Pungent fumes jolted Lieutenant John Chamberlain from a dream state to full consciousness. Half blinded by the pain that stabbed through his head, he snapped the seat belt release then ripped off his helmet. Outside the stealth Cayuse’s bullet-riddled bubble, a wisp of smoke curled from the bushes. Beside him, the pilot sat silent, unmoving.
John forced the polluted air into his protesting lungs. “Sir,” he croaked, “wake up! Chopper’s gonna blow.” He shook the colonel’s shoulder then released his restraint.
The man slumped sideways. Pooled blood dripped from beneath his helmet. His eyes stared unblinking through its shattered visor.
John froze. Downed in Laos. Alone. Surrounded by Viet Cong. No hope of extraction. He coughed and grabbed the co-pilot’s door latch then pushed. Pushed harder. Smoke stung his eyes. He slammed against the door again and again.
The acrid odor intensified. His head grew light, and the cockpit seemed to spin.
Suddenly, his muscles energized. With almost super-human speed, he hoisted himself from the seat and scrambled over the pilot. A strong-arm punch flung the door wide. He leaped through the opening, tumbled to the ground, and turned toward the trees that rose stockade-like beyond the wide clearing. Charlie? Don’t think. Run.
He plowed through elephant grass. Splashed through a stream. Small shrubs snatched at his jumpsuit. A vine caught his boot. As a brilliant flash lit up the trees, he fell headlong onto the ground. A thunder-like boom rolled toward him from across the clearing.
John freed his foot then peeked through the foliage.
Flames gyrated in devilish dances atop the blackened helicopter. Above the fire, a dark mushroom roiled upward to meet the lowering storm clouds.
He let out a breath and collapsed face down in the forest litter. The earthy aroma of moldering leaves quickly cleared the stink of jet fuel from his nostrils.
Something plopped next to is ear. Another above his head. A third hit the back of his neck and trickled down to his throat. The heavens opened. He turned onto his back and allowed the deluge to wash the grime and perspiration from is face.
A pang hit his heart. The colonel was a good man and a great soldier. He would be sorely missed by all. Thankfully, someone other than himself would inform his wife and kids. That had to be the worst duty in the military. He would visit them when he got home though. Through slit-eyes, he detected a movement above him.
He grabbed for his pistol, rolled to the shelter of a larger tree, and shuddered. Man. Snakes weren’t a tenth that size in California. He shoved the gun into its holster.
A space between the tree trunk and a bush allowed a glimpse of the Cayuse’s burning hull. Any moment Charlie would swarm in and deduce at least one crewman had escaped. Should he surrender and sit out the rest of the war in Hanoi Hilton? Not a chance. Janey expected him home for Christmas. And he meant to make it back to UCLA by January so he’d have his doctorate in June. He patted his arms, legs, torso. He was lucky. Everything was whole. But he’d better haul it out of here before Charlie changed that. Which direction? Worry about that later.
Wet tree litter allowed him to trot silently along a barely visible trail. The whoosh of rain quieted and he stopped, wiped the mosquitoes from his arms, and strained his ears. Nothing. Not even animal or bird calls. In another mile or two perhaps the clouds would disperse, and he’d get his bearings. How many miles inside the border were they when they went down? Twenty? That meant a day—maybe two—of dodging Charlie before he could hope to bump into jarheads.
He continued to jog through the steaming forest, keeping an eye on the sky through the canopy. Soon individual clouds became visible. Moments later, they were edged in light, and blue patches appeared. The trees thinned. Beyond them lay grazing land and a few thatched buildings.
He stopped beside a rocky cliff, drawing breath like a steam locomotive. No way could he cross the pastures in broad daylight. Nightfall was in a couple hours. He’d find someplace on the ridge to hole-up and get some shut-eye.
Before tackling the cliff, he scanned the area. Trees. Stones. His attention returned to a gray boulder that sat beside a tree. It moved.
He turned and ran.
The man behind him yelled. Ahead of John, distant voices responded.
He veered toward the cliff and scrambled up the steep, rocky slope. Forest covered the high ground. Lungs bursting, he surveyed the area. Neither the undergrowth nor the small boulders offered cover.
A sharp voice, followed by the breaking of shrubs, came from his right. He about-faced and looked down to the base of the cliff. VC were climbing up.
Heart pounding in his throat, he charged to his left; rounded trees; jumped fallen logs. A large tree lay in his path. He grabbed hold of its low-hanging limb, swung onto it, and worked his way upward until the foliage hid him. With perspiration streaming down his neck, he gulped air, and hugged the trunk.
Rustles rose from the undergrowth.
He squeezed his eyes shut and prayed. Lord, get me out of this, and I’ll serve you forever. Please, Lord. Let me see Janey again.
A squad of North Vietnamese in V-formation passed below the tree holding AK-47s at the ready.
John grabbed for his holster. Empty! Lord, don’t let them look up.
The soldiers disappeared through the trees silent as apparitions.
He cursed them then relaxed; his cheek pressed on rough bark. The area was crawling with VC. He’d have to stay up here until nightfall at least.
The squad from the valley reached the cliff’s edge and spread out, picking their way through the bushes. Their leader spoke into a walky-talky then clipped it to his belt and issued a command. His men assembled under a tree several yards from John. Squatting, they pulled at their water bottles.
Well, this sucked. They might bivouac there. It could be midnight before he dared to descend. Already his feet felt like ‘pins and needles.’ He wriggled his toes then noted the tickling sensation on his arm.
Ants! Thousands of them. The hair on his neck rose as stories of early settlers staked out on anthills—body orifices daubed with honey—crowded his mind. He pushed the thoughts away and visualized Janey’s face. He’d make it back to her. He’d be home for Christmas. The VC wouldn’t stop that.
A branch snapped.
His attention jerked downward. A soldier had propped his rifle against the tree and stood relieving himself in the bushes. The man finished his business and grabbed his weapon. Then he stopped, stooped, and retrieved John’s pistol. Touching the tree trunk. he appeared to inspect the bark as his chin lifted.
John held his breath.
The man squinted upward then his eyes grew big. He grabbed his weapon, aimed at John then yelled to his comrades as he moved to a better vantage spot.
He stumbled. The rifle discharged.
Fire ripped through John’s shoulder. A scream escaped his lips before his chest ceased up. As his right arm dropped to dangle uselessly, black spots formed in his vision. They grew. He snatched at the tree with his left hand, but he was falling. Falling. His head hit something hard, sounding like a dropped watermelon. Then all went black.
Shouts and running footsteps converged on him.
He opened his eyes and looked along rifle barrels to scowling soldiers who screamed unintelligible commands. Funny. His shoulder had stopped hurting. So had his head. The fall he’d taken was a good forty feet. He should be broken up pretty bad, but everything seemed intact. He was fine—except he wouldn’t be home for Christmas.
The Viet Cong lowered their arms and backed away. Their leader barked something. A man with a medical kit broke through the throng and knelt next to John.
He searched his meager Vietnamese vocabulary for words to tell him he was okay. He made do with a shrug and a forced smile.
The man didn’t respond.
John glanced at the leader. He was on the walky-talky again. Probably calling for a cart to take his captive somewhere for interrogation. That should strike terror in him. But it didn’t. Probably in shock from the fall. Keeping his hands up, he rose to his feet making no sudden moves.
The medic stood and moved away, followed by most of the squad. The leader squatted at John’s feet.
He looked down and watched the man go through the pockets of a torn and bloody body that looked like—John. Fascinated, he took a closer look. The dead man couldn’t be him. He was standing here whole and healthy.
The leader rose and walked through John.
Whoa. This isn’t real. He’d knocked his head when he fell and was dreaming; that was all. Soon he’d wake up. He knelt. The dream-John was very like the real him. He reached out to touch the man’s leg. John’s hand passed through it. Staring at his hand, he stood again.
A dazzling light broke through the forest canopy and shone on him. As he squinted upward, he seemed to stretch. A quarter the size of the tree. Half its size. An overwhelming sense of peace enveloped him. His feet lifted from the ground. He shot upward with increasing velocity, passed through clouds, left Earth’s atmosphere and then streaked past stars, constellations, and nebulae.
He couldn’t gauge how long he flew through the column of light. It ended at a sparkling road that bisected a meadow dotted with trees and painted with flowers of every hue. Many colors he’d never seen before. Music drifted from a gold-crystalline city that lay at the road’s head about a tenth of a mile away. Waves of joy seemed to wrap around him and draw him forward.
John took a few steps then stopped. There was no doubt. He was dead. And this was heaven. It was unbelievably more magnificent than he’d ever dreamed, and it would be his home for eternity. But it didn’t feel right. The timing was wrong. Wasn’t he supposed to marry Janey, have a mess of kids, and make a mark on the world first? He wanted to go back. Was it possible?
A man in a dazzling white robe emerged through the city gate and hurried toward him. John noted the joy that filled his face and the love that emanated from his eyes. The radiance of his being made it clear he was not an ordinary human. But somehow he seemed familiar.
“Welcome home, John.” The man offered his hand.
John grabbed it. “Do I know you, sir?”
“Do you know me? No. Do you remember me? Perhaps. I know you very, very well. In my embryonic form, I was your grandfather’s brother, Timothy.”
John blinked. Timothy died in WW I, long before John was born.
Timothy smiled. “You are skeptical because I died before I could know anything about you.”
Can he read my mind?
“In a manner of speaking, yes.”
“Not weird, just different.” He rested his arm around John’s shoulders. “Think back, my boy. You weren’t yet three.”
John wrinkled his brow.
“You were at your uncle’s farm and had wandered into the pasture occupied by his prize bull.”
John nodded. “It charged me. At the last moment, a man scared it off then picked me up and carried me back to the house. I was so frightened, I never told anyone about it.”
“How about Piper Beach when you were eight?”
“The rip current caught me and pulled me out to sea. A man appeared, towed me out of the current, and swam back to shore with me. I told my Dad. He wanted to thank him, but we couldn’t find him.” John studied Timothy a moment. “Are you my Guardian Angel?”
“You’re half right. I belong to the Order of Guardians, but I am, of course, a son of man. I was at your side every moment from conception until you reached the age of accountability.” He winked. “Since then, I’ve been on call.”
Then why am I here? Oops. Forgot the telepathy.
“It was the best time for you to come. We heard in the city that you want to go back, so I came out to explain. Once you enter the gate, it’s no longer possible.”
“Then I can go back?”
“If that’s your choice. But it’s not the best choice. You stand at an important crossroad. If you go back, after a few months of extreme suffering in Hanoi, you’ll live a wonderful life. You’ll marry that pretty little girl, raise six children, and be remembered as the greatest philanthropist of the twentieth century. Your immediate descendents will be theologians, pastors, medical missionaries, educators. Farther down the line, there will be a couple presidents. Even a few at Mars Colony.”
“And if I don’t go back?”
“None of these people will be born. Many of those you could have helped would languish. Janey’s broken heart would make her physically ill, and she’d nearly die.”
“And that’s the better choice?”
“If you return, Janey will marry you instead of a young man named Gus Jackson. He will be a great man of faith and accomplishment, but he would lead her through both euphoria and a nightmare of utter despair. If she marries you, she’ll escape all this but not bear Gus’ son, who they will call Skip. And Skip won’t exist to thwart a monstrous conspiracy. One that could alter man’s destiny for a millennium. If you stay, you’ll train to be a Guardian and have the honor of being one of the boy’s chief protectors. In addition, you’ll participate in the great cosmic battles that are soon to come.”
“So if I stay, I cause tremendous suffering to the one I love more than my own life?”
“What about my descendents? If the presidents are never born, won’t that alter history?”
“Undoubtedly. But whether for good or bad I can’t say. It is too far into the future for a Guardian to know.”
“Can’t someone other than this boy stop the conspiracy? Maybe one of my sons?
“The Father has chosen him.”
John’s shoulders drooped. “This is a tough decision.”
Timothy sighed and bowed his head as if in prayer.
John wrinkled his brow. The peace he’d felt was gone. “I’m confused. If the Father really has chosen Skip, then the decision can’t be mine. Of course, He might already know what my decision will be. But then if my decision is already made . . .”
Timothy continued in prayer.
John turned his back on him and the city. If he became the boy’s Guardian, he’d have to witness Janey’s pain and know he could have prevented it. Also, could he be a whole-hearted champion for the boy, knowing he was indirectly the cause of his precious girl’s suffering? He stepped from the road and sagged against a tree trunk. More than anything, he wanted to go back. But what would Janey say about all this? He didn’t have to wonder. He knew what her unhesitating answer would be. Though her heart would indeed break, she’d insist upon the Lord’s will. Could he do less? He took a breath and faced Timothy.
The Guardian’s countenance radiated perfect peace.
“Who knew the decision to stay in heaven could be so hard?”
Timothy hugged him and together they walked into the golden city.