Monday, March 27, 2017
"Antonio? Antonio, where are you, child?" spoke the lad's maternal uncle, and guardian.
"Aqui, Tio." (Here, Uncle.) said the 10-year-old.
A cool blast of Andean wind tussled his dark hair as he turned to face his elder.
"Antonio", he said, bending low to meet the child's eyes, "your grandmother wishes to speak with you." Still not close enough for the weight of what he had to say, Uncle knelt and leaned even nearer. "There are those who say she has gone crazy and that she is not long for this world."
"And what do the others say, señor?" he asked, awed.
The man's back stiffened. He considered his words carefully before responding.
"There are those who say... she is not long for this world and she has seen the stuff of Heaven!"
Antonio's eyes widened. "What do you say?"
Uncle waved away the question. "No, no, no. Listen to me: Hear what Niñera has to say, and respect her well because she is worthy of it. Yet, whatever she says, test carefully before taking it to heart. Understand?"
Antonio smiled and nodded. Then, thinking about this more, frowned and shook his head.
"Si, si, this is a difficult thing to understand for one so young. Just be careful. Can you do that much?"
To this, Antonio gladly agreed and was ushered into the presence of Niñera. She lie beneath a hand-knit cover on the simple pallet that formed her bed. Even the most optimistic among the village had to tearfully admit that she spent more and more of her day there of late.
She gestured for Uncle to close the door and leave her alone with her grandchild. This, the man did, reluctantly.
Antonio, as well, focused on his feet as he kicked at the hard dirt floor.
"Come closer, child." she said while waving her hand as if scooping him nearer.
He did as he was told until his knees were right against her bed. Still, he did not meet her gaze.
"The village - they think I am crazy, yes?"
She must have caught the face Antonio made for she continued, "And wise, they are, to be cautious, for the things I am about to say are things that have not been spoken for an age. Not since the Jacobite monks swept the land has the Lord worked so among our people!"
"Niñera?" he gasped, looking up and finally meeting her gaze.
At once he wished he hadn't. Young dark brown eyes were locked in chains of steel with the grey cloudy eyes of the old woman. Try as he might, Antonio could not tear away from the wrinkled face.
"A dream, lad! I have had a dream!" she said slowly.
"Respectfully, señora, we all have dreams. What makes you believe that this one is special?"
"When you have a dream from God, nieto, it seems more..." she fumbled for words, before arriving at, "important. Yes, it seems more important than a regular dream."
Antonio's eyebrows furrowed at this.
"Of course, one should be skeptical of such a claim. Any dream or vision must be tested against the Word of God, the Spirit of God, and the people of God. This final test is why you are here."
Antonio squirmed uncomfortably beneath his red poncho.
"Ah! I see my answer already. You know of what I speak, for the confirmation is that you have dreamed the very same thing: A field of golden corn..."
"... and a raven." he finished. "Surely Niñera, somebody told you of my strange dream this month. Perhaps you heard it somewhere else, or... you have become confused from too much sun, or..."
"Of course I've heard of your dream. That is why I sent for you. But answer me this, did you tell anybody that the corn and the crow were both a girl?"
Antonio narrowed his eyes, but he did not answer.
She continued "Or did you say that they fought and made war across the whole Earth? Or that out of the pit extreme sadness and loneliness, none other than King Solomon himself rose up and stood between the two? And that he was the one who brought an end to the war and broke our family of its ancient curse?"
Antonio grew wide-eyed. He hadn't mentioned the rest of this to anybody. "But what does it all mean Niñera? Who are the women? Who is this deliverer? What is the purpose of this message?"
"The girls: I know not. Solomon: that will be revealed to you in time. The purpose: this is the other reason I called you here today."
"W-what is the purpose?"
"This message must be delivered in person. By me." She reached out and placed a hand on his shoulder, "And by you."
Thursday, March 23, 2017
The monotonous drone of the truck engine all of a sudden took on a new, hollow quality. Simultaneously, the rough crunch of dirt and gravel was replaced with the smooth feel of slick concrete.
No sooner were the adventurers thinking that this was their journey's end, the high-pitched shriek of brakes made it a fact.
Weight shifted and the air brakes let out a whoosh, just as the engine was cut and sputtered to a stop.
The canvas was thrown aside and an unknown voice barked orders in an unknown language. Apparently this was their stop, as the team were hauled out and down like so much cargo.
A quick glance around the space revealed nothing but a huge parking garage, uninteresting in anything but size. Throughout the vast space, nearly every stall was filled with a troop transport identical to the one they'd come in.
"Now, everybody remember where we parked." advised Wendell.
Rather, he got the butt of a rifle in the kidneys for his trouble. The group was pushed and prodded along to the nearest elevator station.
Once inside, one of their captors hit a number high enough to give them time to think.
"Where do you suppose we even are?" whispered Misty.
Everybody knew it was intended for Jack, who, as world travel had shaped up, seemed to have the best sense of navigation. Even he wasn't entirely sure.
He hazarded a guess. "From the direction and the amount of time we've been traveling, I guess somewhere around Southeastern Serbia or Northwestern Bulgaria. Hard to say for sure since, judging by the road quality, we're in the middle of nowhere."
"No foolin'." said Wendell, "My butt's still asleep."
Misty frowned. "T.M.I., Wendell. (Too Much Information)" She turned to Jack, "If we're really that far out in the sticks, how does that explain this building?"
Jack didn't answer. He couldn't. That thought was bothering him as well. He didn't know what it meant, but something about it made him uneasy.
The doors opened to reveal an enormous space every bit as large as the parking garage, but magnified by the fact that it was three or more stories high and lined on all sides with glass windows.
The three were shoved unceremoniously inside, the guards close behind.
The height above the surrounding terrain and unobstructed view in all directions gave a stomach-churning, almost euphoric feel. One was left with the sensation of floating on a slow cloud over the uninhabited landscape.
They were far from alone on their ethereal journey, however, as the room was packed. Most of those gathered were soldiers, staring with a common, glazed-over expression at a raised dais and black curtain at one end of the grand hall. All wore the same plain camouflage uniform and all, men and women alike, had shaven heads.
Yet these were not the only people in the room. Others, like them, seemed to be imported civilians, looking around nervously at one another and not knowing what to expect.
"Howell!" shouted Wendell as he saw a familiar face in the crowd. "Howell! Over here!"
Jack followed his gaze and waved as well.
In the end he concluded, "It's no good. He can't hear us."
There was no time to try anything else. A lone figure appeared on the stage. Whoever it was, had the full approved of the frantic crowd. Simultaneously, a giant electronic screen was lowered on cables to give even those in the back a view of the event.
Now that they had a better picture, they could see that the man wore a conical black mask and robe reminiscent of Klu-Klux attire. It was emblazoned with a large emblem of the sun made of Gold satin so that it shimmered and glittered in the light. Lest anybody get the wrong idea, however, the center of this particular sun was a grinning black skull.
"Just a hunch, but... I don't think we like that guy." decided Misty.
The boys nodded, but dared not take their eyes off his foreboding image.
The man began some sort of strange ritual, waving his hands in complicated gestures and reciting an ongoing series of gibberish words. It took ridiculously long, but the end of it was declared by a pair of his assistants ringing massive gongs.
"In the name of En the powerful..." he cried.
"ALL HAIL EN" shouted the soldiers so suddenly that Misty and the rest jumped.
"... En provides food for people!"
Another strike of the gong.
They didn't notice where they had come from, but gold-colored, sun-shaped trays suddenly materialized in the audience. These were loaded high with halved doughnuts, which each person present took and ate as they passed.
They arrived at Wendell first, who took one. It was halfway to his mouth when Misty slapped it out of his hand.
"Don't be dumb." she scolded.
"Yeah, yeah", agreed Jack, "let's see where this goes first."
All of a sudden Misty's voice took on a nervous squeak to match her size, "Jack, look!"
Jack follower her pointing finger and muttered, "oh no", just as Howell took a bite of one of the doughnuts.
Likewise, a fair number of the other guests were eating as well, though many were just as hesitant as Jack and Misty.
Another gong was sounded.
"In the name of En the powerful..." he cried.
"ALL HAIL EN" shouted the soldiers once more. Now they were also joined by a number of the new recruits, including Howell!
"Oh no." muttered Wendell.
"... people provide food for En!"
The black curtains slid aside to reveal a pagan stone idol some twenty feet in height. The top of it held a very familiar face. It was even more familiar to Jack who had last seen it coming for him through the windshield of a Jeep.
The priest raised his hand in front of the statue several times for show, and then turned and pointed at a random spot in the audience. There was quite a commotion, a strange fight of sorts, but by the time the camera of the giant screen adjusted, at the center of focus stood Howell, unmoving, impassive.
"En has chosen!" declared the priest.
The camera tracked as Howell made his way up to the stage, and then to the very base of the statue.
The curtain closed.
The priest waved his hand once more and a horrible, crooked knife appeared in his hand - like a parlor magician, with an unsettling twist. The room cheered, but at the sight of the blade Misty, Jack, and Wendell were too busy storming the stage to bother to listen.
Strong hands grabbed at them from all directions as they plowed, ever more sluggishly through the crowd.
It all happened in some surreal slow motion. Like in some nightmare Misty tried to advance with all her might, but could not. She tried to cry Howell's name, but even that was unheard over the roar of the crowd.
The priest stepped in behind the curtain. There was a long pause, and then a puddle of red liquid began to flow out from beneath.
Misty's body went limp as all her remaining energy went into generating tears.
Jack and Wendell stood there, pale as sheets.
Yet there was to be no respite.
The crowd flowed out in all directions, being filtered at various check points. Trained soldiers knew the way to their barracks and took it. New recruits, those who had eaten En's insidious pastry, were shuffled another direction, presumably to be given a shave and fitted for camo.
The rest were driven another direction entirely. At first the team feared that they were goners for refusing to eat whatever horrible stuff that was controlling the others. They were surprised, however, when they were directed to barracks of their own. Instead of "obey En or die", it was to be "obey En or be in jail forever". A preferable situation, made even more so to three teens who had just finished two full semesters of the finest escape training Michael Moast could afford.
The only downside was that Misty was split off at the last minute and sent to the girls' barracks whereas Wendell and Jack were sent their separate way.
Before they parted, Jack crouched down so he could look directly into her tear-stained eyes.
"Listen", he said, "I know how bad that thing with Howell looked, but I wouldn't write him off just yet. He was a tough guy. He wouldn't have gone down that easy. No way. Something about this place..."
"Show." said Wendell.
When both looked up at him, he elaborated. "Everything here is about show. That's the only reason they wouldn't kill us."
Misty liked the general concept of that, but didn't know whether it was because it was reasonable or because it was comforting. The boys had a point though. All this happened behind that silly curtain, so... what did that mean?
Her best answer was that there was no way of knowing. They knew just about as much about Howell's well-being as they did before they had spotted him.
That was all that could be said, however, as a soldier broke up the company drove them apart into opposite directions.
Wednesday, March 15, 2017
Michael sat on the brand new couches in their living quarters in the California mansion, twirling a hand-turned pen between his fingers in a subconscious gesture to try to help him think.
"Okay. Out with it. What's the problem?" demanded Melinda.
It took a split second longer than usual for him to realize that he was being spoken to.
"Huh? Oh. Am I that obvious?" he asked.
"I know you well enough to know when something is bothering you. Do you really think I don't notice when you're awake all night? We do share the same bed, after all."
He gave a wan smile and said, "Sorry if I kept you up."
"Oh, don't worry about that." she waved the concern away.
She decided to hazard a guess as to the problem. It didn't take a lot of guess work. "So, to sum it all up: this person, (whoever it is) is secretly building a great big war machine."
He slowly nodded his agreement.
"Well, I don't really see much point in brooding over who it is or what they're planning if we don't have a way of stopping them. I mean, there are only the two of us left now."
The statement was a loaded one and hung in the air a long time.
Micheal caved. "Maybe we should recall Kurt's team in case something breaks."
"I think so. It might be a little much for them to handle, but better to have them all ready to go if we decide we need them."
"What about Wendell's team, then? More people could help make up for less experience."
Melinda made a slight face. She'd never put much stock in their backup team.
"I don't think so. They have a long way to go. Best to keep them out of harm's way."
"Yeah, we wouldn't want them getting into trouble." Michael admitted.
We're in trouble, was the first thought Wendell's mind told him as he awoke.
His eyes fluttered open.
As awareness began t creep back in, he noticed that the floor seemed to be moving.
He said so aloud.
"We're in a truck." said a familiar voice.
His stiff neck scanned for the source. Misty sat on a hard bench that ran the length of the bed. Behind her rippled a dome of green canvas. She waved as best she could with bound hands.
"Are you okay?" she asked.
"Peachy." he said. "You and Jack?"
"Don't worry. You got the worst of it." she said.
Jack disagreed from somewhere in the shadows. "En busted my nose."
"I told you. It's not broken."
"Okay, so who are these guys, what do they want, and where are they taking us?"
Jack replied, "We don't know, we don't know, and, oh let me see... we don't know."
"Don't mind him. He's just cranky cuz of his busted nose."
Misty winked at Wendell and smiled.
They didn't know where they were or where they were going, but at least they were together. And that, he suddenly realized, was the most important lesson they'd ever been taught.
Wednesday, March 8, 2017
People pleasing is a very common condition. If you think about it, it's the very heart of common social plagues like "peer pressure" and "keeping up with the Joneses". But what is it and how can we avoid it without causing ourselves more harm than good?
Of course everybody's not like this, and maybe you might be more of a natural rebel. If so, skip down to the next section and I have a message for you as well.
Me? I'm a natural "people pleaser". If my neighbors all got together and decided we should all paint our mailboxes blue, I'd probably go along with it. Not because I wanted to in particular, but just to avoid making waves.
That kind of attitude might work out ok for trivial things, but sooner or later everybody reaches their limit. At some point "everybody" is going someplace that you know you don't want to be.
Personally, who I really want to focus on here is my parents. They love me, of course, but because of it they always seemed to have an endless supply of ideas on how I should run my life. Maybe you have somebody like that too.
Early on, just after getting married, I was all about living up to (what I thought were) their expectations. I bought a nice house in a neighborhood that they would approve of, bought an RV that brought me all kinds of misery, and on and on. It was all very exhausting and expensive, and when it came down to it, wasn't really what I personally wanted at all.
All that changed when our son reached school age and we decided to homeschool. I was not homeschooled, and my parents, of course, only ever heard the "anti" side of the argument. However, having met homeschooled kids in college (one was only 16!) I was impressed enough to think this decision might have some merit.
But this presented a problem. All of a sudden I was making a decision that my parents did not approve of. That led to a big point of tension in our relationship. (And I'm sure it didn't help that I had just spent the previous several years conditioning them to expect me to follow every opinion they had.)
The pendulum very quickly swung to the opposite extreme. I went from being a "people-pleaser" to adopting the very common stance that, "I don't care what you think". (In all my life, not just this one relationship.)
It sounds healthier, doesn't it? And in a way, it is. Everyone is responsible for their own decisions, and no one should let others dictate those decisions. Taking charge of one's own life is a very good thing.
Yet the problem I found is that you can go crazy with it and go totally off into left field like the punk girl in the image above. Or just like a rebel who gets tattoos all over his face and a bone through his nose and then wonders why he can't get a job, maybe he should have weighed some outside advice before committing to that choice.
“Without counsel plans fail, but with many advisers they succeed.” (Proverbs 15:22)
Now it sounds like that pendulum is swinging back the other direction again, but let's stop it before it goes too far and reflect. Let's examine this thing and think about how it takes both (seemingly opposite) messages working together to create a healthy view of life.
What does that look like?
I no longer say "I don't care what you think", especially concerning my parents, friends, and loved ones who genuinely have my best interest in mind. Neither is my personal sense of well-being dependent upon their approval.
I will gladly listen to their advice, and even respect them by giving it some genuine thought. At times I will take their advice. Other times I will reject it. Even at times it will kick off a train of thought that results in something else completely different than what either of us knew about beforehand.
So my point in all this is to say, yes, we are each responsible for our own decisions, and we should never allow others to make those decisions for us. Yet we shouldn't, as they say, "throw the baby out with the bath water". Though we're certainly under no obligation to follow it, we should appreciate and learn from the advice of others. Worst case, even if their opinion is completely goofy, we can at least take comfort in the fact that they care enough to speak into our lives. And that's still something.
Before I go, here's a word of advice for us as the advice-giver.
First off, we should be an advice-giver, especially as a Christian who has the good advice of the Bible to dole out. We should be making a positive difference in the world, starting with our sphere of immediate influence. In fact, if you think about it, withholding such valuable information is incredibly cruel in the scheme of things.
Next off, we need to give this advice in love. It should never come from a sense of Bible-thumping self-righteousness but a genuine concern for the welfare of the recipient. Otherwise, please stop talking! The world doesn't want, need, or listen to, angry and belligerent Christians. (Nor should we expect it to!)
Finally off, we must understand and respect that the recipient is ultimately responsible for their own decision. I can't force them to accept my advice and it's rude to try to.
This gets increasingly difficult the more we love the person and the worse the consequences looming in their future. Nonetheless, as painful as it is to watch, the rules of the game are the same as before -- each person is responsible for their own decisions. Trying to force it not only won't help, but will likely damage the relationship in the process.
Better to keep the lines of communication open so that when it all blows up we can at least be there to help them pick up the pieces.
Well, I hope my advice advice has advised you about advice, (...or however that goes.)
Monday, March 6, 2017
Back on the day the Bible Study was disbanded, Dr Puttery had moved out of the mansion and into the old fish-processing plant that housed all of his inventions.
Of course, "moved out" was a relative term. He was effectively living with his machines to begin with. Most nights he preferred to crash on a tattered couch back at the warehouse rather than in the premium down comforter waiting across town.
Now it was just official, is all.
It was here that Micheal found him this morning, seated in a worn roller chair and going over a tractor-feed printout of hexadecimal gibberish. He tapped him on the shoulder.
Dr Puttery jumped.
Turning around, "Oh, it's you Michael. What are you doing here?" Then he frowned, "I'm retired now, you know."
"If you're retired, why did you ask me to come?"
"Why did I ask you to... what?" He was having a little trouble switching gears from what he was working on.
"To come. You called me. Why?"
"That's what I asked."
"You asked, what?"
"What?" they both asked at the same time.
Then they started laughing at the mutual confusion.
A third voice joined in the laughter. When the amusement tapered off, it added, "Maybe I can shed some light on this."
Both men turned to see Carl leaning back against a bulky piece of industrial machinery. His arms were folded, and one high-booted foot rested on a low wooden box marked Fragile.
A dark stain emanating from beneath, made the warning seem long-since moot.
"Carl? What??" asked Dr Puttery.
Michael gave him a shove, sending the roller chair a few feet across the floor. "Oh, don't start that again!"
Carl laughed again. "Maybe this will refresh your memory." Without looking, he withdrew something from a roll of papers in his back pocket.
He unfurled it and held it up for both men to see. It was the torn corner of a blueprint drawing. It was spattered with spots of something that may have been blood.
"Certain 'sources' intercepted this design changing hands between two pretty nasty players in the European underground."
Michael stepped closer to get a better look. "Whose blood is this?"
Michael continued his inspection. "There's a caption, here. 'Juggernaught'. What's that?"
He made eye-contact with Carl, but the other man only nodded to Dr Puttery. "Tell him."
"First off, I'll call you fellows' attention to the scale indicated here." He used his feet to paddle his chair closer, and then tapped a location on the paper. "3 centimeters to the meter."
"So whatever it is, it's big?" asked Michael.
"Correct. Also, from the bill of materials, it lists things like armor steel, missile launchers, et cetera. Furthermore, the portion of the drawing we do have appears to be some kind of tracked drive system."
Michael summarized, "So, it's big... and it's military."
"And it's being built by some very bad people." added Carl.
Michael rubbed his chin. Then as it hit him, he looked back at his former leader. "Who?"
"That's been a little hard to pin down. He's smart. He always works through intermediaries and gives out a different alias every time."
"So how are you going to find out?"
"No, no, no. That's not the question at all."
Michael looked confused. "It isn't?"
"No." Carl reached into his back pocket and took up all the papers. Thrusting them into Michael's hands, he said, "The question is, how are you going to find out?"
Michael's mouth hung open in stunned shock. He turned to Dr Puttery for help.
"Don't look at me. I'm retired now, you know?"
Wednesday, March 1, 2017
Myron Seebeck stood overlooking the harsh windswept wilderness that was the Pannonian Steppe from his perch high in the arms of Seebeck Tower. The glass and steel monolith rose above the wild places like a glistening crystal, fallen from the pocket of a careless giant.
Seebeck was everything millions of men longed to be. He was young, attractive, fashionable, and in great shape, and, of course, obscenely rich! He had all the prestige of a CEO, and all the hot cars of a high-profile attorney. Women fell at his feet left and right, and men all called him "sir".
His parents had been inventors / slash / small-time business owners, who had come up with a new kind of semiconductor that everybody wanted. They gained immense success by producing a good product at a reasonable price. Upon their passing, however, their lone, and very spoiled son put a kibosh on that kind of foolishness.
All of a sudden, the world found the tech they had relied on for so long was now in scarce supply and available only at a premium price.
Cottage industries collapsed.
Small-time armies fell behind in their arms race.
Sure, untold millions found themselves out of work or worse, but the real point is, Myron Seebeck made a whole lot of money. He liked to brag that he was richer than Jesus and the Beatles put together.
If that was the least of his arrogance and blasphemies, the world would have gotten off easy. But it's a true saying that there's always a bigger piece of the pie.
Seebeck hadn't relocated his corporate HQ here in the middle of noplace because of the fresh air. Nor was he here because he needed cheap real estate. No, he wanted to do things that couldn't be seen by prying eyes.
At least... not yet.
Thus, he looked out over the horizion, seeing far more than physical sight could allow. He saw nations spread out before him. First this one, then that. Like a row of dominoes awaiting his touch.
His finger reached out to it, but stopped when it bumped the slick glass. "Soon..." he confided in the well-dressed reflection.
He gave a sly grin.