The target was a rebel headquarters, a three-story rock house set back fifty meters from the edge of a bluff that towered a good six hundred meters above a rocky shoreline. Electromagnetic interference had precluded the surveillance and targeting of the house, but it hadn’t precluded the insertion of Captain Jim Schofield and a two-man team.
A Reardon plane set them down in the vicinity, pointed them in the right direction, and promised to see them in a day or two. During the almost twelve kilometer walk to the target they set up a string of communications relays. On the way in, it kept them moving toward the center of the blackout zone. Later it would serve to relay messages to and from the base.
After a long night of moving through woods and sometimes heavy foliage in their fire-proof Frizalone envirosuits, they located the house. Schofield deployed his men and they settled into surveillance mode.
The day was grey, overcast and with a slight drizzle. Despite the drab background, they had spotted zero activity at the house.
Late in the afternoon, Schofield himself transmitted that message back to base. Then he awaited a response.
It came only a few minutes later. “Close it before nightfall. Reardon on the bluff, 1820 your local.”
The Reardon plane would hover into place on the bluff about ten minutes after darkness fell.
Schofield and his men entered the building just before sunset. Night would settle a little less than a half-hour later.
The house was exactly like the mockup where they had rehearsed a dozen times. Well, except for the hidden basements inside the house and the deep chasms outside.
The brass thought the basements must be there, but they hadn’t been verified until today. And they were loaded with stolen munitions. Taking down this house would set the rebels back at least a year.
The chasms were a different matter. Schofield had spotted them during their initial surveillance. One led from the east side of the house to the edge of the cliff. The other arced west-southwest away from the west side of the house to the south edge of the same cliff. It was as if the house was a massive staple that was holding the bluff to the interior land mass.
Schofield, Sims Rodan and Ron Tresper moved expertly through the house. Per Schofield’s instruction, they set the charges for 1819 local time. They would see the place go up, then get on the Reardon and get the hell out of there. With any luck, the crew of the Reardon would be able to record the initial destruction of the headquarters.
When they were finished, they gathered south of the house on the bluff to wait for retrieval. They took off their helmets, and were grinning and chatting as they enjoyed the cool breeze.
But the rendezvous time came and went. The Reardon plane didn’t show.
The initial charges caused the ledge to rumble beneath them. A moment after that, the whole mountain seemed to rock under the secondary charges. Soon heat and fumes began radiating from the house.
Schofield looked at Rodan and Tresper. “Okay, helmets. And Sims, would you mind? Signal the base every twenty seconds or so. Find out what’s going on.” He put on his own combination mask and helmet and secured it with a quarter-turn to the right.
When Rodan had secured his helmet, he used his chin to key his mic. There was a click and a slight buzz. “Got it, Cap. Every twenty seconds.”
Schofield nodded. “Good.” He gestured with his arms for the others to crouch. Probably the Reardon was just a little late. They might as well be comfortable.
Sims continued to signal the base every twenty seconds. One time he caught what he thought might be the edge of a response, and raised his hand to signal the captain. Then he lowered his hand and shook his head. Click. Buzz. “Only static, Cap. I’ll keep trying.”
Almost five minutes later, with darkness descending, Schofield moved his chin to open his mic. “Okay. Sims, tell them we’re going back through the house. We’ll be on the north side in the woods somewhere. Oh, and set that to repeat. Just in case.”
Click. Buzz. “Got it, Cap.”
Schofield nodded. “Well, let’s go.” He stood.
Click. Something dragged a nail across a rock. Static from Tresper’s mic. “You sure, Cap? We’re far enough from the house here that—”
Schofield shook his head and keyed his mic. “That one basement room, the one on the north side—” He took a breath. “If that one goes big, this whole bluff could drop off.” He took another breath. “I’d rather be in the woods watching than over here riding it down.”
Click. Scratch. Tresper laughed. “Deal. That’s why you make the big bucks.”
Smoke already was rolling skyward through the skeleton of the roof in thick, angry black and grey clouds. In no more than a couple of hours, rebel forces would arrive to search the remains. They would be disappointed. The entire building and everything in it would be burned or melted and fused.
But “everything in it” wasn’t supposed to include the firemen. Finding them would be a bonus for the rebels.
And that’s exactly what would happen if the Reardon plane didn’t show up soon.
* * *
The fire raged all around the three men. Schofield was in the lead, followed by Sims and then Ron Tresper.
In a guttural, eager, eardrum shattering wind, hot dark reds flickered and licked among scalding yellows and whirling spirals of grey smoke. Knots in wooden beams randomly exploded in hissing, sizzling pops, accompanied by the screech and moan of expanding metal. The cacophony echoed off itself, reverberating even through the mask and ear buds of Schofield’s envirosuit.
He scrutinized the scene, keeping the panic down. Maybe Tresper was right. Maybe they should have chanced staying outside. But he was convinced the same chasms that kept them from moving around the west or east side of the house to the relative safety of the woods would release the massive rock on which the house was sitting to the river below.
He scanned slowly, left to right, searching for a way out. The door he had seen earlier, while he was setting charges. It should lay ahead, slightly to the right. Shouldn’t it? But the interior walls were gone or skeletal. It skewed the perspective.
There were three broad rooms— No, four. Four broad rooms and a hallway between where they had come in and the nearest exit on the north side of the house. And with all the smoke he probably wouldn’t find the doorway until he stumbled through it. At least they were crossing the width of the house instead of the length.
Maybe he looked too fast. There was always a way out. The smoke would show the way. There was always one path that was less undesirable than the others. Look again.
His right arm twitched, wanting to reach up to wipe the sweat tickling his brow. But his brow was behind the mask.
Even there, trapped behind his mask, water just flowed in its simplicity.
On their way to the mission, they flew over a waterfall. It cascaded from a river into a pool some three hundred meters below.
Sims tapped on the window of the plane to get his attention. Then he gestured toward the waterfall. “Check it out, Cap. We know fire inside and out. If flows too, but it’s frantic, always working against itself.” He glanced out the window again. More quietly, he said, “Maybe that’s why it’s so loud. Like it’s always in conflict.”
Then he turned back to his captain. “Wonder how it would feel to be water? You know, with the whole thing happy and calm, everything flowing in the same direction.” He glanced through the window again. “Even falling a thousand feet, it looks calm. Even the roar at the bottom is calm I’ll bet.”
Schofield immediately thought of the flash flood he had witnessed as a boy. How violent it was, crashing along, boulders and cars and his younger brother caught up in the flow. How violent and how hateful. But he kept that to himself. “You’re probably right.”
Tresper had maintained silence, but he watched the waterfall even longer than Rodan did.
The noise certainly wasn’t calm here. It was deafening. Maybe there was something to Sims’s ramblings. And the heat— The heat was so intense, without the suit they wouldn’t even burn. They would vaporize.
Panic pulsed at the base of his spine, began to edge up.
To push it down, he thought of his men. Jim and Sims and Ron. Just three guys out for a Sunday stroll. Through an inferno.
For a moment he almost smiled. He moved his chin inside the mask, pressed the button that activated the mic. “Sims? You back there?” His own warm breath rebounded across his lips from the mask.
A click, then a faint buzzing in the captain’s earpiece. Sims’s transmitter was a bit messed up. “Right here, Cap. Where else am I gonna be?” A half-breath scuffed through the mic, followed by a terminal click.
That brought another almost smile. He continued to scan the depth of the flames as well as their breadth.
He figured they had come roughly halfway through the house and he was still confused. He studied each flickering then disappearing dark avenue. He compared density with density, smoke with smoke. Somewhere it didn’t quite mix. Somewhere the slightest hint of a draft in the smoke would show him the way.
He took a breath, keyed his mic. “I’m not seeing much in the way of an exit.” He took another breath. “But it’s there. We’ll be there soon.” Another breath. “Anymore from the base about the Reard—”
There was an intrusion of soft laughter, so out of place as to seem for a moment imaginary. Then Ron’s voice, but soft. “I— I have to go now, Cap. Sorry.”
What? That didn’t make sense. He has to go now?
Schofield frowned. Had he led them in the wrong direction? He keyed his mic. “Ron? You find an exit?”
Click. Buzz. “Ron? Hey Ron, where you goin’?” A breath scuffed across Sims’s microphone. “Hey Ron, c’mere man.”
The laughter came again. “Can’t do that. Sorry, Sims.”
Schofield frowned and tried again. “Ron, you find a way out?” He turned around, but slowly, careful not to let the wind blow him off balance. “Where—”
Click. Buzz. “Aw damn! Ron, don’t do that! Ron!”
A massive roaring filled Schofield’s helmet. Instinctively, his hands twitched, wanting to cover his ears to block the sound. Then it was gone.
Click. Buzz. “Oh! Oh my god! Oh my god! He burned himself up! Cap!”
Schofield keyed his mic. “Ron?” He paused. “Tresper?”
Click. Buzz. Nothing. Sims must’ve changed his mind.
Schofield frowned, keyed his mic again. He looked at the ghostly form of Sims Rodan, flickering some ten feet away through the roiling flames and smoke. The sharp lines of black-edged cinders glowed all around him. “Sims?”
Click. Buzz. Sims raised his right arm, pointed to the side. “Over there, Cap. He walked over there.” A long, quivering breath scuffed across his mic. “Like— Like he was back on base. He just walked over there and—”
Schofield nodded. “Okay. Okay.”
He had to think. Then it hit him. The roaring that had filled his helmet. Oh damn. Tresper had removed his helmet. He walked into a wall of flames, and then he reached up, jerked his helmet a quarter-turn to the left, and flashed to ash. God.
Schofield looked at Sims. He keyed his mic. “Follow me, Sims.” He took a breath as he began turning around. “Can you do that? Just follow me.”
Click. Buzz. “Sure. Sure, Cap.” A half-breath scuffed across the mic before it fell silent.
Schofield went back to scanning the depth of the fire. Looking at the surface would do no good. It changed too quickly. By the time the human brain realized what was there, it was gone. So he watched the depth, looked for patterns that remained.
As a child, he was intrigued by the flickering flames of a campfire. A flame was physical, yet it lasted less than an instant. And even while it was there, it was constantly changing, as if reaching for the other side.
It came to life, existed, and disappeared into eternity, all in less than an instant. The flame must be the closest thing possible to both the concrete and the abstract, both the real and the imaginary. As such it could ensure life or bring death, also in less than an instant.
It was a living thing, fire. And it was fickle. It seemed to choose arbitrarily whether to support life or dispense death. It was only a game to the fire, an illusion passed on from flame to flame. No single flame was able to see the game through, yet all screamed as eagerly for the win.
The only stabilizing factor was the will of the other player in any given situation.
In this case, that was him.
He and Sims would succumb or they would not. They would be consumed by this creature that lived and died millions of times a second or they would parry its every thrust and make it through.
The secret to survival was to keep his head.
He had to help Sims keep his too.
Schofield keyed his mic. “Sims, the Reardon plane. Have you heard from them yet?”
Behind him, Sims shrugged. The captain must not have heard him earlier. Just before Ron— well, just before Ron was killed. A moment later the click sounded, and the faint buzzing came again. This time there was some static, then, “—on their way.” A pause. “You copy, Cap? I think there was static.”
Schofield nodded. Then he keyed his mic. “Got it. On their way. How long?”
Click. Buzz. No static this time. “They said five minutes.” He scuffed a half-breath before the buzzing shut off.
Okay. But when had they contacted him? Schofield keyed his mic, but managed to keep the frustration out of his voice. “When was that?”
Sims checked the heads-up display in his mask. The last time he had checked it was when Ron left. That was eight minutes ago. He’d been gone only eight minutes and the entire world was changed.
He reached with his chin, activated his mic. The buzzing permeated a half-breath. “Nine minutes ago.” He took a breath. “Just before— just before Ron.”
Jim shook his head. How long have we been in here? Still, we must be nearly through the other side. The house wasn’t that wide from south to north. He frowned. But with a five-minute ETA nine minutes ago, where were they?
Or maybe they were there, outside, hovering over the bluff. They couldn’t go back. Surely they got Sims’s repeated message about going through the house.
There was a good sized space between the house and the woods. And Reardon could blast away a few trees if it needed to. They’d do what they had to do. Wouldn’t they?
Without activating his mic, he muttered, “Damn it.” He continued to edge forward, still scanning for a difference in the density of the smoke and light.
He keyed his mic. “Sims, did they ever respond to your—” He took a breath. “Transmission about us going through the house.”
Click. Buzz. “Don’t know, Cap. All I heard was five minutes.” A breath scuffed across his mic. “Think maybe they’re waiting?”
Something sizzled and spat hot sparks above Schofield and to the right front. He stopped, keyed his mic. “I hope.”
He rotated his head up just as a heavy beam cracked. Sparks cascaded down, blinking out in twos and threes and tens and hundreds.
He held out his right arm, his palm facing backward. He took a step back. Then another.
Sims was far enough back that the warning was not necessary.
That heavy beam— That beamed ceiling was in the first room across the hallway from the door. The second and third story were above the rooms behind them.
With a screech and a groan, the beam wrenched one end of itself free from the ceiling.
The world slowed.
The beam swung broadly down, trailing curls of cinder-laden smoke down across his path and to his left front. It held there as if stuck in time, then swung broadly back to the right, a deadly pendulum hanging by a thread.
Click. Buzz. “Cap!”
Schofield wagged his right hand, which was still extended out to his side. He was okay.
Hanging by a thread.
His father loomed over him for a moment. “You’re just hangin’ by a thread, y’little smartass! You really think you’re gonna outgrow your upbringin’? Go to that fancy-ass school? Hell, even if you make it you’ll just be another piss-ant fireman. Bein’ in space won’t make no differ’nce.
“I’m tryin’ to save you from disappointment, boy. You ain’t nothin’ special. You got that? An’ if you think you are, well, then you just got another thing comin’.”
Despite the envirosuit and mask, the right side of Jim’s face was getting hot.
The memory, the old man. It was all inside. It was all past. All just stuff.
In his slow-motion world he closed his eyes, opened them, looked at the dissipating column of flame. Poor dad. Poor, stupid dad. Didn’t even know it was another think, not another thing.
He shook his head slightly to clear the memory, then shifted his attention back to the pendulum. It swung back to the left.
When it dropped, it would show him the way out. That’s how things work. You’re forced to go in the right direction despite yourself.
Poor dad. Maybe I am a smartass. Better than being a moron. Maybe.
His father’s smoky face shifted into a billowing rage. It glared at him for a moment, then was swept up huge and towered over him. It drew back a fist and—
A gust of wind swept it into the hungry fire. Nothing left but a sparkling red and yellow vortex, spinning into itself. It vanished as quickly as it had come.
The fire. How alive it was! It wasn’t really destruction. And maybe it wasn’t fickle after all. Maybe it didn’t choose trickery over substance.
Maybe it was just a new kind of life, excited, joyful, dancing. Alive and happy to be alive. When a guy dies young they say he burned too brightly. This must be what they mean. Was this why so many opted for cremation? Maybe they want to live one frantic, flashing moment longer.
The massive, fiery beam swung back to the right, lifted itself. And it paused, suspended.
He had almost forgotten it. But how?
Then it creaked again, then released a long, drawn-out groan, complaining against gravity—
And gave up. It snapped loose in yet another tangled shower of sparks.
And dropped straight down. A broad wisp of smoke, red and white and yellow cinders swirling through it, trailed the beam to the floor.
On its way down, time compressed, centered on an instant of intense compaction. The sparks, the smoke, the cinders— everything but the beam itself imploded, as if sucked back into a glowing point at the bottom of the beam.
Time and space compressed. It pulsed. It held.
Again his arm twitched, wanting to wipe his eyes, his forehead. It was impossible to see. Difficult even to think.
But there was the focus. The beam. The point of the beam. Focus on the beam.
And it hit.
The beam exploded, flashing like the beginning of another universe. Billions of new worlds flew apart, each just ahead of this same major cataclysm, repeated a trillion times. The fire roared all around. The smoky, fiery reds and yellows and blacks shifted through endless shapes in the background.
The beam slammed a gash into the trembling floor, a massive black thumb crashing into cracked charcoal before pirouetting a half-turn and dying in a lateral volcano of still more sparks.
The smoke. Watch the sparks and the smoke. Jim concentrated, forced himself to watch closely.
Sweat stung his eyes and he closed them tightly to squeegee the saltwater out.
Watch the sparks. The small ones before they disappear. Which way are they being driven? And the smoke. Which way—
The sweat again. Damnit.
Water. Flowing. But rolling salt along with it. A tiny flash flood in his eyes. Stripping his vision when he needed it most.
Closed his eyes tightly, opened them.
No, not driven, drawn. Which way are they being drawn? They have to be going some—
Sims grasped the captain’s left shoulder from behind.
Despite himself, Schofield started.
Click, buzz. “Jesus H. Christ!” Sims coughed, his mask beginning to clog. A long breath scuffed through the microphone. He cleared his throat, calmed himself. “Sure glad that missed you, Cap!” A half-breath. Click.
Schofield keyed his mic, still squinting through the cloudy water in his eyes, still trying to watch. “It’s all right, Sims.” Pause, a breath. “It’s gonna be all right.”
Click. Buzz. A hint of panic around the edge of Sims’s voice. “How can you be so sure, Cap?” Click.
Schofield looked, but the sparks were gone. He didn’t see which way they went.
He turned slightly to face Sims and keyed his mic. “The way out. It’s just ahead.” He took a breath and gestured loosely over his left shoulder. “Just up there on the right.”
Schofield wanted to see whether Sims was buying it but he couldn’t see his face. The fire shone in the reflective shield, as if the helmet itself were filled with fire.
But Sims moved his head the slightest bit. He was looking past Schofield for the exit. He wouldn’t find it.
Change the subject. Anything else. Anything. “Hey, you gonna go for cremation?” He took a breath. Well, that wasn’t much of a change. Still, “You know, I mean when it’s time?”
A click, then hesitation. Then another click, a buzz. A cough. “Yeah. Yeah, I think so, Cap.”
The captain glanced around again. No sparks. Probably they weren’t drawn away. Probably they didn’t go anywhere. Probably they just settled into the background. Just settled there.
He shook his head slightly.
Ron flashed through his mind in a human to ash transformation. That’s what Ron did in the end. Just settled there.
A few wisps of smoke were still swirling in the density. He closed his eyes hard, then opened them. He squinted.
And just as if they had been waiting for him to watch, the smoke particles shifted. They slipped in among their brethren, disappeared. No pattern to it. Nothing.
His daughters had done that one time. They had run into his office, excited, wanting to show off a new skit for him.
He had made them wait. His attention was on something that seemed more important at the time. Now he couldn’t even remember what it was.
But he would never forget the look on his daughters’ faces.
When finally he turned back to them. When finally he deigned to give them his second-hand time, they hesitated.
Just as if they had been waiting for him to look. And then they shifted, slipped in among each other and raced through his door.
Three days later they and his wife were killed in a rebel attack.
He never did get to see the skit.
He glanced at Sims again. What was the question? Oh, cremation as a passage of choice. And Sims had said yes. And Ron had said yes, graphically.
But early. Ron had settled into the background. Just like the rest of the fire.
So. Cremation. “Yeah,” he said. “You know, I mean me too.” He took a breath. “But see, Sims, it ain’t time yet.” Another breath. “Right now we stand out.” Another breath. “We ain’t ready to just—” He took a breath. “Settle into the background.” Pause. “Know what I mean?”
Click. Buzz. “Yeah, maybe.” Another cough.
He wasn’t buying it. Try again.
He moved his chin, keyed his mic. “Look Sims, somebody has to feed the flames.”
He heard it as it came out of his mouth. Out of breath, inside his mask, he frowned.
The fire was loud, endlessly roaring. It was voracious, eating everything around him. The noise itself seemed to jumble his thoughts. It was confusing.
He took a great breath and keyed his mic again. “Fan, Sims.” He calmed himself for a moment, curbed the frustration. “Somebody has to fan the flames.”
Hell, Sims would know what he meant anyway. He laughed, then took a breath. “That’s you and me.” Another breath scuffed across his mic. “You and me. Fanning the flames. Just—” He took a breath, not wanting to risk being all-out again. “Just follow me. We’re all right. It’s okay.”
He paused. He wanted to say more but he had nothing left to add. He hoped this thoughts had worked to calm Sims.
He turned away. Ah, what did it matter. At least he tried. If he didn’t get through, he didn’t get through. Sims was a fireman, same as he was. He signed up, same as I did.
A step. Two steps. Three steps.
Click. Buzz. “Yeah. Thanks Cap.”
The floor. The pressure. Each new point on the floor seemed familiar.
The pressure of each step was comforting. Almost comforting.
Another step. Pleasure.
Another step. Maybe it was the pleasure of freedom being near.
The flames ahead of him seemed dimmer, maybe less frantic, maybe—
The door. The open door was there.
Another step. Only a few more to the door.
Another step. The pressure. The floor was more intact nearer the wall. Still strong.
Another step and— He frowned. Was that pressure different?
Nah. We’re home free now. He keyed his mic. “Almost there, Sims. We’re almost—”
A metallic snap sounded as he lifted his left foot.
He was still reaching with his right, straining for the door as his eyebrows began to press toward the center in a frown.
Something grasped him just below the shoulders of his envirosuit. Something shoved him forward and left. Something—
In his mind, his instructor said, “Pressure release mechanism. Most often just inside the door.”
Oh god. Oh my—
And the world exploded.
He landed hard on his face and something heavy crushed him, then was gone.
His mind screamed and his brain yelled for Sims. The roaring was distant. They were out of the fire. Something blew them out of the fire.
His eyes closed.
How things work. Forced to go in the right direction. Despite yourself.
Sometime later— a minute, an hour, a day— he took inventory.
Still breathing. What about Sims?
He moved his chin, reached to key his mic. The switch wasn’t there. “Sims?”
What a fire. Sims must’ve hated that one.
He thought again about Sims and the waterfall, about how it flowed. How water flowed as opposed to how fire flows.
Schofield thought he smiled at the memory.
He thought to nod. Did he nod? He pulled in a breath, tried to push it out again with a laugh attached. He reached again with his chin to key his mic, but it still wasn’t there.
No matter. “Hey, Sims?”
A dazzling sparkling hesitation lasted a second, or maybe an hour.
His mind gave him a click, a buzz. “It’s okay, Cap.”
Good. Good. Sims was okay. He sounded good. “Hey,” he said. “Now we know—” He paused for a breath even as he realized he didn’t need to. “Now we know, right? I mean, how it feels to be water. Right?”
He frowned. What was he doing? Water?
Oh. Calming Sims. “You know, I mean ‘cause we flowed the same way, right? Out of the fire.”
He looked to the left. Sims’s voice came from the left didn’t it? But it was too dark to make out anything.
He didn’t bother trying to key his mic. “Sims?”
Did I get up? I feel like I’m up.
He flexed his feet. Nothing beneath them.
Well, something, but not the ground. He tensed his stomach muscles to sit up. If he was already standing, he’d fall forward. But then at least he’d know what—
Someone yelled, “Clear!”
Sudden pressure against his chest, his back. Through the suit? He frowned. But how—
Something slashed through his body. From the inside out. Tremors shuddered through him, then warmth.
All right. Okay. What’s going on?
He was standing up, right? That would place Sims right behind him.
He tensed again, tried to turn around.
His left shoulder contacted something he couldn’t see.
He relaxed, tensed his abdomen, twisted again. Harder.
Something pressed down against his shoulder.
Down? “Sims? Hey, Sims, say something! You back there?”
He wanted to blink, clear his vision. But his eyes were already closed.
You have to start a blink with your eyes open. Everybody knows that. Even his dumbass father knew that.
So open. He needed to open them.
That’s how it should go.
He didn’t have to close them first. They were already closed. He had to open them so he could close them quick and blink. Where the hell was Sims?
Open. Closed, open. Closed, op—
And he was moving. No, something was moving him. He was being moved. How? The distant roaring faded to a spot, then blinked out of existence. Silence. Darkness.
Then someone was talking. Murmuring maybe. Humming?
All around. Everywhere in layers. Near, mid-range, distant.
Sims had to be in that mix somewhere. “Sims?”
God, I gotta open my eyes. Maybe my lips didn’t open either. Did my lips move? He yelled, “Sims?” This is ridiculous. “Hey Sims, my eyes won’t—”
“Yeah. Hey buddy. Hey Captain Schofield, it’s all right.”
Captain? That doesn’t sound like Sims.
A quick whispering something faded in. “—called him Cap, I think. Try that.”
I hate it when other people barge into a conversation. “Sims— Hey, now we know how water feels, eh? Remember?”
“Right, water. It’s all right, Captain. I mean Cap. It’s all right now.”
Close, open. No, they’re still closed. Damnit, open! “I mean how it feels to be water. Right, Sims? Right?”
Schofield frowned. “You ain’t Sims.”
“Sims isn’t here right now. But you’re okay, Cap. That’s what matters right now.”
A pin prick on his shoulder. Waves of something washed through his mind. Water? Sims, is this how it feels to be—
* * * * * * *