To keep the peace
How strange it is, that some quiet and special places seem to have remained untouched by years of marauding humanity. Just nine years ago virtually the whole world was at war, and when I see the earth from the air I see so many unhealed scars of combat. Great swathes of uninhabitable land and dead seas. Other places where vegetation is abundant and insects roam in huge, uncontrolled swarms, but no birds or mammals can live because of the lasting pollution effects from non-conventional weapons. So often it seems that the world is dying, that one more onslaught like that and it will be the end for all of us.
Except here, in this special place. Sheltered between the peaks of mountains is a forest glade, the mature trees encircling a pool that shimmers and glistens and teems with life, fed by a beautiful silver thread of a waterfall that twists down the cliffs like lace snagged among the rocks. Even the stones are not lifeless but splotched red and green with lichen and cushioned with moss. It is early in the year, the buds barely forming on the cherry trees and only the pines clothed with leaves, but the air is not cold nor is this forest silent. The ne-ne call to each other across the water with hoarse, tender whistles, and songbirds twitter their liquid fuck-off-come-hither song from the treetops - it always makes me wonder that something so schizophrenic in intention should be so beautiful in execution. Last year's pine cones litter the ground, an adventure playground for the beetles and millipedes. Optimistic spiders spin their webs to catch the few cold and drowsy flies that venture out of the safety of their winter shelters. The tiniest, earliest flowering plants are only just nudging tiny green spikes of flower stalks through the surface of the soil. Even now, at the tail end of winter, it is beautiful here. I hope it is so forever.
Not many people know about this place. Basically, just the two others who I have ever invited here personally. This place is mine, to keep as my secret, to share with those whom I trust, and I am not a trusting man.
This place always renews my soul. After this last mission, I need to have it rebuilt a little. I am - I have always been - a success at what I do. No-one can even hint that I'm anything else and hope to gain anything by it other than a few smashed ribs, and that's if I'm feeling kind. I am totally dedicated to what I believe in. I have given up my wife, my son, my home, my identity and my security for this and it is the most important thing in the world to me. I will not have the world go to war again if I can prevent it. And this mission has been a failure, and people have already died and more will die because of me. I am certain of it.
I wonder what Kozi did when he heard of my failure? It was so important to him, that we rescue the defectors, that we got whatever they knew. So I went unarmed in a little 4-seater seaplane, and I was spotted and forced down miles away from their island, and by the time I'd shown all my papers to the alleged authorities and they'd let me back in the air, our defectors were dead. I found them, on the beach where we arranged to meet, blatantly and publicly assassinated, surrounded by locals who were cleaning up the mess as if it happens every day. I guess nine years is not such a long time for them either. A cafe owner was able to tell me a little about their movements that day, and I searched their hotel room, but there was no luggage, no cache of secrets for me to bring back. I bet he sat down with his head in his hands and that wretched, useless look on his face, that's what. I bet he was tearing at his hair for at least half an hour. Gods, how long have I known that man? I've never understood how I can have so much respect for him and regard him as such a good friend, when he's so totally useless in a crisis. But he is my best friend, and I have let him down, and I have let myself down. I sure as hell let those defectors down.
I know that something is happening, something really big and sinister. I've known for years. For over three years now I've spent all my time trying to track down what it is and this was my best chance, and I blew it. I know that it's not just Sicily. It's all across Europe, into North Africa and right across to the Indian sub-continent. And I know it's too big for one man to search for, but I have to try because no-one else in their right mind would.
Kozi does what he can to help though, feeding me whatever little morsels of information he finds. As a research astrophysicist and geophysicist and whatever that other physicisty thing is that he does, a lot of stuff passes though him to get analysed, and he's damn good at spotting the interesting bits. I mean, the man's a genius, for all that his brain turns to shit whenever things go badly wrong and he doesn't have a plan to cover it.
That sounds like his helicopter now. I hope he's been working through his emergency drills again. That man does not have the right mindset to be a pilot.
It was my son's birthday last week. I left him with Kozi when I faked my death. The kid thinks I'm dead and that's the best thing for him. If I get found out, they'll use him to get to me, I'm certain of that. That beach, that murdered family, the assassin even killed the child. That kid was the same age as Ken, no threat to anyone, and he was killed with his parents because of who they were. I want Ken to grow up safe, even if that means that I never see him again.
Here's Kozaburou. He must have managed to get a few more flying hours since last time, when he nearly lost his main rotor by coming in too close to the trees. Good job he's improved - that lake's quite deep in the middle and I'd hate to see it full of rusting metal and fibreglass and oil. I've seen far too much of that everywhere else. It would kill this place.
Once the rotor has stopped, I walk over and help him out of the cockpit. He's always a bit shaky after flying. I'm not surprised. I've never trusted helicopters myself. Don't understand why he doesn't get himself a VTOL plane instead - far easier to fly and far less hazardous too. And more fun. He leans against me for a few moments before standing up straight with a sort of wonky grin on his face. He looks different and for a moment I can't work out what's changed.
"What did you think of that landing then, Kentaro?"
"You're not dead. It must have been a good one." Recognition snaps into place suddenly. "What is that on your face?"
"Do you like it?" He strokes the hair on his upper lip, a new addition since last time I saw him. He's obviously very proud of it. "I think it makes me look rather the distinguished scientist. I'm considering bleaching my hair grey and wearing a bow tie as well."
It's going to take some getting used to. "You're not copying me are you? No, I suppose it looks OK. It certainly isn't as bad as when you had that little goatee beard and those half-moon glasses, and those blue streaks in your hair." He blushes, remembering his late teens, that brief period of rebellion that he went through when he wanted to be just like everybody else. "No, I actually think it suits you."
Suddenly he looks earnest. "Do you think it makes me look older? Everybody seems to think I'm too young to do what I do. I've got people working for me almost twice my age, and anyone who doesn't know the hierarchy automatically thinks that they're in charge. Even the ones who do know seem to have a problem with it. It's making me paranoid."
Honestly, the man's in his mid thirties, and he can't cope with looking a little on the young side. If he was more interested in women he might see an advantage in it. "Uh, I guess it adds a few years to you. Are you serious about dying your hair? You're not going to invent some miracle-bald cream to make yourself look even more distinguished are you?" It's hard to sympathise. He should have just accepted being a prodigy long ago, and learnt to enjoy surprising people. That's what I would have done if I was him, turning their misconceptions to my advantage, giggling my way through every high powered meeting and then knocking them senseless with some scimitar-sharp insight that cut to the core of the matter being discussed. Kozaburou gave up giggling long ago because he regards it as immature. I doubt that I have ever giggled in my life. Maybe I'm no better than he is.
"Oh, forget it." He frowns back at the helicopter for a moment, and I can tell he's about to get down to talking business. "What happened at B C Island?"
"Like I told you. Both our contacts shot dead. And their child as well, apparently, although I didn't see the body. There was a bloodstained jacket and a torn cap which were identified as his. It looks as if he was washed away into the sea. The assassin is apparently quite well known - Devil Star, or Star Devil. Stella Diavolo."
Kozi nods slowly. "In the last message they sent to us, they said that they were setting up a copy of all the documents that they were going to bring to us, and that they were leaving it in a safe house. Yesterday, we recieved a message from someone else, using their code word, saying that the copy is secure and ready to be handed over. Will you go back there and pick it up?"
Now this is good news. It would be sweeter if they were still alive to explain it all to us, but we'll decode it. Actually, Kozi'll probably do the decoding, and I'll carry on spying and fighting. He looks at me questioningly, and I nod and smile, and he smiles back in relief, pulling an envelope out of his breast pocket. I take it, already knowing that it will contain instructions for finding this new contact.
"I've got something else for you Kentaro." His voice is softer, as he takes another, slightly thicker envelope from his other pocket. "We had a birthday party for Ken. And there's some photos of him at karate practise, and a school picture, and some of him building that model plane you chose for him." He hands it over and walks away to look at the fish. I appreciate the few minutes of privacy he always allows me when he gives me pictures of my son.
It's been six months since I last saw pictures of him. How he's grown. Every time he looks more like his mother. Little round face and expressively huge blue eyes, just like her. He's got my hair though - hers was perfect blue-black and straight and thick, so thick that it was like a silk cape hanging across her shoulders. He's a beautiful boy, although he needs a haircut. I can see from these karate pictures that he's going through all the moves with a grace and confidence that the other children around him don't have.
I want to ask questions. How is he doing at school? Does he have many friends? What does he want to be when he grows up? I want him to be a scientist, like Kozi and his mother, if he's got the right kind of mind for it. Some good and worthwhile field of science like electronics or computers, something where he'll live a relatively hazard free life. I want so much for him to grow up safe. I'm not a family man - never have been - and the best thing I can do for my son is to work to stop whatever's happening now, before the world goes to war again. Does he miss me? Does he even remember me?
Oh gods, listen to me. I'll be crying in a minute. Time to put these photos back in their packet and hand them back over to Kozi, just like every other set of photos he's ever brought me. I've only got one picture of Ken that I keep, and that was so long ago now that it won't be of any use to anyone in trying to track me or my son down. At least he had the good taste not to include my wife on any of these pictures. Not now. She's not the same woman that I married - I still love that one. She was radiant and golden and full of life, not the sickly woman who looks like a bag of bones and is almost bald, who is too weak to take care of our son. I don't want my son going into a dangerous field of science like hers. I don't want him watching her die. I don't want him to have to see what I refuse to watch myself, but I'm not entitled to any say in the matter any more.
'OK, Kentaro, pull yourself together. Put the pictures back in the envelope and give them back, and say goodbye to Kozaburou and do the things that you have to do.' Ken's better off with Kozi, and I'm better doing what I'm good at. I put the pictures away, I breathe deeply and focus myself, and I know that when I hand the packet back that my eyes are clear and my face relaxed. I say goodbye to Kozi warmly, and I watch him take off in that bloody stupid helicopter and head home. I wish I'd asked him to fly safely.
And now I'm alone here again, as I choose to be. It's safer that way. And I allow myself a few moments peace before I take out the other envelope and begin to plan my return to B C Island.