Friday, February 25, 2011

week forty-six: the montcalm incident (part 1)

Hello readers. This week's story is going to be broken up into two parts. As I wrote this, I realized just how long it was and decided that it would be better to have it separated. Anyway, it's set in the same universe as this story, so if you read that one, a lot more will make sense in this one. Those of who really pay attention will also note that this is in the same universe as the novel I'm currently working on. It's just the same universe. None of the characters from the novel appear in this story or vice versa. But anyway, I hope you enjoy this. I've had a lot of fun writing it. This is the sort of stuff that most people expected me to write when I started the Story a Week project. They probably expected it to suck too...

Have I proved them wrong? Tell me in the comments!

Captain Jacques Fierre knew he was in trouble. Three armadas, two enemy and one formerly friendly, were on the prowl for him and his ship, the Montcalm. Just hours before, he had opened fire on and crippled the friendly warship, the Republique. He had very good reason for doing so. The Republique was about to break formation and perform an incredibly stupid maneuver, which would have given away the position of the entire French fourth fleet. The only issue with this is that Republique belonged to Admiral Fleur, who commanded the entirety of fourth fleet. Fleur did not take being fired upon well and declared the entire crew of Montcalm traitors.

After a very quick engagement, Fierre managed to escape, but not without damage. Their port side engine was operating at forty percent, several of their guns were offline, they had exhausted their complement of concussive missiles, and were low on supplies in general. Fierre could not be sure what their long-term goal would be, but immediately speaking, they needed to stock up. In his mind, he played out several scenarios. They could not turn back and give up. Each and every member of his crew would face time in prison. Fierre would not go to the Americans. He was still loyal to his nation and defection was simply not an option. Only one choice remained: go rogue. If they could stock up on supplies and get far enough away from government-controlled space, then they could live the pirate civilian life. At present, however, they didn't have enough supplies to last more than a week or two.

Fierre stood from his command chair and said, “Commander Leon, what is the closest friendly supply outpost to our location?”

Commander Claude Leon, a larger man with a receding hairline, replied, “It would take us three weeks to get us to Outpost Seventeen, captain. There are no friendly supply out-.”

“What about unfriendly? What is the nearest supply outpost in general?”

Commander Leon walked over to the cartography station and input a few commands. The holographic display changed colors and displayed brand new information, “Captain, the Americans have an outpost, Nashville Station, just a few hours away.”

“What do we know about it?”

“It's small and the Americans use it as a stopgap for short-range vessels making their way to the front lines. Its strategic value is minimal, I would not expect it to be well-guarded.”

“Then it's perfect.”

“You want me to lay in a course?”

“Yes, yes, I do, commander,” Fierre sat back down and brushed off his uniform. “With any luck, the Americans won't even know we're coming.”


Lieutenant Commander Raymond Evans of the U.S.S Johnston was happy to finally have a moment to catch his breath. They had doing maneuvers against the French and German fleets for months. Sure, they had not seen any action, but it was tiring having to constantly be on full alert. Their admiral, Admiral William Forrest, was a master of deception. He kept the American fleets doing complicated maneuvers. At times, it looked as though they were retreating, and other times as if they were preparing for large-scale assault. The American fleet was larger than either the French of German fleets, yet smaller than their forces combined, and they therefore played the situation very carefully. Only very small skirmishes had occurred, with the Americans usually on the winning side.

The drawback was that his fleet was constantly on edge. His captains and commanders were growing tired and they were consuming supplies quickly. Either way, both sides were tiring of the standoff and both sides knew that something big was about to happen. The only question was when. Either side waited for an advantage. Sure, the Americans and British had a larger combined fleet, but if they attacked the wrong place, then they could be outflanked by the French and Germans. Admiral Forrest was waiting for just one more advantage. His hope was that they could get some kind of intelligence about the enemy's positions and plans. They needed a miracle.

For the next two weeks, Lieutenant Commander Evans and the Johnston did not have to worry about any of this. They had rotated them out of the fleet and were to take two weeks for R&R at Nashville Station. No, Nashville was not exactly a tourist destination; there was nothing to speak of as far as recreational facilities go, but it was away from the action. At Nashville, they would refuel and restock. Just a few days before, they had won a fight against a German heavy destroyer and needed to restock their ammunition. Part of the reason Johnston was rotated was because her usefulness in combat was reduced.

American ships depended very heavily on their powerful semi-active ship-to-ship missiles called Longbows. The advantage to the Longbow was that they were very powerful, very long-ranged, very fast, and very accurate. There were, however, two major disadvantages. One is the very limited ammunition. The second is that Longbows have limited firing arcs. Generally speaking, Longbow tubes were concentrated to the front of the ship, with only the larger classes having side or rear tubes. American ships were notorious for being extremely deadly in frontal assaults, but less so at the sides and rear.

Other nations used missiles, however the Longbow was exclusively used by the Americans. One would think its design to be simple, however no other nation succeeded in constructing a missile with quite the same explosive yield, speed, and range as the Longbow. Such being the case, no other nation felt it necessary to build their ships quite so front-heavy. Another advantage of the Longbow was that they were so fast that point-defense systems had great difficulty tracking and destroying them. Other missiles could, generally speaking, be tracked and destroyed by point-defense cannons. Missiles were often employed as distraction tactics rather than being relied upon as primary weapon systems. American ships, therefore, stood unique.

The largest draw for the Longbow was its supporting role. The most powerful weapon in any starship is the Magnetic Accelerator cannon. Mag cannons fired ferrous slugs of varying sizes at about three percent of light-speed, making for incredibly powerful and awespiringly deadly weapons. Mag cannons required long tubes and huge power draws, yet a well-placed round could end a fight very quickly. Every nation used the mag gun as their primary weapon and few warships existed without a mag cannon. Because of the necessity for such a long tube, mag cannons were placed as forward weapons without exception. Guidance for such a weapon is impossible, therefore the range of a mag cannon is very limited. The Longbow, however, had no such range limitation. American captains had the distinct advantage of being able to fire Longbows at enemy targets and soften them up before closing in to finish the enemy off with a mag shot.

Johnston's complement of Longbow missiles was almost completely exhausted, their magnetic-accelerator cannon's targeting computer was fried, and their general supplies were low. They needed the repairs and resupplication badly.

“Dropping from translight speed right... now,” Ensign Daniel Howard, the helsman, reported as the ship lurched forward from the drop.

“Send Nashville Station the docking codes,” Evans ordered. “Let's not keep anyone waiting. Take us in steady as she goes.” He paced the bridge. Johnston was a small ship with a crew of thirty-eight. There was no command chair for him to sit on.

“Aye, aye,” Howard replied. “Riding steady, commander.”

Evans sighed, “I cannot wait to get a full eight hours.”

“I'm with you,” Lieutenant Pete Haddock, the tactical and executive officer, replied. “I'm just happy to be free from positioning and repositioning.”

“While it lasts,” Howard sighed.

Suddenly, Haddock's console came to life. “Commander, I'm picking up another ship coming out of translight.”

“No other ship is scheduled to be with us,” Evans walked over to Haddock's station. “Can you identify?”

“Not yet, I can't get a clear silhouette,” Haddock said. “They're still making the drop... hang on, they've just- Good God, commander, it's a French battlecruiser!”

“Full alert! Get all hands to battle stations, load up the Longbow tubes, charge the defensive cannons, and prime the mag guns!”

“Sir, the targeting systems on the mag guns are friend; they're useless.”

“Do it anyway.”

“Aye, aye, sir.”

“Maintain our course, put us between that ship and Nashville Station. We've just become their only line of defense.”

“Yes, sir,” Howard said as his hands darted across the controls.

“Haddock, give me a read on that ship.”

“She's the Montcalm, a Charlemagne-class battlecruiser. They have a pair of forward mag tubes and more primary cannons than three Johnston's put together. Sir, even if we were a hundred-percent, we are no match for a Charlemagne.”

“Agreed,” Evans swallowed. “Send off a distress signal.”

“Aye,” Haddock affirmed. “Sir, the Montcalm is hailing.”

“Put them on-”

“Wait, commander, something doesn't add up about all this.”

Evans rubbed the back of his head as he thought, “Explain.”

“Think about it,” Haddock started, “what do the French want with Nashville Station? If they actually cared, why would they send just one ship? Something just doesn't add up.”

“Put them on-screen, we'll figure this out.”

The image of Nashville Station suddenly changed to a man in uniform sitting in his command chair. The man said, “This is Captain Jacques Fierre of the Montcalm. Stand aside or be destroyed.”

“Captain Fierre, you have violated sovereign United States territory. Stand down or I'll be forced to open fire. You turn around before this gets ugly.”

“Reconsider. Your ship is no match for mine. Stand aside or be destroyed.”

“You know I can't do that, captain.”

“If you value the lives of your crew, then you will stand down.”

“Captain, answer me this, what do you want with Nashville Station?”

“He's cut the transmission,” Haddock reported. “Orders?”

Evans rubbed his chin and then bit his lip, “We'll have to get creative with this one.”

“Something in mind, sir?”

“Give me a rundown of the weapons systems.”

“All standard batteries are online and ready to fire. The mag guns are fully operational, but the targeting computer is fried and we'd have to at point blank to guarantee a hit. All Longbow tubes are loaded and ready, but we have no reloads. We fire once and that's that.”

“We've got one shot,” Evans clenched his fist. “Let's make it count.”

Montcalm has powered her engines and they're coming into range now.”

Evans thought through every maneuver he had been taught at the academy. There was literally nothing in the orthodox that could help them here. With standard maneuvers, Johnston could do some damage, but Montcalm would still be operational enough to be a total threat. Evans knew that he would have to do something to even the odds. And then he remembered. The famous Harden Maneuver. “Ensign Howard, plot a collision course.”

“Sir?!” Howard squeaked.

“Just do it,” he turned to Haddock. “Lieutenant, arm all batteries, but I want you to save the Longbows and mags to fire on my mark only. Other guns are fire at will.”

“Understood,” Haddock gulped.

“Course laid in,” Howard said. “Just say when.”

“Who does that man think he is? Leonidas?” Fierre snarled as stood from his chair and paced the bridge. “Arm all weapons and fire up the engines, I want that ship destroyed. Now.”

“Engaging engines, weapons are charging. We'll be in range in thirty seconds,” Commander Leon reported as he watched his operational panel, which gave him a summary of all systems at a glance. He then asked, “Sir, if you were the Americans, what would you do here?”

Fierre licked his lip, “I would either surrender or put up a battle of attrition. There is no winning for the Americans here. They know-”

“Captain!” Leon suddenly perked up. “The Americans have put on full afterburners and they're gunning right for us!”

“Their commander is stupider than I would have thought possible.”

“As soon as they're in range, teach them a lesson!”

“Full evasive!” Evans exclaimed. “If their mags hit us, we're through!”

“Sixty seconds until impact!”

“Give the engines more juice; give 'em all we got!” Evans cried.

“They're firing!” Haddock reported as two white streaks burst from the front of the Montcalm. These were the mag cannons firing. “Complete miss, sir! Their mag guns have completely missed us! They're firing missiles.”

“I hope the point defense is up to snuff...”

“Forty-five seconds!”

“They are going to ram us!” Leon exclaimed with an unsubtle nervousness to his voice.

“No, their captain is most certainly 'playing chicken' with us,” Fierre said with a confident grin. “They will break off. More power to the engines. We will finish them off with our superior main cannons.”

“But what if their captain does batter us? It will be the end of us!”

“It will be the end of him too and he knows this. Continue our course!”

“Thirty seconds until impact!” Howard exclaimed as he held to the conn. tightly. “We should abandon ship, commander.”

“That's not the plan,” Evans said rubbing his chin. He then doubted that his plan would even work. It had to. It just had to. There was no other way.

“Twenty seconds!”

“Prepare to alter course on my mark,” Evans said flatly.

“Anything, commander.”

“On my mark, roll portside fifteen degrees.”

“That's it?” Howard twitched.

“One more thing, after I give that order, redirect us to hit only the ventral portion of the Montcalm,” Evans kept his calm like it was an art form. Underneath his command shell, he was scared beyond common threshold. “Graze them, ensign.”

“Ten seconds,” Howard nodded, slightly reassured. Part of him understood Evan's plan, but fear slowly took over.

“Use whatever guns you can to hit them on their belly, Haddock, but save the missiles and mags,” Evans told him as he pocketed his right hand. It shook as panic made its attempt at a takeover.

“Five! Four! Three! Two! One! Impact!”

“Captain Fierre, they've changed course!”

“What?” Fierre relinquished his tight grip on his command chair. He had fully prepared himself to be rammed. What in the name of God were the Americans planning?

The decks rocked, throwing Fierre out from his chair and hard onto the floor. He looked up to see all of his crewman falling to the ground. Electrical arcs flared as computer panels overloaded and exploded. Shrapnel flew around the room along with bodies. The worst, however, was the sound. A horrifying, screeching sound filled the room. On instinct, Fierre covered his ears and shouted.

“They are grazing us, Captain!” Leon shouted as he read the tactical readout.

“Pull us off! Pull us off! Full afterburner!” Fierre cried desperately.

“I can't, sir!” The helsman screamed back.

Lieutenant Commander Evans was down on his knees, his hands over his ears. It took every part of his will to keep from shouting. He forced himself to his feet and over to the helm station. The helmsman screamed to him, “Separating from the Montcalm in three... two... one...” the screeching stopped.

“Continue full afterburner and prepare a starboard Crazy Ivan on my mark!”

“A Crazy Ivan, sir?! Are you craz-”
“Just do it!” Evans put his hand on helmsman's shoulder. “Tactical, get us a firing solution that puts all of our forward weaponry hitting the rear of the Montcalm just as soon as we're turned around!”

Haddock let out a slip of a smile as he realized the plan. It was suicidal and risky as all Kingdom Come, but if it worked.... “Aye, sir! Commander, the mag targeting computer's toast, I'll have to calculate that manually.”

“I've got every confidence in you, Lieutenant,” Evans clutched one of the safety rails. “Helm, are you ready with that Crazy Ivan?”

“Sir, I can guarantee you that we'll burn out the starboard engine and the port might not survive either.”

“Are you ready?”

“Yes, commander, ready to initiate engine suicide on your mark.”

“Do it!”

The screeching stopped. Captain Fierre pulled himself into his chair and called, “Damage report!”

Leon looked at his panel and shook his head, “Major hull breaches across multiple decks, our defensive shielding is shot, we're venting plasma, and the main computer core is overloaded... I cannot get a complete assessment. Casualty reports are still incoming.”

“What of the Johnston?”

“They are still on full afterburner, pushing away- oh, merde!”

“What is it?”

“They just pulled a Crazy Ivan maneuver, captain! They're firing!”

Quietly, Captain Fierre agreed, “Merde.”

“FIRE!!!” Evans shouted as he stared into the glowing afterburner of his wounded enemy. The Johnston's decks rattled yet again as everything she had was let loose. Lieutenant Commander Evans hoped and prayed that each and every weapon would find its mark. Their lives depended on this one chance. If it failed, they were doomed. Evans decided then that no matter what, his crew had done their best and he would be proud of them.

“Impact!” Haddock cried. “Direct hit with the mag slug! Yes!” He shook his fist.

“Excellent shot, Mister Haddock!”

“Missile impact in three... two... one... Direct hit on all accounts, Commander!”

“Report! Give me a report on the Montcalm!” Evans knew he hardly needed it. The ship on the viewscreen was a burning hulk.

“Massive damage across all decks, they're venting all kinds of plasma... their weapons and defensive systems are offline. Sir, they're dead in the water! I can't even get an accurate reading of just how badly we've hit them. But we got 'em. We got 'em.”

“Good job, lieutenant. You should be proud.”

“Sir, we've completely depleted our ammunition banks. We have no more missiles or mag shells. If they've got any fight left in them, then we're dead.”

“Give me a full damage report.”

“Defensive shields are offline, we've lost all starboard batteries. We've got a few hull breaches and casualty reports are still coming in. We're a lot better off than they are, but we're not in great shape.”

“Well, they don't know that. Keep the missile bays and mag guns charged. Act like we're still ready and able.”

“Aye, sir.”

“Signal them. Let's see what they've got to say now.”

Captain Fierre pulled himself off the floor and onto his feet. He looked around. The main lights were down, only the dim emergency backup systems ran. Small fires had ignited all around. There were bodies on the floor. He was beaten. That tiny American ship had just completely ravaged the once-illustrious Montcalm. Now she was a broken beast. But just how broken? “Leon! Give me a damage report!”

Leon wiped sweat and blood from his brow and ash from his uniform. He attempted to activate his console but nothing happened. With a heave, he switched to another and pulled up the emergency systems. He reported slowly and surely, “Captain, they hit us on the engine systems and detonated one of our fuel cells. The damage is... catastrophic. Our reactor is down and we cannot generate sufficient power for most ship systems. The weapons, defensive systems, and all primary systems are down. We only have emergency life support. The primary and secondary engines are both inoperative. I can only get us maneuvering thrusters. Captain... we're dead.”

Fierre sunk into his chair. “Get medical teams up here on the bridge. Let's get these fires out.”

“Damage control is already on it, sir.”

“My God, how did it come to this?”

Leon's console suddenly beeped. “Sir, the Americans are signaling.”

Fierre shook his head.

“What should I do, sir?”

“Put them on-” Fierre then noticed that his viewscreen was shattered. “Let's hear it.”

“You're on, sir.”

“This is Captain Fierre, you may go head.”

“Captain Fierre, this is Lieutenant Commander Evans. Your ship is crippled and helpless. One more volley from us and it's not only your ship, but you crew that I've taken from you. We've signaled our navy and more starships should be on the way eventually. We will let them deal with you. In the meantime, you are to stand down. You will not make communications of any kind. If we detect any sort of signal whatsoever, we will open fire. If we detect any engine activity whatsoever, we will open fire. If you attempt to power on your engines, we will open fire. Is that clear, Captain?”

Fierre rubbed his forehead, “Surely you understand that we will need to use some power to attempt repair operations?”

“You will attempt no repair operations beyond that which you need to keep your crew out of harm's way.”

Fierre signed, “Very well, Commander Evans. Have it your way.”

“It's my way or hell. Evans out.” The transmission ended.

“We need to get out of here, captain,” Leon said as he attempted to cross a few wires on a broken panel.

“I know, I know!” Fierre clenched his fist. He hated being trapped. “Suggestions are appropriate right now.”

“Sir, if we could get a transmission out... if we could tell our fleet our location and our situation, it's a good bet they send some ships. If they did that-”

“Then we could use the fray as a distraction to escape!”

“Exactly, captain.”

“But how do we get out a transmission without them detecting it?”

“I am not sure, captain-”

“Wait! A power surge!”


“If we could simulate a power surge in the engine reactor and simultaneously send out a burst transmission packet, their sensors would totally miss it.”

“We would just have to be careful to make sure we are not pointing it at them...”

“Can it be done?”

“I'll get on it.”

They had really done it. French battlecruisers were near-revered by the American fleets. For their size class, they demonstrated almost absolute efficiency of design. They used the most modern technologies and packed a wallop. Besides being fast and powerful, they were also cheap to manufacture. The French produced them en masse. To have just killed one using nothing more than the U.S.S Johnston, a Fletcher-class destroyer was a true feat.

Rather than gloat, Evans got down to business, “Alright, let's get repair operations underway. Signal Nashville and tell them to start sending shuttles laden with supplies, prioritizing reloads for the missile bays.”

“What about our own shuttles?” Haddock asked. “Should I send them over to make runs?”

“If we can spare the manpower, then yes, but we need to get ourselves operational again. I won't risk the French running dirty business with us.”

“We've got nine wounded and two dead, commander.”

“That's the final report?”

“Yes, sir, all other crewmen accounted for.”

“Good. Now we just sit and-”

“Commander!” Haddock cried. “I just detected a power surge from Montcalm!”

“Signal them.”

Haddock worked his controls and in a few seconds, “Ready when you are.”

“Captain Fierre, we've detected a power surge from your vessel, please explain.”

“Commander, it is nothing; an accident. In our attempts to stabilize our reactor core, it would seem that we triggered a surge in electrical emergency. As you can see, our power is back to the way it was. We are only trying to stabilize it, as I said before.”

“Very well. Evans out.”

“It worked? The signal is away?” Fierre asked as he pulled himself from his command chair.

“Yes, captain, the signal is away,” Leon told him. “Now we must hope that the signal reaches our fleets.”

“Best-case scenario is that our fleet receives the signal and acts before the Americans can.”

“Worst-case scenario that the Americans get here soon and our fleet does not respond at all.”

“Exactly,” Fierre paced the bridge. “In the meantime, we must prepare ourselves.”


“Any scenario,” Fierre turned to face him. “Have the crews double up on repair duties. Do not power on the engines, tell them to repair as much as possible without activating anything. We need to get the reactor and translight engines operational-”

“Captain, translight is impossible,” Lieutenant LeFouvre, their helmsman interrupted.

“I beg your pardon?”

“Captain, with a hull breach as massive as the one on our starboard-ventral side, going to translight velocities would tear the ship apart.”

“He is right.”

“Then we are stuck here.”

“Yes, captain, I am sorry, but-”

“Then even if our comrades were to arrive, there would be no escape for us.”



Leon rubbed his large forehead, “Captain, we need a new plan.”

“Why did you not speak up before, Lieutenant?”

Lieutenant LeFouvre sighed, “Captain, I was unconscious.”

“Then you are excused,” Fierre rubbed his chin. “Yes, we need to come with a new solution. We cannot risk being captured by the Americans and we cannot risk being captured by our comrades. Either solution is inevitable.”

Leon spoke carefully, “Captain, perhaps we should consider a full surrender to the Americans. It is a safe bet that the would be more willing to harbor us than our comrades. They have a policy of taking defectors-”

“No! I will not betray my countrymen.”

“But sir-”

“There is no debating this.”

“Then what is the plan?”

“Do a scan of the area, the must be something we can use.”

LeFouvre worked his navigational panel and then turned back around, “Captain, I have it. Just a few thousand kilometers from the starbase is an asteroid field.”

“So? It is not uncommon for a starbase to built near an asteroid field. In fact, it is more common-”

“Sir, it's one of four documented extremely magnetic asteroid fields. The asteroids inside are so magnetic that there is a hazard beacon placed near them. Our sensors rely heavily on magnetism to get accurate readings... if we were to enter deeply enough, we would be hidden.”

“Excellent, but why is there a hazard beacon?”

“Well, captain, that is the problem. The asteroids will stick to our hull.”

“Can we prevent it?”

“If we set our shields to a negative magnetic frequency, it should repel most the asteroids-”


“Captain, it would still be very dangerous-”

“But we have no choice,” Fierre plopped back into his chair. “That is what we will do. When our comrades arrive, we will make for this asteroid field.”

Friday, February 18, 2011

week forty-five: suddenly

At the latter end of my sophomore year of high school, I was given the idea that I should run for the position of social chairman along with a dear friend of mine. The social chair position is a dual spot, always held by two people. My friend, David Lopes, who we nicknamed Lowps, was to run with me. I told him about the idea and agreed that it was a good one. There is not much that goes into campaigning for student government at a small high school such as mine. We needed only really to write up a speech.

Being that this was a campaign for social chairman, the speech would naturally have to be a more light-hearted, more fun-oriented bit. It was a Friday night when Lowps came over to my house and we sat down in front of my computer to discuss what needed to be done. We are both naturally funny guys and knew that a decent speech could pretty much write itself, however, since we were running two other pairs of people, we knew it had to be top-notch.

The other two people running were both considerably more “popular” than me and Lowps. The two of us are, to this day, capital-class dorks. To clarify, we were not hated or whatnot, but we were weirdos; the kind of guys people like to pick on. One of the two competitors was the preppy, cheerleader types; attractive girls one might see in this sort of position. The other group was a popular jock and a funnyman. Lowps and I would have this position as high school juniors, both other groups would be seniors. Basically, the odds were stacked completely against us.

Lowps and I knew we had one solid advantage. Most people would scarcely see this as an advantage, but this card, if played right, could tip the balance. Since Lowps and I already had a reputation for being weird dorks, we could push certain creative envelopes safely. The other two had a hindrance called a normal reputation. Lowps and I were completely unshackled from this. The only issue we had would be to package this and make it appealing to the masses. We only had to convince the world that our outside-the-boxness was something they wanted.

Our speech could be two minutes tops. Lowps and I sat down at the computer and let everything out. Eventually, we came up with a short song and inclusion of my book The Galactic Phrase Book and Travel Guide, a Star Wars book which contains various sayings from the movie's fictional language. I told you: we are dorks. The night was going great. I was actually starting to believe that Lowps and I had a chance at this. We were laughing it up at the ideas we were coming up with.

And then my mother burst into the room and stammered, “Lowps needs to go home.”

Was I in trouble? “What? Mom, why? I don't-”

“He just does. Have him call his parents and-”

“Mom!” I interrupted. “Just explain to me what's going on here so I can-”

“Granny J just died,” she put it so bluntly. It didn't register. There was a long pause. “David needs to go home now.”

“Mom, I-” She left the room; left the news just to sit there. I never saw it coming.

David picked up the phone and hit the talk button. I stopped him, “Lowps, wait. I'll talk to her. We'll get this finished.”

He had no idea what to say. There was nothing that really could be said. I took the phone from his hands and put it back on the hook. “I'll be right back, man... we'll get this done.”

I got up and left the office. Lowps took my chair at the computer and I don't even remember what he was doing. I shut the door behind me and walked into the living room where parents seemed just as confused as I was. Where do you go after something like this?

“What happened?” I asked.

“Your Uncle Philip just called,” my mother said. “She was in her bed....”


“She was gone.”

I stopped and looked down at my feet. I could not look my mother or father in the eyes. Especially not my father, who sat on the couch not saying a word. It was his mother who had passed. “What happens now?” I asked.

“Well, we're going to book a flight for dad and he'll- he'll sort this out,” my mother told me. We lived in Brazil at the time, while my grandmother still lived in Tennessee. It was such a distant tragedy. I still did not fully understand. It just did not hit me.

“Mom, I-”

“It'll be okay.”

I took a deep breath, “Lowps and I- we, uh, we need to get this thing done. The speech is on Tuesday.”

“Wes, he needs to-”

“It's okay, Melody,” my dad interrupted. “Let him do his thing.”

“Alright,” she said. “We'll let you know what happens.”

I pushed open the office door and closed to behind me. Lowps asked, “Are you okay?”

“Let's just get this done,” I took my chair back and pulled the Word file back open. My mood was dead and my sense of humor damaged because of it. I worried that we would not be able to get this thing done. I felt like my chances had just died with my Granny J, as we called her. Nevertheless, we got it down. We put together a decent speech and we were proud of it.

The weekend was difficult. There was this air hanging in my family. We could not talk to one another without thinking about the loss. Strangely, it never felt real. We were used to not seeing Granny J for quite a long time. But the thought that we would never see her again... the thought that our goodbyes were really nonexistent... it hurt.

I went to school as normal on Monday. The speech was to take place on Tuesday and I needed to force myself to be as preppy and fun as possible. These last hours before the vote were absolutely crucial. I kept the death to myself. I told as few people as possible. I hid it away. They didn't need to know. But it slipped through. I have always been fairly transparent. And it slipped out. My teachers had already been told and they were supportive, but my friends had no idea why. I wish I had said something. Bottling up pain is never a good idea.

Tuesday came around and I was ready for it. There was nothing left to be done. We had schmoozed the right people, made the right friends, and shined ourselves up appropriately. We were all set to be the underdogs in high school's biggest popularity contest. Lowps and I wanted it. We were hungry. So were the others. But there was something else to it for me. I needed this. I needed something good to happen. It would be my consolation. It would be great, but I honestly believed that the odds were still against us.

And they were.

Our speech was second, which was exactly where we wanted to be. It was a turn of good fortune. We outdid the ones that came before us and set too high a bar for those who came after us. People laughed at our jokes and applauded our plans. Our speech was the best one; there is no doubt. The speech, however, is at moot point. In the end, the whole thing would boil down to a popularity contest. We could only pray that our speech was enough to convince certain people to ignore screwed up social norms and vote for the weirdos.

The results would come back the next week.

My dad came home that weekend and he brought back a DVD of the funeral. He was saddened, but also encouraged by how many people loved his mother. She was a master violinist and it was amazing seeing other musicians around her. He told some of the stories about her people told. One of her best friends came up to my father and told him that his mother was smart ass. It was true. So, so true.

And now I know where I got that gene.

Watching the funeral was kind of dull. It was a wide shot from the balcony at the church and not much could be made out. But there was one part which stands out to me. As I said before, my grandmother was a virtuoso violinist. She played in several orchestras, but her real home was in her quartet with her friends. The quartet played at the funeral, but left an empty chair where Granny J would sit. Her violin rest on that chair. The music sounded hollow; empty. It was missing a key component. I cried that day.

The week passed. I was at the school and the day was just ending. I was nervous about the election results, but I was ready to cope with loss. I was ready to lose. I was ready for more disappointment. What else could they throw at me?

But I was not disappointed. It was at the end of the day when I saw the paper posted. At the very bottom: Social Chairmen: David Lopes and Wesley Julian. My mouth shot open to a smile. I ran down the halls until I found Lowps. I hugged him. He was shocked, “What the heck?” He asked.

I grinned, “Lowps, we won! We freakin' won!”

“We did?” His eyes bolted open. “We did! Yes! Alright!”

As I rode the bus home that day, I couldn't help but feel this sense of joy. My student council victory was bittersweet. I cannot think of it and not think of my grandmother's passing. I do like to think, however, that she was there with me the whole time. She was there and she helped me to win this. Something had gone right. And I knew that Granny J was looking down and smiling for me. She would be so proud. I loved her so much. This isn't the first time I've written about her. I hope that somehow she can read this. I hope that one day, I'll see her again.

Friday, February 11, 2011

week forty-four: end of the line, doc

End of the line, doc.

The pamphlets had made the place seem so nice; so quaint. On the cover was a happy old couple amidst spring flowers. On the inside were words which told of how great an institution the place was. Rose Grove Retirement Home looked nothing but promising. The sugar-coating alleviated any guilt that the old man's children bore for putting their father in such a place. Even the home had looked poor, their guilt would not have lasted log. For they visited very little.

Lenny Perot had been living at Rose Grove for nearly fifteen years. In these years, he had seen the staff go from loving and attentive to apathetic and tired; even more so than their aging patients. For the first few years, the family visited Lenny quite frequently. It was always nice seeing the grandkids. And the staff paid Lenny a bit of extra attention. But over the years, the number of visits thinned and Lenny faded into everyday routine for the staff. His life grew lonelier and lonelier.

With loneliness came boredom. In his room, there was a television, but that served only to annoy Lenny. The shows were either too bleak or too white-washed happy. The news was sensationalist, making everything out to be much more that it was. And then the journalists spent their time propagating an agenda rather than fact. They made the world too dark and horrifying a place. And then the crime dramas glorified the worst in humanity. But the worst were the reality shows and the games shows, which flashed brights lights and plastic smiles. Nothing was ever real. What is real?

The only other things in the room were the bed and the rocking chair, which sat by the window. Fortunately, the window was well-placed. It faced directly at the sunset. It became one of Lenny's favorite things to sit in his chair and watch the sun died away. Lenny could not help but think of himself as the sun disappeared. There was very little time left for Lenny Perot and he knew it.

All there was left to do was to wait....

And this agonized him. He could not help but feel that there was something left to do, something to take care of. But what? He had said goodbye to his family long ago. They still came by every now and then, but Lenny had let them go in his mind. His friends had vanished. There was nothing left to do. But life went on unresolved with death threatening to leave it this way. Lenny prayed that death would come soon to end his torment.

One of the reasons Lenny spent hours watching the sun set from his rocking chair was because this was how he wished to die. He longed for the beauty of the day to fade with him. He longed for his last sight to be one of the few reliable constances in his life. When the last glimmer of orange light vanished from the sky, Lenny closed his eyes. He hoped that each breath would be his last. He was ready.

And suddenly, he heard a loud noise coming from the hall. It was a slowing beat and a hiss; a sound Lenny knew all too well. It was a train. But there were no rail tracks near Rose Grove. There was no logical or sensible reason why a train be heard at all. Lenny first instinct was to ignore the sound, but curiosity overtook him. From his chair, Lenny forced his body to its feet. The old man slid on his robe and slipped to the door.

When he opened the door, he found himself standing on a train platform. The retirement home was gone. It was replaced with a great steam engine train, much like the kind Lenny had worked with for many years. As he looked over the great steel beast, he felt some of his youth returning. For more than thirty years, Lenny had worked at a train station much like this one. He had started at the bottom and eventually became the station manager. It was his life for so long. But why was it back?

Lenny stepped up to the train and looked it over. Never had he seen an engine so flawless. There was no rust or corrosion. There was no dirt or dust and the engine sounded as if it ran without a catch or hitch. Lenny had known hundreds, if not thousands, of trains and none were like this one. There was so much right about it, but he had never seen a train quite so wrong. Unlike every other engine, this one seemed so unreal; something was amiss. Lenny could not place it.

“Ticket?” A voice asked from behind.

Lenny somehow knew to reach into his robe pocket and sure enough, there was a ticket. He turned around and handed it to the man. He was dressed as a regular train conductor, wearing a navy uniform and a laughable hat. The attendant reminded Lenny of many men he had known before... but there was nothing remarkable about him.

“Hop aboard,” the conductor said flatly. “We'll get going soon.”

“Where are we going?” Lenny asked as he walked over to the first passenger car.

“Only places you've been,” the conductor replied as he hopped onto the train engine. “Hop on; I have a schedule to keep.”

Lenny did as he was told. The inside of the car was fancy, but regular. He took a seat and looked out the window. The train lurched ahead. The vista outside was plain and unremarkable; one Lenny knew he would forget.

“Are you comfortable, sir?” The same voice from before asked.

Lenny turned to find that it was the same man from before, except this time he was dressed as an attendant rather than a conductor. “Yes, yes, I am,” Lenny replied.

“Well, good. So, what's your name?”

“Leonard, but you can call me Lenny.”

“How about Doc? Can I call you Doc?”

“Doc?” Lenny's mind bounced. He had not been called that for many, many years... not since....

The train stopped. “We're here, Doc,” Lenny looked back tot he attendant to see that his outfit had changed again. His garb was that of a Marine, the kind Lenny had fought with back in the second World War. The men in his platoon all called him Doc because Lenny was their medic. No one before the war and no one after the war called Lenny Doc.

Lenny looked out the window and saw darkness engulfing a marshy jungle. He knew instantly where he was and he whispered it, “Guadalcanal.”

“Yeah, we're here,” the Marine said. “You need to disembark.”

“I- I don't want to go back there,” Lenny protested. “I never, ever want-”

“You have to, Doc. You have to settle this,” the Marine insisted.

“No, I won't.”

“Well, yeah, you will,” the Marine said as the train suddenly vanished. Lenny found himself standing among his old platoon. They hid in the dark, doing their damnedest to keep quiet and out of sight from the Japanese patrols. “They can't hear you, they can't see you.”

“Why am I here?” Lenny whispered as he heard the low thunder of distant explosions. All of the soldiers were afraid, scared. Death was just around the corner. Lenny looked around them and finally found his younger self. This was a scene Lenny knew all too well.

In the fray of war, Doc's platoon had become separated from the main group. They lost themselves in the pitch black night knowing full well that Japanese soldiers swarmed the area. They had skirmished several times, each time resulting in someone being shot. First it was Peters, then Mitchell. Their last battle went better than the other two. No one had died, but Rowlette had been hit in the leg.

“Sarge, he's losing a shitload of blood,” the younger Doc said. “I can't stop the bleeding.”

“Quiet!” The sergeant shot back. He kept his rifle at the ready.

“Sarge!” Doc insisted. “He needs help!”

“Shut the hell up!”

“We have got to get him out of-”

Gunfire erupted. Their sergeant took four bullets before dropping dead. Old man Lenny could do nothing but watch as his platoon struggled for their lives. Two more men fell. Doc took cover. He should have been more aggressive, but he had been trained to stay alive. He was the medic. He was important.

“Why are you making me see this?” Old man Doc asked of the conductor.

“You've always had regrets about this moment, Doc,” the conductor answered flatly. The chaos of the battle meant nothing to him. “You need to watch and accept what happened. None of this was your fault.”

“I shouldn't have been so loud!”

“You were helping your friend; your comrade.”

“He had lost so much blood... he wouldn't have made it!”

“Your sergeant was a coward to hide in his hole.”

“I shouldn't have been hiding....”

“You did the right thing. Accept it. There's nothing that you could have done to change this.”

“But- but-”

“The Japanese had been following you. You would have ambushed regardless.”

Old man Doc sighed. The scene continued.

“Fuck!” One of the younger Marines exclaimed. “You think we got 'em all?”

“I don't know,” Doc shook. Rowlette was dead. So were Sarge and the others.

“Only one way to find out,” the young man grumbled as he stood up. “Hey you Jap bastards! I'm over here! Shoot me!”

Nothing happened.

“Guess we're good,” the young man grinned.

“Grab their dog tags and let's get the hell outta here!”

Old man Doc gulped as he saw his men moving at breakneck speeds. He saw so much fear and the courage that hid it. Eventually, Lenny came to respect every single man in that platoon.

“All aboard, Doc,” the conductor said.

“Huh?” Lenny turned to see that the train had reappeared behind him. Without really thinking about it, he stepped up into the passenger car and took his seat. The conductor, who had changed back into the attendant, sat across from Lenny. Lenny asked, “Where are you taking me next?”

“I don't know.”

“Are you doing this?”

“No, you are.”

Before Doc could ask another question, the train stopped. He got up from his seat and off the car. The next place was unsurprising to him; unsurprising and actually comforting to see. It was his old train station, the one he had worked on for so many years. It was like being home again after a very long trip.

And then he saw himself. There was thirty-two-year-old Leonard Perot sweeping the deck. Old man Lenny looked over to the schedule to see that his younger self was preparing for a train due to arrive in half an hour. Everything had to be perfect. And Lenny worked very hard to achieve this perfection.

Suddenly, Lenny understood exactly why he had been brought to this point in time. The water tower, which rest just next to the tracks, made a loud cracking noise before almost instantaneously collapsing.

The other deckhand, Thomas, came rushing in screaming, “Oh, no! Oh, no! Oh, no!”

“Thomas, come on, let's try to get this cleaned up! There's still time,” Lenny said as he threw down his broom. There was wood, sheet metal, and water everywhere, but if they just get it off the tracks....

“No! No!” Thomas cried as he paced frantically. “You just don't understand!”

“What the hell are you talking about? We need to clean this up!”

“Oh, God! No!”


“Lenny, I'm done for! Done for!”

“Thomas, come on, help me-”

“It's my fault! Mine!”

“What in the name of-”

“I was supposed to inspect that tower; to fix it up and I didn't do it! I was lazy...” tears fell down his cheeks. “Oh man, I was lazy....”

“Thomas, we need to get it cleaned up-”

“No wait,” Thomas came to. “Don't tell the boss! Tell him- tell him that it was some kids or something... tell him it wasn't me! Tell him-”

“Okay, now come help me clean up!”

“What happened here?” The deep voice of Bobby Robbins, the station manager, asked.

Thomas' eyes shot wide.

“I asked you a question! What the hell happened here?”

“It was- it was these kids, they-”

“It was Thomas' fault, sir,” Lenny said. “He didn't do the work on the tower like you asked.”

“Oh, is that right?”
“Said so himself.”

“Well, Thomas, look at what happened. You may have just ruined us!”

“I'm sorry! I-”

“Sorry won't cut it!” Bobby yelled. “I told you to do that last week! And then you try to lie to me about it?! Unbelievable!”

“I don't want to watch this,” Old man Lenny said to the attendant. “I don't want to see this. I screwed up. I know.”

“You screwed up? Looks to me like it was Thomas who screwed up.”

“I should have stood up for Thomas, I should have-”

“You told the truth.”
“But he was fired!”

“He deserved it.”

“No, no-”

“You know he did. So why do you find so much pain here?”

“Because I did the wrong thing.”

“No, you did the right thing, but you were selfish. You regret this because your motivation was to take old man Robbin's job when he finally retired. And you did.”

“My whole career after that was because I back-stabbed a friend.”

“You would have been promoted anyway. And you hadn't gotten Thomas fired, he would have worked under you. You wouldn't have wanted that, would you?”

“No, I guess.”

“Then you understand. You did the right thing with the wrong motivation. You can't fix it. Just accept the outcome.”

“I can't.”

“Yes, you can.”

“No, it's just a-”

“You don't have time, Lenny.”

“What is your point here?”


“Are you just here to make-”

“End of the line, Doc.”

Lenny's legs suddenly gave out. He fell to his knees.

“You're dying. This is your last chance. Your last chance to make peace with yourself. Live you last moments in peace, Doc.”

Lenny dropped to the ground. He felt life escaping. “I can't-”

“You must. I'm begging you.”

The world changed. Lenny suddenly found himself on the floor of the retirement home. He had fallen off his rocking chair. Air refused his lungs. Light of life became black of death. He looked up to see the sunset disappearing. It was peaceful. Lenny realized then that the sun would set and there was nothing to change that, just as nothing could change the past. He was at peace with the coming night and therefore at peace with his coming death. The night was at peace was the day. Lenny was then at peace with his life, even with all of its flaws.

End of the line, Doc.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

week forty-three: ugly duckling

It's January 15th, 2010 in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti.

My partner doesn't know my name and I don't know his. After graduating from “the academy,” I was given a set of cards with a series of false personal details details on them including a new name. Since my partner, who, to me is Mister Patrick Greenfield, is in the exact same position as I am, I can only assume that I know nothing about him. It's strange because it seems like we're some of the best of friends. But there is nothing real to it. When I talk to him, it's my cover talking. The wife and kids I have at home aren't real; I'm single. Sometimes I can't tell if Patrick is lying or not. I like to believe that he isn't. Sometimes I like to believe that I'm not lying either.

My name, that is my agency name, is John Brunell. My partner and I work in a special branch of the Central Intelligence Agency we've nicknamed the ugly duckling department. Our job isn't to infiltrate the enemy with covers or assassinate people or any of the stuff people seem to think field operatives do. Our job is to look like we're the kind of evil masterminds you see in the movies; the kind of black-suits who go out and manipulate people. We go out and find terrorist or criminal organizations, then we claim to be CIA “representatives” who want to help them out because they fit our top-secret agenda. Our job is to look like a conspiracy theorist's wet dream.

And they all play right into it. The world has this image of CIA agents being what we pretend to be. We pretend to be these bosses who sip whiskey and control the strings. In reality, we're pretty powerless in terms of what we say we do. We say we can use our CIA magic to bring down entire governments or change oil prices at the snap of our fingers. But in reality, we've got nothing.

Our existence serves quite a few purposes. The first and most important is that we serve as a blind for the real field operatives out there. The scum and governments (usually the same thing) of the earth keep their eyes one us, which turns their attention away from the real operatives. The second reason is more legitimate. We get close to the leaders of these organizations and they try to work with us. They almost never really trust us and they never give up too much, but few people can actually get closer than we can. A third reason is that the CIA likes their image as a crazy group of suits who bully everyone with their conspiracy nonsense. Why?

Well, it's a complicated answer best given by the PR liars more close to home. The way I understand it is that if they think we're one thing, then they won't know what we really are. It's pretty brilliant in my opinion.

My partner and I step off our private jet and onto Haitian soil. We decided to arrive at night just to make it seem like we were being mysterious. The small airport we were at didn't look as bad as the pictures you'd see of the earthquake aftermath. There was the occasional mess, but my first thought was that the media was over-blowing the whole thing.

Awaiting our arrival was a man who insisted on the cover name the Australian. We came into contact with him after we figured out he was running a whole smattering of scams after the 2005 tsunamis over near India. Before that, he ran a couple of “business” in Iraq and Afghanistan. There was more before that, but this guy is a classic example of a disaster profiteer. He operates in the shadows and lives comfortably in an illusion of anonymity.


Actually, we know everything there is to know about this guy. His real name is Charlie Verne and he isn't even Aussie; he's from New Zealand. He's unmarried, he's got four homes across the globe, his net worth is somewhere around eighty million dollars, the most common color in his wardrobe is khaki, he owns nine cars, his mother is of Polish ancestry and his father of English, and he's had three separate STD cases. But Mr. Verne believes that he's playing us for fools.

He isn't.

You see, our job is to make him feel like he's powerful and playing some angle with us, meanwhile we're just patsying him. Yes, he is taking money from people and exploiting charity, but our job is actually pretty noble this time around. You see, we have to keep the Australian under control. If we just shut him down, then someone else would take his place and then we would have to go through the whole process of assessing this new person and learning how to work him. Meanwhile, while we did this, the new guy could do all kinds of damage we wouldn't even know about. So, if we keep Verne under control, we can keep him from doing any real damage.

So there's Verne standing outside a red van with a pair of guys who must be security guards. It's pretty obvious that he's trying to look important to us. Since he's out of earshot, Patrick whispers to me, “What do you say we shoot him now and get it over with?”

I seriously considered it as we walked down the stairs.

“Gentlemen, welcome!” Verne exclaims to us. “I trust your flight wasn't too bad?”

“Not at all,” Greenfield replied. “I trust you have something for us?”

“Just like I said,” he pulled an envelope out from his, you guessed it, khaki sport coat.

“Keep it,” Greenfield said with a wry smile. “You really think we couldn't get the location of Haitian's military units on our own?”

“I suppose not,” Verne said as he motioned for his men to open the doors on the van. We climbed inside. It was nothing special and clearly made to blend in as much as possible. “So, why'd you have me go through the trouble?”

“To test you, Aussie, to test you,” Greenfield told him firmly. “You really think we'd work with a guy we couldn't trust?”

“Again, I suppose not,” Verne said from the passenger's seat. The shorter of the two bodyguards got behind the wheel, while the other sat in the back of the van behind me and Greenfield. “So, I have to ask, what exactly is your angle in our little arrangement?”

“You don't need to know that,” Greenfield argued as the van started moving. As me moved closer and closer to the city itself, I saw that I had been wrong before. Port-Au-Prince was hell. “You just need to know that we're here to make sure that you get where we want you and that you play nice. You just do as we say and make business as usual and then we'll make sure you stay in business as usual. That's it.”

“That easy?”

“Never,” Greenfield put it bluntly. “But you can handle it.”

“But I don't trust CIA spooks like you,” the van turned away from the city. “Maybe I've got a better idea.” We pulled into an empty lot and the van stopped. Verne pulled a pistol on us and ordered, “Get out of my van.”

Greenfield rolled his eyes, “Christ, you're even stupider than you look.”

Get. Out.

I looked over at Greenfield and sighed. We did as we were told. The bodyguards drew submachine guns from their jackets and kept them trained on us. Greenfield tried to reason, “Look, you shoot us and my boys will find you. What are you getting out of this?”

“On your knees,” the Aussie said calmly. He pulled a flare from his jacket, lit it, and threw it to the ground.

“Oh, damn, you're selling us out,” Greenfield cut it sarcastically as we got down on our knees with our hands to our heads. “You think we haven't seen this before? You're being played.”

“Shut up,” Verne ordered. I knew that he was doing this stupidly. For one, he had failed to retrieve our sidearms. For two... when does this ever actually work out?

You guessed it: never.

Suddenly, from the shadows, a group of men dressed in Russian special operations uniforms emerged. They had their weapons, which were standard carbine AKs, drawn and ready to shoot at whatever. One man in their group, however, had no AK. This man wore the same uniform as the rest, but instead of a military-ready, tight-sphinctered combat strut, he pranced like an officer. With a thick Russian accent, the officer asked, “These the guys?”

“Yeah, this is them.”

“How we know for sure? What proof you have?”

“You didn't ask for proof. Just my CIA spook friends.”

“We give you half.”



“No, you'll pay me full. CIA blokes like these aren't easy to come by. We got what you wanted-”

“You not give proof, we not give money. Simple.”

“Now, hold on just a minute-”

The Russian officer snapped his fingers and his men opened fire. Both bodyguards and Verne went down in a snap. The officer didn't even flinch. I was impressed. We had been given a lot of training to resist fear, but I have to admit... being a Russian prisoner for espionage was not exactly somewhat I wanted to do. We had all heard stories of the prisons and labor camps. Such horrors. And to think... we were going to that for free.

But then, something happened.... the officer spoke in a clear accent with a touch of New Jersey, “Well, that was a bit easier than I expected?”

“Wait, what the hell?” Greenfield came to his feet. “What just happened?”

“Our orders were to kill Verne. You were the bait. You did good.”

“The hell? Are you kidding me?” Greenfield snapped.

“We told him that we were Russians and wanted to buy some American spies. Just so happens that you were in the neighborhood doing your stupid ugly duckling thing. It all worked out.”

“You couldn't have told us?” Greenfield clenched his fist as I came to my feet.

“Couldn't risk you knowing.”

“Oh, you couldn't risk us?” Greenfield was pissed. I decided it best to let him argue it out. He was the better talker. I was always more of a partner to his lead. As they argued, I reached into my pocket and pulled out my pack of Camels and lit one. I puffed long and I puffed hard. A good cigarette can-

My neck suddenly burst with indescribable pain to the sound of a gunshot. As my legs buckled, more gunfire erupted. I saw that it was Verne. He had survived his previous wounds and turned to strike one last vengeance. Why on me? Simple. I was the easiest target.

From my experience in medicine, I knew that the bullet had hit spots where I wouldn't recover. I knew death was only seconds away. Greenfield soon stood over me and coolly, “Hey, John, look, you're gonna be okay, we're gonna get you-”

With my last breath, I muttered, “Craig Howard.” My real name.