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Nachalnik

Written by shadar :: [Tuesday, 04 August 2015 03:21] Last updated by :: [Wednesday, 05 August 2015 09:15]

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Nachalnik

By Shadar

Summer, 2015

Part One – Prologue

My brother Jim and I could not be any more different.

I’m a university professor and scientist and I consider myself sober and well-informed. I try to see all sides of every issue. I earn my living in the peer-reviewed landscape of academic publishing. Everything I publish, every data point, has to be validated by other scientists, many of whom are competitors who would love nothing more than to find a weaknesses in my arguments. Which ensures that everything I try to publish is cautious, long-winded, intolerably boring and pedantic. At least according to my brother Jim. He says I deliberately blunt my powers of intuition by questioning absolutely everything. That I’m a natural born skeptic.

In contrast, Jim is a wild-eyed dreamer. He lives in the deep-web, where fact and fiction are indistinguishable. He’s a conspiracy nut. His view of ‘evidence’ ranges from a vague hunch to a strong possibility. He claims his best ideas come by way of vivid dreams, which he further claims are cosmically influenced.

Personally, I think its all the pot he smokes.

So, as you might imagine, our get-togethers are never boring, and often quite loud, given we are always on opposite sides of every issue. Yet we can come to the edge of blows and never suffer hurt feelings, for we have the unbreakable bond of brotherhood. Blood is stronger than anything.

That bond was being put to the test today. Jim had come to me obsessed with some new conspiracy about genetically-altered soldiers being created by the Russians. According to him, Russian President Putin is a Royal Arch Freemason and member of the Illuminati. His day job as Russian President is the least important of his roles.

Crazy stuff, but Jim has been completely obsessed with the Illuminati for as long as I can remember. He claims they were founded on May 1, 1776 in Bavaria, and that they have grown so strong that they now secretly control governments, media, publishing and entertainment. Which means they have total control of public opinion.

That’s nonsense in my book. We humans are far too corrupt and too immersed in our own bureaucracy and political/religious/patriotic bullshit for anyone to actually control the world. Influence things, maybe. Fight wars, absolutely, but nobody gets to rule over all. Many have tried.

I tried to lighten the mood by joking that Jim’s UFO conspiracy friends must have had geek sex with a bunch of comic book dweebs and supersoldiers were their illegitimate spawn.

He didn’t laugh. He truly, seriously believes there are superhumans among us.

When I pressed him on why such a monumental achievement had escaped mention in scientific journals, or in any publication or web page for that matter, other than maybe some fantasy groups, he looked at me like I was the idiot.

“Well, obviously the people in charge don’t want publicity,” he said, way too seriously. “But once the Illuminati builds their unstoppable army, they’ll come out from behind their curtains and force us all up under one government — theirs. The Russians are in it up to their necks. Hell, they’re the ones building this army of superhumans. Once they have them, they won’t need weapons or technology. They will be beyond all that.”

I rolled my eyes as I muttered something about “conspiracies inside conspiracies about conspiracies based on comic books”, but Jim had heard it all from me before. He firmly believed that only a few people, he and his friends specifically, could see the truth. Everyone else was playing in a sandbox controlled by the Illuminati.

Anyway, that’s about where things stood between us when a curious thing happened. Something that was not supposed to happen.

One of Jim’s network of ‘true believers’ managed to secure Press credentials to attend a press conference at the Ukraine Peace Initiative, which like everything else in the Ukraine, had just fallen apart. The reporters had been very tough on Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov for the failure, pushing him hard on Russia’s lack of progress at resolving the escalating crisis. That opened the door for Jim’s friend to slip in a seemingly unrelated question: “What can you tell us about the growing concerns about the Russian supersoldier project?”

Lavrov froze, and then smiled, looking strangely relieved. This was an easy one. “How could anyone believe that we have the technology to inject extraterrestrial DNA into our supposed test subjects?” he chuckled. “Only the addled brain of a comic-book addict would give a moment’s credence to such a thing.”

The reporters largely chuckled with Lavrov, and then went about filing their stories. Several of them broadcast Lavrov’s colorful joke about aliens and supersoldiers as a way of lightening the increasingly grim news about the Ukraine.

My brother Jim and his friends didn’t laugh. Instead, they were filled with dread. For despite all their wild conjecture, none of them had been crazy enough to suggest that extraterrestrials were involved in the Russian program.

Now they knew.

Chapter One

Jim first veered off the rails when he joined a UFO group that hung out in the Mohave desert. Most of its members had moved to the high desert to study UFO’s. They were serious folks according to Jim. Dedicated researchers.

That wasn’t how I saw it. It was just a lark — a chance to run around in the high desert in the middle of the night with some friends, staring at the stars, smoking pot, having sex. There were some extremely hot women in that group, including some celebrities, and in the desert in the middle of the night, things can happen than never would in the light of day down in LA. That was the whole point.

I went with him a few times when we were young, and we saw many things in the sky, all of which I’m sure were either satellites or classified military aircraft or just outright hallucinations. The brain does funny things when you’re lying in the dark of a moonless desert looking for satellites while toking on a joint with a veritable goddess lying naked in our arms, A-listers from Hollywood no less. It’s easy enough to imagine that anything can happen under those circumstances.

Jim eventually moved on from studying UFO’s to studying more “scientific” conspiracies. Like Chemtrails. He’s absolutely convinced that many airliners are secretly equipped with a spraying system that is being used to control the weather. Pilots and ground crews know about it, but nobody is talking. They’re all part of the Global Warming cover-up.

Don’t get me started on that one.

So given all this, you can imagine my response when Jim came to me in January with more talk of this new supersoldier thing, I offered him a beer and turned on the Seahawks game. I wasn’t going to encourage him further.

You see, genetic engineering is my profession, so I know how impossible it would be to engineer human genes so as to grant superhuman powers. The laws of physics as they apply to biology are finite. I explained in detail why his theories had no place in science, and why the things he believed correctly belonged at the intersection of speculative fiction and comic books. They could never become part of any legitimate scientific inquiry.

He usually shuts up and leaves after I crush him with the weight of logic, but not this time. He grabbed the satellite remote and turned the game off. Then he handed me an envelope that contained a job offer. A real job that paid very good money, including a large advance. A thick pile of crisp 100’s.

It wasn’t his money, of course. Apparently a group of wealthy people in his network of wackos wanted me to validate some data for them. Russian data.

Normally I would have tossed the envelope of money back and sent Jim on his way, but thanks to my recent divorce, my finances were running on empty. So instead of studying his proposal as I would any other (I already knew it was bullshit), I just scribbled my signature on the dotted line. If they wanted to throw their money away, I was more than happy to take it. I could make a quick ten grand by showing them the gaping holes in their supposed data. I might even be able to refocus Jim on the real world before it was too late.

The next day, a courier arrived at my door with a thick folder of so-called evidence. He looked like he’d just stepped out of a Matrix movie — sunglasses and black suit and completely humorless. According to the “evidence” in that folder, Putin’s people had rehired the scientists who’d worked on some old Soviet projects. Money was no object, and given that genetic tech had greatly improved since the 80’s, breakthroughs had already happened. A thumb drive full of data and a cheap cellphone were also in the same folder.

What they wanted from me was clear. They needed me, Professor of Genetic Engineering Jason MacKenzie, to bless their newest conspiracy with an article submission to an independent scientific publication.

That wasn’t going to happen. Instead, I was going to earn my fee by showing them exactly why such a submission would be rejected out of hand.

Such were my thoughts and expectations as I started digging through what turned out to be gigabytes of data, most of it consisting of scanned, handwritten documents in Russian. I’d worked with some Russian colleagues years ago, studying fruit flies, so I could at least read the language.

That’s right – I’m a fruit fly scientist. More accurately, I create genetically altered fruit flies to test the various techniques and tools for gene splicing. Thanks to their simple genetics and short lifespans, fruit flies are an excellent research vehicle for working with recombinant animal DNA. If we are ever to tweak the genetics of higher organisms, it will at least partially be the result of ground work that my colleagues and I were doing.

I expected to find the thumb drive full of conjecture, wild stories, unwitnessed observations and murky photographs. The usual stuff that Jim shared with me. Instead, to my great surprise, I found myself staring at very detailed documents about something called a Nachalnik. There were medical reports, field test results, athletic measurements, DNA analysis, and medical scan results of several types. All performed with the best technology of the late 80’s. Worryingly, most of it was stamped OB, which was the Soviet equivalent of Top Secret.

Shockingly, the Nachalnik described in the reports was an eight-year-old girl who’d supposedly been extensively tweaked at the genetic level. Which, if true, was a violation of every scientific protocol on the planet. Any lab that did such work would be ostracized by all other labs and researchers on a global basis. Depending on the country, they might even go to jail. Or worse. But of course, the Soviet Union was no more.

Still, I wanted to quit right there. If even a hint of this was real, I was looking at a crime against science. You can’t tweak humans like we do fruit flies. It was also obvious that if any of this was even remotely true, the Russians would still consider this a high-level state secret in their Federation. One of the lessons many of us took away from Edward Snowden’s experience is that distributing classified information that you stole from a major world power can seriously screw up your life. You need to be willing to put it all on the line.

I wasn’t, but unfortunately by the time I realized all this I’d already spent their generous advance to cover my overdue bills.

Jim grew both angry and scared when I told him I now wanted out. That I’d pay the money back over time. He said the people who had put this money up were “serious types”. It wasn’t just a matter of money to them. The Russians were about to change the world forever, and we had to stop them. We were on the front lines.

Not me. I’m not anyone’s cannon fodder. If they wouldn’t let me quit, then I needed to get them to fire me. I started that campaign by telling Jim that if I was to believe the data he’d given me, I’d be forced to conclude that Superman was real and that he had a daughter.

Instead of laughing, Jim nodded enthusiastically. He seemed really excited that I was taking his new project so seriously.

I just stared at him. “Superman, Jim? That was a joke. I mean, what the fuck? He’s made out of four color ink and cheap paper. It’s called a comic book.”

“That’s what you sheeple are supposed to think,” Jim replied angrily. “Have you ever considered that the Illuminati created all this comic book stuff decades ago to keep real scientists like you away from the truth?”

Sheeple. God I hated the arrogance of that term. The conspiracy people use it all the time to describe anyone who rejects their madness. Yet who in their right mind was going to believe that the Soviets, working with the mythical Illuminati, had created an eight-year-old girl who could turn a bullet with her bare skin (a claim that was made repeatedly in the test reports), or bend steel bars like they were licorice strands. Even worse, who would believe that the Illuminati have been preparing us for this day since the 1930’s by publishing superhero comic books.

This was over the edge even for Jim, and I told him so. He doubled down by claiming that this alien presence has been on Earth for centuries, waiting for our technology to develop far enough to share their genetic science with us. The aliens had founded the Illuminati, back when America was still a British colony, for the purpose of educating and preparing mankind for this day. That’s what all the recent superhero movies were about.

The harder he tried to convince me, the more his brain spun into ever tightening circles until he lost any ability to separate fantasy and fact. He was consumed by wishful thinking, yearning for this to be real, but horrified by the implications at the same time.

I was frankly shocked that Jim felt this strongly about anything. So much so that he’d lost all connection with reality. This was serious. Given I couldn’t argue with him, I picked up the burner phone that had come in the envelope and called the number labeled: For Emergencies Only. I needed to start playing this game a level above Jim.

A man with a very deep voice and a strong Russian accent answered on the first ring. He sounded like a gangster. The hell with this. I started to lower the phone, my thumb reaching for the End button when that voice said firmly and loudly: “Do not hang up, Professor MacKenzie.”

A flash of anger pierced me. Who the hell did this guy think he was ordering around? I’m not some tool to be used by gangsters or conspiracy wackos or anyone else. It was time to convince them they had the wrong man.

I jammed the phone back against my ear and launched into a brutally frank summary of my initial analysis of the data, describing how ridiculous it all was. I claimed that someone had done a brilliant job of creating an internally consistent and well-organized collection of patently fraudulent bullshit. I told him frankly that he was wasting his money paying me to study something that was so obviously impossible.

The Russian voice listened silently until my outburst ended, and then replied very softly: “Your initial findings are within the anticipated range of possibilities, Professor. Your work is so excellent that we are doubling your fee. Please continue your analysis.”

“What … how can this be within the expected range?” I shouted into the phone. “What the fuck are you people smoking …” The phone clicked off. I stood there for a long moment until the iPhone in my pocket beeped. My ApplePay app happily announced that I’d just received a $20,000 deposit.

There was no way you could move money that fast through the normal banking channels. Hours not seconds. These people were seriously plugged in and technically very savvy.

I should have destroyed the data and the phone and taken a long vacation somewhere very remote at that point, but the scientist in me was intrigued now. I was also getting a weird vibe from it all. But you don’t do science based on vibes and feelings.

I dug deeper into the data.

I studied their crude DNA scans, the best of late 80’s technology, and compared them to normal. To my surprise, this girl appeared to have had much of her non-coding DNA replaced with active genes the likes of which I’d never seen. I compared them to samples in every genetics database — nothing. If this was a fraud, then it was the most involved one I’d ever heard of.

I needed a fresh set of eyes, so I enlisted a fellow professor who specialized in mammalian genetic mutation, and he confirmed that the scans were an amusing bit of fraud. First of all he observed that these new genes were incredibly complex, far more so than anything mammalian, yet they cleverly maintained the basic outline of a human gene. Enough that they’d attached themselves to every DNA strand they’d sequenced. He claimed that more than twenty-percent of this girl’s DNA was made up of these weird replacement genes. Given that humans only differ about four-percent from chimpanzees, twenty-percent was like comparing a human to a dinosaur.

His conclusion was that this data hadn’t come from a genetic scan. Instead, it was just a bit of fantasy created on a modern computer, a computer graphic if you will, and thus completely fraudulent. Also, he noted that all the supposed DNA scans were of females, which made no sense. Why no males? They were supposedly making super-soldiers not super-models.

The most puzzling thing was that anyone who had the technical skill to create this beautiful of a fraud would have known that it wouldn’t survive vigorous scientific review by experts. Yet someone had worked for years to put this data together. And now I was getting paid to sell this to a technical journal? It didn’t add up.

I reported all of these thoughts and findings on my next call, emphasizing that the data was no longer just a clever forgery, it was now just a pile of bad science fiction. Computer simulated. The only thing interesting now was why someone had put this much work into it.

To my great surprise, instead of firing me, the Russian voice said they were doubling my pay yet again based on my “outstanding performance”, and then hung up. It was like he’d not heard a single thing I’d said.

I was really conflicted now. The money was ridiculously good, equalling my annual salary at the University, but they were doubling down on idiocy. I’d clearly told them they were wasting my time and their money. But I had to admit I was becoming intrigued. Not by the data, but by the motivations to create so much of it. Buried in the records were reports of a dozen other girls over a period of nearly fifty years, all of whom had died at a very young age. If any of that was true, then I wasn’t just looking at inappropriate experimentation, I was witness to a serious crime.

I withheld any further updates at that point, asking instead for first-person reports to validate the data I’d been given. The Russian voice was not pleased by his, and that scared me. The work I’d done earlier in Russia had taught me that wealthy and connected Russians were a vengeful bunch who often hired Ukrainians to do their dirty work. I might wind up in a wheelchair, or with a bullet-hole in my head if I pushed them too far.

The damned Ukrainians. They were in the news constantly now. Events were building toward a climax in the Ukraine as the eastern pro-Russian regions entered into a very hot civil war, armed and supported by the Russians. Russian forces massed on the eastern border as their special forces operated across most of the Ukraine, sans uniforms and documentation. On the other side, NATO troops gathering along the western border. The unfortunate citizens of the Ukraine were about to be squeezed in a Russian nutcracker.

Events were fast approaching the point of no return when President Putin called President Obama and asked for a special meeting on the Ukraine. Fox News ecstatically reported that Putin had blinked, but experienced Putin watchers knew differently. They saw Putin turning up the heat on a President who would do nearly anything to avoid war. Especially one with Russia. Still, Obama couldn’t ignore the urgent request for Secretary of State John Kerry to fly to Moscow to meet with his counterpart, Sergey Lavrov. Diplomacy was always better than the alternative.

None of that should have directly involved me, except for a very strange thing: Putin specifically requested that the Americans bring me along for the meeting.

Not that anyone told me about his request. The Americans were chasing their tails, trying to figure out who I was and why the Russians wanted me. But Google is a wonderful thing, and after all, these people did own the NSA. My cellphone soon rang and a White House staffer started asking me a lot of strange questions about my background and professional credentials. It sounded like he was vetting me for something, but it wasn’t until the end of the call that the caller hinted at a connection with my brother’s conspiracy group.

I was horrified. The American government was linking me to Jim’s craziness?! I hadn’t said a word to anyone except Jim and the voice on the phone.

The damned NSA really does record every call.

My phone rang again, only a few minutes after I hung up on the staffer. This time it was US Secretary of State John Kerry himself. In his usual style, he laid his cards on the table face up. He told me that Putin had specifically requested me to travel with his State Department contingent to observe some kind of demonstration in Russia. He wanted to know why.

My heart froze at the words “to observe some kind of demonstration”. My academic reputation didn’t extend beyond a small group of fellow scientists who tweaked the DNA of fruit flies. Our annual convention was so small it could be held inside a bar, and had been more than once.

I told Kerry in a choked voice that I would have to call him back after I did some checking. He gave me his personal number and said time was of the essence. I scribbled it down and hung up without saying goodbye.

My hands were trembling as I called my emergency contact, but the Russian voice was no longer answering. Not a good sign. I called my brother next. When I told him about Putin’s insistence that the Americans bring me to Moscow, he freaked out way worse than I had. He said Putin wanted me there so he could kill me. A plane crash or something. He insisted I not go. He said he and his buddies had a number of hideaways prepared in remote areas of the Pacific Northwest for emergencies like this. I could stay at what he called “The Retreat” until things blew over.

I was about to pack my bag and fly his way when I heard a helicopter land in the street in front of my house. Men in uniform were suddenly knocking at my door. One of them handed me a phone. Secretary Kerry was on the other end. He needed an answer now.

What could I say except yes. I would go. Of course.

It is said that people often fail to recognize their moment of destiny when it first arrives, recognizing it only in retrospect. Not me. I knew at that very moment that my moment had arrived. I gave no thought to the danger. There is no feeling more intoxicating (and dangerous) than discovering that everything in my life had brought me to this moment.

My neighbors for blocks around came out to watch me clamber aboard the Canadian Forces helicopter, and minutes later I was at a Canadian Forces base where one of those infamous black Gulfstream jets was waiting. There were no markings on the outside, but I knew it had to be CIA. The interior reeked of fear. Who knows how many terror suspects this plane had spirited away to be delivered to foreign interrogation services. Thankfully, my Gulfsteam flew straight to Andrews AFB in Delaware, where I was hustled aboard Secretary Kerry’s aircraft, a modified Boeing 757 painted in the blue and white colors of the US government. They seated me alone in a small conference room in the middle of the plane, which thankfully had seat belts because we immediately started taking off.

We were still climbing steeply when the door opened and several grim-faced staffers walked into the conference room to take their seats. They were joined by two Air Force officers.

I decided not to waste time describing my background or how I got here or anything about the sources of the data I’d been studying. These guys controlled the NSA, so undoubtably they already knew everything about me. Most of my professional life is an open book in any case. Instead, I jumped straight to the end game. I told them that I expected the Russians to reveal a technology of great importance. I said they were going to rewrite all the rules of engagement, and in so doing, change the world balance of power.

That got their attention. It also got me some cuckoo eye rolls and a chuckle from the two military officers, who apparently thought I was joking. How could the Russians have a super-advanced weapon system that they knew nothing about?

I ignored their skepticism — I’d been embracing my own doubts for long enough — but their attitude pissed me off. I remembered my English grandmother’s favorite saying: “In for a penny, in for a pound”. So instead of backing off, I pushed my crazy filter aside and gave them the whole dump, no longer caring if I sounded even nuttier than my brother. This wasn’t a fucking conspiracy any more — we were on our way to Russia to witness something amazing.

I took them through the data I’d been studying, summarizing it first by describing the likely superhuman abilities we were going to witness in this demonstration.

Kerry’s staffers, who had taken me seriously up to that point, began laughing, eyes rolling. I shut them up by tossing out the theory that the Russians were using alien DNA to create super-soldiers. The eye rollers now glared at me with open disgust. One of them laughed derisively about “the nut with the comic book science”. Everyone closed their notebooks and left the room.

I tried to follow them out the door to continue my arguments, but they locked it behind them. I banged on the door, but no one answered. None of the phones worked either. I might as well be in a prison cell. I wondered how many other men had sat in this room, feeling the same isolation. How many of their endings had been good ones?

No. I wasn’t giving in to those fears. Kerry and his team had no idea what they were flying into, and the Russians and Americans have too many fingers on too many buttons. Surprises between Russians and Americans can get us all killed. Emphasis on ALL. I had to make them listen to me. I was the only scientist outside the Russian program who could talk intelligently about what they’d done. The Americans would need to hear an objective voice, and mine was the best they were going to find. If they’d only listen.

What was scariest of all was that if things went as I was now expecting, Russia would once again become the most powerful nation on the planet. The Americans weren’t going to let that stand for long. Things were going to get ugly. Fast. I felt the old fears of the Cold War and nuclear annihilation creeping in again, chills running up and down my spine as I imagined the blinding light of nuclear detonation. I’d grown up with nightmares of skeletal fingers hovering over red buttons, a single push away from ending us all. Mutually Assured Destruction. Something no Russian would allow given their history.

Amazingly, it had worked. The Soviets blinked and the Cold War had ended. But now Putin was kicking the tires and lighting the fires again. He was going to change all the rules.

Chapter Two

The hours passed slowly as we flew east. My frustration and fears grew. No one came to the door. I managed a couple of fitful hours sleeping on the floor, but they didn’t let me out until we landed at a Moscow military airport. Two Secret Service agents walked me into a very large Russian helicopter and isolated me in the back. I managed to overhear one of Kerry’s staffers saying that we were flying toward the place where the Soviets had once sent their highest ranking political opponents.

Chills ran down my spine. Such a place would be perfect for conducting experiments in total secrecy. Nobody would voluntarily visit such an evil place, especially given it didn’t officially exist. Few “patients” would dare talk about things they’d seen or heard there if they were lucky enough to get released. Those who did talk would be sent back to further cure their insanity. All Russians understood those kinds of things.

Such were my dark thoughts when we touched down an hour later. I stepped out of the chopper, surprised to find myself standing in very pleasant surroundings. Large green lawns and groves of pine, fir and spruce trees ran as far as the eye could travel. Dull, gray institutional buildings rose from the woods here and there, looking like alien imposters in this natural landscape. The air was cool and fragrant this early in May, and blossoming flowers were everywhere. The brutal Russian climate was in the middle of that brief but pleasant interlude that separated the bitter Russian winter from the too hot summer to come.

Secretary Lavrov and his aides met Kerry and our contingent on the lawn as the rotor blades wound down. Yet instead of heading toward one of the buildings to meet, the Russians escorted us across the pristine grass toward a grove of pine trees. I walked behind the group, trying to introduce myself to the collection of Russian scientists who followed in their wake, but no one wanted to talk to me. The banter you always hear between scientists was noticeable by its absence.

As we approached the trees, I saw a blonde girl step out from the trees to meet us. At first glance I assumed she was a child, slender and short, less than five feet tall, dressed in a loose white top that hung over a red micro-miniskirt. Below that slender legs and bare feet. Her skin was deeply tanned, almost bronze in color. You don’t see that this early in the season in Russia.

It was only as we approached that I could make out her face. Surprisingly, it was broad, looking more Dutch than Slavic to me, with large, widely-spaced eyes that were an amazing robin’s egg blue. It was not the face of a child. She confirmed that by removing her loose top to reveal a startlingly fit body. Her midriff, shoulders and arms were bared by a blue top which hugged her like a second skin, the exotic outfit tapering to a metallic choker around her neck. Clearly some kind of costume.

She carried herself with both a dancer’s grace and an athlete’s suppleness as she walked toward us, gliding across the grass as if weightless. Despite her tiny size, large, firm breasts sat unnaturally high and widely spaced on a broad, strong chest. Her ribcage narrowed to a tiny waist before rising over athletically trim hips and a remarkably pert backside. A very thick braid of blonde hair hung to her waist. She was absolutely stunning in a way that made my mouth go dry, yet she couldn’t be more than four and a half feet tall. A tiny but perfect woman.

All eyes were on her as she stopped to greet Lavrov with a brief hug before turning to shake hands with Kerry. Her head barely rose above his waist. I was mesmerized by her eyes. They were larger than normal with blue-green irises that glittered like faceted diamonds in the sunshine. Could this be the girl whose data I’d been studying? There had been nothing in the data about her physical size.

No, that wasn’t possible. That eight year old girl would be in her mid-thirties now, yet this girl’s face was in the midst of that beautiful transition from girl to woman that occurs around age seventeen. Perhaps her daughter?

Lavrov leaned close to whisper something to the girl, and she nodded as she turned to look at me, smiling softly. He put his arm around her bare shoulders to hug her for a brief moment, and then sent her my way. She took a few steps my way, and then gestured for me to follow her toward the trees.

My heart was pounding as I followed behind, unable to tear my eyes from the way the astounding definition of her calf muscles. The distinctive diamond shape of ultimate fitness formed and relaxed with every step. Everything about her looked way too good to be true, despite her diminutive height.

She turned to face me as she reached the largest of the trees, leaning her back casually against the thick bark as she waited for me to catch up with her, those bright blue eyes holding mine. She waited until I was a dozen feet away, and then reached behind her head to grip the massive trunk. Her firm breasts rose higher yet, lifted by strong muscles as the wood beside her head began cracking and popping. As I watched, she slowly buried her fingers to their roots in the solid, healthy tree and began to lean forward, still holding the trunk tightly against her back. The living wood behind her cracked and popped loudly as she bent further and further forward, the upper limbs swaying wildly over my head. With a deafening CRACK, trunk snapped in half behind her, wood chunks flying in every direction. A shower of needles fell over me. She struggled to regain her balance as the huge tree swayed dangerously over my head. All doubts fled me as I saw her amazing muscles working to hold twenty or more tons of tree on her back.

Jim had finally got something right. And what a thing it was. A super girl!

I kneeled beneath the dangling branches to look closely at her, asking breathlessly: “Who are you?”

“You study me,” she said in heavily-accented English.

This was the girl from the 80s’s? She sure as hell didn’t look like she was pushing forty.

Behind me, I heard Kerry’s contingent talking rapidly, almost shouting at each other, confused, wondering what kind of trick this was. Turning around, I saw Kerry standing tall, glaring at me. I had no idea how much of our earlier conversation his staff had passed on to him, but surely he understood how much this tree weighed. And that it would have required unimaginable raw strength to snap the huge trunk in half like she’d done. His mouth opened and closed soundlessly as his brain tried to process what he was seeing. Not the least for the fact that this girl was as small as a child, yet was a truly beautiful woman.

My thoughts raced as well as I tried to figure out what my part was supposed to be in this little drama. I’d failed miserably in my earlier attempt to prepare the Americans, and now they were doing their best to rationalize what they were seeing. Looking for the trick. Rejecting the evidence of their own eyes, searching instead of some kind of technical explanation. I had to shock them further. I had to show them something else impossible, and then another thing until they could not ignore what their eyes were telling them.

There was one obvious way, given how much the Americans love their guns. Turning, I walked determinedly over to the nearest Russian guard and held out my hands as I requested his weapon. The soldier of course refused, glancing nervously toward Lavrov, clearly confused. Lavrov barked a command, and I suddenly found myself holding an AK-104 carbine, the latest and greatest Russian foldable-stock 7.62mm field weapon. I checked the magazine. Thirty rounds, all military issue full-metal-jacket.

I might be a Canadian, but I know a fair bit about weapons, thanks to four years spent in the Canadian army decades ago. The AK-104 was the successor to the ubiquitous AK-47 rifles from the 50’s which now armed every third-world country. They fired the same powerful ammo.

“With your permission, Secretary Lavrov?” I asked, gesturing toward the girl with the rifle barrel.

She stood calmly, still holding the massive tree trunk on her back, her slender legs flexing with amazing definition.

Kerry looked both flustered and astounded. Disoriented. “Permission for what …?” he started to ask, confused by my holding a Russian rifle.

“Be my guest,” Lavrov replied, a thin smile tilting his lips. Like Putin, he somehow managed to look arrogant, amused and predatory all at the same time.

The girl’s eyes remained fixed on mine as I walked back across the lawn to face her from ten meters away. I cycled the bolt to load a round, and flicked the safety off. She turned to the side and shrugged her shoulders to toss the tree off her back. It crashed down with enough force to shake the ground violently. Turning back to me as she brushed the needles and twigs from herself, she rested her hands confidently on her trim hips and smiled confidently. She wasn’t afraid of guns.

I eased the selective fire level into the 3-round burst mode and raised the weapon, settling the plastic and metal stock against my shoulder. I was aiming it carefully at the girl when Secretary Kerry shouted “STOP STOP” behind me. I ignored him as I pulled the trigger.

The sophisticated rifle bucked smoothly as I squeezed off a few three-round bursts, aiming at the girl’s midriff. Like all 7.62mm rifles, the barrel rose strongly during the burst, witnessed by the short lines of bullet holes that stitched diagonally across her blue top. Each dimpling impact shook her little body, blue fabric flying like confetti, her skin dimpling strongly, but her feet didn’t moved an inch. Even more telling, the smile never left her lips. If the bullets were hurting her, she wasn’t showing it.

I was the one feeling pain. It was hard to forget my old firearms safety training. My shoulder ached and my heart pounded and my hands were shaking, the report of the rifle making my unprotected ears ring, smoking rifle bucking in my arms. It was shocking to actually be shooting at a bulletproof person, most of all a beautiful and nearly naked girl, but I was fascinated by the way the bullets bounced off her skin. Seeing this in comic books or special effects in movies was one thing, but watching bullets tearing ragged holes in her thin top, revealing the bare skin beneath was mind-boggling.

And I was intellectually prepared for this.

The Americans were not. I heard them talking loudly, very excited but also disbelieving at the same time. Likely they were chalking this up to some kind of transparent body armor. I dispelled any possibility of that by walking closer to aim at her face, and carefully shot her three times in the forehead from point-blank range. The impacts snapped her head back as they sent her long braid whipping through the air. She was still smiling, eyes twinkling at me.

Shooting is like riding a bike — you never forgot how. My ears were ringing painfully and my hands were stinging from the sharp recoil, but I didn’t care. My hands were shaking so wildly that I was having trouble aiming now. It was all I could do to change the fire selector and empty the remainder of the magazine into her chest in one long full-auto burst. A cloud of blue confetti filled the space between us, with ricocheting bullets kicking up grass and dirt all around me until the action locked open.

My mind’s eye started replaying what my eyes had seen. The way her breasts had dimpled and bounced wildly under the powerful impacts, blunting the bullets to the ground instead of sending them zinging away as was the case when I hit firmer flesh. The blue fabric of her outfit had been completely blasted from the center of her chest, leaving a ragged oval that was filled with a firm pair of perfectly rounded breasts, her nipples hard and engorged. Most of my bullets had struck her chest, yet there wasn’t as much as a smudge on her smooth, tanned skin. If anything, I’d just turned her on.

Behind me, Kerry’s team were gasping and choking as they tried to talk, their exclamations barely audible over the gunshots that still rang in my ears.

I smiled, feeling completely vindicated. Nobody was going to call me a nut now.

The nearly-naked blonde took a couple of steps toward me, and then reached out for the rifle. I gave it to her, and she promptly bent it across her bare chest, muscles flexing harder than any steel as the gun steel barely dimpled her breasts before bending. She slowly bent it in half. Then she adjusted her grip to hold the now doubled ends, the plastic stock crumbling in her grip, and slammed it down over her uplifted thigh as she bent it in half yet again, the remaining plastic shattering. She finished by mushing the mangled rifle into a crude football-like shape, working the steel like it was some kind of modeling clay.

I thought she was going to hand it back to me, but she winked and effortlessly tossed it over my head. I turned just in time to see Kerry catch a perfect spiral. The crude metal ball hit his chest hard enough to knock him off his feet. He scrambled back to his feet and tried to toss it back, but it was clearly scorching his hands. Steel gets very hot when it’s stressed beyond its ultimate limits.

Turning back, I found the amazing girl standing close behind me, her eyes now level with mine. She hadn’t grown, but instead was floating on air, her feet a foot from the ground. She smiled and clenched her fists to rocket into the sky like an anti-aircraft missile, climbing so rapidly that her slipstream nearly sucked me off the ground. I craned my neck upward to watch her soar gracefully over a large group of buildings to disappear behind, leaving a faint trail of shredded blue fabric in her wake.

I was gasping for air as if I’d just run a hundred yard dash. My thoughts, my emotions, my entire body was getting into it now. I felt as if I was now the one floating on air. But then my rational side started to catch up to my emotions. My feet wanted to follow her, but I forced myself to walk back toward Kerry’s contingent. They were gathered around their leader as he angrily discussed something with Lavrov, whose smile was growing ever more sinister. I realized that despite my feeling elated and vindicated and, to be honest, more than a little turned on, the American diplomats were shell-shocked and intimidated. Several of the staffers stared off in the direction the girl had flown, a scared look on their faces.

Not nearly scared enough, I thought.

“That girl, Mr. Secretary,” Lavrov was saying, “is the first of many who are coming of age now. They will be attached as required to units of the Russian armed forces to ensure our total superiority.”

Kerry stared directly into Lavrov’s eyes, showing a lot more poise than I would have expected given what he’d just seen. “Using children as weapons? That breaks all kinds of international treaties. Are you going to have them knock down our jets? Punch out our tanks?”

“If it comes to it, yes,” Lavrov said calmly.

As if on cue, he pointed at the top of one of the buildings. We all followed his finger to see four small fighter jets approaching from the east, flying low and very fast, trailing black smoke from their fire-walled engines. Their nose-mounted conical air intakes with protruding spikes marked them as 1960’s vintage Mig-21’s. Long obsolete, but still supersonic, witnessed by the shockwaves that were cutting long grooves through the pine forest as they headed our way at fantastic speed. Lavrov raised both arms like a conductor preparing his orchestra, and four even younger girls leaped from the top of the closest building to fly directly toward the fighters, homing on them like anti-aircraft missiles. The four pilots ejected a half second before the girls crashed headlong into their nose engine intakes to crash the length of the plane before blasting their flaming engines out the back in a shower of sparks.

Everyone but Lavrov ducked as flaming debris screamed low over our heads to crash with earthquake impact barely a quarter mile behind us, sending up a wall of flame from the burning fuel. The four pilots descended under their parachutes as the four girls who’d downed the MIGs returned to hover just above us.

They looked to be about ten, facially at least, but all were built like premier gymnasts; short and muscular. Their black leotards might be torn and smoking, but I could still make out the Russian double-headed eagle on their chests.

“These are girls from our third group,” Lavrov said. “Ten years behind the second group and nearly thirty behind our first girl. Faster and stronger than the others. Mach four at sea-level and improving every week.”

“That’s imposs …” Kerry started to say, only to have Lavrov cut him off with an imperious wave of his hand.

“Just one of these children could take out an entire tank brigade, Mr. Secretary. In minutes.”

Kerry started to scoff, only to be interrupted as Lavrov waved his arm over his head. The loud creaking of an approaching tank suddenly came from the woods. I watched as a long barrel protruding first from the trees, and then a massive main battle tank. Likely a T90, which had been a mainline tank not so long ago. Lavrov turned to point as another girl flew toward us at incredible speed, stopping nearly instantly a meter in front of Kerry. The blast of wind from her arrival nearly knocked him off his feet.

This girl looked fourteen or fifteen. Second class? She wore a black leotard with a starburst on her chest. Her lean, bare legs made her look more like a ballet dancer than a gymnast. She landed on-point on the grass to curtsy for Kerry, and then launched into a triple backflip that carried her halfway across the open field to land directly in front of the approaching tank. Turning to face it, she stood with knees slightly bent, arms hanging loosely at her sides, leaning forward, clearly poised for action. The tank creaked toward her and just as it looked as if it was going to run her down, she spun around to deliver a barefooted kick that stopped the huge machine dead in its tracks. The shockwave from her blow knocked the closest men off their feet, and the deafening ring of steel on steel sent sharp pains through my already ringing ears. The tank started to regain traction and move forward again. Clearly it was being operated by remote control — for no crew could survive that kind of abuse.

I was lost in wonder as I watched the girl grab the thick Russian bow armor with both hands to sink her fingers to their roots in it, the steel giving off a horrible keening groan. Her small body flexed with amazing power as she lifted the huge war machine off the ground to hold it over her head, its treads still grinding away. Lavrov flicked his hand upward, and the girl spun around to lift the tank high into the air. She paused there as four blurry images raced inward from opposing directions to crash into the tank simultaneously. Seventy tons of steel exploded, sending torn bits of armor, diesel engines, tracks and unfired ammunition spewing across the field in front of us. One of the girls hovered in air with the tank’s massive turret resting on her shoulder, easily ten tons if not more. She flipped it up to drive its long barrel into the ground, leaving the turret standing there like an ersatz flag pole.

My chest was aching from all the concussions, my heart beating so fast that it hurt as well. Lavrov was really pouring it on now. My initial demonstration, which I’d thought dramatic enough, had just been the appetizer.

“As you just saw,” Lavrov proclaimed cheerfully, “our girls can destroy a squadron of supersonic fighters in seconds. They can destroy our best tanks with their bare hands. You have no weapon other than nuclear that could hurt them.”

He paused to look up at the young girls as they hovered overhead, adding uncharacteristically: “And even then, we are not entirely sure.” A worried look crossed Lavrov’s face for a moment, only to be chased away by his usual mocking smile. He lowered his eyes to meet Kerry’s. “We are demanding that NATO does not interfere in the affairs of the Ukraine or the reunification of any other former republic. Otherwise we will defend our interests with these new soldiers.”

Kerry’s shocked look said it all. “Soldiers … they’re just young girls.”

“All Russians will fight for their country,” Lavrov replied standing tall. “Young people and old people and everyone in between.”

“You make this sound like a declaration of war!”

“A war that does not have to happen, Secretary Kerry. We have no wish to take more land than was originally part of our united republic, and only then, we will take only the lands that our Russian kin live in. Leave our Federation to manage its former lands as we wish, and no harm will come to any other country or person.”

“They are not your lands,” Kerry protested vigorously. “They are independent nations now. By the rule of international law …”

Lavrov cut him off with a shake of his head. “Don’t lecture me on international law. Were you fully complying with law when you invaded Iraq the second time? Or Afghanistan?”

Kerry opened his mouth to reply, but Lavrov continued. “But that isn’t why we are here. I invited you so we could demonstrate the capability of our new soldiers. I don’t want NATO starting a war based on bad intel. I appreciate how difficult this is to accept. That’s what the Professor is here to help with. He’s been studying our data for months. He understands. He can help you understand.”

Everyone turned to stare at me as Lavrov let that sink in. My jaw dropped. He was dumping this all on me? Making it sound as if I’d been working for them? I started to protest, but thankfully closed my mouth before I said anything too stupid. First rule of being a consultant — stay out of the politics. Focus on the science.

“But if due to your foolishness it does come to war,” Lavrov continued as he sensed my reluctance, “do not let your generals argue that you could win. No matter how deeply you dig in. No matter what weapons you deploy.”

He waved his hand again, and an even younger girl appeared, maybe six years old, dressed in a silver leotard. She dove straight at the ground in front of Kerry, hitting with such force that she knocked everyone off their feet. The ground continued to shake for long seconds until a huge boulder erupted from the grass a hundred yards in front of us. The six-year-old emerged from the volcano of dirt and small rocks, to hover in mid-air, holding a boulder the size of a large truck over head, plumes of dirt streaming down her body. She shrugged her young but powerful shoulders to send the boulder flying into the trees, mowing down several dozen of them. The earthquake-like shudder of its impact knocked us off our feet yet again. Lavrov alone remained standing, thanks to a cute third-class girl who’d dropped down to steady him.

At that rate, they probably had yet another class of pre-schoolers behind them. And babies beyond that. Was Lavrov going to toss them into the demonstration too?

“To ensure that you can convince your president and others,” Lavrov said, “I have arranged for our oldest Nachalnik to accompany you back to Washington. I release Neya to the care of Professor MacKenzie.”

“Nachalnik?” Kerry asked warily. “What is …?”

One of his staffers leaned close to translate: “It means superior in Russian.”

Lavrov waved his hand theatrically over his head again, and the first girl, the older one who had broken the tree trunk, fell from the sky. She wore a short red skirt that lifted to reveal blue panties as she landed gently in front of Lavrov. Her feet were covered by a pair of red ballet slippers that were tied across her strong calves with delicate ribbons, and a red cape fluttered wildly behind her head. Her blue top was similar to the one I’d shot up, the skintight fabric leaving her midriff bare before rising over those perfectly rounded breasts before tapering to a choker, her shoulders and arms bare, along with most of her back. Her blonde hair was bound in the same long braid that hung to her waist. Yet as stunning as her exotic outfit was, it was the iconic “S” on her chest that drew every eye.

I thought immediately of Jim’s claim that comic books were an invention to establish deniability while superhumans were being developed to fill all those exotic costumes. That had sounded ridiculous to the point of insanity a few months ago.

Not so much now.

“We have found that this uniform helps the uninitiated to understand Neya’s true abilities,” Lavrov said, trying not to smile as he saw everyone staring wide-eyed at Neya. “I have asked her to wear it at all times just as a soldier must wear their uniform. The Professor and anyone he designates may test her in any way he wishes to determine her limits. You will not find any.”

Chapter Three

Given the threat, I figured Kerry’s staffers would have a million questions for me as we left the Russian installation, but instead his people huddled together, whispering urgently as we choppered back to Chkalovsky military airport. Neya and I were seated in the gloom at the back of the very noisy chopper, a rescue blanket draped loosely over her shoulders. She turned to smile at me, those blue-green eyes shimmering unnaturally bright in the darkness. She must have sensed my anguish and confusion because she reached out to hold my hand. Her skin was warm and soft and thoroughly human feeling. Yet I knew from the data I’d researched that her resistance to injury increased exponentially to the fifth power as force was applied. That had been proven when those even younger girls had smashed into the turbine section of those jet engines at more than supersonic speed, ripping the engines right out of the old fighters before they exploded. I had the equations in my head to describe that kind of invulnerability.

So imagine my surprise to find that I was still being ignored by everyone but the Secret Service agents, who stared fixedly at Neya, worried looks on their faces. They had seen the demo and they knew that their guns were completely useless if she decided to cause some harm.

The agents’ suspicious looks continued as we boarded Kerry’s highly-modified red, white and blue VC32. The Secretary and his staff crowded into the conference room and locked the doors. Once again, Neya and I were not invited. Instead, the Secret Service seated us in the empty “Press and Passenger“ section at the back of the plane. Four agents stood with their backs to the forward doors, hands clasped low in front of them, eyes focused just over our heads. I remembered the laminated briefing sheet they’d given me on the initial climb out of Andrews: “You can go anywhere on the aircraft you wish, as long as it’s aft of your assigned station.” Looking behind me, I saw nothing but a lavatory.

Obviously I wasn’t going to get any exercise on this flight. Not that I wanted to get out of my seat. Neya looked so small and perfect sitting next to me. The overhead reading light was shining on her bare thighs, and her legs were superhumanly toned and flawlessly tanned, her skin glowing with healthiness. Slender yet unimaginably powerful, just like the rest of her. Tantalizingly, the hem of her tiny skirt rose to reveal a hint of her blue panties as she shifted down a bit in her chair, but she either didn’t notice or didn’t care. I tried to think of a diplomatic way to mention it, but I didn’t speak Russian worth a damn. It was all I could do to read it, yet here I was, sitting next to the utter confirmation of intelligent alien life, a tiny girl wearing an outrageous costume with its bright primary colors and that famous rune on her chest. I had a thousand questions I couldn’t ask.

She didn’t seem to mind my silence as she happily scanned through some magazines that someone had left in the seat back, sipping a Coke and munching a packet of nuts, behaving more or less like any other teenage girl on a plane. Her iconic costume with its tiny skirt wasn’t helping me think. I found myself staring down at the clear outline of her firm nipples, tenting upward under that thin top to accent those perfectly rounded boobs, sans any kind of bra. I’d never seen a woman with breasts that sat this impossibly high and firm on their chest. And then there was that long blonde braid and those sparkling eyes. She was mind-bogglingly cute.

I tried to look away, but I lost that battle when she crossed her legs to undo the ribbons holding her ballet shoes on. She was flexible enough to pull her feet up tight to her stomach while undoing the ribbons. She stuffed her shoes into the pocket in the seatback in front of her while leaning forward to tug her cape free. She dropped it into her lap to solve her skirt problem. Then she undid her long braid, bushing her glowing hair with her fingers to reveal an acre of sunshine. Her hair was so long that it spilled over my hand on the armrest, feeling so warm and silky. Turning, she smiled at me from behind that golden cloud before giving her head a quick flip to toss her hair over her other shoulder. She looked like a sexy fairy or whatever. A pixie maybe. But was there a calculating highly-trained Russian agent behind those eyes?

She smiled sympathetically at my awkwardness, and shifted in her seat to rest her head on my shoulder, warm hair spilling into my lap. My blood pressure peaked as a surge of electricity filled me, but she just closed her eyes and started breathing softly, seemingly asleep. Was she an experienced soldier who never passed up a chance for some shut eye? Or had her demonstration tired her out? Her energy requirements must be enormous.

My thoughts raced as I concentrated on sitting still enough to keep from waking her up. It was an agony. She smelled so good, a hint of wildflower and sun-warmed honey on warm, youthful skin. I shifted slightly to the side to reach for my notebook, which caused her to slide downward more, still asleep. I was now pinned to the far side of my thankfully oversized seat. It took all my willpower to begin typing with one hand. I needed to find a way to prove Lavrov was wrong about her not having any limits, even as as a part of me thrilled to the possibility that I might fail.

I was still lost in thoughts of naval artillery and near-nuclear tests a half hour later when Neya stirred and began to stretch beside me. Her slender body moved catlike against mine as she leaned back, her bare toes pushing against the seat ahead of us. It began bending forward as her own seat back crushed backward into the fixed wall behind, crunching loudly. Reaching between us, she effortlessly removed the armrest — which wasn’t supposed to be removable — and tossed it over the seat in front of her. Now that she had plenty of room, she laid down to curl up, resting her head in my lap.

I wasn’t sure what to do with my right arm, but she solved that by taking my arm to wrap it around herself, lacing her fingers with mine as she tucked my hand in against her bare midriff. I thrilled to the touch of tight, warm skin, my fingertips brushing the waistband of her tiny skirt, my blood surging low to awaken the part of me that I’d been trying to ignore. Despite being bulletproof, her skin was silky smooth like any other young woman. Until she stretched slightly, at which point her abs rippled steel-hard against my hand. I heard a crunch as the outer wall panel of the plane dented outward where her toes were touching. Comfortable now, she fell deeply asleep again, her breathing soft and very slow.

I used my free hand to pull a blanket down from the seat in front and spread it over us. Her soft breathing became contagious. I closed my eyes, allowing myself to drift off as well.

I awoke some time later with my right arm numb and my bladder full. She was still clutching my hand. I softly spoke her name, and she blinked those big eyes open and was instantly alert, no trace of sleepiness in her face. She sat up to being talking rapidly in Russian.

I caught maybe one word in five, something about flying slowly, also something about energy beams that should have fascinated me, but my bladder was killing me. I motioned for one of the Secret Service agents to come over, telling him we needed a translator. Then I rose to stumble into the lavatory, trying to massage some life back into my arm at the same time.

When I came back, a very prim and proper-looking women in her forties was sitting on the opposite side of my seat. She and Neya were leaning across it, chatting rapidly. They paused and leaned back in their seats as I scooted in between them and sat down.

“My name is Anastasia,” the translator said by way of introduction. “You may call me Anna. Neya thanks you for keeping her company during the long flight.” She chuckled. “She says you have a very nice lap and soft hands and are very polite.”

“Any time,” I said, feeling flustered. “Tell her that just sitting next to her makes me feel thirty years younger.”

The translator repeated it, and Neya smiled even brighter as she spoke.

“I am happy,” Anna translated. “I live to serve and protect.” She paused to look at me. “Actually, Neya has used an antiquated Russian word that doesn’t translate perfectly these days. The serving part is more dominant than the protection, at least when that word was actually in common usage.”

I smiled, wondering how many degrees Anna had behind her name. Probably more than my single PhD. I couldn’t help but think of the corny phrases you see on the sides of some police cars: “To Serve and Protect.”

That made me wonder how they’d trained these girls. As weapons? Bound to their controllers, whoever they were? Doing their bidding. Or did Neya have free will? If so, how did they control her? Did the Russians have the equivalent of Kryptonite? Or was it all brainwashing?

The last made me think of Kerry and his team. They were undoubtedly having God knows what kind of discussions in that conference room with folks back in DC. The kind of discussions that likely involved Generals and Presidents. His team hadn’t listened to me on the way over and now they were tuning me out on the way back. I tried not to take it personally. They’d been overwhelmed by the unexpected reality of meeting extraterrestrial superhumans, not to mention the military threat they posed. But Americans can be so arrogant, especially when they are threatened. So sure of their military power.

The only person who seemed to have it together was Secretary Kerry himself. Unfortunately, his staff insulated him, and not in a positive way. They were so focused on not screwing anything up that they couldn’t actually decide on doing anything. It was a testament to how good, smart people can be ruined by an all-encompassing bureaucracy. Here they were, trying to decided what to do next, all the while ignoring the one expert on the subject, me, and the subject herself.

So much for politics complicated by a fucking bureaucracy. Same problem in all governments. I have no doubt that when the human race exits this realm, it will be due to some cataclysmic bureaucratic error. I didn’t want it to be this one. God knows the Americans and Russians have enough nukes to kill us all a hundred times over.

Chapter Four

Such were my worries as the sleek Boeing 757 bounced softly as we flew over the Baltic Sea. The engines began changing pitch frequently and abruptly in a way I’d never heard in a commercial airliner. Opening the window shade, I saw another plane startlingly close and just ahead and above us, trailing a boom. A tanker. We enduring another fifteen minutes of bouncing around before the pilot reported on the intercom that due to an air refueling problem, we would have to land at Lossiemouth RAF in the north of Scotland. Just long enough to gas up. Nobody was allowed to disembark.

Neya stared out the window like a girl on her first flight, oohing aahing as we descended over the water and then in a wide arc over the northern Scottish countryside. It was as if she hadn’t flown before, which seemed very strange given she possessed the impossible gift of unassisted flight. Clearly her handlers had kept her on a very short leash. That suggested that she might be very naive in other ways as well. If only I was fluent in Russian, damn it. Or her in English. There were things I’d have to ask very carefully while Kerry’s translator doing the talking.

“She’s admiring all the neat towns and homes and the tiny fields,” Anna said, breaking my train of thought. “She says it looks like something out of the Shire. Her favorite place of all.”

The Shire was a gracious description of the modern Scottish countryside — but at this height everything looks good. I really appreciated that she was a Tolkien fan — my favorite fantasy writer. My ex-wife had correctly observed that no one with a black heart could truly love Tolkein’s Middle Earth.

That thought brought me up hard. Why should I trust anything Neya said? She was a Russian soldier on a mission with unknown orders, likely from Lavrov or even Putin himself. Her innocent, child-like persona could just be an act. A common enough ploy with a young female agent working with older males. Twenty-percent of her DNA wasn’t even human. She’d been raised by the Russians, likely indoctrinated since birth.

Yet as I watched her looking out the window, her exotic red and blue costume reflecting the bright sunlight, she was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. It was hard to believe that she was plotting to rule the world, killing anyone in her way.

On the other hand, my brother Jim loved to say that beauty is the perfect disguise for evil, but I’d always figured that was because he’d fallen for the wrong women. Lost in confusing thoughts and worries, I was only vaguely aware of the plane banking left and right before settling into its final approach. There was the usual whine and clunk as the wheels came down. I turned back to the window, only to blasted deep into my seatback by a violent explosion, the shockwave hammering my chest so hard it briefly stopped my heart. The overhead compartments on our side of the plane exploded from the wall to crash into the other side of the plane. I saw bright light shining through ragged holes, and a scream of air howled through the tears. The big Boeing started shaking violently, yawing left and then strongly right, then skidding so hard that I had to hold on as it began to roll into a steep turn. I held on with a death grip as the floor kept tilting further and further until everything that wasn’t tied down began falling upward. We were going inverted!

Neya dove out of her seat and over the broken chairs in front of her, taking her torn seat belt with her. The Secret Service agents who’d been guarding the doorway were crawling around on the ceiling as she jammed her fingers into the frame of the rear exit door on the left side of the cabin, and ripped it completely out of its frame to toss it back into the lavatory entrance. The scream of air became a deafening roar as she dove out the opening.

My heart was in my throat as I looked out my window to see that the right engine and the outer half of the wing were gone. The engine pylon was trailing wires and tubes that sprayed burning fuel.

I held on with desperate strength, gritting my teeth in terror as an even louder shriek of tearing metal filled the cabin. The plane gave another huge shudder, and the roar of the good engine faded abruptly away. Startlingly, I saw the left engine and part of that wing pass by the open door, the engine spinning around wildly as the turbine still spun at full power. We were now upside down and very close to the ground and engineless. This was it!

A scream began to rise from deep inside my chest, only to be choked off when my seatbelt jerked painfully tight across my lap. A surge of blood rushed to my head as the upside down plane stopped so quickly that the damaged seats in front of me tore loose to crash into the forward bulkhead. I stared wide-eyed out the window to see that we were just above the trees and slowing rapidly.

I suddenly saw it all, like a movie playing in my head. Neya had torn the good left engine off the plane to de-power it before grabbing the strongest structure, probably the box section where the wing spars attached to the belly. She was now holding the full weight of a Boeing 757 with nothing but her bare hands. Sixty tons easily, even without the engines and parts of the wings. We came to a sudden stop, those amazing muscles of hers and her flight ability the only thing preventing a violent, flaming death.

The plane jerked and fell several times, with more metal rending each time, only to be caught again. We were over a road, with cars stopping and people running into the fields looking a bit crazed. I can only imagine what they thought with a flaming airliner hanging a few meters over their heads. Something tore again and this time we crashed down onto the roadway, the tail hitting first, the plane filling with a cacophony of loud bangs as it bent and broke. Then the front of the plane hit with a shuttering crash, bending the cabin in the middle as its back broke. We rolled slightly to the left before the wing dug into the ground and we stopped, hanging upside down in our seats.

I reacted without thinking, unbuckling my seat belt to fall onto the ceiling. I reached up to undo Anna’s belt, and she fell on top of me. We both struggled to climb through the open doorway, but a pile of broken seats were blocking it. There was a strong smell of jet fuel all around us. I called for Anna to follow me as I crawled forward to a wide tear in the fuselage where the plane’s back had broken. I dove through the tear to slide four meters down the fuselage to land on the macadam roadway. A stab of pain shot through my left leg when I tried to walk, but a few quick steps confirmed that nothing was broken. Anna slid down behind me to land on top of me, knocking me off my feet.

All around us, people were trying to climb out of the inverted Boeing, some falling from open doors to injure themselves – the emergency chutes hadn’t deployed, probably because we were upside down. Someone screamed FIRE, and everyone who was able began running away from the plane. I looked around for, Anna. She was just ahead of me, crawling away from the plane, her ankle badly broken. I ran toward her, only to feel the breath suck from my lungs as a huge whoosh of flame went up behind us. Before the heat could reach me, a strong hand grabbed the back of my belt and propelled me forward and away, tossing me over the bank of an irrigation canal like a stuffed toy. I splashed down into chest-deep water a half second before someone else landed beside me. I tried to stand up, only to have Neya lay on top of us, covering us with her red cape as she shoved us under, both of us spluttering. My face was pressed against the bottom of the canal when a violent wall of flame boiled over the embankment to burn across the top of the water. Falling debris splashed all around us, some of the pieces easily the size of a motorcycle. I felt Neya’s body jerk several times as she deflected large pieces of debris, each blow burying my face deeper in the mucky bottom.

I held my breath as long as I could, and then struggled to rise. Neya released me so I could surface under her wet cape. I could feel the heat of flames all around us. I gasped for air as the other man surfaced beside me. Turning, I found myself face-to-face with Secretary Kerry. We managed a few terrified breaths together before Neya plunged us back under the water.

That cycle continued a few more times before we were able to stay up and peek out from under her red cape. A tower of flames laced with black smoke billowed high overhead, mushroom cloud-like, but all the flames close to us had been extinguished. Cool air from the field was flowing down the canal and over us as it rushed in to feed the huge fire, the heat of which was thankfully blocked by the walls of the ditch now.

Neya gathered up her cape, wringing it out as she rose from the water until she could see over the bank. Her face was brightly lit by the flames, and her wet hair steamed violently from the intense heat. It was seriously hot up there.

“Any other survivors?” Kerry shouted up at her.

She shook her head, understanding at least that much English. She plopped down dejectedly into the muddy water. “All others die.”

“You speak English now?”

She nodded. “Always can. Not good though.”

“What the hell happened up there?” Kerry demanded.

“Missile,” she shrugged as if it was obvious.

“Christ!” Kerry groaned. “First an air refueling problem forces us to make an unscheduled landing, and then there’s someone waiting under the approach path with a shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missile? We trained this scenario and we still fell for it.”

I was impressed with Kerry’s quick assessment of the likely situation.The Americans are nothing if not thorough. Not that their homework had helped them today.

“This kind of attack takes careful planning, Mr. Secretary. No way someone put this together while we were en-route from Moscow.” I turned to Neya. “Could this be another of Lavrov’s demonstrations?”

“Not briefed,” she said, shaking her head. “But think Russians not do this.”

Kerry lowered his voice as he spoke to me. “I think we should stay dead for a bit. Whoever pulled this off, they’ll make sure to contain it. That means no survivors.”

Neya nodded as she slowly rose from the water, her legs muddy. Her cute ribboned dance shoes were still on the burning plane. Reaching out, she hugged us to her sides as she leaned forward to begin floating down the canal, flying just above the water. It was completely amazing to feel myself floating on air, my senses overwhelmed as we accelerated to breakneck speed. I marveled at the way her slender body worked against mine, sensuous muscles working as she constantly adjusted her flight, following the twists and turns of the canal, always below the bank top but just above the water. This was better than any dream, yet worse than any nightmare.

My heart was pounding painfully as the shimmer of sunlight on the water abruptly ended as we flew into shadow. Neya slowed so quickly that blood rushed to my head again, my vision briefly turning red. I blinked my as she dropped us both on top of the far bank, landing beside us with a gracefulness that said she’d done something like this many times.

Kerry’s face looked almost skeletal as we held onto each other, his eyes sunken. We were wet and shivering and covered with the stench of aviation kerosene and amazed to be alive. Yet the gaunt look on Kerry’s face said he was thinking about more than himself. His staff and crew were back there in the fire.

“It adds up to twenty-three,” he said flatly, counting under his breath. “The number of people on the plane besides ourselves. All dead.”

“But who? Why?” I started to ask, only to see Neya’s head jerk up. She stared over my head and into the distance, turning her head slowly from side to side as she listened to something. Moments later I heard it too. A chopper. The noise grew dramatically louder as it approached, rotor wash bending tree tops and sending leaves flying wildly as it hovered just above the canopy. A US Army Blackhawk moved into view through a break in the canopy. I waved, thinking only of rescue, but Kerry saw something I didn’t see and tackled me a half second before Neya threw herself over us, covering us with her cape. I felt her body jerk hard several times, but it took a moment for the sound of the powerful shots to reach my ears.

The rescue chopper was shooting at us?

My thoughts were still playing catchup as Neya rolled us both back down the bank. We’d barely hit the water when heavy caliber bullets began raking the tops of both banks, tearing the trees lining it into shreds.

“Heavy machine gun. Probably 50cal,” Kerry shouted over the roar of the chopper.

We lay helplessly in the shallow water, lifting our heads only when we needed to breathe, gawking as Neya rose well above and behind us, her arms spread, revealing the ’S’ on her chest as she taunted the shooters with a target they couldn’t miss.

A burst of heavy bullets obliged her, each impact spinning her around in mid-air, arms and legs flying wildly, her hair a tangled mess. The automatic gunfire grew so intense that she was driven against the bank behind us and half buried in the mud. She struggled to rise on one knee, shaking her head as if dazed, but another burst of huge bullets tore what was left of her red and blue costume into confetti.

She clenched her fists as she turned to face the shooters bare-chested, her slender arms and shoulders insanely defined, muscles flexing harder than seemed possible given her tiny build. She leaped upward, flying directly toward the door gunner. He kept firing his .50cal at her while the gunner on a second chopper opened up with a Gatling gun. The mind-numbing silk-tearing roar of the minigun washed all other sounds from the air, briefly drowning out even the turbine whine and rotor slap of the choppers. Hundreds of metal-jacketed 7.62mm rounds hit Neya like a stream of liquid fire, bouncing off her like lava erupting from some volcano, most of the ricochets zinging away into the woods, a few sizzling into the water around us.

Both gunners continued to pour fire into her as she slowly closed on the first chopper, swimming chest first directly into a continuous stream of .50cal fire. The minigun stopped firing for fear of hitting the first chopper as Neya closed to point blank range. Then the inevitable happened – a ricochet from her chest came straight back to tear half the gunner’s head away. I literally saw his head explode, a cloud of red mist filling the chopper.

Relief fought with horror only to be trumped by a strange sense of pride. These soldiers were trying to kill us, yet they were dying from their own gunfire. I raised my fist and screamed “That’s Karma baby!”, completely out of my fucking mind now.

Neya took advantage of the break in the firing to grab the first chopper’s landing skid and began spinning the whirling, whining Blackhawk around, faster and faster. The pilot had no control as she literally threw his chopper upside down into the woods where it crashed through the tree tops, rotor chopping everything to kindling until it landed land with a thunderous boom and a flash of flame.

Yet instead of smiling triumphantly, she looked a little sad. Like someone who’d just put down their dying dog. She might be a soldier, but she clearly didn’t enjoy killing. I started to wave at her to let her know that we were OK, only to see a streak of fire lance down from the right to explode violently against her back. Her little body disappeared in a ball of flaming shrapnel.

“Hellfire!” Kerry screamed as he dove into the water again. I remained standing despite the shrapnel that was zinging and splashing all around me, unable to tear my eyes from Neya. She was spinning and tumbling around in mid-air after the blast, seemingly dazed, her skin glowing with fire, unable to get her bearings, her hair covering her face. I screamed at her as another Hellfire flashed over my head to plow into her mid-section, the explosion blasting her deeply back into the trees. A heavy machine gun on a third chopper began firing into those same trees, this one definitely bigger than the 50cal, each cannon round tearing trees to splinters near where she’d fallen. I couldn’t see her over the high bank, but I could see an Apache gunship behind me, firing its 30mm chain gun over my head, the sound deafening me. That Apache unleashed yet another Hellfire, but instead of a sharp explosion, this one created a blinding fireball that mowed down trees for a fifty meters in all directions. A thermobaric warhead!

I dove for the bottom of the canal. I’ve been in combat before, Iraq in the 90’s to be specific, but I’d never been on the receiving end of this kind of advanced weaponry. I held my breath five feet under the water as I realized with a shock that the shooters weren’t going to let up, not even after hitting her uncounted times.

That could mean only one thing: they knew exactly what or who Neya was. The choppers looked American, but why were US soldiers trying to kill their own Secretary of State?

The fireball of the fuel/air warhead dissipated rapidly, allowing me to lift my head and climb carefully up the side of the bank. I was lying on my belly when the Apache resumed firing its 30mm chain gun nearly overhead, the heavy shell casings raining down around me. I wrapped my arms over my head as I saw Neya reappear from the trees, rising several hundred feet in the air now. Her clothing was completely gone as she flew upward and away, drawing the fire away from us. All the while, cannon rounds were exploding against her naked body, each explosion spinning her around wildly. A long burst blew her legs open, yet somehow she kept flying.

That’s when the Apache’s chain gun either jammed or ran out of ammo. Neya took a few seconds to clear her head to steady herself, and then flew directly toward the gunship, flying over my head so fast that her supersonic shock wave flattened my clothing against my body and knocked the wind from me. I twisted my head around just in time to see her tear the main rotor off the Apache gunship. The chopper dropped out of sight into the woods. Thankfully, there was no explosion this time.

Spinning in mid-air, she launched herself at the third chopper, a Blackhawk, and smashed headfirst through the windscreen to fly all the way through the chopper to explode from the backside. The Blackhawk exploded into a fireball that rained hot metal into the woods. I should have been horrified at the growing death toll, but these were undoubtedly the same soldiers who’d brought down Kerry’s plane, killing dozens.

Kerry rose from the water beside me, the same realization on his face. I didn’t see sadness or elation in his expression, just simple rage. His own soldiers were trying to kill us.

Neya reappeared over our heads as if by magic, and after a quick scan of the horizon she dropped down to land between Kerry and me. The only trace left of her costume was the yellow waistband of her skirt. Yet strangely, she didn’t look naked, as strange as that sounds. Her small body was so firm that she looked just right walking around in her bare skin.

“More helos coming,” she declared. “Two from south. One north.”

“We need to head deeper into the woods,” Kerry barked. “Let the bastards think we’re dead.”

She nodded. “So you know. Not Russians shooting. Americans. You go. I buy time.”

“Our people?” Kerry gasped. “Are you sure.”

Neya nodded.

Kerry tried to ask her more questions, but I grabbed his arm and hauled him up out of the canal and into the woods, both of us trying to run while looking back over our shoulders. Three Apaches were converging on Neya as she rose high above the tree tops, once again making herself a target to keep us safe.

These gunners knew their trade. They triangulated her as they flew at varying altitudes to ensure each one had a free field of fire. The air was filled with the screaming roar of miniguns, the flash bang of Hellfires, and the slower hammering of chain guns, all targeted at one girl.

Despite the danger, Kerry and I both stopped to stare in awe, astounded at the incredible volume of firepower they were pouring into her, each impact exploding against her skin. It looked like a fireworks finale, except that the explosions and flying shrapnel were ripping apart the forest beneath her, igniting the trees.

She was clearly buying us time to run, but we weren’t running. She frantically waved us away, but my feet seemed glued to the ground. Given we weren’t moving, she turned in frustration to stare pointedly at one gunship, and two dazzling beams flashed from her eyes to cut the Apache neatly in half, the glare so intense that I was left seeing spots. I watched in horror as the flaming halves of the gunship crashed into the trees to explode. Two more men dead.

The other two choppers both fired their Hellfires at the same time, their high-explosive warheads slicing the tops off trees for fifty meters in every direction as they exploded against her skin, the explosions sending her tumbling backward. Yet another Apache arrived to replace the downed one, and fired its 30mm chain gun at her, scoring more hits, her body jerking horribly with every one. She tried to stare that gunship down as well, but the blinding beams from her eyes flashed around wildly as her body jerked from the shell impacts. The pilots were smart enough to spin around and dive low and away before being tagged by the beams. Neya steadied herself enough to squint at a point just in front of one escaping gunship, the brilliant beams making it clear she could have shot it down.

Astoundingly, despite all the military ordnance expended, and the extreme bravery of the crews in facing such a superhuman target, one thing was clear: Neya had won. Easily. Memories of her soft, warm skin washed over me as I watched her soaking up unbelievable punishment. How could something that soft and feminine be so unhurtable?

Kerry grabbed my arm, breaking me free of my thoughts. “We have to disappear Professor. Now. Some serious hurt is coming our way.”

I followed his pointing finger to see two A10 warthogs coming at us, flying just above the trees. I’d seen videos of their 30mm Gatling gun firing – it was devastating beyond imagination. Its rotating seven-barreled gun used a far more powerful type of 30mm ammo than what the Apache’s had been firing, as well as firing seven times faster. A10 bullets were made of depleted uranium that could blast through tank armor.

I didn’t want to take my eyes from Neya, but I knew Kerry was right. This was a killing field. She was the only one who could possibly survive here.

We both turned and ran for all we were worth, racing deeper into the woods as the mind-boggling roar of the A10’s huge guns came from just overhead, the sound and muzzle blast knocking us off our feet. Flashes of unholy light lit the forest floor, making Kerry’s tortured face look ghastly. Not only were his friends and staff dead, but now more soldiers were dying. American soldiers.

“This is what happens when you tell Washington that the aliens have landed and they work for the Russians,” I said angrily.

“I said no such thing,” Kerry panted, shaking his head. “We were still processing what we’d seen. I told the President only that the Russians have an extraordinary new weapon, and that we were bringing an example back with us for demonstration and testing purposes.”

“Weapon? You didn’t describe Neya? Or anything about a campus full of little super girls?”

Kerry cringed. “That sounds crazy even now. No, we decided it would be better for them to see what we saw with their own eyes. No one’s going to believe this without evidence.”

“Exactly what I’ve been saying for months. Yet even on the way over here, and after the demo, your staff treated me as if I was a nut case.”

“They were out of their depth, Professor.”

I wasn’t going to argue that. Looking up, I caught glimpses of Neya hovering in air as the second A10 came at her. Her eyes flashed at the same moment that its giant cannon fired, but her beams got to the A10 first. Speed of light and all. The A10 exploded into a fireball just before Neya was blasted from the air by a swarm of uranium rounds.

All that ordnance, uselessly aimed at one little girl. All those lives lost. For what? Surely they knew by now that they weren’t going to kill her. And that’s when it hit me.

“Wait a minute, Mr. Secretary. If you didn’t tell them about this, don’t you find it strange that they’ve shot Neya hundreds of times with heavy machine fire, not to mention blowing her up with Hellfires. She’s taken them all down, yet they’re still throwing more at her. Now the A10’s.”

I saw it click in his head. Except he jumped one step further than me. “They don’t expect to stop her. They never did. They’re just buying time for a heavier weapon. But what could stop her?”

We both remembered Lavrov’s comment about nukes at the same time. We turned and ran deeper into the woods. If we were guessing right — which seemed impossible — then running wasn’t going to help. But we had to try.

We’d barely run a hundred meters before the crude trail in front of us rose slightly to emerge onto a grassy rise. In the center of that rise was a circle of tall, flat stones, arranged in a odd pattern. I felt drawn to them, despite the fact that they were open to the sky. The trees might look safe, but they provided no protection against our fears. We ran up the rise together, entering the ring of tall stones to look upward.

“If it’s going to happen, its going to happen now,” Kerry said grimly.

As if on cue, three brilliantly glowing objects appeared overhead, blazing like meteorites, yet slower. Still, faster than any aircraft. I’d never seen a re-entry vehicle before, but I knew instantly that’s what these were.

We both turned to dive behind the stones, looking for any kind of shelter, only to find ourselves facing a tiny, hobbit-sized woman standing in the center. She was easily a foot shorter than even Neya.

“Yuh don’t have the time for any o t’at,” she said in a Scottish accent.

She extended her arms and began singing, her voice rising with incredible power until it resonated between the stones. Her voice grew so painfully loud that it blasted all thought from my mind, my vision fading. I felt something crash into me, and then the ground opened up and I fell. Looking up as if from in a deep well, I saw three new suns appear, their blinding white light devouring everything. I continued to fall into blackness, the well seemingly bottomless. Butterflies filled my stomach as everything faded to black.

So this is what it’s like to die.

The next thing I knew, I was lying on my back, gasping for air as the wind had been knocked out of me. I blinked my eyes, surprised to find it was night. I must have fallen for hours. I felt moist grass under my hands. Overhead, the Milky Way spread across a brilliant sky, the stars brighter and denser than I had ever seen before, and seemingly close enough to touch. The night air smelled wonderfully fresh and fragrant as it flowed gently over me.

Lifting my head, I saw Neya lying at my feet, unconscious but seemingly unharmed. Looking further around, I found I was lying in the middle of that same circle of uplifted stones. That tiny, ancient hobbit-like woman was there too, softly chanting something that sounded Gaelic. All around the stones, I saw trees crowding in that were much taller and thicker than they’d been only moments before. They looked like the fathers of trees, uncut since the dawn of time.

And then I remembered the three suns that had lit the sky as we fell. I had no doubt they were detonating nuclear warheads. And we’d been in the center of them.

So this is the afterlife?

I should have been terrified — obviously nothing could survive that close of a detonation, let alone three of them — but strangely I wasn’t.

Somehow, everything seemed just right.

Part One – Epilogue

Phones were ringing constantly and red lights were flashing as President Obama walked briskly into the White House Situation Room. Those red lights had never flashed except during tests since they were installed back in the 1960’s.

General Chambers stood with a phone pressed to each ear. When he saw the President arriving, he quickly hung up. His face was grey.

The President didn’t look much better. He’d just been told that Secretary Kerry’s plane had crashed and burned on approach in Scotland. No survivors were expected.

“Mr. President, we’ve just detected three nuclear detonations near Lossiemouth RAF base in northern Scotland, all very close together. Same general location where Secretary Kerry’s plane went down. NORAD claims it was a single ICBM with a three warhead MIRV. We can expect massive casualties from the towns around there, the airbase as well.” He paused, taking a deep, shuddering breath before continuing. “Secretary Kerry’s aircraft, along with many first responders, both ours and the Brits, were at ground zero.”

“Whose?” Obama asked, his face grim. This was the moment that every president had feared, but none before him had faced.

General Chambers looked at the Chief of Staff, and then back at the President, a stricken look on his face. “Based on preliminary trajectory data, re-entry vehicles and nuclear burst characteristics …” he paused, swallowing hard, struggling to go on.

“Don’t keep me in suspense here, General. Just don’t let it be Iran, damn it.”

Chambers stood straight, his face drained of color. “Mr. President. This is going to be very difficult. For all of us. You see … they were ours.”

To be continued in Part 2 …

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