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All characters in this publication are fictitious, any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

Star Soldier

Episode Two

Copyright © 2017 Odette C Bell

Cover art stock photos: licensed from Depositphotos.

www.odettecbell.com



STAR SOLDIER

EPISODE TWO


Ami is now trapped by the army. There’s nothing she can do to escape as they experiment on her. But outside the thick, safe walls of Central Command, the war continues.

The army has made mistakes, and soon they will pay for them. Ami will be dragged into the center of their mess. And if she can’t keep up, she’ll be killed.

Star Soldier Episode Two is the second instalment in the Star Soldier Series.

Chapter 1

Ami

It takes me a long time to rouse.

I have no idea where I am. Worse, I barely have an idea of who I am.

The strangest dreams keep flitting through my mind, sparking through my consciousness like fireflies in a dark cave.

I start to see scraps of what’s around me. I feel the cold metal bed beneath me, my fingers twitching along the smooth surface.

Then I see the lights.

Powerful. Goddamn powerful. As my eyelids twitch open, my eyes practically roll into the back of my head, and searing pain shoots through my temples. I wince my eyes closed against those harsh, harsh lights.

… I think… I think I hear somebody on the other side of the room. Voices. Quick, low, excited.

My lips finally open, and I let out a groan. Low and grating, it makes me realize my throat is as dry as a desert. I practically gag as I swallow, trying to moisten it.

Finally, things start to come into focus.

I can hear the voices more clearly now, and the one thing that gets me more than anything else is their low, excited almost frenetic tones.

Then it’s like a battering ram right into the center of my head.

Realization pounds into me with all the force of a semi trailer right into my brain.

I remember the fight. With a Category IV monster. I remember calling on my light sentinel, Xin.

But worse?

A thousand times worse?

I remember Jason.

She’s finally rousing. Normal readings.”

Is the light connection stable?”

The levels of banta radiation detected along her shoulder blades are within acceptable ranges,” someone answers back.

I let my eyes blast open as wide as they can, the skin around them practically breaking.

And I see it.

I’m in a lab.

There are the harshest lights you can imagine above me, almost the kind of lights you’d use if you were trying to spot a target from a helicopter.

The lab’s massive. New, too. Even though I can barely shift and I can only see the ceiling and a few consoles out of my peripheral vision, it’s more than enough to alert me to one fact – I’m in the upper echelons of the towers. They’ve taken me to Central Command.

Of course they’ve taken me to Central Command, a little voice spits in my head – I’m joined. I’ve gone from being one of the lowliest, most irritating grunts in the Security Forces to….

Heart rate’s elevating, blood pressure, breathing rate,” one of the scientists says, voice quick with desperation. “Should we medicate?”

Not yet. Wait and see,” a man says, and he has a cold, dead, hard voice.

I press my lips together, muscular twitches traveling hard through my jaw and into my throat.

Good God, this can’t be happening. Not to me.

You know all that bullshit I said about knowing that one day I would be the one to put an end to this war?

Yeah, that was nothing but bravado.

Despite everything I’ve lost to those monsters, and despite all the hardships I’ve endured, I can’t….

Blood pressure’s still elevating, heart rate too,” one of the scientists points out in an even more worried tone.

The other guy swears, the word sharp. “Prep the syringe,” he snaps simply.

I hear a pneumatic hiss and feel a slight rumble from the bed beneath me, then a robotic arm snaps up just to my side. My pupils dilate as if I’m about to be attacked, but I can’t jerk my head back, and I certainly can’t hope to grab out a hand and stop the robotic arm in place.

I can’t move. My whole body feels like concrete.

But the robotic arm doesn’t move, either. With a glistening hypodermic spray syringe held in its three fingers, the tip hovers perilously close to my neck.

Readings?” the chief scientist – who I’m now appreciating is a man with a voice that sounds like gravel on metal – snaps.

Relatively steady,” the other female scientist points out.

I push a deep breath into my lungs and hold it there, pressing my lips as tightly closed as I can.

The last thing I want is to be put under again.

Because… I don’t think I can put up with any more of those dreams.

I see flashes of them now. Little bursts of terrifying scenes going off behind my eyes like tiny little bombs.

They’re so discordant, so mind-bending. I see long dark tunnels streaked with light. I see ghosts. Hundreds of them, thousands of them. All with their warped, distended, terrifying bodies. And more than anything, I see their eyes. Glowing green and bright from that special type of radiation. And when I look into their eyes….

Heart rate has exceeded acceptable levels,” the female scientist points out with a harsh breath. “Should I medicate?”

Just hold on,” the head scientist rumbles.

I can still see them, lined up in my consciousness like soldiers who are ready to attack. Those goddamn green eyes. They promise… a history far darker than any I could imagine. And worse – a future far darker still.

Though I could easily allow myself to be pulled away by the fear of my memories, I do it again – draw in a deep breath, press my lips tightly closed, and hold my inhalation, forcibly letting it still my heart.

I hear the female scientist let out a breath of relief. “Heart rate’s coming down –blood pressure too.”

Good. I’d say our soldier is finally playing ball,” the head scientist mutters.

So the guy thinks I’m more than a specimen, then?

They both know I’m conscious, but this is the first time anyone’s spoken of me as if I’m anything more than a collection of worrying medical results.

Maybe there’s something in that, because it helps me pull my mind off the fear of those ghosts.

Though I still can’t turn my head properly, I shift my gaze as far to the left as I can. It’s just enough to see that there’s some kind of room on the opposite side of the laboratory. It’s closed off with extremely thick, blast proof glass plating, and is elevated, looking down on me like a marksman from a rise.

I can just make out the top of some man’s head, and judging by the exact deep timbre of the head scientist’s voice, I assume easily that it’s him.

That’s right, we’re right here. Now, soldier, you have two options. Calm yourself, or we’ll put you under again. Which one would you prefer?”

Though I haven’t had much to do with people from the upper echelons, I’ve known a few. After all, Melody is engaged to General Cral’s son.

But I know enough to appreciate that most people from the upper realms don’t talk like this guy.

He obviously doesn’t have the time to measure his words with kindness.

Do you remember what happened to you?” the guy asks.

I want to snarl at them both that it took them a long time to start treating me like a human, not a specimen, but I know I can’t waste my breath.

Hell, I don’t even know if I can speak. And when I open my mouth and try to mumble a word but only a ragged croak comes out, I realize I can’t. So I just nod.

Good. Saves me from explaining it. You’re joined. To a powerful light sentinel if reports are anything to go by. So this is what’s going to happen next. We’re going to need to keep you in this lockup lab for the next day and a half, just to see that your connection really is stable. Then? That’s up to you. My only job is to ensure that the light sentinel who chose to join you isn’t going to suddenly rip through your body with excess banta radiation and that the connection is stable enough to begin training. The rest is going to come down to you. Now I read your report,” he pauses, possibly to check something, “Corporal Ming, and it seems you’ve had your fair share of commendations. But before I start clapping, it seems you’ve had more than your fair share of complaints, too. Now, like I said, what happens to you next is completely up to you. The joined program is one of the most rigorous in the Security Forces. And the honor,” though his voice is completely steady up to this point, now it cracks, “of being joined, is the greatest that can be bestowed. You now have the option to serve your people in a way you never thought possible. Or you can disappoint everybody. I hazard to guess that, based on your history, that’s what the Generals expect you to do. But like I said, what happens next is up to you,” the guy rumbles.

Though I can barely move my body, obviously I can scrounge just enough strength to curl a single hand into a fist. It’s no stronger than a baby’s, and it would fall apart if I tried to punch anyone, let alone the metal bed beneath me, but that’s not the point. The anger twisting through me at that assholes words is enough to help me start to scrounge back my strength.

Being joined is the greatest honor that can be bestowed upon a soldier, ha? I now have a chance to serve people in a way I never did before, ha?

What about all those times I busted a gut and almost killed myself?

Don’t they count?

What about all the countless soldiers I served beside who were torn to shreds because they weren’t given the equipment to save themselves and make a difference? There may be no power in being cannon fodder, but by God there’s honor – and if this guy can’t see that, he deserves to be smacked down.

She looks pissed off,” I hear the female scientist mutter. Her tone’s low, and I wonder if she forgot to momentarily cut off the audio feed.

Sure does,” the head scientist grunts with laughter. “Which matches my psychological assessment of her to a T. There’s no chance she’ll be able to control the power of Xin,” he says, and his voice changes. “But no matter. If we’re lucky, when she loses control, Xin can transfer to a more suitable candidate. Now, Corporal Ming,” he doesn’t even bother to change the volume of his voice, making it abundantly clear that he intends for me to hear all this crap. “Like I said, you’re going to stay in here for the next day and a half. Now you can play this the easy way or the hard way. Your body needs time to heal. You had an uncontrolled join, and you’re going to feel like shit. I suggest you just lie back and relax. But, again reading from your file, I fully appreciate you’re not going to do that. You’re going to sit there and seethe. Up to you. It’ll just bring you more pain, though. Get too angry,” he suddenly adds, “and we will simply knock you out, increasing the amount of time you will stay in lockdown. Up to you.”

With that, there’s a buzz, and he signs off.

It leaves me alone. But not completely alone.

I’m still being watched like a specimen in a tube.

And I hate being watched.

But from here on out, my life will change forever.

There’s no going back.

Chapter 2

Commander Jason Everett

Yeah, I shouldn’t need to tell you that everything has gone to hell.

And it’s a twisted, cruel hell.

Not only is Ami joined, but she’s joined with one of the most powerful light sentinel’s the Security Forces have ever seen.

I’ve had back-to-back meetings for the past day and a half. I haven’t even had the chance to go and see her. Then again, I don’t have the security clearance anymore.

I’m not a man who’s easily goaded. Over the years, I’ve developed the fine art of controlling my emotions. Which is just yet another one of the myriad reasons Ami and I never worked. Because while I take pride in controlling my emotions, she is exactly the opposite. She uses her fire and passion as a battering ram, and if she doesn’t agree with something – or heaven forbid, something makes her angry – she lashes out.

Yeah, well right now I don’t have that option.

I’m sitting at a table, back hunched over. It’s from sheer fatigue. I haven’t slept for two days.

I don’t know how many times I’ve repeated my story, but my throat is now red and raw.

Thankfully, we’re beyond that stage now. In the beginning, no one believed me. Then they got the comatose Ami to one of the secure lockup cells in the upper echelons of the Central Command tower, and all hell broke loose. From one look at the blue energy along her shoulders, it was damn clear to anyone with anything to do with light sentinels that she’s joined. But once the head scientist – Chief Fernando – started taking a look at her, it didn’t take long for my story to be confirmed.

Ami is joined to Xin.

Ami.

I… I’ll let you in on a little secret. Ever since the day I met Ami, I kind of suspected if anyone could end this war, it would be her.

But now I realize how damn foolish that thought was. Because now….

Commander,” General Cral suddenly barks from across the side of the table.

I’m not really expecting it, and I jolt, taking a moment to bring my head up, harden my jaw, and suck in a breath.

Yes, sir.”

Pay attention. This is the most critical situation we have dealt with in years. If we can only learn to fully utilize Xin’s power, we may have a chance,” as the General says we may have a chance, God does his voice become twisted. I mean really broken. It’s as if someone has latched hands around his throat and yanked it in different directions at once. But his voice doesn’t pitch out of fear. It’s out of fervor.

I will freely admit something to you. Like I said, I was in the Army before the ghosts arrived. So I know how… power goes to some men’s heads. Especially Generals. Especially when you’re fighting a critical war. In order to stop the war, politicians will usually cede their power to the Army, and the more power the Army gets, the more it uses.

It’s like a sponge. And right now, the five senior Generals of the Security Forces have pretty much soaked up every single iota of power the people of this planet have to give.

Which means there’s no one to challenge their decisions.

There’s no one to offer reason.

All you have to do is follow.

But we need to start looking into another possibility,” General Cral says smoothly.

And it really is a smooth move. His expression doesn’t change; his gaze doesn’t alter. He looks exactly as easy as he was several seconds ago.

But me?

God, I have to try with all my might not to allow my tension to mark my brow and blaze through my eyes.

Because I know what this bastard is about to suggest.

She may be the perfect candidate for a switch. If her personnel file is anything to go by, then she is exactly the opposite of the ideal personality for a joined. It won’t take long for her to crash and burn out of the program. Plus,” his lips move hard around that word, and I see a flash of his teeth and tongue beneath, “we’ve been prepping a perfect joined for a year now. This gives us the opportunity to try out the process.”

I don’t think my back could be stiffer. And yet, despite the fact tension wants to climb through my body and wrap around every single joint until I’m as stiff as a steel pole, I can’t allow my hands to turn whiter than they already are. I have to control my expression too as I force my chin to dip low. But that’s all I can do. I don’t offer any further comment.

Because inside, my gut is as tight as a fist.

There are still kinks in the process to be ironed out. We haven’t tried it yet,” one of the senior scientists, Belinda Yates, mutters from the opposite end of the table.

We may have no chance but to try it,” one of the other Generals, Stevenson, mutters in a low dark tone. “Carl is right – we cannot let a sentinel like Xin go. She could be the chance we need to end this war. We need a joined we can rely on. Someone who’s been trained from the beginning. Somebody from the program,” he adds, voice dropping down low on the word program.

In every way I shouldn’t be here listening to this conversation. But in every way, my life changed one and a half days ago when Ami damn Ming turned out to be alive and turned out to be joined to one of the greatest light sentinels we’ve ever seen.

And now there’s no going back.

No damn going back.

That refrain’s been repeating in my head from the moment I got up this morning.

It’s still a risk,” Belinda Yates mutters, though her voice is forceful. “As I’ve already said, we have not attempted to shift a light sentinel before. It could have unintended consequences.”

There are always unintended consequences in war,” General Cral says, voice rattling out and pitching through the room. “But if you don’t take risks, you don’t win.”

This is a considerable risk,” Belinda mutters.

I’ve always liked Belinda – she speaks her mind. And, just like she’s doing now, she’s usually willing to stand up to the Generals.

But there’s only so much anyone can stand up to them. A point General Cral proves as he slowly stands. He brings his arms out, clamps his hands on the edge of the polished metal surface of the table, and looks at everyone in turn. “We’ve been offered a chance here. I doubt the chance will be offered again. I think we can all agree that Corporal Ming,” the General says dismissively, “is an unsuitable candidate for Xin,” he says, and boy does his voice shift on the word Xin. It arcs up high and bottoms down low, sounding like a plane that’s taken off only to crash.

It does something to me – makes me shiver. I try to hide it, but to do that, my hand only curls all the harder.

These bastards.

No. They’re not bastards, another voice rises suddenly in my head and snaps as loud as it can in my ear. The Generals are tasked with the most impossible mission there’s ever been – saving life as we know it. And to save life – to save the planet – they have to make sacrifices.

But Ami….

We’ll go ahead. Research the possibility of switching the joined. It’s the only way,” Cral announces.

I know I shouldn’t. I know my career is right now standing on a precipice. But nothing can stop me as I finally dart my head back and make eye contact with the General. I clear my throat. “Shouldn’t we first wait to see what she does?” I say. My voice is light, but it’s not weak. Just falsely steady.

All eyes are on me, and though I’m usually a man who doesn’t care about attention, this is the kind of attention anyone should care about. Because I am putting my head out in the worst way possible.

General Cral narrows his eyes with a twitch. “What do you mean?”

As I’ve already pointed out, General – this may be the greatest opportunity we’ve ever had,” I say, thinking carefully of each word as I spit them out. “But Belinda’s right. Switching Xin to another host… prematurely,” I force myself to say, even though it’s like I’m swallowing poison, “could be the worst thing we ever do. So shouldn’t we… wait to see what Ami – I mean Corporal Ming does?”

Waiting,” General Cral says, voice rattling down low as he spits the word from stiff white lips, “could cost us everything.”

I force myself to nod my head, even though my neck is so stiff it’s like trying to bend a tree in half. “I understand that, General. But we’ve never had anyone join with a light sentinel like Xin. Are you really willing to risk her? Shouldn’t we just… wait to see what happens? Gather… information on how Xin adapts to her… host, what kind of power the sentinel has, and start to establish the likelihood that she can be… shifted?” Every word is like a slap in the face. And the reason they’re like a slap to the face is I can almost see Ami in my mind’s eye punching me with every suggestion.

Because I’m basically talking about killing her.

That’s what switching a joined will do. No, sorry – apparently there’s a 99.9% chance of switching a joined killing the original host, but that’s pretty much certain death as far as I’m concerned.

There’s silence as the Generals obviously think of my suggestion.

General Stevenson answers first. He nods his head. “The Commander has a point. We cannot act prematurely on this. While I agree that, nominally, we cannot waste time – at the same time, we can’t act rashly. A period of observation is required to ensure the maximum likelihood that we can shift the joined.”

Or even if it’s necessary, I add in my head, but I don’t dare to spit it out loud.

But fortunately, Belinda gets there first. “It may not be necessary. All of this talk may be premature. We have not yet assessed Corporal Ming’s suitability, nor have we tested her in the ring. We must… accept that Xin chose her for a reason.”

General Cral snorts. “If we expect to win this war, we must adapt. And switching Xin will give us the greatest ability to adapt.”

That is a supposition, General. The Commander is right – for now, we must watch. And that is my final assessment as Head Scientist of the Light Sentinel Program,” she adds with finality.

General Cral doesn’t look pleased. But he doesn’t open his mouth again to spit at Belinda to shut up. Instead he sits right back down, his body hunched with tension. Then he pushes back from the table, clamps both arms around his middle, and nods. “Very well. For now we will observe. But at the moment when Corporal Ming becomes unsuitable,” he says, really spitting the word out, “we will begin the process. That is all. Please leave.”

I stand. My heart’s pounding. Really vibrating in my rib cage. There’s a cold sweat picking up across the back of my neck and down my shoulder blades, too.

I feel utterly nauseous. In fact, I don’t think I’ve felt this sick in a long time.

Because this conversation… it’s turning not just my head, but my heart.

Like I said – I’ve been in the Army for years. And I know… I know you make sacrifices. I know sometimes you have to send soldiers out to their death.

But this?

This is Ami.

And….

Before I can spiral any further down into the nausea pitching through my stomach, General Cral snaps his head toward me. “Commander Everett, stay.”

Just like an obedient dog, I stay exactly where I am, one hand on my seat as my back becomes rigid and straight.

General Stevenson ticks his gaze toward Cral, but doesn’t stick around to see what Cral wants with me.

Soon enough, the room empties, and the door at the far end closes.

I hide a swallow.

I’ve read from your file that you knew Ming before she joined the Security Forces, is that correct?”

Shit. I have to be so careful here. I know what’s on that file. Or at least I think I know what’s on that file. I’ve read Ming’s ordinary personnel file, but there’s every possibility that the General has access to something more detailed. And that more detail might include the fact that Ami and I were together for years.

I allow myself a small swallow. “Yes, sir, that’s correct. We were both picked for the astronaut program before… the war began.”

The General nods. “That’s good. That makes you the perfect man, then.”

I pale. “Sorry, sir, perfect man for what?”

I need you to keep an eye on Ming. Beyond Doctor Yates,” he says, his lips really moving hard around the word Yates as if he’s trying to swallow something he doesn’t even want to fit in his mouth, “I need a real man’s assessment of when Ming becomes unsuitable.”

He doesn’t say if – he says when.

And that isn’t even to mention the bullshit about a real man’s assessment.

I’ve seen firsthand how society has slipped. In the years before the war, we were progressive. We got over all that bullshit about the fact that only men are suitable for combat roles. Sure, technically some women are weaker than some men, but none of that shit matters when you give somebody a high-powered gun, armor, and someone to shoot. Technology evens out any biological differences.

But then the war came. Attitudes shifted. Here and there pockets of old misogyny were allowed to grow until bullshit like this was seen as perfectly acceptable.

Even if Yates herself was here, she wouldn’t bat an eyelid at the crap Cral just said.

And me? I’m not allowed to bat an eyelid either. I nod, deliberately not making eye contact. “Yes, sir. But… may I enquire as to how you wish me to assess her? What role will I have?” I add.

You will oversee her program. You’ve done that – haven’t you? You’ve worked with other light sentinels. You won’t handle her training, but you will be her… handler,” he says. “You will tell me the second she becomes unfit, got it? Yates will push,” again Cral spits her name out, “and as the other Generals are foolishly inclined to listen to her, I will require evidence. So,” Cral brings up a finger and starts to stab it into the table as if he’s trying to kill ants, “every single time Corporal Ming acts in a way unsuitable for a light sentinel’s joined, you will write it down, and you will report. You understand?”

Do I understand?

Yes, and no. My body understands. Because I feel so sick and angry at the same time that it’s like I’m going to implode.

But does my head understand?

Can I even begin to wrap my mind around how much my life is about to change for the worse?

No.

But does that stop me from looking right at the General and nodding? No.

Because I don’t have any option.

Refuse the General’s command, and he’ll just find somebody else. And somebody else will follow his orders to a T.

Which is what I should do, too.

But….

The General finally stands and clamps his hands in front of himself, never taking his eyes off me. “Good. She should be allowed out of the lockup soon. You’ll be there. Now, every incident,” he says as he brings up a stiff white finger.

I nod.

General Cral leaves the room. As the door closes and finally silence surrounds me, I stare with dead eyes at the table.

It’s over.

It’s all over.

Ami Ming may technically have survived – but it’s only a technicality. Because unless I try everything at my disposal, she will die soon enough anyway. And for a man who is meant to be over her, you tell that to my heart as it skips several beats and settles into darkness.

Chapter 3

Ami

I’m still in the lockup. Though that will change soon, apparently.

I’m up on my feet, hands planted on my hips as I arch my back.

I won’t lie to you – I’m still in a lot of pain. Chief Scientist Fernando hadn’t lied back then when he’d pointed out that an uncontrolled joining is as brutal as all hell.

It’s taken me a full day and a half just to be able to walk around without stumbling.

But I’m a stubborn, damn obstinate personality, and I pushed through that pain.

Now I’m like a trapped animal in a cage. Fortunately my cage’s large enough that it takes me a couple of minutes to stride across the full length.

Though Fernando is a brutal and cold scientist who spends most of his time talking about me like I’m a thing and not a person – there’s one aspect of his personality I respect. He clearly knows how to deal with soldiers, and though he tried to tell me to relax several times, he’s since stopped.

How the hell am I meant to relax?

I need to… get out there. I need to see my sister. Even… as terrible as it sounds, I have to see Jason.

I can’t remember the full details of my fight with that Category IV monster.

It just comes back to me in flashes. But Jason was there.

I have the sharpest memory of him cradling me after the fight.

It’s a visceral body memory – one that’s stuck in my arms and hips and waist.

It’s one I want to chase the hell away. Because if Jason hadn’t been there….

What? I would have fought that monster, anyway. I was drawn to it. And even though that old part of me that hates Jason wants to blame this on him, that little scrap of reason that’s still in the back of my mind tells me there’s no point. Even if Jason Everett hadn’t jumped into my shower with a gun several days ago, I would still be here in this lockup. Because… I was drawn to that category IV demon. My connection to Xin obviously allowed me to appreciate when and where it was going to form – and I was compelled to go fight it. In every way.

And so it slowly starts to hit me. Though I’ve been striding back and forth at top speed, now my steps become lighter and less directed. I make it over to my bed – that long clinical metal bench with a tiny, uncomfortable gel mattress on top – and I reach out a hand. I clutch the edge of the metal, holding myself steady.

Over the past day and a half I’ve come to terms with the fact that my life has changed. There’s no going back. I’m not going to be a simple grunt anymore. The Army is going to use me. But… there’s something beyond that, isn’t there?

My connection to Xin.

I used to lie in bed awake at night just hoping for a way to end this war. Anything. I’d even make deals with the darkness. In my dreams, in the fugue state between sleeping – I’d offer myself up. For anything – any weapon, any way – to end this.

And right now, right here is that way.

Slowly, I bring up both hands and stare at them, turning my palms this way and that. I can’t see the light – the symbol of my joining is emblazoned across my back, and I know better than to reach a hand over one shoulder to try to pluck at the flesh. Do that, and the usually calm Fernando will snap at me to stay still.

But I don’t need to palpate the symbol on my back. My hands are enough.

As I stare at my palms, I appreciate I’ve now got the power to make a difference.

With Xin’s help, I’ll be able… I’ll be able to get to category IV demons and above before they arise, right? I’ll be able to save soldiers, lives, infrastructure. I’ll be able to—

It’s time,” Stevenson suddenly says, voice rattling out over the loudspeaker so loudly and abruptly, I jump. “You’re finally being let out. Now, no sudden movements, Corporal. You’re going to be fitted with a neural inhibitor around your throat.”

So you can switch me off like a machine?” I mutter back as I take several steps away from my bed and lock my hands on my hips.


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