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“Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

John 15:13

Along the forest’s edge the Douglas firs swayed gently, nudged by a slight Pacific breeze meandering along the wooded canyon outward toward the sea. Under the easy wave of the low-hanging limbs, droplets of morning dew fell from the branch tips onto a shimmering polder of groveling ferns that, beneath the early morning sun, appeared to be kneeling in humble obeisance to the dog.

Tater leaped from the boat deck and landed gracefully on the river’s edge. As his legs sank into the wet sand, murky fields of water seeped up in tiny brown pools around his paws. He could hear somebody or something coming down the concealed gravel way. He and Buck had discovered the logging road some years ago, back before climbing became too difficult for the old man. On a few occasions since, he had explored the abandoned route, but not lately, not since the hairy-smelly things started coming there.

From behind him, Buck studied his canine behavior, his fretting and intermittent tail wagging, probably thinking it was a good sign, something friendly coming their way.


After watching Stark snatch Sheri up screaming for her brother and Katherine following them down the gravel road out of sight, Apol turned to Joe and with spittle flying, seethed, “Now give me the container, quickly, and I’ll let the others live!”

Joe’s palms were sweating. He knew the monster in the underbrush would kill all of them the moment he handed the embryo to the snake man. He had to buy some time, give the admiral a chance to get the girls to safety.

With one eye on Apol and the other on the woods, he shook the M-249, then swung the container above the ledge, indicating his willingness to drop it.

The threatening gesture brought a menacing growl from the thing inside the trees, primordial and pointed, a warning to Joe—drop the embryo, and die.

Joe half expected the strange being to fly at him anyway, but when he returned his attention to the road, Apol was looking at the woods in the way a pet owner might whose authoritative glance can hold a well-trained dog as well as any chain.

Chortling now with low, piggish laughter, Apol returned his attention to Joe. Drumming his fingers against his palm, he said sarcastically, “Ahh, yesss, well, there’s plenty of testosterone to kill all of us today, isn’t there. Yet what would we benefit from dying? Hmm?”

A moment of silence passed, as if the demon inside Apol was considering a new approach to getting the embryo, perhaps a ploy learned from the Dark One himself.

Having no idea what the monstrosity was planning and feeling something was about to happen, Joe warned nervously, “Y-you’d better stay right where you are.”

Apol grumbled, his eyes becoming as black as smoldering holes, twitching strangely, as if listening to somebody unseen. After a few contemplative seconds he raised his spiky arm and said, “Ahh, perhapsss there is a way to resolve our dilemma after all.”

Joe’s heart raced as the former man’s mottled hand slowly raised and unfolded. His warty fingers began drifting along the horizon in a broad deliberate circle, as if he was drawing a grandiose zero in the sky. Joe thought the action might be contrived, a distraction to keep his attention off the forest and away from the movements of the huge beast. Yet by the time the claw of Apol’s right tentacle reached the end of the outline, something inexplicable was occuring. A pressure expanded around him, and for reasons he could not anticipate, the space in front of him sizzled, and with a snap, the ring of air Apol had traced inexplicably burst into flames.

Like the best of David Copperfield’s illusions, the intangible loop quickly spread outward into unusual flaming steps. For the life of him, the fire looked to Joe as if it was made up of millions of tiny witches marching in circular chorus with puppies and black lambs roasting in oblation to Apol.

He questioned if what he was seeing was actually there, or if his imagination was running away with him. The stress of the day could have distorted his ability to discern the difference between reality and illusion. He feared he might be losing his grip.

Then the ground beneath his feet undulated, as if he were standing on the back of a giant snake that insisted he pay attention, and he heard audible voices, strange and chanting near the edge of the strange circle, breaking through the cyclone of fire.

“All these things will he give thee,” they were saying, “if thou wilt fall down and worship him…”

A chill shot through him as he jumped sideways and nearly dropped the embryo. The boldness he had felt moments before vanished as a phantasmagoric darkness, thick and absolute, began spreading over the gravel road from the place where Apol stood. The adjacent greenery, previously as stable as reality itself, seemed to dematerialize right before his eyes, first pulling toward then disintegrating into the growing revolving fire. Near his feet, the grass began vibrating and whistling as the wind shifted around the green and yellow blades to get to the flame.

Even the M-249 seemed attracted to the anomaly. The ozone, hot against the stock and magazine, escalated sensations of fire like molten steel against his burning palm and fingers. Resisting the urge to throw it down, he swallowed hard and held the scorching gun as steadily as he could.

He stared straight ahead, amazed as the whirling pulsar slowly encased Apol. It grew thicker and raging until finally from below it a terrible form, like crude oil bubbling up from the ground, ascended and metamorphosed into a shape inside the veil, black and vaporous, fearfully hypnotic, staring at Joe from within the stormy facade.

As if a part of him knew that by simply looking at the dark essence he could be in mortal danger, he started to turn away.

Yet a second later he found himself strangely fascinated by the form.

He wondered what would happen if he fired his weapon at the entity. Would it react, or would it shatter like a sorcerer’s mirror used for black magic and sleight of hand?

Contemplating the option, he watched as the thing in front of Apol—whatever it was, wherever it came from, whatever it intended to do—abruptly stepped through the pillar toward him.

At once its appearance changed, feminine now, glistening with vibrant streams of silver and blue and gold, the most beautiful presence Joe had ever seen.

The gun cooled.

Lifting its radiant arms, the being opened its mouth and announced in a voice as seductive as soft velvet, “Greetings, Joe. You’ve won. You’re a hero.”

He took a deep breath, let it out slowly, and with as much control as he could muster, said, “I swear I’ll drop the embryo if you come any closer.”

The traveler froze like a marionette suspended on wires. Were unseen hands, obscured beyond the cloud, controlling it?

The resplendent creature, so alluring, so enchanting, explained pleasantly, “But I’ve been called to negotiate a trade, Joe. Tell me what you desire. Anything you want can be had in exchange for the container.”

The being’s eyes were at once as comforting as a grandmother’s and as sensual as an inviting lover’s. It’s skin glistened with inlaid jewels beneath the sunlight; burnished armor molded its chest as if it had been poured into place; the sturdy arms, well defined and muscular, supported its feathery appendages with graceful control; below its breast, plumed mail covered its large and powerful loins like those of an angel of light. From the look on its face, the presence invited a compromise. There was familiarity in its expression too, an acquaintance Joe seemed to know from somewhere in time, like the memory-glow of weaker moments when he’d given in to temptation.

He stared back without speaking, astonished at what was happening, until from between the being’s wings a scroll slowly unrolled beneath the pinions, and scenes of a future, his future, prepared to play out on the silvery parchment.

How did he know this?

“Would you have wealth?” the floating creature pressed warmly.

Joe studied the puzzling monitor as he himself appeared on it as clear and as believable as if he were viewing a home video. He was beside a pool at a manor house somewhere: a Mexican villa perhaps, or maybe in Spain. The depiction was obviously a destiny, one possible future where he could lounge with wealthy friends and laugh his days away. A Faustian proposal.

For a split second the screen flashed and he thought he discerned something else, a vague, hidden presence, alive and churning, seeking an entry, then the image was of him dining with celebrities at the luxurious Hotel Bel-Air. Next he was in Rome, vacationing with supermodels, buying a $228,000-dollar Aston Martin Vanquish.

Flashing, churning, questing.

Inching forward…

“Or…do you prefer power?” the radiant presence continued.

The cinematic conveyance of the alternative personal fate—his potential existence bathed in kingly riches in which nobility would regard him, media would adore him, and the coveted things in life would be at his beck and call—suddenly took a different tone. Now he was brokering business deals and capitalizing on industry’s leading trends: outwitting competitors, outsmarting lawmakers, overcoming enemies, crushing strangers beneath the copious gains of a new and powerful affluence.

Pressing, seeking.

“Women would adore you! Desire you!”

Members of the opposite sex, voluptuous, provocative, beautiful, flooded the spectral screen, some naked, others hardly covered, all amazingly curvaceous, wanting him.

“Simply ask!” the creature tempted. “You can have the world!”


Each time the screen flashed, powerful, subliminal messages invaded his subconscious mind, searching for a hold, intoxicating him, systematically entrancing him with the seductive visual enhancement.

“You are only a man, right?” the being asked persuasively. “Don’t you need these kind of things?”

A weary part of him unexpectedly agreed.

Increasing in rapidity and allure, the dramatization filled the magical future-screen with electrifying depictions. Now he became extraordinary in knowledge, divine in understanding, able to comprehend the benefits of both good and evil, and with power to manipulate it all.

Feelings of supernaturalism filled him as he beheld the adoration of mystics. He would become a mighty clairvoyant, the creature declared, a telekinetic god. The world would become his footstool.

“For it is written!” the glorious being misquoted the New Testament. “Anything you want will be given you…that your joy may be full!”




Mesmerized by the powerful conjuration, thoughts melting into and through him, he found himself whispering, “That’s right out of the Bible…God wants me to be happy…to have the things I want…”

Then, abruptly, he paused, stopped by something deeper, a still small voice that countered: But what of others? Family…and the rest of the world? How will they fare in Apol’s apocalypse?

Flinching as a kaleidoscope of kindred images erupted at his core, he saw his mom, the girls, Katherine, Garth, other friends he had known, each looking abandoned…then…then…the vision was back…so compelling…so mesmerizing…everything he had ever been tempted by.

Wealth, power, pleasure.

“Yes! Yes!” the beautiful angel encouraged. “Think about yourself! Your wants! Your needs! You can have them all! The things that make you happy!”


Gunnery Sergeant Hubert Franklin?

Further away, weak and quavering with emotion, his mother’s voice admonished, “Doing the right thing even when it’s not convenient is the mark of a man of God.”

Reaching forward…

“But every one that asketh receiveth!” the artificial angel resounded. “You’ve got to think about that too!”

Suddenly a twig snapped, and he came to himself. No longer spellbound, he saw the dazzling wraith, very close now, reaching forward. The vision had been a telepathic distraction, a ploy to grab the embryo.

With a flash of instinct, he rattled the container and drew his weapon up, focusing a nervous glare on the being, as if awakening from a nightmare.

“I…I can’t…I won’t do that,” he stammered.

Dizzied by what the puppetmaster had tried and at how quickly he’d been overcome, he added firmly, “Not to my family…and certainly not to the world.”

At once the shape and rhythm of the mutagenic façade sizzled like fireworks into a million outward-flying particles. The viscous, serpentine presence was in its place again, wearing Apol as before, no wings now, nor feminine appeal, squirming with anger.

“THE WORLD!” it hissed furiously.

Blossoms of blood broke through Apol’s forehead, trickled down, mingled with rotten pus below his dangling severed lips.


Joe swallowed hard. The end was coming. He could feel it. An attack on him was imminent. He couldn’t run, couldn’t hide, and wouldn’t trade his safety for the welfare of his family, not that any deal with this nemesis would be honored anyway. He gazed unblinkingly forward and prayed silently for strength.

On the river, a popping sound precipitated a signal flare shuttling through the sky. Buck had spotted the girls and had marked the boat’s location. The trio would get away.

Joe considered the circumstances. He knew what he had to do. He dared not linger. A moment of indecision could bring a second onslaught of telepathic blows from which he might not survive.

He also knew that the insidious New Messiah project would never cease until it had enslaved the human race. He recalled what the admiral had said about the embryo back at the Genetics room: “This thing could have represented the end of everything good in this world, but now we have it, to hold as hostage if necessary. Because you were here, Sheri, mankind might get a second chance.”

It was his turn now. The moment of truth had come.

Thirty feet away, Apol caught the determined expression and stretched his hands toward him with a strange and bitter anguish that resonated balefully along the steep canyon walls: “No…NOOO-O-O!”

Joe fixed his eyes on Apol and flipped the embryo container open. Dropping it over the cliff, he began discharging the M-249 in an even spray along the road and into the thicket where the monster was. The gun’s recoil pulsed back and forth mellifluently. Chuga-chuga-chuga-chuga.

Time froze as the container drifted downward and crashed into an outcropping of rocks that sent it hurtling end over end like a punted football. It burst apart, dislodged the embryo straw, and rained into the Columbia River with a splash. A second later, the drag pulled the transgenic fetus underwater, damning the dispossessed god to a frigid netherworld.



High above Earth’s atmosphere, angels observed Joe’s selfless act.

“IT IS DONE!” Justice shouted, his voice echoing hard and strong along the opening in space.

On the opposite side of the Ahriman Gate, the evil that was there refused to acknowledge the embryo’s destruction. Madness as deep and as frenzied as hungry piranha erupted as violence so intense and insane rolled across the demon ranks. The fallen hordes began slashing in angry circles, their swords cutting through the air and then finally upon each other. Against their mischievous, apocalyptic play, the rift began closing around them, drawing together like a cosmic curtain call.

Without saying a word, Swift withdrew a large chain and unfolded his powerful wings. In a sudden burst of pure energy, he spiraled untethered through the vastness of space toward the planet Mars, leaving behind a glittery vapor trail. He had an appointment with Quetzalcoatl, and shackles to bind him with.


Joe paused, released the M-249’s trigger, and stared at the demon in the cadaverous costume. Shot numerous times, the damned thing remained upright. No cries of pain, no shudder of dying, it simply coiled inside Apol’s rotting body, winding through the gaps, examining his throat, fingering the bloody slit where the machine gun had ripped through his esophagus.

Then it stopped and peered out at Joe.

“Chitowa nok!” it screeched.

Something filled the corner of Joe’s eye.

The monster from the underbrush.


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