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REVIEWS


Fascinating. Technically accurate and frighteningly plausible.” — Professor Joe Veverka, Chairman of Cornell Astrophysics, Principle Investigator for NASA Stardust mission


Action, philosophy ... a hero who thinks more of others than himself and F-18 fighters — what more could you ask for in an adventure novel?” — Hall of Fame Astronaut Ken Bowersox, International Space Station Commander


Inspiring, thought-provoking and impossible to put down. Should make a blockbuster film.” — Fred Miller, Executive Producer of Academy Award nominated For All Mankind


Thrilling … Commander Stevens’ stories about naval aviation and ‘black’ programs can only come from someone who’s ‘been there, done that.’” — Admiral Joe Dyer, former Chief Test Pilot of the Navy and COO of iRobot


Stevens tells a story that is both deeply personal and global at the same time. Don’t expect to sleep until you finish.” — Stuart Frisch, Special Forces Counterterrorism, co-founder Obsidian Strategies


In the vein of the Dan Brown novels, this is a page-turner that sucks you in, but differentiates itself by having much stronger intellectual ‘chops,’ and more complex, soulful characters.” — Christian Johnson, international photographer


Highlights a real-life threat facing all of us, and packages it into a highly entertaining action-adventure.” — Dr. Ed Lu, astronaut and CEO of the B612 Foundation


I enjoy Tom Clancy, Robert Ludlum and Dan Brown, but there is a definite difference when reading someone who has actually lived the life they are writing about.” — Tim Hendricks, CEO, author and international speaker


Engaging from the very start, it was a thrilling, thought-provoking adventure into a new world!” — Cherry Meadows, international motivational speaker


A fascinating and exciting novel ... how to prevent a real-life catastrophe of major proportions.” — Dr. Carolyn Shoemaker, holds the record for the most asteroids and comets discovered including comet Shoemaker-Levy

IMPACT

Fuzed Trilogy Book One




David E. Stevens



2018 Edition

Copyright © 2014 by David E. Stevens

Revised edition 2018


Fuzed™ is trademarked for books, movies and video games.


All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means without permission in writing, except for quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews. For information regarding permission, contact FuzedSeries@comcast.net.


Cambridge Free Press


ISBN 978 0 85721 341 9 Print

ISBN 978 0 69240 222 1 Print

ISBN 978 0 99898 085 0 ePub


This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events or locales is entirely coincidental.


F/A-18 jet from U.S. Navy photo used in cover illustration. Use of released U.S. Navy imagery does not constitute product or organizational endorsement by the U.S. Navy.

DEDICATION



This book is dedicated to the men and women of the B612 Foundation and the cadre of scientists and professionals who have the vision to see the future and the courage to change it.


CONTENTS


I RE-ENTRY

II CONSPIRACY

III PENETRATION

IV IMPACT

HOW REAL IS THIS?

PREVIEW BOOK 2

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

AUTHOR


I RE-ENTRY



1 THE END


His thoughts became less distinct and his vision began to fade. As he looked up at the stars ... his heart beat its last beat.


2 FLIGHT


At sunset, 30-foot, blue-white blowtorches drove his 20-ton fighter down the runway like an angry rhino on crack. The Super Hornet was clumsy and ungainly on the ground, but as it leaped into the air, it transformed into a graceful bird of prey.

It was a routine flight, but it was great to get away from his desk and other issues. He was delivering a freshly built F/A-18H Super Hornet to its new squadron home in California. The Boeing plant, where the fighter was assembled, joined St. Louis International. Sharing the airport with airliners, the overworked air traffic controllers wanted the small, fast moving jets out of their crowded airspace as soon as possible. Happy to oblige, he pulled the Hornet’s nose up into a 60-degree climb, knowing his afterburner would dominate the twilight sky like a comet.

The red-tailed hawk tucked its wings and dove ... too late. Expiring in an explosion of feathers, it struck a fuel line in the landing gear bay at 200 miles per hour.

As he raised the landing gear, he caught something out of the corner of his eye — a tiny brown blur and what felt like a slight vibration. He checked his engine instruments carefully. Everything looked fine.

Passing 10,000 feet, he pulled the engines out of burner and reduced his rate of climb. Slewing the cursor on his radar with his throttle-mounted mouse, he realized he was just working on his office computer like everyone else. His “office chair” was a thinly padded ejection seat sitting a few feet in front of hundreds of twirling, titanium turbine blades. His “suit” was made of green, fire-resistant Nomex, and over it, he wore a G-suit zipped tightly around his stomach and legs. Designed to force blood back to the brain during high-G maneuvers, they looked more like green cowboy chaps than high-tech clothing. Appropriate, since strapping into a fighter was like saddling up a high-strung bronco, both of which were capable of ejecting their rider.

He checked in with Kansas City Center for his final cruise altitude.

They responded, “Hornet Zero Seven, climb and maintain flight level four seven zero.”

He repeated the climb instructions back. Technically, the correct response should have included “wilco,” meaning, “will comply,” but like most pilots, he had an inherent dislike of being compliant.

Leveling off at 47,000 feet, he relaxed and enjoyed the view. His accommodations might have been spartan, but unlike many offices, his had a window, and what a window it was. The fighter’s bubble canopy gave him a panoramic view with only a centimeter of Plexiglas separating him from the cold, thin, 600-mph air.

Cruising nine miles high on a twin-turbine Harley, he chased the setting sun across the continent. The sun would win, but flying close to the speed of sound, he gave it a run for its money, stretching a 15-minute sunset to an hour.

With 80 percent of the atmosphere below him, the brilliantly compressed colors spanned the spectrum. Above him was the simple dead, dark black of space. Stars stared down unblinking, having lost their atmosphere-induced twinkle. The black dome ended in a narrow strip of deep iridescent purple. The purple feathered into infinite shades of blue, from the darkest navy across a band of powdery sky-blue, into a brief gasp of turquoise. Finally, an explosion of brilliant yellows, fluorescent oranges and deep, rich reds cut the horizon like a rip in the heavens. He savored the beauty and solitude, knowing there would be few of these moments in the years ahead.

A familiar female voice broke his reverie. Bitching Betty — the pilot’s nickname for the warning system — spoke when the computer detected an emergency requiring immediate action. In her calm, sultry voice, she shared the worst words in her limited vocabulary — “Engine fire left. Engine fire left.”

His first reaction was disbelief, followed by a curse as he slammed the left throttle off. Jabbing the Fire Warning light, he cut fuel flow to the engine and then punched the fire-extinguisher button, releasing a flood of Halon gas into the engine bay.

He held his breath. It seemed like an eternity, but it was only seconds before the fire light extinguished. Breathing again, he saw his now single-engine jet was losing airspeed rapidly. He pushed the nose into a descent.

Kansas City Center called, “Hornet Zero Seven, we show you descending out of your assigned altitude. Say intentions.”

“Center, Zero Seven, had a fire. I’m now single-engine and declaring an emergency. Need to land as soon as possible.”

“Zero Seven, say fuel remaining and souls on board.”

“Souls on board” was standard aviation terminology, but it always gave him the creeps. “I have plenty of fuel, and it’s just me. Need a vector to the nearest field with 7,000 feet of runway.”

The Center Controller came back quickly. “Closest field is Kansas City, 10 degrees right of your nose, 70 miles. You’re cleared direct.”

He turned to the new heading and scanned his displays. The right engine and hydraulics looked good. He had plenty of fuel, but automatically checked. The display showed 6,000 pounds. That was impossible! He took off with 14,000! As he watched, the digital indicator dropped to 5,900. It suddenly made sense. Here was the fire’s source — a massive fuel leak.

He timed the drop and did a quick calculation. He was pleased he could remember how to multiply. IQ usually dropped as adrenaline rose, particularly, when the calculation showed only minutes of fuel remaining.

“Center, Hornet Zero Seven, looks like the fire was caused by a fuel leak. I have, maybe, 10 minutes left. Need something closer. I’ll take anything with even 3,000 feet of runway.”

The Controller, now sounding a bit more stressed, said, “Standby, Zero Seven.”

Edging the throttle up, he increased his airspeed and descent. He was in a race, stuck between the proverbial rock and a hard place. With his jet hemorrhaging fuel, the last thing he wanted to do was run the remaining engine hotter, but it was either burn it or lose it.

“Hornet Zero Seven, there’s a small airport on the outskirts of the city, 52 miles from your position. It has a 6,000-foot runway.”

“I’ll take it.”

“Hornet Zero Seven, turn right to two-niner-five. Descend at pilot’s discretion. We’re clearing all traffic between you and the field. Destination weather is broken to overcast with a 1,500-foot ceiling.”

He pushed the fighter into a steeper descent, accelerating to 450 knots. It was more like a dive-bombing run than a landing approach. As Kansas City Center switched him over to Approach Control, he scanned his fuel gauge for the umpteenth time. He might have just enough to make it.

Descending into the clouds, he left the heavens for the darkness below. As he transitioned to flying by instruments, he was thankful for his helmet-mounted display. No matter where he looked, the green flight symbols appeared to float 10 feet in front of him, allowing him to keep his eyes out of the cockpit. Referred to by fighter pilots as PFM, the technology was pure … magic.

With no apparent concern, Betty said, “Fuel low. Fuel low.”

He punched through the bottom of the overcast layer, leveling off 1,200 feet above the ground. Below the clouds, it was dark, but Approach Control had lined him up perfectly. He could see the runway lights seven miles off his nose. The controller gave him the tower frequency and added, “Good luck.”

He thanked her, switched to the tower and pulled the throttle to idle. As he checked in, the tower immediately cleared him to land. He realized he didn’t even know the name of the airport, but it was in the middle of suburban sprawl. Below was an ever-expanding grid of street and house lights spread out as far as he could see. Six miles ahead were the flashing red lights of a crash truck flanking the runway.

As his speed dropped below 250 knots, he lowered his landing gear and flaps. With only five miles to the runway, he let out a lungful of air and said to the jet, “We’re going to make it.”

As the landing gear came down, however, both engine fire lights illuminated, accompanied by Betty’s repetitive warning. Looking into his canopy rear-view mirrors, he saw flames clearly visible between the fighter’s twin tails. Opening the landing gear doors must have pushed air into the engine bay, reigniting the fuel. His fire extinguisher was empty and the jet could explode at any second. The emergency procedure for this situation was clear — eject, but he was over a populated area and so close to the runway.

He coaxed his fighter. “Come on baby. We’re almost there.” The fire trucks would be ready to spray him down after he landed.

The tower reported, “Hornet Zero Seven, you appear to be on fire!”

“Yeah, I know! Got to get her over the fence.”

There was a pause and then, “God speed, sir.”

Three miles from the runway, he felt the jet decelerate. He jammed the throttle forward ... nothing. The fuel gauge said he still had 1,000 pounds of gas!

Betty added, “Engine right. Engine right,” as his last engine flamed out. The fire must have burned through the fuel lines. Only three miles from the runway, but it might as well have been three-hundred. Twenty-ton fighters made lousy gliders.

Everything began to move in slow motion. In 15 seconds, his beautiful new jet would slam into the ground, creating a fireball that would blow burning titanium and graphite across several acres ... but there were too many lights below. Each light was someone’s home ... someone’s life and family. The small airport was in the middle of suburbia. He couldn’t eject, not yet.

He saw a small, dark area a half mile to his left. No lights meant no houses. The floating green symbol in his helmet-mounted display projected his flight path or, in this case, impact point. He might have just enough altitude to glide the burning fighter into the dark area.

He banked the jet away from the runway, but as the engine spooled down, the hydraulic pressure powering his flight controls began to falter. The fighter responded sluggishly, as if angry with him for heading away from the runway. He had to use exaggerated stick inputs to control the dying jet.

To slow his descent, he held the nose up, but the Hornet began to buffet as it approached stall speed. If it stalled, it would roll over and tumble to the ground. There were houses on each side, and under his nose was a brightly lit and occupied soccer field. He fought his instincts and pushed the stick forward, increasing his descent to maintain flying speed. As he dropped through 200 feet, Betty pointlessly shared, “Altitude. Altitude.”

He felt a jolt in the stick.

Like blood from a severed artery, red hydraulic fluid sprayed across the wing as the fire burned through the hydraulic lines.

Betty’s final words were, “Flight controls. Flight controls.”

With no hydraulics, the jet began an uncontrolled roll to the right.

He slammed the stick left, but knew it was futile. His Hornet had bled out. She was dead. Letting go of the useless stick, he pulled the yellow and black handle between his legs.

The canopy blew off the top of the jet as the shoulder, waist and leg restraints yanked him against the seat. With the force of several sticks of dynamite, the ejection charge detonated. His spine compressed as the seat blasted up the rails like an artillery shell. Clearing the cockpit, its rocket motors ignited, firing him into the night. His last thought — trees!

The rocket-propelled seat tried to right itself as it accelerated away from the jet, but the fighter had rolled 90 degrees and the altitude was too low. The seat ripped through the top of the forest at 150 miles an hour, breaking branches and bones. Its barometric sensor quickly deployed the parachute, which immediately shredded in the treetops. The chute’s tangled shroud lines slung him against tree trunks like a puppet on the end of a string. His unconscious body finally slid to the forest floor. Shock constricted arteries as his heart struggled against the massive internal hemorrhaging.

Less than a quarter mile away, the fighter followed its pilot into the ground. Rolling thunder echoed through the woods as the young soccer players froze in their tracks. They watched the boiling cloud of orange and white flame rise above the forest.

Lying on his back, he opened his eyes. The fighter’s funeral pyre reflected off the low clouds, creating a soft orange glow that silhouetted the treetops. A few stars peeked through holes in the overcast sky, and he could hear sirens in the distance. Otherwise, it was the peaceful quiet of an early spring evening before the crickets awoke.

He couldn’t move. Completely paralyzed, he felt no pain or physical sensation, only the metallic taste of blood. His thoughts went to Kelly. Not just his wife; she was his best friend. He wished he could see her one more time, but knew that wouldn’t happen. He was dying. With surprising calm and clarity, he realized he’d had an incredible life and had done things most people only dreamt of. Like his father, the pragmatic scientist, he didn’t see evidence for the existence of a God, but also knew lack of proof didn’t prove anything. He might soon find out. His thoughts became less distinct and his vision began to fade. As he looked up at the stars ... his heart beat its last beat.


3 BEGIN


He awoke in pervasive nothingness. It was neither dark nor light, silent nor loud. It just ... was. He tried to move, but didn’t know how. “Where am I?”

The nothingness swallowed his question, but he began to see images. Unfolding at incredible speed was a cascade of sights, sounds and smells. As time advanced, the pace slowed and he became immersed.

. . .

He was a teenager competing in his first karate tournament. Glancing from his opponent to a cute girl in the audience ... he found himself flat on his back. His instructor leaned over him with a wry smile. “Andy, this ain’t a beauty pageant. You really gotta focus.”

. . .

Two of his friends stared down three large locals across a pool table. Before it came to blows, he slid in with drinks and defused the confrontation. One of his inebriated friends said, “Thanks, dude. That could’ve gotten us thrown out of flight school.”

. . .

In a flight debrief, the Squadron Commander pointed at him. “Our new guy got a perfect bull’s eye,” he shook his head, “on the wrong training target.” Looking right at him, he added, “Son, we don’t need to deploy with a pilot that’s dazed and confused.”

Confused!” A senior pilot sitting next to him slapped him on the back. “I think our FNG just scored himself a new call-sign.”

The Squadron Commander laughed but shook his head. “It’s too long.” He thought for a moment and then smiled. “And he did get a bull’s eye.” On the whiteboard, he wrote, “Fuzed.”

. . .

Strapped into an F-18 on the aircraft carrier’s catapult, he watched a wave break across the bow. The typhoon had taken an unexpected turn and with aircraft struggling to land, the airborne jets were running dangerously low on fuel.

He was the emergency tanker. His Super Hornet carried a refueling package and extra fuel tanks under each wing. Snapping his oxygen mask on, he saluted the Catapult Officer and was launched into the typhoon.

He rendezvoused with and tanked three jets. Each of the jets had to make multiple approaches before they could get aboard. Finally, after the third one landed, he was the last aircraft airborne and now he was critically low on fuel. The typhoon had gone from bad to nightmare with the sea and sky merging into a violent visceral black.

On his radio, the Landing Signal Officer said, “Fuzed, Paddles, storm’s tossing the carrier around like a bathtub toy. Visibility’s almost zero. What’s your state?”

With 1400 pounds of fuel left, he replied, “One point four.”

There was a pause. “Dang, Fuzed, you gave away all your gas.” There was another pause. “You only got enough for one approach. The helos are grounded. Fly your needles and … do ... not ... go ... high! Do you understand?”

“Roger that.” With no rescue helicopter, ejecting into the typhoon was a death sentence.

He flew the instrument approach as if his life depended on it. It did, but with the turbulence, it was like trying to fly a roller coaster.

Thirty seconds to touch down, approach control said, “Three-quarters of a mile, call the ball.”

He saw nothing and said, “Clara, zero point nine.” Clara meant he couldn’t see the ship — or anything beyond the fighter’s nose — and 900 pounds of fuel meant he was minutes from engine flameout.

With wind whistling in the background, he heard Paddles say, “Keep it coming. Fly the needles!” Meaning, they couldn’t see him either.

His radar altimeter warned him he was less than 200 feet above the ocean. Seconds to impact, he was still blind and once again called, “Clara.”

He had to abort the approach or risk crashing into the ship or sea. As he started to add power, he heard Paddles yell, “We see ya! Come left! Come left! Easy with it!”

The ship emerged like an apparition through thick, oily sheets of rain. He was too high and too far right! Yanking the throttles back, he slapped the stick hard left. His wing dipped, dumping lift and dropping the fighter like an express elevator. At the same time, an ocean swell heaved the ship up to meet him.

His jet slammed onto the flight deck with a bone-jarring impact. The tires blew as the fighter bounced back into the air. Jamming the throttles into afterburner, he knew he’d have to climb and eject … but the tip of his tail hook caught the fourth and final steel cable. Ripped violently from the typhoon, he went from pilot to crash-test dummy in two seconds.

He sat motionless on the flight deck still clenching the stick and throttle, pleasantly surprised to be alive. Before he could pull the throttles back, the engines flamed out.

The flight crew chained his jet to the deck where it sat.

As soon as it was secure, he climbed out and staggered across the storm-blasted deck to the nearest hatch. He was drenched with rain and sweat as he stepped inside. Closing the heavy metal hatch and breathing a sigh of relief, he turned around and was confronted by an intimidating, six-foot-three, muscular black man with a shaved head.

Commander Joe Meadows said, “That was the worst damn landing I’ve ever seen!” Grinning from ear to ear, his Squadron Commander slapped him hard on the back, adding, “Awesome! Fuzed, you saved a lot of pilots’ butts out there. I’m proud of you and I’m going to get you that Test Pilot School slot you wanted.” He gave him a half-smile. “Just don’t forget, little details — like fuel — can be important.”

. . .

The minister said, “May I present Commander Andrew and Mrs. Kelly Logan.” They walked out of the front of the church and under a ceremonial arch created by two rows of Navy officers holding crossed swords over their heads. At the end of the arch, his best man gently swatted his new wife on the backside with a sword. “Welcome to the Navy, ma’am,” and to him, “About flippin’ time, Commander!”

As they got into the limo, his beautiful redheaded wife, smiling through tears, said, “Thank you for letting us do a church wedding!”

. . .

He shook hands with the admiral.

The admiral said, “Congratulations, Fuzed, the robotic fighter development you’re taking over at the Boeing Phantom Works in St. Louis is one of our most important black programs.” With a wry smile, he added, “Bad news is … it’ll eventually put us pilots out of a job.”

. . .

A mile from his townhouse, near St. Louis’s Central West End, the sun was setting as he finished his run. He enjoyed their proximity to the downtown. St. Louis was home of the World Series Champion Cardinals, Anheuser Busch Clydesdales, toasted ravioli and … the highest murder rate per capita in the U.S.

He stopped to catch his breath and heard the screech of tires. A block ahead, an older, souped up Honda Civic slid sideways around the corner. Going too fast, it jumped the curb and hit a concrete planter. It tipped up on two wheels and smashed against a telephone pole, coming to rest on its side.

As he ran toward the accident, a second car careened around the corner and opened fire on the bottom of the overturned Honda.

He hit the ground as three men riddled the wreck with pistol rounds. Hitting the exposed gas tank and fuel lines, the Honda burst into flames as the gunmen sped off.

He ran to the car. Looking through the shattered windshield, he saw two young, black men unconscious inside. The fire prevented him from climbing up onto the side of the car and opening the door. Instead, he kicked the broken windshield and pried it back far enough to pull the first man through. The man had been shot more than once and remained unconscious. When he went back, he realized the second man couldn’t be more than 16.

He had to crawl inside to reach the teenager. As he touched him, the boy woke up screaming, “I can’t see!” He pulled a gun and waving it wildly, fired a shot. “I’ll kill you! I’ll kill you!”

“Let’s get you out of here before that gang comes back,” he said in a calm voice. He carefully grabbed the pistol and tossed it outside.

The boy tried to move, but he’d been shot in the leg and side, and was bleeding from a head wound. Groaning in pain, he said, “It was MS-13. They don’t belong here! I’ll kill them all!”

“OK, but it’ll be easier to do that from outside.”

Feeding on the gas tank, the fire spread rapidly and was now inside the car.

“We’re going to get you out but I need you to relax and not fight me.” He carefully put his hands under the teenager’s shoulders and slowly maneuvered him so his head was toward the hole in the windshield. He could now feel the heat from the fire. Trying to distract him from the painful movement and approaching flames, he casually asked, “What’s your name?”

The teenager said, “What?!”

“Your name. What’s your name?”

“I’m Cochran Crips!”

“Cool, but what’s your name?”

“Isaiah.”

Finally, pulling him through the windshield, he carried him away as a small explosion engulfed the car. He checked the first man he pulled from the car but found no pulse. Pulling his sweatshirt off, he tied it around the teenager’s leg and held pressure on the bullet wound in his side. He cradled the boy’s head in his lap and talked to him quietly as he heard sirens approach.

The teenager, still blind and in shock, asked, “What gang are you?!”

Thinking for a moment, he answered with a half-smile, “William Wallace clan and Dakota Sioux tribe.”


As he was leaving the house for work the next day, his wife kissed him goodbye and said, “Be careful.”

Looking around the neighborhood, he smiled wryly, “You too.” He winked. “Happy first anniversary!”

With a challenging smile, she said, “Remember, you said after a year we’d talk about having kids?” Seeing his expression, her face fell, but she just said, “We’ll talk after you come back from delivering that jet. Love you.”

. . .

The cascade of sights and sounds ended as his world faded to black.

4 DEPART


At midnight, a dark sedan pulled up in front of a small house near downtown St. Louis. Two Naval officers in uniform got out, walked to the front door and rang the doorbell. A pretty, redheaded woman in a bathrobe greeted the Captain by name. Her smile faded as she saw his expression.

Do you know what happened?

Suddenly conscious, he couldn’t see or feel anything, but remembered everything.

He heard the voice again. Do you know what happened?

“I … I waited too long to eject. I thought I was....” His statement trailed off as he realized what he was about to say.

You have a decision to make. Doctors can’t save your body, but you can be given a new life, a new mission.

“I don’t understand. Am I on life support?” He couldn’t hear himself speak. The voice seemed to understand him but ignored his question.

If you accept, you can never go back to your old life. Those you knew will believe you died.

He had to be in bad shape. “I know I may not have long but I need to know I’m not making some kind of contract I don’t understand.”

You will be free to act in any way you wish, but no one can know you’re still alive.

He had a million questions, but he was out of time. With death the alternative, the decision was obvious. He should feel sad or frightened, but he felt nothing, no emotion at all. It was as if he were choosing a cell phone plan.

As he said, “OK,” his consciousness faded.

A flag-draped casket sat on a stand in a cemetery. Arrayed around the casket in neat rows of folding chairs were family and close friends. Surrounding them, and filling much of the small cemetery, was a sea of formal, white uniforms with colorful ribbons, contrasted by an equal number of dark suits and dresses.

A Navy color guard silently removed the flag from the casket and slowly, with great ceremony, folded it into a neatly tucked triangle. They handed it to a Navy Captain standing at attention. A large and imposing figure, he wore a formal dress-white uniform with a chest full of medals and ribbons. He accepted it, slowly moved to the widow’s side and dropped to one knee. Speaking to her softly, he presented her with the flag.

As she took it, four F-18 fighters approached the cemetery at low altitude. They flew in a tight “V” formation, one fighter to the left of the lead aircraft, and two on the right. Just before they reached the cemetery, the second jet on the right side pulled straight up and away from the formation. The single jet flew off toward the sunset, leaving an obvious hole. Breaking the solemn silence, the “missing man” formation flew over the cemetery. The widow, stoic to this point, looked up with tears streaming down her face.

He woke. He still couldn’t see, but could sense his breathing and heartbeat. He had so many questions. “Why can’t I see anything?”

Your body is adapting.

“Adapting to what?”

You will have enhanced abilities.

“What does that mean?”

Your abilities will not be unique, but they are rare.

“Rare?”

One in a billion.

Many possibilities ran through his mind, but he remembered a Critical Thinking course he took in college. It was based on a class taught by the famous Professor Carl Sagan and introduced him to Occam’s Razor. Dating back to the fourteenth century, it simply stated that all things being equal, the solution with the fewest assumptions was probably correct. He knew the state-of-the-art in robotics. There was no way. They were still decades away from the technology needed for some kind of Robocop. Genetic science, however, had advanced to the point where it was possible to clone almost anything. No doubt, that included human parts. He ventured, “You’re some type of classified lab with advanced medical technology?”

There was no response.

He was about to ask again, but wasn’t sure he wanted confirmation he was a lab rat. He’d try a different approach. “What’s the mission? What are we doing?”

What is the greatest threat to life on Earth?

“What?” He thought for a moment. “I don’t know ... probably us.”

Silence.

“Are you talking about … mass extinctions?” He paused. “We’re facing some kind of natural disaster?”

Yes.

“What is it?”

You’ll learn soon enough, but first, there are rules we must cover.

“Wait. So, your agency is classified, but what do I call you?”

Whatever you wish.

Irritated and feeling a little rebellious, he said, “When I was a kid, I pretended to have an invisible playmate. Called him Jesse.”

Silence.

Clearly, “Jesse” didn’t think it was funny, but until he told him his real name, Jesse it would be. “OK, what are the rules?”

You can never return to your old life. Your friends and family will believe you’re dead and buried.

He had pushed those thoughts aside. “What about my wife?”

I’m sorry.

“But ... she’s OK?”

She’s strong and has moved on. Success in your new life may save hers.

“Moved on? I don’t understand.”

It’s time for you to return. You can ask for guidance any time.

“Guidance? Guidance for what? You haven’t told me what we’re facing or what I’m supposed to do!” As his awareness began to fade, he had an ironic and somewhat terrifying thought. He’d been the program manager for robotic fighters. What if he was about to become one? A biological drone ... with Jesse as his controller.


5 RE-ENTRY


A high-pitched hum penetrated his sleep. He was so tired. It was just too much effort to swat the insect away. He tried to ignore it and stay in his warm, comfortable half-dream state, but the hum wouldn’t stop. It grew louder and became more pervasive like the relentless noise of summer cicadas.

Frustrated, he finally opened his eyes to ... blurry white squares. He blinked. The white squares slowly came into focus as acoustic ceiling tiles. The annoying sound clarified into a combination of electronic beeps, clicks and voices.

For a terrifying second, he couldn’t remember anything, not even who he was. He felt as if he were falling, spinning out of control. He closed his eyes tightly.

After a few seconds, the spinning stopped and his memories began to filter back. He remembered. He remembered everything. He remembered that he no longer had any history, family or friends.

He opened his eyes again. In contrast to his fuzzy emotional state, his senses were razor-sharp. The lights seemed overly bright, colors artificially vivid. He could read the ridiculously tiny print on the needle disposal box mounted on the wall. He heard several voices outside what was obviously a hospital room, but he not only heard them, he could differentiate each conversation.

“... her oxygen is 95 percent, but we still need to watch ...”

“... finished prepping the girl in room three for surgery ...”

“... comfortable for stilettos and they were like 50 percent off ...”

He propped himself up on his right elbow and immediately felt dizzy and queasy, reminiscent of the alcohol-induced spins following a squadron party. His body responded to commands, but sluggishly, as if he’d been given a head-to-toe Novocain injection. Lifting his left hand, he saw an IV attached. He turned his hand over and examined it.

“Look familiar?”

Startled, he looked up to see a woman in blue scrubs standing in the doorway.

She watched him for a moment and then entered the room looking concerned.

He finally realized her comment had been in jest, and he must look like a deer in the headlights. He asked the obvious, “Where am I?” It came out as a raspy whisper.

Looking relieved, she said, “You’re at the Kansas City Medical Center. How are you feeling?”

He was in a public hospital? His voice was still hoarse but getting stronger. “What day is it?”

Pointing at a large digital clock and calendar on the wall, she said, “March 23rd.”

It had only been a few days since the crash, but as he looked at the calendar, he blinked. That couldn’t be! It was a few days and one year! What happened? Where was Jesse?

Again, she asked, “How are you feeling? Are you in any pain?”

Frowning, he finally looked back at his nurse, really seeing her for the first time. She was early thirties, athletically slim and attractive with dark eyes and blondish hair. Shaking his head, he said, “No.” He cleared his throat. “I’m ... I’m just a little—”

“Disoriented?” she finished.

He nodded. As his voice grew stronger, it became stranger. His inflections and accent were the same, but his voice sounded different.

“That’s understandable. You’ve been unconscious for a few days. What’s your name?”

That was a good question. For some reason, he was on his own right now. He needed time to figure out what was happening. The best answer was probably closest to the truth. He cocked his head to one side and said, “I’m … I’m not sure.”

With a professional smile, she said, “Well, I’m Elizabeth, your ICU nurse.” She spoke slowly, as if he were a child. “Don’t worry; we’ll figure out what yours is.” She patted him on the shoulder. “Probably just temporary amnesia. I’m going to let your doctor know you’re awake. Be right back.”

After she left, he wanted to get to a bathroom mirror. He lifted his sheet and discovered that in addition to the IV, he was tethered with EKG leads and a catheter. He wasn’t going anywhere.

His nurse returned almost immediately with a doctor in tow.

“I’m Dr. Tracy Dutton, your Neurologist.”

He gave her a small smile. “Hi, I guess I’m ... not sure.”

“How are you feeling?”

“Fine.”

“Do you hurt anywhere?”

“No.”

“Do you know what happened to you?”

“No.” That was the truth.

“Do you know where you are?”

He nodded toward his nurse. “She said I’m in Kansas.” He frowned. “How did I get here?”

The doctor exchanged a quick glance with the nurse. “A few days ago you were found by the side of the road without any clothes.” Continuing, she asked, “Do you know if you’re allergic to anything?”

He looked down. That didn’t make any sense at all. Why would they leave him like that? He frowned, shaking his head. Where were they? Where had he been for the past year?

Looking back up, he said, “I’m ... I’m sorry. What did you say?”

He saw compassion on the nurse’s face as the doctor slowly repeated the question.

He replied, “Allergies? I don’t know.”

With a slight frown the doctor said, “I’m going to check a few things, OK?”

He nodded dumbly.

She shined a penlight into each eye and asked him to watch her fingertips as they moved. She had him move his hands and feet, squeeze her fingers, and then tapped him on the knee. Pulling up a chair, she asked, “Can you remember anything at all from your past?”

He was hungry. “I like hamburgers.”

She smiled. “We’ll have food sent up right away.”

Trying to avoid more questions, he pointed to his IV. “May I get unhooked?

“Now that you’re awake, I don’t see why not. Elizabeth will take care of that.”

She asked a few more questions, made some notes and left.

Elizabeth followed Dr. Dutton into the hall. Once outside the room, Dutton spoke quietly. “He checks out OK, but the amnesia worries me. Keep an eye on him.”

Elizabeth nodded. She’d been thinking the same.

Returning to his room, she said, “Let’s get you mobile.” She put on Nitrile gloves and pulled a cart over. “We’ll start with the IV.”

He nodded, looked down at the needle in his hand and then looked away.

Why were men so squeamish when it came to blood and needles? While he carefully studied the wall, she studied him. He had short, curly, dark hair with unusual, almost red, highlights. A strong jaw gave him a good masculine face, very handsome but approachable.

Finishing with a Band-Aid, she said, “That takes care of the IV. Now, we’ll remove your EKG leads.”

He looked back at her with some relief and smiled. His eyes were gray. No, not gray. They were a color she’d never seen. They looked as though someone had mixed all the eye colors in a blender, sort of a steel-gray with flecks of brown, green and blue mixed in, beautiful and intense.

She opened the top of his gown and pulled the EKG leads off his chest, remembering how surprised she was that he had no scars. After arriving without an identity, they checked every square inch of his body for identifying marks. His skin was perfect and he had no dental work. Even children usually had some fillings or scars. “Just one more thing and you’ll be free.” She knew removing the urinary catheter was going to be uncomfortable and awkward. Distracting him, she said, “I don’t know if you are ... or were into tech stuff, but everyone’s talking about the new app that’s being released by iMagination tomorrow. It’s supposed to work on any device and across every operating system.”

Grimacing, with one eye closed, he asked, “What does it do?”

She continued casually, “Everything. It’s supposed to be the ultimate personal digital assistant eclipsing Siri and Alexa.” She smiled. “It combines GPS, calendar, language translator, video phone, search engine, practically every app ever invented into one seamless program.” She shrugged. “Kind of the mother of all apps.”

Clenching the bed rail, he whispered, “Expensive?”

“They’re offering it for free, at least for now. I’m sure once we’re all addicted to it, they’ll charge for upgrades, like everything else.”

As she finished and cleaned him up, she thought he definitely had the body of a professional athlete. He could have been Michelangelo’s model for David, except David wasn’t quite as buff ... in some areas. “OK, we’re done.”

He nodded without making eye contact.

“I’ll put in an order for some food. Other than hamburgers, is there anything else you’d like?”

He shook his head.

Pulling her gloves off, she said, “I’ll be right back.” Despite her reassurance, amnesia was not common, particularly with no sign of trauma. She had watched his face when he learned how they’d found him. He had been genuinely surprised and confused. She tried to imagine what it would be like to lose her identity. Her heart went out to him. An amnesiac with perfect health, the body of an athlete and no identifying marks or history, he was the most interesting case she’d ever seen.

As she left, he let out a relieved sigh. That was uncomfortable and made more so because she was a beautiful woman. Making sure no one was around, he slid his feet to the floor. Standing up slowly, a wave of vertigo swept through him. He steadied himself against the bed rail, waiting until it passed. Then he carefully let go and stretched. He actually felt remarkably well. The little ache he’d always had in his back from soccer and karate tournaments wasn’t there. His right knee, injured in a hard skydiving landing, didn’t twinge at all. In fact, he felt better than he could remember. He navigated carefully to the small bathroom, closed the door and went straight to the mirror over the sink.

He froze.

Someone else stared back. He actually tilted his head to prove it was him. He wasn’t sure what he’d expected ... but not this! They had totally altered his appearance. Only his six-foot height remained. He had to admit, the face in the mirror was better looking. Although he still appeared to be the same age, on a scale from zero to ten, he’d gone from an average looking five to a nine.

He smiled ... at least he’d never have to work on his tan again. His skin was right between the whitest white guy and the blackest black guy.

He peeled his hospital gown down and studied his upper body in the mirror. He’d always played sports, but now he looked like an Olympic athlete. He didn’t have huge, bulging muscles, but they were very well developed and proportioned with little body fat. If he hadn’t seen his face, he’d swear his body belonged to a twenty-year-old.

The small mirror only reflected the top half of his body. As he dropped the gown and stepped back from the mirror, he looked down. “Oh my God!” He wasn’t circumcised anymore! For some reason, this was the biggest shock of all.

There was a loud knock at the door. Elizabeth’s voice asked, “Are you alright? Do you need help?”

“Uh ... no. Everything’s, uh ... fine in here ... thank you.”

“All right.”

Looking back in the mirror, he quietly asked, “Why would they have reversed...?”

The truth finally sank in. Glancing at his hand as he flexed his fingers, he said quietly, “They didn’t fix your body ... they replaced it.” He frowned. “That’s not possible. Even if you can clone a body, you can’t just stuff someone’s consciousness into it.” He looked back at the mirror. “Can you?”

The answer frowned back at him.

Stepping close to the mirror and leaning forward, he carefully studied the shape of his eyes, nose and cheekbones. He examined his skin color, hair, and the proportions of his body. He shook his head as if to knock the thought loose, but the evidence was there. Into the mirror, he said, “You, my friend, look like you have a grandparent from every continent.” He frowned and added, “Jesse and friends clearly don’t have any ethical issues with creating a genetic Frankenstein.”

He put his hospital gown back on but looked back in the mirror one more time. With a slight headshake, he said to his reflection, “If they’re this cavalier about creation, how concerned might they be about ... termination?”

6 IDENTIFY


Elizabeth grabbed a quick lunch in the cafeteria with two other nurses.

Between mouthfuls, a young nurse named Leslee Wong, asked Elizabeth, “So? What do you think?”

“About what?”

“How many mysterious John Doe patients do we have?”

Elizabeth shrugged. “He seems pretty normal.”

“And very cute.” Frowning, Leslee asked, “Think he was abducted by aliens?”

Lesia Rabb, a beautiful Queen Latifah look-a-like, and the ICU Charge Nurse, laughed. “More like a brainwashed government agent.”

“My mom doesn’t care who I marry, but Dad insists on a nice Chinese guy.” Staring at the ceiling, Leslee added, “But I bet I could get a guy like this by him.”

Lesia shook her head. “Sorry, Leslee, he’s clearly a brother with some mixed blood.” Winking at Elizabeth, she added, “If no one claims him, I may have to take him home.”

“But you’re married,” Leslee said with a sincere frown.

With a look of mock surprise, she said, “Oh, yeah.”

Elizabeth laughed. She wasn’t surprised they found him attractive, but she was surprised that each assumed he was primarily of their race. She too had assumed he was Caucasian with some mixed ancestry.

Walking back to the unit with Lesia, Elizabeth said, “He really is a fascinating mixture, isn’t he? It adds to the mystery and makes him — I mean the case — very interesting.”

Lesia looked at her with raised eyebrows and a slight smile.

He sat up in his bed with his arms crossed, staring at the wall and thinking. His appearance actually made a weird kind of sense. They improved food crops and livestock by combining different genetic lines. If they were trying to cull the best attributes from the population — the one-in-a-billion abilities Jesse mentioned — they would have to pull genes from every race. His old body had already been a combination of Scottish, German and Native American with some African in the mix, but now he was sure he was all that and more.

He looked up as Elizabeth came into his room.

“Remember anything?”

“Nothing new.”

As she took his vital signs, she said softly, “John Doe is a bit impersonal. Is there something you’d like us to call you?”

To be on the safe side, he decided to use his middle name, Joshua. When he was young, his mother called him Josh almost exclusively.

“Uh, Josh sounds familiar.”

“Josh it is.”

Seeing the needle in her hand, he asked, “Think they’ll run out of things to test before I run out of blood?”

She shrugged with a smile. “It’s possible.”

He wasn’t going to watch her draw blood, so he studied her. With a cute, dimpled smile, she had the proverbial girl-next-door beauty, mixed with exotic, dark eyes. About five-foot-nine, she looked like a natural blonde, but with a surprisingly dark olive complexion. It was hard to tell with scrubs, but she looked like she had a trim, athletic body with curves in the right places. She also carried herself with confidence, which he always found attractive. As she pulled her gloves off, he saw a wedding ring.

Finishing up, she said, “All the tests so far indicate you’re in exceptionally good health.” She leaned over conspiratorially. “In fact, better health than all of the hospital staff.”

He nodded but his eyes unfocused as he thought, Great. I have an enhanced body, and I’m sitting on its butt. Gotta get out of here.

Misinterpreting his expression, she said, “It must be awful to lose your identity.”

He smiled. “Probably somewhere between losing your mind and your car keys.”

She laughed.

“So what’s the staff’s theory on me?”

“Oh, you don’t want to know.”

“I could use some humor right now.”

She raised an eyebrow. “You sure?”

“Please.”

“Well, let’s see. You were in a witness protection program that went bad. You were a troublesome CIA agent whose memory was erased. Hmmm ... oh yeah, you’re a secret sleeper agent planted by a foreign country.”

Laughing, he asked, “How’d they come up with that one?”

“Well, you have a nice mocha complexion,” she smiled, “and you’re not....” She suddenly appeared uncomfortable. “I mean you’re....” She blushed.

He wanted to help but had no idea where she was going.

Finally she blurted out, “You’re not circumcised.”

It was his turn to blush.

Continuing quickly, she said, “You were unconscious for several days. You got a lot of attention because of the mystery, and, of course, the nursing staff knows what you look like in your birthday suit.”

He had unconsciously pulled his bed sheet up.

Clearly suppressing a laugh, she added, “Sorry, TMI.” Saving him from further embarrassment, she continued, “The other ideas go from being neuralyzed by the Men In Black to alien abduction and clone experiments.”

He laughed, but then stopped. He realized the last one might actually be correct.

She looked at him curiously. “You OK?”

With complete honesty, he said, “I’m sorry. The ideas really are funny, but I realized I can’t be sure that one of them might not be true.” Quickly changing the subject, he asked, “What about you, Elizabeth? Where are you from?”

“Oh, we don’t need to talk about me.”

“Well, right now, we can’t really talk about where I’m from.”

She gave him a touché smile and said, “I was born in Austin, Texas, the oldest of several brothers and sisters. My childhood was good, if a little boring.”

“Why did you go into nursing?”

“I actually started out as a computer major. My dad had a computer repair business, and I spent hours on his lap learning from him. Loved helping people with their computer problems, but realized most computer jobs don’t interact with people. I like helping people directly, so I tried nursing. Love it.”

“Miss computers?”

“No, I still help my friends with them and like to play with the latest tech.”

“Kids?”

She looked down and said softly, “No.” She paused. “I ... I was married for a few months, but he died in a motorcycle accident.”

“I’m so sorry.”

“It’s been over a year. I don’t think about it much anymore.” She paused. “I’d better get on with my rounds.”

Not wanting her to leave on that note, he read her nametag, and asked, “Is Edvardsen Scandinavian?”

“Yes, it’s my maiden name.”

“That would explain the blonde hair but....”

“Yeah, I know.” She laughed. “The skin and eyes don’t match. I think I have some relatives from India.”

“Well, the combination works beautifully.”

She smiled. “Thanks. I need to get back to work. Is there anything I can do for you?”

“You already have.”

They locked eyes for a fraction of a second and then she said, “They’ll be moving you out of ICU soon, but I’ll check in with you before then.”

Elizabeth updated his stats on the computer in the hall. She paused. Josh seemed like a nice guy. He was intelligent, easy to talk to and funny. The bad news was there was something seriously wrong with his brain. Or ... he was hiding something, something bad enough he’d be willing to give up his identity. Either way, he was probably trouble. So, why was she smiling?

As she walked down the hall, she saw Dr. Dutton talking to the hospital administrator, Ned Brockmeyer. Hearing him ask about their John Doe, she joined them.

Dutton was saying, “We ran the entire alphabet soup of tests: CT, MRI, EEG, etc. They all came back normal.” She corrected herself, “No, actually, they all came back perfect.”

Brockmeyer smiled. “Hope his insurance is equally healthy. Have the police identified him yet?”

Dutton shook her head. “No, his fingerprints haven’t turned up anything. They’re checking DNA.”

Brockmeyer frowned. “Great, that means a huge diagnostic bill and no insurance.”

“The next step is to bring in a psychiatrist,” Dutton added. “Severe emotional trauma can also cause amnesia.”

“A psychiatrist?” Brockmeyer shook his head sharply. “Absolutely not! That’s just more charges we’ll never get reimbursed for. He’s taking up a bed that could be used by, uh, other patients.”

Elizabeth knew Brockmeyer meant “insured” patients. Short and bald with a Napoleon complex, he had the compassion of a brick.

Dutton nodded in agreement. “You’re right of course.” Looking thoughtful, she asked, “If he turns out to be some kind of terrorist, the hospital wouldn’t be held liable ... would we?”

Brockmeyer frowned, and with an exaggerated sigh, said, “OK, we can have a shrink check him out, but make sure local law enforcement is involved. If he turns out to be dangerous,” he smiled unpleasantly, “it’ll be their problem.”

As Brockmeyer scurried off, Dutton winked at Elizabeth.

Josh devoured the food they brought up. It was just a hamburger and French fries, but it was different somehow. He realized he was experiencing complex flavors he’d never tasted before. After he finished eating, he was bored. There were no TVs in ICU, and he was playing with the blood pressure monitor when Elizabeth returned. She was a welcome diversion even though he suspected she was just going to draw more blood.

With a smile, she said, “Good news. Since all your tests are negative, they’re bringing in a mind specialist.”

He frowned. “A psychiatrist?”

“Well, yeah, but it’s Dr. Sheri Lopez!”

He looked at her blankly.

“Sorry. She’s a well-known psychiatrist and bestselling author who lives in Kansas City. She even had her own daytime TV talk show. You don’t recognize the name at all?”

“No.” He honestly didn’t, but he’d never watched much TV.

“She’ll be in tomorrow morning.”

He nodded but realized a psychiatrist might see through his amnesia claim.

“They’re moving you to a regular room in a few hours.”

He would no longer be under Elizabeth’s care and probably wouldn’t see her again. She was the closest thing he had to a friend. “Thanks. Thanks for taking care of me.”

She smiled. “You’re a lot noisier than most of my neuro patients.” Winking, she added, “I’ll check in on you after you’re relocated.”


After they moved him to a new room and found him a bathrobe, he watched the news networks. Interspersed between the moral and legal tribulations of celebrities, he picked up a little information about his missing year. He also discovered his new body needed only a few hours of sleep.

Jesse indicated they had given him the ability to communicate with them. He had no idea how, but with their obviously advanced medical technology, some type of implant was possible.

It was late at night, and the nurse had made her rounds. He made sure no one was outside in the hall. Feeling stupid, like trying to make a phone call without a phone, he said, “Jesse, this is....” He stopped, realizing he wasn’t even sure what to call himself anymore. Since it felt like he was talking on a radio, he decided to use his call sign. “Jesse, this is Fuzed. Can you read me, over?”

He shook his head, realizing how ridiculous it was. He knew no one was going to answer. They’d probably contact him after he was released from the hospital. He had to get out of here … preferably not in a bathrobe.

7 PSYCH


Early the next morning, a woman entered his room. Petite, professional and attractive, she had black hair, a nice tan and dark, penetrating eyes. With a stylish sports jacket and silk blouse, he suspected her clothes weren’t from Wal-Mart. As he shook her hand, her diamond encircled Solak watch confirmed it.

“Hi, I’m Dr. Sheri Lopez.”

He nodded. “So far, I’m Josh. Glad to meet you, Dr. Lopez.”

“Call me Sheri.” She paused. “Do you think that’s really your name?”

He’d never been a good liar. The best strategy was to stay as close to the truth as possible.

“It feels familiar.”

She nodded. “I’ve reviewed your medical tests. There’s no indication of disease or physical trauma. In fact, you appear to be exceptionally healthy. There could be some hidden trauma or drug causing this, but retrograde amnesia also occurs from traumatic emotional events.”

He just nodded.

“I’d like to give you some psychological tests and see where that takes us.”

He had no grounds to say no. “Sure.”

He spent the rest of the morning taking written, verbal and visual tests. Since none of the questions referred to his past, he answered honestly.

She finished up. “I’ll be back in the afternoon with the results.”

Intelligent and confident, it was clear to him why she was successful. What wasn’t clear was why a celebrity psychologist was involved in a John Doe case.


At lunchtime, Elizabeth dropped by carrying a small bag. “Found some of the books you were looking for.”

He smiled. “Thank you. You and the staff have been amazing.”

“Yeah, well, when they release you, they’ll present you with an amazing bill.” She gave him a mischievous smile. “Your amnesia might come in handy.” Looking serious, she asked, “Do you know what you’re going to do when you get out?”


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