Jeff Budoff, MD is a Board Certified Orthopedic Surgeon specializing in the upper extremity. He has edited 8 textbooks on orthopedic upper extremity surgery, written 47 peer-reviewed papers, authored 24 book chapters, and published 99 online articles as an injury analyst for Rotoviz, a fantasy football website. This is his first work of fiction. He lives in Houston, TX with his wife and 4 children.
The man in black fled across the desert and the gunslinger followed. Nope. Total Stephen King rip-off. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Negative. Everyone knows that’s Charles Dickens. OK, I obviously have no idea how to start a story, so I’ll just begin at the beginning. # I’m mostly human. In fact, 87.6% of me is human, as far as I’ve been told. The other 12.4% is pure mountain lion. I imagine I was born in a test tube, or something like it. Created, really. Using the newest gene-splicing technology and all that. I look human. A big human, but still very human. 6’6”, 280 pounds. A little hairier than most, but nothing terrible. My birth name is 7-1537. But it’s not tattooed into the back of my neck, like Hitman. And even if it were, you’d probably have to shave me down to see it. My colleagues call me Sev, after the number that my name starts and ends with. That’s my batch number followed by my individual number. I’m not sure how they calculated it. No way there were over 15,000 in my batch. Not even close. My various passports and other false identifications have a multitude of other, different names. But I think of myself as Sev. I don’t have any other real name. In my mind, I made up my last name for myself. Coogerman. Like “Cougar” (another word for Felis concolor, also known as mountain lions or pumas) + “man”, which is still technically most of what I am. For whatever reason, most hybrids tend to be physically attractive. Something about being created from very different genetic pools that drown out the negative recessive genes. Whatever. I’m no geneticist. But I’m also no exception to that rule. Which is nice, because I’ve always enjoyed “tom-catting” around. Get it? Trust me: I’ve heard all of the cat puns, and have no compunction about inflicting them on others. Turnabout’s fair play. And, hey, everybody needs a hobby. Right? I’m stronger and faster than normal humans. Much. My nails are sharper and thicker, like mini-claws. My teeth are sharper and my jaw stronger. I can climb. I’d love to say that when I fall, I always land on my feet, but that’s a stretch. I haven’t tested the nine lives theory yet, and am trying to avoid proving it, one way or the other. And, like most cats, I have an attitude problem. You may have noticed. Don’t worry if you haven’t. It’s going to be hard to miss. I especially have problems with authority. Which is ironic, as it was the army that cooked me up for their Special Forces. Well, the jokes on them, because I don’t “play well with others”. Getting my “colleagues” and me to work well together is like, wait for it… herding cats. See what I did there? And no, I don’t hack up fur balls. A marine I was doing combined ops training with asked me if I did. Funny guy. He asked all his other funny questions over next six weeks through a wired jaw. So I almost always work solo. Forests and jungles are my preferred mission environment. As you can imagine, I’m a helluva climber. The more trees around, the better. So here I am somewhere deep in a Russian forest hunting my prey: mercenaries, Russian-military trained. I move silently. What else would you expect from someone who’s part predatory cat? If my enemies are close, I keep to the trees tops to stay hidden, even at night. My natural night vision is exceptional, but not quite as good as the night vision goggles Uncle Sam gave me. I’ve been stalking two soldiers. Once above them, I secure my night vision goggles to avoid damaging them before jumping down thirty feet. Did I land on my feet? Unclear. But I landed on one of their heads, so it doesn’t really matter. One down for the count. The other took a short second to react. Too long. I didn’t even need to use my weapon. One long leap and I was on him. My left claws (OK, just thick, sharp nails, really, but humor me and go with it) pierced the back of his neck and pulled him in. I ripped his throat open with my teeth. Salty, warm, sticky wet. Strangely satisfying in a very visceral way, but definitely messy. I decided to spare myself a second faceful of blood and used my combat knife to finish off his unconscious friend. # With the patrol out of the way I could proceed to my prime objective. The Soviets had kidnapped an American geneticist who was vacationing, Lord knows why, at a Baltic Sea resort. I guess he never heard of Hawaii or the Bahamas. I couldn’t imagine that a Russian cell would be a significant downgrade from his hotel accommodations, but the US military was very concerned that he would be forced to work on modernizing Soviet biological weapons systems. Which is where I came in. Fight fire with fire, and all of that. It seems they’d managed to kill his wife in the kidnapping. Clumsy. And, along with the good doctor, the Soviets had also kidnapped his children, Candice and Robert, ages ten and eight years, respectively – probably to be used as leverage to keep him appropriately motivated and focused. Which pissed me off even more than being sent half-way across the world into hostile territory. I’ve got a real soft spot in my heart for children. Always have. And I don’t approve of them being used as pawns in geopolitical/military/”who’s got the biggest dick” games. Suffice it to say, kidnapping, threatening, scaring, messing with, or otherwise being not-so-nice to children makes me even angrier than most of the atrocities I’m dispatched to “address”. Or “terminate with extreme prejudice”, if you want to get the official terminology correct. My current mission seemed pretty straightforward. Of course, most of them start that way. How they eventually end up is usually completely another matter. # Daniel Pudovlak was a second-generation American, whose wealthy extended family hailed from Western Russia. Suffice it to say he was an important geneticist involved in creating creatures such as me. For all I knew, he was my surrogate “father”. He had taken his family, wife and two children, to vacation with his cousins by the Baltic. Obviously, the government didn’t let him go into Russia. That would be nuts. Russia was starting its own genetic hybrid program and letting one of our top scientists walk through their front door was too dumb for even our military to consider. Dr. Pudovlak had met up with his family in Vienna. And that’s where he went radio silent. And where the subcutaneous GPS transmitter implanted in him for just such an emergency stopped transmitting. And where his wife’s body was found. It had taken nearly a year for our spies to locate him. No one I knew was shocked when he turned up in Soviet-controlled territory. But no one considered it acceptable either. Which is why they called me. There was no chance that the US was going to send special forces into Soviet territory for a covert “snatch and grab” operation. Not a risk/reward ratio our decision makers were comfortable with. And apparently James Bond wasn’t available on loan from the British this week. So they got stuck with me. The same cliché’d rules of operation applied that you’ve seen in every movie. If captured, the US will deny any relationship to me, any knowledge of my existence; I’m on my own, yada yada yada. Of course, the thought that a well-armed genetic hybrid attempting to steal back an American scientist kidnapped by the Soviets wasn’t really from an agency of the United States military strained the boundaries of credibility. But this didn’t seem to faze our government’s fearless leaders at all. Yet another example of US military genius in action. Mission priorities were clear: Pudovlak was the primary objective. Getting him back alive was preferable, but making sure that the Soviets couldn’t benefit from him any longer was also considered acceptable by my commanding officers. Nice guys, huh? My so-called superiors, Colonel Rout among them, considered rescuing his children secondary. I’d memorized everyone’s photographs so I could recognize them on sight. I liked Pudovlak’s children immediately - very cute, great smilers. Reference my aforementioned affection for children and my issues with authority, and it’s easy to see that I didn’t consider Candice or Robert secondary at all. Wouldn’t be the first time I’d called an audible in the middle of battle, and no one had court-martialed me yet. But there was still time. My other objective was the destruction of the biologic/genetic labs that Dr. Pudovlak was being forced to work in. Colonel Rout, my commanding officer/boss/pain-in-the-butt hard-ass, wanted the head cut off of the snake, and then the snake burned to a crisp. It was hard to argue. Uncle Sam didn’t want litters (if you will) of Soviet Sevs running around killing our soldiers. Oh, and by the way, if you haven’t gotten the hint, my boss, Colonel Rout, and I don’t like each other. At all. In my opinion, he started it. Something about my attitude and occasional forgetfulness when it comes to mission priorities, secondary objectives and obeying orders. Well, what did he expect when he was working with a jungle cat? Perhaps I should try to put him in touch with Siegfried and Roy to discuss their experience. Was he correct in his assessment of my service? Yes. Did he have a valid point? Absolutely. Could I fault his logic in any way? No. But that still didn’t mean that I couldn’t hate his guts for his not infrequent ass-chewings. Still, the higher-ups in the US Army were not to be messed with. The Green Machine had rolled over more people than I cared to think about. I thought it was clever that I pointed out that I had never enlisted and that there was currently no draft. I had simply been born into the US Army. Was that even legal? And what if I didn’t complete my missions? Would he just give me a dishonorable discharge and let me out on the streets? Or would the army expediently discharge me in a “more permanent” manner - with extreme prejudice. How I was taught to handle things. The way his eyes bored into me when he told me that “legally” I didn’t exist answered that question as far as I was concerned. And I didn’t think that was a good time to ask about my retirement benefits.
A major challenge of this mission was that there had been no way to communicate with the Pudovlaks to let them know to expect me. I’m sure that Dr. Pudovlak had been expecting a rescue attempt and had informed his children that the Americans wouldn’t leave them in captivity long, but a year is a long, long time when you’re a prisoner behind enemy lines. And hope can be a fragile thing. I only hoped that they’d be ready to move quickly when the time came. I didn’t see myself successfully dragging a family of three sloths through a forest while evading the Soviet military. And we needed to get across the Hungarian border for extraction. My plan was simple: Rescue the Pudovlaks, blow up the lab, steal a military vehicle for the 200-plus mile journey, and be across the border within a few hours, before anyone realized they were gone. OK, maybe not that simple. But compared to the cluster-fucks I’m usually blessed with, this at least had an understandable sequence to it. Obviously, this plan required moving only at night. Night was also when the three of them had the best chance of being together. And no way was I going to be able to snatch Pudovlak from his probably maximum-security military workplace during daylight hours. It was a given that the lab would have significant security. I’d brought enough food to hunker down and reconnaissance for days. Not to mention that I’m a natural hunter and, as you can probably understand, I don’t mind eating my kill (ie. food) raw. Reconnaissance is, in my humble opinion, a prolonged, non-stop, serious pain in the ass. You can’t build a fire to keep warm. You can’t stretch out or find a comfortable position. You can’t roll over onto your back and catch a few z’s. You have to lay prone, face glued to your infra-red (i.e., night vision) binoculars, and try not to nod off. “Stay frosty,” I believe the expression is. Personally, I’d rather curl up on a windowsill under the sunshine, but that’s not why they pay me the “big bucks”. LOL. Probably works out to pennies an hour, but then again, the army’s never been a big tipper. Uncle Sam seems to turn into Uncle Scrooge when it comes to the rank and file. The housing complex I was watching was obviously military in nature. The twelve-foot-high, razor-wire-topped, electrified fence marking the perimeter strongly was definitely not there to keep the rabbits out of any gardens. The usual rows of short, squat concrete houses with the typical no-frills spartan look were signature Soviet construction. Clearly any interior decorators need not apply. Satellite intelligence had confirmed which one belonged to the Pudovlaks. After 22:00 local time I saw a man in a disheveled lab coat that had to be Daniel Pudovlak returning home under guard by two soldiers. Satellite infra-red scanners had identified two smaller individuals inside his ‘house’. These were almost certainly his two children. The shades were drawn and black-out protocol was in effect, so there wasn’t much to see. I noted the location of the guards and the timing and pattern of the patrols. At 02:00, after nothing had happened for over two hours, I called it a day, climbed a tree and fell asleep on a thick branch. During the day I laid low. To avoid detection, I maintained strict radio silence. So, after consuming a few MREs (meals ready to eat), with nothing better to do I took a cat nap. Pun intended. I spent the next night reconnoitering the lab. Satellite surveillance had confirmed that there was only one lab, and determined which building it was. Surprise! It was the biggest, most modern building in the complex. I think I could’ve figured that out without putting a celestial body in geosynchronous orbit, but better safe than sorry. The army makes sure it plays with its big toys to avoid getting one-upped by the other branches on the next round of budget allocations. I swear, that if the US Army, Navy and Airforce spent even half the time plotting against hostile militaries as they did against each other, there’d be no enemy nations left. Scouting the genetic lab where Pudovlak made his magic was a lot tougher than reconnoitering his “house”. It was centrally located within the compounds, with no trees anywhere near it. Cameras all over. The sentries wouldn’t be an issue, as I had ample experience in disposing of hostile patrols. But there was no way to avoid the cameras to set my explosive charges. That’s OK; I’d seen this movie before. Cameras don’t watch people. People watch people. I needed to take out the security monitoring station first. Then I could get to the lab without eliciting an overwhelming hostile response. This would also limit the back-up that any random patrol I ran into could call for. Kind of an ABC, paint-by-numbers attack plan. Dora the Explorer would be proud. So, the third night I reconnoitered the security/guard station. No cameras there, as there was no reason to have the guards watch themselves. The camp designers must have thought, “Who’d be dumb enough to attack a security station where there are many, alert, heavily armed, trained soldiers stationed?” Uh, that’d be me. Thanks. I invested a few hours before dawn surveying the motor pool, mapping out the positions of the guards, timing the patrols (every 9.5 minutes, in case you’re interested), and choosing which vehicle I would “borrow”. I had a surprisingly nice selection of semi-armored military vehicles with off-road capability. # I stared at the guard station all night. It was probably just a waste of time, but I’d been trained to put in a lot of time observing and planning before executing any plan to minimize unpleasant surprises. I’d cut corners a couple of times early in my career, and that had nearly cost me my mission and my life. No, thanks; I’ll stay bored, well-prepared and above ground. But eventually my mind wandered. For not the first time, I wondered what would become of the hybrid “race” once we became more numerous. Would humans fear and loathe us like the mutant heroes from the X-Men movies? Or would we blend in? I looked very human. Big and somewhat hairy, but not that different from many NFL linemen you’ve see on TV. Would hybrids be allowed to play professional sports? I’d make a helluva tight end; too fast for most to cover, too big and strong to bring down with the ball in my hands. I wondered if the army would consider letting me play in the NFL for a few seasons. Not likely. Especially as the entire hybrid project was top secret. Maybe I could become a professional wrestler and just wear a mask on my face in public. And shave myself down, of course. Hey, I could get a killer endorsement deal with Gillette: If they can shave me, they can shave anyone. Cool daydreams, but I couldn’t really foresee the army letting me go while I was still young enough for that. If they ever let me go at all. I’d think about these sorts of things during my down time, when there wasn’t much to do, except remain hidden. True to my philosophy of patient over-preparation, I waited for the fourth night before making my move. This was when things started to get dangerous. I was trained to operate behind enemy lines. Born for it, if we’re being honest. OK, “created” for it, if you really want to pick nits. Why mince words? But now I’d be babysitting three civilians. Also behind enemy lines. And the daddy was a VIP. Not someone that the Soviets wouldn’t come after. Hard. I wondered if I could get one of my alleged nine lives to go. The assumption was that the doctor and his kids would be eager to be rescued, but there was sometimes this annoying discrepancy between theory and practice. Sometimes, the “Stockholm Syndrome” set in, wherein the hostages/prisoners started identifying with or idolizing their captors. Sometimes (often?), they’d be brainwashed into believing that the United States was evil, and they became enthusiastic about working against us. So there was always this unknown factor to consider when making contact. Contact would have to be made in their home. Once outside or in the lab the doctor was under constant guard. There was really no other place. But I couldn’t really just walk up and ring his doorbell at home; his front door, his entire house, and this entire complex were constantly being watched. Cameras and bugs kept his entire house under surveillance. The Soviets may have even implanted a GPS locator under his skin. I mentally rehearsed the sequence I’d come up with again: Take out the guard station, put C4 explosive charges with radio-receiver detonators on the lab building, grab the Pudovlaks, steal a vehicle and make for the border. Easy-peasy, nacho-cheesy. I mean, what could happen? As military missions went, this was a simple plan. I’d heard of that movie, A Simple Plan, but I’d never seen it. But I knew enough to know the title was ironic. In combat and other extreme situations, the irony of “simple”, and the way that “simple” rapidly dissolves into “nearly fucking impossible,” tends to be the rule, not the exception. Which is why experience, adaptability and cat-like reflexes (Yep! I’m at it again) are so valuable. # Flashback time. It’s hard for me to stay focused night after long night. I’m disciplined, so I stay alert, but I’m also bored out of my mind. No matter. Like all animals, my eyes respond naturally to movement. But just staying still watching (i.e., “performing reconnaissance”) wasn’t natural to me. The predatory feline in me wanted to stalk and pounce. I mean, let’s face it: If you wanted to cross a human with an animal to create a being that could remain motionless and watch nothing move for hours at a time, you wouldn’t pick a large jungle cat. That blend wouldn’t even crack the top twenty. If I had to pick a favorite philosopher, it’d have to be Popeye. In the immortal words of that great poet, “I am what I am.” Truer words have never been spoken. And it’s really hard to argue with that logic. It’s air-tight. Can’t find a flaw in it. Sometimes when I space out, I’ll dream of a normal life. Well, maybe not a normal life, but that of a human superstar: An uber-athlete, family man, all of that. Other times, like now, I’ll start down that daydream road, then remember that it could never be. I thought of the man who brought it all home for me so succinctly. I remembered holding him up against a wall, my left hand on his throat, his feet flailing for purchase three feet off the ground. I remember staring up at him, feeling my teeth bared as the words, “Don’t kill him, don’t kill him, don’t kill him, don’t kill him” flashed in my mind. My right hand was balled into a painfully tight fist that ached to be launched into the flesh and bone of his face. Our mixed special forces group had been together for nearly a month, training hard, but also hanging out afterwards during whatever downtime we were given. Once or twice we even had time to get a beer. Everything was going so well. No interpersonal issues. No internal conflict. It was great. And not such a common experience for yours truly. Until a few weeks in, when, after a few drinks, or maybe more than a few, this Delta Force guy started to call me “Pinocchio.” At first, I didn’t think anything of it. Neither of us was perfectly sober, and silly stuff can be said. No biggie. His mistake was persisting. So, after he’d called me that name three or four times, I asked why. We had just returned from three day/two night training mission, tired and hungry. Maybe that’s why I was irritable. Maybe that’s just me. Maybe he was too tired and the inhibitory circuits in his brain, his self-preservation instincts, were too sluggish to kick in on time. Whatever the reason, it didn’t end well for either of us. He looked me right in the eye and told me that I was just like Pinocchio: “I want to be a real boy,” he mocked. I’ve read that the barbs that hurt the worst are the ones that are truest. And while he probably did me a favor pointing out this aspect of my psychology to me, I didn’t do him any favors either, aside from the broken cheekbone and a partially crushed windpipe. It almost cost him more. I was more than a little upset. I was truly struggling to control myself before I committed a worse offense, one that neither of us might recover from. “Stand down soldier,” I heard from behind me. Followed by the unmistakable click of a pistol being racked. I knew that voice only too well. I turned my head and looked back over my shoulder. Yep, Colonel Rout. “Put him down Sev or I’ll put two in the back of your head.” He was serious. Not much of a sense of humor, that Colonel. And you think that you’ve had some rough performance reviews. Good times. The days in the camp’s prison that followed gave me time to reflect and realize that the Delta Force soldier was right. A few more days staring at the four walls of my cell and I realized that it simply didn’t matter. There was nothing I could do about how I was made. Considering how I came into existence, it was probably simply the price I had to pay for being born. It is what it is. And that’s how it is. During that extended period of alone time I made up my mind not to feel sorry for myself ever again regarding this; there were plenty of people I’d encountered on my missions who had it far worse than me. I was born to be mentally tough, I had been trained to be mentally tough, and I wasn’t going to throw a pity party for myself or lose control over this issue again.
Back to my present reality. I waited until the darkness was full, then got moving. The time for watching was over; the time for the mission had come. It was going to be a busy night, and I didn’t have any time to dillydally, as one of my trainers used to say. With a running start and a sturdy bough I’d collected from one of the forest’s trees, I pole-vaulted the twelve-foot electrified fence surrounding the compound. Don’t try this at home, kids. Avoiding the searchlights, I moved into position close to the security/guard station and stowed my night-vision goggles to avoid damaging them. I would have to rely on my natural night vision. With searchlights randomly crossing the compound, my night vision goggles could “wash out,” blinding me at an inopportune moment. One of my favorite poetry lines is “The fog comes on little cat feet.” And so did I. I bet Carl Sandburg wrote that line just for me. Or maybe not. Regardless, the guards outside the station were in pairs but it didn’t really matter. Years of boredom and uneventful shifts will dull all except the most disciplined of soldiers. Which these obviously weren’t. I waited until they were both facing the same way or were busy talking to each other, and then I silently but quickly moved up behind them. A quick knife to the first guard’s throat, then grabbing and crushing the second’s windpipe before he could scream was my standard modus operandi. As John Candy once said, “If something works for me, I stick with it.” And I stuck with it to dispatch all three pairs of guards. There were no more guards outside close enough to the small security building to hear my suppressed gunfire. I waited outside its locked door until it opened and two Soviet soldiers rushed out. I shot them in the back as they rushed past me, then spun through the doorway with my rifle on full automatic and made quick work of the guards inside. I sealed the deal with headshots for each. No reason to risk anyone being able to get on their radio. Next stop: the lab. With no one left to watch the camera monitors, I approached the large building, taking out two additional pairs of patrolling guards on the way. Same strategy. Rinse and repeat. I enjoyed the advantage of seeing and hearing my targets long before they could detect me. I left the pair of guards by the lab’s main door for last. Then I played a variation on my usual theme. I didn’t crush the final guard’s trachea; I just held it in my left hand. His terrified eyes stared up at me; he got the idea. “Hands up. Open the door,” I commanded him in the limited Russian I’d been taught. “If you do, I’ll leave you alive. If not…” My grip tightened on his windpipe. Despite the cool night he was sweating profusely. “I’m going to relax my grip.” I exchanged the knife in my right hand for my silenced pistol. “Do not scream. Open the door. No sudden moves. Nod if you understand.” He nodded. Diplomacy at its finest. Why my commander wanted me to go inside the lab, I’m not sure. It would be easier to simply set the charges on its outer walls. Maybe there was concern that there were inner rooms where the goodies were located that might survive a purely exterior blast. Or maybe my “superior officers” simply wanted visual confirmation of our satellite intel. Trust but verify? I guess if it was good enough for Clinton, it’d have to be good enough for us. Apparently our satellite imaging, or whatever source we’d used, had shown that the walls wouldn’t interfere with the radiofrequency explosive trigger. And an added benefit of placing the C4 inside would be that it wouldn’t be spotted by a random patrol. Of course, there were plenty of bodies that I’d dragged into the shadows around the lab that were a not-so-subtle hint of my presence, but I’ll take any small advantage I can get. The guard opened the door. From my reconnaissance, I knew there’d be no guards inside, but I stayed behind him, gun barrel against his back just in case. No reason to take chances. “Turn on the lights.” After he obeyed, I zip-tied his hands behind his back, zip-tied his feet and injected enough morphine to put him and his entire platoon to sleep for a while. I quickly cleared the lab, finding no surprises. Actually, that’s not true. I found no more guards, but in a room off of the main hallway I saw something that made my draw drop. Which isn’t easy to do, as I’ve seen quite a lot of crazy during my time on this Earth. But seeing fifty to sixty hybrid fetuses suspended in fluid, arrayed in canisters across three walls of glass cases, was enough to get that response out of me. My Lord. They looked almost like little babies. Crap! Even as a teenager, I always had a soft spot for babies, kids and the young hybrids I trained. I think one of my biggest fears is that, due to my patchwork, artificially flavored genetics, I won’t be able to have children. The hybrids are too new for anybody to know for sure. As far as I know, I’ve never gotten anybody pregnant. And neither have any of my fellow hybrids. I haven’t heard of any female hybrids bearing children either. Given that I was essentially “conceived” from two very different species, I’m sort of like a mule, but even more so. And mules are sterile. Stubborn too. At night, before I drift off to sleep, my mind often wanders to daydreams of parenting. I’d love to be a father one day. But I don’t think I’ll ever have the chance. But then again, most people in my line of work don’t live long enough to have that chance anyway. And I haven’t heard of any hybrids that have lived long enough to retire from this line of work. And fatherhood would definitely involve a career change. But that’s another issue for another day. I knew this was going to eat at me for a long time. But I didn’t have time to spend mulling this over. As terrible as I felt, I couldn’t refuse to blow up this lab. It was the main cog in the Soviet military machine that would breed killers that would grow up to kill my colleagues and me. I placed the C4 explosive charges. I inserted the detonators. I was going to need a shrink when I got back home. # I made my way to the outside of the Pudovlak residence. From my nights of watching, I knew that Pudovlak would have already arrived home. At least he had a set routine, which made my life easier. Many targets aren’t so considerate. My satellite link detected only three heat profiles in the house. So, no guards on the inside. Things were actually going according to plan. It was nice when that happened. Too bad there wasn’t a Quicky Mart in the forest; I’d have bought a lottery ticket. I moved in low and quick, timing my moves to their back door to avoid the sweep of the searchlights and security cameras. Intel told me that these camera feeds also went only to the security station I had already secured (i.e,. killed everybody there), but you know what happens when you assume. It’s not like army “intelligence” was infallible. I personally knew some of the officers working in intel, and I certainly wasn’t ready to bet my life on their omniscience. I quietly picked the back-door lock. I took a deep breath and quickly opened the door, MK 23 pistol in hand. I couldn’t really call out to them, due to the danger of the house being bugged, so I held up a sign I’d prepared before leaving base. It said: “US Army Rescue”. Short, hopefully sweet, and definitely to the point. The fact that I was a special branch of US Special Forces wasn’t relevant and was way too wordy. Then I went about finding them. Probably upstairs in bed. Nope. The children emerged quickly, very quickly, in their pajamas. With sharp butcher-like kitchen knives drawn. Their relative smallness exaggerated the size of their knives. Instead of acting surprised or afraid, their expressions were unexpectedly ferocious. I’m not sure how they knew I’d entered; I’d been cat quiet. I was starting to get nervous when they finally took the murderous intent of their eyes off me long enough to take a look at my sign (good move having it out, Sev!) and stopped. Their father emerged behind them. He looked older than a man in his mid-fifties should. Haggard and tired as well. The kids were alert, fit and looked like they could run a marathon without breaking a sweat. I pushed the sign forward. Not sure what I was going to do with my pistol if things went sideways. I sure wasn’t going to shoot any of them. Force of habit and all that. The reality was, I’d have little problem handling two children with knives, even barehanded. So, I reholstered my weapon and raised my hands up in front of me, pointing to my sign. The kids looked at each other, then at their father. “Let’s go. And I hope you have a plan,” Dad said, looking at me like I was his problematic teenage son. “We’re in the middle of a military installation.” No, really?, I thought. But this probably wasn’t the best time for sarcasm. You never have a second chance to make a good first impression, and all that. So I played it straight: “I’ve already picked out a vehicle we can ride to the Hungarian border”. “How quickly can you be ready? I’ve got enough food and water for the journey. Just grab any absolute essentials and let’s move out.” “Get dressed,” Pudovlak said, ushering them out of the room. Then he turned to me. “Give me two minutes to get dressed, get my notes, and we’ll leave”. The kids wordlessly ran upstairs to their bedroom to get dressed. I watched them go. The way they moved quickly, efficiently and way too silently was all too familiar to me. It made sense, but I was still more than a little surprised to realize they were hybrids. Takes one to know one, and all that. In contrast, the doctor’s ascent of the stairs was lumbering and noisy. He winced as he put his weight on his left leg, grabbing his knee occasionally. Obviously not a hybrid. Too old, anyway. As far as I knew, the program was only 28 years old. True to his word, 120 seconds later the good doctor was back downstairs, ready to follow me out the door. The kids had reappeared a full minute earlier. They were dressed in warm clothes, with good boots on, and nothing in their hands but those Psycho-shower-scene knives. I was glad neither of them was named Norman. Still, it was hard to blame them for grabbing the deadliest tools they could find. They probably had little love for their Soviet captors and little illusions about what would happen if they were caught trying to escape. I couldn’t quite place the animal they were hybridized with. Judging by the way they moved it was definitely some kind of a large predatory cat, but they looked extremely normal. By which I mean human. Good looking too, not at all hairy, with very gracefully muscular, athletic builds. I swallowed a not insignificant pang of jealousy. Dad had outdone himself. But that was a conversation for another time. Right now we had to acquire a vehicle, exit the base undetected, ride quickly to the border, then cross it on foot to the extrication point where we’d be picked up by a helicopter. I raised a window shade and glanced outside to judge the camera sweeps. I quickly dropped it and ducked. The camera was almost pointing directly at me. I gave it a few seconds to pass, opened the door, and emerged out into the chilly October Ukrainian night. We crouched low and made our way to the motor pool. About halfway there I heard, then smelled, a patrol walking our way. There was nowhere to hide but the shadows. I deposited the family as deep into the darkness as I could and instructed them to lie flat on the ground and not move a muscle. They took my instruction well and I was satisfied they wouldn’t be discovered by anyone not deliberately searching for them. I snake-crawled to the corner of a cinderblock house (another majestic architectural creation, courtesy of those incredibly artistic Soviet military builders) and peeked around. Two soldiers with automatic weapons slung on their backs. I didn’t anticipate any issues as I waited for them to continue on their path to my side of the building. I lay still, letting them pass before I took the first from behind. I’ll let you guess my tactics. That’s right! Step 1: Clamped hand over mouth. Step 2: (Follow along, now) Draw knife across throat. The trick, as always, was to move fast, before the second guard could shout an alarm. Fortunately, moving fast was one thing that jungle cats, myself included, do very well. Yeah, I know, I’m not part Jaguar. But Cougars still react much faster than humans. And, I’ll have you know, Dear Reader, that Jaguar’s tire fairly rapidly – not a good trait in my line of business. You can have your jaguar bloodline; I’m pretty happy with mine. But this time, there was “a glitch in the matrix”. As the surviving guard turned to look at me and attempted to shout, a small hand clamped over his mouth as the other slit his throat. With one of those Psycho butcher blades. The guard dropped soundlessly to the ground as I stared at Candice and her bloody hands. She watched him fall, his life bleeding out from the neck wound she had inflicted. Her face was expressionless. I saw no trace of mercy or remorse in that young lady’s expression. Mike Tyson’s game face when knocking an opponent unconscious had nothing on her. Well, OK then. We’d certainly have a lot to discuss on our ride to the border. It was dawning on me that, despite their sweet juvenile appearance, these kids were well-trained and deadly. More advanced hybrids? Apparently, Dr. Daniel Pudovlak had been busy creating my upgrades. Sev and Severina 2.0? I really was going to need that shrink. I hoped he/she was good. Daniel and his son emerged from the shadows. Although Dr. Pudovlak was trying to be quiet, I could hear his movements quite easily. Robert not at all. His hybrid footsteps were completely silent. Rifle at the ready, I led the way to the motor pool. Where there were more guards. Of course. There were eight guards that I could see. I couldn’t see, hear or smell any others. Four were sitting still, probably dozing in their chairs. In the dark, even with my night vision goggles, I couldn’t be completely sure. But four were walking around and probably quite alert. And they were more spread out then they had been on the previous nights I’d reconnoitered this area. Making them tougher to neutralize (i.e., kill) before they could shout out or sound an alarm. Not ideal. “Any stray vehicles outside this area we could take?”, I asked Dr. Pudovlak. “No. They’re pretty strict and by the book around here” “Figures.” Apparently slackers didn’t last too long on Soviet military bases. I looked around, trying to come up with a plan for me to kill the four who were moving around without raising an alarm. Nothing came especially quickly to mind. I’d have to use all of my resources, i.e., have the kids help. From what I’d already seen, they were quite capable of assisting. “OK, Doc. Tell me about your kids. I can’t help noticing that they’re not from the usual “play with action figures and watch TV” crowd. What’d you mix their genes with? Dr. Pudovlak looked at his two children and smiled, every bit the proud father. “They’re second-generation hybrids. 88% human, 6% mountain lion, like you. Also 4% black panther, 2% lion, 2% Bengal tiger. A significant improvement; no offense.” “None taken. So can they sneak up on a sentry and take him out from behind?” “When they’re fully grown, better than you. At this age, they can be quiet and sneak up on them. Candice can kill quite easily, as you’ve seen. Robert’s not quite ready yet. I wouldn’t be certain of a clean kill before they screamed.” “We’ll have to chance it. I can take the two that are close together. Candice can take the bigger one in the guard shack. Robert can take the smaller one closest to us. Then Candice and I will go for the four who are sitting and hopefully asleep. And, if it’s OK with you, I’d appreciate it if you stayed here.” “Understood. Kids, did you hear him? Do you want to get out of here and go back to our real home? Can you do what he asked?” The smiles on their young faces let me know they could, but the eagerness of such young children to kill turned my stomach. But this wasn’t the time or place to get all politically correct. If we were caught milling about somebody would get killed. Like me. And probably one or both of the children. We synchronized watches, agreed on the time to strike, and set off in our own directions. No dillydallying. Dr. Pudovlak remained behind, hiding in the shadows. I couldn’t imagine being a father, hiding, while his young children went to battle. But Pudovlak specialized in breeding killers and assassins and seemed quite confident in his children’s abilities. And presumably had enough self-awareness to know he’d be heard, and shot, before he got within ten feet of a sentry. I laid still, watching my first target as I silently stalked him, until it was time to strike. When the time came, it was the usual dance. As usual, guard/victim/unfortunate person in the wrong place at the wrong time had no time to get off a scream. But he did manage a wet gurgle as he gasped through the blood filling his throat. I eased him to the ground as I turned to make sure that the noise hadn’t alerted the four seated guards. Robert was just finishing slitting the last one’s throat. Wow. Now anyone who knows me will tell you; I’m not easily impressed. But whatever genetic concoction Pudovlak had cooked up in his lab definitely worked for me. I wondered if these kids weren’t already better than me. And I hoped I’d never have to face their kind in battle once they were fully grown. God help the regular soldiers who opposed them. # The family piled into the jeep I preselected for our getaway. It was close to the gate, but on the side furthest from the watchtower spot lights. I ran to the guard shack, shoved aside the soldier Candice had “neutralized” and pulled the gate lever. As the gate opened, I hopped into the driver’s seat and drove via night vision so I didn’t need to use headlights that would give us away. I accelerated slowly to avoid arousing the suspicion of anyone within earshot. When I was a couple of hundred yards away I pulled out the detonator and raised my night vision goggles to avoid being temporarily blinded. “Everybody shut your eyes, cover your ears and open your mouths. I’d get down in your seats too.” They gave me a puzzled look but complied. I lifted the safety cover up and pushed the trigger button. The resulting explosion was deafening and blinding as it lit up the night. Maybe when this was over I could get a job as a fireworks operator on the Hudson River. I stepped heavily on the accelerator. No need for my night-vision goggles right now. The fire in the background was more than enough light to drive by. I glanced over at my passengers. They were staring at the burning night sky. I wasn’t sure, as his face was turned to the window next to him, but I think Dr. Pudovlak may have been crying. Once we rounded a turn and much of the fire’s light was blocked by a wall of trees, I replaced my night-vision goggles and limited our speed to roughly 30 mph to stay on the winding dirt roads cut through the rugged terrain. I monitored the military radio for evidence that our escape had been noticed. I heard nothing but panicked yelling about the bio-lab’s explosion. Once that died down, the frantic shouts from the compound’s surviving guards about two hours later made it clear that the soldier’s bodies had been discovered, along with the Pudovlaks’ absence. # It had been a judgement call whether to head straight for the Hungarian border, an obvious route, or take a more circuitous route. I initially considered heading due east, deeper into Soviet territory, the unexpected move, but in the end I decided not to get cute. I believed that the Soviets would mobilize extensive resources the second they discovered Pudovlak was missing, and I wanted to be as close to freedom as I could be when that happened. As close to freedom as I could be turned out to be roughly 58 miles. We made it another ten miles or so before I heard the choppers. No way to elude them in a ground vehicle. As soon as I could, I slowed just enough to pull the jeep safely into the cover of the surrounding forest. Hidden from above under the trees, I grabbed my pack, stuffed with weapons, MREs (meals ready to eat), water and warm clothes, and followed the others out of the jeep. I set an explosive charge on my electronic surveillance equipment, property of the US Government, before we set out to cover the last part of the journey on foot. I had no doubt that, but for Dr. Pudovlak, the three of us hybrids could have made it across the border easily without being detected. But retrieving the good doctor was my primary objective, so leaving him was not an option. We jogged deep into the woods at a brisk pace. After exactly thirty seconds I heard the charge detonate, followed by the jeep’s gas tank. The flash that lit up the forest was blinding, and I could feel the hair singe on the back of my neck. Trust me: That’s a lot of hair to singe through before I felt it on my skin. It took me the better part of a minute to regain my orientation. About as long to regain my vision. I had been focusing on getting my three co-travelers to safety and had forgotten to flip up my night-vision goggles before the blast occurred. That’s what happens when you’re distracted; live and learn. Even better: Learn and live. After the light from the explosion receded, I checked my GPS to verify our position, and kept checking it habitually every few minutes to make sure we stayed on course. Even for hybrids it’s easy to get lost in the woods. This was no time to walk in circles while the Soviet pursuit caught up to us. Once darkness returned, we could hear the helicopters above us and saw their searchlights trying to cut into the complete darkness of the forest. That was a good sign; helicopters equipped with infrared sensors didn’t need searchlights. That greatly improved our chances of avoiding, or at least delaying, detection. Even without my goggles, I could see fairly well for roughly ten feet. I’m sure the kids could see at least that far; they had no trouble keeping up on their own. Dr. Pudovlak kept a hand on my shoulder to stay with us. This was much better than using flashlights, which would have quickly given us away. My feline eardrums picked up the sounds of vehicles pulling up and stopping back on the road we’d come from. Multiple car/jeep/truck doors were opening and shutting, no doubt discharging enemy troops to pursue us. Their sound intensity put them at a little over a quarter mile behind us. Our only hope was to move fast and stay ahead of them. I had to remind myself to point out fallen trees to the good doctor. Now was not the best time to trip and break an ankle. As the dawn broke, we were able to pick up our pace with the improving visibility. Dr. Pudovlak whispered to ask for a brief rest period. I turned to study him. He looked like shit. No way he could go much longer. I looked at his children. They were barely breathing heavy and looked like they could’ve hiked the entire Oregon Trail without stopping. Which was good, as we simply couldn’t afford to stop and let the troops catch up to us. I handed everyone a snack and some water. Not too much. Not a good time to cramp up. I told the doctor to jump on my back for a piggy back – scratch that – cougar back ride through the forest. “No, I can make it.” “No sir, you can’t. Not at the pace that we need to keep. You know what I am and that I can handle your weight without slowing down too much. After thirty minutes I’ll let you use your legs again.” Reluctantly, he conceded to the truth and hopped on. Candice insisted on carrying my pack. That cut my additional load down to only about an extra 120 pounds. I’d trained with pack loads heavier than that. All in all our pace dropped only slightly. # We walked all day. I could hear troops behind us, but we maintained our distance. The kids and I didn’t leave much of a trail for them to follow, even with me carrying the doctor’s extra weight, and we didn’t have to waste time covering our barely-visible tracks. As agreed, after thirty minutes I put Pudovlak down and let him walk for nearly two hours before picking him back up again as his pace slowed. We stopped for a quick snack each time he hopped on or off and, as I could no longer hear the enemy behind us, took a full ten minute break for lunch. I calculated that, if we were lucky, we’d hit the border some time after midnight. But the Soviets were no dummies and would have no trouble figuring out where we were heading. As an analogy: When guarding a player in basketball, if you get picked and lose him, coaches teach that, because you know where he’s going (the basket), just run straight there and you’ll pick him up again. Same concept here. I was sure they’d have a picket line ready for us. Maybe some minefields as well, although I doubted they wanted to blow up anyone in our group except for me. And, for the same reason, they were at the disadvantage of having to definitively visually identify their targets before shooting. Us? We could shoot at anything outside of our small group. No need to waste time with “friend or foe” identification. Needless to say, it was an exhausting day. Same as the day before. The kids started dragging around dinner time, and I felt myself starting to get tired as well. I’d been listening intently for hours, and was sure the children had too. It was too damn quiet. Nothing but natural forest sounds, as far as I could tell. No choppers. Nothing. That was not good. I was sure the Soviets hadn’t forgotten about us. They were probably just confident that they could intercept us before we reached the safety of the border. And, unfortunately for us, that confidence was probably well founded. I was pretty sure we were no longer being chased. The luxury of not having pursuit immediately behind us eased the immediate pressure to keep moving without pause. Consequently, we took thirty minutes for dinner. Heck, we even dilly dallied afterwards for another twenty minutes after deciding it was time to move on. With nothing rushing us forward (and every fiber of my being urging caution), there was no reason not to make sure everyone was well fed. We’d have plenty of time to digest before nightfall, and enemy contact, and I wanted everyone’s energy level to be high. Or as high as it could be on no sleep. “You kids doing OK?” They looked at me with haggard eyes, but then started smiling. “Yeah, I’m OK,” Dan responded. “Sis?” “We’re OK, Sev. Dad told us that one day we’d be rescued. So I guess we’ve actually been waiting for you for a long time now.” Wow. I hadn’t really thought of it that way before. “Don’t worry. I’m going to get you guys through this and back home to America. It’s just a little bit longer.” And then, with the mention of America, the floodgates opened. And I had a newfound empathy for teachers, baby sitters and parents. And here I thought that the AK-47s shot rounds quickly. The barrage of questions fired at me by a couple of kids was nearly as fast. “What’s it like in America now?” “What’s your favorite band?” “What are the new popular songs?” “Could you sing some of them for us?” “Were you raised by the Army?” “Did our father make you too?” “How many hybrids are there?” “Do you hang out together?” “Where are they?” “Why aren’t they here too?” “Do you sleep in a barracks or a house?” “Do you live on an Army base?” “Are you allowed to leave?” “Do you go into town a lot?” “Where do you go? “What do you do on weekends?” “Are you married?” “Do you have a girlfriend?” “Is she pretty?” “Is this your first mission?” “What other missions have you done?” “Is there a plane waiting for us?” “Will we have to go to school in America?” “Do they give a lot of homework?” “What happens if we don’t like our school? Can we switch?” “Were you good in school?” “Did you go to college?” Suffice it to say that I couldn’t even finish the answer to one question before two more came at me. Yep. In the middle of a forest, enemy troops hot on my trail, and grouped with an aging scientist and two stone-cold juvenile killers who made me feel like I was back in junior high school the second we had a minute to catch our breath. Just another typical day in the life of one Sev Coogerman. Still, it was good to see that they were clearly not in shock from the experience. At least not yet. # I shook off the onslaught of questions, promising to answer all of their questions once we were safe in a US flight back home. For now, it was time to refocus and get back to reality. The enemy was already ahead of us. I wasn’t sure why they didn’t want to catch us in a “hammer versus anvil” move with forces both behind and ahead of us. Maybe they were concerned about friendly fire. Maybe they were overconfident, sure that we’d never make it through their troops to the border. Hopefully they were way too overconfident. That’s the downfall of many a military mission. Suffice it to say, we didn’t suffer from that same malady. The MRE pound cake was very good under neutral conditions. As famished as we were, it tasted like the greatest thing I’d ever eaten. I dug extras out of our remaining MREs and passed them around. I didn’t think we’d be hiking much past tomorrow morning, whatever happened tonight. We drank lots of water to rehydrate. After I finished wading through the myriad of questions from the kids, I decided to take the liberty of using the remaining downtime to ask a question that had been nagging at me. “Dr. Pudovlak,” I began as diplomatically as I could. But, as you can probably imagine, no one has ever confused me with Henry Kissinger. “If you don’t mind me asking, and I know it’s now water under the bridge, but I was wondering…” He looked up at me. And I finally had the time to really look at him without either running or getting ready to run. And I noticed. His eyes looked tired. Not just from running. He looked burned out, like the husk of a person. He wasn’t malnourished; he still seemed fit for his age. But someone once said that the eyes are the windows to the soul. And the Doctor’s soul looked like it had spent some serious time in purgatory. Or worse. “Yes?” he asked, sounding like he was dreading the question. I felt bad about asking but had already started. And I felt that I wasn’t over-stepping my boundaries too far to find out why I was risking my life and why the US taxpayers were footing a large bill for a rescue operation that could have been easily avoided in the first place. “Is the Baltic Sea really a great vacation spot? I’ve always heard Hawaii’s nice.” I smiled, trying to defuse the blow. He dropped his head into his hands. Candice and Danny put their hands on his back, heads down as well. Great job, Sev. Way to go. Upset the entire family you’re trying to rescue. Maybe I should try my luck as a hostage negotiator and get an entire group of people killed. Dr. Pudovlak looked up at me, his eyes red-rimmed and moist. “It was a mistake. A bad mistake. I should have never trusted the Soviets.” He then dropped his head and stared at the ground. I’d heard this story before, and so I understood without too much prompting. And it usually had a similar ending. He’d been invited for a vacation. Probably a recruitment trip, courtesy of the Soviet military. I’m sure they promised him significant money, a high position in the ruling party, and I’m sure that seeing some of his extended family at a nice resort with someone else footing the bill was an added incentive. Then something went sideways. In these stories, something always goes sideways. So the Soviets went to plan B and simply kidnapped him and his family. Killing his wife in the process. I had suspected this might be the case. “It’s OK, Doc” I said, placing my hand on his shoulder supportively as well. “It happens. But it’s all going to end well. I’m going to get you and your family back home, to America.” He looked up. I could see he was hopeful but yet not fully convinced. Maybe after he returned he could discuss his story with other US scientists, as a cautionary tale for those who thought that the grass might be greener elsewhere. Of course, there was still the very distinct possibility of him being charged with treason by Uncle Sam. However, I thought that the likelihood that the US Army sent me to rescue him just so they could stand him in front of a firing squad were pretty low. With his children held hostage, I was pretty sure that this fell under the heading of “extenuating circumstances.” I gave us another few minutes to rest and recover, but then it was time to move. I checked my weapons and handed a pistol to Candice. I figured she’d be able to see better in the dark than Dr. Pudovlak. # Enemy contact came at an estimated four or five miles from the border. Which was too far to sprint for it, especially with Dr. Pudovlak slowing us down. My ears picked up the Soviets first. They were quiet, using good sound discipline, but there was too much border for them to cover and too many men, equipment and machines to position for them to maintain total silence. I changed direction to go north, hoping to outflank them. No such luck. I thought about lying low, but daylight wasn’t exactly our friend. I heard a propeller above. Too soft for a helicopter. Probably a drone with thermal imaging. They knew we were close, and now might even know exactly where we were. I cautioned the group to move slow and silently. Our best chance was probably to try to slip between them. But lady luck, like Napoleon’s God, was on the side of the bigger battalions. I soon heard fast movement on both sides of us. Crap. Run, I mouthed, turning and sprinting back east in the direction we’d come from. I swung Dr. Pudovlak onto my back again. I couldn’t sprint maximum speed carrying him, but I was still faster than he would be, especially considering how much of a toll the past 24 hours had taken on his fully human/no-spring-chicken body. We moved quickly, but the troops were unquestionably gaining on us. I was sure even Dr. Pudovlak could hear them now. Then damned if he didn’t rip off my NVGs and cover my eyes with his hand. What the hell was that idiot doing? Furious, I stopped and let go of his legs to replace my goggles as he jumped off me. “Thank you,” he said, putting his hand on my shoulder. “You’re a good man.” It was now obvious he had purposely ripped off my goggles to get me to stop and release him. “Please rescue my children and take them home with you”. He gathered both children into a quick embrace, kissed each one, told them he loved them and that he expected them to escape. He ordered them to run west. “Please stay with them,” he pleaded. “Everything I know is in them. They are the next generation of hybrids. Any military geneticist can test their DNA and get up to speed to recreate as many as you want.” Then he sprinted north. I stood there dumbfounded as my primary objective ran away from us, his children/creations sprinting west, towards the border. What the fuck? I didn’t even have time to mull over the significance of him describing Candice or Robert as everything he “knew”, as opposed to everything he “loved”. If I survived, I’d have time to ponder that later. As well as: Was everything he knew really in his children? Did I really believe that he hadn’t learned anything over the last decade, since his children were conceived? Was he still sympathetic to the Russians and interested in helping them despite everything that they’d done to him? Was his genius mind suffering from Stockholm Syndrome, where he now identified with his captors? But the sounds of the pursuing soldiers were growing closer, bringing me back to the moment: My orders were clear. Dr. Pudovlak was my primary objective. Everything else was secondary. I sprinted after Dr. Pudovlak and was almost on him. But then an explosion to the west changed everything. Orders be damned. I just couldn’t leave those kids out there alone. I knew they wouldn’t shoot Dr. Pudovlak. But his kids? Maybe they’d keep them as hostages, to apply the motivational theory of performance on him to enhance his work ethic. Maybe they’d shoot one of them, to teach him a lesson. I just couldn’t chance it. I’d never be able to live with myself. Remember me telling you that I have serious problems with authority? That I have a major soft spot for children? That was no BS. Without another thought, I sprinted west. If Dr. Pudovlak wanted to sacrifice what remained of his life to allow his children a chance at freedom, then I wasn’t about to let them die. I promised myself that once our intelligence was able to relocate Dr. Pudovlak, I’d come back to rescue him. But right now I had two children lost in the woods, pursued by enemy soldiers. And if those Soviet bastards wanted a fight, who was I to let them down? It was going to be a game of (dare I say it) cat and mouse. And we all knew who was going to win that game. I came up behind a group of what I counted as an even dozen bad guys. I set my weapon to short burst and cut down four of them before the others were able to hit the deck and locate me well enough to begin returning fire effectively. I ducked behind a large tree and ran back east, staying in the thickness of the foliage. At the least I’d evened the odds and held them up, giving Candice and Robert more time to escape. Or to climb some trees, which is what I’d do if I were them. I knew the soldiers would never be able to track me successfully. And I was pretty sure the kids wouldn’t be easy to follow either. After a quarter mile I doubled back. Even though the Soviets also had NVGs, my superior natural night vision as well as hearing and smell still gave me a significant advantage. I spotted them while they were still searching the ground and the trees overhead for me. I counted four enemy. I had hoped they would split their forces, thinking that four-to-one odds would be good enough. This was the obvious tactic, a way to not allow me behind them again, but also to continue their search for the children. They were spread out, two searching the surrounding woods as the other focused on picking up my trail. I flanked them to their left and came up behind them. Again. Two more short bursts from my weapon and it was a two-to-one affair. I melted back into the woods and climbed quickly, hiding in the thick branches of the tree. I watched them come my way through an opening in the leaves. Once they were past me, two final bursts took care of the remainder of this first group. I climbed down and moved quickly to find the kids. # I could hear the Soviet soldiers nearby, but I couldn’t see or hear the children. I wasn’t sure yet if silence and stealth were just a natural part of their hybrid makeup or if they had actually been trained for it. Perhaps both. It didn’t really matter right now. I just wanted them to be safe. And if I couldn’t detect them, I doubted the Soviets could either. Actually, with all of the noise the Soviet soldiers were making nearly shouting excitedly into their radio headsets after my recent massacre, I probably wouldn’t have been able to hear the kids if they were playing drums right next to me. The soldiers were clearly panicked and calling for reinforcements. That was cute, but they weren’t going to live long enough to personally welcome their friends to the fight. Two short bursts followed by a similar silent flanking maneuver after the two survivors had hit the deck, followed by two more short bursts. Not a lot of variation in my strategy, but then again I’m not looking for style points. I’m adaptable, but also have a lot of respect for cold, lethal effectiveness. In my experience, simple strategies, with some variation on their basic themes, have always worked best. Easy to execute and fewer moving parts to cause mistakes. Personally, I’ve never been much into impressing the enemy with my tactical brilliance. Some people are foxes, varying tactics constantly. Some are hedgehogs, utilizing a small set of effective strategies that they’ve fine-tuned, know all the details of, and are experienced at solving any problems encountered along the way. I’m a hedgehog’s hedgehog. Quiet. The newfound silence in the forest was eerily disturbing. I walked silently for five full minutes, hearing nothing. I was running out of the darkness of night and really wanted to cross the border before the sun came up. I was pretty sure that I would be able to hear any surviving soldiers nearby. I listened intently again, heard nothing, and decided to chance it. I whispered just loud enough for a hybrid to hear, but low enough that no far-off pure human could, “Candice. Robert. It’s Sev. No more soldiers around. Come find me”. I repeated my call every twenty feet or so. After three minutes I sensed movement behind me. I spun, weapon ready. The kids had snuck up on me. Silently. Scary silently. I never even heard them until they were ten feet away. I’m not even really sure how I knew they were there. I simply exhaled, just glad they were on my side. Despite their impressive stealth, they looked cold, tired and very, very scared. I let my weapon hang on my sling and embraced them for a moment. The hug was good for all of us. Probably me most of all. “Please don’t do that again. It’s not safe to come up behind me unannounced when there are enemy around. I don’t want to accidentally shoot you. Or have a heart attack.” I held their gaze with mine. They nodded their understanding. “Come on,” I said. “We’ve got to get across the border before the sun’s up and this place is swarming with reinforcements.” I could see they were shaking with fear. They asked about their father. I didn’t know what to say. Where’s a good child-psychology book when you need one? Then again, I doubted that any of them had a chapter devoted to this exact situation. I gave them a minute to eat a quick snack and drink some water. Hopefully, that somehow helped. “OK guys, I know you’re tired, but we really need to get across the border soon. Really soon, or we’re in big trouble.” I thought I sounded like a camp counselor giving a motivational speech at field day. Not the words – just the tone. Despite the fact that I didn’t have any milk and fresh-baked cookies, they understood where I was coming from. I didn’t need to elaborate as they had no illusions about the stakes we were playing for. I looked up at the late-night sky. Dawn wasn’t far off, and daylight would not be kind to us. We’d be exposed and found, no matter how hard we tried to hide. I was concerned that the Soviet’s infrared scanners had located us already. But they were probably tired of suffering casualties from attacking us in the dark and were simply biding their time until they could get a visual on us. And get their attack helicopters more safely involved. And those helicopter gunships were no joke. One could handily dispatch an entire armored column without too much trouble. What I wouldn’t have given for a Stinger surface-to-air missile or two. Outnumbered, outgunned, tired and still somewhat hungry – OK, exhausted and starving, but who’s counting? We didn’t have the ability to reconnoiter the Soviet position. Our only realistic chance to get across the border before the sun rose was to seize the initiative. Which meant that we had to attack and carry the fight to them. Basic military strategy 101: Aggression wins. Move fast, hit hard, and force the enemy to react to you. Fortunately, the dead soldiers had provided us with automatic weapons, as many bullets as we could carry, grenades, and advanced night-vision goggles for the kids. Despite the extreme danger of our position, or maybe because of it, it took me a while to convince the children to spread out, allowing me to lead out in front, away from them, so they could, hopefully, flank any enemy contact I made. They argued that if I died that they were as good as dead anyway, so they wanted to stay close to me. Fair point, but we needed to break through the enemy line in order to survive. And, as quietly as they moved, they would have no trouble flanking an enemy unseen so we could catch them in a sudden crossfire. Leading to quicker kills and quicker progress. Unless, of course, the soldiers were communicating with a satellite with infrared scanners that told them all of our positions. Which would suck. Well, not much we could do about that right now. In the end we compromised. I didn’t have the time or energy to argue with a stubborn preteen-age girl (seriously: what is it with females that age?) and allowed them to stay only thirty feet back. # We moved forward cautiously. I felt, rather than saw, that we were getting close to the enemy picket line. Feline intuition, maybe. Whatever it was, I had long ago learned to trust my “gut”/subconscious/sixth sense/intuition, or whatever the hell it was that had kept me alive through so many close calls. We climbed into the high branches of the tall trees for even more stealth, and to get more commanding fields of fire if it came to that. But if it came to a gunfight, our muzzle flashes would reveal our locations instantly. If we weren’t already being tracked by our infra-red heat signals. I involuntarily looked up, despite the fact that even my eyes wouldn’t have been able to see an orbiting satellite. I saw the first group of soldiers, three of them, at a distance of about four hundred yards. I signaled the kids to stay put and jumped silently between trees to make my approach. I dropped onto the first, knocking him down. And out. I slit the second one’s throat before the third could even ready his weapon. Then I leapt the fifteen feet to him and knocked his AK-47 away before he could depress the trigger. I pinned him to the ground, knife at his eye, to interrogate him. Even in the dark there was enough moonlight reflecting off my blade for him to see what he needed to see. Real up close and personal. “How many soldiers, and where are they?” My Russian was limited: not enough to get me through a date or a job interview, but enough for a brief military interrogation. However, I wasn’t planning on engaging in either of those first two activities tonight. He just stared at me in shock. “If you don’t tell me I’ll cut you into pieces, starting with your voice box so you will silently drown in your own blood as I cut off your limbs”. “I… I don’t know for sure. I think two hundred or more,” he stammered out, nearly too scared to speak. Shit. “Where?” “Three long skirmish lines. From here to the border.” The long distance that the lines had to spread out and cover in front of the border meant that they probably consisted of small groups of soldiers, like I’d been encountering, spaced fairly far apart. “Any mines or other traps?” “Yes. A minefield past the third line. But I don’t know any more than that. I swear.” “Infra-red scanners?” He looked at me. “Infra-red goggles? You Americans have those?” I took that as a ‘No.’ I slit his throat quickly and painlessly. Well, quickly anyway. It was the only mercy I could currently spare. Then did the same to the first soldier, the one I had knocked down when I landed on him. I understand that doesn’t seem very sporting, but this wasn’t a sport. It was simply too dangerous to leave an enemy behind us that could potentially recover enough to get to a weapon or a radio. Either one could lead to a very bad day for the three of us. I stood and turned around to see the kids behind me, staring at me, weapons at a low ready. I wasn’t even moved by their surprise appearances anymore. It’s almost scary how quickly the mind adapts to things that twenty-four hours ago would have been hard for me to believe. They moved almost as quietly as I did. OK, full disclosure, they were actually quieter. And most probably all natural - without any formal training. I was starting to feel obsolete. And very mediocre, considering how much combat training I’d been through. There goes my fragile male ego rearing its ugly head again. We moved stealthily through the forest and advanced on the second line. Taking to the trees, we were able to avoid contact with them. It seemed like more of the same for the third, and final, skirmish line. If only. I listened hard, but couldn’t hear any more soldiers in front of us, where they should have been. I flashed a quizzical look at the kids. They shook their heads from side to side. We took to the trees anyway. Better safe than sorry. After what I thought was a long enough traverse, we came back down to walk and conserve energy. We were tired, bone tired, and climbing and traveling through the trees was taking its toll. I was often asked by the regular soldiers I’d trained with why I didn’t always just travel through the trees, to always be tougher to locate. It reminded me of a Superman comic I read once as a kid. The army seemed to always have superhero comic books lying around for us when I was a child. Inspirational, maybe. Anyway, in this particular comic book someone asked Superman why he didn’t fly everywhere, being it’s much faster than walking. He responded, “Why don’t you just run everywhere? It’s faster than walking too?” Superman’s point was that people usually travel in the most energy-efficient manner. Hybrids were no different. Certainly no better than Superman. Unfortunately, we weren’t bullet proof like Superman either. Apparently, a soldier had wandered back from his watch post to relieve himself. He must have seen us jump down from the trees. The sound of our landings must have drowned out the sound of his movements because I never knew he was there. Not until I heard a burst of three rapid gunshots. I dived back to cover the children. But Robert went down before I ever touched him. As I pushed their heads down and threw my body on top of theirs, I felt the too-warm liquid on my stomach. It was pumping out of Robert’s chest. His mouth was open and spasming, his eyes fluttering. I put pressure on the wound with both hands, but it was no use. I held him as the life drained quickly out of him. The bullet had ripped through his heart, or one of the major blood vessels in his chest. Things with Latin names that I could never remember. I heard soldiers approaching. The shooter and his comrades were closing in. Candice stared unblinkingly at her brother. Unhurt physically, but clearly in emotional shock. The smart move was to grab her and run. There should be no one left between us and the border. Soldiers were coming up quickly behind us. I had a decision to make. No surprise to those I’ve trained and served with, but the smart choice wasn’t going to be the one I made. People talk about seeing red. I guess that’s an expression to them. To me, it was the honest truth. I saw my vision tint blood red as the berserker rage in my soul cried out for vengeance. I guess it’s a personality flaw, but I’m not emotionally strong enough to control that rage. It was all I could do to stay disciplined in the way I channeled that blood-seeking anger. I told Candice to run for the border as I climbed a tree. She was the only anchor left to sanity that I had, the only brake on the all-consuming retribution I was about to exact upon these troops. She didn’t. Instead, she climbed up the thick tree branches after me. I knew I was tipping on the edge, losing control. It’s not a good place for me. It’s even worse for those in my way. And it’s nothing a young lady needed to see. I was sliding irrevocably down into the abyss where my inherent, predatory large-cat nature and my military training intersected, but I needed to make sure she was safe before I got started. I waited for her in the higher branches. She was simply too frightened to go off on her own, and I knew she would try to stay with me. But I couldn’t risk losing another. My guts felt ripped out having just watched Robert’s final moments. Something deep inside me knew that I couldn’t take another blow like that. Gritting my teeth to stay civil, I spoke in growls that left no room for argument. That, and my bared teeth, convinced her to hide up in the tree behind the thick leaves, where she was practically invisible. I made her promise to make a run for it if I wasn’t back in half an hour. That was about as long as I could allow her to wait before the dawn started breaking. “I’m so sorry,” I told her. She couldn’t even speak, just nodded at me, tears streaking down both cheeks. I hugged her as I held back my tears. No time for that. There was a far better way for me to express my anguish. She reached out a hand to touch my cheek for just one more touch. One more moment of connection. I kissed the back of her hand, then replaced it behind the all-concealing leaves. Then I was moving. Fast. The kid gloves were off. Do or die. At that moment I only wanted to kill. As many, as quickly, and as violently as possible. If I didn’t survive, I could live with that. If you know what I mean. I moved through the trees away from the border, back into enemy lines. I stopped to listen, mouth open to allow me to hear just a little bit better. I could hear them ahead of me and a little to the left. I slowed down when I was within their earshot range and approached stealthily. No longer evading, I was now tracking. A lion stalking its prey in the savannah had nothing on me. I slowly crept above them. It was weird. Despite the fact that it occurred in combat situations, stalking enemies was always a very calming experience for me. The adrenaline rush of battle had no place when the overriding need was stealth. I always found it very soothing. Maybe it was getting back to the primeval jungle-cat instincts in me. Everything always slowed for me and became clearer, more sharply defined. I became intensely focused, “in the zone.” I’d get tunnel vision, shutting everything else out but my prey. Even sounds became filtered. I could hear the rhythm of my victim’s breathing as my own breathing and heart rate slowed. I calmly covered the distance required. Calmly, quietly, slowly. Anticipation mounting. Until it was time to attack. I had eight grenades attached to my combat vest. Using my teeth to pull the pins, I held one, handles pinned down, in each hand. I dropped them almost directly on top of the soldiers then moved fast through the branches. They looked up at the sudden noise above them but had no time to figure out what was happening, let alone aim or fire, before the explosions and flying shrapnel blew them apart. I moved a hundred yards away and waited for the response. It came hard and fast. I watched through my weapon’s scope as they approached. I heard helicopters coming too. The troops opened up in my direction. Shit. They knew my location. They probably finally deployed some infrared sensors. I had wondered many times when they’d get around to using them. The Soviet Army, always lacking in funds and high-tech availability, must not have had them outfitted on many vehicles in this area. I moved quickly. My insides were boiling. I hadn’t yet exacted the vengeance that I sought. I wanted to take to the trees and ambush the men coming after me. Kill them all. But the helicopter rotors were growing louder. And I had nothing that I could use to fight back against them. As much as it tore me up, I had to run. I had to get Candice to safety. Crap. I jumped to the ground and ran back to Candice. I briefly turned and fired back at the troops to pin them down and make them hesitate to buy us some time. “Candice,” I whispered fiercely, knowing she would hear me. I saw her peek out as I approached. I motioned for her to follow me. She didn’t need any convincing. She hit the ground running in front of me and we sprinted. The helicopter was bearing down on us as the black of night gave way to a grey dawn. And the world blew up around us. I grabbed Candice and dived behind a large tree as the forest exploded. Its thick trunk shielded us from the brunt of the missiles’ explosions, but not the sound. We were alive, but it would be a little while before I could hear much at all. I started to scoop up Candice to make a run for it, but she sprang to her feet, ready to run. Amazing energy and stamina in this one. Oh, to be that young and that genetically enhanced. I sensed, rather than heard, the next round of missiles. I dove behind another thick tree. The blast uprooted it. I went on all fours over Candice’s small body to shield her as it toppled. Another blast and a massive spruce came careening down on us; adjacent branches caught its top and slowed its decent just enough to allow me to roll us away and avoid being crushed. If a tree falls in the forest, but nobody gets hurt, does it matter? Cannon fire swept the forest floor as we ran from trunk to trunk. The only saving grace was that the ground troops didn’t follow us into the helicopter’s kill zone. Then again, who would? And suddenly, it was over. I couldn’t hear a thing, we were both covered in dirt and totally disoriented. I got out my compass, confirmed directions, grabbed Candice’s hand and ran for it yet again. I couldn’t be sure a second gunship wasn’t lining us up, but the sun was pushing up into the horizon and we couldn’t stay here. I grabbed my radio and called for extraction. Hopefully the sight of an American chopper would dissuade the Soviets from calling in any more airborne assets. I knew our luck would eventually run out; we couldn’t take much more of this. At least I couldn’t. As small as she was, Candice’s advanced hybrid genetics might be standing up to this assault better than I was. She was still running beside me, her shorter legs keeping up. She was running for her life, and she knew it. I wondered if she could outpace me if she wanted to. Candice was tough, she was biologically superior to me, but it still hurt me to see a ten year old girl wearing the blank “1,000 yard stare” of a combat veteran in shock. But any psychotherapy for posttraumatic stress disorder would have to wait for later. If there was a later. We ran and ran for what seemed forever. My cracked watch face indicated it was really only forty minutes. My lungs burned. Even Candice was gasping for breath. But sunlight was starting to give the sky its early morning glow and we couldn’t stop now. Another few minutes and we came to what looked like the start of a minefield. I slowed then stopped. The border. Things were now very simple. All we had to do was survive and get across. What could go wrong? I got down on the ground and snake crawled quickly through the minefield, my knife stabbing into the dirt in front of me. I knew our special forces were working on a thermal-radar unit to detect mines. What I wouldn’t have given for one of them right now. I guess we always want what we can’t have. Another thing I wanted but didn’t have was time. I didn’t relish the idea of being caught in the middle of a mine field, face down, when the Soviet soldiers caught up to us. I’m not sure that Candice grasped all of those nuances of combat, but she followed just as quickly. Einstein once said that time was relative. Sit on a stove for a minute and it seems like an hour. Hold hands with a pretty girl for an hour and it seems like a minute. He should have added, snake crawl through a minefield for two to three minutes with enemy soldiers wielding automatic weapons running after you and it seems like a month. I guess as brilliant as he was, Einstein missed that particular scenario. But it was one that even a confirmed non-genius, such as me, could understand. Finally, we were through, with our bodies in one piece. I was about to cut through the razor wire fence on the far side of the minefield to allow us to escape into Hungary. But there was simply no way anything in my life could be that simple. Remember that helicopter that I was worried about? Yeah, he hadn’t forgotten about me. I had been so focused on the minefield that I hadn’t noticed the rotors closing in. And we were trapped. A razor-wire fence with a large open field behind it before the cleared area gave way to forest again. A minefield behind us. Not a tree or any cover within two hundred yards. Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. I could see him lining up for a strafing run. It was a Hind helicopter gunship. My M4 probably wouldn’t even chip the windshield. I cut the barbed wire as he closed in for the easy kill. Candice was whimpering. With Pudovlak safely back in their clutches, the Soviets had no reason to pull any punches. We were dead. I pulled open the hole in the razor wire with tools from my pack, threw Candice into Hungary, and vaulted through after her. At least we’d die running instead of huddled in a ball on the ground. But, as fast as we were, we couldn’t outrun the Hind or make it into the cover of the forest in time. The cannon opened up, shells marching their way closer to us. Then a swoosh, followed by a tremendous explosion. Followed by several smaller explosions and a tremendous crash. We ran on. Diving onto the ground wouldn’t help us. We were getting closer to the edge of the forest, which was now only about twenty-five yards away. And I noticed that there was no more shooting. I risked a quick look behind me. The Hind was in flames, cartwheeling along the ground as its broken rotors were still spinning, digging into the earth, tearing the craft apart. I looked up and could make out the vapor trail of a jet and two missiles. I stopped and stared. I put my hand on my forehead to shield my eyes from the early morning sun. And caught a glimpse of a jet fighter climbing back into the clouds. Of course; once the Hind left Soviet territory, it was fair game. And there were its burning remains, in an open field in Hungary. It had no chance against a fighter, just as we’d had no chance of survival without that aerial assistance. I owed somebody in the USAF a few rounds of drinks. As one of my former trainers would say, “You’re allowed to get lucky.” Just make sure you take advantage of it when it happens. Which, unfortunately, doesn’t happen to me very much. Still, it was nice when fortune did shine on me just a little. Despite being without air support, I still wasn’t certain that the Soviets wouldn’t risk having ground troops follow us into another nation’s sovereign territory. It wasn’t like borders had force fields protecting them. So we kept running and running and running to our extrication point. At least the helicopter didn’t make us wait. It was hovering just off the ground as we approached. # The helicopter ride back to my base was bittersweet. I was glad to have rescued Candice. Colonel Rout, on the other hand, would not be happy that Dr. Pudovlak was still in Soviet hands. Strictly speaking, I had failed to accomplish my mission’s primary objective. Really, it’s only objective. On the other hand, at least according to her father, Candice, along with the blood and tissue samples she could provide, was all that we really needed. Robert’s death hung heavy on my mind. Emotional pain can hurt far worse than physical pain. It’s true. It was an unbelievable gutshot for me that a little boy in my care had died. And as tired as I was, I knew that sleep would not come for a long time. And I didn’t anticipate many sweet dreams. In fact, I didn’t look forward to sleep, and the nightmares I knew would be waiting for me, at all. I felt strongly that I had to let his father know. I couldn’t imagine him not knowing that his daughter was safe. And that his son had been killed. It ate me up. To the point that I was willing to go back into Russia just to tell him. Not that that was a realistic option; Rout would never approve that as a mission plan, but that’s how I felt. Devastated. I once read that compassion is a mark of maturity. Compassion for others, and compassion for yourself. That you need to learn to forgive yourself. I reminded myself of that, but simply wasn’t anywhere near that point. Maybe I never would be. It wasn’t the first companion I’d lost in combat, but it was the only child I’d ever been entrusted with who had been killed. His father had put his faith in me. And I’d failed both him and Robert. I couldn’t wait to get stinking drunk. Maybe passing out would keep my unconscious mind dulled enough to avoid dreaming about him. But I doubted it. # Aftermath Candice visited me every day I was on base. I thought long and hard about adopting her, but couldn’t justify it, as her father was still alive. But was he really her father, in the biological sense? Probably didn’t matter as, when they left the United States, he was her legal guardian. I thought about it: He was excited about escaping from Soviet control; that was obvious to me. But he was then willing to go back into captivity so that his children could live free in America. So was he really a traitor? Probably not. Military intelligence (there’s that phrase that always makes me chuckle again) would have to determine how much he was currently helping the Soviets, now that they didn’t have any hostages to coerce him with. Then again, the Soviets have plenty of methods to ensure cooperation that don’t involve threatening anyone but their victim. So I put in a request to return to rescue him, but that was a total nonstarter. It wouldn’t have surprised me if Colonel Rout had actually chuckled as he read it. A regular laugh-riot, that colonel. Apparently, our intelligence had grossly underestimated the security force present on Pudovlak’s base, and Candice and I had been lucky to survive the ordeal. As much as I wanted a rematch, now that we had blood and tissue samples from Candice, Dr. Pudovlak was lower, much lower, on our nation’s priority list. The good doctor had been right; our scientists were able to reverse engineer Candice’s genetic coding to launch a new generation of hybrids. My guess was that they would be born/hatched/developed/built, or whatever they did to bring about creatures such as me, over the next year or two. Of course, the Soviets still had Pudovlak to work for them and restart their program. But, really, how much would they motivate him without his children there? It’s one thing to torture someone for information. Quite another to get him to develop cutting-edge technology and to stay a step ahead of us. Especially since we now had the genetic code from his latest breakthroughs. We had a gravestone made for Robert, and the two of us and a priest held a small funeral for him. I haven’t cried that much in, well, in a helluva long time. Maybe never. The queasy, nauseous feeling I got whenever I thought of Dr. Pudovlak and the trust he placed in me, and how I failed to protect his son was, at times, more than uncomfortable. Those were the times when my appetite left. Those were the times when my nightmares came. Those were the times when I treasured Candice’s visits the most. And it seemed that those times happened fairly often. # After a brief furlough, I was to report to a new base for a new assignment, this time in South America. Candice would remain in the States, where she would attend school and have her various attributes tested regularly. Our scientists were anxious to see how her abilities developed as she grew up. I visited her whenever I could. We chatted and Face Timed almost every day that I wasn’t on assignment. I was happy that she was growing up living a relatively normal childhood. At least relatively normal as Army brats went. OK, not exactly a normal army-brat childhood. She had foster parents. She was evaluated by scientists on a fairly regular basis. She frequently gave blood and tissue samples to evaluate her biologic maturation. She had mandatory visits with a psychologist. Which she probably didn’t need half as much as I did. But I had missions to complete, places to go and people to kill. Still, she’d made friends and was becoming more interested in boys and dating. I wasn’t sure how I felt about that; I remember my teenage years, and I was no angel. Then again, she could certainly take care of herself. When she turned thirteen, I decided to have that “Birds and Bees” talk with her when I returned to the States. Honestly, anticipating that dreaded talk with her scared me more than my next mission. As I started the discussion, she looked at me quizzically. “You’re not going to talk to me about sex, are you?” she asked. “Um. Me? Yeah. Well, about that. I think that. . .” My dad already talked to me about that. You don’t have to worry. I’m not going to get pregnant. Actually, I can’t get pregnant. I’m sterile, just like you are, so you don’t have to worry about that.” “Well, that’s good.” I meant good that her dad had discussed these life issues with her - not good that she was sterile. I was a slick talker, huh? I wondered if that was an area of sadness for her too, but I didn’t think that this was the time to broach that subject. “I mean, I’m glad your dad was able to discuss things with you.” As a guy, and someone who considered myself a surrogate father of sorts, I had more reservations about the whole guy-girl dating thing than just becoming pregnant, but that was probably just my hang-up. Still, there was no way I wasn’t going to keep tabs on her dating activities through my contacts on her base. As I waited at my current South American base for a helicopter ride into the wilderness for my next assignment, I said goodbye and promised to call. I closed the internet connection, closed my eyes, and thought of Candice. My new happy thought. Then I stretched out on my bunk for a nice, long catnap before I went back into yet another jungle.