Two counterinsurgency specialists made a protective line in front of Alejandro, carbines trained on a door halfway down the apartment building’s plaster hallway. Two more flanked him, watchful and ready. He was acutely aware of their orders: keep the astral soldier alive, even if you die trying. No one ever ordered Alejandro to put other soldiers before himself.
Behind him, Sergeant Hernandez shoved her forearms through the straps looping out from the back of his rig, her boots spread in a wide stance.
“Set,” she said.
Alejandro leaned his weight back, using her to keep himself propped up as he let his muscles go slack.
“Projecting,” he said.
Panama City’s heat and humidity grew faint and distant. The sound of his own breathing turned muffled, as if he were underwater. The shades of green in the soldiers’ tactical camo lost their vibrancy.
Alejandro stepped out of his body. He’d done this enough times he no longer needed a moment to collect his wits and adjust to the astral plane’s muted sensations. That made him good at his job. Better than he had been during the Battle for Bangkok. He had to remember that, had to have faith he wouldn’t make the same mistakes—mistakes that had gotten soldiers killed.
No, not mistakes. Decisions. When the time had come to make a life or death decision, emotion had overwhelmed him, fear screaming too loudly for rational thought to have any voice in his head. In that fraction of a second, he hadn’t been able to consider what was best for his squad, just what would keep him alive.
He rushed forward, striding through his teammates’ bodies and the closed door. To the left, a set of shelves, thin wood, barely holding the weight of a few items of clothing and some Catholic trinkets. To the right, there was a mattress on the floor and an emaciated female body hidden under a frayed blanket. Tangled black hair shrouded her face. Their target was not here.
They’d come to this apartment building looking for a young man, one their informants told them was secretive, angry-looking, and a little too well fed. He had been hanging around other young angry men who were also a little too well fed. It was a slim lead, but the Army had to follow whatever intel it could. The few citizens left in Panama City were starving, the surrounding farmland rendered all but useless by the end of the Third War. Dinger bombs had exterminated all life, right down to the microbes in the soil. American planes had been dusting the land with live soil, but didn’t get much accomplished before two of them were shot down by handheld surface-to-air missiles. A band of insurgents lurked somewhere in Panama. The US Army didn’t know how many, who was leading them, or what their goals were. For some reason, someone in Panama wanted the famine to continue.
Alejandro returned through the door and into his body.
“Back,” he said. Alejandro’s shifted his weight back onto his own feet. “One person, under a blanket. I couldn’t make out anything.”
The statement was noncommittal, and the squad didn’t have time for that. Every second they wasted was an opportunity for their target to escape.
“Threat or no threat?” Hernandez asked.
It was a simple question. It was his entire reason for being here. And he couldn’t answer it. Some part of his brain, some rational part he could barely hear through the blood rushing to his head, knew the person in that room couldn’t possibly be an insurgent. But still he hesitated. And not because he was trying to get himself to do the right thing, but only to delay the moment he might make the wrong decision.
“If we pass them by, there’s a risk—”
“There’s always a risk. I didn’t see the room; you did. You need to make the call.”
The soldiers kept their carbines pointed at the door in the silent moment that followed. He needed her to pass by the room for the good of the mission. It was the only thing that made sense.
“Secure the room,” he said. “One person, on the ground, to the immediate right.”
Without hesitation, Hernandez gave the signal. Okoye, the breach specialist, kicked the door open and Rousseau rushed in with his HK490 aimed down and to the right.
Alejandro’s ear caught the timid scraping of a door creeping open. He spun around. At the hallway’s far end, he spotted a young man in jeans and bare feet, eyes fixed on the soldiers, trying to slip away unnoticed.
The instant he knew he’d been seen, the young man lifted a handgun.
“Gun!” Alejandro yelled. He dropped to the floor with his hands over his head, as two shots echoed.
“One man. Coming down. Armed.” Hernandez barked into her radio. “Could be our target.”
“Roger,” the radio replied.
“Find him, Alex,” Hernandez said.
“Wilco. Projecting,” Alejandro said, and dropped through the floor.
Thankfully, Hernandez gave him a direct order – it allowed him to operate on instinct. If he’d had to make his own decision, he would have hesitated again. The situation was nothing like Bangkok – where insurgents attacked from several directions at once, trapping his wounded squad mates in a kill sack. But also it was still too much like Bangkok: shots fired, a jump into the astral plane to scout enemy positions, his comrades dragging his body under fire. Soldiers assigned to drag an astral couldn’t move fast, couldn’t find cover quickly, and couldn’t aim a rifle to defend themselves. Two members of his squad died that day. The two who’d been dragging him.
This is a war – a world war – and people die, the Army psychiatrist had told him. Do you know how many soldiers we’ve lost in East Africa alone? And we’re lucky, the Indians have lost more than three times as many, fighting a two-front war. Was the death of millions supposed to make him forget those two men whose families would never see them again?
Instructions shouted in Spanish made it clear the young man had tried to run out the back door and came face-to-face with the other half of Hernandez’s squad. But no more shots were fired. Thank God.
It was SOP to rendezvous with his body at their transport vehicle. Alejandro dropped through the floor and into the ground level hallway. The hallway was empty except for one man standing in the dim light at the far end, facing the other direction. The man did not move, he just stood there, his black hair falling in unkempt clumps to shoulders that rounded down, as if years of enduring the world’s troubles had left him too tired to stand fully upright. In his astral form, Alejandro would be invisible to normal people, but even then, something about the way the man stood, motionless, made Alejandro not want to turn his back.
No, not standing. Swaying. No, not swaying. Drifting. The man’s feet didn’t touch the floor. He wasn’t inhabiting a body; he was an astral.
Anytime anything got hit by a dinger weapon its energy was sucked out of it. People died and electronics failed. People assumed Alejandro understood why, but he didn’t. Getting dinged had made him an astral, it had not made him an expert in quantum physics. The world’s militaries had originally designed their dinger weapons to disable enemy vehicles and communications, but they hadn’t let their killing power go to waste.
After getting dinged, some bodies kept breathing. If their spirit found its way back, from then on, that person could leave their body and project their souls to the astral plane at will. Any spirit that did not find its way back – which was most of them – became a wraith – a rabid spirit that attacked others on sight. Wraiths didn’t last long, dissipating when their body died of starvation. Any wraiths in Panama would have died off four years ago.
Running into another astral in Panama City, just by chance, wasn't impossible. But it was unlikely enough that Alejandro’s gut told him to back away.
Alejandro found his body sitting upright in the back of the squad’s Tacvee transport. The squad’s other members stood relaxed on the brick-paved streets of Old Town Panama City. The insurgent laid on the ground, face down, hands flex-cuffed behind his back. Bullet holes pocked the colorful colonial-era buildings surrounding them, remnants of the constitutional loyalists’ attempt to keep General Abrego from selling control of the Panama Canal to the highest bidder during the Third War. That highest bidder had been the Yian Qin faction of the Chinese Civil War, which is why the Zinhou Chinese – the side the US had allied with – had put an end to that threat with high-altitude dinger bombs that evaporated most life from the city and countryside. Panama City’s skyscrapers lay empty since that day. Tens of thousands of people still inhabited the outskirts, but for a city this large, it felt like a ghost town.
The squad loaded into the back of the Tacvee, shoving their prisoner in first. Hernandez swatted a soldier on the arm, getting him to scoot over so she could sit next to Alejandro.
“You okay?” she asked. It was not a sympathetic inquiry. His indecisiveness had almost gotten some of her soldiers shot.
“Yeah. Yeah,” he said, trying to nod in a way that looked both casual and convincing. “I’m sorry, I just wanted to… I’m sorry. It won’t happen again.”
Hernandez didn’t respond; she simply stared at him. Alejandro was sure she could see right into his heart, could see he was a coward who only told them to check that room because he was afraid—that he’d sooner put the entire mission at risk than overlook a frail, unarmed woman.
“There was an astral in that building,” he said to change the subject.
“Really,” Hernandez said, her tone flat, but her eyebrows raised in surprise.
The Tacvee’s engine fired up, and the vehicle jerked into motion.
“A man. Just floating in the middle of the hallway,” Alejandro said.
“Did you talk to him?” Hernandez asked.
“No. He was looking the other way, just floating there. I thought it was best not to engage.”
“Could it have been a wraith?”
“No. How could it be?”
“Panama City got dinged hard. There had to be thousands of them.”
“Four years ago, yeah. But all their bodies would have starved to death.”
Hernandez nodded, but her eyes narrowed as she looked away from him, as if she weren’t fully satisfied with his answer.
The world went fuzzy. Colors desaturated, shifting into grayed versions of themselves. The sound of the Tacvee’s tires rumbling over brick warped into indistinct humming. Confused seconds stretched out until Alejandro finally realized he’d been knocked into the astral plane. He pulled himself back into his body.
“What just—” Alejandro began. He stopped when Sergeant Hernandez slumped over onto the floor of the vehicle.
The other soldiers drooped and toppled over. The compartment was too quiet, the engine noise had disappeared. The vibration of their tires on the street was the only sound, fading bit by bit as the Tacvee lost momentum.
They’d been dinged. The vehicle was dead, and no doubt so were most of the soldiers inside.
Alejandro jumped back to the astral realm. The spirits of the soldiers drifted away from their bodies, some of them already dissipating. Rousseau’s spirit floated out the back of the vehicle. Alejandro chased him onto the street.
“Come back!” he yelled. “Rousseau! You have to come back!” The soldier gave no indication he’d heard Alejandro, his limbs dangling as if he were floating in water, his mouth hanging open, his eyes staring at nothing. “Please! You’re gonna become a wraith! Rousseau!”
The sight of six insurgents yanked Alejandro’s focus from Rousseau. They walked toward the motionless Tacvee, approaching from the vehicle’s front, rifles casually gripped or slung over their shoulders.
Alejandro dove into his body and scrambled out of the Tacvee’s back hatch, landing hard on the street. He peered under the Tacvee and saw the insurgents’ boots had stopped moving. They’d heard him. He did the only thing he could—he ran in the opposite direction with everything he had.
Shouts filled the air, followed by the rapid pop of gunfire. Alejandro dodged into an alley, hardly believing he was lucky enough to avoid being shot. He weaved through the streets and alleys of Old Town, never running in a straight line for longer than necessary to get to the next intersection.
He paused, his own heaving breaths so loud he couldn’t make out the direction of the voices calling to each other. Were there more than six of them now?
The insurgents wore frayed, leftover fatigues from Panama’s last legitimate army and carried beat-up old AK-12 assault rifles, likely purchased for a handful of dollars on the black market. But they’d dinged the Tacvee, which meant they also had a dinger weapon, a piece of equipment so expensive and technologically advanced that, within four years of its introduction, it ended the Third War in a stalemate. Today, there were still only a few countries that could make them.
Alejandro pulled the radio handset off his vest, but it did not click on. Of course not. It was electronic and got dinged when he did. He needed to get this information back to his superior officers. Which meant he had to get out of here alive. His astral abilities were a big advantage – he could hide his body, jump into the astral plane, scout ahead a block, return to his body, run to that block, hide, and do it all over again until he got back to base. He’d done it before – it was how astral soldiers were trained to move in evasion scenarios. He had a working sidearm – the handgun was entirely mechanical – but what good would it be against an unknown number of insurgents with assault rifles?
There was another option. He could hide his body and return to base on the astral plane. There was one other astral soldier stationed in Panama City, and he could follow her until she entered the astral plane, then pass along the information. But if the insurgents found his body first, they’d kill him and his astral form would dissipate before he delivered the intel.
Approaching footsteps forced Alejandro to slip into a building alcove. With his head ducked down, he couldn’t see how many people ran past, but there was no doubt the insurgents had called for reinforcements.
A wave of doubt swept over him. Which should he choose: run with his body or leave it behind? Which one gave him better odds of delivering the information? How many insurgents were looking for him? Could he find a spot to conceal his body indefinitely, or did the insurgents know these buildings too well for that? How many informants might they have among the population? How long would it take him to run back to base one block at a time? How long would he have to wait for the other astral soldier to enter the astral plane?
What he did know was that staying in his body gave him better odds of staying alive.
Fate must have been taunting him. Time and again, it put him in situations where he had to make a decision with no obvious choice. Yet there was always a clear way to save himself. Or, was the choice always clear, but each time he talked himself into believing otherwise so he could rationalize protecting himself over completing the mission?
There was no way to know, and there was no sergeant here to decide for him. Despite feeling like a coward and traitor, he knew which way he was going to choose.
Alejandro stood up out of his body and scanned the street. To return to base, he’d have to double back the way he came. He returned to his body and ran in a crouch, light on his toes, ducking behind a trash pile at the end of the street. He only caught his breath for a second before jumping out of his body again and running to the end of the next block in astral form. He scanned along each of the other three blocks leading from the intersection. He saw a single figure, a man halfway along one block, staring in his direction. The man did not carry a weapon. His skin hung loose from famine.
The man ran directly at Alejandro, and Alejandro saw the look in the man’s eyes. The sunken, haunted eyes. The lost expression, curling into rage, face twisted like a ghoul. This wasn’t a man. It was a wraith.
Fear spurred Alejandro’s astral form, darting backward. He turned to flee, to race back toward his body. As soon as he looked away, a hand grasped his throat.
He was face to face with a woman, her open mouth gasping and shrieking, her eyes wide, her hair fanning out, ignored by gravity. Fingers dug into his chest. Shock bolts of pain shot through him, as if all his organs were being stretched outward and tearing free. Alejandro desperately flailed and scratched at the woman’s face. Her strength was beyond human; he could not pull free.
In a flurry of motion too quick to make sense of, the female wraith jerked away. It took a moment for Alejandro to realize she’d been attacked by another woman. The two female forms now fought in a frenzy of raking fingers and snapping jaws. Alejandro only gawked for a second before recovering enough of his wits to retreat. He did not slow as he approached his body, instead diving inside at a full sprint.
What the hell? That was four wraiths he’d come across in ten minutes. What had the insurgents been using their dinger for that they’d created an entire district this dense with wraiths?
Alejandro worked his way back to the alley entrance directly south of the squad’s Tacvee. Leaving his body behind the corner of a building, he peeked his astral head out. One insurgent stood behind the Tacvee, reaching into the open rear hatch. He hauled Rousseau’s body, holding it under the armpits while another insurgent stepped down from the Tacvee grasping the feet.
What in the world were they doing? Alejandro waited until the insurgents had carried the body across the street and into a building. Then, still in astral form, he followed.
He caught up to the insurgents at the top of the stairwell, which opened to a single room occupying the entire second level. There, he saw more than a hundred dead bodies, laid out on the concrete floor in neat rows, each lying on their back, arms at their sides.
No, not dead. Each had an intravenous line coming out of one arm, leading to a small bag of fluid hanging from a metallic pole. They were unconscious. The insurgents were purposely keeping them alive. A handful of insurgents milled about, four more sat in a circle on the floor, smoking cigarettes and playing cards.
“Is that your body?” a voice asked in Spanish.
Alejandro looked up, startled. The scene before him had been so odd, he hadn’t even noticed the astral to one side, floating just above the floor. After a moment, he managed to reply in Spanish, “What?”
The astral, a Hispanic man, wearing hand-me-down military fatigues worn by the insurgents, pointed to Rousseau. “Is that your body?” The astral squinted in Rousseau’s direction, then looked up at Alejandro. “No, I guess not.”
“What’s going on here?” Alejandro asked.
“We formed an army to defend Panama, because there was no government anymore, and our people kept dying at the hands of foreigners who wanted to control the canal.”
Alejandro’s question was about the bodies, but he didn’t correct the astral. If the man wanted to talk, Alejandro would listen to whatever he had to say.
“The Zinhou killed off most of our people with their Schrödinger bombs, and now the Americans come with planes full of poisoned soil to make sure we can never grow crops again.”
“Poisoned…?” Alejandro wanted to protest, to tell this man that whoever was leading this insurgency had fed him lies. But the vacant stare in the man’s eyes told Alejandro this astral had been out of his body for too long. The man’s grasp on sanity had been stretched too thin, and he was already halfway to becoming a wraith. The man didn’t speak again, just stared at the bodies on the floor. “Is your body here?” Alejandro asked.
The man nodded slowly, but did not speak.
“Could you return to it?” Alejandro asked, carefully.
The man shook his head so slightly it was barely perceptible. “If they discover I’m not a wraith, they will kill me.”
Behind the man, Alejandro spotted a complex metal cylinder propped up on a tripod, eight feet long and a foot and a half wide–a Schrödinger device. It was pointed out the window at an angle that would have enabled the insurgents to ding their Tacvee.
“Your own people dinged you? Why?” Alejandro asked.
The man took so long to answer, Alejandro wondered if he’d heard the question. Then he quietly said, “The commander is… suspicious. Sometimes. It is necessary to keep order.”
Based on the size of it, the Schrödinger weapon looked to be a Jhiang-6, one of the smaller units built by the Chinese Yian Qin faction. The pieces began to fall into place.
The US military’s counterinsurgency tactics relied on astral soldiers to search for targets and scout out dangers. Astrals were perfect for this job – no device could see them, no wall could stop them. But if you made your territory a minefield of wraiths, you could kill anyone who entered the astral plane. You just needed to keep the wraiths’ bodies alive.
The men laid Rousseau’s body in a row with the others and prepped an intravenous line.
Creating wraiths required possession of a Schrödinger weapon, which these insurgents could only have gotten from a foreign military. And that military would want something in return. Probably what every foreign power had wanted from Panama during the Third War – control of the Canal. The ability to quickly move from the Atlantic to the Pacific or vise-versa, while your enemies had to go around an entire continent, was a massive advantage.
If the Yian Qin were conspiring with insurgents to sabotage crops, it was because they wanted the population on the verge of starvation. Next, they would ship in food, but only give it to those who were loyal to them. Join us or watch your children slowly starve. It was the same tactic General Aidid had used in Somalia in the 1990’s. The Yian Qin were helping to raise an insurgent army, undoubtedly for a sympathetic local warlord. The warlord would gain control of the country with the backing of a nation powerful enough to make sure he kept it. In return, the Yian Qin would gain control of the Panama Canal. And if they were secretly securing the Panama Canal, no doubt they were covertly securing other geostrategically significant territories.
The Fourth War had already begun, and the US didn’t even know it.
“Killing American soldiers was a mistake,” Alejandro said. “More will come, they’ll flood this area looking for insurgents. They’ll see the vehicle was dinged.”
“The commander will replace the bodies he took, then hit the vehicle with an RPG and burn all the evidence. It will look like a conventional attack. Then he will move these bodies to a different location. He’s done it before.”
How big of a lead did the Yian Qin already have in preparing for the Fourth War? How many more lives would that cost once the shooting started? How much worse would it be if Alejandro didn’t survive to get this information to his superior officers?
He had to act. He had to make a decision right now. But which option – hide his body or run with it – truly had the best chance of getting the information through? The stakes were too high, he could not let his desire to save his own skin cloud his judgement. Not this time. Should he make the choice with lower odds of saving his own life, just to prevent that possibility?
The insurgents who’d carried Rousseau left the room the way they had entered. Alejandro knew where they were going. And in that moment, he had the answer. There was a way to travel in the astral realm and make sure his body would be protected while he was away.
So many times, Alejandro had wished for a clear answer, wished for a moment in which he could prove to himself that he had the courage to do what was best for his country and for his fellow soldiers. He assumed if he’d ever found it, he would feel brave for doing the right thing. But he didn’t feel brave; he just felt like a man who was finally doing what needed to be done, what he should have found a way to do long before now.
Alejandro ran down the stairs, through the two insurgents, and across the street. He re-entered his body and walked into the middle of the street with his hands above his head.
“I surrender,” he shouted in Spanish. The insurgents spun with rifles raised. Warily, they approached.
All of Alejandro’s sensations went fuzzy. His body dropped away, crumpling to the ground beneath him.
He assumed they’d take him upstairs and ding him there, but one of the insurgents must have been looking out the window and figured he’d ding Alejandro from a distance, in case his surrender was some sort of trick.
Maybe he could get to base, share his intel, and make it back here before the insurgents moved the bodies. If so, he could return to his body and might be able to fight his way out. If not, he’d run the streets of Panama City, searching building after building, until he used up whatever sanity he had left.
Alejandro watched two insurgents carry his body up the stairwell. When they disappeared into the building, he turned toward his base and ran as fast as he could.