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Now I am become Death, destroyer of worlds.”

Dr. Grace Llewellyn quotes Oppenheimer as her creation takes its first breath. Moments later, a US military strike team hits her laboratory in suburban Maryland. 

Markus Stebbings is hiding terminal brain cancer, hoping to remain alive and a part of Delta long enough to die for something that matters. The mission to destroy a domestic terrorist cell in possession of a nuclear bomb sounds like the opportunity he is looking for, until he realizes that his targets are not terrorists, and that what they have is something infinitely more dangerous than a bomb.

On the run with Grace and the device she calls Prometheus, Markus finds himself pitted against the full might of US intelligence and military forces as they mount the biggest manhunt ever conducted on American soil.  He quickly learns that Prometheus represents a technological advancement so profound that it can alter the course of history.  But there is another such device already in play, and he, Grace and Prometheus are all that stand between it and the end of human civilization as we know it.    

Read the first three chapters below!

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Chapter 1

 

“I hate this last minute bullshit,” Jennings muttered just loud enough to be heard over the pickup truck’s creaking frame and the rhythmic throbbing of its diesel. Markus stared at the passing buildings, all of them low to the ground, sand colored and rectangular. The occasional blasted wall disrupted the architectural monotony. He glanced over at Jennings, who was sorting though a small pile of letters he had fished out of his pocket. A guilty smile fought the scowl on Jennings’s weathered face. It had taken the others a while to get comfortable opening their mail in front of Markus. People usually felt bad for him, but in many ways he had it easier. They had that whole other world to deal with, but for Markus, this was all he would ever have.

“Who’s the HVI?” Wang asked, glancing at Winters’s ruggedized tablet. The major held it up so Wang could read the text and still see the road. “That guy? For real this time?”

 “Doesn’t matter,” Winters said. “We do what we do.” He turned to Markus and spoke through the pickup’s missing rear window. “You awake back there, Hotdog?” The major had recently trimmed his beard, turning it into a parody of an old Western goatee that seemed at home amidst the choking dust and an endless desert.

“Yeah,” Markus said.

“Repeat everything I just said or I will drop kick you out of my truck.”

Markus looked around, as though considering his options. They were on the outskirts of the city, what would have been the suburbs in the real world. It wasn’t exactly dark anymore but the sun had yet to rise and visibility was just limited enough to obscure the denser urban area ahead. There were no other vehicles on road and lights were just starting to come on in some of the roadside buildings.

“HVI, objective Merryweather,” Markus said. “Is on the third floor of objective Indiana, recovery ward, being prepped for transport. The Rangers set up a cordon along routes orange and green. Resistance estimated at less than ten dismounts and one victor, probably unmanned. The enemy on objective are armed with AKs, possibly a light MG or two, but are keeping a low profile. We drop Jennings off at checkpoint Budweiser and he assumes an OP on this building, objective New York.” He motioned towards a markedarea on Winters’s tablet map. “OGA asshats are providing an ambulance at checkpoint Rolling Rock. We use the ambulance to approach Indiana without drawing fire, secure the target and proceed along route Purple to objective Woodchuck to rendezvous with an extraction team.”

“Plan’s hosed from the start,” Jennings said, then scratched his beard to show his annoyance.

“Why’s that?” Winters demanded.

“Because ‘Woodchuck’ is not a beer. It’s a cider. You’re jinxing the whole op because you’re a fucking hipster.”

“That’s hipster sir to you,” Winters said, feigning hurt feelings.

“That’s the best you got, you Jeff Bridges looking motherfucker?” Jennings said. “But I’m liking the formality. You losers can start calling me SFC Jennings.”

“Which, in his case,” Winters said to Wang. “Stands for ‘Searches For Cocks.’”

“The man’s on a roll!” Jennings said.

The truck turned a corner and Markus had to close his eyes as the rising sun came into view, exposing legions of dust motes drifting like snowflakes across the empty streets. They had pulled into the city proper and two and three story buildings loomed around them. Dark windows and rooftops, each with a spectral sniper threatening to manifest the moment they stopped looking for him. A dog barked in the distance, welcoming the morning. The oppressive cold was about to be baked away by a more oppressive heat, but it was all the same to Markus. Physical discomfort only served to fill the void in his heart. There were no letters in his trouser pockets, and there never would be.

“We’re nearing Budweiser,” Winters said to Jennings. “Get ready, we’re dropping your black ass off.” He got on the radio to announce their arrival as they pulled up in front of a tall building with a crumbled section on the third floor. A humvee was parked alongside and four Rangers were standing near an open door.

Jennings took his Barret and carefully maneuvered the big rifle out of the truck bed. One of the Rangers reached out to help him.

“Hands off, Batt Boy,” Jennings said. “No one touches Molly.”

“Sorry, sir,” the Ranger said, backing away. He looked young and scared.

“Molly?” Wang said. “That’s not even the same rifle he had last time.” Wang was new, assigned to team only a month before, but he was already one of them. Markus liked Wang, he was a good operator, cold under fire, but more importantly he served as a catalyst for Winters’s and Jennings’s verbal fencing.

“Godspeed, motherfuckers,” Jennings said and trotted off towards a three story house.

“I love that man,” Winters said as Jennings disappeared inside the building. “God keep him safe.”

The truck took off again as Markus glanced down at the tablet. They were about half a click away from Rolling Rock, approaching quickly. The crackle and pop of small arms fire in the distance was suddenly joined by the roar of something bigger.

“That sounds like a mounted gun,” Wang said. “I thought this was a quiet area.”

“Balls,” Winters cursed. “One piece of shitty intel means the whole op is suspect. Maybe Jennings was right.”

The tablet map said they were approaching Rolling Rock, but Markus couldn’t see any sign of an ambulance.

“Looks like another fuck up,” he said.

Winters got on the radio. “Oscar Oscar six, this is Winter Storm twelve actual.”  He waited for the acknowledgement. “We’re at checkpoint Rolling Rock. No sign of the sick-mobile.” Another pause. “What the hell do you mean they bailed?” He turned to Wang. “Fuck ‘em. Punch it. Get to the cordon.”

“Blizzard this is Thumper,” Jennings’s voice hissed in Markus’s earpiece. “Get on the line, whiteness.” Markus couldn’t help but chuckle. Comms were monitored, but Jennings kept insisting that “whiteness” was a reference to Blizzard’s call-sign and not a racial slur. Rear echelon didn’t buy it, but they didn’t do anything about it either.

“This is Blizzard, go ahead,” Winters said.

“Negative on the light resistance. There’s a mounted gun in front of Indiana, some old school Cold War shit, can’t make out details. It’s busted the cordon. There’s an HMG too, it’s under an overpass and I can’t see it. Batt Boys dumped one of their humvees into a sewage canal. It’s a big mess.”

“Can you get a shot?” Winters asked.

“Negative, no shot. Relocating.”

They turned a corner into hell. A two headed dragon of green iron was belching fire in front of the hospital. Thud, thud, thud, thud. Rock and dirt exploded ahead, showering the spinning wheels of an overturned humvee in a two meter deep sewage canal. The helmets of four Rangers bobbled around it, dropping lower each time the beast blared. A less intense but almost continuous barrage was snorting out of a heavy machine gun position behind the shattered door frames of what used to be the emergency room entrance. Several bodies in bloodied scrubs were scattered in the wreckage.

“Shit!” Winters cursed as Wang slammed the pickup into reverse just in time to avoid a salvo of exploding rounds that shattered a stone wall where the truck’s cab had been a few seconds before. Winters turned to Markus. “Did you see that? They’re pulling an ambulance up under the overpass. They’re going to sneak Merryweather right out from under us!”

Markus shook his head. “That’s my fucking ambulance, isn’t it?” It had been his idea to go in slow and low, to minimize collateral damage.

“I bet my balls it is.”

“That’s just great.” Markus shook his head in disgust.

“Fuck the ambulance, that’s a god damned ZU-23,” Wang said. “Anti aircraft gun, twenty three millimeter, vehicle towed, anything with a hitch can pull it. They can link the belts and keep shooting non-stop as long as they have ammo.”

“AA gun? Don’t those assholes know we’re not airplanes?” Winters demanded.

“What’s the plan, Blizzard?” Markus asked as he sized up the situation by the overturned humvee. The Rangers were pinned down, and it looked like they were trying to get something out of the vehicle. Probably wounded.

“We don’t have the firepower for that fucking thing. Unless…Thumper, this is Blizzard.”

“Go ahead Blizzard.”

“Are you in position?”

“Negative. Give me three mikes.”

Winters turned to Markus. “No time. They’ll have him out of there in two. There’s a solution on Indiana. I’m calling in artillery.”

“That’s a hospital!” Markus said. “There could be kids in there! Call in a drone to take out that gun.”

“No time. We get Merryweather or he dies, no matter what.”

Markus considered his options. He would never compromise his team, but his own life didn’t matter, not anymore. Not since the diagnosis. At worst, he would fail and die. At best, he would succeed and save that hospital and the kids inside. Either way, Merryweather would die and the mission would succeed.

“Give me two mikes.” Without waiting for an answer, Markus jumped off the truck, hefted his M4 and sprinted as fast as he could across the street towards the Rangers’ position. The AA gun couldn’t move fast enough to cover him but the smaller machine gun found him just as he reached the canal. He had just enough time to jump in before it lit up his position.

“Hotdog!” Winters shouted. “Hotdog what are you doing?” Then, after covering his radio mic, he screamed, “Get your stupid ass back here, you dog fucking bastard!”

“Two mikes, Blizzard,” Markus said.

The rangers turned their weapons on him almost immediately but they didn’t shoot. He wasn’t exactly in uniform, but between civilian contractors, agency weirdos and assorted covert operators they’d learned to know a friendly when they saw one.

“Who the fuck are you?” one of them demanded over the roar of incoming gunfire. “Name, rank, unit, now!” He was a captain. A bit on the young side but hard around the eyes.

“Hotdog, army.”

The captain looked him over briefly, recognizing what he was, mostly based on the lack of insignia. “Where the fuck are the rest of you?” Markus could barely hear him over the sound of the Rangers firing blind above the canal wall.

“No time for chit-chat, Captain. If I take out those two guns, can your guys suppress what’s left long enough for us to take the objective?”

“What are you fucking crazy? I don’t see any god damned rockets.”

“Yes or no, sir. Right now.”

“Yes, but—”

“Tell your men to stop shooting.”

“What—”

“Now, captain! Now!”

The Ranger captain frowned, but ordered a cease fire as Markus took two grenades, and pulled the pins on both with one finger of each hand. He then stood up and tossed them towards the machine gun and AA gun positions, one after the other, switching the second from his left hand to his right in a seamless motion.

“They’re out of grenade range you fucking—”

The grenades detonated almost simultaneously about thirty meters from each of the two weapon emplacements. The shooting stopped as the gun crews hid their eyes from flying debris and twin clouds of dust merged into a rapidly disintegrating shroud. Markus leaped over the side of the canal, sprinted a dozen or so meters towards the AA gun then dropped to one knee.

“Stupid motherfucker!” Winters’s voice blared in his earpiece. “Don’t you fucking die on me!”

Markus ignored him, aimed his M4 at the machine gun position in the emergency ward entrance and looked for a target. He saw two hostiles, one on the gun, turning the barrel towardshim.

He put the reticle of his holographic sight on the man’s head and squeezed off four rounds, then immediately turned the weapon on the second man and fired another four. Without waiting to see if he hit anyone he sprinted across the AA gun’s field of view a fraction of a second before it started firing. Thud. Thud. Thud. Thud. He could almost feel the high explosive rounds thunder past him as he ran. They couldn’t get the barrel low enough to have them explode on the ground behind him so they would have to hit him directly.

“It’s on you!” Winters shouted. “It’s on you! Take cover you dumb shit!”

He waited for a brief pause in the cannon’s cadence then suddenly sprinted in the opposite direction, dropped down onto his knee and took aim. One of the ZU-23 crew sat in the firing chair while another worked furiously at a crank that moved the barrel closer and closer to Markus.

He aimed at the one in the chair, put the dot on his head and fired. Aimed at the second one. Fired.

Two hammer blows slammed into his chest hard and he fell onto his back. His left arm was on fire and his stomach clenched against an oppressive nausea that told him his flesh had been torn open. His boots kicked up dust that tickled his throat but he could still see three men coming up behind the machine gun position, shooting at him with AKs. He could see more behind them helping someone towards the waiting ambulance. Objective Merryweather.

His armor must have taken the brunt of the damage as he was still able to move. He flattened his back to the ground, spread his legs and fired supine between his boots, emptying his magazine into the approaching dismounts. They went down, though Markus was only certain of hitting one of them. Behind him, the Rangers opened fire as Winters and Wang rolled up in their white pickup, headed for the overpass and ambulance. When he saw no movement from the two downed hajis, Markus replaced the empty magazine and turned his weapon on Merryweather’s escorts.

There was movement towards the back of target Indiana, the hospital, and Markus heard another heavy gun blaring away. He tried to get up, but before he could manage, two Rangers grabbed him under each arm and carried him back towards the canal. More were running towards the overpass to join the rest of Markus’s team. Within seconds, the remaining heavy gun stopped firing. Small arms fire crackled from within the hospital, then went silent.

“What the fuck is wrong with you?” the Ranger captain demanded. “Are you suicidal or just crazy?”

“Merryweather is secure,” Winters said in his earpiece.

Markus shrugged and checked his arm. It was bleeding, but the wound wasn’t critical. He took out his knife and cut away his shirt. He saw the bullet; it had just barely passed through the shattered ballistic plate at an extreme angle and was lodged inside the flesh of his upper armpit.

“Aren’t we all,” Markus muttered.

“That’s not cool,” the captain said. “You need to have your head examined. But whatever man, you pulled it out of the shit and saved my men. Thank you.”

A medic found him and pulled the bullet out with a pair of forceps, then dressed the wound. He didn’t say anything, but the way the medic looked at Markus made him uncomfortable. It was like he was looking at a mythical creature, his eyes big and round and full of stupid.

“There you are you fucking nutter!” Winters said as he came into view. Jennings was with him. “What the hell were you thinking?”

“He got the job done,” Jennings said. “While we were stroking our dicks being useless.”

“Seriously, Markus,” Winters said, his voice low. “Why did you do that?”

“Kids,” Markus explained. “There were kids in that hospital.”

“This isn’t the first time, brother. There’s something going on with you.”

“Nothing, I’m okay,” he lied. “Just doing what had to be done.” He wanted to tell him, he owed it to him, but how was he supposed to tell his team leader and CO that he had concealed medical information from the army? Whether he died saving kids in a hospital or in that same hospital’s bed a few months later, what did it matter to anyone? Except to the kids, to his team, and to him.

“That does it,” Winters said. “When we get back, you’re going for a special eval, and then you’re taking leave. Maybe you’ll consult with some spooks or some shit. When you come back, you better have your head screwed on right.”

“Ron, please.” Winters didn’t know, couldn’t know, what would happen if the army took too close a look at Markus. If he had to die in a hospital bed…

“Mind’s made up, Markus. I love you brother, and I’m not letting you kill yourself. We’ll be okay without you for a bit. Things are dying down around here anyway, so you just go and take care of yourself. Fuck a prom queen, build a white picket fence, plant daisies. We’ll be here when you get back.”

Markus nodded. There was no arguing with the major once he had made up his mind. He knew that he would probably never see them again. He had gone too far, and there was no way they would ever let him back.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 2

 

Grace looked over the connections, counting with an almost obsessive cadence. “Twenty-five, twenty-six, twenty-seven.” Each soldered point was like a note in an ascending melody.

“Again?” The irony of Ozzy’s repetitive question was lost on him. “That’s like the sixth time.”

“Seventh,” she said absentmindedly, her counting unhindered in her mathematically inclined head like a discrete thread in a multi-core processor. “Forty-five, forty-six, done. You’d think I was counting sheep.” She looked up at the others and smiled, hoping they would appreciate her rare attempt at a joke. It was strange how comfortable she was considering so many people were watching her. They were gathered like seagulls around a dead fish, their white coats glaring under intense fluorescent lighting. But they were her colleagues and she was accustomed to them.

Some things came easily to Grace, like earning her first doctorate while others her age were still working on their bachelors, or seeing the complex interactions between quantum logic gates mapped neatly and clearly in her mind. But leaving her apartment, driving to work, standing close to strangers in an elevator, those things were struggles. How well she handled them varied day by day. Today was a good day.

“Can we begin?” Ozzy said. “I’m dying here. Five year’s work, and you’re counting power wires.” There were murmured assents from the others, but Grace’s attention was drawn to the empty observation room behind the glass barrier. If this worked, that room would soon be filled with some of the most powerful people in the world, all gathered to see her work.

“Okay,” she said. “We’re ready to go.” Her hands were shaking. This wasn’t just her life’s work, or even the cumulative life’s work of everyone present, this was either the end of her career or an unprecedented triumph that would launch her to super stardom in the scientific community. She had taken a big chance, gone against the grain of conventional wisdom, and while previous tests were encouraging, this was the moment of truth. The first attempt at real world application.

“It’s go time, baby!” Ozzy said excitedly, wiping a lock of greasy black hair from his eyes before activating a series of switches that closed circuits between Prometheus and its power supply. “If this works and we beat the Horizon assholes to the punch I’m going to soil myself.”

 “So far so good,” Grace said, watching the boot up prompts. “The BIOS sees it.” She looked up at Ozzy. “I wouldn’t call your friends at Horizon just yet. A lot could still go wrong.”

“Stop being so negative,” Ozzy said. “It’s been working so far.” His face was familiar to her after thousands of hours of close association, and with that familiarity there was comfort and recognition: she could spot him in a crowd. Despite that, she still wasn’t sure what he actually looked like, at least by normal standards. His face was narrow, more asymmetrical than most, with a good bit of color variation, but that was about all she could glean. She was better with some faces than others, seeing those of people close to her almost normally. But some, like Ozzy’s, confused her even after years of association.

“I hope it’s not too small,” Grace said. The Horizon team was working on controlling millions of qubits, relying on error correction to tame quantum decoherence. By comparison, her machine was a tiny little thing with massively limited processing power. Her only hope was the presence of stable logic gates, a near impossibility in quantum computing.

“Oh, it’s not baby, it’s not.” Ozzy laughed and made what she thought was an obscene gesture, though it was too subtle for her to tell.

“Did I say something dirty again?” she asked. “I only meant that if the matrix is too small then Prometheus may get clobbered by Horizon. First to the finish line on a substandard horse won’t get us the trophy. Do they give trophies in horse racing?”

Ozzy sighed and adopted the look that she had come to recognize as patient understanding.

“I’m sorry, hon, I was just teasing.”

“It’s okay, Ozzy. Now let’s see if the OS finds it.”

“God, please, oh god,” Ozzy said as he started to pace. He crossed his fingers and bounced up and down on the balls of his feet like a small child.

“OS is up, and…”

The silence in the room was immediate and almost tangible. Everyone held their breath. Grace hesitated, listening. Were they actually holding their breath or were her attempts to blend in with normal people filling her mind with clichés? She couldn’t tell.

“The processor passed the error test!” she announced, and immediately there were audible breaths, sighs and exclamations of relief. Score one for clichés.

“Yes!” Ozzy said. “Fuckin’ A! Do it, Gracie, do it!”

She looked up at him. “Should we start with the standard cipher, or go for the big one?”

“Go with VALLOR,” he said. “Go big or go home.”

“I don’t know, I mean—”

“Look, it either works or it doesn’t, right?”

She hesitated, then nodded and started pushing keys. VALLOR was used to encrypt broadcasts to and from nuclear submarines and was one of the strongest ciphers in existence.

“Go big or go home,” she repeated, loading the cipher. They had only conventional brute force programs to test. In theory, with all of the most powerful computers on the planet working together, it could take millions of years to crack a VALLOR encrypted message using a brute force approach. Even if the quantum processor was a million times faster than every computer in the world put together, they might still have to wait a year.

Her finger hovered over the enter key.

“This could take a while guys,” she said. “Maybe a long while.”

Assorted murmurs died down, leaving an almost palpable silence.

Ozzy swallowed, and she had to think really hard about what that meant before realizing he was nervous. She could design a quantum computer that could execute an immeasurable number of operations per second—if it worked!—but reading another person’s body language intuitively, something even a child could do without effort, was beyond her.

“Push it,” Ozzy said, his voice almost a whimper.

She pushed enter. A message appeared on the screen.

 

Decryption complete. Press PF12 to view decrypted data.

 

Ozzy exhaled forcibly. “You’ve got to be shitting me! That was less than a second!”

“That has to be a mistake,” she said, her hands shaking with excitement. “Or luck. It can’t be that fast.” She ran it again using a different file. And again. Both times, the results were the same. “A mistake then?”

“Read it!” he said. “If you can read it, then it worked.”

Grace pressed F12 and read the text aloud. “Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet…oh this crap. How original. Wait—” She stopped and frowned, turning to glare at him. “Gracie is a tasty piece of tiny blonde love candy and Ozzy has a sweet tooth?”

He grinned, his cheeks turning red. “Yep, that’s it.”

“Would you two idiots just get a room?” Helen snapped. She was Grace’s assistant and had helped design Prometheus’s interface. “The thing works! It fucking works and you two are flirting! The average time was 0.0042 seconds…to crack VALLOR!”

“We’ve done it,” Ozzy said, looking at Grace intently. “You’ve done it. We’re now officially living in a P=NP world!”

Grace’s attention snapped back to the message and its implications and her eyes welled with warm tears. The most powerful device ever created by human beings had just taken its first breath.

“I am become death,” she whispered, but no one heard her amidst the cheers and cries of triumph.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 3

 

A gentle morning sun shone through the leaves, brilliant emeralds fluttering in a slight Spring breeze. Markus rolled down the window and inhaled the slightly sulfurous air that foretold the fleeting miracle of water falling from the sky. Most things were familiar, some were not, but everything was smaller than he remembered. The cracked sidewalks and rusty knee high fences were overshadowed by newly renovated facades that ranged from modestly attractive to absurdly posh. Not all the homes had been face-lifted, most were just as rundown as he remembered. Or more so. It was a neighborhood in transition, though he wasn’t sure what it was transitioning towards.

At the end of the block, a row of Tudor style brick townhouses stood along the worn out chain link fence that separated this modest gated community from the once violent Coney Island ghetto. Built as luxury housing in the mid twentieth century, most had fallen into casual disrepair. His house, roughly in the middle, stood frozen in time, as out of place as a black and white photo in a color album. It was dangerous for him to come here, and Markus knew it. There were ghosts in that house. Memories as powerful as any fictional poltergeist.

“We don’t have a lot of time, sir,” the driver said. “We have to be in DC in five hours.”

“Plenty of time,” Markus said. He wasn’t looking forward to his “interview” with Dr. Herada. It was more than just a standard psych evaluation, and he was afraid that the old shrink would see right through his bullshit.

“There might be traffic.”

Markus didn’t answer. The car pulled up along the shared driveway that ran the length of the development and he stepped out into the past. His throat constricted with stifled torment as he searched his pocket for the key to the peeling blue door. The driveway that doubled as a communal backyard was brighter than he remembered. The neighbors had cut down the old tree whose branches had combined with the adjoining decks to create a shelter beneath which he and his sister had played. Another element of his childhood destroyed forever.

A white envelope was taped to the door. He took it and stuffed it in his coat before fumbling the key into the lock. Before going inside, he stepped back and looked up at his old home. The other units had been remodeled with stucco or decorative stones, but his was a tribute to the 1980s, frozen in time like the mausoleum that it was. The deck was not the natural stained wood of a modern construction. It was painted the same garish blue color as the door and trim. The windows were wood framed, possibly the last such windows in the entire city, their white paint peeling and cracking from decades of neglect. His father would have been displeased.

His father, who had driven the whole family to Georgia to see their son, to spend a few days together before Markus shipped out to his unit.

He closed his eyes and saw it as though he were still standing there by the bus stop. Graduation day, Airborne School, eighteen year old Markus waited for his parents and sister with orders in hand, orders for almost a month of leave, something a new recruit with brand new jump wings pinned to his chest was not supposed to have. An honest mistake, they told him, but he could take the leave if he wanted to. It had been a ruse. He had enlisted with a guaranteed placement in a Ranger battalion and they wanted him to give it up. He hadn’t known that then and he was all set to take the bait. He couldn’t wait to tell his parents that he could go home with them for almost an entire month. Bliss! Who would be so crazy as to refuse? Joining the army had been a mistake, he knew that from the moment he set foot in the reception battalion at Ft. Benning. All he wanted was to go home and get back to his life. The leave wasn’t a way out, but an entire month off—it was the next best thing.

Tearing his moistening eyes away, he walked inside the basement level entrance. All was exactly as it had been on the day he left to board the bus at Fort Hamilton. The floor was covered in dusty white tiles, the walls were pink with dark scuff marks. Black particleboard panels concealed an ancient boiler and a multi-panel mirror adorned the wall. He stepped through a door and into the finished basement that had been his bedroom. His IKEA furniture stood unchanged except for dust, as did his ancient tube television and obsolete computer. His bed was made, the blue tartan pattern bed sheets folded neatly, but only because his mother had wanted to make everything tidy for his return. It had not been touched since.

A chaplain had found him waiting, holding his orders, wondering why his family was so late. His chest was sore from the pinning of the blood wings, and he was proud.

His father liked to save money. Markus used to tease him for it. His mother had asked him to stop at a hotel. Markus knew that because she always asked him that on long trips, and he always said no. He told her to go to sleep. Told her he could handle the long drive. He was usually right. But not that time.

He had been in the house only once after the accident. He’d thrown away all the perishables, unplugged all of the appliances and locked the door, avoiding looking at anything too closely. It had been painful, but the idea was to return when enough time passed to make it bearable. Almost twenty years later, the pain had subsided to a dull ache.

He made his way upstairs to the kitchen and dining room. Walking past the sturdy oak china cabinet, he entered the living room through an arched opening and sat on the dusty leather couch. The ghosts found him there as well.

Their Hyundai had gone off of a bridge, and just like that, there was no going home for Markus. His little sister, with her braids and freckled nose, would never disturb him when he played video games. He would never chase her around the house, never complain about her going through his stuff, never help her get her radio controlled airplane out of a tree, a plane she had adorned with so many Hello Kitty stickers that it was almost too heavy to fly. She wanted to be a pilot, or an astronaut, or marine biologist, because she loved dolphins.

When he learned that he had lost them, he tore his orders to shreds. What good was a month of leave to a man who had nothing to go home to? 

Maybe now, things could be different. He was home, and maybe that wasn’t so bad. He didn’t want to die alone in this house, but being here was becoming less painful and more comfortable by the minute. He might still have aunts and uncles somewhere, maybe even some cousins. He could find them, have them visit, stay with him while he died.  His childhood friends might remember him, and some might still live in the neighborhood. He leaned back on the couch and exhaled slowly, savoring the familiar surroundings. Maybe he wasn’t really as alone as he thought.

Remembering the envelope taped to the door, he took it from his pocket and tore it open. Inside was a simple card. Its header read, “Lis Pendens has been filed.” There was a paragraph below, in which he saw the words “foreclosure” and “eviction.”

He stared at it for a full minute, blinking, comprehension eluding him. He had paid off the mortgage with the life insurance money and he was current on all of the property taxes. It was important to him to keep this house intact, a monument to his family, a place for the ghosts to live. But they were going to take it. He didn’t know why, the note didn’t say. Perhaps it was one of those bogus foreclosures, a remnant of the subprime crisis. Or maybe he’d missed a tax payment somewhere. Objectively, it hardly mattered. He wouldn’t live much longer, and he had no one to whom he could leave it. But this was his home. His memories. The house was nothing special, but his family had taken good care of it. It had been theirs, and now it was his. And someday soon, men would come for it. They would throw away the furniture, scuff the floors, break the china.

Tears came, and the familiar tightening of the chest that poets called heart ache. But there was also laughter. And why not? It was all so absurd that it was finally hilarious. His life was one big, sick joke and it was fitting that it was drawing to a close—he didn’t want to live it anymore. He got to his feet and went outside, locking the door behind him. He got back in the car and didn’t look out the windows as the driver took them out of the old neighborhood and towards the highway.

Just as the car was about to pull onto the Belt Parkway, he suddenly felt unsteady, dizzy even. He recognized the feeling and started to panic.

“Oh fuck.”

“What is it, sir?” the driver said.

It was happening, and there was nothing he could do to stop it. He closed his eyes, and—