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Como Siempre

The 1952 Chevy camper truck stood near the cracked cement foundation of a long-gone diner, and the truck rocked on its shock absorbers whenever a particularly strong gust of wind swept in from the east, out of the vast expanse of the Mojave Desert.

A dozen oddly-assorted vehicles were parked haphazardly on the barren plain, and even the several big mobile home trailers were dwarfed to insignificance by the titanic boulder that stood up stark against the empty blue sky and blocked most of the view to the north. The boulder was seven stories tall and half again as wide, and the narrow fringe of spray-paint graffiti around its base made it look as if it had once stood in a shallow sea of colorful flotsam. The Hopi Indians had considered the boulder sacred, the heart of Mother Earth, and prophesied that a new era would begin when one day the giant rock would split; and in fact twenty years ago one side of it had split off, and now rested like a beached ship beside the hardly-diminished natural monument.

Three other massive boulders, imposing in any other setting, stood on the sand around it, and a ridge of tumbled rocks bordered the area to the west. The spray-paint graffiti on these surrounding granite and quartz surfaces were all staring eyes, or R.I.P. remembrances of people noted only by their first names. Clearly the sacred aura around this immense standing stone hadn’t entirely diminished with the 1882 departure of the Hopis to a reservation in Arizona.

But any mood of spirituality on this Sunday morning was dissipating fast. The broken wreckage of the supposed UFO had been found shortly after dawn, and and had now been trucked back to this plain at the north end of the three-mile dirt road that led back to the little town of Landers; and already the emerging consensus among the gathered UFO enthusiasts was that the event had been a hoax, albeit an elaborate one. The argument now was mostly whether it had been perpetrated by the Russian, Chinese, or United States government.

Cars and trucks were still arriving—a dust-cloud and spots of reflected glare to the south told of at least a couple more vehicles approaching, their drivers no doubt hoping for evidence of extraterrestrials.

Sebastian Vickery stepped up onto the running board of the pickup truck and looked across the truck’s dusty roof at the scattered clusters of people visible on this side of Giant Rock. Even with a wide-brimmed hat and dark sunglasses he had to squint in the waxing reflections of sunlight on sand and stone, and the creosote-smelling wind threw veils of dust across his view.

As far as Vickery was concerned, this trip was proving to be a waste of time; he had come in the hope that Pierce Plowman might show up, since he’d had no luck getting in touch with Plowman during these past seven days, but the old man wasn’t among any of the groups of people on the plain, and Plowman hadn’t been in either of the trucks that had gathered up the evidently bogus UFO wreckage.

When Vickery had driven up the long desolate track from Landers and parked here, the first thing he had done, after noting the locations of all the other vehicles and satisfying himself that he would not be disturbed sitting in his truck, was to stare through the windshield until the rocks and the sky were just random patterns of color, and then focus beyond them. And when he was seeing the recent local past by echo-light— the stony landscape relatively bright even in echo-view on this unclouded desert morning—old habits had made him scrutinize the scene, and he had detected no signs of surveillance arrangements or covert organization among the sightseers.

And then, still seeing the recent past, he had stared up at the great monolith, glowing an impossible color that was both something like brown and something like silver, and thought about dragging his easel and paint-box and a canvas out of the back of the truck.

When his vision had abruptly and glaringly shifted back to the view of real time, he had relaxed and got out of the truck to look for Plowman. Uselessly, as it had turned out.

He was glad the echo-vision worked reliably these days—a year and a half ago he and Ingrid Castine had found that the ability to see behind now showed them only a terrible old ruined house that had once stood in Topanga Canyon, south of Los Angeles. In 1968 the house had been the site of a hippie cult’s attempt to create a thing called an egregore, an autonomous group mind that would forcibly draw other minds and dissolve them into itself; the 1968 attempt had failed, but in 2018 it had been tried again by a Silicon Valley entrepreneur named Simon Harlowe. Harlowe had discovered that Vickery and Castine, with their fractured connection to sequential time, would together be the ideal Interface Message Processor . . . or switchboard, or router, or thalamus . . . of his egregore. Vickery had ultimately had to kill two people, including Harlowe, to get himself and Castine free of the soul-destroying psychic whirlpool.

Castine had stayed two nights at Vickery’s trailer in Barstow, sleeping in his bed while he slept on the living room couch, and when the trouble was past, they had considered the idea of Vickery moving to Gaithersburg, Maryland, where Castine had an apartment; but ultimately he had decided to stay in California.

Though they had parted amiably, there had been no contact between them in the year and a half since. He supposed she was still working in some capacity for the Office of Naval Intelligence.

Vickery hopped down from the running board. Plowman had not appeared, and he wanted to catch the 8 AM mass at Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church in Twentynine Palms, a long twenty mile drive to the southeast.

The two vehicles that had been visible advancing up the dirt road had now arrived at the broad clear area. One was a new bright blue Jeep, and the other was a gray Ford van of ‘60s vintage with the back windows painted over white. They apparently weren’t together—the Jeep stopped near the fallen segment of the great boulder, while the van circled around and parked fifty yards behind Vickery’s truck. From old training, Vickery noticed that the van’s engine sounded mutedly powerful, and that there was an extended extra mirror on the driver’s side. Its tires looked incongruously new.

Two women climbed out of the Jeep and gaped up at the monolith, raised hands shading their sunglasses—but Vickery’s face was suddenly cold. Even at this distance, he recognized Ingrid Castine, looking thinner than he remembered, in blue jeans and a long-sleeve white blouse and hiking boots. Her auburn hair, tossing in the wind, was longer now.

His reflexive reactions were two; a smile twitched at his lips, and his right hand touched the hard, flat bulk of the 9-millimeter Glock 43 under his denim jacket.

Then, still facing toward them and away from the van that had arrived in their wake, he opened the truck’s door and climbed in. The windshield was dusty, and with the hat pulled down low over the sunglasses, he could certainly drive wide around the women and disappear to the south without her recognizing him.

He knew that would be the wisest course.

But, he thought, what is she doing here? One week after Frankie Notchett was arrested? Notchett’s just a small-time Los Angeles poet interested in UFOs, but he was Pierce Plowman’s friend and confidant . . . disciple, even. Could Castine be here looking for Plowman, same as me? I came here to warn him—what would be her motive?

Vickery glanced at the passenger-side mirror. Nobody had emerged from the van. He dug his keys out of the jacket’s side pocket. After fitting one into the ignition slot on the dashboard, he slouched back, alternately watching the two women and the van behind him.

Perhaps Naval Intelligence was checking out the reported UFO crash, and it was simply a long-odds coincidence that Castine was one of the agents assigned to the investigation.

If I drive away, he thought, I’ll never know why she’s here.

And I do know, he thought, as well as I know . . . well, not my own name . . . as well as I know east from west, that she would never knowingly betray me.

Castine and her companion had at first moved forward, away from him, to mingle with the sparse groups picking over the wreckage of the fake UFO; but now they were walking back this way between the randomly parked cars and trucks. If they maintained their present direction, they would arrive at the old cross-shaped pavement, and pass close by Vickery’s truck, in no more than a minute. They appeared to be chatting, but Castine was darting glances around at the widely-spaced parked vehicles, and the other woman never took her eyes off Castine’s face.

Vickery touched the ignition key, and hesitated—and in that moment Castine looked squarely at the truck’s windshield, and Vickery met her gaze, and even at this distance the recognition was palpably mutual, though her expression didn’t change.

Then the sudden harsh boom of an explosion behind him battered his eardrums and rocked his truck, and a white BMW was racing across the plain below the towering boulder. Vickery spun in his seat and saw a churning turbulence of flames where the van had been, and pieces of debirs skittering across the dirt and spinning away through the air.

He turned back to look through the windshield—Castine was now leaning against a parked and unoccupied Volkswagen, and her companion had drawn a gun and was sprinting toward the burning shell of the van; the BMW that had sped past the boulder was now just a dimishing silhouette in a cloud of dust on the road to Landers.

Castine looked across the distance between herself and Vickery’s truck, and swept her hand in a wave that clearly meant go.

Vickery bared his teeth, squinting after the receding BMW. He couldn’t hope to catch up to it in his camper truck, but he had once been a Los Angeles police officer, and he wanted to get a closer look at that car. It was obvious that no one inside the van could have survived the explosion, and no one else had been close enough to be injured—and the woman who had accompanied Castine was now talking on a cell phone, and would probably be effectively distracted for at least a minute.

A quick glance at the cars parked in the direction the fleeing vehicle had come from was enough for him to memorize their arrangement, and then he sat back and made himself relax, breathing deeply. He stared at the giant rock and the sky and the desert, and in a few seconds he was seeing the shapes as merely a two-dimensional pattern—with specks and blobs that must have been airborne pieces of the van moving rapidly across it—and when the view was just an abstract mobile collage, he flexed his focus to look past it.

His vision regained depth, though dimmed now in brassy echo-light, and the roaring of the fire was muted; he quickly peered toward the cars he had scrutinize a moment earlier, and he saw a pale BMW among them that had not been visible there a few seconds ago in real time. He could just make out the silhouettes of two heads in it. In the remaining seconds of the echo-vision, he pushed open the door of his truck—though to his atemporal view his hand was invisible and the door did not open—and he simply stepped through the appearance of the door as if it were a hologram; and he had taken several running steps toward the evident BMW, hoping to get close enough to see its license plate and trusting to luck not to collide with somebody or trip over some unseen fragment of the van, when light and sound crashed back into his senses.

The BMW, of course, was no longer visible where it had been some time earlier, and he was ten feet away from his truck. He glanced around quickly: Castine’s companion was standing a good distance back from the roaring fire, facing it and still talking on her cell phone; looking in the other direction, Vickery saw Castine push herself away from the Volkswagen and then stumble and catch her balance, evidently disoriented. She looked from Vickery’s truck to where he was standing a few yards away from it, and she scowled at him and began hastil scrawling letters in the dust on the Volkswagen’s windshield. The letters spelled RUN!

Okay, he thought, and turned to hurry back to his truck . . .

But the sky was glittering. He looked up—and slid to a halt, the breath stopped in his throat.

Sunlit silvery spheres were rushing back and forth across the empty blue firmament in eerie silence, their size and distance impossible to guess—they moved and changed course as rapidly as needles on a seismograph, and in the first couple of seconds he assumed his vision had gone bad, perhaps the onset of a stroke.

But when he looked down he saw that the people closer to the rock were pointing at the sky and running in every direction, presumably toward their cars.

Vickery raised his head and again stared upward. It was still hard to grasp that the silver globes darting across the sky were real, though they were gleaming in the morning sunlight—but several of them briefly circled over Giant Rock before springing away in all directions and instantly reuniting in a helical pattern directly overhead—at a height of a a hundred yards, a mile?—and he realized that there was order in their ever-changing velocities; and he was suddenly certain that their motions were deliberate, and reflected some sort of sentience or sentiences.

Vickery felt tiny and terribly exposed on this flat desert plain—he remained standing, though every nerve in his body was tensed in readiness to huddle, crawl under the truck, hide his frail identity from the shining beings in the sky.

He had to look down. Castine was staring up at the celestial prodigy, but she looked away from it long enough to stare blankly at Vickery for several seconds, and then shake her head and slap the Vokswagen’s windshield.

And a moment later the sky was empty, the silvery globes having vanished as instantly and soundlessly as they had manifested themselves.

Vickery glanced quickly around at the unobstructed remote horizons to the east and south, then hurriedly ran to his truck, climbed in and started the engine. The things are gone, he told himself, if they were ever really there. Sundogs, desert mirages! Castine is involved in some government work here, and you’re in danger of blowing her cover. Whatever her work is, it probably has to do with the atmospheric phenomena that just appeared in the sky, and nothing to do with you.

He took a deep breath, and exhaled.

But Castine had clearly meant, You have to get out of here.

He rocked the gear shift lever into first gear, and he nodded to her as he sped past her and the other cars and steered around onto the dirt track that would take him to Landers and Old Woman Springs Road and south to the Twentynine Palms Highway.

In the rear view mirror he saw Castine’s companion sprinting toward the Jeep and waving at Castine. In moments they had both scrambled into the Jeep, and now it was rolling along in the dust of his wake.

Recalling Castine’s evident alarm at seeing him, and the gun the other woman had been openly carrying, Vickery pressed his foot down on the gas pedal, and the old truck shook as it gained speed.

The Jeep accelerated too, bobbing over the uneven road, and it was gaining on him. Gripping the jerking wheel tightly with one hand, he tapped the gun under his jacket and then pulled out his phone, popped the back off of it, and pried out the battery.

With both hands on the wheel again, he concentrated on the bumpy road rushing under the tires.

The Jeep would certainly have better suspension than his truck, and he was thinking about what he would do if its driver cut him off, or fired a warning shot—or worse!—but when he darted a quick glance at the mirror he saw the Jeep swerve and lose speed and then pull to the side of the track. In moments it was lost to view in the dust cloud raised by his truck.

Thinking of his tires, he let up on the gas pedal, but kept a wary eye on the mirror.

Forty minutes later, Vickery had arrived at Blessed Sacrament church. He sat close to the wall in the back pew, partly so that no other communicants would give him curious looks when he remained seated and didn’t walk up to the altar for Communion with the rest of the congregation, and partly so that he could see everyone who came in through the open doors at the back of the nave.

He had not seen the blue Jeep again, but old training had kept him alert and ready to make evasive moves all the way here, and he had not yet completely relaxed.

Morning sunlight extended from the church entrance almost all the way to the altar, and he was sitting well to the side, in shadow. The altar and the crucifix were set back behind a tall, wide arch, but even from the back of the church he had been able to see the priest raise the host at the Consecration, and Vickery bowed his head.

During the past seven years he had attended Sunday mass more often than not, and he had gone to Confession nearly as often, but he had not taken Communion in that time. The two Transportation Utility agents he had killed in 2013 had very nearly succeeded in killing him first—in an attempted ad hoc execution in a desert gully outside Palmdale—because he had unknowingly stumbled onto the top-secret ghost-trafficking in which the TUA was then involved. He had had to kill men since then, one in a Los Angeles street, two in a field by Topanga Beach, and a teenager in a Jewish deli in Los Angeles, but the pair of agents in the desert had cast a shadow on his soul which the subsequent killings—justified and necessary though each of them had been—had only deepened. He knew it was shame, even to some extent a self-aggrandizing sort of shame, that kept him from consuming God’s body and blood at Communion, but he had so far never managed to overcome it.

When mass ended, he waited until the last of the congregants had shuffled out, taking copies of the church bulletin and shaking hands with the priest, before he stood up and made his way to the open doors. The priest was out on the cement apron in front of the church, talking to several well-dressed elderly people, and beyond them was nothing but a trailer or two on the face of the desert that extended away to distant mountains.

No cars at all were visible at the moment on the street, and Vickery even glanced warily into the sky before he walked to the right and paused at the corner of the church. He had parked around in the back, behind some auxiliary building, but past this point was a small asphalt lot with nine parking spaces, and he had noted the cars parked there when he had arrived. Despite feeling self-conscious, he slid his hand inside his jacket now as he stepped out from behind the church wall.

His hand clenched on the grip of the Glock when he saw the blue Jeep parked in the nearest parking space, but in nearly the same instant he let his hand fall empty out of his jacket; Castine was sitting in the Jeep, alone, and he knew how she must have found him. Behind her sunglasses her expression was bleak.

He gave the other cars a cursory look, then trudged up to the Jeep.

“Hey, Ingrid,” he said quietly.

She nodded. “Nearest Catholic Church,” she said in a strained voice. “I Googled for it, and figured you’d try for the 8 AM.” She was gripping the steering wheel tightly. “You’ve wrecked my life again. I assaulted a government agent, my partner—I’ll probably go to prison! And—accessory! Some ONI guys died in that explosion. Sensitive Assignment Specialists! Damn it, Sebastian! Why were you there? You don’t even believe in flying saucers!”

She touched her hair over her right temple, and Vickery recalled that she had a bullet scar there, from a time when he had arguably wrecked her life.

He stared at her, mystified. “I was minding my own business—looking for a guy.”

“Sure, Plowman.” She blinked rapidly, and he realized that she was not far from tears. “And you apparently heard something from him that you shouldn’t have heard. Why do you keep doing that? They’re g-gonna lock you up somewhere, and you’ll be lucky ever to see a taco again. Me too, now.” She squinted around as if noting the arid landscape for the first time, and she too glanced warily at the sky. “Where’s your truck? I’ve got to ditch this Jeep.” She climbed out and stood on the asphalt, and Vickery saw the grip of a small pistol in her waistband, no bigger than .380 caliber. He auburn hair had been disarranged by the wind, and a strand fell across her eyes when she snatched off her sunglasses.

“Sebastian,” she said in a shaky whisper as she pushed it back, “what were those things?”

He shivered, remembering the brief spectacle. “God, Ingrid,” he said quietly, “I don’t know. UFOs! Almost as if they were drawn by that van blowing up.” He shook his head and glanced at the sky again, then shrugged and looked at her. “What’s this about Plowman?”

“I don’t know. He’s a UFO nut, they’ve got a photo of you with him. Sorry—UAP nut. Anomalous Aerial Phenomena.”

“He’s a nut on all kinds of subjects . . . and he’s never said anything worthwhile.”

“I don’t think it matters.”

After a few seconds in which the wind was the only sound, Vickery said, “Naval Intelligence knew those things would appear?”

“No. We were there so I could identify you, and specialists in the van were going to arrest you, because of some ultra-classified knowledge you have. Why didn’t you drive away right after I waved you off?”

“I was about to, but then your van blew up and a car over by the big rock took off fast, too fast for me to get much of a look at it. So I—I went into echo-vision to try to see it whie it was still parked.”

“You did? Dammit, I bet that’s why I got tipped into it too. I got stuck with ten seconds of silent dark downtime while everything was goinng on!”

Vickery recalled that she had seemed dazed when she had pushed herself away from the Volkswagen, just as he himself had been recovering from the brief echo-vision episode. And there had been times in the past when they had both inadvertently fallen into that state at the same time.

“Sorry,” he said. “At least you were holding still by that Volkswagen, not walking around.”

“Let’s not hold still now.”

“Right.” Vickery took her elbow and led her toward the church’s back lot. “I don’t have any ultra-classified information. Round the back here, just past that Dumpster. Except maybe having seen what happened there today.”

“Something Plowman told you. Slow down, will you?”

“I came to warn him about people like you. I’m pretty sure a friend of his got taken by something like your crowd.” He had his keys out, and he unlocked and opened the truck’s pasenger-side door. “And Plowman’s just a nut, an eccentric,” he said as she slid into the seat. “Flying saucers,chemtrails, he even thinks the Earth is flat.” He closed her door, then hurried around the front bumper, got in and started the engine. “You assaulted a government agent back there? Why?”

She sniffed and stared out the side window at a blank stucco wall. In a frail voice, she asked, “What’s chemtrails?”

“Jet vapor trails. Conspiracy nuts think they’re mind-control chemicals.” He had parked parallel to the building, and now drove in a circle to exit onto the street and make a left turn. “So . . . why?”

“Guess,” she said flatly.

He grimaced and nodded. “Uh . . . thanks.”

“I owed you,” she said, and inhaled deeply. “Or so it seemed at the time. She—this agent, my partner!—she saw what I wrote on the Volkswagen’s window before I could wipe it off, and she saw you take off, and then she handcuffed me and we got in the Jeep to catch you. It looked like we would catch you, too, so I, I pepper-sprayed her! She ran us off the road.”

“Ah.” Vickery recalled the pursuing blue Jeep slowing and steering off the dirt track, and he tried to think of something better to say than Thanks.

“I, uh, owe you too,” he said.

“You sure do.”

He turned left onto the highway that would eventually lead them south to the 10 Freeway. Old Man 10, the freeway gypsies in Los Angeles called it, and, irrational though the thought was, he knew he’d feel less exposed in its coursing flow and off these shallow-seeming surface streets.

“She was blinded,” Castine went on with a visble shiver, “all hissing and choking. I got this gun out of her holster and made her give me the cuff key. Then I pushed her out and drove off, searching on my phone for the nearest Catholic church. And I took the battery out of my phone, after.” Her voice had trailed away in a yawn, and she shivered again. “I can’t begin to imagine the kind of trouble I’m in.” She put her sunglasses back on and looked left and right at the drug stores and offices and restaurants widely spaced between flat, barren lots. “Where are we going?”

“Be on the 10 before long. Then—L.A., I guess. Do they know about this Bill Ardmore identity? I haven’t been fingerprinted since I adopted it.”

“They didn’t seem to. What’s in L.A.?”

“My trailer, these days. And I’d like to find Plowman.”

“Why not, I suppose. Still, it’ll be nice to be on the old 10 again.” She tugged the little pistol from her waistband and bent forward to slide it under the seat, then leaned back and stretched. “I’m dead for sleep,” she muttered, “sorry. Wake me up if we get anywhere.”

Within moments her head was resting against the door window and she was snoring softly.

He looked away from the straight line of the rushing highway to glance at her sleeping profile, noting a few faint new wrinkles beside her eye and down her cheek; and he was wryly surprised at how natural it seemed, even after a year and a half, for her to be sitting beside him in a car, both of them running from big weird trouble. What had she been doing since that August?

He sighed deeply. Taking her under his wing again would certainly disrupt, perhaps destroy, the life he had lately managed to make for himself. But in an odd way he felt as if he had been expecting it, even counting on it. Marking time.

Su apuro es mi apuro, he thought, como siempre. Your trouble is mine, as always.

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