Atticus Freeman adjusted the strap on his backpack, as he looked at the remains of the cabin in the predawn light. He didn’t need the sunlight to tell him what was there – ghosts. Maybe not ghosts that would haunt the living, but ghosts that he, Kadamba Vorhoor, had put there.

He never knew if authorities had found the cabin that he had burned to the ground with the crewmates that he had killed, some thirty years before. He didn’t know if their bodies had turned to ash and become part of the landscape. He really never wanted to know. It was something that he had done and thought little of. In many ways, he had done it in a fog. At the time, it was the only way to keep Maliya, the beautiful little Thai Transprophetic, and everyone else on planet Earth safe from the Donovackia Corporation. Perhaps as much as that, it had been the only way that Kadamba could keep himself safe.

All of that barely mattered. They were ghosts that haunted nothing but their own pasts and could do nothing in the present. But the past was the reason that Atticus was here, and he headed towards Fat Bottom Lake. Across the lake, he could make out the duck blind from which the video of the return vessel had been filmed. Even though it had only been a month, it almost seemed like a lifetime ago, maybe even someone else’s life.

Atticus, Tim, Joanna, Dylan, and Bjorn had spent another two weeks in Mexico as the Mexican officials investigated the events of the day Bjorn had been kidnapped. Under pressure from the US State Department, they had been allowed to return to the United States.

The two weeks in Mexico had actually been relatively fun, aside from the almost daily questions from investigating officials. They had spent significant time on the beach and had eaten at a few tasty restaurants. They even decided to test whether Tim was right or not. Did El Pescado Dorado actually have the best tacos al carbon? A few other places gave Tim’s favorite a good challenge, but in the end, El Pescado Dorado’s tacos were declared the winner.

Atticus headed part way around the lake and into the woods. The going was easy, and Atticus picked up a game trail, which he followed for a while. Eventually, he came to a large meadow and found a boulder on which to rest. Off in the distance, he could see his goal – Wóablakela Peak. He hoped that when he made his way to the top, he, like the medicine men of old, would be able to discover some inner peace and find the strength to serve.

By late morning, he was at tree line. The view of the surrounding mountains and valleys was unreal. A few wispy clouds moved across the sky, and the day was warm with a gentle breeze. Over the next two hours, the desire to give up weighed heavier and heavier on Atticus, as the going became more and more challenging.

At one point, he came to what seemed to be the end. He had been climbing over and through boulders, with the air getting thinner and thinner. He would jump to one boulder, climb another, and then have to catch his breath. Now he stood at the bottom of a cliff. Whatever birds made these high places their homes had a haunting cry that seemed to warn him to turn around.

Making his way along the bottom of the cliff, he found a crevice and began working himself up the narrow crack. Once he was up about twenty feet, he discovered that he could move out onto a shelf. From there, the climbing was easier. Another long boulder field awaited him, which he slowly made his way through.

The peak of the mountain began to narrow, and suddenly Atticus realized he only had a couple of feet to each side of him. Over the edge, on each side of him, the drop off appeared to be nothing but a sheer cliff, falling over a thousand feet to the valleys that he could see far below on each side.

A huge boulder that looked like an egg standing on its end blocked his way. He thought he was near the top, but he really had no idea how much farther that he would have to go beyond that egg-like boulder. A small ledge led around the base of the boulder. As he crawled through, his backpack bumped the boulder. He took it off and took a large drink, leaving his pack behind.

Crawling on his belly, he made it around the boulder. The fear that was growing within him became even deeper as he got to the other side of the boulder. Forty feet in front of him was a small cliff, not more than eight feet high, but the path up to that little cliff was only five feet wide. Taking a few steps, terror gripped him. Both sides of the path fell away sharply, and he could not see anything but the ground over a thousand feet away. He dropped to his hands and knees, crawling like a scared infant to the base of the small cliff.

The air was thin, and what little oxygen that he could inhale came in small gulps. The actual risk of where he was and what he was doing became more real than he could handle. Would he tumble down the mountain if he fell, with his body occasionally smashing into the mountainside, or would he just fall the thousand feet to his death? How on Earth could the native medicine men of old climb this mountain and find peace and serenity?

He steeled his nerves, standing and pulling himself up a couple feet on the small cliff. He could see the summit. It was only another thirty feet or so away. He was so close, and yet so far. The path that he would have to traverse between the top of the small cliff and the top of the mountain looked like the edge of a knife. He couldn’t do it. He couldn’t overcome the fear. Death was a certainty if he fell from up here. For Atticus, the mountain was a disappointment. He would not find peace.

A light breeze blew across his face, and he closed his eyes, clinging to the rocks and trying to find the strength to crawl back down the mountain in defeat and failure. Maybe this was a stupid idea. A myth and a dream lost to time. Did he really deserve to find peace anyway?

In that moment, a vision of Bjorn taped to that chair came into his mind. He could feel the fear in the boy again. Maliya’s face flashed through the vision – the terror of the abuse that Dr. Tarea was pouring upon her. All he knew was that he wanted to help them. He wanted to serve these people of Earth, his home. They were his people, but how could he do that if he failed to overcome the fear that was making him cling to these rocks, especially this close to his goal?

He felt the surge of energy and determination ripple through his muscles, pulling his body to the top of the small cliff. He took the first step onto that edge of the knife, fighting back the fear and hysteria exploding inside. When he couldn’t take that next step, he fell to his knees, beginning to crawl on his belly. The mountain widened slightly, and he stood up, crawling to the top of the boulder that was the summit.

The world was below him. He was on top of everything. It was like nothing he had ever seen, felt, or experienced. There were no words to describe the moment or the emotion, but it changed him. As he stood on the summit, he realized how peaceful he felt. In that moment, he knew what those medicine men of old had experienced.

The boulder had an indentation, shaped like a reclining chair. He sat down, laid his head back, and watched the few wispy clouds floating overhead.

The raindrops felt foreign, hitting him in this place. It was a gentle rain, and he could feel a slight breeze in the air. The force-field cover was gone from Schmarlo’s Landing. Ka, walking towards the playground, realized the grass, shrubs, and the trees weren’t as green as they once were. Something felt different.

He turned and instead walked to his favorite bench, and sat down, looking out across where the city should be, but it wasn’t there. It was nothing but a vast plain, with mountains in the distance. The rain felt refreshing like it was washing old grime away.

Ka headed back toward the playground, looking up and around. Schmarlo’s Landing was midway up the Schmarlo Tower, but there was no tower rising above the landing. He changed course, moving to where the food vendors were. The kiosk that held the Freezies and all of the other vendors were gone.

Turning, he walked back to the playground. Alorus was swinging again. He looked so young and so innocent like a child should look. Ka sat down on a bench and watched the boy. Thirty-some years had passed. Ka had changed, but Alorus was still the same – frozen in that last moment that Ka had seen him. The way the boy looked never changed, except that today – Alorus was smiling as he pumped his legs back and forth.

“Hello Ka,” said Alorus, as he sat down next to Ka on the bench.

“Hello, Alorus,” replied Ka.

“The rain feels good, doesn’t it?”

“Yes. It feels like it is washing everything clean.”

The boy looked up at Ka, smiling. A small tear ran down Ka’s cheek, and the boy nodded his head up and down as if acknowledging something unsaid.

“I have to say goodbye,” Ka told the boy.

“I know,” Alorus replied.

“I just don’t know how to say I’m sorry and make it real, but I have to let you go now.”

The boy stood up and began walking away. He turned, looked at Ka again and smiled and nodded his head. Ka let a smile begin to creep across his own face, despite knowing that this was the last time that he would ever see Alorus. The boy waved and walked out of sight.

The rain grew heavier and heavier, and the breeze turned into a wind. Ka stood up and walked to the elevator. Every time he had come to the Landing, the elevator was here, but he had never used it. Today, he would. He stepped into the clear enclosure and shook off the water as the doors closed. It was quiet. The air was still. He felt the little jolt as the elevator began to move. He left Schmarlo’s Landing for the last time.

Atticus opened his eyes. Perspective. Was it the perspective of being up here that changed everything inside of him? Maybe it was. Or, maybe this really was a spiritual place. Feeling at peace inside, he knew that he would come down from the mountain a different man than the one who had climbed it. He may not have been born on Earth, but it was home, and he would defend it and all of its people.

• • •

Chapter 42 Chapter 44

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