reported ever seeing the stuff flying around in the air before all this happened!”
       “That’s because the microscopic crystals are actually invisible.  They can only be seen when they are exposed to tannic acid.  That’s when they turn into the white powder that we see on the weapons.”
       “Tannic acid? What the hell is that?”
       “Tea, Mr. President, it’s a chemical in tea.”
       “Great! How very British!  This is ridiculous!  Answer me this: If this shit was, or is, blowing in the wind why hasn’t it affected us?  I mean we must have inhaled it.  It would have gotten in our mouths, our ears---”
       “We are working on that, Mr. President.  I’ll try and explain. Because the Van Dijk crystals are so small, they can’t be seen, felt, smelt or tasted.  They are like the bacteria we find already in the air around us.  So far, we have found no evidence of it affecting human beings or animals negatively.  It seems to have one mission and one mission only and that---’
       “---is to  destroy our ability to protect ourselves.  I thank you guys, and lady, for the all the work you’ve done so far but now it’s time to step up to the bat and find a solution.  When next we meet, I want some real answers.  Solve this fucker!”
       The President shook hands with the departing scientists and turned back to face his cabinet.
       “Okay.  You heard the Brit.  Doesn’t sound very hopeful to me.  Things are falling apart around us and they haven’t found diddlysquat.  At the rate they’re going it’ll be the next century before they come up with a way to stop this nightmare and put us back in business.”
       Pointing to the Head of Homeland Security the President added, “Ted, I want you to stay on their asses, see that they remain focused, whatever it takes!”
       “Yes, Mr. President,” he answered, trying to sound positive, “About that other situation you asked me to update you on.”
       “What other situation?’
       “That attempt on your life, sir, in Baltimore last week.”
       “Oh yeah, right.  What have you found out?  Was it a terrorist attack?”
       “Doesn’t seem to be.  It looks like she was acting on her own.”
       “Crazy bitch.  What’s her name?  What’s her status?”
       “Still in a coma.  The car was registered to an Edward Brownhart.  She’s his wife,  Mitzi Irene Brownhart.”

       Hiram Granger was awakened by a loud banging on his front door.  He glanced at the wind-up alarm clock ticking away on his bureau as he pulled on his overalls.  It was 2:30 in the morning.  By the time he got to the door the knocking was accompanied with shouts.
       “Hiram!  Hiram!  We need your help!  Mathew’s barn’s on fire!” 
       Granger opened the door to find Fred Napier stamping his feet and pointing to the bright orange  flames that were climbing up the weathered boards of his neighbor’s barn.
       ““I couldn’t reach you by phone since the service went down,” Fred yelled, I couldn’t get hold of the volunteers.  Helen’s driving down to the firehouse, now.”
       Hiram pulled on his muck boots and he and Fred started running towards the fire.  A couple of other men were helping Matt get his terrified cows out of the barn and Frida, Mathews wife, was spraying the flames with a garden hose.  It wasn’t doing much to help stop the fire.
       Just then a wail began as the siren on the firehouse roof started spinning.
       “That’ll wake them up!” Fred shouted, “Hopefully they’ll get the truck here soon.”
       “May not be soon enough.  You see any buckets around?” Hiram yelled, as he ran over to the horse trough.
       “There’re a couple of old milk cans!”
       “They’ll have to do. Bring them over.”
       He and Fred dunked the ten gallon metal cans in the big trough just long enough to get an amount of water that they could physically carry to the blaze.  They splashed the water on the burning planks but it just turned into steam.  The flames increased.
       “Might as well just piss on it,” Fred muttered, “It’d work just as well!”  But he and Hiram kept returning to the trough and back to the fire until the Unity Volunteer Fire Department  arrived.

       By five AM the fire was out but the barn was smoke and ash.  Matt and Frida  poked at the edges of what had been their 150 year old barn in the hopes of finding something worth saving.  Hiram and Fred sat on the steps of the Granger farm house and watched the couple moving slowly around the cooling remains.
       “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” Fred asked, wiping the soot off of his face.
       “That this wasn’t an accidental fire?” Granger replied, “Maybe.  I smelled some gasoline---”
       “Me too!  And you wanna make a bet on who wasted their precious gasoline in order to do this?” Fred continued, “Our military friends from Idaho?”
       “Could be.  I just hope this visit is a one-time event.”
       But it wasn’t.

       Negasi was the first one to crawl through the newly drilled tunnel.  Wearing his hazmat suit and oxygen helmet, with the built-in light and camera, he felt like a little kid on his first day of nursery school.   The suit was big and puffy like something a toddler would wear and being on his hands and knees only emphasized the image. Even the excitement that he was experiencing was like that of a child.  Inch by inch he was crawling closer to the adventure of a lifetime.
       Dr. Decker and her staff were watching the flashes of  light hitting the tunnel walls from Negasi’s lamp as he approached the opening of the cave. “About ten feet more,” he whispered, breathing heavily from the exertion of snaking his way along, “I can see the tubes.  Can you see them?”
       “Yes!” Tamsin responded, “Yes!  They look like they’re vibrating---or is that just the shaking of the camera?”
       “They are vibrating  and---and there is---humming---a soft humming.” Negasi creeped to the edge of the opening.  He swung his legs over the edge and dropped down to the pile of rubble left by the TBM.  “Oh, my lord, Dr. Decker, do you see  this?”
       “Yes, Negasi.”
       The camera revealed a vast dark cavern with smooth walls and floor and, high above, hundreds of sparkling crystal stalactites.  The vibrating tubes, that rose up to reach the crystals, were of different dimensions, some the size of a man’s arm and one as large as a redwood tree.
       “My lamp cannot illuminate all that is here but Douglas has just entered the space with more light.  We will set up the floods and you will be able to see what I am seeing.  It is---it’s---incredible.”
       “How are the carbon dioxide levels?  Check your sensors, please.”
       “They are very high.  We will not be taking our helmets off anytime soon, I am afraid.”
       At that moment the monitor screens lit up brightly as the flood lights were turned on.  The smooth walls seemed to be iridescent and shimmered with metallic shades of blue, magenta and green.  The opalescent tubes were imbedded in the stone floor, as if they descended down to a lower level, and high above they appeared to be attached to some of the stalactites.
       “It is so---beautiful,” Negasi whispered softly, “What do you think this is?  Who is capable of creating this---this whatever it is?  How could someone carve a cave this big and fill it with---with---I guess you would call it an apparatus?”
       “I don’t know but we’re going to find out!”

       The room in the Johns Hopkins Hospital was painted a very pale pink.  This color was thought to have a calming effect on patients.  When Mitzi finally awoke she thought at first that she was in Bev’s Best Beauty Salon.  That’s where she usually went to have her hair cut and curled.  After a few fuzzy minutes, objects that didn’t belong in a beauty shop began to come into focus; an IV pole with a couple of bags of liquid dripping down into a plastic tube, a TV up high on a wall and, sitting in a chair by the door, a policewoman.  When Mitzi tried to turn her head to the right, to see what else was there, the sudden blast of pain was so bad she almost vomited.  Her moan brought the policewoman to her feet and she immediately radioed the news to her superiors.
       At the same time, through the door came a nurse followed by a doctor.  They moved to each side of the bed where the nurse checked the IV catheter in Mitzi’s left hand while the doctor checked her vitals on the monitor that was wired to her body.  An oxygen cannula was clipped to her nose and a neck brace held her head in a rigid no nonsense position.
       “Good morning, Ms. Brownhart,” the doctor said softly, “Do you know where you are?”
       Mitzi moved her jaw up and down slowly, trying to find her voice.  Nothing came out of her mouth but an “Ahhhhhh.”
       “That’s okay.  Don’t try to talk,” the doctor cautioned, “Not all of your systems are up and ready to go yet.  I’m Doctor Davis and this is Nurse Aaron.  You’re in the hospital because you had a bad automobile accident.  You have a broken leg and a broken rib which punctured your lung.  Fortunately, you have no other internal injuries but, unfortunately, you have had a very severe head concussion.  That’s what has us worried the most. You’ve been in a coma but it looks like you’re back with us and that’s a good sign.”
       Then the doctor, using his little pen light, lifted Mitzi’s eye lids and checked her pupils, which were still somewhat dilated.
       “I’m afraid it’s going to be a pretty long recovery period.  Your brain has been knocked around in your skull and it’s going to need time to get over that trauma.  But we’re here to take good care of you, so don’t you worry.” He wrote some instructions on his Ipad, handed it to Nurse Aaron and turned to leave the room, when Mitzi made a soft guttural noise.
       “What?  Do you need something?”
       “Izzy dad?”
       “Izzy dad?
       “You want your father?”
       “NUH!  Dad!  Diddy---"
       “I’m sorry, I don’t understand.”
       “Dad?” Mitzi pleaded.
       Nurse Aaron spoke up.  “I think she’d trying to say ‘dead.’
       “Is that right, Ms. Brownhart?” Mitzi lifted her right hand. “Are you asking if someone is dead?”
       “Ta pressssitdent.”
       “Oh!  Oh, no,  It’s okay. You didn’t hurt him  Don’t worry.  He’s just fine.”

       One of the Unity Volunteer firemen found an empty red plastic two gallon gas container in the field behind what used to be Matt Simpson’s cow barn.  Now Unity had proof that this fire was started on purpose, that it was a case of arson.  Hiram put out an alert that everyone be diligent, never go anywhere alone and all households set up a rotation of family members to stand guard over their property at night.  Since there was no phone service, either landline or cell, and no internet,  communication was very difficult.  Hiram found a couple of sets of Walkie Talkies in the stockroom at Stratton’s General Store and, keeping one for himself, saw to it that when a  person was on blockade duty they were always equipped with one.  The third unit was kept at the firehouse.  The remaining unit went to the lookout station he had created in a deer blind up in the tallest tree in town.  Hopefully, whoever was manning it would be able, using binoculars, to see trouble if it were heading their way and let the others know.  The firehouse siren would then be set off to alert the town.
       Hiram hadn’t slept much since the fire at the barn.  Living alone, his wife a victim of cancer seven years ago and both of his sons having moved far away, he had to stay up most of the night to keep an eye on his property.  He took a couple of cat naps during the day but they were often interrupted by someone in town having  an emergency.  Like looking for Georgina Halverson’s four year old grandson who had wandered off and was eventually found asleep in the basement of the Burnt River Community Church.  Or when Lester O’Brien’s dog, Patsy, got her head stuck in the bicycle rack in front of the school. Vaseline and a hack saw did the job.
       Around 1:00 a.m. Hiram had just dozed off when the siren began wailing.  He awoke immediately, grabbed his flashlight and headed outside to his Jeep. Once he was on main street he contacted the lookout station with his Walkie Talkie.  He reached Fred Napier, who was on duty up in the deer blind.
       “There are two sets of headlights coming up from the south on 26.”
       “Good job.  Are the wires in place?”
       “Yeah, Lester and Matt are doing that right now.”
       The two men were tightening the cables that were strung across the highway about half a mile south of the boulder barricade.  One wire was  hung at about four feet high, the other at 18 inches.  They were secured to a very large oak tree on one side and a telephone pole on the opposite side.  Using hand winches, the cables were being pulled tight, tight enough to begin cutting into the wood, almost like a garrote around some poor victim’s neck.  In the dark of the night the inch thick braided wires, which were sprayed a flat black, virtually disappeared.
       “How far away are the vehicles?” Hiram asked, as he drove towards the southern barricade.
       “About five or six miles, I think,” responded Fred.
       “Okay.  I should be at the barricade in a minute or two.  I’ll park and continue on foot.”
       Matt and Lester, having finished the rigging of the cables, jogged several yards away to some tall bushes where they had hidden their bows.  The dense foliage and the lack of moonlight provided perfect camouflage.  They hunkered down to await the arrival of the Better World Brigade.
       When Hiram got to the barricade, and started his walk around the boulders and down the highway, he got on his Walkie Talkie and told everyone to go silent.
       “We don’t want the uninvited visitors to hear our voices or even a beep or a squeak.”

       Matt Simpson told Frida what happened next.
       “We heard the sound of the two jeeps first and then we saw their lights coming over the hill.  I think their plan was to abandon their vehicles at the barricade and sneak into town.  Anyway, Hiram had just arrived near where Fred and I were hiding and he took up a position away from us in a gulley across the highway. It was good that the night was darker than a nun’s habit.
       So here they come barreling along like they were trying to win the Indie 500.  They must have been doing at least  85 miles an hour, maybe more.  When the lead car hit the cables it was like a scene from ‘Fast and Furious.’  It flipped up and over and flew through the air, landed upside down and then skidded---I don’t know---a hundred feet or so.  I wish my cell phone worked.  I could’ve taken pictures.”
       “What about the second car?” Frida asked, as she poured more coffee into Matt’s mug.
       “Well, I guess he must have tried to hit the brakes but it was too late.  The top cable had snapped but the bottom one was still working so it caught the jeep under the front bumper which caused it to spin as it flipped into the air.  It then did a cartwheel down the road and landed on top of the first car.”
       “Dear Jesus!  What happened to the driver in the first car?”
       “Oh, he never stood a chance.  Twisted all up like a pretzel and pressed flat as a pancake.  But the two guys in the second jeep survived.  One’s got a broken leg, some cuts and bruises and maybe a concussion.  The other has a dislocated shoulder but they both survived.  Hiram and Fred trussed them up and drove them over to Doc Maslen’s.”
       “What happens now?  What are you going to do with them?”
       “That’s the only good thing about this.  The guy with the injured leg is Richard Rawles,” Matthew said grinning.
       “Why is that good?” Who is he?

       “Little Dicky Rawles is the son of the leader of the Better World gang, Scott Rawles.”
       “So? This is good why?” Frida asked, sounding confused.
       “So, now we have a hostage!”

       Inside the cavern in Mount Ayalu, Negasi and his crew were busy collecting samples.  They were taking scrapings from the sides of the tubes and scooping up bits of the ceiling crystals that had fallen to the ground.  While inspecting the  walls they discovered the faint imprint of the outline of what had once been an opening.  It was completely sealed off.
       “It is almost as if it was fused shut, that the stone was melted and then cooled,” observed Negasi.  “I think this was the opening used to bring in all this ‘equipment’.”
       “It could also have been the way the cavern was created,” opined Dr. Decker. “Maybe a tunnel was burnt into the mountain and when it reached a certain depth the carving or melting was continued until a large cave was formed.”
       “But what kind of apparatus could accomplish such a feat?”
       “I don’t know.  A very powerful laser, maybe?”
       “To my knowledge, there is no laser on earth powerful enough to do what has happened here,” Negasi countered, “unless it is some secret weapon developed by the U.S. or China or Russia.” He turned the camera towards the crystal ceiling and panned down one of the pearlized tubes.  “Maybe all this came from outer space,” he said jokingly.
       “Let’s not get carried away ,” Tamsin advised, “Your oxygen is getting close to running out so pack up your samples and get out of there.  We’ll continue tomorrow.”
       The team began placing their findings in leak proof plastic boxes and sealing them with tape.  With Negasi in front, they started crawling back through the tunnel.  The camera on the trolley was left behind to keep a 24 hour watch on the mysterious crystal cave.

Something else was also keeping a vigil.

       The police detective was tall and handsome, in a rough sort of way.  Mitzi thought he kind of reminded her of Eddie, her husband, when he was younger.  The officer stood by her hospital bed and smiled down at her.
       “Allow me to introduce myself, Mrs. Brownhart.  I’m detective Bowers and we’ve been waiting quite a while to ask you some questions.  The doctors say it’s okay to talk to you now so---if you feel up to it.”
       Mitzi felt like shit but he was being so nice.  “Yeah, okay.  But I really don’t remember much---anything, really, except waking up in this stupid bed with my leg in a cast and my head hurting like hell.”
       “It was quite an accident.  You are lucky to be alive.”
       “I guess so.”
       “We’ve been wondering if it really was an accident.” the detective added, switching gears.  He didn’t seem so nice, all of a sudden.  “I mean witnesses saw you speeding down the street going the wrong way in a restricted area.”
       “Yeah, they keep telling me that.  What the hell was I doing?  The doctor says I’ll start remembering---or maybe not.  I’m honestly in the dark.  It’s like at one moment I’m having coffee at my kitchen table and the next thing I know I’m waking up here.”
       “So you don’t remember driving head on into a limousine?”
       “Jesus, no!  Did I do that?”
       “Mitzi----may I call you Mitzi?” Bowers asked.
       “That’s my name.”
       “Mitzi, there are some men from Homeland Security standing outside in the hall.  They’ll be asking you even more questions and they won’t be quite as gentle as I am  being.  So why don’t you tell me what was really going on.  That’ll cut down on the pressure and then you can get back to healing.  Now, to start, the doctor told me that when you first awoke you asked if someone was dead.”
       “I don’t remember that.  I’m telling you the truth.  It’s so confusing.  I wish I knew what I was---”
       “Were you hired to kill the President?”
       “What!  Kill what president?”
       “The President of the United States.”
       “You’re kidding!”
       “Was this your own plan or did you have help?”
       By this time all the bells and whistles were going off on her monitor showing a very rapid heartbeat and increased blood pressure.  Nurse Aaron was by her side in a flash. “I’m sorry sir but you’ll have to stop.  The patient is having an episode and you need to leave, please, right now.”
       “I’m sorry, Mrs. Brownhart, if I’m upsetting you but we have to get to the bottom of this.  I’ll be back when you’re feeling better,” and with that he left the room. 
       Mitzi was totally bewildered.  Kill the President? Is that what she tried to do?  “He’s a number one asshole and he isn’t doing a damn thing about the mess we’re in but that doesn’t mean I would try to murder him.  I do remember wanting to kill myself.  Yes, I was so depressed and---" Nurse Aaron had replenished her morphine drip and she felt herself beginning to float away.  Her eyelids were wanting to close and she knew that sleep was just around the corner.  “I can’t remember, I want to remember, I need to remember---remem---" and she was gone.

       Dr. Alexander Higgs was working on Experiment #35.  He was trying to develop a coating that could be sprayed on a weapon to keep it from being destroyed by the Van Djick crystals.  So far he and his staff had created thirty or more varnishes and each  one of them had failed.  Since there were no undamaged weapons left to use for their tests, they had decided to clean up the remains of destroyed guns.  The trick was to wipe  off as much of the white powder as possible and quickly apply the selected varnish before the invisible crystals, still floating around, could attack the exposed weapon.  If the glaze worked no new white powder would appear on the gun.  So far none of the coatings worked.  The varnishes, created with many different chemicals, went from a spray that didn’t stick, to a slime that was so slippery one couldn’t hold on to the weapon.  There was one that was as sticky as honey and one that turned to ice the moment it touched metal.
       Other labs around the world were also trying to find solutions.  One in Germany was working on developing a new metal that would resist an attack of Van Dijck Crystals.  Another in France was attempting to develop a virus that would eat up the crystals.  Back in the U.S.A. a company, specializing in air filtration devices, was trying to create a filter that would keep the crystals out of the air in an enclosed environment.  But, even with all this research and feverish experimentation, a true solution to the Van Dijck plague was a long way off.

       Using an electron microscope, Dr. Decker examined some of the crystal shards that Negasi and his team had swept up from the cavern floor.  What she found was that they matched the molecular profile of the Van Dijck crystal.  She had received a WSA bulletin that had been sent to scientists around the world concerning the crystal composition.  She immediately contacted Dr. Tiller in Hawaii.
       “I’m sending you a video of what we have discovered inside the cave.”
       “Thank you, Tamsin.  We have just broken through Kilauea. A camera is sliding down the tunnel as we speak.  I imagine we might find something similar to what you have uncovered.  I’ve been notified that they are drilling into Katla in Iceland and Vesuvius in Italy as well.”
       “I’m totally baffled by all this---this---whatever it is,” Tamsin confessed. “I’ve been analyzing the crystal substance and I’m sending my results to you and to WSA.  It matches the molecular makeup of the Van Dijck crystal which is evidently the cause of this ‘Gunnaping’ crisis.”
       “To quote Lewis Carroll, ’Curiouser and curiouser.’ I’ll keep you posted, Tamsin, about what we discover,” Dr. Tiller said, as he signed off.

       The morning after the two car collision in Unity, Richard Rawles, Scott Rawles’ son lay on a cot in Hiram Granger’s living room.  His companion was locked in the basement, nursing his bum shoulder.  Little Dicky had a cast on his right leg and was in great pain.
       “Sorry about not being able to give you a stronger painkiller than aspirin,” Hiram said, apologetically, “but Doc Maslen said he’s running low on the hard stuff.” Richard moaned softly and then cursed.
       “I’d give you a whiskey but the doc says it’s not a good idea. Also, Matt Simpson has a stash of weed which he uses for his arthritis but since you burned down his barn I don’t think he’s feeling too generous.”
       “I didn’t burn down his fucking barn,” Richie declared.
       “Well, someone from your gang did.”
       “It wasn’t me!”
       “So who was it?”
       “I don’t know,” he answered and then moaned again, “It hurts so bad. Shit!”
       “I really am sorry, Richard.  I wish we didn’t have to resort to violence.  But we have to protect ourselves and I’m guessing you and your friends weren’t just dropping by for tea last night.”
       “What have you done with Sam and Bobby Joe?  Are they okay?”
       “I believe Bobby Joe is going to be alright.  He’s got a banged up shoulder but we got him comfortable down in the cellar.  I think his name is  Bobby Joe, although he won’t tell us if that’s right.  Won’t speak at all, actually.  As for Samuel we got his name off of his driver’s license.  Unfortunately, he didn’t survive.  You fellas were going so fast.”
       “Wait ‘till my dad hears about this,” Richard muttered, obviously in great pain. “You guys are toast!  He’ll be coming soon and—”
       “We’re looking forward to that.  We want to have a little chat with him, maybe convince him to cool it down a bit.”
       “He’ll be here and he’ll be bringing reinforcements, you can count on that.”

       Mitzi was in a dreamy fog caused by the morphine flowing through her veins.  The doctors had her hooked up to an infusion pump which allowed her to push a button whenever she felt she needed more pain killer.  However, being Mitzi, she found the doses of morphine didn’t get her quite high enough so she kept pressing  the magic button nonstop until the safety lock kicked in.
       “It’s not working!” she would complain and Nurse Aaron would patiently explain that she had reached the limit of the dosage prescribed by her doctor.
       “You have to wait until some time has passed before you can get your next dose from the machine.” Mitzi would grumble and whine for a few minutes but eventually she would drift away.  It was during one of these somnambulate sessions that Mitzi had the first of what would become a very strange reoccurring dream.
       It always started the same way; she would be lying in her hospital bed with her broken leg elevated and through the bathroom door would float three milky white globes.  They wobbled around the room, leaving a faint trail of bluish vapor, and then ended up floating along the three sides of her bed.  At first she was scared.  Had these weird apparitions come to harm her?  Were they disciples of death come to whisk her away?  Each one had a row of small beads that kind of looked like black olives spaced evenly around the middle of what she thought of as their equator.  She eventually determined that they were probably eyes, eyes that went all the way around the---orb---the head.  That was it!  They were heads and the olives were eyes.
       With every reoccurring dream she began to relax.  The globes didn’t seem to be dangerous.  In fact they seemed to be---what’s the right word?---friendly?  Yes, that’s it, friendly.  When they hung around her bed she felt better, her pain was less.  She almost felt normal.
       By the fourth dream she found herself looking forward to the visit of the floating heads.  Their presence seemed to make her feel more than just better, she felt great!  And then the most amazing thing happened.  They spoke to her.

       Negasi was back in the cavern using ground-penetrating radar to try and discover what was below the floor in the cave.  He could tell that the humming tubes penetrated the surface and seemed to empty into another open space below where he was standing.
       “The radar is showing that there is a smaller cave underneath this one.  All the tubes seem to originate from there.”
       “Is there any way to get access to that level?” asked Dr. Decker, over Negasi’s radio com.
       “We are checking every inch of the floor and walls.  One interesting detail; when I touch the smaller tubes with my glove I can feel which direction whatever it is inside is flowing, either up or down.  And in the one large tube there is no movement in either direction, or at least I can’t detect any.”
       “So maybe the tubes are extracting something from the crystals and sending it down to the cave below.”
       “That could be a possibility.  And a few of them could be sending something up to the layer of crystals,” Negasi replied, as he moved the radar across the floor.  “I wish I could see deeper into---wait!  I think I have found something.”
       “What is it?”
       “It is a slightly raised area here on the floor.  It looks like circle, a perfect circle.  There is almost no delineation between it and the rest of the floor.  You could not even fit an ID card into the space around it.  It is like a manhole cover.  I think this might be the way down.”
       “Is there some way to move it--- slide it away or open it?”
       “I cannot see anything like a handle or a hole.  It is just a circle, almost like someone drew a circle on the floor,” he replied.  “I am looking around for a possible lever or button.  Yes, I know, it sounds like  something out of a cheesy movie, but you never know.”
       “Well, whatever you do, please be careful.”
       “I may have to resort to a pry bar or a---oh, wait, there is one crystal chip here that did not get swept up with the other samples,” Negasi announced, “It is rigid, as if it is stuck in the ground.  I cannot move it.  I will try and twist it---what the---"
       “Negasi, are you alright?” Dr. Decker called out, “Negasi?”
       “Yes, yes, I am fine.  It is just that this crystal has started to glow--- and now--- the circle is starting to lift---and---it is sliding to the side,” Negasi explained as he moved away from the circle. “It is open! I can see inside!  Can you see?”
       “Sort of.  It’s not that clear on the monitor but I can see light coming out of the opening.”
       Negasi stepped cautiously to the edge of the open circle and peered down the hole.  “The tunnel curves down to the right.  It is kind of like a shute---like a slide at a children’s playground.”
       “Can you send a camera down to see what’s there?”
       “I can do better than that.  I am attaching a tether to my suit so I can lower myself into the opening.”
       “No!  It’s too dangerous.  We don’t know what’s down there,” Dr. Decker insisted.
       “Only one way to find out. I will be careful,” Negasi replied, “Here I go!” he shouted as he slid into the shute and disappeared.

       It was around noon when the siren on top of the Unity Volunteer Firehouse began to yowl.  The lookout had spotted a large convoy of SUVs, pickups and Jeeps driving towards town in rows of three across and kicking up dust from the shoulders of the highway.  The towns people, having been alerted, rushed to the barricade with their bows and arrows and anything else that could serve as a weapon.  They stood side by side, like some medieval army, until the line of people stretched across the road and onto the sidewalks.  Fifty neighbors determined to protect their town.
       Hiram Granger stood in the center of the line and waited for the arrival of Scott Rawles and his followers.  As the caravan got closer he stepped forward and climbed up on one of the boulders.  He was weaponless and held one single Eagle feather in his left hand.  The first row of cars pulled up to the barricade and, after a few seconds of silence, the driver’s door of the truck in the center, a Silverado 1500,  opened.  Scott Rawles, dressed in camo and wearing  a red truckers cap with ‘Better World’ embroidered across the front, jumped out.
       “Good afternoon, Mr. Rawles,” Hiram said, gently smiling.
       “Where’s my boy?”
       “He’s okay.  We’ve made him comfortable. He’s doing just fine.”
       “Cut the shit!” Rawles shouted, “I want to see my son.  Take me to my son!”
       “In due time,” Hiram replied, “First we need to set some rules.”
       “Fuck your rules!  Lead me to my son, now!” Rawles spit out as he attempted to climb up and over the boulders.
       “Mr. Rawles, I’m going to ask you to remain were you are until we have come to an agreement.”
       “You can take your agreement and shove it!  You are holding my son against his will.  You have injured him and killed one of my best men---”
       “Mr. Rawles, your men injured themselves.  We’re sorry about the unfortunate death of Samuel, that was his name, correct? But your men were driving way beyond the legal speed limit.”
       “Stop with the sarcasm, you half breed!  Don’t play macho games with me!   Do you see how many trucks I have behind me?   All I have to do is  give the signal and they are spreading out and coming around your stupid barricade and driving over every field and through every fence until we have your hick town surrounded!”
       “Sounds like a plan,” Hiram replied politely, “but that would mean you wouldn’t get to see your son, ever.”
       “Is that a threat?’
       “You mean a threat for a threat?  Now wouldn’t that be childish on my part? No, I’m just stating a fact.  So, rule number one:  You will come with me to see your son, alone by yourself.  Number two:  You will send all of your troops back to where ever they are encamped, except for one vehicle and a driver.  Number three: After visiting with your boy you will take Bobby Joe and your driver back to your camp and remain there until contacted.”
       Scott Rawles was beyond irate.  “Are you crazy?!  What about Richie?”
       “Young Richard will remain here so that Dr. Maslen can continue to look after him.”
       “NO---no---no!  He’s coming back with me!”
       “I’m sorry, Scott, may I call you Scott?  Your son is not up to travelling yet.”
       If Rawles had had a gun this son-of-a-bitch Granger would have been one dead Indian.  But as there wasn’t a working weapon available at the moment anywhere on earth he had to come up with a different battle plan.
       “Alright.  We’ll follow your rules---for now.  But I want my ‘driver’---jeez, you make it sound like I’ve got one of those prissy chauffeur guys---I want Ralph to come with me.  I’m not entering a possible trap alone without some back up.”
       “I don’t blame you.  I think we can live with that request,” Granger replied, extending his hand in order to help Rawles climb up over the barricade.  However. before Scott joined Hiram on top of the boulder he shouted to his men to turn around and drive back to their camp site which they did but only after much grousing.  Ralph, the ‘driver,’ then linked up with Rawles and Granger and the three men set off to walk to the farmhouse that was serving as both a hospital and a jail.
Ralph, the ‘driver,’ never felt the Eagle feather as it brushed across his shoulder

       Several psychiatrists spent time with Mitzi Brownhart trying to determine her mental status.  Was she insane or was she some sort of religious zealot?  Was she fully aware of her actions or totally out to lunch?  She still claimed she had no recollection of the event even though her doctor testified to her lawyer that when she first awoke she mumbled something about the president being dead.
       Dr. Donald Fanon was the most recent shrink to visit Mitzi.  He was hired by the Department of Justice to evaluate whether she was sane enough to stand trial for the attempted assassination of the President of the United States.
       “I’ve already told a million people I would never ever have even thought of murdering that asshole,” Mitzi explained, “but if everyone says what happened happened then it must have happened and I musta been out of my mind.”
       “And you never experienced what we call a fugue state before?
       “A what state? 
       “You know, a period where you don’t remember where you were or what  you were doing.”
       “How would I know if I had one of those if I don’t remember it.?  Jeez.”
       “Okay, let’s move on. It says here that you’ve been having a reoccurring dream.  Can you tell me about it?”
       “Oh, yeah. But I’m beginning to think that these visits at night are not dreams.”
       “What do you mean?” Dr. Fanon asked, looking up from his notes.
       “Well, the first few happened while I was still doped up but now that I’m using less of the drippy  stuff they seem to be much more real than dreams.”
       “Interesting.  Tell me what these dreams---these visits, if you will---are about.”
       Mitzi sat up in her bed and began regaling the doctor with the saga of the three floating orbs with the black olive eyes.  She became more and more excited as she described the feelings of elation she experienced when they appeared.
       “And lately they have begun to talk to me!” she announced with a big smile.
       “Talk to you?  Okay, and what do they say?”
       “Well, at the moment I can’t understand what they’re saying but it’s definitely a language.  It’s kinda like they’re trying to communicate.  I’m hoping I’ll be able to figure out what they’re talking about soon.”
       “Very interesting. And what does this language sound like?” the doctor asked, a bit bemused by what he determined was Mitzi’s happy hallucination.
       “Oh, it’s very nice, very beautiful.  It’s kind of like a combination of tinkly bells and soft beeps, very new age.”
       When Dr. Fanon got ready to file his report he was still up in the air about his findings.  Mitzi Brownhart was either a formidable actor or she was truly suffering from a mental illness, perhaps aggravated by her concussion. ‘Tinkly bells and soft beeps,’ indeed!

       The humming sound Negasi had heard in the upper chamber was two times louder in the cave where he was standing.  The vibrating tubes from above pierced the ten foot high ceiling of this smaller cave and terminated in what appeared to be many translucent vats.  These cauldrons ranged in size from that of a tea kettle to one that looked as large as a hot tub.  All of these tanks were interconnected by hoses that eventually fed into the one very large tube in the center of the room.  Negasi was awe struck.
       “Negasi!” Dr. Decker called out loudly, “Are you alright?  We’re not getting an image.  We can’t see anything.  Negasi?”
       “Oh---my---I---Sorry, it is just so incredible!  I am okay.  It is difficult to--- I am trying to take it all in.  I am guessing this is some sort of manufacturing facility.  It looks like a factory but one designed by Elton John.  You can look through the sides of these tanks, these boilers, and see a shadow of what’s inside---different colors, some pink or coral, some more bluish.  The substance in the vats near the large tube in the middle seems to be white.”
       “White?” Tamsin asked, “Does it look powdery or more of a liquid?”
       “Hard to tell but---it seems to evaporate as it enters the large middle tube.  And I just noticed that there is a ring of  shiny white spheres spinning around the top of the central tube.  I’m guessing they are there to create some kind of suction or air flow to help push what’s in the tube up into the upper chamber.  It is funny, but these globes kind of look like the one we got on the video, you know, the one with the black dots around the middle.”
       “Is there an instrument panel around or some kind of controls that you can see?”
       “Not from where I am standing,” Negasi replied, “I am going to start walking to my left, past the slide I used to get down here.  This room is not very big.  It is probably no more than twenty  feet wide.” He began moving around the tubes and  skirting along the outer edge of the cave.  “Amazing!”  Tamsin and her team could hear his breathing mixed with the humming of the vibrating hoses.  The monitor showed that his heart rate had increased since his descent into this second chamber.  The meter on his oxygen helmet also indicated he was down to one quarter capacity.
       “Negasi,” Dr. Decker warned, “You’re getting low on air.  It’s time to start thinking about getting back to the outside.”
       “Right.  I will just finish circling the cave and then I---what?----wow!” Negasi responded excitedly, “One of those spheres just dropped down in front of me and now it is spinning around my helmet and---and zipping up and down and around my suit!”

       Mitzi was out of bed and sitting in a wheelchair when Dr. Fanon entered her room.  He pulled the only other available chair over to where she was seated and placed it directly in front of her.
       “Good morning, Mitzi,” he said as he sat down, “I understand you asked to see me.”
       “Yessir!” she replied enthusiastically, “have I got news for you!”
       “You seem to be feeling much better.”
       “Yeah, I do.  I’m completely off the hard stuff.  They got me on pills. Much better. No more juice machine.  I thought I’d miss it but it’s nice to not be so fuzzy anymore.  Anyway, that’s not what I asked you here for.”
       “I imagine it’s because you’re beginning to remember some things.  Let’s talk about what---“
       “Oh no, it’s not that!  I still don’t remember doing what they said I did.  It’s still a total blank but---”
       “Mitzi, you seem very---hyper.  Tell me what’s going on?”
       “I’ve done it!’
       “Done what?  What have you done?” Dr. Fanon asked, beginning to be concerned.
       “I broke the code!”
       “What code?”
       “The language barrier!  Remember when I said I couldn’t understand what they were trying say?”
       “Who are ‘they’?”
       “The floating heads!  You remember, the three white glowing balls that visit me at night.  Last evening all of a sudden I could understand  what they were trying to tell me!  It’s like a miracle!”
       “You can decipher what the ‘bells’ and ‘beeps’ mean?,” the doctor asked, deciding to go along with her fantasy for a while.
       “You got it!  At first I didn’t know what was going on but then it was like they were whispering in my head and it all made sense!”
       “I see.  Your heard voices---in your head.”
       “Well, no.  It was more like they were whispering in my ear.  Yeah, that’s what it was like.”
       “And what did they whisper?”
       “Wow!  All kinds of stuff---how I was to help them---how they have this  mission and that I am chosen to get their message out into the world!”
       “Well, that sounds like some pretty serious stuff,” the doctor said, believing that Mitzi was in the middle of a full blown psychotic episode. “Let me ask you, Mitzi, have any of the night nurses, or maybe the police officer outside your door, met your floating  friends?”
       “Oh no.  The heads don’t trust what they call the ‘Ordinaries.’  They’re afraid of them.  They said the ‘Ordinaries’ would either harm them or imprison them.”
       “But they trust you?”
       “Seems so.  They call me the ‘Chosen One.’  How about that!”
       Dr. Ronan arose from his chair and smiled at Mitzi.  “Well, you continue to feel better and I’ll be back to see you tomorrow.”
       “Okay, and doctor I’ve started to write down what they are telling me.  Kinda like a diary.  I’ll show it to you when you come.”

       In Dr. Ronan’s estimation Mitzi was not competent enough to go to trial.  ‘Floating heads,’ ‘Ordinaries’ and being the ‘Chosen one’ were not very indicative of a sane mind.

       Scott Rawles stood at the foot of the four poster bed on which his son, Richard, lay, his leg resting on several pillows.  Hiram had transferred him to his own bed in his bedroom in order to make him more comfortable.
       “Hi, dad,” the boy said nervously.
       “Hi, yourself!” Scott responded angerly, “Looks like you got a little banged up thanks to these local yokels.  You okay, I mean except for your leg?”
       “Yeah, I’m alright.  I’m sorry about the jeep and---”
       “Let’s get you up and out of here,” the senior Rawles barked as he came around to the side of the bed and began to try and lift Richie off the mattress.  Hiram intervened.
       “I don’t think that’s such a good idea, Mr. Rawle’s.  Your son is not in any shape to travel.  I would prefer you stick to our agreement.”
       “Fuck your agreement!  He’s coming back with me right now!” Rawles roared at Hiram, “Ralph, stop standing there like an idiot and help me.  You get on that side of the---”
       “Don’t dad,” Richard pleaded, pushing Scott’s hands away, “Hiram, I mean Mr. Granger, is right.  I got bruises on my bruises and my head is kinda wonky.”
       “He’s got a concussion,” Hiram explained.
       “Yeah, thanks to you!” Scott answered, ready to take a swing at Granger.
       “Please, dad,  it’ll be better if I stay.   Mr. Granger, has been very kind and the doctor is taking good care of me.  The neighbors have been feeding me and—”
       “Been feeding you a lot more than food, it sounds like to me.  You been here, what, two days, and now you’re all lovey dovey.”  Rawles turned toward Granger, “You’ve brainwashed my boy.”
       “Dad, please, listen,” Richard continued, “These people here are good folk and Mr. Granger here has been telling me the history of the town.  This is a kinda sacred place.  I---I---I think we should just leave them alone and move on south---”
       “These so called ‘good people’ killed one of my men and look what they did to you!’
       “That was our fault, my fault,” Richard explained, “I’m sorry about Sam but Bobby Joe is okay.  They’ve got him set up all comfortable in the basement and the doctor reset his shoulder.”
       “You’re making this sound like the Mayo clinic,” Scott said angerly and then he pointed at Hiram, “and this guy ain’t Mother Teresa.”
       Hiram stepped next to Scott and put his hand with the Eagle feather on the man’s shoulder.  Scott started to pull away and then stopped.
       “Mr. Rawles, you should listen to you son.  He is much smarter than you give him credit for.”
       Scott Rawles found himself unable to move.  No, that wasn’t true.  He was fully capable of moving.  It was just that suddenly he didn’t want to move.  He just  wanted to sit down quietly on the edge of the bed and put his arms around  his son. No more arguing.  No more battle plans.  No more leading his men on a quest for a ‘Better Nation.’  He was weary, too old and tired for this nonsense.
       Hiram walked over to the driver Ralph and whispered something in his ear and at the same time brushed the Eagle feather across his back.  The man smiled and nodded and then headed toward the door to the cellar.
       “Your driver is going to check on Bobby Joe and then you and he can return to your camp.”
       “I’d rather stay here with my son,  if that wouldn’t be too much trouble?”
       “No trouble at all,” Hiram smiled, as he carefully placed the Eagle feather next to the photo of his wife that sat on the bureau across from the bed.

       The holes drilled in the volcanoes in Hawaii, Iceland and Italy revealed the same mysterious setup of tubes and crystals.  However, no attempts were made to carve tunnels into them like the one at Mt. Ayalu in Ethiopia.
       “We haven’t got the equipment on hand to get inside there safely,” Dr. Tiller explained to Tamsin over the phone, “Plus we don’t want to take a chance on causing an eruption.  My ladies are very active as are the other ones being investigated.”
       “Probably a wise decision,” Tamsin replied, “And since I have your ear I wanted to share with you the information I forwarded to the World Science Association.  I tried calling you yesterday but the phone was down.  Anyway,  let me update you.  We found a smaller cavern underneath the bigger one---“
       “Amazing!” Dr. Tiller exclaimed, “Did it contain tubing similar to the main cavern?”
       “Actually, the tubing from above extended through the ceiling of the lower cave and terminated in these tanks.”
       “Yes, vats of various sizes.  What we have determined so far is that the tubes are taking pieces of the large crystal stalagmites—”
       “The ones hanging in the upper chamber?”
       “Right, and flushing them down into these caldrons where they seem to be being transformed into a liquid or a gas.  We haven’t been able to access a sample of it, as of yet, so I don’t know which one it is.  However, I have a theory.”
       “And that is?” Dr. Tiller asked.
       “Well, we know from the pieces of crystal stalagmite I analyzed that they are the Van Dijck crystals found on the remnants of destroyed weapons.”
       “I think that what we have discovered is a factory, a manufacturing plant, where the crystals are being refined into an microscopic dust which is then somehow being sent out into the atmosphere.”
       “Any ideas how this is done? And who is running this---whatever it is?
       “Not at the moment.  But I haven’t told you the most interesting part of our  visit into the small chamber.”
       “And that is?”
       “My assistant, Negasi, has been the main explorer in the caves.  I haven’t been inside them, as of yet, so I’ve been depending on his observations.  When he discovered the opening to the smaller chamber he entered it by way of a chute---”
       “A chute?”
       “A slide, if you will, and when he got into the space we lost all visual contact with him but, fortunately his audio was still working.  While he was walking through the environment, describing what he could see, we suddenly hear him getting very excited. He said he had discovered a group of spheres spinning around the top of the large central tube.”
       “Orbs, globes.  He took photographs of them, along with the tanks and the tubes, which I will fax to you.  But the most amazing thing is that one of the spheres split off from the others and dropped down in front of him.  He said it spun around him and then returned to the ring and continued spinning with them.  You’ll see in the photos what I’m talking about.”
       “A spinning sphere---how big?”
       “Well, each one seems to be about the size of a soccer ball.  You will see a row of black bead-like protrusions running horizontally around their middle sections.”
       “Very intriguing.  So what do you make of this sphere’s action, of its descending and spinning around your assistant?”
       Tamsin thought for a long moment.  Her first reaction was that it was a security device that was programmed to automatically react to an intruder.  But why didn’t it take an aggressive action?  Shouldn’t it have tried to disable, or even destroy, Negasi?
       “I think---it was curious about Negasi.  I really think it was just checking him out.”

       The President was having his lunch in the oval office in order to meet with the Head of Homeland Security, Ted Reinhurst.  He was picking at what looked like a lettuce salad.
       “Naomi has me on this fucking diet,” he explained, “Says I’m eating too much and that it’s all wrong, too much sugar and salt.  She’s certain that my overeating is caused by all the stress I’m under, all this crazy shit, the riots, the economy hitting rock bottom, the weapons crisis.”
       “Yes, sir, it’s pretty bleak out there,” Reinhurst said in agreement.
       “Then, Teddy, my boy, I’m hoping you’ve got some better news for me, some good  news.”
       “Well, sir, I have some updates.  I think some of them could be labeled good.”
       “But not all of it, am I correct?”
       Reinhurst took a deep breath and looked down at his iPad.  “There’s been a breakthrough in the search for the source of the Van Dijck crystals.”
       “Good, that’s good! So, who’s been manufacturing those little mother-fuckers, Iran?  Russia?”
       “Actually---” Reinhurst replied, with a little hesitation, “The information comes from Ethiopia.”
       “Africa? What the--- Are you trying to tell me some poor little third world country has the resources and the brain power to create this---this nightmare?!”
       “No, sir.  The report I received this morning, and it’s been verified by other sources, states that a laboratory has been discovered inside a mountain in Ethiopia.  We don’t know, at the moment, who is responsible---”
       “On a mountain?”
       “Well, no, sir, inside the mountain actually, and it’s a volcano. It’s called Mt. Ayalu.”
       The President looked totally bewildered but after a moment or two a smile began to sneak across his face.  “You had me going there, Ted.  Thanks for inserting  some much needed humor into your report.  However, let’s get back to the issues at hand.”
       “It’s not a joke, Mr. President,” Reinhurst explained, “The lab was found inside the lower slope of an active volcano.  I don’t have all the details but we have report that an Ethiopian government team is on their way to the volcano to investigate.  And there seems to be the possibility that there are more of these facilities located inside other mountains.”
       “Jesus Christ!  And where are these other labs located?”
       “Well, we’re told one of them may be in a volcano in Hawaii.”
       “Oh, come on now!  This has to be a giant pile of bullshit!   First of all no laboratory could survive inside a volcano, all the equipment would melt or burn up, right?  And the guys working there, making this crystal shit, they’d be dropping dead left and right.  I mean there’s all that lava stuff and smoke.”
       “We’ll know more soon, Mr. President.”
       “It’ll all be some ridiculous hoax, you can bet on it! More false news,” the President declared, pushing his unfinished salad across his desk.  “You want some salad, Teddy?  I can’t finish it.  I’ll call and get you a clean fork,” he said, reaching for the intercom.
       “Ah, no thanks sir. I had my lunch already.”
       “You sure? Okay. Well then, what’s next on your report?  Something a little more realistic, I hope.  No flaming laboratories.
       “We’ve had some success with crowd control using high pressure hoses and tear gas.  Cattle prods work pretty effectively as well.”
       “Okay, and any more info about that terrorist attack on me last month in Maryland?”
       “You mean the Brownhart woman?” he asked, to which the President nodded a yes.  “No affiliation with any terrorist organization, sir.  It seems she’s just a deranged person who we think had some sort of grudge against---the government.  And, what’s more, it looks like we won’t be prosecuting her due to a diagnosis of diminished capacity  by the psychiatrist in charge of her case.  The staff at the hospital say she keeps claiming she’s the ‘Chosen One’ and that she’s getting orders from aliens on how to solve the Gunnapping crisis,” he reiterated, with a slight smile.
       “Well, send her over here,” the President said, jokingly, “I’ll take any help I can get!”  He reached into one of his desk drawers and pulled out a Snicker’s candy bar.  “Don’t tell Naomi.”

       Mitzi sat in her wheelchair near a window which looked out at the Baltimore harbor.  Her friend Barbara had sent her a note  to let her know she was taking care of the kids and not to worry.  Mitzi had started writing in a small notebook that Nurse Aaron had purchased for her in the hospital gift shop. 

March 10  
I’m not allowed any visitors, even my kids, but that’s ok ‘cause I have more important things to do.  Last night my three angels gave me my first set of instructions.  I call them ‘my angels’ ‘cause that’s what they are. They told me that I needed to listen carefully and to write down what they said as accurately as possible.  Here’s what I wrote.
They mean no harm to anyone.
They want to create a pathway to peace. (Whatever that means.)
They have put into motion a plan to eliminate the use of weapons.
They want me to be their spokesperson.

March 11
I really don’t understand what’s going on here but I do know that when they enter my room I feel wonderful.  I can have had a rotten day, with my headaches, the police harassing me, my leg itching and then here they come and, whoosh, it all falls away.  Last night I told them that it was weird but that I thought I loved them more than my own family.  I also said that I wanted to know more about them, but only if that would be all right.  This is what they told me.
They are a race of beings that have been on earth much longer than us guys.
They are called S C I O P O D S.  I made them spell it twice so that I would get it right.
They eat insects, flies and gnats and mosquitoes.  Yuck.
They live in tunnels underground, abandoned mines, places like that.
They use the melted rock deep down inside the earth as a source of energy which is something I don’t really get.
They talked about volcanos and workshops but that went way over my head as well.

March 12
My lawyer told me today that they’re moving me out of the hospital and putting me into another facility.  Probably tomorrow. He said it was a place for people who might harm themselves or others. I knew right away that he was talking about a prison for the criminally insane. The looney bin. I may not be too bright but I’m not stupid. I got real upset ‘cause this could mean I’d never be visited by my angels ever again.  I really lost it, started crying and cursing until Nurse Aaron had to give me a shot.

When I woke up it was very late at night.  I thought I was all alone but imagine my joy when I saw my three friends hovering around me. I told them about having to leave and they were just great.  They assured me that they would be with me wherever I went.  Then they gave me another message.  They said it was very important, that I should copy it down word for word and give it to someone I trusted.  This is what they dictated.

The secret you seek rests in the heart of the earth. Climb to the top of the mountain and we will show you the way inside.  Leave your hate and fear out in the snow and join us around the warm fire of peace.
(I don’t know what the hell this means.  I guess it’s supposed to be a poem. Poetry was never my forte.)  Anyway, I was supposed to show it to someone I trusted.  I thought about good old Dr. Fanon or my lawyer but then I finally decided to give it to Nurse Aaron.

       Negasi stood in the open doorway to Tamsin’s office.  He rapped gently on the door frame.
       “Excuse me, Dr. Decker?”
       “Oh, good morning, Negasi.”
       “May I speak with you for a moment?”
       “Of course, of course.  Come in, please.”
Negasi entered and went to a chair opposite Tamsin’s desk. “May I sit?”
       “Oh, don’t be silly. Sit down, for heaven’s sake. You’re so formal this morning.   What’s up?”
       Negasi laid some papers on Tamsin’s desk and took a deep breath.  He hesitated for a brief moment and then he began to speak.
       “Last night I was so excited and wound up that I could not sleep.”
       “Very understandable,” Dr. Decker said in agreement, “We are in the midst of an extraordinary event.”
       “Indeed, and a very confusing one for me.  I am seeing and experiencing things that defy all the rules, things that go against every scientific principle I have ever learned.”
       “Right.  I understand. What’s happening down in Ayalu’s belly is, in so many ways, upsetting and scary for all of us.  It’s hard to try and keep an even keel when you’re living through what we are seeing.  What I’ve been trying to do, to maintain my sanity, is to remind myself that so called scientific truths are being overturned all the time.  What was absolute a hundred years ago is often made obsolete by the new discoveries in the next century.”
       “Yes, this is very true.  However, there is something going on here that is beyond just scientific anomalies.  When I’m hobbling around in my hazmat suit in that--- that factory from another world I feel a---a presence.”
       “A presence?”
       “I feel like there is an entity observing me.  Last night, after dinner, when I got back to my room, I was just sitting there and I had this memory.  May I share it with ?”
       “Please do,” Tamsin replied, sitting back in her chair.
       Negasi began to talk about his great-grandfather who had lived to be 103.  Negasi remembered him fondly and recalled that he was a great story teller.

       “The one that popped up in my memory last night was a tale he told about an ancient race of creatures called the Sciopods.  He said they had lived in Ethiopia millions of years before humans even existed.  Unlike us, they were pale beings with large round heads and to protect themselves from the intensity of the sun they lived underground in caves and tunnels.  When they ventured out into the daylight, to keep from being burnt by the sun they extended this---this limb or leg, I didn’t quite understand this part, with this umbrella-like appendage over their head for shade.”
       Tamsin smiled.  “Sounds like a very interesting mythological creature.”
       “That is what I thought as well.  So I did some research and I found all this,” he responded, picking up the sheaf of papers he had put on the desk.  “I discovered that Pliny the Elder wrote about the Sciopod way back in A.D. 77.  He claimed they were real and that they were seen roaming in the mountains of Ethiopia by reputable witnesses.  These sightings appear in other writings as well, again and again, until the beginning of the Renaissance.”
       “And you think this might have something to do with what we are finding in Ayalu?” Dr. Decker said, trying not to smile.
       “I know, I know,”  replied  Negasi, with a flush of embarrassment, “I am sounding like one of those people who believes in things like U.F.O.s and Yetis.  But yesterday, when that one spinning globe came down and started whirling around me,  it was like---”
       “Like it was checking you out?”
       “I concur.”
       “Yes. That’s what it sounded like to me.  Now we just have to see if this orb has that limb your great-grandfather was talking about that serves as a sunshade.”
       Negasi was taken aback.  “Oh, I see.  You are having me on.  Well, I deserve it.  It was a ridiculous idea.”
       “No, no.  Just the opposite.  I think you’ve keyed into something.  We just have to do now what we scientists do best.”
       “What is that?”
       “Run some tests.”

       Hiram Granger, Matthew Simpson, Fred and Helen Napier, Lester O’Brien and Dr. Maslen sat around Hiram’s dining room table.  Each one of them had a mug of tea in front of them.  It was late and everyone was tired.
       “So what’s the next step, Hy?” Matt asked, “We got four hostages and dwindling supplies and the threat of those ‘Better Nation’ bozos coming here to rescue their leader.”
       “I’m running out of medical supplies,” added the doctor.
       “And the whole town is getting low on coffee,” said Helen, “which makes for some very depressed individuals.  This orange pekoe swill does not do the job,” she added, indicating her mug, “and we’ll soon be out of that as well.”
       “I made contact with someone over in Prairie City.  They’re still getting some supplies delivered so I proposed an exchange of goods,” Hiram explained.
       “What kind of exchange?” Lester asked, scratching his dog Patsy’s ears who was sitting on the floor next to him with her head in his lap.
       “Our milk for their medicine, fresh venison for some canned goods and coffee,” answered Hiram, smiling at Helen.  “They’ll meet us at the barricade next Monday.  I’ll need a list of what you need, doc.”
       “Great.  I’ll have it for you in the morning,” replied the doctor.
       “Good.  Thanks.  So, now, about the hostages.  Richard’s dad and his driver are up in my sons’ old room.”
       “Are they locked up, at least?” asked Helen.
       “I have a key but right now it’s not necessary.  They’re asleep.  They seemed a bit tired out after they arrived,” Hiram added, smiling.  “Lester and Patsy here have volunteered to keep an eye on them.  Bobby Joe is still in the basement and Richard is recuperating up in my room.”
       “Where are you sleeping?”
       “I’m in the cot in the living room which is just fine because it keeps me alert to any action going on outside.”
       “Okay.   What about this Rawles guy’s followers?’’ inquired Fred. “You know they will be coming back, right?”
       Hiram leaned forward and put his arms on the table. “I think we all need to  sleep on that one for now.  I’m tired and I’m sure you are as well.  Let’s get together tomorrow.  A fresh morning for some fresh ideas.” And the meeting adjourned.

       After everyone had left and Lester and Patsy had gone upstairs, to take up their positions by the hostage’s door, Hiram slipped out of his boots and jeans but kept his flannel shirt on as it was cold in the living room.  He lit a candle and, sitting in his big leather arm chair, opened a drawer located in the side table next to him.  He removed a tooled leather pouch, pulled the draw strings open and shook out into his hand a small brownish ‘liberty cap’ mushroom.  Closing his eyes and humming softy he lifted his hand up toward the ceiling and then, lowering it, dropped the mushroom into his mouth.  He pulled a plaid afghan up over his knees, sat back and waited.

       While Mitzi was being wheeled out of Johns Hopkins and placed in a police van heading for the Clifton T. Perkins Hospital Center, the cleaning woman, Rosalie, found a notebook on the floor under Mitzi’s bed.  Her first instinct was to toss it in the trash.  It was hospital policy to dispose of anything found on the floor as it could be carrying infectious germs like staphylococcus.  But instead she picked it up with her gloved hands and slipped it into a plastic bag.  On her coffee break she stopped off at the lost and found and left it there with the attendant.  She then headed to the cafeteria and while standing in line at the cashier’s station she spotted Nurse Aaron.
       “Hey, Mr. Aaron, how you doin.  You was in charge of that crazy lady in 511, right?”
       “You mean Mrs. Brownhart?”
       “Yeah, the one who tried to off the President.”
       “Actually, we don’t know what she was trying to do.  But yes, I was her day nurse.”
       “Well, I found a notebook under her bed.  I think it was hers---It had her name inside.”
       “Really?  What did you do with it?”
       “I shoulda trashed it, I know, but I thought she might be missin it so I took it over to lost and found.”
       Nurse Aaron remembered Mitzi showing him a page from what she called her journal and a message on it that she said she should share it with someone she trusted.  Some sort of poem about mountains and snow.
       “Thanks, Rosalie.  I’ll look into trying to get it back to her.”

       After his shift, Aaron changed into his street clothes and took the elevator down to the first floor.  On his way out he stopped at the lost and found and retrieved Mitzi’s diary.  Once he was on the bus heading home he took the note book out of the plastic bag, wiped it with a sanitizer sheet and opened it up.  By the time he reached his apartment on East Filmore Avenue he realized that this journal was an important piece of evidence.  In his eyes this was very vivid proof of Mitzi Brownhart’s unstable mental state.  He would contact the authorities tomorrow and turn it over to them.

       Dr. Decker had called an emergency staff meeting.  When everyone was in the room she began to speak.
       “As you know, we have shared our findings with the WSA and with other  volcanologists as well as the Ethiopian government.  What we have uncovered is now public knowledge, pretty much, worldwide.  As I feared, panic has set in and we can expect a visit from government officials any day---”
       “No!” exclaimed Negasi,  “We cannot let that happen!”
       “Please, let me finish---”
       “You know what they will do!  They will take over, they will keep us away---”
       “Negasi, stop!  Let me finish.  The United States Government has already sent inspectors to Hawaii and they’ve closed down the Kilauea project.  I talked to Dr. Tiller and he said the army is guarding the mountain while government officials are starting to inspect the site.”
       “And that means,” Negasi interjected, “the same thing will be happening here!”
       “Yes, it probably will, so in the time remaining, we must copy all our data  and store it away safely.  I can’t imagine the government wanting to destroy what we have discovered but we have to be open to all possibilities.”
       “Dr. Decker,” Negasi interrupted again, “May I continue to work in the caves?  At least until---”
       Tamsin looked at the young scientist standing beside his chair, his whole body shaking with anger and longing.
       “We really need your coding skills, Negasi--- but if you can give us a couple of hours of data analysis you can use the rest of the time to keep exploring the cavern.  Lord knows, there is so much we still don’t understand.”
       “I know, I know!  Thank you Dr. Decker!” he replied, starting to head for the doorway.
       “Where are you going?” Tamsin asked, reaching for his arm.
       “I want to get started on the analysis so I can suit up as soon as possible,” he explained, “We haven’t got much time before the invasion of the politicians!”

       The early morning sun woke up Hiram as it peeked through his living room windows.  He sat in his lounge chair, feeling a little spaced out, as he remembered his midnight journey to the ‘other place’.  He recalled watching the candle begin to dance and the flame change its color from yellow to a rainbow of hues; blues and greens and purple.  The living room ceiling opened up to reveal a night sky glimmering with a million stars and flaunting a giant pearl of a moon. He had felt a cool breeze skip across his face and weave through his hair.  He then remembered taking a deliciously deep breath and calling out softly to his Wyakin, his spiritual guide.   “I am in great need  of council,” Hiram asked in the language of the Nez Pierce.
       Out of the darkest corner of his living room a large shape began to appear.  It moved slowly across the pine floor and into the moonlight and then Hiram saw that it was his shadow spirit, the bear, that had been with him since his thirteenth birthday.
       “I honor you, my great companion,” Hiram said, “and call on you now for guidance because we are about to be attacked by a tribe of unhappy and confused warriors.  In your wisdom I ask of this and will abide by your recommendation.”
       The bear lifted his huge paw, with yellow claws sharp as arrows, and placed it on top of Hirams’ head.  A bright clear vision floated in front of his closed eyes.  He had his answer.

       Ted Reinhurst sat in his office at the Department of Homeland Security on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue in D.C.  On his desk lay the journal of Mitzi Irene Brownhart.  He was skimming through the pages, stopping when certain words caught his eye; ‘volcano,’ ‘Sciopod,’ ‘workshop.’  Earlier, he had been reading the reports coming in about both Mt. Ayalu and Kilauea when an assistant brought him an envelope dropped off by the police.  It had been scanned and x rayed and deemed safe to open.  In it was the pink fake leather note book belonging to Mitzi that the nurse Aaron had turned over to the police.
       How could she have known about the volcanos?  What’s she going on about with these imaginary globes that are giving her all this so called information?  And that sappy flowery message:

The secret you seek rests in the heart of the earth.
Climb to the top of the mountain and we will show you
the way inside. Leave your hate and fear out in the snow
and join us around the warm fire of peace.

       What the hell does that mean?  It’s like something off a Hallmark greeting card!  But a lot of what she wrote jibed with the information coming in from the inspectors at the volcanos.
       Reinhurst hit his intercom and asked his assistant to call  the superintendent at the Perkins Hospital. Yes, it was a hospital for the criminally insane but it was also a prison for those defendants still undergoing evaluation to determine their mental status.  Mitzi would be held there while the doctors decided if she was sane enough to go on trial.  Maybe she wasn’t so crazy after all.

       When Negasi and his crew reentered the crystal cavern he immediately slid down into the smaller cave.  While his team continued to measure and photograph the tubes and other apparatus up above, he concentrated on the spinning white globes in the lower chamber.  He watched them as they circled around the top of the large central tube in a clock wise direction.  Trying to remain objective, he observed that they didn’t move together like some mechanical device but rather more like a group of living entities.  At times their speed increased and then decreased causing one or more of the orbs to bump into each other.  Also, their journey around the central tube was not as though they were always traveling on a level track .  It was more like a kiddies roller coaster, up and down.
       Moving right up against the side of the big tube, feeling it’s vibration and hearing the soft hum, Negasi looked directly up at the spinning globes.  As they whirled around, high above his head, he noticed that once in a while one of the orbs turned its central ring of black beads downward toward where he was standing.  At first he feared it was going to spray him with something lethal but each time it came around nothing seemed to happen.
       He was getting dizzy staring at the globes as they raced around the tube and Douglas had just radioed him from the upper chamber.  He was needed to help move a piece of their heavy equipment.  He wobbled over to the slide in preparation for being pulled back up through the opening.  It was then that he felt a slight pressure on his suit around the area of the calf of his left leg.  He turned quickly and looked down.  One of the globes was attached to the fabric of his hazmat suit. His primal instinct was to try and shake it off but it stuck to him as if it were magnetized.  His heart rate began to increase as his adrenaline kicked in and he moved into ‘fight or flight’ mode.  He was about to grab anything he could find to try and smash to pieces the glowing white object that was clinging to his leg when---
       “No harm,” came a voice over Negasi’s radiocom.   It wasn’t Dr. Decker’s voice or Doug’s.  It almost sounded like his own voice only more musical, like wind chimes or a distant bell.  He began to feel his fear melt away and it was replaced with an intense sense of joy.  “No harm, friend.”

       Mitzi sat at a table in a room labeled ‘Visitors Lounge’ which she knew was a euphemism for ‘Interrogation Room.’  Across from her sat Dr. Ronan and two other persons she didn’t recognize.  A nurse (think ‘prison guard’) stood at attention by the door.
       “It’s good to see you again, Mitzi,” Dr. Ronan said, “You’re looking well.”
       “Thanks.  I’m up and walking---well, walking with a cane and my headaches are gone.”
       “That’s good,” Dr. Ronan replied, “So, we’re here to catch up on how your treatment is progressing---"
       “Who are these two?” Mitzi interrupted, pointing to the other two people, an uptight middle-aged man in a navy blue suit and a heavy set woman in a white lab jacket.
       “Oh, I’m sorry,” Ronan apologized, “This is Ted Reinhurst from the Bureau of Homeland Security and Dr. Leonore Finch.  Dr. Finch is the superintendent of this facility.  I thought you had met before when you---you were brought here.”
       “Never had the pleasure,” Mitzi said, “Kinda got thrown in here and locked up without so much as an explanation.  Let me tell you there are lot of very scary people running around here. And where is my lawyer?  Shouldn’t my lawyer be here?”
       “This is just a visit, Mitzi,” Dr. Ronan explained, “to see how you’re doing.”
       “Mrs. Brownhart,” Dr. finch said, getting directly to the point, “Do you know where you are and why you are here?”
       “Well, it sure as hell ain’t no beauty spa,” Mitzi retorted, “Of course I know why I’m here and what this place is.  It’s a place where you stick crazy people who’ve done bad things.  And you folks believe I’m one of those persons.”
       “Actually, we try and help people who have, as you say, done bad things.”
       “And from what I’ve been told, again and again, I tried to do one of those bad things, right?,” Mitzi replied, “but I’m doing a good thing now, a really good thing.”
       “And what is that, Mrs. Brownhart?” Reinhurst inquired, breaking his silence.
       “I’m glad you asked, Mr. Bratwurst, because it concerns your Homeland Security department.  In fact it concerns the whole world’s Security.”
       “It’s Reinhurst, Mitzi,” corrected Dr. Ronan.
        “Rheingold, Rainburst, whatever!  I’ve been chosen to be the voice of the Sciopods.”
       “And who are these Sciopods, exactly?” asked Reinhurst.
       “They’re the ‘angels’ who are going save all our asses!” Mitzi replied, excitedly.
       Reinhurst looked at both Dr. Ronan and Dr. Finch and shook his head.  He reached into his briefcase and pulled out notebook covered in fake pink leather.  Mitzi reacted immediately.
       “You found my notebook!  I’ve been asking everyone around here if they’d seen it.  Where did you find it?  I haven’t been able to write down the latest messages.”
       “It was under your bed at Hopkins,” answered Dr. Ronan, as Mitzi extended her hand toward the book.  Reinhurst pulled the pink volume away.
       “Let me get to the reason I’m here, Mitzi.  May I call you Mitzi?”
       “No.  Give me my notebook.”
       “I’m sorry but, at the moment, it’s federal property, Mrs. Brownhart.”
       “I want my notebook!  It’s mine!”
       “You’ll get it back, in time.  But first I need to ask you some questions.  There is information in this book that only our intelligence bureau has access to.  How did you get ahold of it ?”
       “I told you,  my Sciopod angels dictate these messages, most of which I don’t understand, but they seem to be leaning towards stopping people from killing each other.”
       “Why have they chosen you to be their spokesperson?” asked Dr. Finch.
       “Why not?  Am I not just as useful as anyone else---like you for instance? But, oh, that’s right, I’m crazy.  I’m seeing things and hearing things that aren’t there.  But you know what, doc?  When you give me those meds that are supposed to make those things go away, my angels just become brighter and louder.”
       “Mitzi, as I understand it,” Dr. Ronan interceded, “you have nightly visits of these---“
       “Angels---almost every night.  Sometimes they don’t show up but that’s because they’re very busy guys.”
       “Right. Now, you say these ‘angels,’ in the shape of glowing white orbs, come into your room and dictate messages to you.”
       “Correct.  And I write them down in my little pink book.  I’m supposed to pass these messages on but every time I try to show them to somebody they just look at  me like I’m  a crazy woman with delusions of grandeur.  Right, doc?” Mitzi directed this last statement toward Dr. Finch.
       “Mrs. Brownhart,” asked Reinhurst, “Let us say that we believe you.  Would it be possible to meet your ‘angels’ one of these evenings---tonight, perhaps?”
       “Listen.  I’d be thrilled to introduce you.  It’d be proof I’m not nuts.  But they won’t show up as long as there are ‘Ordinaries’ in the room.  I mean it’s fortunate I’m still in solitary so that---”
       “You’re in a private room until we can find you an appropriate roommate,” Dr. Finch explained.
       “Whatever.  But I can guarantee you that if you lock me in a room with some mad woman, who is ready to drink my blood, my little guys won’t ever show up. Right now, they still come to me, they give me messages, I write them down, that’s it.  Well, I would write them down if I had a pen and something other than toilet paper.”
       “Mrs. Brownhart, I have an idea,” Reinhurst offered, “What if I give you some questions to ask your---friends?  Questions about events the public knows nothing about.”
       “Wow.  You’re smarter than you look,” Mitzi answered, “I’m up for giving it a try.  But, before I do, you need to agree to two things.”
       “And those are?”
       “That I’m to ask my ‘angels’ only one of your questions and that I get my notebook back.”
       Reinhurst hesitated, looked again at the two doctors for affirmation.  They both nodded in agreement.  He took a sheet of Homeland Security stationary out of his briefcase and wrote down the one question he wanted Mitzi to ask.  He then handed the paper over to her along with her pink notebook.
       “Great.  And I’ll need that pen, if you don’t mind,” she said, checking it out, “Expensive pen, nice.  Government issue?”

       While life was getting harder to survive everywhere, it was particularly difficult in the urban areas.  Sky high apartment buildings with frequent electrical brown outs  meant limited elevator services.  Climbing forty stories to get to your apartment may make you healthier or it might kill you.  Getting stuck in an elevator when the power went out was no barrel of laughs either.  Travelling to work, if you still had a job, became a marathon. Bicycles, scooters and skateboards were everywhere.
       One of the unexpected statistics was the increase in the percentage of suicides due to the inability to cope with the hardships of living without the social media.

    Dear mom and dad,
       I can’t get through one more day like this.  I’m crying all the time.  Without my cell phone and my I-pad and my computer I’m without my friends.  I can’t even reach you.  My classes keep getting canceled due to lack of heat, lights and, most importantly, wi-fi.  I don’t see things getting any better ever.  Please forgive me.
    Your loving daughter, Tiffany
     PS: Please take care of Boodles.  His leash is hanging in the closet.

       Since guns were no longer available the most common form of suicide was by hanging.  The next most popular method  was jumping from heights and the last most used technique was poison, particularly pesticide.  It got to the point that, when walking down the street, you had to keep looking skyward just in case someone was leaping out of a window.  And you hoped you would never enter your apartment house’s lobby one day and find the super hanging from an overhead light fixture or the doorman lying dead in a pool of vomit.

       Scott Rawles woke up to the smell of coffee and bacon.  He hadn’t slept as peacefully as this for months, even with Ralph in the next bed snoring like an angry rhinoceros.  He stretched his arms, swung his legs over the edge of the mattress and stood up.  It was a sunny morning and, as he walked out of the bedroom and headed down the hall to the john, it almost felt like the good old days, before it had all gone to hell.  He took a quick glance into the room where his son Richie was recovering on the big four poster.  He was sleeping like a baby.
       When he came downstairs he saw Granger standing at the stove cracking an egg into a frying pan.
       “Good morning, Mr. Rawles.  I hope you slept well.  How do you like your eggs?”
       It was getting harder to dislike this hombre what with his calm demeanor and  seemingly honest generosity.
       “I could do with some of that coffee I’m smelling.”
       “Grab a mug off the shelf.  If you need milk it’s in the refrigerator.”

       With his coffee and eventually his plate full of bacon and eggs Scott sat down at the kitchen table.  Hiram joined him and they dug in.
       “I’m really sorry about what happened,” Hiram said, between bites, “We never meant to hurt anyone.  I thought the cables would just slow your men down, stop them, you know.”
       “I  sent them to do some reconnaissance,” Rawles explained, “I don’t know why they were going so fast.”
       “Forgive me, Scott, but I can’t believe they were just coming to check us out again.  After that little bit of arson last time---”
       “Listen, Mr. Granger, I gave orders to my son to see how many vehicles you had and then do a census on how many people live here.  Nothing more.”
       “Okay.  And what was the reasoning behind that?” Hiram asked, as he fingered the eagle feather that peeked out of his shirt pocket.
       “I just wanted to make sure—” Rawles began and then stopped.
       “I think it’s time to be honest, Mr. Rawles,” Hiram said as he reached under the table and brushed  Scotts’ knee with the eagle feather.  Rawles stiffened and then relaxed.
       “Yeah, well, truth be known, I was planning to sort of take over your little town---just for a while---until we got back on our feet.  Things are getting a bit tough back at our camp.  Running out of supplies, water.”
       “I understand.”
       “And I may have told Richie and the boys that they could retrieve any provisions they saw just laying around.”
       “You mean steal,” Hiram said, as a statement not as a question.
       “Whatever.  Look, you got a good thing going here.  I guess I was sort of hoping we---we could---”
       “Be part of it?” Hiram asked, smiling, “Funny thing, but I woke up this morning thinking the same thing.  You want to talk about it?”

       Dr. Decker and Negasi  stared at the white globe sitting on the doctor’s desk.  Actually, it was floating about an inch above the surface instead of sitting.  It continued to hum and vibrate as the two watched in an almost trance-like state.  The doctor was the first to speak.
       “And you say it spoke to you?”
       “Yes!  Well, I mean, I heard something.  I mean it was like a voice in my head,” Negasi admitted, “I know, it sounds like I am crazy but it was as if I was hearing my own voice filtered through a synthesizer.  ‘No harm friend,’ that’s what I heard.”
       “I believe you,” Tamsin replied, “At this moment I’m ready to believe anything.”
       “What is the next step?  It has not shown any aggressive behavior.  It let me pluck it off my suit and carry it out of the cave.”
       “Well, I for one would like to see what’s going on inside.  If it’s mechanical we could see how it works.”
       “And if it is not?  If it is---something else?”
       “The only way to find out is to get inside.”
       “You do not mean to open it up, not like an autopsy?”  The voice in his head whispered in it’s musical tones, No harm, friend.
       “No.  We don’t want to destroy it.  Let’s just x ray it.”

       It was difficult to get a clear photograph of the interior of the orb due to its constant spinning and vibrating.  After trying to stabilize it with various restraints Negasi, about to give up, had an idea.
       “What is your name?”
       “What do you mean?” Dr. Decker asked, in confusion.
       “I am sorry.  I was addressing the object,” Negasi explained.
       “Oh, I see.  Did you get a reply?” Tamsin asked, half in jest.
       “Not yet.  I will try again.  What---is---your---name?”
       After a long pause Negasi heard in his head a bell-like response.  ‘Leahcin.’
       “L-e-a-h-c-i-n, is that correct?”
       The globe began to glow brighter and change color.
       “I will take that as a yes.  Pleased to make your acquaintance.  My name is Negasi and this is Dr. Tamsin Decker.”  The orb turned a bright orange and then returned to its’ original white.
       “My friend Leahcin, we wish to take an x ray of you.  Therefore we need for you to stop spinning and to remain absolutely still.  Can you do that for us? We mean you no harm, friend.” 
       The globe began to slow down until the whirling became minimal.  When it had stopped completely the orb dropped to the surface of the floor and tilted to one side.
       “The spinning seems to be integral to its mobility,” Dr. Decker observed, “It needs to whirl to move around.”
       “I think it cannot remain still for long so let us get it x rayed.  I will place it in front of the x ray machine.”
       With the globe in place they stepped into the observation booth, pressed the x ray button and turned to the computer screen.  When the image came up Tamsin gasped.  “I don’t believe it!”

       Reinhurst was on the phone with the President.
       “We have her in a safe house in Virginia. Our best interviewers are with her.  They’ll be able to get to the bottom of this.  But I have to tell you when she came back with the answer to  the question I had written down I was blown away.”
       “What was that question again?  Something about mountains,  right?”
       “I asked for the names of the volcanoes involved in this weird situation and where they were located.”
       “And she came back with a list?”
       “A very long list, sir.  Seems these crystal volcanos are peppered all over the world.”
       “But wait a minute,” the President interrupted, “She could have gotten that information off  the internet.”
       “Yes, she could have, if, at the hospital, she had had a computer.  But she didn’t.  She was locked up in solitary---bed and toilet, period.”
       “Okay, so what’s next?”
       “Well, sir, we’ve installed a concealed camera in her room in the hopes of getting some video coverage of these floating balls she claims are giving her messages.”
       “Good idea,” the President continued, “This woman, this Mitzi, does she seem sort of normal?  I mean, in your estimation, is she sane or totally bonkers?”
       “I think she’s---she’s very neurotic but she’s not psycotic.  I can see that she’s enjoying all the attention she’s getting but she also seems very serious about her mission, as she calls it.”
       “Well, keep her working on her mission and keep her happy.  No extreme measures, water-boarding, that sort of nonsense.”
       “Of course not, sir,” Reinhurst replied, amazed again how out of touch the leader of the free world was, “She’s in pleasant surroundings, homey atmosphere, nothing to worry about.”
       “Thanks, Ted.  Hopefully, when next we speak we’ll have some answers to this fucking situation.”  ‘Don’t hold your breath, old man,’ thought Reinhurst as he said goodbye and hung up.

       The day all the museums in the large, and even small, cities closed down and locked up their treasures was a very sad one.  This action had become necessary as there was no way to guard against theft.  When a gang had walked into the Louvre and removed the Mona Lisa from the wall and, ignoring the sound of alarms going off all around them, had simply carried the painting out of the building; that was the last straw.
       Malls and movie multiplexes had been dying off anyway and now they were completely empty except for the homeless who had set up camp in their dark, cold environs. The homeless population was increasing daily due to massive unemployment and even middle class families found themselves struggling to find food and shelter.
       Almost all schools and libraries were closed including universities and colleges.  One of the exceptions was in Unity, Oregon.  The Burnt River High and Elementary School remained open thanks to teacher and librarian Georgina Halverson.
       “Our kids need to keep learning, no matter what.  School helps them handle the tough stuff that’s happening around them.  Makes them feel a little bit more secure and in control.”
       Georgina had joined Hiram and most of the other town folk in a meeting being held at the Burnt River Community Church.  She had just finished speaking about her plans for the winter school term and was  being thanked by Hiram when Scott Rawles appeared in the doorway.  A wave of whispers rippled up from the seated families.
       “Folks,” Hiram announced, raising his voice, “I’d like you to welcome someone who wishes to become a new member of our community, Mr. Scott Rawles.”
       The effect on the crowd was like they had been zapped with a cattle prod.
       “What the hell are you talking about!” shouted Fred Napier.
       “That’s the man that burned down the Simpsons’ barn!” added his wife Helen.  The church erupted with the sounds of shouting and cursing.  It took Hiram several minutes to get things under control.  When it was finally semi-quiet he began to explain the reasoning for this new development.
       “Scott and I have come to an agreement.  His actions toward us were based on good old fashioned fear.  He and his men have lost their homes due to fires both natural and manmade.  They have---
       “Is that the reason he set my barn on fire?” Matt Simpson asked angerly.  The crowd joined in with cat calls and threats.  Scott turned to Hiram and mouthed a request at which time Hiram raised both his hands.  In his left hand he held the eagle feather.
       “Mr. Rawles would like to address you.  I’m going to give him the feather to hold.  You know the rule, whoever holds the feather has the floor until the feather is passed to another speaker.  Let’s be courteous,” Hiram requested as he handed Scott the black-tipped feather.  The leader of the Better Nation Brigade took the eagle feather and, with a look of slight embarrassment, began to speak.
       “First of all, my apologies to you, Mr. Simpson, for what happened to your barn.  I’m afraid one of my men got a little carried away.”
       Matt Simpson leaped up from his seat in the pew.  “Carried away?!  You---”
       “Matt!” Hiram barked, indicating for him to sit down.
       “My orders were only for them to retrieve some gasoline since we were running---” An angry rumble indicated the crowd’s dissatisfaction  with  his explanation.  “Right.  You’re right. I guess it was more like stealing---but setting a fire was entirely the idea of one of my more gung ho members.  I did not ask him to do such a stupid thing.  He has been punished and we will be helping you rebuild your barn.”  If he had expected cheers and applause the cold silence that followed let him know such accolades would not be forthcoming.
       “Anyway, let me tell you briefly why we left Idaho and why we would like to join up with you.  Yeah, eventually we want to get to Camp Pendleton in California, where the revolution is happening, but with winter upon us and our supplies running out we need to lie low.  When this gunnapping disaster hit, the Feds ordered us to get off our land, yes public land but land we’d been on for decades, land that was our home. They’d just been waiting for the opportunity to move us out. Without  weapons for protection we were defenseless.  We remembered Ruby Ridge and maybe you do too.  Anyway, when we wouldn’t leave they came in with tanks and flame throwers and that was that.  Now, you have to understand,  we’re survivalists so we moved up north to the Owyhee desert.  You ever been there?  Flat and dry as cardboard and that’s when we got hit with wild fires.  Even the toughest of us couldn’t make it work.  We sent our women and children to live with relatives in Boise and Twin Falls and set out on our recruiting mission to California.”
       Fred Napier stood and asked to be given the feather.  Scott stepped down from in front of the altar and handed it off to Fred.
       “That’s quite a story, and I’m sorry for your loss, but we,” he said, indicating all the people sitting in the pews, “are trying to survive as well. How many men are in your convoy?”
       “Fifty-two, counting my son and me.”
       “Well, sir, if you join up with us that will almost double the population of our little town.  That’ll put a big strain on our resources.”
       Hiram interrupted by taking the feather from Fred’s hand and turning to address the entire gathering.
       “Your concern is legitimate, Fred, but there are two things here that are important to remember.  Mr. Rawles and his group are survivalists and have many skills that they can teach us.  And boy, we need everything we can get our hands on.  Secondly, many of you who are sitting here are members of this church and if you know your church architecture you know I’m standing on the area called the Sanctuary, a word that also stands for giving someone a place that is safe from harm.  Unity has always been a welcoming place.  It should continue to be just that. What is being proposed here won’t be easy but, as the old saying goes, there is safety in numbers.” Hiram looked out over the crowd of his neighbors and friends.  “Time to take a vote.”

       Dr. Decker and Negasi stared at the computer image of the x ray they had taken earlier.  The subject of that x ray was spinning around the room, earnestly taking a look at everything, like a tourist on a holiday.
       “It appears to me to be an insect,” Tamsin observed.
       “But with some of the characteristics of a human mammal,” added Negasi.
       “True.  I can see legs and arms with human musculature but the torso is more like the thorax of an insect---a grasshopper or an ant.”
       “The rest of the interior of the shell seems to be equipped with navigational devices.  And those black beads we thought were eyes are openings, windows, as it were, that give these creatures a 360 degree view of our world---their world. Amazing!”
       “Correct.  But why do they stay locked up in these globes?” Dr. Decker wondered.
       “An interesting question.  I have a couple of theories but why don’t I ask the creature itself? 
       “I’m still having trouble getting my head around how you two  communicate, you and---Lincoln.  Is that right?”
       “Leahcin was what I wrote down,” Negasi replied, turning to watch the globe bobbing back and forth from the monitors to the coffee maker and then to the short wave radio.  “I do not know what the gender situation is here but I cannot keep referring to this entity as an ‘it.’  So, for now, I am going to use ‘him’ or ‘he’ until proved otherwise.”  He stood up and walked over to the white board that was used for working out calculations with dry erase markers.  The globe was moving back and forth across the boards’ surface in what was apparently an attempt to understand what was written there.
       “Leahcin?” The orb stopped it’s examination and spun it’s way over to Negasi.  “We have many questions to ask you.  Is that all right?”  A reply didn’t come right away and Negasi had just about given up when suddenly he heard that familiar musical voice playing inside his head.
       What is it you wish to know, friend Negasi?
       “Wow!  Thank you for letting us look inside.  And for letting us see you, as well.  We were wondering why you seem to be sealed up  in the globe.  Do you ever leave ?  Can you leave?”
       The sphere is for safety---and for voyaging---travelling---movement.  We work in environments that can be toxic. Many gases that could kill us. We live beneath you, out of the way of the  killing rays of the sunstar. But when we surface we have to stay in our spheres or we shall perish.
       “I understand,” Negasi affirmed, “However, as there are no windows in this room and if I were to dim the lights would it be safe enough for you to exit your sphere?”
       The globe rose quickly up to the ceiling, blinked a flash of orange and then dropped down onto one of the lab tables.  It settled onto the surface in a movement similar to a hen roosting on a nest.  There was a soft click and very slowly the top of the globe began to lift up and rise like an umbrella.
       “Oh my god!” Negasi gasped, “It is like my great-grandfather said!  The Sciopod and its’ sun shade!”
       Tamsin and Negasi were tempted to move closer for a better look but stopped when a tiny blue-white head appeared at the edge of the opening. ‘No harm,’ tinkled the voice in Negasi’s head.
       “Yes, Leahcin, no harm.  You are safe.”

       It was a pleasant bedroom with her very own bathroom.  Much nicer than in her dingy outdated apartment.  And if you ignored the two federal agents, who sat on the couch watching sports on the TV, the living room was quite comfortable.  The kitchen was fully stocked.  Three square meals a day and no crazies trying to kill you in your sleep was a great deal.  All she had to do was keep reporting what the Sciopods were telling her.

March 16
But there’s a problem. My angels showed up the first night I arrived and then immediately left.  They haven’t been back since.  I’m really upset.  At first I just sorta brushed it off as them being not used to coming to a different place.  But then as the days passed I got worried.  I thought I’d get into trouble if I didn’t deliver the goods and then I’d get sent back to that awful place.  I was almost ready to make up some shit.  But that would be sabotaging my mission.

March 19
My alien visitors are back!  Halleluiah!  It was those stupid government dorks, all along, who had installed a hidden camera in my room. The Sciopods got wind of that and, of course, they wouldn’t come near this so called ‘safehouse.’  I found the camera stuck in a figurine of an American Eagle resting on the top shelf of the bookcase.  I was so mad I almost threw it at one of the couch potato agents.

The Reinhurt guy apologized and now we’re back on track. He had a list of new questions and asked if I could kinda sneak them into my conversations with my angels.  Since a lot of the questions were ones I wanted to ask anyway it wasn’t a problem.  Here’s some of their answers:
As Sciopods they’ve been living around here for millions of years.

Twenty years ago a search party arrived in Africa from their planet, which is located in what our astronomers call the Triangulum Galaxy, AKA Messier 33. ( I just write down what they tell me to. I had to ask them to spell these last two suckers.)

They travel in these pods, ergo the name Sciopods, I guess.

They are here to save our planet. (When I asked them why, they said for two reasons: to preserve the living environment for the six billion Sciopods who reside underground here on earth and to stop the human race from annihilating itself.  Good luck with that.)

They are oxygen breathers. The pods, those beautiful white globes, manufacture oxygen for them.  So I guess there are little aliens inside.

Yes, they are responsible for the gunnapping crystals.  The search party that came here recently brought with them this new technology as a solution to stopping the genocide of the human race.

March 20
When I showed Reintwit my notes he got all excited and demanded that I tell them ‘to cease and desist’ at once.  I almost laughed in his face. I told him I’d pass on his message but not to hold his breath. I mean, the damage is done, right?  The guns and stuff are destroyed.  Anyway, I’ll see what they have to say about all this when they come by tonight. I so look forward to their visits.  It’s hard to get thru the day.

       Although the vote wasn’t unanimous most of the townspeople welcomed Scott Rawles and his crew to Unity.  With the generosity that can usually only be found in small towns, the residents opened their homes to these strangers.  Storage rooms became bedrooms, living room sofas did double duty, little kids shared their toy filled rooms with big truckers.  Even some of the brigade were put up in a heated cow barn, not the most fragrant of venues but better than the tents they had been suffering in with the bitter cold.
       “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em,” joked Matt Simpson.
       “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer,” quoted Fred Napier, feeling that that was a more appropriate saying.  The town was jam packed with pickups, Jeeps and  SUVs.  There were even two RVs that were allowed to hook up to power and water lines but with no guarantee that electricity or water would keep flowing on demand.
       “Just so they understand that this is temporary,” added Lester O’Brien, “First sign of Spring and they’re outta here.”
       “Just so Hiram understands that this is temporary!” added Helen Napier, not a champion of Scott Rawles and his Better Nation buddies.

       Hiram and Scott sat at the breakfast table.  It had been decided that Rawles would continue to stay in the Granger home since his son was recuperating upstairs in Hiram’s bedroom.  Ralph, the driver, had helped Bobby Joe get up the stairs and out of the basement and the two of them had moved into the Halverson house.  Georgina was pleased to have some men back in the house.  Her husband had been gone for fifteen years.
       Hiram poured a dash of milk in his coffee.  One cup of java in the morning was all he allowed himself, not for health reasons but because he was running out of coffee.
       “When you were talking yesterday, at the meeting,” Hiram said, stirring his cup, “you mentioned the Owyhee Desert.”
       “Yeah, hot as hell and flat as a French crepe.”
       “I was born up there,” Hiram revealed.
       “Shit, I’m sorry,” apologized Scott.
       “My folks were part of the Nez Perce nation.  It’s kind of where the early tribes got their start.”
       “Again, my apologies,” Scott repeated, trying to make amends.
       “No, no, you’re right.  It is flat and hot and barren.  I hated it.  Couldn’t wait to get out of there.”
       “So you moved here then?”
       “After I finished college, yeah.  Got married, had kids.  It’s kind of funny but it’s like Unity just called out to me.  Historically, this was said to be a very sacred place where, in the days before you white folk arrived, my people came to communicate with their spirit guides.  There are these stories about seeing the spirits rise up out of the earth like circles of white light.  I don’t know about that but I know I feel something very special here.  Always have.”
       “Well, I have to say you have a great little town here,” Scott admitted.
       “Yep, and that’s why I’m sort of reluctant to leave it.”
       “Leave?  You thinking of leaving?  Why?” questioned Scott,  “Oh, I see.  You want to join up with us on our Spring journey to Fort Pendleton  Great!”
       “Not exactly,” replied Hiram, “There is a possible journey forming in my mind but it’s not to California.  I’m having this reoccurring dream---”
       “A dream?”
       “Yeah, of a mountain, a tall mountain covered in snow.”
       “Well, hell, there are tall mountains in California.  Mt. Shasta---”
       “Yes, true, but this seems to be kind of a mystical place and it wants me to go there.”
       “I’m not really into ‘mystical,’” affirmed Scott, “but I know I’m wanted in Fort Pendleton ‘cause that’s where me and my men can make a difference.”
       Hiram nodded and got up to put his cup in the sink.  At the same time he withdrew the eagle feather from his jacket pocket and, stepping behind Rawles, brushed it softly across the man’s back.
       “I’d like to talk to you about an idea I have.”

       When the creature named Leahcin climbed up and out of the white globe and slid down its side to the top of the table Negasi and Dr. Decker were astounded.
It, or ‘he’ as Negasi preferred, stood at about ten inches in height, was pale white with a tinge of blue and had a head that appeared to be larger in proportion to ‘his’ insect-like torso.  He resembled one of those illustrations of an elf that Negasi remembered having seen in the fairy tale books he had read as a little kid.
       “I’m going to take a photo for documentation,” Tamsin said, aiming her camera at the dragonfly-like Leahcin but Negasi grabbed her wrist.
       “He just shouted no!” Negasi explained, “I am sorry, but he says they are not yet ready to be exposed to the rest of the world.”
       “Well, that’s going to be happening soon.  Our government officials will be here soon, and there will be no hiding away then.”
       Negasi was well aware of what was ahead for Leahcin and his kind.  There was so much to learn about this amazing race of creatures before the authorities stepped in and ruined it all.
       “Leahcin,” Negasi began, “I have many questions for you and I hope you will be able to help me.  I have the feeling you picked me for a reason.  Is that correct?”
       Once again there was period of silence.
       “What did it say?” asked Dr. Decker.
       “Nothing, he seems to be thinking---wait---he says he came to me---because he knew he could trust me.  Thank you, Leahcin.”
       “Does he trust me?” asked Dr. Decker, “I’m not hearing his voice.”
       “He is not sure,” relayed Negasi, “at least at this moment.”
       “I understand---I think.  Could you ask it---him--why all this is going on?  Why they are manufacturing these crystals that are causing such havoc?”
       Negasi had so many other questions he wished to ask, like why is it you speak English (I don’t---my language is translated in your brain as your speech is translated in mine---this is true of all other languages) and how old are you (I am 115 human years but, to answer your companion’s inquiry, we are attempting to stop warfare and killing by destroying weapons.)
       “He says they have created these crystals to try and stop wars and shootings by using them to destroy weapons---I guess he means guns and bombs.”
       “Well, he has certainly succeeded in doing that but that has not stopped people, humans, from killing each other.”
       “Leahcin, I know you just heard what Dr. Decker said.  Your mission has accomplished your goal but it has caused many terrible tragedies.  It is as though you have made things worse!”
       ‘We are aware of the reverberations of our actions. This was only step one.  I believe you have a term, “wakeup call.”  That is what this was. Now we shall prepare step two.
       “And what is that?”
       ‘Nature’s revenge.

March 24
‘Nature’s revenge’ was what my angel told me to write down.  When I showed that to Reinhurst he said, and I quote, ‘What the fucking hell does that mean!’  I told him he had a potty mouth and that I had no idea what it meant but that it was in response to the question he had asked me to ask them.  I hate being in the middle of whatever is going on here but I know it’s my job, my destiny.  So I do what I’m told to do;
write down the messages from my angels, share them with Liverwurst and then ask my angels the stupid questions he writes out for me.

The question he wanted an answer to was what was next now that our nation’s weapons were destroyed. I personally believe that all my angels are trying to do is what all those Miss America contestants used to say, ‘ I will work toward World Peace.’ 

However, maybe they’re going at it wrong.  I mean things are pretty bad right now.  One of the couch potato feds said there are these riots in the prisons and all these bad guys are escaping, no way to stop them.  I bet that hospital for the crazies I was at will be next, all those nuts running around.

And there is this nasty new flu epidemic killing off a lot of people ‘cause there’s no shots or medicine available.  I think I’ll be okay ‘cause we’re so isolated out here and as long as I don’t kiss one of the feds, ha ha, I will survive.  Remember that Donna Summer song?  Anyway, my angels have something in the works called ‘Revenge of Nature’ and it doesn’t sound good.

       “Okay, as I understand it there are these crystal factories in volcanos all around the world,” the President stated to Ted Reinhurst as they sat in the Oval office, “that have been spewing out this gunnaping shit in order to put an end to terrorism and killing.”
       “Something like that,” replied Reinhurst.
       “And the workers in these crystal factories,” the President continued, “are little green men---”
       “White, pale white---”
       “Whatever!  These sons-a-bitches are Alien beings---”
       “Actually, they claim to have been living here long before the human race.”
       “But they originally came from outer space, right?”
       “That’s what they told Mrs. Brownhart and we’ve heard similar stories from Hawaii and Africa.”
       “Teddy, do you hear the two of us?  We sound like a couple of UFO nuts!  This whole scenario is like a bad sci fi movie. A delusional woman is getting messages from floating soccer balls and we take what she says as gospel truth.  I can’t go before the America People and talk about the little whatever color men from who knows what planet.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, this has to be a hoax on a grand scale and I want to get to the bottom of it and find out who’s behind all this---this bullshit!”
       “Mr. President, the press has gotten wind of what’s been going on and videos are showing up on the internet.  You will have to make some sort of statement soon.  Whether any of this is true or not, and personally I believe a lot of it is real, we have to put a positive spin on it while we investigate it further.”
       “I hate this so much!  Our country is falling apart and I have to talk about little green men,” the President groused, as he unwrapped a Snicker’s candy bar.  “Okay, I’ll work with the press secretary on some sort of response.  Meanwhile, what have our investigators discovered over there in Hawaii?  How many of these little fuckers have they captured?”
       Reinhurst shook his head as he reluctantly responded. “None, sir—”
       “WHAT! What do you mean none!”
       “It seems they have disappeared.”
       “When our team got to the volcano they saw a few of these globes slipping away into what seemed to be a warren of deep tunnels.  By the time the investigators were suited up and into the actual factories there wasn’t a trace of the creatures left.”
       “See!” the President exclaimed excitedly, “It’s just what I was saying!  A giant hoax!  Now you see them, now you don’t and that’s because they don’t exist.”
       “Sir, you’ve seen the photographs, the videos of the factory in Mauna Loa, the orbs floating around.”
       “Photoshop.  For god’s sake, man, you know what these special effects guys can do these days!”
       Reinhurst, feeling it was useless to argue and time to move on, decided to bite the bullet and bring up the unpleasant subject of the latest message from Mitzi’s angels: Nature’s revenge.
       “What?  These so called tiny terrorists are talking about mother nature getting back at us?  Well, she’s been doing a bang up job on her own for years; tornados, floods, wildfires, hurricanes---what’s she going to throw at us now?”
       “At the moment we don’t know.  Supposedly, we will find out  within the next few days.”
       “This is why my hair is turning gray.”

       The Ethiopian officials had more success in capturing some of the Sciopods.  But their success was short lived because when they opened the globes they found none the inhabitants alive.  It appeared that they had died either by suicide or by the sudden exposure to the noxious gases surrounding them.  The scientists were disappointed but at least they had some bodies to exam and on which to perform autopsies.
       Negasi and Dr. Decker were horrified by the brutality of the attack on the Sciopods.  The authorities had shown up unannounced and had taken over the lab, the tunnel and the caves.  Most of the orbs had escaped but a few stragglers were caught.  The investigators had cracked them open like they were chicken eggs.  Negasi, fearing the worst, had hidden Leahcin in the foot locker in his room.  Although  members of the military, attached to the investigative team, inspected all the rooms in the facility, they did so quickly and cursively so Leahcin was never discovered.
       Later that night, Negasi locked his door and opened his foot locker to let Leahcin out.
       “I am so sorry about all this,” he said, as he set the white globe on top of his desk.
       Do not concern yourself.  This was expected.  It was known that there would be sacrifices.
       “But what happens now?  How can I keep you safe?”
       I will remove myself from my vehicle.  It will be easier to hide if I am not tethered to it.  I realize such an object stands out and is an easy target.
       “But won’t you need it eventually?’
       ‘Yes, but for now I need you to help me put our next event in motion.
       “Of course, whatever you wish,” Negasi replied, “What exactly is the next event?
       Leahcin had lifted up the top of his pod and was crawling out. You will make contact with representatives from each of the 241 countries and territories that exist on earth.
       “Pardon me?”
       You will tell them that they must stop all aggressive actions and begin to cultivate benevolent behavior.
       “Are you talking about the United Nations?”
       ‘No. There are only 196 nations that are members of that organization.  We are reaching out to all countries.
       “But how would I ever be able to accomplish such a feat?  I would not know how to begin.”
       You will find a way.
       “Leahcin, even if I could reach each and every one of these leaders, why would they listen to me and, even more importantly, why would they obey your directive?”
       Because, if they do not, a series of destructive events will occur that will harm many millions of the human species.
       “Is that a threat I am hearing?”
It is a warning.

       Mitzi Irene Brownhart sat across from the President of The United States in the main lodge at Camp David.  Although she was surrounded by Secret Service agents and there were Marines standing guard at all the doors and windows the atmosphere was one of relaxed civility.
       “First of all, sir,” Mitzi began, “I want to apologize for what I tried to do to you.  I’m beginning to remember a little, you know, some flashes of these images. I don’t know what the hell got into me.  I hope you can forgive me.”
       The President smiled the famous grin that had won him the election and waved his hand as if to dismiss the whole event.  “It’s okay, Mrs. Brownhart.  Except for some non-life threatening injuries to a couple of my Secret Service guys no real harm was done.  However, I don’t think your car will ever be the same.”
       “Thank you, sir.  It was my husband’s car so it doesn’t matter what happened to it.”
       “I see.  Right.  Anyway, a side effect of your---accident seems to be to have opened you up to some mysterious abilities.”
       “Yes sir.”
       “You seem to be in contact with---what do you call them?”
       “My angels, and actually they contacted me first.   That’s why I’m here.  They insisted that I relay their latest message directly to you and to do it in person.”
       “That’s what Ted---Mr. Reinhurst---said and so here you are.  I insisted we meet here at Camp David in order to give us a little more privacy.”

       Mitzi opened her pink notebook and started to hand it to the President but it was intercepted by one of the Secret Service agents.  He examined it quickly, flipping through the pages and, after determining that it didn’t contain anything dangerous like Anthrax or Ricin,  gave it to the President.
       “I thought it would be better for you to read my notes ‘cause sometimes I kinda screw up and misquote what they say to me.  It’s dated yesterday, March 30th.  I took it down word for word.”
       The President  turned to that entry and started to read aloud.

March 30
A representative from every country and territory on every continent and on every island is to be chosen to meet and begin discussing ways to settle disputes through means other than warfare and violence.  If this meeting does not come about in one month’s time a disaster will be set into motion to prove that we, the Sciopod Nation, are serious about what we are asking of the human race.

       “Mrs. Brownhart,” addressed the President, in a quiet but angry voice, “this is a threat and I do not appreciate being threatened. If this is truly a message from your all-powerful aliens then what they are asking is impossible to accomplish in a month, or a year or ever!  If, however, this is some cockamamie con game, as I suspect it is, then you are about to be arrested for conspiring---"
       “Wait!  Please, Mr. President, read the rest of the message.  But maybe not aloud,” Mitzi said in a pleading tone.  The President glanced down at the page.

       If the President is skeptical about this message and does not believe it has been sent by us, emissaries of the Sciopod Nation, let the following information be proof of our existence:
His mistress’s name is Ginger Champagne.
Address: Miramar Apartments, 1301 15th Street NW
His and her safe’s combination is 37-12-2-71
It contains $500,000, antique jewelry and the remains of a Colt 45.

Her pet name is Reddy
His pet name is BigBoy

       The Leader of the Free World turned beet red and handed the notebook back to Mitzi but not before taking the Presidential Pen and scratching out this last bit of unwelcome information.

       The message requesting that representatives be selected to assemble at a, as of yet unannounced, destination was delivered by courier to as many nations as possible.  It was a slow and fruitless process.  Most embassies and Presidential  Palaces ignored what they determined was simply a prank.  ‘Discuss World Peace?  Isn’t that why we have a  membership in the United Nations? Please!’

       Leahcin sat on Negasis' knee, looking somewhat like a ventriloquist’s dummy. They were discussing the campaign to recruit representatives for the world conference on rescuing the earth.  Things were not going well.
       “You must understand, most of the leaders of these nations do not believe any of this,” explained Negasi,  “They are too concerned with all the problems they are having to deal with to even consider a fantastic request from creatures of another world.”
       We are not from another world.  We are from this world!
       “Yes, yes, I’m sorry---”
       It is interesting how your scientists always talk about the first woman, Lucy,  her fossils being over three million years old, discovered here in Ethiopia, correct?
       “Yes, right.  We call her Dinkinesh.”
But no mention of the first man.  Biologically there had to be two in order to create a third.  Is that not correct?
       “Well, yes,” Negasi replied, beginning to wonder, “What are you trying to say?”
       If you were able to extract DNA from Dinkinesh and compare it to our DNA what do you think you might find?
       “You mean your Sciopod DNA?” Negasi asked.  Leahcin nodded and smiled.  It hit Negasi like a zap from a taser.  “Your ancestors interbred with the first humans!  That would mean---”
       ‘We are brothers under the skin, as it were,’ Leahcin said, with an even larger smile.

       Hiram Granger sat in the Simpson’s living room talking with Matt.  It had been snowing lightly and there was a warm orange glow radiating out from  the fireplace.  Matt put another hunk of split oak on the fire and returned to his seat.
       “When are you planning to leave?” he asked Granger.
       “As soon as the snow stops, if it doesn’t get too deep,” Hiram responded.
       “And where exactly are you going again?”
       “That’s just it, I’m not quite sure.  I just know my dreams keep telling me it’s somewhere on a mountain.”
       “And you’re going with Scott Rawles in his truck?”
       “Yep.  This voice in my dream said it’s important that he come along.”
       “You do know how crazy you sound, how crazy this whole thing sounds?”
       “Yes, I do, but these are crazy times, Matt.  And I have to follow my instincts.”
       “Okay, I understand that  part.  You’ve always been the person we’ve listened to because of your ‘instincts’.  But to set out on a journey to somewhere, you don’t know where, with Scott Rawles, Mr. Barn Burner, of all people.  Why not take Fred or Lester---or even me?”
       “Rawles is a tough survivalist.  He has skills I don’t have. More importantly, Matt, is that I need you to take over keeping the town running safely.  Can you do that for me---for Unity?”
       “Yeah, sure, but I still don’t like this whole deal, this whole wild goose chase.”
       “Matthew, something is going to happen on this mountain and I have to be there.”
       Matt stood up, took the poker and stabbed at the logs in the fireplace.  “I only hope it’s something good.”

       By the middle of April it was obvious no ‘save the world’ meeting was ever going to take place.  Although the internet had kept running, but only in fits and starts and with electricity a very iffy thing, it was almost useless for communicating.  The few messages that showed up on computers were mostly composed of memes about little green men and crystal meth caves.  No one took the Sciopod ultimatum seriously.  Almost no one.

April 15th
     My angels are not happy. They can’t believe people are not listening to them and doing what is required.  I have a direct line to the President that they installed in the safe house after our meeting two weeks ago and I read to him their latest message. Here’s what they dictated to me:

     On April 3Oth all five volcanos located in the Hawaiian Islands will erupt causing Tsunami waves that will hit Japan and the West Coast of the United States.
     This can only be prevented if there is evidence that an assembly of representatives is beginning to form on an inactive volcano found at this location:
     Latitude 45.3736 degrees N
     Longitude 121.6960 degrees W
We share this information with you in the hopes that you will join together in peace on the mountain.

     When I repeated this to the President he laughed and pointed out how ironic it was that this warning came on income tax day.  He said ‘No one is paying their taxes and that’s going to bring this country down faster than any Tsunami.’ But he said he’d have his guys look into it, whatever that means.  Sounds very scary to me.

       Human blood can have a bluish tint to it until it is exposed to air, either through an incision, an injury or when it is taken as a sample.  It then turns bright red.  In Leahcins’ case it remained blue even as it filled up the test tube.  Negasi surreptitiously sent samples of his and Leahcins’ blood to a trusted friend of his, at Addis Ababa University, for DNA analysis.  While the friend was very curious about the color difference he went ahead and tested the two samples.  The results were sent back by courier to the Ayalu laboratory.
       Negasi knew, from his study of genetics at school, that all living matter shared a certain percentage of the same DNA. For example, humans and cats share 90% of the same DNA. But for a creature, supposedly from another galaxy, to have 95% of the same genetic makeup as a living organism from earth could mean only one thing:  somewhere along the way a Sciopod mated with a human.  Negasi and Leahcin were related.  In fact all humanity was related to the Sciopods.

       When Negasi returned to his room he found Leahcin pacing back and forth across Negasi’s desk.  He seemed agitated and, turning towards the volcanologist, he began to speak in that mysterious cranial way.
       ‘My friend, I have much to tell you and it is most unpleasant.’
       “What?  Are you alright?  Did one of the inspectors see you?”
       No.  I always hide under the bed whenever I hear them in the hall.  Their boots are very heavy.
       “Good.  So what is the matter?”
       Leaching stopped pacing and sat down on a dog-eared copy of Earth On Fire by Dr. Kaleo Tiller that Negasi had been reading.
       The humans are ignoring our directive.  We will have to follow through with our demonstration.
       “Are you talking about this peace conference plan of yours?  I told you at the time it was a noble gesture but not one that would be accepted by the various nations. We humans are hardwired to dismiss what we do not understand.”
       ‘But in two weeks the Sciopod Nation will be releasing energy from the volcanos in Hawaii as a warning, as an incentive to at least try and assemble a---
       “When you say ‘release energy’ are you talking about volcanic eruptions?”
       ‘Yes.  We will be allowing  the magma that we have kept dammed up to flow up the tubes and burst out of the mountains and pour into the sea.  This will create earthquakes and Tsunamis.’
       “Leahcin, this is ridiculous.  Even if you were able to accomplish such a thing it would be wrong for so many reasons.  You would be doing  exactly what you are trying to correct---using violence and destruction to force people to do your will.”
       ‘Yes, this true.  That is why I am distressed.  I would prefer to find another path but time is running out.  If we do not begin to work together, to find solutions for all the madness that is happening here on earth, there will be no earth left. We had thought, it  seems somewhat foolishly, that you humans would understand and would volunteer to join us on this mission to save both our races and the earth.’
       “I do not know what I can do.  I have notified as many friends as I could reach about you and the Sciopod Nation and your amazing technology. But I am just a lowly research assistant with no political clout and---”
       ‘You are more than you think you are. We do not want politicians, military leaders, kings or presidents to be representatives of the countries of the world.  We only want one wise human being from each nation to join us who has no other ambition than to help establish a safer and more benevolent world. Therefore, instead of waiting for volunteers to show up we have decided to make our own selections.  I have nominated you to represent Ethiopia.’
       Negasi sat himself down on the edge of the bed and stared in shock at Leahcin.  “Me?  I do not understand.”
       In every country, we are searching for the best candidate.  Once the world realizes that we are serious, those who are chosen will assemble on Wy’east Mountain to begin the healing process.
       “Wy’east Mountain.  Where is that?”
       ‘It is an inactive volcano in America.’

       It was mid-April before Granger and Rawles were able to leave Unity.  The snow, that had started as a light dusting, turned into a series of blizzards that left a record amount of the white stuff everywhere.  A single warm afternoon caused the eight foot drifts to thaw a little only to have them turn into land locked icebergs when the temperature dropped to 10 below.  The town had never seen  late Winter storms of such power.
       “Mother nature is letting us know who’s really in charge,” said Lester O’Brien as he helped Scott chip away at the wall of frozen snow that incased his truck.  Fred Napier, using his bulldozer, removed the wall of boulders and continued to plow his way along Route 26.  Hiram finished collecting the supplies necessary for this trip into the unknown and by the early morning of the 27th he and Scott were on their way.

       It was not an easy journey.  With no state highway maintenance workers  riding their snow plows and spreading salt along Route 26 there were stretches of highway that were like skating rinks.  Toward the evening of their first day out they had to stop and spend an hour moving a large fir tree that had fallen across the road.  By the time they had pushed and pulled it far enough out of the way to drive around it they were exhausted.
       “Let’s find a place to stop and bed down,” Scott suggested, “I’m beat and hungry enough to eat a horse.”
       “Fine with me,” agreed Hiram.
They drove on for a few miles until Hiram spotted an old barn off to their right.  It’s roof was covered with about two feet of snow and it seemed to be tilting slightly to the east.
       “Let’s check it out,” he said, “At least we’ll be inside, out of the elements.”
After pulling over to the side of the highway they carried their backpacks and sleeping bags through the knee-deep snow and entered the barn through  partially open doors.
       “Well, it ain’t the Ritz but I’ll do,” Scott said, dropping his gear on the cracked concrete floor. “Cold as a nun’s tits in here.  We need to build a fire.”
       “In here?,” queried Hiram, “Isn’t that sort of dangerous?”
       “Naw.  We can build a fire pit out here in the middle of the floor with those,” Scott said, pointing to a pile of broken cement blocks stuck in one of the corners of the barn.  “There are enough holes in the side of this old barn to let out the smoke.”
       Using some dry hay, and pieces of old wood, that had been part of the stalls for either the horses or cows who used to be the barn’s residents, a fire was started.  After a meal of venison jerky and canned tomato soup they bedded down for the night.
       “Well, we made it this far,” Scott said, with a big yawn, “Not very far, actually, but since we don’t know where the hell we’re going I guess it doesn’t much matter.”
       “I will know soon, Scott,” Hiram replied as he turned over in his sleeping bag and faced the fire.  He pressed the eagle feather close to his heart.

       By midnight the fire had died down a bit but it still painted shadows on the weathered walls of the barn.  Hiram opened his eyes and looked over at Scott who had scrunched down so far into his sleeping bag that only his ‘Better Nation’ hat was visible.  Hiram had been dreaming, dreams about green tree-covered mountains and one very tall white mountain with circles of bright white light spinning around it’s summit.
       Hiram struggled to reach the leather pouch tied to the belt of his pants.  He pulled it up out of his sleeping bag and, opening it, took out another ‘liberty cap’.  “Sorry to bother you again, Wyakin,” he whispered, as he swallowed the little mushroom,  “but I know you understand.”  He closed his eyes and waited.

       Ted Reinhurst stood at one side of the safe houses’ all-purpose card table while Mitzi sat at  the other side.  On the top of the table was a map and Reinhurst was pointing to something  in the middle.
       “This is the location our research department came up with following the coordinates you gave us.”
       “I’m not so good with maps,” explained Mitzi, “What is that white spot?”
       “It’s a mountain.  Mt. Hood, in the state of Oregon, to be exact.”
       “But they said it was an inactive volcano.”
       “It is. The last time there was a minor eruption was in 1907,” said Reinhurst, “What we want to know is why the hell your ‘angels’ want half the world to show up there.”
       “Well, like they dictated, to hold some kind of peace conference.”
       “And now they’re threatening to blow up Hawaii if all these countries, including the U.S.A, don’t get their asses up to the side of this mountain in the next three days!”
       “They gave you guys a month’s warning,” reminded Mitzi.
       “Look, even if we wanted to do what they’re asking it would take at least six months to pull this off.  International conferences take years of planning.  With the world’s infrastructure shot to hell, by your ‘angels’ gunnapping escapade I might add,  getting these so called representatives there,” he said, tapping angerly at the center of the map, “is an impossibility!”
       “Okay, I understand.  But what can we do?”
       “Not we, you!  You have to tell them to call it off.”
       “Now wait one damn minute!  I’m just the interpreter here.  I can’t order them to do anything,” Mitzi replied, “The eruption is to take place one minute after midnight on the 29th.  I guess that’s early morning on the 30th, right?  What plan does the President have?”
       “He’s convinced it’s a hoax.  He wants to wait and see.”
       “Oh, my god!  And what about you?  Do you think it’s a hoax?”
       Reinhurst sat down with a heavy sigh.  He looked at Mitzi and she saw a weariness in his eyes that indicated many sleepless nights.
       “I believe it’s going to happen.”

       It did happen.  On Thursday, April 30 at 12:01 am HAST, 5:01am EST, the five   volcanos; Kilauea,  Mauna Loa,  Hualalai,  Mauna Kea and Haleakala exploded with a roar that shook seismographs around the world and sent Tsunamis racing across the Pacific Ocean towards Japan and the United States.
       Dr. Tiller, heeding the warning Tamsin and Negasi had sent him weeks before, had left his facility the day before the eruptions.  He stood on the deck of a friends yacht and watched as the sky boiled over with ash and black clouds.  Steam, from the lava flowing into the sea, rose like giant white chrysanthemums.   The red glow of the rivers of magma were reflected in the doctor’s glasses and in the tears running down his cheeks.  The eruption of one volcano was an acceptable danger, the explosion of five across the islands was a catastrophe from which there was no recovery.
       All around him other small craft were gathering as the island residents fled the holocaust by any means possible.  Bobbing in the water were what Dr. Tiller thought at first were glass floats for fish nets but he eventually figured out that they were the Sciopods.  ‘Of course,’ he realized , ‘they’re fleeing as well.  They’ve just sacrificed their own homes.’ At that moment a giant swell lifted all the boats and the floating white globes and pushed them further out to sea.

       The President was awakened at 5:05am by his chief of staff.  Throwing on a robe he was quickly escorted to a briefing room.  Among all the military staff and the few faithful members of his cabinet still on board stood Ted Reinhurst like a beacon of shame.
       “Don’t say it, Teddy.  Let’s just get down to work.  Fill me in.”  The Secretary of Defense began by showing him some footage of the destruction.  “We got this just now.  Communications, as you know are touch and go.  This was sent by one of our subs that surfaced near the main island.  That’s where the majority of the volcanoes are.”
       “And the tidal waves?” the President asked, picking up his coffee mug.
       “The Tsunami have started across the Pacific in two directions,” answered Ted, “West to Japan and East to the West Coast.”
       “And when is this Tsunami supposed to make landfall?”
       “Well, sir, it’s not just one wave, it’s many---one right after the other and  they’re moving at 600 miles an hour.  Right now, the first wave is expected to hit Northern California and the rest of the Northwest coast in approximately three hours.”
       “Jesus Christ!” the President exclaimed, “Have they been alerted?  Have they started evacuations?”
       “We’re doing our best to reach as many authorities as possible,” the defense secretary explained, “We’re asking amateur short-wave radio operators along the coast to spread the word.  Without the television and the internet satellites  working properly it’s difficult---”
       “Fuck the satellites!  Use Morse code or smoke signals, whatever!  We’ve got to get the people to higher ground!”
       “The Japanese Ambassador has been notified and is working to alert his superiors in Japan.  They have a little more time before the waves start hitting--- about six hours.  Alaska, Southern California and the west coast of South America will be getting battered by giant surf later in the day.”
       “What time is it now on our West Coast?” asked the President.
       “A little after two am,” Ted answered.
       “Shit!  Everybody’s asleep,” the President continued, “What about Hawaii?  Was everybody asleep there as well?”
       “I’m afraid there are going to be massive casualties.  We think some people got off the islands in boats but we don’t know how many yet.”
       “Okay, everybody let’s get to work.  Rally your staff and do whatever you can  to prepare for this---this disaster,” ordered the President, “GO!  Don’t just stand there like zombies!”
       The heads of the various departments began to shuffle out of the room, many of them looking as if they were in shock.
       “Ted, you stay here, please,” said the President, “We have to talk.”

       Hiram woke up to a violent shaking of his bed.  At first he thought it was Scott letting him know it was time to get back on the road but it was still dark outside.  He and Rawles had stopped at a motel that seemed to still be in business although the woman running it explained that there was no electricity or hot water.  Hiram explained that it didn’t matter, they just needed to get out of the cold.  She told them to take any room they wanted as they were the only travelers that had come by in the last five days.  There would be no charge as she was leaving the place by the end of the week.
       Hiram sat up and put his feet on the floor as the rumbling began to diminish.  Scott had awakened and was staring at the chair by the desk as it rocked back and forth.
       “What the hell?!” he exclaimed.
       “Seems to be we’ve just had an earthquake,” replied Hiram.
       “Great.  What’s next? A tornado?  It’s just one goddamned thing after another.  Blizzards, wildfires---”
       “I think this is connected to our journey to Wy’east mountain.”
       “Hiram, you find everything connected to everything.  And why do you keep calling Mt. Hood Wy’east?  We’re heading to Mt. Hood aren’t we?” Scott asked as he started pulling on his boots.
       “I prefer to call it by it’s Native American name.  Wy’east is what the Multnomah tribe called it for centuries before you folks got here.”
       “Alright, alright, don’t start.  It’s just that it’s such a confusing sounding name. I keep thinking you’re asking ‘why east?’  Like I’ve taken a wrong turn or something.”
       “Are you okay?” Hiram asked, noticing that Scott’s hands were shaking.
       “What do you think?  It’s not everyday you get woke up by an earthquake instead of an alarm clock! Do you think it’s done doing its thing?”
       “There will probably be some aftershocks but I think the worst is over.”
       “Well, I don’t know about you, but I’m wide awake.  We might as well hit the highway.  What do you say?”
       “Okay, by me , if you’re alright driving in the dark.”
       “Man, I’ve got eyes like a cat.”

       Twelve miles down the road Scott slammed on the brakes as they came around a curve and faced a wall of snow.
       “What the fuck!”
       He and Hiram climbed out of the truck and stood in front of a two-story high pile of snow.
       “Avalanche,” said Hiram, “caused by the quake, I would imagine.”
       “Great!  What now, oh mighty warrior?”
       “We find another route.”
       “But we got no GPS!”
       “Have you got any kind of a map?”
       “You mean one of those old paper things that’s folded like an accordion? And after you open it up you can never get it folded back together properly?”
       “You’ve got a lot of old junk in the back of your truck.”
       “True.  Most of it is stuff I was getting ready to dump,” Scott said, as he and Hiram began walking around to the back of the pickup. “If there is a map in here I will truly believe in miracles.” They both began trawling through the crate of broken tools, oil-stained rags and old newspapers when Hiram stopped and held up an old beat up copy of a Rand McNally 1995 Road Atlas.
       “I guess you better start believing.”

       Negasi looked at the read-out from the Ayalu seismograph and  was stunned by the power of the earthquake caused by the eruptions in Hawaii.  Although he was an entire continent and ocean away from the event, it registered 5.1 on the Richter Scale.  He couldn’t imagine what the number was at the epicenter.
       He went to his room and, without saying word, picked up Leahcin and put him carefully into his canvas backpack.  He then stepped out into the hall.
       ‘Where are we going, my friend?’
       “We are having a meeting with Dr. Decker.  Stay down in my bag so the soldiers will not see you.”
       They proceeded up the stairs to Tamsin’s office and, after shutting and locking the door, Negasi pulled the little Sciopod out of his backpack and set him down on Dr. Decker’s desk.  Dr. Decker did not look at all happy to see one of the perpetrators of this newest catastrophe.
       “What you have done is monstrous and completely at odds with what you claim is your mission to promote peace in the world!” Tamsin said, finding it difficult not to grab Leahcin by the neck in order to strangle him.
I know it appears to seem counterproductive and if there were any other way—
       “What is he saying?,” Dr. Decker asked, since she wasn’t able to hear his voice in her brain like Negasi could.
       “He agrees and wishes there were another way.”
       “The death toll in Hawaii is in the tens of thousands and the shores of Japan are being bombarded with forty foot waves.  Nagasaki is completely under water.  Sea water has flooded the beaches of Oregon and Northern California. Seattle has ten feet of water rushing through the downtown area.  And it’s not over yet.”
       ‘This event was determined to be the least destructive of the many choices we considered over the many years we spent trying to find ways to stop the madness.’
       When Negasi repeated this statement to Tamsin her jaw dropped and it took her a moment to recover.
       “If this was the ‘least destructive’ what, in god’s name, was the most destructive?”
       “He says it was between a hydrogen bomb and the pneumonic plague,” relayed Negasi.
       “Oh my lord!  This is unbelievable.  And what happens now?”
       ‘Hopefully, the world will listen to what we are trying to say and begin to assemble a peace conference per our instructions.’
       “And if we do not?” asked Negasi.
       After a long pause, during which what Leahcim had just said was translated for Dr. Decker, the answer came.
       ‘We will be forced to set off more eruptions in Europe and Asia.’

May 2
I can’t believe my angels would do such a terrible thing.  But it looks like they did.  Last night they showed up and I read them the riot act.  They said they understood my anger but how else could they get the world to wake up and pay attention.

The President talked to me on our private line and when I told him  that if there was no evidence of progress in instrumenting the conference (what a mouthful), the Sciopods said they planned more eruptions, he told me to tell them to hold off, that he was working on their request.  He was in contact with the leaders of many of the nations and they seemed to be willing to discuss the problem and to finding possible solutions.

When I relayed his message to my Sciopod friends they said I should let the President know that political leaders were not invited to participate in this convocation.  The representatives must be humans with no ties to their own government other than being honorable citizens.  Furthermore, (these guys sure like to use long words) the Sciopods in each country would choose the delegate.  I nearly fainted when one of my angels said they had picked me to represent the United States.

Then the President asked, and I quote; “Okay, so what the hell do they want from us?”

I just now passed this question on to my angels and here is their response:
Transportation for delegates to the mountain (I guess they mean Mt. Hood in Oregon)

Housing at the site

Food service---accommodating dietary needs (insects for the Sciopods?  Yuck)

Transportation of delegates back to their country of origin
So I’ll pass this on to the President and we’ll see what happens.

       Granger and Rawles found a county service road on the map and by back tracking a few miles they got off  Route 26 and onto  97.  From there it was better driving but still a rather slow go, due to the cars and trucks abandoned along the highway for lack of gas. By late afternoon they reconnected with Route 26 which took them to the banks of the Columbia River and I-84.  They continued on this federal highway into the town of The Dalles  where Scott stopped to refill the fuel tank with some of the precious gasoline he had stored in containers before leaving Unity.
       “Hey, Granger, it looks like Momma Jane’s Pancake House is still open for business.  You up for some flap jacks ?”
       “Sounds good.  I hope they still have coffee.  I am in need of a big cup of java.”
       Although it turned out the menu was pretty limited, due to shortages, there was coffee and after a meal of chicken fried steak and mashed potatoes Hiram and Scott pushed on to Mt. Hood.  They exited 84, got onto Route 35 and, after skirting around several boulders that had tumbled down on the highway because of the earthquake, they entered  Mt. Hood National Park.  Ahead of them, rising up in the evening sky, was the 11,400 foot high snow covered mountain.
       “You know, Scott, it’s usually a six hour ride to get here from Unity---”
       “Yeah?  Well it took us two and a half days but we’re here.  And I hope you know what you’re doing.”

       Bad news travels fast.  Even with limited television, radio and internet service the reports coming from those countries devastated by the eruptions, earthquakes and tsunamis reached every continent, nation, city and village.  The world now knew about the Sciopods, this underground race that had been secretly watching over mankind since the first human crawled up out of the mud.  Most of the inhabitants of the 241 countries, nations and territories that comprised the planet earth became aware of the demands of the Sciopods.

       Of course many factions developed: the believers, the doubters, the ignorers and the let’s-kill-em-allers who, if they could have resurrected some of the now defunct guns, would have mowed everyone down, women and children included. Fortunately, the plan of only one participant per country, who would be selected by a Sciopod, made the process a little more simple.  But there would always be those poor souls with inflated egos who couldn’t understand why they weren’t chosen to represent their nation.  Even a few Generals and a President or two tried unsuccessfully to get their names on the list.

       The choosing of the delegates was pretty much a secret process.  What the Sciopods were looking for was a human being, of any gender and any age,  who was naturally generous, honest, hardworking, skilled in any category, open to change and, most importantly, kind.  Not many of the current so-called World Leaders would be able to fill the bill. 
       After a delegate was selected, a Sciopod would visit this person, usually at night, to let them know, using their gift of brain translation, that they would be going to the sacred mountain.  So far no one had refused the honor which only reinforced the wisdom of the choices.  There had been requests that family members be able to accompany the delegate but, when informed this could not happen, the candidates accepted the ruling.  Some of the more religious delegates compared their being chosen to the annunciation.  You know, angels and pronouncements and white glowing orbs.

       The next step was a difficult one; transportation.  Getting the delegate to the closest airport was achieved by whatever means available, car, bus, train, horse, donkey, even elephant.  Once at the airport the Sciopods had to depend on the United States to send some sort of aircraft to pick up their candidate. All commercial airlines had been grounded due to fuel shortages. The President had promised to provide transportation, per the demands of the Sciopods, for all 241 representatives, be it by helicopter, jet or even Air Force One.  He contacted formally wealthy friends and, promising them free jet fuel, coerced  them into using their private jets and their flying skills to bring these visitors to Oregon.   Some of the larger jets where used for the long flights from China, Australia and New Zealand.  Whenever possible, several delegates were brought to one air field in order to fly them as a group to their destination, thus saving time and jet fuel.

May 5
       I am so excited.  This coming Saturday I am being flown across the  country to Portland, Oregon!  The only other time I’ve ever flown in a jet airplane was when we took the kids to Disney World in Orlando.
       At first, the President told me I might be going on Air Force One but instead a nice man who’s some big mucky muck in the Apple organization is flying me in his private jet.  Imagine, little Mitzi Irene Kovacs, born in Silver Springs Maryland, is flying across the country to be a representative for the United States of America.  Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Mr. Eddie Brownhart!  I’d love to bring Brian and Karen along but that’s not allowed so Barbara will continue to look out for them,
bless her soul.

       One of my angels branded me last night.  I know, it sounds like I was lassoed, tied up and had a red hot Lazy H burnt onto my rear.  But this was different and so amazing.  It seems, in order to identify the selected representatives and prevent any imposters from crashing the party we’re all getting an image printed on top of our left hand.  It’s kind of like when they stamp your hand at a club or a carnival, only it’s more permanent.  It’s an invisible blue BK that only appears under ultra violet light.  I asked my angel what the BK stands for and she said it means ‘Be Kind.’  Sounds like a good idea but not always easy to do.

       I’ve started packing.  We’re limited to one suitcase and one carryon, kind of like the restrictions the airlines used to impose.  However, I guess this is about our accommodations when we get to the mountain.  I imagine they don’t want a lot of luggage to get in the way.
       I’m tired and I’m going to go to bed for now. I hope I can sleep.

       Negasi was sitting on one of the very uncomfortable seats in the military transport airplane that was his ride to the conference on the mountain in Oregon. They had just taken off from the Royal Air Force Base in Oxfordshire, England, after refueling.  They were on the last leg of the 22 hour flight from Addis Ababa and  Negasis’ posterior was numb from having to sit on the thinly upholstered metal seat that folded down from the side wall of the plane.  Obviously, no first class treatment for the soldiers who usually rode in this army issued tin bucket.  Negasi had walked back and forth among the crates of equipment and supplies that were strapped to the floor of the plane in order to get some relief.  The only thing that made this almost 24 hour  journey bearable was knowing that he was going to be part of an important historical event.  He rubbed the top of his hand where Leahcin had lasered on an invisible BK and sat back down.
       He had invited Leahcin to join him but the Sciopod assured him he could get there on his own.  Negasi retrieved Leahcins’ sphere from his gym bag, where he had put it to keep it away from the eyes of the security guards.  Fortunately, at first glance it looked like a soccer ball so there was really no problem.  Leahcin was visibly happy to have his protective bubble back and would be using it to make the long journey to the sacred mountain.
       ‘I will see you soon, my friend.’

       One could imagine renaming Mt. Hood Ghost Mountain.   The ski lifts were not working, there were no hikers or climbers, the various camps were empty and Timberline Lodge was uninhabited except for a few members of the staff.  Since 1936 this hotel had been the place to go for a winter retreat and it was open all year round as well.  But now, as Hiram and Scott entered the huge log-beamed lobby all was as quiet as a cemetery.
       “You ever see the movie The Shining?” Scott asked, as they approached the registration counter, “They based that scary hotel on this place.  Shot some of the exterior scenes out in front.”
       “Good evening, gentlemen,” greeted an attractive young woman behind the desk, “May I help you?”
       “Er, yes, thanks,” Hiram replied, not used to being in the middle of such impressive surroundings, “Do you have a room available?  A double---I mean, with two beds?”
       “Sir, we have 77 rooms available for you to choose from as you are the first visitors we’ve had the pleasure to see in the last two weeks.”
       “Wow!” Scott exclaimed, “Business that bad, huh?”
       “With the electricity going on and off we don’t dare run the ski lifts since there’s the possibility someone will get stuck up in the air.  We can’t heat the swimming pool or the sauna.  With the gas shortage raging on, very few trucks are bringing us supplies so our kitchen is serving a very limited menu.  We can’t hold on to staff.  Our internet is down so taking reservations is impossible.” The desk clerk took a breath. “So have I sold you on staying here with us yet?”
       “Well, it actually sounds like my kind of place, Miss Tracy,” replied Hiram, reading her name tag, “Peace and quiet.  So---how much is one of your famous 77 rooms?”
       “Well, the off-season rate is $150 and it’s been off-season even during the on-season.  So, gentlemen, I guess it’ll be $150.”
       “Do you take cash?”
       “That’s all we take.  No internet service equals no credit cards.  Personal checks---same story.”
       Hiram reached into his denim jacket pocket and pulled out a money clip holding a thick slab of bills. 
       “Hey there Mr. Moneybags!,” Scott  commented, “You been holding out on me.”
       “It’s my rainy day fund,” Hiram explained, as he handed the clerk three fifty dollar bills, “There you go, Miss Tracy.”
       “Thank you very  much,” the clerk replied, as she put the cash into an ordinary metal box, “So what brings you here to Mt. Hood, Mr.---er?”
       “Granger, Hiram.”
       “He doesn’t know,” answered Scott, “Just following a dream.  I’m Scott, Scott Rawles.”
       “Well,  Mr. Rawles and Mr. Granger, welcome to Timberline Lodge. Here are your keycards.  Your room is number one just down the hall to your left.”
       As Scott reached for the keycards the phone behind the counter rang suddenly causing Tracy to make a little jump.
       “Oh, jeez!” she gasped, “That’s weird.  The phone has been silent for days.”
She picked up the receiver, handling it as if it were a snake.  “Good evening, Timberline Lodge, Tracy speaking.  How may I help you?”  She nodded and, using a pen and notepaper, wrote down two words.  Even though the writing was upside down Hiram could read what it said; National Guard.
       The Portland International Airport landing field resembled a crowded  parking lot that one would find at a Wal-Mart.  There were airplanes with passengers from all over the world resting in every corner of the airfield.  Every jetway had a large airplane parked at it’s gate and a long line of aircraft waiting behind them for their turn.  Some of the passengers had gotten out of the planes and onto the airfield rather than sit any longer on board in discomfort.  The airport officials, working at a frantic pace trying to get everyone off the aircrafts and safely inside the terminal, were confused by often finding only one passenger on many of the planes.  The order to turn the airport over to the National Guard came directly from the President of the United States so they didn’t question what was going on but it was a daunting operation.
       The smaller private jets, that had been pressed into service, were landing at either the Troutdale or the Hillsboro airports which specialize in non-commercial air traffic.   At all three of the airports there were yellow school buses lined up ready to transport the new arrivals to their destination.  These buses would eventually join a convoy of kaki colored trucks and jeeps, manned by members of the National Guard, that would accompany them on their journey.

       The President was implementing  the  requests of the Sciopods in order to prevent further disasters.  He had called up the National Guard and was ready to add a platoon of actual soldiers if necessary.  He had dipped into the nations’ reserve of emergency rations and was sending truck loads of food to the mountain resort.  While he could do this legally, because he had declared a state of emergency for the entire nation back in January, both the Senate and Congress were screaming bloody murder.
       “People are starving all over this country and you are feeding foreigners from countries we’ve never even heard of!” Senator Howard Lomax, Texas.
       “Why are we helping support this hippie, Communist, leftist, Anti-American rally, shamefully being held in one of our beloved National Parks?!” Rep. Robert W. Smithfield, Arizona.
       “Rumor has it that the President is funding a meeting between World Leaders and Martians on top of a mountain up in Oregon. Whatever.” Senator Leslie Anne Baker, California.

       Hiram woke up to the sound of trucks, many trucks, rumbling into the parking lot just below the windows of his and Scotts’ room.  Getting out of his bed, he hobbled over to the blackout drapes and pulled them open.   There were about a dozen various military vehicles, from Humvees to canvas covered six wheelers, pulling to a stop in front of the lodge.  Scott joined him at the window.
       “Wow!  The cavalry has arrived!  What do you think’s going on?”
       “I believe this is part of the preparation for the event that is going to happen here,” Hiram replied, beginning to get dressed.
       “So I don’t have to worry about the army coming to take you and me off to some island prison, never to be seen again?  Need I remind you that I’ve been through this before?”  Scott asked, pulling up his pants.
       Outside, men in uniform started spilling out of the trucks to begin unloading crates and boxes.  Some soldiers lifted canvas bags onto their shoulders and carried them towards the empty area at the far end of the parking lot.  There was a lot of shouting and pointing.
       Hiram and Scott headed down the hall toward the registration counter.  Miss Tracy was talking to a pudgy red-headed man dressed in fatigues.  She handed him a keycard and he headed down the hall to the right.
       “Who is that guy?” Scott asked, “What’s going on?”
       “That’s the adjutant general,” Tracy answered, looking like she had been up all night, which she probably had, “of the National Guard.  Seems the President has ordered the appropriation of the lodge for some important gathering, a summit of some sort.”
       “That’s  interesting,” Scott said, smiling, “A summit on a summit.”
       “He requested a room to use as a command center so I gave him a key to the manager’s office.  I was going to recommend one of our conference rooms but he said they would be needing every available space for the arrivals.”
       “Arrivals?” asked Scott.
       “I guess he means the dignitaries, the delegates who are attending whatever this is.  I’m afraid that’s all I was told.  Oh, and I’m sorry if you were planning to stay on  but the general said all guests would have to leave.  Evidently, this is a very hush hush meeting or whatever.  I’m so sorry.”
       “What did I tell you!  The army shows up and we’ve got to leave!”
       “What’s the name of the general?” asked Hiram
       “Oh, let me see, I have it here on this copy of the Presidents’ order.  Adjutant General Donald Byrne.”
       “Thank you, Miss Tracy,” Hiram replied, as he reached in his jacket pocket for the eagle feather.

       Mitzi sat back against the rigid seat in the school bus.  It was certainly a far cry from the soft leather lounge chair she had relaxed in as she was whisked across the country in the Apple mucky mucks’ private jet.  She was one of twelve passengers on a school ‘short bus.’  When they left the Hillsboro airport and headed to the Columbia  Gorge, and she saw the river and all the lush evergreen foliage, Mitzi was blown away.  She had heard the Pacific Northwest being referred to as ‘Gods’ country’ and know she knew why.

       On the same highway and two buses behind Mitzi’s, was Negasi’s.  He was also in awe of what he was seeing outside the school bus window but he was not prepared for the cold.  To leave the arid heat of the desert and within 24 hours be riding through the cool damp air of Oregon was definitely a shock.  When they got closer to the mountain and the temperature began to drop, he wondered if he would be able to function.

       “General Byrne?” Hiram inquired, rapping on the door frame.  The officer was  hanging up his parka and spun around quickly.
the general replied, “Who are you?”
       “My name is Hiram Granger,” he answered, “and this is Scott Rawles.”
       The general gave them a quick looking over.  “Are you the two guests who signed in last night?”
       “Yes, sir.”
       “Well, I’m sorry, but I’m going to have to escort you off the mountain.”
       “I understand completely, General Byrne, you have a job to do,” Hiram said, extending his right hand as if meaning to give the officer a friendly handshake.  Byrne reacted automatically and, as he gripped Hirams’ hand, Granger put his left hand on the generals shoulder.  Scott noticed that it was holding an eagle feather.
       “However, we have a job to do as well.  My friend and I are part of this event so we will be staying---with your permission of course.”
       The general looked a little confused and stepped back.  His body was, at first, rigid with military attitude but then he seemed to soften a bit and a smile lit up his face.
       “Absolutely,” he declared, “You must be the gentleman we were told about.  Forgive me for not recognizing you.  And your companion---what is his importance to this event---his title?”
       “He’s my---bodyguard.”

       “Bodyguard?!” Scott exclaimed as he and Hiram walked down the front steps of the lodge  and onto the parking lot. “How am I supposed to be your bodyguard and protect you without a weapon? Spit on the attacker?”
       “I had to think of something.”
       “I kinda thought I was your navigator or your survivalist specialist.”
       “That you are,” Hiram assured him.
       “And what did he mean when he said he was told about you?” Scott asked.
        “I have no idea.  Mistaken identity or something.”
        “You know, all this madness began when our guns were disabled.  That event has caused more confusion, disasters and poverty and death than probably the Black Plague.”
       “Well, I wouldn’t---”
       “So now here we are on this mountain, surrounded by soldiers, without weapons I might add, and you don’t even know why we’re here.”
       “I think the answer is arriving right now,” Hiram replied, gesturing to the first school bus pulling into the parking lot.

       By one o’clock in the afternoon eight full school buses and five ‘short buses’ had unloaded all their passengers.  The lobby of the Timberline Lodge was jam packed with people of every age, gender and color.  There were turbans, fez’s and yarmulkes, muumuus and saris, kenti cloth and denim, dreads and buzz cuts.
        Miss Tracy and her assistants were in overwhelm attempting to assign rooms to the 241 delegates.  She had been told to first use the ultra-violet light, employed for checking currency, to reveal the BK applied to the left hand of each legitimate guest.  Hiram volunteered to help and his next suggestion was to try and find a linguist to help translate the hundreds of languages that were swirling around the lobby.  He found someone who spoke four languages and it  was a start but it wasn’t enough.  That was when a tall young Ethiopian stepped forward.  It was Negasi.
       “Excuse me.  May I make a suggestion?”
       “Yes, of course,” replied Hiram, “Do you speak any of these dialects?”
       “Some, but I am not proficient. However, the Sciopods are capable of translating any language.”
       “The who?” Hiram asked.
       “The Sciapots,” Scott explained, “You know, those white round floating things that supposedly started all this.  Where have you been?  You said you saw them in your dreams.”
        “The Sciopods are supposed to join us here for the conference,” Negasi continued, “They have this way of communicating non-vocally and they are very good translators.”
       “Non-vocally?” Hiram said, trying to make sense of all the new information that was coming his way, “What does that mean and what exactly is the reason for this gathering?”
        It is a peace conference.  We are representatives from every country on earth.”
       Suddenly, Hirams’ head became flooded with all the images he had seen in his dreams and in his sessions with his Wyakin, Spirit Bear.  This was why he had had to come here to the Sacred Mountain, to Wy’east.  He was to be part of this momentous chapter in history.  He felt both elated and frightened and was about to ask Negasi another question when the noise in the lobby increased and he heard shouts and cheers.  He saw that people had turned toward the windows facing Mt. Hood and were pointing and jumping up and down.

       From the very top of the snow covered mountain a cloud had formed that Hiram thought at first was just a mist rising from the peaks due to the warmth of the sun.  But as it blew closer to the lodge it began to break apart and Hiram could see that it was made up of basketball sized white orbs.
       “Sciopods! Sciopods!” A chant rose up in unison from the conference participants.  It seemed ‘Sciopod’ was pronounced the same in every language.
       “Jesus, Mary and Joseph!” exclaimed Scott, “Would you look at that!  They’re coming this way!  I hope they’re friendly!”
       The cloud had split into two lines and was descending toward the lodge.  Several people from the crowd rushed to hold open the front doors. The globes wrapped around the building, as if to hug it, and then one by one they flew into the lobby.
       Hiram and Scott stood in total awe of the scene that was unfolding in front of them.  High above their heads, the ceiling and the wooden beams were awash with a white light radiating from the spheres as they spun around in concentric circles.  After a minute or so they began swoop down over the crowd and fly back and forth above the upturned faces.
       “I believe they are looking for their human companion,” Negasi explained to Granger and Rawles. And at that moment one of the globes stopped and hovered over Negasi’s head.  
       ‘Hello, my friend.’
       “Hello, Leahcin.”
       Hiram turned in a slow circle and watched as the pods began to hang, like Japanese lanterns, over each one of the hundreds of heads of the people standing in the lobby.
       “This can’t be real,” Scott whispered.  The room grew very still as each person began to listen to what their Sciopod was brain translating.  Scott found himself shaking and sat on the edge of one of the big leather couches to calm himself down.  That’s when he noticed something else.
       “Hey, man, look up.  You got a visitor.”
Even before Scott had said anything Hiram had felt a presence above his head.  Now, as he slowly lifted his eyes upward, he was dazzled by the white light and he heard a voice.  ‘Hello, my friend.’

       By that evening the National Guard had taken over the kitchen and had prepared meals for the hundreds of the representatives.  The cooks tried to follow the many dietary restrictions, not always successfully, but did the best they could.
       Tracy had worked out that if she put three guests in each of the 77 rooms and had the national guard set up ten cots in the Barlow conference room she could accommodate everyone.  Hiram and Scott volunteered to sleep in the lobby.  Negasi and Hiram, working with their personal Sciopods, were able to translate for Miss Tracy and this moved things along very efficiently.  By 11:00 pm almost everyone was settled in their rooms, General Byrne and his men were bedded down in the tents set up on the slopes of the mountain and Scott and Hiram were talking softly in the empty lobby.
       “I’m a little upset that I didn’t get one of these floating gizmos,” Scott said, pointing to the Sciopod resting on the side table next to Hiram.
       “You can share mine.  Its’ name is Selui, by the way.  And haven’t I been telling you what it’s been saying to me, right?”
       “Yeah.  It’s just that I kinda feel I’m not really needed here.”
       “Oh my man, you are very much needed.  The next few days are going to be quite difficult.  I’m going to need all the support I can get.”

       Hiram hadn’t shared everything with Scott that Selui had told him. Earlier, after dinner, Hiram had excused himself and took a long walk among the tall Douglas Fir trees that embraced the lower slopes of the mountain.  His Sciopod drifted alongside him and they talked in that brain whispering way.
       “Why exactly am I here?”
       ‘You are to be the leader.’
       “But I’m just an ordinary guy who manages---managed a general store.”
       And that is why we have chosen you.  You are honest, generous, you listen more than you talk, you are organized, especially in the way you run your business.
       “But I am not a leader.”
       ‘That is not true.  In the past few months you have led a town through many crises. With the help of your Spirit Bear you have found solutions to several serious situations.  You know what I say is the truth or you wouldn’t be here.
       “I only know that the Sacred Mountain called to me.  I didn’t know why.”
       ‘And now you do know.’
       “Yes, but isn’t this a conference that will affect lives around the world?”
       ‘That is the reality.  We must start repairing the damage done to the earth and find a way to live together peacefully.
       “A very noble and difficult goal.  In all probability an unreachable one as well.”
       ‘You are forgetting one ingredient that has never been part of past attempts at peace accords.
       “And what is that?”
       ‘Us.  We Sciopods will be working along side you humans.  You are not alone.’
       “Alright, I understand all that you’re saying.  But, if I’m not mistaken,  it’ll be only me standing in front of hundreds of people and---and me trying to guide them.  I don’t even know how to begin.”
       ‘Just take a breath, open your mouth and the words will come.’
       Hiram stopped next to a bench, sat down and stared up at the mountain.  The sun was setting behind him leaving only a dusting of gold on the summit of Wy’east.
       “I have one more question, Selui.”
       ‘Yes?  Does it concern your companion, Mr. Rawles?
       “How did you know I was---”
       ‘Mr. Rawles is to be your biographer.  He will return to your village and relay what happens here.  He will be a witness to what we accomplish.’
       “That sounds like I won’t be going home.”
       ‘Do not try to see into the future.  It is a road not yet open to us.’

       At 10:00 am the next day, all of the delegates were seated at long tables in Ullman Hall, the largest meeting room in the lodge. Clipped somewhere on every participants’ garment was a tag, provided by Miss Tracy, with the attendees’ name and country, nation or territory.   A glowing white orb rested on the table in front of each member.  Mitzi Brownhart patted the side of her Sciopod and smiled. When she left the safe house in Virginia she hadn’t known then that only one of her angels would accompany her.  Fortunately, the pod, humming in front of her like a contented cat, was her favorite angel, Lorak. 
       While the national guard had helped set up the tables and chairs and would continue to work in the kitchen and laundry, General Byrne was informed that there could be no military presence at any of the upcoming meetings.  At first he bristled and did some huffing and puffing but a surreptitious brush of an eagle feather ended his resistance.  When all of the soldiers were either back up on the slope or on guard duty at the entrance to the Park the first meeting began.
       Hiram stood on a dais set up at one end of the room so everyone could see him. Selui floated a few inches away, near the left side of his head.  Scott sat at a small table to his right, notepad and pen in readiness.  ‘Nothin but a fuckin secretary’ he thought, but secretly feeling rather pleased to be a part of this incredible journey.

       “Good morning and welcome,” Hiram began, stopping long enough to let the Sciopods start the translation process.  “I am not going to take up our valuable time with a long speech.  We all know why we are here.  It is more important for us to begin actively working toward our goal of trying to identify and rectify the many  problems that plague our world.
       I am a Native American.  My ancestors arrived here about 15,000 years ago. Many of you have ancestors who populated your homelands thousands of  years ago as well.  I am sure they would not only not recognize the world we live in now but they would be horrified by what they would find.  I will not waste time listing all the man-made ills that they would see and that have brought us to this crossroad.  We will be visiting those ills together as the week progresses.
Today we will start our journey by working on what is probably the most difficult problem we face: getting along.”  There was a nervous rustle as people heard the translation and looked around at the faces that surrounded them.
       “We will start by each of us choosing a partner.  I want those of you who feel there is a person here who is your enemy to partner with that person.   The rest of you are free to choose whomever you want.” 
       At first there was no movement at the tables and then the representative from Palestine arose slowly from his chair and looked around the room.   A few seconds later, a woman stood up and then carefully made her way around the tables and chairs to confront the Palestinian.  She was from Israel.  The man who had been sitting across from the Palestinian graciously gave up his chair to the woman and the two enemies sat down.   As if this little drama was a signal,  the room erupted with activity as all of the rest of the attendees searched for a partner.  A few more enemies sought each other out;  a Russian sat across from a Ukrainian, South Korea found someone from North Korea, but for the most part it was more like a mad rush not to be left without  a partner.
       “When you have settled down,” Hiram continued, “we’ll begin.  Choose one of you to be the interviewer and the other the interviewee.  When that’s decided, the person conducting the interview will ask questions of the interviewee in an effort to learn as much about that person as possible.  Your Sciopod will help with translations. This interview will continue until lunch.  After lunch the reverse will take place and that interview will terminate at four o’clock.  We will then gather here after dinner to discuss what we learned.  Please begin.”

       And that’s the way it started,  getting to know your enemy, getting beyond the surface, turning a stranger into friend.  Hiram partnered up with Scott and they got beyond the ‘hippie half-breed’ and the ‘macho red neck’ nonsense.  In a Hollywood-like moment, Mitzi sat down with Negasi and was impressed with his intelligence and gingerbread skin and he was fascinated with her honesty and freckles.
       In the next few days committees were set up to begin dealing with the overwhelming number of critical issues. Water—the lack of, the misuse of, the polluting of. Hunger---the starving of whole nations.  Poverty---lack of affordable housing, unemployment, homelessness. Climate change---storms, flooding, drought, Artic melting.  Over Population---warring over land rights, crumbling infrastructure.  Fortunately, the Sciopods had some very helpful suggestions and offered access to much of their technological wizardry.  But everyone knew that nothing was going to be solved overnight.  This whole process was going to take many years and many struggles but at least it had begun and it had been started by the people,  not by governments.  And as long as there was proof that this process was continuing the Sciopods promised they would not institute Armageddon.

       Hiram realized that he was in for the long haul.  His trip to the Sacred Mountain was only the beginning.  When Mt. Hood was reclaimed, as it would have to be, his spirit bear would lead him to his next venue.  Already he felt a little tug and he was having dreams about geysers and hot springs.  Scott would be heading back to Unity, to his men and to a new mission: driving to areas that needed affordable housing  and renovating existing abandoned structures so everyone had a roof over their head.  “I got the men, the tools and the skills.  What the hell!”

       The President sat at his desk and stared at Ted Reinhurst.  “Run this by me again, Teddy.  This information came from where?”
       “The CIA.  One of their operatives in Germany was contacted by an employee from the ThyssenKrupp Steel company.”
       “And this guy just volunteered this information out of the kindness of his heart?”
       “Well, not exactly,” replied Reinhurst, “Economically, things over there are worse than here, so I guess he thought he could sell what he knew for a little cash.”
       “And he said---”
       “That Krupp has developed a new steel that is impervious to the Van Dijck crystals.”
       “Do we think this is for real or a scam?”
       “The CIA says that ThyssenKrupps’ main foundry has been cold for months but now it’s up and running hot 24/7.”
       “My god, this could mean we’re back in business!”
       “Well, not yet.  It means the Germans are back in business.  I’m pretty sure they’re not about to share the formula with anybody.”
       “Then we have to make Krupp an offer they can’t refuse.  And if that doesn’t work then we appropriate the formula.”
       “Stealing it will be very difficult if not impossible.”
       “Ted, my boy, this is the U.S.A.  We can do anything.  Let Ryan over at CIA  know that we have a ’Mission Impossible’ for him.”
       “Yes, sir.”
       “We’re going to get our guns back,” the President said gleefully, unwrapping his first Snickers of the day.

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