THE ASIAN STEPPES
Marc Halvers awoke with a start after a night of running dreams. His life consisted of many broken strands and the caring part of his memory was painful. Eight years ago he had been one of a three man detail to escort and protect Sarah Litel on a project shrouded so thoroughly that its location was far away from any United States Military Base or regular Testing Ground. No branch of the government trusted another. Secret programs had monies ear-marked by writing ‘special service account’ or ‘multi-purpose funds’ in the Defense Budget. The various innocent sounding designations left the impression that these monies might be expenditures for the tea parties of officers’ wives.
They had landed on a huge plateau with jagged, snow-capped mountains encircling them. Out on the perimeter of the camp Marc spied the five-hundred man contingent of Special Forces securing the area, the elite of the elite, every one of them expert in martial arts and weaponry. First-class living accommodations had been flown in on C-17 cargo planes. Leave it to the U. S. Military to set up the best Little America in the most god-forsaken spot on Earth.
The Special Ops teams met in the briefing bunker every day and Marc acknowledged Dirk Roderick peremptorily: ‘You’re here and I’m here, so we’ll make the best of it’. They had never had a run in; they just didn’t like each other. Marc was levelheaded and thoughtful. Dirk considered him a Goody Two-Shoes. He knew that Dirk was amoral at best. At worst, the light from Dirk’s eyes flashed ‘psycho’.
Marc had drawn the midnight to 8:00 AM shift and figured this meant that Dr. Litel would be snug in her bedroom for the night, while he sat outside in the living room or got up to check around the house from time to time. Outside, soldiers were on duty, and all the windows were barred, but he could never let his guard down. He had tried to be formal with Dr. Litel from the start in this artificial community of small suburban ranch houses. She remarked that being overly formal was tedious and unnatural. He agreed that being informal was more pleasant. After two weeks, they had settled into a routine. Alone he adopted Sarah’s informality but kept to strict military protocol when they were with others. He had arrived fifteen minutes early for his shift and waved a lazy salute to Cal.
"You’re Okay to go, Cal." Cal slung his bag onto a shoulder, returned the salute. As he took his leave they exchanged banter: "She sleeps better than my kid. I’m makin’ a call home to my little rascal…" Marc drummed his fingers lightly on the coffee table. Dr. Litel drifted out of the bedroom, a sweet smile on her face and looking well-rested. She had slept enough she announced and admitted to being a night owl.
"Can I order you some dinner, Doctor?" he asked, smiling politely.
"I’ve told you before to call me Sarah." She was pretty, and though petite, not small busted. His type, and so off limits that he might as well not have a dick. He didn’t want to even think of themselves as man and woman. Still, there was undeniable joy in her face when he was there. She was charming and coquettish with him and all business with everyone else.
"I’ll agree to call you Sarah, if you call me Marc." Her face captivated and frustrated him. He wished he could turn into a life-size unsexed Ken doll. She draped herself on a big stuffed chair and laughed in a way, as though she had read his last thought. For these two weeks, their conversations had progressed to a slight chiding, teasing tone, hinting at the intangible sexual element that can exist between any two people.
"We can’t help being what we are," she replied vaguely.
"Which means that we’re working on a Top Secret project?"
"Meaning that whatever we’re working on doesn’t command us to stop being flesh and blood." She shot an arrow right to the heart of the matter.
"Sarah, I’m thinking that is—umm—not so appropriate here." He sounded reasonable, but his body language, encasing his tightly fitted military pants those open, muscled legs revealed a burgeoning crotch.
“You’re a sensitive man. I see that in your face. You’re big, but you’re kind too.” Sarah had seemed to float out of the stuffed chair and glide over to him, reaching out with a hand to lightly stroke the side of his face and cheek. Speechless he looked upon this heaven-sent treasure and realized at once that his sappy, vacuous expression probably made him seem unfit for the job he was being paid to do, and that she had been testing him and finding him defective, would have him sacked. Instead, she produced a reefer: “I know that you are a gentle man.” They smoked and laughed until absolute hilarity ruled. He rose and rose higher, following, transformed by this delusional flight to behold his own body from above, as he slipped into the bedroom…
Naked together, she opened herself, while he enfolded her with gentleness, reminding himself with total seriousness that he possessed immense power, and that she was a fragile bird entrusted to him. The effect of the weed had clouded and crowded his logic.
She was the one that guided him, swooning, to enter her. She held him in her two hands, enthralled, as if his member in its swollen state was a separate and enduring entity. She rejoiced in this new power…
In the weeks that followed, the erotic floodgates opened. They both proclaimed that they had never been happier with another person. Their timing hadn’t been the best, but how are two people supposed to control the circumstances they find themselves in? They loved to make love. Perhaps this wasn’t the same as ‘falling in love’, but they didn’t have exactly the ideal place to perfect their love: two cogs grinding away in the machinery of the Military-Industrial Complex.
They hadn’t been whisked away to the other side of the world to play a suburban couple, having a hot sex fest. There was the most important piece of military hardware to be tested since the Manhattan Project. Dr. Litel had perfected the weapon’s chemical process and to this extent it worked…in theory. The device, shaped somewhat like an over-sized XR-18 rifle, looked ungainly, with many doodads attached to it. Actually, there was a thick, rectangular bulge in the receiver, the new weapon wasn’t meant to be handheld like a rifle, but mounted on a tripod like a large submachine gun. Nor was it a gun in the sense that it didn’t fire so many thousands of rounds per minute. When, or if, the prototype fired successfully, it would be much more devastating than any other armament (excluding nuclear weapons) in the arsenal of The United States of America. It was expected to be on a par with a nuclear bomb, but without the radioactive fallout. The weapon was constructed to retain an isotope, using weapon grade uranium in its self-contained chamber to charge the weapon’s devastating effect, while keeping everyone in the operating vicinity safe.
Originally, the chemical process she had striven to advance was to develop an alternate energy source. Then there was that fateful day, when she stumbled into the destructive element in her formula. Others were present, so she couldn’t hide those findings. The mixed feelings she harbored about weapons made her feel not only hypocritical, but also ashamed to be so deeply involved in the enterprise.
In the concrete bunker Three-star General Simpson strutted like the proud father, as if his aging wife had given birth to healthy triplets. A big smile was plastered across his broad creased face, while he eyed the weapon on its stand some 100 yards away. Charles Butterfield, CEO of Anders Research, cleared his throat and harrumphed, taking brisk steps back and forth. Dirk Roderick made a sour face, while dogging the steps of his charge, until ‘Mr. B’, as he liked to be called, shot him a frown and said: “Enough, Roderick, I don’t need a nursemaid! Stay back there and just keep watch.”
“Yes, sir, I understand completely, sir.” Roderick removed himself from the VIP area to a position with the larger group in the back bunker. He had been shadowing his boss’s movements purposely. Roderick took pleasure in annoying important men to make sure that they took notice of him.
Sarah motioned to Marc to remain next to her during the test. The other Special Ops on duty were in another larger bunker much farther away, whose position had been designed to not afford a direct view of the test.
Marc trained his binoculars, first on the black weapon, then to where it was pointed, at a large rock outcropping on this arid plateau. Six goats grazed on the scrub, collared and with leashes attached to stakes.
Letting the binoculars drop down to her waist, she nudged Marc. Her gaze was sorrowful. She pitied the poor goats and prayed that the weapon would misfire. The monitors and gauges in the bunker were all flashing, dials indicated readiness, the weapon, aimed and ready, needed only the short countdown and the press of a button.
General Simpson said: “Please, Dr. Litel, you should have the honor, five, four …”
“General, I’d rather…it be your honor.” She forced herself to put the binoculars to her eyes.
The General continued: “three, two, one—!” He pressed the button.
The “gun” didn’t so much fire as discharge a pulse of what appeared to be thick waves of transparent enhanced air, for in that fraction of a second the spot where the goats were standing and the outcropping itself ceased to be. Their disappearance was complete; no collars, no leashes, and no rock. It was as if goats and outcropping had never existed.
Sarah dropped the binoculars from her face. She felt sick, nauseated.
“Get me out of here, Marc.”
“Dr. Litel isn’t feeling well. I’ve got to take her back to the compound.” Marc nodded to the General and the other brass. Charles Butterfield made a patrician bow.
As they were leaving, she turned briefly and said: “Keep to protocol. No one should approach the weapon until the gauges indicate condition: neutral.” They all assured her that protocol was first and foremost on the agenda, and that when she was feeling better they would contact her.
He intercepted the calls. There were three. For the third call, Sarah was up and pacing about. When Marc picked up on the second ring, a note of urgency sounded in the General’s voice. Marc’s inability to contend with him was evident and Sarah took the receiver:
“General what’s wrong? Of course, I’ll be right over.”
“What is it?”
“The Special Ops who removed and cased the weapon has taken ill. They don’t understand why. There was no radioactivity present and he wore a protective jumpsuit. It’s Cal, Cal Winters.”
They sped over to the clinic in the Jeep. Cal was behind glass. Transparent plastic curtains were all around his hospital bed. Machines blinked displaying his vitals. The officers’ logs concurred that after one hour and six minutes the weapon readings were ‘neutral’, no radiation. Casing the “gun” took seventeen minutes and thirty-two seconds. Cal had complained of feeling generally unwell about an hour later when he doubled over in excruciating pain. His white blood cell count spiked higher and higher, and then skyrocketed. In two days, he was reacting like a victim of radiation sickness: bleeding through his skin, diarrhea, loss of hair, and suffering from a number of infections, both internal and external.
Cal was evacuated and they clung together in a feeble attempt to comfort themselves. Having sex went untried. Sarah kept busy in a continual loop of reviewing why the neutralized weapon should have resulted in such horrendous injuries to Cal.
“We’ve come up blank,” she announced to him one day. “It’s a total puzzle that a shutdown system emitted residual radiation. We’ve taken into account the elevation of this plateau. But then…” she paused, saddened, “I wouldn’t blame you if you couldn’t stand to look at me.”
“I care about you very much. You have to stop putting this mess on yourself. You’re a scientist. We’re all part of the support team. Cal knew there’d be risks. Jesus, we went through the SEALS together. It’s not a Boy Scout jamboree!”
“He wasn’t informed of the risks this project posed.”
“Everyone here knows about danger—”
“Come take a walk with me. I need to clear my head,” she said abruptly, as if they were in a stuffy restaurant and she needed some air.
“Whatever you tell me will go no further. The question is: Can we be sure that we’re not under surveillance?”
“Marc, I’ve thought it through. I’m being selfish and unworthy to compromise you.”
“Don’t think that way. I’ve done things—that I’m not proud of. None of us who’ve been to war ever gets over it. Our loyalty is to the unit, to our comrades. We weren’t heroes. Now I want to help you. If talking to me can give you some solace—”
“The weapon is an Ion Disruptor.” Her statement fell flat, leaving a quizzical look on his face. “A chemical reaction takes place by the certain degrees of radiant energy. Charging the positive and negative energies of the atoms can affect the flow of energy. We added the isotope. My formula was part of the new process.”
“I don’t understand. What are you trying to tell me?”
“We’ve probably stumbled into a recondite construct. Maybe the weapon cannot be made workable without the Residual Effect, as it’s being called. After firing, the neutral readings belie the fact that whoever is in the vicinity receives a dose of lethal radiation. Looks like the Death Ray is dead. That’s really too much irony to be funny!” He worried for her sanity. Her curdling laugh was scarily like the laugh of someone unhinged. Then, he backtracked and thought: She cared about Cal and took responsibility for her actions.
“When they tested the first atom bomb in New Mexico in 1945, some physicists speculated that the whole atmosphere would burst into flames. Perhaps, someday an ion disruptor will be possible, but I’ve washed my hands of it. I’ve told them that I quit—resigned, and am finished with so-called defense projects. I don’t want to hear about anything connected to the military again.”
“One thing is definite: I have to go to Cal. If you could get away on the pretense that you’re exhausted—”
“That’s the absolute truth. I’ll request that you accompany me.”
The arrangements were made easier than the usual red tape the military uses to frustrate soldiers’ requests. Neither Sarah nor Marc was technically in the military. They both worked for Defense Contractors. Marc collected on a past favor and their plane ride to Landstuhl was secured. Surreptitiously they confirmed the exact location of Cal Winters’ room.
Although tired from the nine hour flight, they went directly to the immensity of Landstuhl Regional Medical Center and entered the Kirchberg section. The corridors were inhabited with soldiers in hospital gowns and robes; some were missing one limb or two, many with prostheses, walking at newly achieved levels of ability. Marc shook his head knowingly. He had seen all of this before and the worst cases still visited him in dreams. Sarah kept her head down to avoid making eye contact with these maimed men.
Donning HAZMAT suits before entering the room steeled them to expect the worst. He opened the heavily reinforced door, Sarah entered as though in a fugue, her face expressionless and her eyes not focused on her surroundings. Before them lay Cal, the tortured figure of what he once was. His respiration labored, short amplified bursts hiccupped through the breathing mask that covered his nose and mouth. They gasped at the pitiful deterioration of what had become of his body: wretchedly thin, the darkened skin covering his bones had the texture of leather, as if he had transmogrified from a man into a reptile-like creature. Sarah turned quickly away and pressed her hooded head against Marc’s chest. Marc stood there in shock, and awestruck that any human in this physical condition could still be alive.
“Is he—conscious? Can he speak?” He asked the nurse. “Is he in pain?”
“‘Mr. Donne’ hasn’t spoken,” the nurse replied and reviewed the chart. “Not for three weeks. He’s on a morphine drip. We don’t know what he feels since he stopped speaking.”
“Would you give us a few minutes alone with him?”
He held the door open as the nurse stepped out. Gingerly, as if not to disturb him, Marc edged over to where Cal’s wasted head lay upon the pillow. Sarah slumped on a wooden chair, head buried in her hands.
Marc leaned in over the bed to get closer to the ruined face: “I’m here old buddy. It’s me, Cal, Marc Halvers, you remember me. Sorry, it’s taken so long. Speak, please.” Marc repeated these lines six times like a mantra.
Finally, the wizened head nodded, eye lids flickered, and then opened to reveal the whites had turned a deep yellow color and the pupils were blood-red, the eyes were overlaid in a thick gelatinous film. Marc shuddered with disbelief at the soulless eyes, not those of the Cal he had known. In his distress, he felt a mixture of pity and revulsion.
“I…see…you…” Cal spoke in a whisper. “Help…Wendy…son…Help…—” The body lay still, the terrible eyes stared in a dead calm, and the machines buzzed their alarms. Two nurses and a doctor rushed into the room and worked furiously to revive their patient. Marc and Sarah stood outside, numb with confusion, but also resigned that Cal was gone, having clung to life to speak those last words. Were plans feasible for people like them? Sarah would return to the peace of her cottage in Wakefield on Lake Quannapowitt. The restful and beautiful Massachusetts countryside would afford her some comfort and the chance to put everything aside. Marc had to report to D.C. and check in with his supervisor at Fleet. They rented a car and drove to Frankfurt. Their flight stopped first in Washington, D.C. where he kissed her tenderly, thinking as he did that this would be the last time he would touch her and press his face against her hair to breathe that sweet fragrance. She looked doleful and promised to call him when she arrived in Boston. For months afterward, he had no physical contact with her; their connection was solely electronic…
Marc glanced up at the lavish entablature that housed the headquarters of Fleet, Inc. Buildings that evoked stability instilled in him a sense of solidness and virtue. He proceeded to the Executive Offices on the eighth floor. Tapping lightly on 801, there was the gruff: “Enter!” and he walked in smiling at the big, craggy head, of the ‘Old Man of the Mountain’, his bilious Director, Magnus Hildstrom, former CIA Section Chief in Baghdad. From the lofty office’s huge windows the Capitol Building was framed prominently.
“You tell me, Halvers, what happened.” Magnus Hildstrom was brusque and to the point, and the light from his brittle-blue eyes seemed able to cut through steel. Marc didn’t feel intimidated, more put upon. He wasn’t going to sit through a cross-examination.
“There isn’t much to tell. With the testing ended, I was released. My charge wished to leave and requested that I accompany her.”
Hildstrom had his sources, tapping a pen on his note pad. A tablet and a few file folders completed the contents on the top of the desk. His searching look was so serious that Marc felt Magnus must’ve known everything there was to know.
“And then what?” he snapped.
“Dr. Litel was a bit stressed and I accompanied her on some private business to Frankfurt. It was on our own time.”
The shifty old satyr winked. “Right, Halvers! Keep close by at our lodgings—your old room is available. Await further orders. That’s all—oh, and good to see you back in one piece.”
Marc’s suspicion piqued with that final sentence “good to see you back in one piece,” the most uncharacteristically friendly thing that Magnus Hildstrom had ever said to him. The others in the big bunker farther away had had no direct view and most probably would’ve been told a cover story. The test ran according to plan, they must have been informed, thought Marc. The government comes up with a hundred phony stories a week. He was impatient to be with Sarah again. But he understood that it was also important to give her time to recuperate…
Those events of eight years ago had returned with fateful force. She had given him no warning of any trouble. The reason should be self-evident: all electronic devices were monitored by F.I.S.T.