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“Fifty years ago—on Feb. 20, 1954—President Dwight Eisenhower interrupted his vacation in Palm Springs, Calif., to make a secret nocturnal trip to a nearby Air Force base to meet two extraterrestrial aliens.”

“Ike and the Alien Ambassadors,” The Washington Post, 02-19-04

July 27

The sun was not very high when Granny Coe, her hair weaved back into a long white braid, noticed her Rhode Island Red being chased from the dog’s bowl again. She pulled on her smock and grumbled to herself, “One of these days Princess is gonna catch that stupid chicken. She’s gonna bite ’im and shake ’im and leave ’im for dead.”

She pushed the seasoned window open and hollered at Big Red. “Get on now, silly bird, get away before you get yourself ate!” The golden retriever, hearing her voice, gave up the chase and strutted back to her bowl.

Every critter had its place here on Granny’s farm. The cows and one retired horse grazed in the field near the barn, the chickens scratched around the fenced area by the coop, the ducks nestled quietly by the creek, and Princess meandered wherever she pleased.

Although the ranch, once the model of country charm, had fallen into disrepair since Grandpa Tony’s death, Granny had done her level best to maintain the hospitable ambience of the old homestead. No one, perhaps not even Granny herself, knew how she kept up with it all: feeding the animals, minor tractor repairs, fixing little things around the farmhouse, and the garden, it was simply more than a body could do. But she was a wiry old gal and it had earned her the nickname “Granny Gadget.”

“Princess chasing Big Red again, Granny?”

She turned and saw Allie coming through the living room toward the coffeepot. She had her hair pulled up in a sloppy bun and was wearing the flannel nightgown Granny loaned her the night before, her eyes puffy, her face haggard, as if she’d been crying. Granny didn’t ask.

“Ohh, that dumb bird ain’t got no sense,” she said. “One of these days Princess ’ill catch ’im. Then she’ll learn that ol’ rooster a thing er two.”

Even though Allie smiled, it looked to Granny as if she was hiding an unknown heaviness. She watched as her oldest grandchild sat on the Queen Anne sofa by the woodstove, careful not to spill her coffee on the braided rug, and stared down at the first edition of the Portland Times. It was spread on a coffee table in front of her, right where Granny left it earlier, sometime before Big Red broke the morning’s silence with his natural alarm. Allie seemed to be weighing the paper’s words carefully as she leaned over and clutched the front of her gown. The article in front of her read:


A car bomb killed two men and injured sixteen others at the Maxamillion Video Store in Montavilla on Monday. It was the deadliest attack since the Anti Imperialist Liberation Army began claiming responsibility for such assaults in the United States last year.

Young children and senior citizens, as well as storeowners were among victims of the explosion that sent pieces of twisted metal and glass through the air at the popular business.

Police said military-style plastic explosives indicative of the kind connected to AILA in the past were used. The charge was detonated by a timer that had been wired to a car’s ignition switch.

The Anti Imperialist Liberation Army wasted no time claiming responsibility for the bombing, and said it was in response to the arrest of Carlos Lorenza in Mexico City, a member of the militant group that fled to Mexico after being placed on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list last spring.

FBI Spokesman David Martin said a special task force was being formed to investigate the crime scene, but that evidence so far supported the AILA claim. “It was a brutal and cowardly act,” he said.

Later in the day Chief Martin called on Congress to pass tougher anti-terrorist laws.…



While downstairs Allie was reading the paper and hiding from Granny what had happened to Sheri the day before—her husband Carl’s orders—a muffled chime in the upstairs guest room woke Joe. At first he didn’t know what he was hearing; then he remembered the cell phone Corsivino gave him. He stumbled from bed and rifled through the dirty clothes he’d dropped on the floor the night before. Sugar ants fell from the garments as he uncovered the coat with the phone, unzipped the pocket, grabbed the communication device, and gently placed it over his tender ear. The swelling in his nose had gone down overnight, but it was still sore, not to mention how puffy his eyes were from crying about the death of his good friend, Dave.

“H-hello,” he mumbled into the receiver as he stomped to kill the ants. Dust from the crusty rug immediately convinced him that this was a bad idea.

“To whom am I speaking?” a gravelly voice said.

After what had happened to Corsivino the day before, he had doubted the call from Phobos would come. “This is Joe.”

“Get a pen and take down these instructions.”

Right to the point…usually the way Joe liked it…but since yesterday his mind was a flurry. “H-hang on,” he said, reaching into a nearby desk drawer and finding a pencil and a discarded receipt. “Okay, I’m ready.”

“From your current location you will drive south on old Interstate 99 until you see the Brooks Market near Salem. Are you familiar with that area?”

Joe tightened. How did the man on the phone know his location? He walked to the window and peeked through the curtain to the driveway leading into the farm. He couldn’t see any unfamiliar cars, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t being watched. “I know the intersection. How do you know where I am?”

“Global Positioning Satellite and the chip inside the phone. Now pay attention. At the Brooks Market intersection you will turn right. Continue due west until you see a sign that says ‘Wheatland Ferry.’ Got that?”

He relaxed a bit. “Yeah…I got it.”

“Follow that road to the river. Park your car on the ferry at exactly 10:00 am today, and exit your vehicle. Walk to the north safety railing and wait. You will be contacted there. Bring the telephone with you. Do you understand these instructions, Mr. Ryback?”

“I do, but how can I be sure that you are Phobos?”

“You can’t.”

“Then why should I trust you?”

“It’s simple. I know your exact position at this very moment. I believe you call it Granny’s farm? If I wanted to harm you, do you think your army of chickens could stop me?”

Joe was starting to like this guy already. “I’ll be there.”

“Good. Don’t be late.”

As the man on the other end of the line hung up, Joe looked at the cell phone. Encryption and GPS. He wondered what other cutting-edge toys Phobos had at his disposal.


Fifty miles from Granny’s farm, a top-secret meeting was concluding near the little town of Amity. Nine members of Operation Gadfly, including Phobos and a female mathematician who subscribed to chaos theory, were talking.

“Did he take the bait?” the woman said, her voice sounding sour.

“If that’s what you want to call it,” Phobos said.

“Of course that’s what it is; we are using the boy for a diversion, aren’t we?”

Malachi Malina seemed agitated by her comments and pressed, “Listen, Beth. We’re giving Joe the only chance he has. If in the meantime we use his distraction for our purposes, I don’t see anything wrong with that.”

“Now see, that’s what I’m talking about. You and your “ends justify the means” ideas are no different than the enemy we’re fighting.”

“Oh, for Pete’s sake. There’s a great deal of difference between us and them, and you know it. We’re fighting for righteousness…”

“Righteousness!?” she blandly interrupted. “And using deception to do it!?”

“It’s not deception, if we do everything we told the boy we would!” he countered.

“Uh-huh. Tell that to his mother at the funeral.”

“Ahem.” Phobos feigned clearing his throat to resume control of the meeting. “Okay, ladies and gentlemen, your points are taken. But let’s all keep in mind that Joe is a marine and that this is his sister. He’s young, yes, but he’s motivated, and that may make the difference. Besides, like it or not, we’ve gone too far to turn back now. So we’ll help Joe, and in the meantime his distraction may help us. Timing will be crucial. We’ll only have a few seconds while the guards are focused on his activity. That’s when we’ll make our move.”

Phobos glanced across the table at Donald Pritchert. “Your department ready, Donald?”

“It is. The DNA bombs are in place and await further orders,” he affirmed, meaning that Operation Gadfly’s bio-assassins were in position. The soldiers Donald referred to were unlike any other. They carried no visible arms and were trusted members of the scientific community. Yet the weapons they possessed were frighteningly lethal. Over a five-year period they had met casually with Montero’s chief supporters, in the fields of science and defense. In each case a simple handshake or pat on the back yielded the fleck of skin or single strand of hair needed for a genetic sample. These specimens were then studied with the individual’s particular vulnerabilities being identified. Later, pathogen-loaded viruses, or DNA bombs as Donald called them, were engineered from the samples to deliver infectious agents lethal only to the original donors. These viruses could then be injected harmlessly into the assassin and carried invisibly to their mark. In the target’s presence, a simple cough would release the magic bullet, killing the victim within a few hours or days.

Referring to Special Atomic Miniature Munitions, or SAMM suitcase nuclear warheads, Phobos continued, “All right, what of the SAMMs?”

The one-kiloton bombs, although small comparatively speaking, would be smuggled into the bottom levels of each Nephilim factory where they would annihilate the giants’ army, leaving the civilian population overhead untouched.

“The men are prepared to go in when you are, sir. The snipers are also prepared.”

“Good. Operation Gadfly will commence on my orders. Advise everyone to stand ready.”


The powerful sedative was doing its job, perhaps too well, for in a twisted sense of justice Sheri was receiving the kind of deep rest she actually needed.

Katherine, already intrigued by her striking similarity to the angel in her dreams, brushed Sheri’s curly red hair to one side, exposing her partially open mouth. Even her pouty lips, though not tinted green, were identical to the angel.


It took less than an hour for Joe to go from Granny’s farm to the Wheatland Ferry. As he drove down Route 99 past Woodburn and then west on Brooklake Road, it was like visiting a different world. The air here was fragrant with fruit blossoms and cooled by irrigation mist. On both sides of the street, loam covered with vegetation and tree groves stretched for miles over the gently rolling hills. It was a sweet taste of American farmland and people who were not in a hurry, families and neighbors who were committed to each other and unaware of the blackness growing around them.

As he paid the dollar-fifty toll and drove onto the aging shuttle, he could hear the Willamette River beating rhythmically against the ferryboat’s side. The watery hum reminded him of the movie Jaws with its splashy maritime soundtrack. As the ferry pulled offshore, he stepped out of Allie’s car and stood next to it, catching his balance.

Cautiously, he surveyed his surroundings, then let go of the door and teetered over the moving platform to the north safety railing. Next to the banister, his back to the river, a barrel-chested man with a military haircut was looking down at the water.

He was about seventy years old, dressed in Armani jeans, Bruno Magli shoes and a Ferre polo shirt. He had a cell phone matching the one Corsivino gave Joe in his left hand and a set of truck keys connected to an oversized ring in his right. He twirled them on his index finger, stopping occasionally to palm them.

Joe leaned on the railing a few feet away, pulled the special phone from his pocket, and held it up conspicuously.

Without greetings, the stranger said, “Follow me,” then walked away toward a dark green Suburban at the front of the ferry. As he went, he motioned with his hand for Joe to enter the passenger’s side of the vehicle. Joe recognized his voice as the same gravelly one from the phone call earlier that morning. Joe opened the door, and by the time he was inside, the man was seated across from him.

“Close the door,” the big fellow ordered. “We don’t have much time.”

Joe straightened himself and pulled the handle, being careful not to disturb a large briefcase on the seat’s center console separating the two of them. Atop it was a standard issue Negev light machine gun, Israeli Special Forces issue.

“Joe Ryback, I assume?” the man with the gruff southern drawl said.

His voice reminded Joe of his dad’s, country but authoritative. “That’s right.”

“You may call me Phobos. Of course it’s not my real name, but I need to maintain anonymity for the time being.” He hit the power-lock button and both doors clicked. “What’s important for you to know is that our friends did not die in vain. Andrew and Dave were good men, and I believe they have gone to a better place.”

The comment startled Joe for some reason. It seemed so abrupt. “So you know who is responsible for Dave and Corsivino’s murder?”

Phobos stared at him in a way he’d seen on senior officers, the kind of battlefield expression typical of a career soldier’s ability to separate personal loss from duty. “Of course,” he said. “In time, you will too. However, we need to discuss the issue at hand. First, I understand Corsivino filled you in on the activity at Montero. True?”

Joe returned a deadpan stare. “Yes.”

“What did he tell you?”

“I know about the aliens, the ship recovered from the crash, and the transgenic research on giants.”

Phobos pursed his lips as if he was unhappy about Joe knowing that much. “I hope you appreciate the need to protect this intelligence, son. Guarding the knowledge you possess is far more important than either of our lives, or that of your sister. Over the next forty-eight hours you may acquire even more sensitive data. If anything goes wrong during that time, we will disavow any knowledge of your actions. Furthermore, members of the consortium are monitoring your movements and are prepared to take you out…kill you, if that becomes necessary to protect our interests.” He paused as Joe considered that, then added, “On the other hand, if you follow orders, we stand ready to help you in the extraction of your sister.”

I’m getting a little tired of people telling me which family member will die next if I don’t do what they say, Joe thought. “So why are you willing to help me?”

“Let’s just say I owe your dad.”

Joe’s thoughts raced. What did this man know about his dad? If Phobos had been involved with his father’s murder, he’d kill him where he sat. He made a calculated glance at the machine gun, wondering if it was loaded and if he could get to it in time. Otherwise a lightning quick fist to the throat was possible from here. He’d crush the man’s esophagus and break his freaking neck. “What do you mean, you owe my dad? What do you know about his death?”

“Your father, Lieutenant Colonel Clarence Ryback, is remembered with high esteem among our group. If it hadn’t been for his insight and willingness to hide the Nibiruan Key, there’s a good chance none of us would be here now. So we’re doing this for him. As for you, you might say we’ve accepted destiny’s induction of you into our private army.”

Joe had the feeling he wasn’t hearing the whole truth. He wanted Phobos to fear him, to think he was under post-service battle stress, which in many ways he was. “Then you can count on me to guard the information I’ve received,” he said. “But I warn you. If I find that you’ve misled me, or that you or your associates had anything to do with my dad’s death, I’ll hunt you down with extreme prejudice and kill you like a dog.”

“I can live with that,” Phobos surprised him by saying. “Now let me bring you up to speed. It appears the Nibiruan Key—the image you had in your possession for a while—will be inserted into the extraterrestrial ship within the next seventy-two hours. That means time is of the essence. You must get your sister out of Montero’s Level Twenty right away. I’ll help you, but make no mistake about this; the mission is perilous. You need to ask yourself if you’re up to the challenge.”

Joe was prepared to die for Sheri if necessary, but this was the first he’d heard of Level Twenty. “I’m up to it. But the area you mentioned is not something Dr. Corsivino advised me on.”

“That’s because nobody’s supposed to know about it. Thankfully, we’re not as dumb as the lead agent, Apol Leon, thinks. In fact, we’re very much aware of his scheme. But the Level Twenty project, ‘New Messiah,’ is on a need-to-know basis, and frankly, son, you don’t need to know. Your immediate concern will be to get Sheri out of Montero at the time we set during the next forty-eight hours.”

“Why not go in now?”

“You’ll have to wait until I say.”

“Can you explain why? What we are waiting on?”

“Sorry, that too is on a need-to-know. What I can tell you is that the intelligence we require to determine when the operation—called Operation Gadfly—can begin, will be acquired within the next two days. It would be a mistake to move prematurely, but when we do go in, Sheri cannot be there. The survivability rate at Montero will be zero.”

Joe turned to face him. “Corsivino didn’t say anything about a zero survival rate. He mentioned Operation Gadfly, but nothing specific about the title or particulars.”

Phobos looked through the rearview mirror, probably checking to see if anyone was watching them, then grinned slightly. “Operation Gadfly is the code name adopted by the consortium for its mission. It’s from Greek mythology. It refers to the gadfly who stung Pegasus on the butt.”


“One of the heroes of Greek legend was a man named Bellerophon. He tried to fly into heaven on Pegasus. To stop him, Zeus sent a gadfly to sting the winged horse. When it did, Bellerophon was bucked off. The consortium sees a paradigm in the myth. The Alliance of Ten Nations might try to use the extraterrestrial vehicle as a high-tech Pegasus, a way of conquering heaven. If they do, and if the consortium believes this in any way represents public endangerment, we’ll be the gadfly that stings the UFO’s butt. Get it?”

“Yeah, okay. So what about my sister? How do I get to Sheri?”

Phobos picked the machine gun up and placed it on the floorboard. He opened the briefcase and pushed it toward Joe. “Getting in will be easy, I’ll take care of that. It’s getting you and Sheri out that will be difficult. To succeed, you’ll need all or part of these.”




Inside the luggage was a neatly folded schematic of the interior of Montero and several other objects. Joe picked up the map and laid it aside. He pulled the briefcase closer and made a mental inventory of the contents— a Ka-Bar fighting knife, flash grenades, pineapple grenades, chemical light sticks, trip wire, and other standard issues weapons, all conveniently attached to a tactical load bearing vest. Next to that was a microcassette player, a Montero employee uniform, and two unknown particulars; a device that looked suspiciously like a Star Trek phaser, and a thin blanket made of highly reflective material. He pointed at the phaser. “Looks like something out of a Star Trek movie.”

“You’re not far off. That’s a P-22 Hand Activated Laser, also called a PAL, and it’s lethal.”

Joe carefully picked the weapon up. It was unlike anything he’d seen in the corp. It looked like a DustBuster, only smaller. The handgrip was rubberized and curved slightly downward, a novel design for easy forward firing. On top of the grip was a thumb button trigger. Ahead of that, two sets of transparent lenses ran along the main body. One lens went left to right with the words Power Indicator below it. The other aligned from front to back with Beam Intensity in red. He stared quizzically at the big man as he held it.

“It’s simple to use, really,” Phobos said, apparently noting his curiosity. “First, turn the safety off. That’s on the back of the handgrip. It looks like a miniature safe dial.”

“I see it.”

“I’ve programmed it so that all you have to do is dial Andrew Corsivino’s initials—left to the letter ‘A’ and right to the letter ‘C.’ Think of A/C electricity if that helps. Once you’ve done that, push the dial inward and the laser will come on. After that, simply point and push the trigger button.”

Joe rubbed his finger along the dial to get the feel for it, but didn’t turn it on.

“Now this is important,” Phobos stressed. “The trigger is like a spring-loaded toggle. Push it left and the PAL will emit two nonlethal ultraviolet beams. They will immobilize any target within thirty-three yards. The beams form a positive conduit and a negative one that tetanize muscle tissue. In short, the target will be disabled by a sustained contraction of the skeletal muscle mass.”

“Like getting hit by a police Taser,” Joe surmised.

“Exactly, except this little beauty will drop an elephant at a hundred feet away. It uses UV radiation to ionize photon particles like an electric wire leading to your target. And it also has a lethal setting. Toggle right, and your mark is dead. The diaphragm and heart muscle movements will freeze. They’ll die before they hit the ground.”

Although he hoped it wouldn’t be necessary, Joe thought such a weapon could be useful, quiet and deadly. He set it aside and pointed at the reflective blanket. “And this?”

“I’m especially proud of this little beauty,” Phobos said, pulling the cover out of the briefcase. “It’s an Active Camouflage Shield, or ACS for short. You can literally disappear behind it.”

Joe looked stumped, then Phobos added, “Like the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie Predator where the alien hunter is invisible to the human eye except for slight distortions in the space around him?”

Joe had seen the film. “I guess I know what you mean.”

“The science presented in that movie was based on Active Camouflage research. Of course the technology has only recently been perfected, but the film’s depiction of the invisibility created by the science is fairly accurate.”

“Then you’re saying the Pentagon has actually developed invisible soldiers capacity.”

“The hardware is not deployed yet, but it will be, in different battlefield applications. In this case, switch the ACS on and throw it over you, and there’s a good chance nobody will even know you’re there.”

Joe shook his head. “We sure never had anything like that in Fox Company.”

Phobos agreed, although it no doubt had been a long time since his platoon days. “Not in my squadron either. The technology is ingenious in its simplicity, though. It’s just a marriage of low-powered microprocessors, fiber optics, and liquid crystal display technology. You’re familiar with the Texas Instruments wristwatches that display time and date by projecting numbers onto a watch’s screen, aren’t you?”

“Sure,” Joe said, looking out the window and noting the ferry was about halfway across the river.

Phobos glanced in the same direction, then said, “It’s a simple microprocessor that transmits information to an LCD skin, effectively projecting imaging data upon it. Active camouflage does approximately the same thing. See this here,” he said, pointing to a dime-sized lens on the edge of the material. “This is a camera. There are dozens of them…see here, and here,” he continued, pointing out several more along the edge. “These little cameras pick up the surrounding images wherever you are. They transmit that data through fiber optics to the microprocessor…that’s this little bulge back here.” He tapped a raised section approximately one inch wide on the back of the material. Joe noted an On/Off switch on it. “This microprocessor displays the data in real time on the blanket’s skin and curves the facsimile around you, effectively rendering you invisible. Only when you move are mirror distortions created, as in the Predator movie.”

“And if necessary, I could use this to hide from the giants, is that your plan?”

Phobos’ brow dropped. “No way, son…the Nephilim are highly sensitive to smell. They’re Hell’s bloodhounds, I’m afraid…they’d find you in a heartbeat. The ACS will only be helpful where humans are involved. As far as getting past the giants, that’s the good news. They’re kept in an area we call the Dungeon. It’s the lowest level, isolated from all but minimum personnel. You’ll never see the Nephilim out of their cages…unless…”

I knew it. There’s always a catch. “Unless what?”

“Unless you get caught, then you might…but let’s not think about that. You’re a marine, right? You make no plan for surrender or defeat.”

“I was also trained to prepare for the unexpected.”

“In that case, use the PAL, and remember to toggle right.”

Joe perceived the comment as a brush off of his “giants” concern. Maybe the big man was hiding something. He watched as Phobos reached into the briefcase and removed a small box from the top pocket of the tactical load bearing vest. “Last but not least, you’ll need these,” he said, opening the lid and sitting it down where Joe could see inside it. The box held something like a credit card and a transparent container filled with liquid. Inside the liquid was a human finger and an eyeball.

Startled, Joe took a long, deep breath. Who had surrendered to such agony? Whether alive or dead, it was inconceivable that someone’s eye had been cut out and their finger wrenched off. What kind of people was he dealing with? Mercenaries without conscience? An elite group of specialists doing what they believed was good for the many? Would he join them in anything, no matter how inhumane, to save his sister?

Phobos seemed to read his mind. Slowly and solemnly he said, “War is hell, son, a sorry obligation to survival that causes otherwise sensitive men to regard culture, ideology, and even compassion as luxuries. Don’t even ask how I got these. Just take them. You’ll find them indispensable to the plan for extracting your sister.”


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