I drove with abandon on the semi-broken sometimes dirt road called Route 66, as the dream smooth hurtling along, even at only fifty miles per hour or so, disappeared behind us. We were finally headed in the right direction, east, instead of the circuitous selections Matt had chosen to throw off any pursuit that was likely ever coming.

“Find us another hole-in-the-wall cheap motel where we can refuel this thing,” Matt instructed.

“Refuel it where?” I asked, in surprise, trying to make sure that I was still keeping the truck firmly glued to whatever road was still the alternative to an Interstate portion of the construction that was a long way from done. “Motels don’t ordinarily have diesel pumps. What about that truck stop?”

“There’s ten Jerry cans of number one diesel in the back, not that you might have noticed. It’s a labor in the night to refuel that way but, once we get back to normal speeds that should get us to Albuquerque, and your tone tells me that you’re having a hard time believing any of this. Welcome to the CIA.”

I stared as far out beyond the bad lighting provided by the combat vehicle’s headlight system, bouncing the truck along, thankful that there was no traffic in either direction. All that would change as we approached Albuquerque, I knew. I didn’t answer Matt’s comment, not that he’d made it in the form of a question.

“You’re running toward something while I’m running from something,” I said, the sentence sounding nonsensical but truthfully stating my thoughts about our strange situation.

“What are you running from?” Matt asked, sounding mildly surprised

“What are you running toward?” I asked back, slowing the deuce as I saw civilization lights ahead of us.

I liked the truck’s handling at high speed, but that could not go on as, in looking at our fuel gauge, the high speed called for no need of the speedometer as the little white needle was going down that fast.

Matt said nothing, merely taking in a big breath and letting it out in a long dramatic sigh, like he was accompanied by the dumbest human in the universe.

“You don’t know, and I don’t know. Either that or neither of us wants to admit to anything or discuss it.”

“You want to drive this thing?” I asked the fatigue of the ever-moving seat and hard suspension rebounds from the repaired but still broken Route 66 becoming more fatiguing as the trip went on. For some reason, I wasn’t afraid of being interdicted by the local or state police again. The more I thought about the strange encounter at the motel the more I was impressed just how neatly and smoothly Matt had handled the officer and the situation. There’d been no fear or lack of assurance in his delivery which probably had had a lot to do with the officer not wanting to pursue the matter further. At least not at the time. Matt was more of an old pro than I would have believed from his casual and friendly presentations with me.

I pulled the truck into a brightly lit motel parking lot and slowed until the big diesel thumped slowly, almost every explosion in its cylinder housings detonating nearly individually, the whine of the turbocharger dropping away to a soft hum.

“Pull around back,” Matt instructed. “Don’t want any company while we refuel. We’re about 250 miles from the border to New Mexico so that’s about five hours maximum once we’re out of here. Not likely the officer would have the horsepower to have an alert that crossed state lines when there’s no foundational violation.

I wondered if Matt had ever been a police officer since his estimation of police conduct had been spot-on since the incident started.

“Best Western,” he murmured, as I eased the truck into first gear and slowly moved around one side of the complex. “Biggest of the chains across this nation and now many others. The home office is in Phoenix, you know. Just leave it running in case it gets finicky in starting again.”

I marveled at the miscellaneous information a mere enlisted member of the Air Force had. I wondered if his military experience was real at all.

“So, what’s your background?” I asked, as he hefted one Jerry can after another over the edge of the truck bed.

“One of those questions nobody will ever answer in truth, not in what you are undertaking, anyway.”

I brought more cans down and set them by the big fuel cap located on the side of the truck nearby until there were ten. The deuce’s fuel gauge read about a quarter full, maybe a little less. Fifty gallons, plus about eight to ten left in the tank would easily get us to Albuquerque if that’s where we were going. Matt’s comment about the now apparent fact that Albuquerque had never been our intended destination bothered me, although not overly much. I’d signed aboard and I was in for wherever the adventure took me. I wanted to have that in my new life badly but at the same time worried about the effect on all those I cared about around me. Before the A Shau Valley, I’d never considered the actual worth of people in my life, nor their true value, but that all changed when I was ‘reborn’ by the Navy and Japanese surgeons who’d saved me.

“The new me,” I whispered to myself as I worked to unscrew the tightly held gas cap.

“Tinker, tailor, soldier sailor, rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief,” finally replied, using the ancient children’s thyme, as he was climbing back down to join me in the arduous job of lifting each can and then waiting while slanting the lip into the top of the pipe.

“I meant about your military service,” I said, in frustration.

“Is your military service real?” Matt replied, taking up the next can while I stood resting and waiting with another at my side.

I almost blurted out a ‘yes’ but then stopped. I was carrying an analytical approved and certified I.D. card in my wallet that wasn’t real at all.

“Yes, and no,” I said, hesitantly.

“You’ll fit right in doing fieldwork for this outfit,” Matt said, nearing the upper tipping point of his Jerry can.

“It was real,” I added.

“Finally, some truth,” Matt replied, taking his empty can and stepping back.

I moved in and started pouring from my own.

“I’ve been a reserve in the Air Force for thirteen years. This is the first time, all of it with you, that I’ve ever used it to do fieldwork in any way. It’s just always kind of been there. You’ll find that you’re going to be in the ‘yes and no’ situation with just about everything you are and do on into the future. Are you a real-life insurance agent?”

I started to laugh. “You’ve made your point.”

“Want to reload these cans into the truck?” I asked, as we finished and Matt replaced the big metal cap.

“Nah, just line them up against the back of the building over there. We won’t need them again. And don’t give me that look. The Agency leaves more valuable junk behind than you will ever get used to but there’s a method to the madness.”

“And that would be?” I asked.

“The value of trying to accommodate, carry, store, and have them in the way is far outweighed by the need to run fast, hard, and clean without them, and then there’s the cost. Cost’s no object at all when it comes to accomplishing the mission.”

“Do I have time to call my wife?” I asked.

“Sure you want to?” Matt replied.

“Damned sure,” I replied, a little irritated by his comment.

“Two things, really three,” Matt said, finishing stacking the cans, then leaning against the front fender of the deuce. “Your phone is likely registered and recorded now, so not only will the Agency know what you say they’ll know where you’re calling from. The revelation of our position at this Best Western right now might reach other ears or eyes.”

I was shocked by Matt’s comment. “You don’t trust the CIA with that kind of information? Who else could get it if they didn’t give it out? If you don’t trust the people we’re working for then why are you still doing this and how are we supposed to survive out here on our own?”

Matt smiled wryly, crossing his arms and leaning back, obviously enjoying my discomfort.

“It’s not about trust. You are embarking on a career wherein you’re going to take information in and take ordered actions out. Make the call if you want. We’ll no doubt survive, but why give out information you don’t have to, not to the Agency, not to anybody? Your wife needs to know we’re running from the police through the night in a giant supercharged truck carrying something likely more critical and deadly than an atomic weapon?”

“I’d never tell her anything like that,” I said, defending myself.

“From what you’ve said about her you probably wouldn’t have to. She’d just know, from the tone of your voice, from your need to talk to her at all.”

“What should I do?” I asked, knowing Matt was right and regretting that I hadn’t complained about my home being bugged and my phone as well. Part of the deal, which unfortunately I already made, was going to be stopping that kind of activity. I had to have a home life or no life at all.

“Shut up and drive,” Matt said, stepping away from the idling truck and moving around the front of it to the passenger door. “Decide once we get where we’re going.”

“Where exactly are we going?” I asked, getting into the driver’s seat again. “I was told we were going to the house.”

“Not by me,” Matt replied. “Your analysis of where I’m going was correct. I don’t know. We hit the outer limits of the city and I make a call. Then we’ll know.”

“Has anybody in this system you seem to know so much about said anything about the fact that I might not want to give up the object?” I asked, overcoming a marginally held fear I’d had since coming into possession of the extraordinary artifact.

“I’m not surprised but, if I can give you the benefit of my experience with these people and that system you call it, you don’t want to go there in any way shape, or form. Whatever this is, it comes with a subtitle and that subtitle is trouble. You have a life and you’re considered special by an important group of powerful people. Wax and polish that and forget about changing the world or that world will simply roll right over you. You might want to tell me what happened with that police officer in San Clemente. It’s a long trip and I’d like to know.”

Without Paul, Mary, or anybody else to discuss things with I was left with Matt. I thought for a few minutes before coming to a decision.

“Rick Steed was a reserve officer under my command if it was a real command at all. I organized and ran the beach patrol for the San Clemente Police Department and the Nixon estate on the beach there. I was the one who got the Chief to make him a regular full-time officer. He also was part of a group called the Dwarfs I formed to find out about the murder of three Marines on the beach there. He was outstanding as a former Marine and as a police officer. He was out on his first shift with a partner when a health and safety call came in. They rolled their unit to an industrial part of town whereupon they spotted a man sitting on the curb with a bloody rag covering his hands. Rick got out to lend medical assistance while his partner called in that they’d arrived and were providing assistance while awaiting the paramedics.

“His first shift,” Matt said, “was he with another rookie or a training officer?”

“Stockdale, my old training officer was his partner, and there was nobody on the force better than Stockdale at street patrol. Rick apparently walked up to the injured man. He was wearing one of the brand new Second Chance armored vests I never got a chance to get issued. Rick checked the man out, who seemed incoherent so Rick turned to yell back at Stockdale and that was it.” I stopped picturing the scene graphically in my mind.

I’d gone to that scene later on and the image of it I knew would never leave me.

“And then?” Matt encouraged.

“The guy dropped the towel revealing a .38. He fired one shot into Rick’s side, the round going between the armor pads and through both of his lungs. He died at the scene, probably within a minute or two.”

“Bad luck,” Matt said, his voice going lower and more gentle.

“And then some,” I replied with a sigh. “There was the funeral. It was awful. I rode in the hearse with Mary, like notables because of the three hundred-thousand-dollar policy I’d made Steed buy. One officer died in the traffic nightmare created by hundreds of police cars all plying the freeway at the same time. I filed the claim with Mass Mutual on behalf of Kathy, the beneficiary and that should pay off any day soon. I put two hundred dollars of my own money into a bank account for her, since she didn’t even have an account of her own.”

“Who killed him?” Matt asked after a few seconds of delay.

“Nut case, completely insane. Where he got the gun nobody knows yet but he’ll no doubt be incarcerated for life in some institution. You don’t get to kill a cop in California, or anywhere else, and walk away.”

“So, this is what you’re running away from?” Matt asked.

“Isn’t that enough?” I asked back, glancing over at the man. “Well, throw in the fact that the three Marines killed were killed inside the nuclear containment center at San Onofre, and most of the people I worked with at the Western White House are either in or going to prison, which might include me at some point, and then there’s what behind us both…a riddle of the universe that doesn’t belong here and threatens to change everyone’s life in unimaginable ways. Want more?”

I drove the truck on through the night in silence for a while. Route 66 was rough but passable until we saw a sign for the Interstate. Once on that smooth concrete, Matt opened up again.

“Take it up to seventy,” he said. “We’ve got plenty of fuel and once we get across the border there’s plenty of truck stops along the way, I’m sure.”

I looked down and checked out the odometer. We’d talked inside the cab for longer than I’d thought as the border was coming up fast. There was no nobody in pursuit that we’d seen and now it was likely nobody was waiting up ahead. The vague fear that’d come over me was fading fast. I knew the police would have had little to hold us for if we’d encountered them again but still, the cargo we were carrying was problematic in so many ways, many more than I’d given it credit for.

The sign welcoming us to New Mexico came up about twenty minutes later so I slowed the truck back down. Dawn was only a couple of hours away which meant that we’d be in Albuquerque just after first light.

“I don’t want to know what we’re carrying, not officially anyway,” Matt suddenly said, “but I’d like to know what it does that has a lot of people upset and terribly interested. You feel comfortable telling me anything?”

I hadn’t expected the question as Matt had been pretty definitive about not wanting to know. What could I tell him that had any believability I wondered. I didn’t reply while I thought. I owed Matt and my sharing of my innermost fears and regret at Steed’s passing meant a lot to me. I flexed my left hand, pulling it away from the steering wheel for a few seconds.

“Love’s truck stop nine miles ahead” I nodded toward a huge billboard sign as we drove by it.

Even though it was a while before dawn traffic was beginning to build on the freeway. Trucks were passing us on occasion and the feeling wasn’t pleasant. The deuce was no agile performer on the road and although weighing in at over five tons it was no match for the giant semi-trucks pushing large amounts of air around us as they passed. I took the deuce up to eighty, where the speedometer needle pegged. Getting behind an eighteen-wheeler we drafted close behind the rig to Loves.

Having crossed the border and feeling relatively safe from any pursuit Matt and I went inside the restaurant and gift shop part of the huge truck stop. Matt immediately encountered a couple of big rig truck drivers and discovered that the Interstate was finished on into Albuquerque, which was a great relief. At seventy-five, with a full tank of diesel, the deuce would cruise into the outskirts of the city in less than three hours. We sat down to relax for the first time since starting the trip. The coffee was most acceptable and the cheeseburgers were deliciously greasy and hot.

Matt sat facing me as the table was cleared, leaving only our refilled coffee cups behind.

“Steed wasn’t yours to lose,” he said, taking a sip of his coffee and waiting.

I didn’t reply. We both waited.

“Steed was fate. You can’t take that one on. I don’t know about the three Marines you spoke of but that wasn’t your deal either. Stuff happens out here just like it did in Vietnam. It’s easy to tell you not to carry that stuff but you always will because that’s what kind of man you are.”

“Thank you,” was all I could think to reply.

I knew Matt meant well, although his version of the ‘just get over it,’ talk could never be effective as any kind of therapy. I knew I’d feel responsible for Steed for the rest of my life, just like I did for so many Marines. I’d accommodate it but I also knew I’d never grow to either be happy about it or fully relegate it and him into forgotten memories.

“The thing,” Matt said, not letting the question he earlier said go.

“When I was a deckhand and then deck-watch aboard the Daniel J. Morrell, an ore boat in the Great Lakes while in college I broke two knuckles sliding backward down a ship’s ladder. The injury healed fine when I was back in school but it always ached during any kind of weather change.”
I held out my left hand briefly, fingers splayed so he could see the slight lines of scars where the skin had torn and been stitched back together.

“I see,” Matt answered, but what’s your point?”

“Credibility is the tough part in dealing with what’s in that aluminum box,” I replied, “and I’m doing the best I can without unpacking it, which we’re not going to do, in helping you to believe.”

“You have full credibility with me,” Matt replied. “I’ve met a lot of people but I’ve never come close to knowing anyone with your background…and also your penchant for experiencing trauma, which, I admit, makes me a little nervous as well.”

“The object is about the size of a tennis ball,” I went on, ignoring his reassurance.

The artifact was not believable, even if someone hearing about said so before knowing more. I did care if Matt believed me, but I wasn’t sure why, other than I knew his interest in me wasn’t strictly Agency-related. I didn’t want to lose what relationship I had with him.

“Upon receiving this ‘gift’ of trouble as you term it, I held it for a lengthy period clutched in my left hand.”

I held out my hand again, palm facing toward him. “Look closely and you’ll see the indentations that the thing’s surface left in my surface. They’re not scars. They’re like I was born with them. The object sort of melded with me. Finally, my hand has never ached again and the flexibility of the two fingers involved returned to what it was before the accident.”

“Holy mother of God,” Matt breathed out, leaning toward my outstretched palm until his face was only inches away.

“What is it, and where did it come from?” he asked, pulling back.

I put my hand back on the wheel and looked straight through the windshield without answering.

“What else does it do?” Matt finally asked, glancing over his shoulder as if to see if the object might be rising, like the Blob in the old Steve McQueen movie.

There was no point in discussing things further I knew so I remained quiet as we headed toward the outskirts of Albuquerque. I saw the sign for the first exit to the city and pulled off. There was a lone gas station not far from the end of the exit. I stopped next to the building. A phone booth was right next to the station’s entrance.

“Make the call,” I instructed. The object was going somewhere and I was headed somewhere else. I wasn’t truly comfortable with that but Matt’s advice had been solid. I needed to move on for my family and for the future and not play Mr. Wizard with something that might kill or main as silently and easily as it’d marked and then healed me.

Matt got out and went over the phone while I sat waiting in the idling deuce. He was back in less than a minute. He walked over to my window, which I manually rolled down.

“We’re going to Los Alamos from here,” Matt informed me. “They give us a lift back down to the dealership in Albuquerque where we’ll pick up your new car.”

“I’m getting a new car?” I asked, in complete surprise.

“I think they think it’s a fair trade, lousy cheating traders that they are if what you’ve told me is the absolute truth.”

“Why Los Alamos?” I asked, knowing almost nothing about the place except that it was a good hour out of Santa Fe which was a good hour from where we were. The lab there had put together the first atomic bomb and remained under extreme security at all times.

“Sandia Labs has no tech areas,” Matt replied, walking around the front of the truck and climbing back in. “They feel that this thing needs to be in a very tightly controlled tech area so they picked fifty-five.”

“What’s tech area fifty-five and why did you say it that way?”

“Tech area fifty-five is legendary in rumor only. It’s supposed to have the nickname of ‘legacy.’

“Why legacy?” I asked, mystified.

“Anti-gravity,” Matt said, keeping his voice low.

“Oh great,” I murmured, in reply. “Is there any more, since this just seems to keep getting better and better?”

I turned the radio back on. WLS was still tuned in but scratch and there was no introduction by Brother John. A song started to play and, as the lyrics came out Matt and I both laughed together as I headed the truck up the onramp: “In the year 2525, if man is still alive…” came from the little speaker.

<<<<<< The Beginning |

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