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Chapter XL

Four Months Ago

The man awoke on a very narrow bed on a very thin mattress. His limbs were in awkward, improbable positions and he felt the ache of the sickness. The ceiling above him was more recognizable to him than the faces of old friends. Was he home? Looking around he decided he was.

His mouth felt old, full of desert. It was a hot day and the sweat poured from his body. On the floor near the door of his room was a fat brown envelope. Some residual optimism suggested it was his pension, but he had made it very difficult for the Federal Government to find him.

That someone had managed to find his address disturbed him greatly.

He opened the flaps and peered inside. There were a few pages of vellum and what appeared to be a small plastic baggie. He reached for the baggie, sprinkled a white powder onto his palm. He really should not touch this stuff, he knew. It could be poison or weaponized anthrax. He dabbed a moistened finger into the powder and ran it beneath his lips. His eyes crossed and he sank into his bed, awash in the same vivid imagery of moons, snakes, and the end of the world he would not see again until that alley in Vienna.

Pulling the seven sheets of apparently blank paper from the envelope, he searched their corners. Each had at least one small blue dot on one corner, one sheet had seven. He didn’t want to see what was on these papers and yet he needed to know.

The lamp sputtered to life and he carefully balanced each sheet directly in front of the flame. Too far away and the letters were illegible, too close and well, no more message. He struggled with his shaking hands before he captured the letter’s meaning.

Done, he gave the entire sheath to the fire and swept the ashes into his waste-paper basket. That he would burn tonight in the alley. Wonderful place, Morocco.

He dressed and readied himself for the street. The shakes were setting up now but he had no time to waste. The second package was already on its way and here at to be there to receive it. There were some things in his apartment he would mind missing and these he stuffed in an old Airforce rucksack. The street was witheringly hot, his straw hat only barely shielding him. There was a restaurant down the street from him; he took a table and ordered a strong cup of coffee. The torpid exoticism of Casablanca’s streets offended him, the smells and sound and strolling insanity. He gripped the little handle of his cup tightly and waited.

It was several hours before the telegram came and by that time he was nearly blind with the sickness. When it got bad, he fished around inside of his rucksack for loose cigarettes. He found one and only one, his last Marlboro. He held it between his fingers for a long time, considering it. Some part of himself needed the power to resist the cigarette more than the nicotine itself. That there was still a corner of his being able to do this was a source of intense amazement.

He was still holding the unlit cigarette when the telegram arrived. Opening the envelope, he read and reread its contents. Spaceman: Wake Up.

The agent stood up from his chair, unsteady and perspiring freely. He had been expecting a message from Section Starfire or the KGB or maybe a novelist but not this. Someone knew not only how to reach him, but how to make him sit up and take notice. That was a person worth talking with. All he had to do was accept another mission from Section Starfire. Easy.

He took one glance at the cigarette and flicked it into the street.

June 20th 1965:

Spaceman was once more walking down a corridor, in lock-step with AC drones. They passed by innumerable doors, many marked with hazard signs. The people they encountered appeared to be AC for the most part but he thought he spotted a few Russian observers. They gave him a look of pity. They knew where he was going, and what would happen when he got there.

He soaked up as much of this as he could possibly stand and then stopped walking. The drones kept trudging on without him for a few steps, before awkwardly turning around to fetch him. In that small window of time, Spaceman leaned over to a Russian.

“Da,” the observer said, and pulled out a dark brown cigarette. A silver lighter with big red star sparked and Spaceman pulled in his first drag of damp, foul Russian tobacco. It tasted like hope.

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Link to First Chapter


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