Today's class is a small one, but it's everyone I know, people who live and work in the Camp. People who want to learn. I show the tourniquet technique, explain the medicine behind it, and they practice on each other. It's the weekly First Aid course and some of my "students" have been around since the beginning.
Since I found myself stumbling, disbelieving, through Venice Beach, just six short months ago, when I came back from Iraq and realized that Venice Beach had turned into a real-life shit-hole. Six months since I was stabbed by junkies looking for an easy target.
Maron, one of my attackers from that first day, is now helping out Angela with the tourniquet application.
I finish up the class, collect the supplies, the students help straighten out the multipurpose room for the next class. We do two minutes of meditation and then everyone scatters. Maron and Angela head off in the direction of the kitchens and I wonder if there's something between them. She's a runaway and he's a former low-level dealer. Together, they seem kind of at peace. I smile and head for the water.
On the way there someone calls me over: "BB, give us a hand?"
Six burly men are holding onto a taught rope. My eyes follow it to a machined frame, one of the first that our welders have produced. We're about to put up the first multi-story structures on the beach.
I grab the rope with both hands and the other men move away, take a few steps back, ensure that no one comes too close to rope, then they gather around the frame. I walk back, slower than I can go, and pull at the rope. The frame comes up, slow and steady. There's whistles all around, I smile and keep pulling, until the frame is vertical. There are support beams already in place and I hold the rope as two men with acetylene torches get to work welding the frame into the skeleton of the building.
When it looks like they've got everything in hand, I slip away quietly. I toss off my bright-colored Hawaiian shirt and jump into the crashing waves. I float on my back a bit, just absorbing the early afternoon sun. My ears are below the water and the strange noises of the ocean make me feel at home. Some say it's our early memories of being in the womb. I wonder.
After about half an hour I feel recharged, so I come back to Camp. It's lunch time, so I head to the kitchens and check on things.
Barb has a worried look on her face, and her head is swinging like a pendulum, watching every person who comes into the communal space.
"How goes?" I ask her.
"We're one down, and the morning's deliveries are late. But aside from that..."
I can tell that the deliveries are the lesser of her worries. "Who's out?"
"Angela. It's her shift right now, but she's not here. It's not like her."
"Did you ask Maron?" I nod toward the back, where the former drug dealer is bossing newbie chefs around. He's a good leader.
"He snapped at me," Barb looks down. "Can you talk to him?" Her voice is tiny.
I give her a quick side-ways hug and head toward the back.
Maron locks eyes with me for a moment and then looks away and starts washing dishes.
"What's up, Maron?"
"What you mean? Need something?" OK, so he's playing dumb.
"Have you seen Angela?" I go straight for the big question.
Maron stops washing the dishes but doesn't look up. "Those two guys from Groveland Street, they were driving around, earlier."
That stops me. These are some vicious dealers on the outskirts of the county. "Thanks, Maron. I'll go talk to them."
"Talk? Is that all?" There's violence to his speech.
"Well..." I scratch my head, as if I'm not sure what he's talking about.
Maron leaves the dishes, takes off his gloves, and looks me square in the face: "Stop fucking around. Let's go and get some answers. I'm driving."
In about twenty seconds we're on the road doing eighty in my trusty but beat-up Toyota pickup. I drove it here, to Venice Beach, six long months ago, and it's been with us as we've built up the area from a forgotten shanty town into a small community.
We slow down to below the speed of sound then quietly meander across the road from the infamous neighborhood. There's a park, it seems reasonable-enough that we'd be out for an afternoon drive. Maron drives around the house and parks two houses down, then I walk around and approach the house on foot.
The walkway to the front door is gravel with circular stone "lily-pads" that you hop across. I come up to the front door and ring the bell. The door opens and a man in a home-made Iron Man costume is staring at me.
"Do you know who I am?" A low-pitched voice with a tinge of a south-of-the-border accent asks from behind the brushed-metal mask.
"Tony Stark? I don't care. Where's Angela?"
Iron Man blasts me in the chest with a load of buckshot. It hurts like a mosquito bite, but the metal shards doesn't penetrate my skin. I leap at Tony and rip the shotgun out of his metal-covered hands. I push him away, then sweep the shotgun over the room, checking it for other hostiles. Tony wasn't expecting so much force, he probably feels like a train hit him, so he's whimpering on the ground and likely will be out of commission for a while. I stalk through the house and listen.
A low, muffled sound. Mhmm, mhmm. It's strange, but I hear it. Which way? There! Down, toward the garage. The shotgun leads me as I find my way down the stairs. A strange smell comes to me. Like mushrooms.
Angela is in the garage, bound and gagged. A bald ugly fucker in Adidas swings an aluminum bat at my head. The bat bends after it makes impact. I look at the asshole and swing the shotgun at his head and he goes down.
Looks like they were switching cars, or waiting to transfer her. "Who hired you?" I swing the shotgun and hit the bastard in the right knee.
"Fuck you! That fucking hurts!"
"Yeah, I figured. Who hired you?" I swing the shotgun at the other knee and the bastard whimpers into a ball.
"Samson! Samson paid us to take her!"
I break the restraints around Angela's arms and legs, take out the gag, and walk her out of the building. Nobody follows us. Once outside, I pick her up and carry her to the car. Maron holds and comforts her as I drive to the closest ER.
While they're busy helping Angela, Maron and I talk and make a few phone calls. Samson is a fetcher for some rich clients in the valley. Someone probably liked how Angela looked and put out a contract on her. It's not an original story.
I make sure that Maron calls me when they're done with Angela, then I head outside and stand in the sun. The light hits me and I am refreshed. Literally and metaphorically.
I peek at the bruise under the bright-colored Hawaiian shirt that I wear as a uniform these days. There are a dozen or more purple blotches, but I'm not bleeding and the color is fading, slowly. It also doesn't hurt at all. I open the shirt and face the sun, let the light hit my wounded muscles. The color fades some more by the time Maron comes outside.
"Angela is going to be OK. A little bruised up and shaken, but she's a tough one."
I nod but don't say anything, I just watch Maron. His face is speaking volumes. He's angry and upset, he's beating himself up. I want to reach out and hold him, give him a hug, but I can see that he's nowhere ready for that. He's an unstable powder keg.
The look in his eyes is a familiar one. I've seen it countless times on the beach. Most everyone there knows about me, knows what I can do. Some are scared, some are awed. Most, however, are jealous. They want to be an indestructible force of nature, they wish so badly to punish those who hurt them.
"What are you thinking?" I ask Maron.
"We have to go after Samson. Those cos-playing fuckers from Groveland are just bag men. They're a dime a dozen. Some fucker out there wants Angela, and they're not gonna give up. We have to teach them a FUCKING LESSON!" He's worked up, pacing back and forth on the outside patio. We're not the only people out here, and so his explosive anger draws their attention.
I turn toward the questioning gazes and wave them off, mouth "everything's OK", then turn back to Maron.
"I know you're angry-"
"I'm livid! I let those animals take her! I looked away and she was gone. We have to... we have to get out there and find the asshole who arranged this. Samson." I start to protest, but Maron stops me. "No, don't say it. Look, I get what you're doing down on the beach. You're giving us a real chance. You've turned my life around, that's for sure. But you'll have to get your hands dirty one of these days. Because if you don't, these savages will get us all. And BB, you're the only one who can actually stand up and do something about it! Look, I know, I've heard about your past. I know you don't want to relive that again. But you've fought for us before. Now, Angela's in danger. We have to fight back, or this fucking city will eat us and spit us out."
My mind brings up a collage of memories, and I don't fight it. I let the old grief and pain wash over me. The ghosts of the past still live within me, but these days they mostly just hang out and watch. I've gotten pretty good at putting that part of myself on hold.
Maron looks up at me with pleading eyes. I nod and we head back.
We stop and talk with Angela. She breaks down in tears as I hug her and keeps muttering "thank you, thank you, thankyouthankyouthankyou". Barb shows up and stays with Angela. She bids us good luck and just like that we find ourselves on the road again.
The Jungle is not far from the Beach, but we've established a certain understanding. It took persistence, but over the first few months I was able to establish a drug- and gang-free zone on the beach. This included traveling to and working with some community leaders in the Jungle. This visit is a reminder of those early days, and my stomach is once again in a knot. I push these thoughts down.
We leave the truck on the street, unlocked, and walk past the palm trees and begonias toward The Cross, an intersection of two main Jungle streets. A familiar street soldier meets us there. He keeps a gun tucked into the back of his pants, very visible and conspicuous. Clipped into one of his pockets is a walkie-talkie. He seems to recognize Maron, but instantly forgets about him and focuses all of his attention on me.
"BB, sup?" It's a short welcome, as far as these things go, but conveys just enough information. Namely, that the residents know that something's up, that this isn't a social call.
"We're looking for Samson."
"Lots of people are. So?"
"Need to talk to him."
"Talk?" The street soldier gives me a quick once-over. At 5ft 6in, I'm nothing to look at, but this soldier knows about my strength, my almost impenetrable skin, the restorative effect of the sun. My shirt is slightly open and the soldier eyes the discoloration with interest. "Is that from 'talking'?", he asks.
I look down at my bruises, as if I'm just noticing the red welts myself, surprise spreading ony my face. "Oh, these are related. But I'm just after Samson. He stepped over the line, and I need to ask him about it. This has nothing to do with anyone else here."
The soldier considers this for a moment, glances from me to Maron and back, then walks away from us and talks with someone on his walkie-talkie. After a minute the soldier waves us over and starts walking deeper into the Jungle. We follow.
We walk in silence for a while.
I watch families play together, I watch as a woman unfolds wet laundry and hangs it up on an outside tree-like metal structure. The blocks are full but also empty. There are people on the sidewalks, on the lawns, cars are parked up and down the streets, but there are no cars moving. No one is driving. An eerie sense takes over and I realize we are being watched by the entire village. Everyone within ten blocks knows what is happening, knows our every move. That we are walking down their street. Calls must be going around, allegiances and deals of protection are being created and broken as we enter and exit each block.
"A few years back, overseas, my unit, the 52nd, was being over-run. Insurgents had us pinned on all sides," the soldier talks to no one in particular, but loud enough for us to hear. "We were dug in, in this old school building. I thought I was a goner. Made my last call home, said my first and last prayer to god, that kind of thing." He stops and looks back at Maron. "You know what happened?"
"You all died?" Maron mutters through his teeth.
"The Tank of Tikrit showed up, that's what. It was this blur of violence, and for a while it just soaked up bullets, while we got the hell out. I never did say 'thanks' for that." The soldier glances back at me, catches my eye for a moment. "Seems like a different life." He turns away, spits. I wonder if he misses it.
We walk up to a squat apartment building, outside-facing doors behind wrought-iron gates and fences. This building feels like the center of the Jungle, simply based on the number of people gathered around it and within its open-air hallways. An old man, by the standards of LA in general and this neighborhood in particular, stands at a second-story railing. The soldier walks up there and the two engage in quiet conversation, while we stand on the lawn in front of apartment building. The two keep glancing toward Maron and myself, the soldier gesticulating and the old wise man mostly just listening.
They haul up Samson. Or drag him over. Four big body-builder types have to put in quite a bit of effort, pulling and tugging at an increasingly-agitated Samson. Then Samson sees me and it takes two extra guys to hold him still. My fame precedes me.
The next quarter hour is mostly taken up by the old wise man orating, going over the history of the Jungle and the brave men and women who worked to make this a community. He talks about the slavery, brings up his own ancestors' abduction from the west coast of Africa, waxes poetically about the eternal bond of kidnapped kin and the protection of "taken souls". About halfway in I realize that this is all just for show, that the old wise man is grand-standing for the neighborhood before exiling one of their own. Can't just hand over a pillar of the community without properly vilifying them first. Law and order must be maintained. Samson catches on eventually and sags like a sack of potatoes in the arms of his jailors.
Then we're walking back to The Cross with an escort of about a dozen and Samson, his hands zip-tied behind his back, his legs bound with more of the same so all he can do is just shuffle along at a snail's pace.
Maron takes it all in with wide eyes. "Didn't think I'd ever see a day like this," he confides in a whisper as we make it back to the car.
Maron drives and I sit in the back seat with Samson. He's stopped bawling at this point and just has a thousand-yard stare. I remember seeing that look on many faces overseas.
"Who hired you?" I finally ask, breaking a long silence. Maron glances toward the backseat every few seconds. I'm mildly concerned that he's not paying enough attention to the road.
Samson shakes his head minutely. "If I do, I'm a dead man."
"Don't kid yourself-," Maron starts to say, but stops when he feels my hand on his shoulder.
I don't say anything and just watch Samson. Eventually, after he's had time to say his Hail Maries or whatever, Samson gets to talking and it all comes out in a stream of verbal diarrhea.
There's a house in the hills, close to Radford and Camrose, where Samson's client wanted Angela dropped off.
Maron drives to the base of the hills and parks the car, then we hop out and leave Samson in the car. We walk away half a block and I break the bad news to Maron. "I'm going in alone." We bicker for a few minutes, but Maron's heart isn't in it. He knows that we're dealing with big fish here.
"Fine," Maron eventually concedes. "What about him?" He nods back toward the car.
"Take him in to the sixteenth precinct. Ask for Lt Santigo. Samson's lost his protection, so the charges will stick, he won't be able to fight them. He's going away for life."
Maron drives off with Samson and I watch the receding car, praying with all my heart that Maron doesn't take things into his own hands. After they are out of sight, I start walking.
I make it halfway up the hill before a trio of black SUVs screech to a halt around me. Beefy guys with electrified batons rush out and wail on me until the world turns black.
The world is darkness. My head is killing me, it feels like a watermelon stuck in a vice as some sadist keeps turning the crank. My arms and legs feel like a gorilla has been trying to pull them out of their sockets. I try to lift my head but the muscles in my neck refuse to cooperate and scream out in pain. I pass out a few times in those first few minutes or hours.
Every time I awake, it's darkness and I can't get my bearings. My head rolls from side to side, but my eyes don't register any motion. Deep darkness is all around and it is the only thing I can see. The splitting headache adds to the motion sickness and I vomit, yet again. There's not much food in my system, after so many times, so it's just chest-wrecking dry heaves that shake me to the core.
After a while the nausea and the headache subside, my eyes adjust to the darkness, and I'm able to look around.
I'm lying partially upright on a hard bed, feels like a gurney. There are metal bracelets on my wrists. Chains trail from these and make slight clinking noises every time I move. I raise my arms as high as they'll go and find that the chains actually afford me a bit of freedom. I can reach my face with my hands. Guess I can feed myself, if the opportunity arises.
There are no lights and no windows in this room. The only illumination is a dim yellow glow that comes from a narrow horizontal slit about twenty feet away. It looks like the underside of a door. I must be in a basement somewhere, or maybe it's night, or all the windows have been obstructed.
There are manacles on my legs, thick chains trailing off into the darkness. I'm too weak to stand, so I pull my legs up close to me. Or try to, as the chains don't reach far enough. They swing in the yellow glow, though, so I can see that they are anchored to the bed. On the bed next to me, on my left, is an empty wood-pulp bedpan. Looks like I'll be shitting in a cardboard box for the foreseeable future.
For a while I just sit there and try to process all of this. Samson gave us the address, but it was too easy. I didn't even have to hurt the bastard. Was this a trap? Did they want to catch me? Is this darkness essential? I feel weak and most of my body is sore from the beatings and the electrocutions, but the pain isn't going away, not like it normally does. I'm not healing.
I ruminate and come up with theories for what feels like an hour. No one's come to check on me yet. I look around for the tell-tale infrared bulb of a camera, but don't notice one.
My stomach rumbles and I wonder, not for the first time, how long I'll be able to last here. On the outside, on the Beach, I never really needed to eat much. Just spending an hour or two in the sunlight was energy enough, a solar blast that fueled and restored my body.
Here, I am dependent on the will of my jailors. For the first time in a while, I worry about my safety and I cry.
Eventually they come in: two beefy types in dark uniforms, Short and Tall, their electric stunners at the ready, black tape covering the normally-bright control panels. Nerd in a different dark uniform follows. All three are wearing expensive night-vision goggles, the kind of equipment I've seen being used by Blackwater contractors in Iraq.
The Nerd stops by my right leg and moves the bedsheets off. I kick at him. The Tall guard slams his stunner straight into my calf and depresses the trigger, and 50 thousand volts course through me. I scream out in pain and almost pass out.
"Don't fucking move," the Short thug says. His baton is close to my face, he squeeze the trigger at his end of the weapon, and sparks jump between the stunner contacts. I can practically taste the photon storm!
"Watch it, no lights," Nerd hisses. Then, after a few seconds of silence, he adds: "Punch him in the side, give his body something to repair." I can hear the smile in his voice as thin lips spread themselves thin over his crooked teeth.
The Short thug punches me and I scream out in pain, try to roll away from the jailor but can't. The Tall thug pins my legs under a leather strap, probably at some wordless command from the Nerd, and I stop moving. I feel gloved hands on my leg. The Nerd opens the black bag that he brought in and gets busy. The thugs stand over me and glower. I don't fight them, I just think back on the flash of light from the stunner baton and salivate at the memory.
My leg screams out in pain as the nerd stabs me. I'm expecting the syringe to leave my body after a few seconds, but nothing happens. The nerd's hands hold my leg, the pain bites into my flesh, but it doesn't leave.
I'm starting to feel weak-headed. Yeah, he must be draining my blood.
The nerd moves around a bit and I feel sticky things touch my leg. Tape, it has to be tape. He likely hooked an IV into my leg.
The nerd finishes up and leaves, his thugs in tow. I look down at his work. A thin shiny river of plastic weaves across the bedsheets, then terminates somewhere below. I squint and hypothesize that the tube is full of dark red substance.
There's also a dark plastic box, about halfway from me to the door. They must have brought it in with them and I just didn't notice. The chains on my arms won't let me reach my feet, nor the box.
"A top-up with your blood, and I'll be able to outrun a cheetah," a voice emanates from the black box. The speaker is male and old, ancient even, with a slight indeterminate accent. Like he'd long ago learned English, but never quite forgot his mother tongue.
There's a soft murmur in the background and I get a feeling that there's someone else close to the old man. The second voice started to say something about "the sample", but the rest is too muffled, too far away from the microphone. But I can surmise what's going on. There's probably a nerd with the old man, maybe the same Nerd who hooked up my IV, and he's trying to temper his boss' expectations regarding my blood.
"Who are you?" I ask weakly. "What do you want?"
"I'm your jailor, son. And I want your blood. You're gonna make me immortal. Is that simple enough?"
"Fuck you." I'm a bit short on ideas.
"I like your spirit, BB. It will be amazing to channel some of that gusto. Eventually. For now, I'm going to leave you in Franklin's capable hands. See you in a few days."
"A few days" is not a concept that I can understand, not anymore. The perpetual darkness offers no hints and sends my mind into a strange desert of sensation, where time flows slowly or quickly, but never at the same rate. And of course there's the intermittent blood loss, which knocks me out or leaves me deranged and rambling.
The door of this stinking cell shuts with a loud bang and wakes me up from a dream I didn't realize I was having. There is cardboard container full of water in my left hand and a paper-wrapped sandwich in my right hand. Someone just left them there. I didn't see who brought them in or when. The water is cold. The sandwich is warm and not smooshed into oblivion, the individual slices of cheese and turkey haven't wilted yet. Some chef in the overhead mansion probably made this lunch not ten minutes ago. An avocado slice convinces me that I'm still in California. Might not be too far from the Beach, even.
I eat the first solid food in days.
I fall asleep afterwards. Postprandial somnolence or blood loss, whatever it is, this is some of the best sleep I've gotten.
The paper container and the sandwich wrappers are gone when I wake up. The strange bedpan is replaced. Then it's just staring at the yellow glow and trying to figure out how long I've been here. I try to plan an escape, but my brain isn't working at full capacity. I sleep, a lot, whether I want to or not.
Another sandwich-and-water meal shows up. Was that eight hours? Twelve? I eat, shit, and sleep. And bleed, of course.
A figure stands in front of me. I can tell because of the human-shaped void that blocks the yellow glow. The shape looks slightly familiar.
"Got yourself in some deep shit," a familiar voice laments. "What are you going to do about it, Marine?"
"Captain?" My throat aches as I speak for the first time in days. "You're dead."
"No shit, BB. I don't recommend it. So, again, Marine: what are you going to do about this situation?"
I'm thirsty and hungry. And now I'm hallucinating? I look again at the figure and finally notice the uneven silhouette. It looks like a layer of dirt covers the Captain from head to toe. She shifts from one foot to another and a small avalanche of dirt meanders down the curves of her body and rains down onto the floor.
The room is empty. Another meal awaits me.
I push the container of water over the edge of the bed, it thuds to the cement floor with a satisfying plomp. With what little strength remains, I throw the sandwich toward the door. It doesn't go very far, but it does end up out of reach. Mission accomplished.
With extreme dehydration, the hallucinations usually act as heralds of death. I probably don't have long. For the first time, I smile at that thought.
Fuck my jailor, he's not getting his sought-after immortality.
My left arm hurts. I can't move it. I look over and instantly see the problem.
A wide leather belt is pinning my arm to a black leathery surface, which itself is somehow attached to the bed. My arm is straight out, away from my body, as if I'm spelling out a Capital T. A clear plastic tube runs from the back of my hand to a table with an IV drip on it. The table and the drip are clearly out of reach. My right hand is still chained. I try to reach over to the IV drip, but I can only reach my left shoulder, not much more than that.
My mouth doesn't feel like the Sahara anymore, so there's that.
Fuck. I can't even get stage a hunger-strike correctly. Now they've put me on a liquid diet.
I curse my body. They've turned me into a damn cow. Calories, water, and vitamins go in, super-blood comes out. I'm wondering how many gallons they've already pulled from me. And what my jailor plans on doing with it.
The amount of energy going out, wonder how they measure that. Or does my blood get energy from light? I picture the Nerd in the lab next door, shining a UV light onto the blood sample. The blood boils and explodes in his face, blinding or even killing him. I have my dreams.
I'm back in Iraq. Captain is pointing at a satellite map with red and blue circles superimposed on it. Familiar Arabic and English text covers a few cities. The closest city is labeled "Tikrit".
An ancient wizard sits on a heavy wooden chair in front of me, hair white as snow and radiating outward from his head like coronal mass ejections.
"BB. They tell me you're on a hunger strike. That's a shame." The old man almost sounds sincere. The voice is the same one I heard coming from the black speaker. My jailor. The ancient fuck who paid to have Angela kidnapped. Though, potentially, that was just a way to get to me. Theories are still swirling in my head.
I sit and watch him.
"Franklin says we need to be careful," the wizard muses absently, as if the notion is so outlandish. "Franklin doesn't think I can handle your blood. What do you suppose?"
"I'm sure you can handle it just fine. Go ahead. Give it a try. What's the worst that can happen?" I speak through clenched teeth and snicker at the thought of this fucker's eyes exploding like a popcorn kernel.
The wizard lifts up his right arm. A silver snake trails it down and out of view, and then I remember the plastic hose they hooked to my leg. He already has my blood in his veins, and appears to be in perfect health.
"You don't know what it'll do to you," I speak slowly but consistently. This is my burden to carry. "They don't really know how I tick, know what I mean? Stop, don't spend a minute more on this madness."
The wizard gets up and walks up to my right side. His hand is a blur and suddenly I am being choked, my trachea is collapsed and I am inhaling my last breath.
"I couldn't walk this morning," the ancient wizard speaks through clenched teeth. "And now, twelve hours later, I'm killing you. Your blood, your legacy, will be around for a while. At least, until I reverse-engineer your ass."
The wizard lets me go and I take measured breaths, control my heart rate, and look him silently in the eyes. This guy is a psycho with an IV drip of plutonium. He's going to kill us all. He leaves wordlessly.
I am back in Iraq. Someone rustles me from my after-sunset nap. We're rushing through the ramshackle base, the dilapidated and near-collapsing buildings have mostly been emptied. We're the last American forces in the region. Well, second to last. The 52nd is still in Tikrit. The details swim into my memory slowly.
We get to the aircraft hangar. It's empty, save for one last helo, the CH-53E Super Stallion. I know that this particular model has the internal fuel tanks filled with an extra 300 gallons of JP-8 av-fuel. We get in and it's a short flight to an abandoned airport, our last remote base, one of the last footholds in the region.
The helo lands next to the Furnace and we get the fuel lines setup. The Captain greets me and gives a brief update on the situation. The 52nd is pinned in by the Nationalists and will be overrun in a few hours. DC has dropped the ball and we can't even get reliable satellite feeds up. Situation Nominal: All Fucked Up.
"When do I go in?" I ask her. The Captain nods minutely toward the Furnace. "Got it. No time for caution." I strip off my clothes and get into the contraption.
The Furnace is a couple of tons of metal that slide together to create a large horizontal drop. I get into the "thick" end, they push the two halves together, and for a moment the darkness is too much. I grope for and find a flare, strike it, and toss it toward the "thin" end. It lies in front of a narrow opening that's spinning and vibrating. Our "miniature jet engine".
The inner surface of the Furnace - the walls and the floor - is polished to a mirror finish, so the flickering red of the flare illuminates the entire space.
"OK, I'm ready, turn on the juice!" I yell out. The red flare brightens for a moment and the engine blasts on.
I can taste the light and the heat of the engine. They remind me of cinnamon. Superheated atoms carrom off my skin at some ridiculous velocity and leave their jules of energy. They transfer their energy to me and slowly back down to pedestrian speeds. My muscles stretch and groan and I feel mass accumulating all over my body.
The jet engine finally runs of fuel twenty minutes later. I push back one of the Furnace panels and exit into the cold night air. Gusts of pearl-laden fog rise off my hairless skin.
"Let's go," my voice shakes the air and a dozen Marines are startled to find their lungs reverberating in unison.
We move out towards Tikrit.
I make the final steps towards my distinction as the Tank of Tikrit as I soak up fire from over three hundred enemy fighters.
I'm back in the pitch-black basement, but I am not alone.
The captain stands in front of me.
"You know what you need to do, Marine.
You've had a good run.
But this is your time."
It takes me a moment to appreciate what She - and ultimately my subconscious - are saying.
She wants me to kill myself.
She asks me to kill myself.
I see the logic of it.
A plutonium-powered madman just revealed himself, and I am one of the few people in the world who can stop him.
This is a no-brainer, honestly.
Mainly because I am out of options.
This dark prison has weakened me too far.
I fall asleep amid thoughts of suicide.
The ancient wizard stands next to me.
Blood covers his suit and chunks of pink suffuse his hair.
He glares at me and the unreserved hatred in his eyes threatens to boil me alive.
He puts a bloody baseball cap on my chest.
It's a red and black Chicago Bulls cap, half of its red bill covered with a deep dark stain.
Maron's favorite cap.
I glance up at the ancient wizard and he punches me in the face, like a train.
Darkness swallows me.
When I do return, I'm still in the cell, but I am once again alone.
The IV bag looks different, moved, changed out.
It's practically full.
That must have been the lunch changeover.
My face is a flurry of pain.
Some of the bones feel broken.
I wipe some of it away, carefully, and after a moment I can breathe better.
But even that tiny exertion has cost me.
I'm dead tired and every movement feels monumental and slow, like the flexing of a steel bridge.
The red and black hat, the cap, lies by my knees, but I can't reach it.
Did I throw it away from me?
Did the ancient wizard leave it there to tempt me?
To remind me?
The wizard killed Maron.
Probably others, as well.
Who else has paid for my fuck-ups?
There's something else in the IV drip, isn't there?
I ponder this for a few seconds, minutes, hours, days.
I'm tired, but this "tired" goes beyond mere exhaustion.
Strange chemicals are flitting through my brain.
They are slowing me down, reducing my capabilities by a factor or a dozen.
How can I reason about my predicament, when the reasoning muscle is being manipulated with dehydration, stress, chemical cocktails, increased CO2 levels, exposure to radioactive isotopes, whatever it is that forces my body to self-repair and use up all the energy I still possess.
But doesn't this follow?
Isn't this what they are doing?
They want me so close to death, that I won't represent a threat.
I'm incapacitated, in this current state.
How long can they keep me here?
How long can I keep feeding this wizard psychopath?
Until he kills everyone I care about?
Until he rules the world?
No, I decide.
The Captain is right.
I bend down to my right elbow, position my teeth, and bite hard.
That was easier than I thought.
In Iraq, taking a life was a larger endeavor.
There was even paperwork, at times.
But here, in this country and in this decade, it is nothing.
After a minute, an alarm starts going off outside the cell. I hear the faint murmur of walkie talkies sparking to life as code blue rings through the facility.
I wait and listen to the cacophony outside.
I'm so near death, why don't I die?
I feel the wetness around me as the bed turns into a bathtub.
And yet I am still here, pondering this exasperating situation.
The Nerd busts into the room with Short and Tall.
They're going to staunch the blood flow, they're going to keep me alive.
I scream with every last bit of energy, and will my body to succumb to death.
The Nerd reaches me first, his pudgy fingers closing around my elbow, trying to block the flow at the source.
I smash my head against his head and his goggles fall off.
He was in too much of a rush to properly secure them, so he's as blind as a bat.
And now he's grabbing at my arm at random, trying to stem the blood flow, but is actually helping me bleed out.
I thank him, wordlessly, and black out.
"Ahhhhh!" the Nerd screams.
"Ahhhhh!" I scream as a bolt of lightning flows across my right arm, through my veins, and explodes directly into my heart.
The weird thing is that it is a reparative lightning bolt.
Time stops, strangely enough, and I take a moment to look around.
Short and Tall are at the end of the bed, their shockers drawn but dangling close to the ground, not even charged yet.
Those two are definitely not expecting a fight.
To them, this is a normal occurrence, just another day at the office.
The Nerd is grabbing my arm with both of his hands, and at the same time he is gasping at those hands.
They are frozen solid.
A white fractal of spreading cold delineates those portions of the Nerd that are already frozen from those that are not yet frozen.
This is new.
I feel refreshed.
There is energy within me, within my bones, and I want to work that energy out.
I want to get up and go for a run.
Or punch some motherfuckers out.
The supernova of energy speeds up my mind, so the world seems to crawl around me.
Short and Tall are gaping at me.
I take my time, concentrate and pull out all of the Nerd's energy, then push his frozen corpse away.
His frozen corpse slams into the ground and shatters.
Barely a second has passed.
Short and Tall glance up from the remnants of their boss and notice that the bed is empty.
"Fuck," Short begins to mumble and starts playing with his shocker baton, tries to get it to charge up.
I use this opportunity to draw out Tall's energy.
I use his body as a shield, one hand on his shoulder, another on his hip.
Flesh freezes between these two points and he becomes a meat popsicle even faster than Franklin the Nerd.
Short is still focused on the bed and has no idea what's happening.
Finally I pick up Tall's stunner and face off against Short.
"How do you feel about your chances?" I ask him.
I depress the trigger on the baton and send fifty thousand volts into my thigh.
I reach into the flow of electrons, past the destruction and consume the energy in a safe way.
Just as in the Furnace, I drink the energy and for a moment become one with the lightning.
Short watches as I harmlessly empty the stunner baton, a weapon designed specifically against my type, and he is terrified.
Speechless and unmoving, like a deer in the headlights.
Except this deer can appreciate the train that's heading his way.
A red glow from the baton shows that it's empty.
Guys like these Rent-A-Thugs, Short, Tall, and potentially the Nerd, never see the baton power levels turn red.
They're not familiar with the primal fear that comes with being an enforcer and seeing that precursor to a dead battery.
They haven't seen eyes light up quite like that, like one of the legion skateboard freaks and anarchists who treat "dead battery" with near-religious solemnity.
No, these goons mostly get to use a fully-charged baton on first-timers.
I've never tried pulling energy from the world.
I've always been afraid about letting my own batteries run down too low.
That's how I got my nickname, of course, by spending my off-time soaking up the sun's race.
At some point, I was the same coward as the goons, terrified of letting my energy reserves drop so damn low.
I toss the empty baton away, then reach for Short's baton.
He hands it over quietly.
His head is sufficiently bowed, as if we're going to observe some local customs.
He waits in front of me and watches the ground.
I stand there with bare feet. Short has nice looking black leather shoes. He's also terrified, trembling.
Faster than human perception, my hand moves and I smash Short's nose into his brain. It's a strong hit and bone crunches. I catch Short by the neck and as his body emits its final convulsions I draw the energy out of him. When he is a frozen statue, I push it over into a controlled fall.
There's a gasp from the entrance, then the door slams shut and something heavy like a drop-bar falls.
The backup is too terrified.
I wonder what now-
A bright explosion of light comes from both sides of the bed, from the entryway, from the ceiling itself.
I swim through wave after wave of explosive detonations.
My body suffers, layers of skin burn off by the bombs, but my body fixes the damage just as quickly as it comes.
I shed a few layers of crispy human before I get a handle on redirecting and absorbing this energy.
And then the explosions are simultaneously ripping me apart and supplying the energy to repair the damage.
Time slows down as a ton of explosives gives my metabolism a kick of interstellar proportions.
I could fly to the moon with this amount of potential energy.
I reflect as a mansion of marble and brick comes down on top of me in slow motion.
Never thought I could do this.
I've never tried.
I was always scared to run point, I've always been happier to support others instead.
That's been my job with the Marines, and my work on the Beach.
That's what I do, I help others.
Surprised goons are being propelled through the air all around me.
Poor bastards probably didn't even know that they were working inside a damn bomb.
For a while I just smile and watch the as the house flips itself inside out, then rains down from the sky like a strange thunderstorm of rock and fire.
My mind finally comes around to remember it.
What happened with Maron?
I leap a few hundred feet straight up, out of the rubble and into the mid-afternoon sky.
The bright sun hits my renewed body and I soak up even more energy.
A fog breaks out all around me as the ambient temperature falls and the air can no longer hold all of that moisture.
As I slowly fall back down to earth, I ponder my next move.
That murdering wizard will pay, eventually his time will come.
But for now, I head back to the beach.
There's work to be done.