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Two San Bernardino County fire engines and three Sheriff’s cars had pulled up near the remains of the van, which was now just a steaming, blackened frame. Clouds of sand were streaming away in the wash from the rotors of a low-flying helicopter. Firemen in yellow turnout coats and pants and helmets appeared to be poking through the ruin, and sheriff’s deputies in sunglasses and khaki were questioning bystanders.

Sitting in his rented Honda fifty yards away from the aftermath activity, the man currently called Tacitus Banach was furious at everyone, especially himself. He had arrived early, picked a strategic parking spot, mingled with the gathering crowd and surreptitiously photographed the license plates of all the vehicles—but in the crucial moments when things had started to happen, he had been . . . incapacitated. Blind, for ten seconds!

He leaned back, closed his eyes, and shivered.

And then when he had recovered his senses, the aerial phenomena had been happening directly overhead! He had been informally studying them for two years—buying beers for people who claimed to have witnessed UFO appearances, visiting alleged landing sites, gleaning nuggets of consistency from badly printed pamphlets and semi-literate posts online, but until this morning he had never actually seen the things.

The gleaming silver spheres—their sizes impossible to guess—clustering, separating, rebounding from the corners of the sky! He had been too frightened—no, too awed, humbled—to do more than gape at them, probably with his mouth hanging open like a fool.

But he had already been disoriented at that point. When the van exploded and the BMW had precipitately fled the scene, he had seen a black-haired woman in cargo pants and a khaki bush jacket draw a gun and run toward the burning van—

—and then, infuriatingly, he had fallen out of now. For a good ten seconds he had only dared to stand still in the muted brassy dimness, helplessly looking at the scene as it had been at some time in the recent past.

And it was when the light and noise of real time came back that the whole firmament of the sky had been gliteringly alive with the darting mirror-bright shapes, and he had been helpless to look at anything else until the impossible things vanished.

He had managed to collect himself then, and he saw the old Chevy camper truck start up; it drove away south, and the woman in the khaki bush jacket and another woman scrambled into a blue Jeep and took off, evidently pursuing the camper truck. Banach had been standing too far away from his own car to hope to catch up to them—which would arguably have been unwise in any case.

Banach opened his eyes now and shifted around on the car seat, letting his gaze ascend the massive shoulder of the great rock; and for a few moments he was able to view the stupidities and inadequacies of this morning as inconsequential. Tacitus Banach was sixty years old, nearshighted, somewhat overweight, and balding. This towering boulder had sat here, unconsidered during the millenia before humans even existed, then worshipped, then more recently and briefly a focus of NLO activity, ultimately destined to watch over this desert long after humanity was no more than an imperceptible adulteration of the dust in this infinity of sand.

He shook his head sharply and reminded himself to think in English. UFO, not NLO—Unidentified Flying Objects, not Neopoznannyy Letat Oj’jektu. You represent the old guard, he told himself firmly; not like those two hooligans who conspicuously raced away right after the explosion! The GRU—the Glavnoye Razvedyvatel’noye Upravleniye, the Soviet Military Intelligence Directorate—survived the fall of the Soviet Union honorably intact, unlike the more celebrated KGB, but some of these new recruits are just crude thugs, useless for strategic work.

But maybe I’m becoming useless myself: nikudyshnyy, if I may indulge for another moment. My visions of the recent past never happened involuntarily before! What use am I, how can I even drive a car, if at any moment I might fall out of now, and only be able to see what has already happened?

Since the interludes in which he viewed the past were controllable—had until now been controllable!—Banach had kept the ability a secret from his superiors. He had only been able to “look backward” in that way during the last three years . . . after one disastrous morning in March of 2017.

Born in Kaliningrad in 1960, he had enrolled in the Zhdanov Higher Military Engineering School at eighteen, and at twenty-two he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Soviet Army. He would most likely have been deployed to Afghanistan with the 40th Army to fight the mujahideen insurgents, but a Mandate Commission spotted him as a candidate for the Staff College of the Soviet Army, known as the Military Diplomatic Academy or MDA, and after a number of interviews and background investigations he had received orders to report to the MDA campus in Moscow.

At that point he had been a GRU officer, and because he was unmarried and had achieved fluency in English and had studied British and American fiction and nonficton, he was chosen to operate under deep cover as an “illegal” agent—working abroad without diplomatic cover, under an assumed name—in the United States. He had then been specially trained in covert communications, evasion of surveillance, American speech and the operation and maintenance of American cars, and and as an illegal-in-training he had been forbidden to go to Moscow restaurants frequented by foreigners, or to have his picture taken in any setting identifiable as Moscow.

And after three years he had been posted to Canada to establish a “legend,” a false identity. It had been decided that he would be provided with credentials allowing him to get a job in an American college as a professor of Political Science, and he had eventually worked his way up to a position at the University of Southern California. By that time the Soviet Union had collapsed and fragmented, but the GRU had continued to function as a cornerstone Russian intelligence service.

And for twenty years there, under the name Andrius Kuprys, he had taught classes in National Ideologies and Comparative Politics and Marxist Theory, and hosted discussion groups in his Mid City apartment, always watching for the occasional student with intelligence and political ambitions and strong commitment to militant socialist philosophies. “Andrius Kuprys” functioned only as a talent-spotter, passing on likely names to his handler. Direction, persuasion and the winnowing out of all but the few really likely agent candidates were undertaken by GRU operatives of whom Kuprys knew nothing.

At first Kuprys had resented his sedentary middleman position, though his superiors insisted that well-placed talent-spotters were too valuable to be put at risk as agent-handlers too. But after a few years of it he had got tenure at the university, had published essays in American Political Science Review and The Journal of Socialist Theory, and he took satisfaction in seeing a couple of his nominated students go on to positions in the California State Legislature. The first rungs of the ladder!

But in 2017 it had all abruptly come to an end. After a mass arrest of Soviet illegal agents in New Jersey and New York in 2010, the FBI had been devoting a large part of its workforce to finding and arresting more such agents, and charging them with failing to register as agents of a foreign government. The captured agents were imprisoned and, in most cases, evetually traded back to Russia—there to face an uncertain future, at best.

Andrius Kuprys had very nearly been caught in the FBI net.

One morning in March of ’17 he had, as often before, stuck a flash-drive into a certain patch of grass in a shopping center parking lot for his handler to retrieve, but the FBI had evidently been monitoring him for some time. As he stepped away from the grass, the doors of two tan Ford Explorer SUVs parked beside his Toyota sprang open, and a moment later Banach had found himself facing four young men in business suits, each carrying a gun and an open badge wallet.

Banach’s Toyota was parked on the far side of the two SUVs, and his hands were in the pockets of his tweed sportcoat. With his left thumb he pressed the Panic/Alarm button on his key fob and in the same moment looked past the agents with a startled expression. He had long ago replaced the Toyota’s factory horn with a 150-decibel Zone Tech dual trumpet horn, and when the shocking metallic bellow shook the air, sounding like a semi-trailer truck imminently bearing down on them all, he dived to his left and tried to do a forward roll between two parked cars; but his hands slipped in an oil puddle and his head collided hard with the pavement.

He had wobbled to his feet with hot blood coursing down his face, and his head ringing along with the intermittently blaring car horn behind him. An old station wagon was trundling past in the parking lot lane, and he yanked open its driver’s side door and managed to pull a horrified woman out onto the pavement; and he was in the driver’s seat and steering unsteadily out of the parking lot when one of the FBI agents fired three shots.

One shot struck the left front fender, one punched through the driver’s side window, stinging his cheek and his left eye with a spray of glass, and the third struck the door frame and ricocheted upward to jarringly graze the side of his head.

He had been trained in functioning while concussed, and reflexively began countinng, “Adeen, dva, tree, chityri—” to maintain continuity in what he was seeing: a driveway onto a main street, an open lane, cars swerving, probably car horns blaring in unheard protest . . . 

A green freeway entrance sign registered as an opportunity for speed and distance, and his hands automatically steered the hijacked car into the curving onramp lane as his foot pressed down hard on the accelerator.

He was aware that he had got onto the 110 freeway, though staying in one lane required constant and sometimes wide correction, but the station wagon’s engine was stuttering—probably the bullet through the fender had damaged something. He reminded himself to check for pursuit—and the government SUVs were probably right behind him—but the rear-view mirror showed him only wind-blown dust. And through the windshield, too, he could see nothing but whipping curtains of sand. In panic he swung the steering wheel to the right, aiming the station wagon at an off-ramp barely visible through the sudden sandstorm.

Later he had learned that the Los Angeles freeways generated a field that could only be defined as supernatural, and that the field had been particularly strong on that day—to his benefit, ultimately, in a way. Probably.

No longer using the name Andrius Kuprys, Tacitus Banach now sighed and looked around at the barren plain in the now-harsh sunlight. Nearly all of the other cars had left the wide area around the giant boulder, and only one Sheriff’s car and one fire engine still sat near the wreckage of the van. He couldn’t see or hear the helicopter.

He started his engine, but paused before touching the gear shift lever. Having remembered his escape from the FBI three years ago, he couldn’t now evade the memory of what had happened to him when he drove down that unnatural freeway offramp—nor his subsequent doubts, never to this day entirely dismissed, of his own sanity.

The freeway sandstorm had abruptly cleared, but not in time for him to avoid crashing the hijacked station wagon into what had appeared to be a big greenhouse—though when he had opened the door and stumbled out onto loose sand, the flying pieces of glass had become clumsy butterflies that didn’t get far before falling to the sand and being eaten by tiny lizards. The sky was a churning cauldron of earth colors that made the horizon difficult to distinguish, though in his concussed state he hadn’t been able to focus on anything for more than a second or two anyway.

The chilly air was astringent, stinging his nose and lungs, and it seemed unnaturally thick, so that walking required conscious effort; and the perspective was scrambled—a step toward the station wagon left him facing away from it. Clinging to the scrap of order that had been playing in his mind, he had kept on counting, and soon the chain of spoken numbers became remembered metrical verses of a Pushkin poem.

And somehow the verses, recited in the same metronomic tone in which he had been reciting numbers, had eventually, step by labored step, led him out of the delirium. He had found himself at last in a brightly sunlit patch of weedy dirt encircled by an offramp of the Pasadena Freeway, many miles from where he had steered into that offramp to insanity.

The station wagon was lost beyond comprehension. Banach’s face was streaked with blood and his shirt was blotted with it, and a group of freeway-side gypsies encamped there had sat him down and given him a restorative cigarette and a beer. They had helped him clean up, and sold him a fairly fresh shirt, and he had walked to a train station.

He told his handler only that he had been unmasked and nearly arrested by the FBI. As expected, he had been taken to a safe house and given an interim false-name passport in order to return to Moscow by a circuitous route. Then for a month he had nominally been a “guest lecturer,” one who in fact did no lecturing, at a GRU school in Bykovo, forty kilometers east of Moscow. He had expected to be charged eventually with some deriliction of duty—but, to his surprise, he had again been sent to Canada to establish a new legend, a new and very different cover identity, as Tacitus Banach.

As Andrius Kuprys, he had been clean-shaven and physically fit and had spoken with a neutral trans-Atlantic accent; as Tacitus Banach he had a full gray beard and was encouraged to put on weight and affect a faint Oklahoma drawl. To secure his financial stability now that he was no longer receiving a university paycheck, an unknown person in Montana regularly mailed him packages of items like rare Barbie dolls and Lego sets and Montblanc fountain pens and Dunhill tobacco pipes, which Banach repackaged and sold on the eBay website.

His new assignment was to adopt the role of an eccentric conspiracy theorist and insinuate himself into the loose communities of flying saucer cultists in Los Angeles, and he had been pursuing that for the last couple of years . . . and had learned more, perhaps, than his masters had intended.

While still languishing as a non-lecturing lecturer in Bykovo, he had one morning lost his glasses—and discovered to his astonishment that, by focusing past his blurred view of now, he could briefly see his surroundings as they had been an hour earlier. The light had been dim and inconsistent, but he had not needed his glasses to see clearly by it.

And he discovered that he could do it again, at will.

In those backward-looking moments he was blind and deaf to what was actually going on around him in real time, but in these past three years there had been occasions when it had been helpful to be able to see what cars had been parked at certain locations at some earlier time, or what papers had recently been on a desk, or even what number had recently been called by someone in a now-vacated restaurant booth.

It was clear that he was no longer firmly set in the moment of now, and he believed he knew when the fracture had occurred—on that day when he had exited reality and then found his way back again.

He shifted into drive and steered toward the dirt road that would lead him away from Giant Rock and back to civilization. Now he’d have to report to his handler that the opportunity to slipstream in behind the Navy’s fake flying saucer gambit had been wasted: whatever chance there might have been to find Pierce Plowman among the cleverly lured crowd had been wrecked when those two idiot GRU agents had simply put a bomb under the Naval Intelligence van and then driven off immediately after the explosion, like bank robbers making a getaway! Banach would demand that those two clowns be sent back to Moscow.

The unpaved road was distinguishable in the vast flat desert only because of tire tracks and the absence of yucca and creosote bushes right in its path. Squinting ahead through his sunglasses, Banach saw the woman while she was still a hundred yards ahead of him.

She was trudging north, back toward Giant Rock, and he recognized her cargo pants and bush jacket—she had been the driver of the blue Jeep.

He was keeping his speed to less than fifteen miles per hour, so he had a couple of minutes to think before he would reach her.

She had drawn a gun and gone running toward the van immediately after it blew up. That indicated alertness, readiness, training; the van had been covert Naval Intelligence, and she was probably an ONI field agent, assisting in whatever ONI had meant to accomplish by drawing all the dedicated UFOlogists out here this morning.

But she probably hadn’t meant to be walking along this desert road now. Had the other woman forced her out of the Jeep?

As he began applying the brake, he glanced around in the car to be sure there was nothing she shouldn’t see. But his own gun was under the seat, and the paper cups and old issues of FATE magazine on the floor were no harm. All that was on the seat were his glasses case and a pack of Marlboros.

She watched as he approached, and her gaze flicked past his car, then back. As he rolled closer, he saw that she was holding a cell phone in one hand and a handkerchief in the other.

When he had slowed to a stop, he lowered his window. She was Asian, very pale behind wide sunglasses, and she kept swiping her nose with the handkerchief. Perhaps she was allergic to some desert weed.

“You don’t want to be out in the sun,” he told her.

“No,” she agreed hoarsely, trudging across the dirt to his window. “You’re about the last to leave there, right?”She looked back toward Giant Rock. “Can you give me a ride? Back south? I don’t want to ask the cops or the firemen.”

He peered past her and mimed surprise. “You walked here? You missed—good God, girl, you missed—”

“I was there. I saw the things in the sky. And the explosion. A girlfriend and I drove up, but we got in a fight on the way back, and she pushed me out of the car.” She brushed a sweaty strand of black hair off of her forehead. “A ride?”

“Oh, sure, hop in. Pushed you out? That’s attempted homicide out here, though the cops would have found you. Nobody else would give you a ride?”

“I waved them all off.” She walked around the back of the car and got in on the passenger side. “I thought my friend would come back for me,” she said as she closed the door and fastened the seatbelt, “and she’d worry if I was gone, but it looks like she blew me off.”

Banach lifted his foot from the brake and let the car idle forward, then touched the gas pedal enough to get back up to his moderate speed. “What do you think those things were?” he asked, with an unfeigned shiver. “I about had a heart attack. I’m Tacitus, by the way.”

“Like the Roman historian,” she said. “I’m Rayette. Can I bum one of your Marlboros?”

“Very good. And sure, help yourself.” He squinted at her, trying to guess where she might be carrying her gun. “I think it was stuff out of Area 51 over in Nevada—experimental aircraft. Or maybe Russian stuff, spying.” I wish, he thought.

“I don’t know what it was,” she said. She shook out a cigarette, and when he tapped the console she lifted the lid and found a Bic lighter. She lit the cigarette with an admirably steady hand, then just stared straight ahead through the windshield. “A mirage. People died in that van.”

If she were indeed an ONI agent, she must regard this morning’s events as a disastrous failure; and since his masters monitored most of the ONI’s communications, it was a loss for them as well. Those two young GRU fools!

Oh!” he said. “I didn’t see it, I just heard the boom and saw the smoke.” I didn’t see you with your gun, you understand, he thought. “I was hoping it was empty, like unattended propane or something. Jeez, that’s rough.” He decided to press on, “Did you know them?”

“No,” she said flatly.

“Well that’s a mercy.” Was that something Americans would say? He shook his head, and neither of them spoke for a full minute. “So,” he said finally, “are you a UFOlogist, Rayette?”

She inhaled deeply on the cigarette, visibly considering the question. “Not really,” she said, exhlaing. “A couple of my friends are. Do you know a lot of them?” When he rocked his head and pursed his lips she went on, “Sebastian Vickery? Pierce Plowman?”

Very calmly he took one hand from the wheel to pick up the pack of cigarettes. “Pierce Plowman,” he said, shaking one onto his lip, “yeah, nutty old guy. Can I have the lighter? Is he still living in that house in Chatsworth?”

“Last I heard. Right off the 27.”

Banach covered his disappointment by lighting the cigarette and sighing a plume of smoke at the windshield. So neither of them knew how to find Plowman. He had picked the city name at random, and all of Chatsworth was right off the 27. But at least she had firmed up his suspicion that she was an ONI agent—the GRU was aware that the United States Offic of Naval Intelligence was trying to locate Plowman, and here she was saying that she was seeking Plowman, and lying about her knowledge of the man.

“I’d like to get in touch with him,” she said.

Banach felt distinctly out of his depth. I’ve got an apparently well-informed ONI field agent right here in my car, he thought, the result of a perfectly happenstance meeting, and she has—spontaneously and unprompted!—raised the very subject that brought me here this morning. I should play her the way a case officer would. I can’t neglect the possibiity that she could be made an unwitting asset of the GRU.

And she thinks I know where Plowman lives.

“I don’t know his address,” he said, “but I’ve got his cell number back home, and I’m sure I’ve got some emails from him in my old email file.” That might or might not have been a good bluff, he thought, in this blindfold poker game, but I’m committed now.

“That’d be helpful,” said Rayette, staring now at the ash on her cigarette. She started to speak, hesitated, then said, “How can I get in touch with you?”

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