Chapter 1: CyberFun

A very pleased Kyle Alexander leaves his last class of the week and heads for work. He just turned in a major programming project that'll account for thirty percent of his final grade for the class, and he 'knows' he aced it. Actually, he wrote the primary program over a week ago, but no matter how hard he tried he couldn't get it to successfully compile and run. Thankfully, this morning Ryan Kennedy, one of his closest friends and business partner, reviewed the program and pointed him to the simple error causing the problem. Once he made the change to the program the full project ran flawlessly.

Kyle dons a light jacket while leaving the computer center when a cool winter wind brings a mild chill to the sun-warmed El Paso campus. He walks to the front entrance of the campus to turn and walk down the street three blocks to stop at the corner. With much pride Kyle looks at the building before him. Four years ago it was an old grocery store which had sat empty and in disrepair for many years. Now with its exterior painted white and trimmed in the university's colors of orange, blue and silver, CyberFun is a thriving part of the lives of many of the students who live or attend classes just a few blocks away.

What makes CyberFun unique is they really understand the typical student's short attention span, and the business is built around the activities needed by many students in their daily life. In Sam's Café a student can work the Internet over a soft drink, a regular or gourmet coffee, tea or hot chocolate with a pastry or deli sandwich before going to the study area known as the Study Hall for a couple of hours.

If and when a study break is needed there's the ability to join other students in The Mine, as well as with other distractions. The Mine is a non-alcoholic sports bar primarily focused on The Prospectors, the name of the various sports teams of the neighboring university. It offers the same deli sandwiches as the coffee shop, but also features more serious food like hot wings, rib-eye steaks, shrimp, chicken, salads and several choices of vegetables. A number of large flat screen TVs are strategically set all around the room to enable different groups to watch various sporting events at the same time. When a major event is broadcast several large screen sets are combined to make a video wall. This makes The Mine a very rowdy and loud place during Prospector football and basketball games.

On the other hand, if The Mine isn't what the relaxing student needs, there's The Smelter, the largest game area in the state of Texas, featuring everything from darts and pool to multi-player action video games. There's even The Bunkhouse where a hammock and soft music allows tired eyes to take a break for a few minutes. By combining everything under one roof students move between the various activities and vistas with a minimum of effort and a maximum level of enjoyment.

Approaching the building's front Kyle's eyes are drawn to the large painting of the university's mascot, the prospector Ol' Sam and his pack mule, Mose. The painting almost fills the only large plate glass window left of the old grocery store, and the view causes Kyle to reflect on the past and the origins of CyberFun.

Reminiscing

Kyle grew up in El Paso, living most of his life in a house backed up to that of his grandparents, Jonas and Wanda Alexander, and just a few backyards away from his two best friends, Ryan and Kathleen Kennedy. Because of the loving nature of Kyle's grandparents and the volatile nature of the home lives of the three friends the trio spent a significant part of their days at Jonas' house. It helped that Wanda also functioned as a nurturing grandmother to all three children.

Ryan, or Brain - as Kyle nicknamed him, was the oldest by eight months and Kathleen (KK) was just over two years younger than Kyle. The three weren't only drawn together by their physical proximity, but also as a result of their home lives full of discord and disrespect. The negative environment reinforced their care and concern for each other.

The three children also had an insatiable hunger to learn and this need was aided and fed by Jonas, a history professor at the university. He not only stimulated their interest in life in the past, he brought over colleagues from other disciplines to help expand and round the young minds. Included in their education was martial art training, though Kyle's was more extensive and intense than that of his two friends.

Two weeks after Kyle's high school graduation the minor struggles and disharmony in his home life suddenly burst into a major problem. Robert, Kyle's father, was promoted to CEO of the oil company where he worked, Texas State Energy (TSE). When Robert announced his promotion he declared the whole family, including Kyle, would move to Houston. This dictatorial decree caused immediate hostility and ripped the family apart. Refusing to live any longer in the environment, and in an act of defiance, Kyle moved his personal belongings into a spare bedroom at Jonas and Wanda's house, then went to the nearest Army Recruitment Office and enlisted.

Robert was really out of touch with his family and was very shocked at Kyle's rebellion. Robert was still screaming and making threats three weeks later when he, Kyle's mother, Charlotte, and Kyle's two sisters, Felicia and Courtney, left for Houston.

Robert's rants, coupled with some increased tension in the Kennedy household, tightened and strengthened the trio's bond of friendship, and that bond held and supported Kyle through Basic and Advanced Training, and finally through jump school. Graduating at the top of his class, Kyle joined the 82nd Airborne in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, where he became part of a scout team for the rest of his Army career.

When Kyle's enlistment ended he infuriated his father by rejecting Robert's plans for his future and announced he would be attending the university in El Paso instead of some esteemed Ivy League school in the east. In addition, he stood fast in his refusal to join the rest of his family in Houston, living, instead, with his now widowed Grandfather. Robert had tried to use the 'money treat, ' but Kyle just laughed at him because his savings plus his military education funds and the free rent at his Grandfather's was more than enough to enable him to complete his education without receiving a dime from his father.

Kyle had come up with the general idea for CyberFun while at Fort Bragg, and had told it to his friends. They also caught the vision and the idea began to take shape in the form of a full business plan they refined over time. A few months prior to his discharge Kyle was home on leave. During his leave this building was discovered and the three approached Jonas for his opinion.

Jonas contacted Ed and Beverly Kennedy, the now divorced parents of Ryan and Kathleen, and the three of them spent an entire weekend going over the business plan, and making insightful observations and suggestions. At the end of the weekend Jonas and Ed had shocked the trio by offering to loan the trio the money to get the business started. Now, almost four years later, those loans are paid off and the holding company set up to hide the youngsters' ownership in the operating LLC is flush with cash. This setup is part of Jonas' idea to imply to the rest of the world Kyle, Kathleen and Ryan are nothing more than part-time managers and assistants to some off-site owner.

Today Again

Shaking off the reminiscing, Kyle enters the front door and accepts an offered deli sandwich with a cup of his favorite coffee - a latté with fresh ground cinnamon and a dash of a black cherry liqueur. He heads to the office, throws his backpack on the couch, and sits at his desk. While slowly chewing his sandwich and sipping on the latté he reviews the activity reports of yesterday. Ten minutes later Kyle is transitioned from student to businessman, and leaves the office to wander through the rest of the building; talking to employees and customers along his journey.

Two hours later a short-handed Kyle is trying to cover the front counter until more part-time student employees arrive after their late afternoon classes. The word attempt is probably a euphemism because in addition to being understaffed the place is much busier than normal for this time of day.

Someone shouting in the Study Hall is quick to get Kyle's attention since it's like a library and loud noises aren't allowed. He responds by racing towards the sound before others are too disturbed by the noise.

As Kyle gets closer to the area a vaguely familiar male voice shouts in frustration, "Nadia, I can take care of myself."

Opening the door Kyle finds a guy sitting in a wheelchair with a beautiful woman on her knees in front of the chair. Her face is turned down to the floor while she sobs in frustration and anguish. Using his normal calm approach to a crisis, Kyle takes a quick look around the room while deciding a course of action. In his scan he finds there are sixteen students trying to study, and they all seem to be waiting for him to remove the distraction.

He approaches the couple to warn them to be a lot quieter or leave the room, but Kyle soon recognizes the young man in the wheelchair from his Army days in Iraq. Fortunately, before he can say anything he feels a soft feminine hand on his arm. Intuitively he realizes KK is now here and followed him to the source of the noise.

Kyle smiles when he turns to the chestnut-haired Kathleen, and asks, "KK, will you take the young woman to the coffee shop and help her to calm down? While you're helping her I'll quietly talk to her friend to see if I can straighten this out without any further disruptions to everyone's study time."

After nodding her understanding KK kneels by the crying woman and comforts her until she's able to stand. Once the girl is steady KK leads her towards the Café area in the front of the building.

Turning to the man in the wheelchair, Kyle asks, "Larry Martin?"

Surprised someone knows his name Larry looks up at the young man staring down at him. Kyle's face looks familiar, but Larry just can't place it. Not knowing anything else to say in his current frame of mind, Larry snarls, "Yeah, want to make something of it?"

"Larry, I'm Kyle Alexander. We met in Iraq. I led a patrol that took control of a bunch of prisoners you and your group captured. So the others can study, how about us moving out to the hall?"

Larry nods and the pair move out to the hall, to the great relief of the others in the room. Once the door is closed Kyle sits on his heels so the two can talk softly.

In this new position Larry looks intently at Kyle's face, and in a few seconds he recognizes Kyle. "Yeah, I remember you," Larry responds, "you led a scout team with the Eighty-Second. You had a huge black corporal named Andrews everyone called Amos."

"Yep, that was us. He claimed they were all a bunch of racists, but inside he knew they teased him out of respect."

The knowledge he's talking to a combat veteran he knows from the sand helps Larry to begin to relax. After his face visibly softens, he asks, "So, what are you doing here?"

Because the three friends don't want their ownership to be common knowledge, Kyle replies, "I work here part-time, in addition to taking classes at the university. I'm a senior in Business Management."

Larry responds, "I was able to take some correspondence and on-line courses while I was still in the Corps, so I guess I'm a junior. I've always had a fascination for rocks, so I chose to study metallurgy and geology."

"Larry, if I can ask, what was that outburst about earlier?"

"On my last mission I rescued Nadia from some rag-heads. She was a Russian journalist they'd kidnapped in an attempt to get 'Ivan' to give them some Strelas. While we're climbing into the chopper I took a bullet in the back from a guy we thought was dead. Since then she's refused to leave my side, wanting to do everything for me. I don't want anyone to feel sympathy for me, nor do I want her to feel obligated."

Note: A Strela is a Russian shoulder-launched ground-to-air missile similar to a US Stinger missile.

"Hey, if I was bound to a wheelchair I can think of a lot of worse people to want to help me. Be glad she's not a Bulgarian shot-putter.

Larry laughs at that image, "Well, I guess that's one way to look at it. Though, at the same time, because of this injury it makes it harder ... I mean, more difficult for me."

"I picked up on that. Does she get embarrassed at your erection?"

Larry hangs his head and mumbles something. Kyle doesn't hear the words, but from the body language he has a pretty good idea what the problem is.

In a casual manner, Kyle responds, "So you've no feeling below the waist. What's the prognosis?"

Surprised at how quick Kyle guesses the real problem, Larry says, "They've tried everything they know to reconnect the nerves, including an experimental use of stem cells. At present the results have been nothing, nada, zilch. They say if I can move my legs in a normal manner the stem cells might work. But without feeling I can't move my legs. It's a classic Catch Twenty-two situation."

"Is that frustration why you were getting angry at Nadia?"

"Not completely." Larry looks into Kyle's eyes, and confesses, "I'm afraid we're falling in love with each other, and she deserves better than to spend the rest of her life with a cripple who can't give her sexual satisfaction or provide her with children."

Kyle answers, "I understand your feelings. Why don't we join Nadia and Kathleen. I need to check on a few things, so could you wait with them for a few minutes? I'll join the three of you as soon as I can."

Larry responds with a sad, "OK."

At the front counter Kyle finds his part-timers have arrived and two are now covering that area while a third is working the game rooms selling tokens. Satisfied both the areas are covered Kyle makes a quick tour of the rest of the building, advising his different employees he and KK are in the café and may be leaving early. He also reminds everyone Ryan should arrive within the next hour.

Once the tour is over Kyle joins KK, Nadia and Larry around a table in the coffee shop. As soon as he sits down one of the waitresses brings him another latté. While he sips his drink Kyle has his first real view of Nadia. In his biased opinion she's beautiful enough to give KK real competition as to who's the prettiest female on campus. She's roughly five nine and her figure looks well proportioned. It's obvious she works out on a regular basis. Her blond hair is almost white, but with streaks of gold, yellow, and brown. It's styled in the just loved look made famous years ago by a poster of a middle level actress. Kyle begins to wonder if Larry has brain as well as back injuries.

KK asks, "What's going on? I thought you worked until six."

"I was supposed to, but the boss says I need to take care of this."

A concerned Larry asks, "I didn't get you into trouble, did I?"

Kyle laughs, "No, far from it. Maybe KK and I will share more about that later. Now, would you and Nadia consider joining the two of us for a steak tonight?"

This question brings a smile and a nod from both Larry and KK, but Nadia only gives Kyle a puzzled look. Kyle immediately picks up on the lack of enthusiasm, and asks, "Nadia, are you a vegetarian?"

"I'm not sure. I was born on April fourth." Nadia's response makes KK laugh, but her laughter stops when Kyle gently rebukes her with his blue-gray eyes.

Patiently, Kyle explains, "Nadia, some people in this country make a choice not to eat meat. Some from religious beliefs and others out of the belief meat, especially red meat, isn't good for you. These people are called vegetarians."

With a sly little grin, Nadia replies, "Oh, we have such people in Russia. They are called peasants."

Kyle and the other two explode in laughter. The little Russian skunk had gotten them good.

"So you do eat meat?" asked Kyle.

"Definitely, but I don't eat a piece of wood."

"A piece of wood?"

"You said a stake. Is that not a piece of wood you drive into the ground as a marker?"

A smiling Larry explains, "Honey, that piece of wood is spelled S-T-A-K-E, while S-T-E-A-K is a special cut of meat from the cow. It's highly prized and very delicious."

"Oh. I've had years of English in school. Do you think I will ever learn it all?"

KK replies, "Probably not. The language seems to grow, change, and evolve every day. Just look at it this way: you'll provide us many hours of joy while you learn. You're beautiful, yet you've the combination of the innocence of a little child and the mischievousness of a little puppy. In the short time I've spent with you this afternoon I've learned you're more beautiful inside than out."

"Thank you, KK. I can't say it gives me a lot of hope concerning my English, but it most certainly gives me a lot of warmth in my heart. I don't really care how intelligent I sound as long as I don't become an embarrassment to Larry."

The two couples talk a while longer, getting to know each other as well as firming up plans for the evening. After discussing a few options the four agree to a meet at the Stetson and Spur, a quality steakhouse near the entrance to Fort Bliss.

After making reservations Kyle tells KK, "I'll pick you up at eighteen forty-five and we'll meet Larry and Nadia at nineteen ten."He adds, "I hate to break this up, but I've got to take care of some things at home."

It's almost 17:20 when Kyle arrives at his grandfather's house. When he closes the door between the garage and the kitchen he hears his grandfather call out, "Kyle, is that you?"

Heading toward his grandfather's voice, Kyle answers, "Yes, Jonas, it's me." When he enters his grandfather's office he sits in a comfortable chair, and asks, "How was your day?"

His grandfather, a semi-retired professor of history, replies, "I think these kids get more stupid every year. Today one even asked me why it mattered if the South seceded from the Union."

Kyle laughs. He knows Jonas only teaches two courses now. One is European History during the Dark Ages and the other is American History through the Civil War. Though not actually part of the War, Jonas has been known to also include the Reconstruction Period which ended in 1877. They're both freshman classes usually be taught by a graduate student, but Jonas claims he tries to open up minds which have been left virtually blank, or distorted, by the watered-down and biased public education system.

"So how did you answer him?"

"I suggested a minimum ten-page paper reviewing the political, military, and economic situation of Europe at the time, deciding which country would have likely been the first to attack our divided and weakened nation, and what life would be like for us today if that country had succeeded in destroying us as a nation."

"I bet he loved that!"

"Actually, it was a she. I told her if I was pleased with her analysis I'd drop her lowest test score. I think even she thought it a good trade." Jonas leans back in his chair, and asks, "Now, how about your day?"

"I had a problem in my programming project due today, but Brain quickly pointed me to a line where I branched out to get a value for a variable I hadn't defined. This afternoon things got a little hectic at CyberFun because we had way too many customers for the number of staff on hand. If this continues we may need to add some more people."

"Growth in a business like yours is good, though I'm going to miss our time together tomorrow."

"I will too, Jonas, but if this paint-ball thing does take off I'll hire someone else with a military background to run it. I've probably found the perfect person this afternoon, but he's bound to a wheelchair. He was a Special Forces officer I knew in Iraq."

Jonas replies, "It sounds like he'd be good. Put some thought into a solution, because people like that need to feel like they have worth, even more than the rest of us."

"I've already seen that. He rescued a Russian journalist, but ended up with a bullet in the back from a wounded terrorist / kidnapper. She's devoted her life to taking care of him and he keeps pushing her away. Jonas, she's one of the most beautiful women on this campus."

"Is it Nadia Konnoff?"

"Yes. How do you know?"

"There aren't that many Russian women on this campus and she's in my European History class. She has a degree from Russia, but wants to get another one here. She's a delight to teach and has a tremendous knowledge of the Cossacks and their influence on Eastern Europe, especially Russia. You're also correct in your description; she is a very beautiful woman."

"Well, she and Larry Martin are falling in love with each other. Unfortunately, Larry's fighting the budding relationship because of his paralysis and is trying to push her away. From what he's said, he feels less than a man due to his inability to perform sexually. As a result, he believes she'll eventually despise him for not meeting her sexual needs or providing her with children. At the same time, he's falling head over heels in love with her, and the conflict is driving him crazy."

"I can imagine. I know sometimes when I can't be around MariLynn I hurt so much I can hardly stand it. Then on Crossroads I sometimes get grumpy the last few days before we have to return to Earth."

Kyle chuckles. "I know, because you usually take it out on me. I don't mind though, because I understand. I know I'll soon have my own Caretaker, and eventually I'll probably go through some of those same emotional struggles."

"It wasn't so bad when your grandmother was alive. She knew what I was doing and supported me. When I lost her to cancer I went to Crossroads because I needed comfort from Maureen. Unfortunately she sent me on a mission when I wasn't mentally prepared, and it almost got me killed. That upset her so much she resigned as a Caretaker. Afterwards I chose MariLynn as her replacement, and our relationship now is much deeper than Maureen's and mine ever was. If anything, our love for each other may be even stronger than Wanda's and mine."

Kyle asks, "Speaking of MariLynn, can you talk to her to see if there could be a way to help Larry, especially if he agrees to become a Hero?"

Jonas says, "Sure, I can do that."He pauses for a moment, to decide if he should say something that's on his mind. Finally, he adds, "Kyle, before you start your journey as a Hero talk to Kathleen. It'll be good if she understands what's going on, and I suspect, like your grandmother, she'll support your actions as a Hero."

"My dear grandfather, KK and I are just good friends and business partners. Why would it affect her?"

"Kyle, I've seen you with that girl since you were six and she was four. If you two don't love each other, then there's no love in this world. That girl was made for you."

"Grandfather, we've never even dated."

"What about the hours in your old club house, the camping trips in the mountains, and the studying martial arts together? None of those were dates?"

"No! They weren't dates."

"What are you doing this evening?"

"Kathleen and I are taking Larry and Nadia out to dinner."

"And that's not a date?"

Exasperated, Kyle answers, "No, Jonas, it's not a date!"

Jonas smiles at his grandson, and asks, "Does she know that?"

At this point Kyle realizes this conversation isn't going anywhere, so he just ignores the question, saying, "I've got to get my shower and get ready. Will you be up when I get home?"

"I doubt it, because I want to be as rested as possible before I go to Crossroads and Chaos in the morning. I don't know how many more of these trips I'll be able to make. I know it'll be hard on both MariLynn and I when they stop, but I want to die here, not on some unknown backward planet. This family, other than you, may not be worth much, but I feel they're at least due that amount of respect."

Kyle responds, "I probably won't see you in the morning, either. The first group is due at the battle-ground at oh eight thirty and we need to be set up before they get there. Brain and I are planning to meet at the shop at oh six thirty. I'll definitely miss our time tomorrow, though, as it'll be the first mission I've skipped since I left the Army."

"I'll miss our time together as well. You've worked hard and have been a very good student. You'll soon take your place as a Hero, though I'm hoping for one more trip together with you as my Companion."

After a short pause Jonas adds, "Kyle, if something does happen to me you know where most everything is hidden. My will is designed to keep the sharks off you, but be prepared if any of them, especially my sister Lucille, smells any money to be grabbed. Just keep your cool, use your mind and the tools I've given you, and you'll be fine."

Kyle sits back down. He knows he'll be late, but feels the importance of the conversation.

"Jonas, you sound more concerned than normal. Is there anything I should know?"

"Do you remember meeting Gerald Jones?"

"Sure, we met on several of our trips to Chaos."

"Gerald and I have also known one another here on earth. He passed away a few months ago. Because of our respect for each other and the similarities of our families we modeled our wills and instructions to our individual attorneys after each other. We both wanted to protect and preserve our portals, with the biggest difference being his nephew, Sid, knew nothing about Cassandra, Crossroads, or Chaos prior to Gerald's death."

"OK, that makes sense. You want me to have the house to protect the Portal and are using the rest of your assets to make sure that your wishes are carried out."

Jonas nods as he answers, "Kyle, my boy, if I had my way you'd get everything. Unfortunately, if I did that Lucille and Robert would have my estate tied up in court so long that your beard would be below your knees before you ever went through the Portal. You should be aware there are some surprises which are outside of my attorney's knowledge. They need to stay well hidden for a while, but at the right time a close friend will reveal them to you. My attorney, Stanley Patterson, has two life insurance policies showing you as the owner and the beneficiary, which leaves them entirely out of the estate. I've also arranged for the University to provide tuition and books for you, your future wife and your children, and this will even cover grad school if you desire. With the insurance, the covered education expenses, this house, and your thriving business, you should have a good start on the rest of your life."

A stunned Kyle replies, "Jonas, I have to say I hope it's a long time before any of that becomes relevant, but thank you for what you're doing. You're correct, I should have a good start, but I'd rather have you around for another thirty or forty years."

"Kyle, without Wanda or MariLynn those would be miserable years."

"I understand, Jonas. Is there anything else?"asks an emotional Kyle.

"Any other thoughts and directions will be in the hidden safe, but I suggest you keep as much money as you can in the corporation for a while. Stanley was very careful as to how he structured the CyberFun Corporation, so let him tell you how to take money out without calling attention to it or burdening you with excessive taxes. From what your mother's said your family thinks you're barely making ends meet, and it'll probably be a good idea to let them keep thinking that way. I sure haven't said anything to correct that impression."

Close to tears, Kyle says, "Jonas, I'll definitely follow your directions and advice, but I guess I'd better get busy. I'm going to be late, as it is."

Kyle goes to his room and carefully picks out his clothes for the evening. To his surprise he realizes he's unconsciously considering each item according to what KK will think of them. He considers this for a few minutes before he shakes off the thought and enters the attached bathroom to shower and shave, then to the bedroom to get dressed.

In fifteen minutes Kyle finishes getting ready and takes a final look in the long mirror behind his bedroom door. The sandy headed image before him reminds Kyle how little he's changed since he returned to civilian life. Though his hair is somewhat longer, he's still the same fit six foot, one seventy five pounds, and there doesn't seem to be an ounce of fat anywhere on his body. Of course, between his walking around campus, his practice and training at the Dojo, and his sword practice with Jonas, his superb physical condition actually isn't very surprising.

Heading to the garage Kyle finds his grandfather in the kitchen. He gives Jonas a hug goodbye and goes to the kitchen door leading to the garage. Pausing at the doorway he realizes just how badly his five year old Jeep Cherokee Sport needs to be washed and the interior given a general cleaning. In fact, the vehicle is covered in so much desert dust he can find only a few small spots where its original dark green color is visible.

Making a quick decision, Kyle reverses direction and steps back into the kitchen where he grabs two tall kitchen garbage bags. He returns to his car and quickly cleans out the interior, putting trash in one of the bags and things to be saved in the other. Once he's finished Kyle moves the bag to be saved into the back corner of the garage and carries the other bag outside, placing it in the outside trashcan.

As Kyle starts his car he realizes the outside door is unlocked again. He's expressed his concern about security to Jonas several times, but his grandfather refuses to keep it locked or install a security system. Jonas' reasoning is the sharing of tools with neighbors is common in this close knit community. In his view, since most of the community's residents are professors and others who work at the university, locking out neighbors who've lived around him for years makes no sense. It still bothers Kyle, but he realizes it's one battle he can't win.

Thinking further about the evening, Kyle slips on his Bluetooth ear-piece and tells his cell phone to call KK. He's passing her house when she answers, saying, "Kyle, I just saw you drive by. Did you forget me?"

"Sorry KK, that's why I'm calling. I need to take care of something, but I'll be back in a few minutes. Will you call the restaurant and leave a message for Larry to go ahead with the reservation? We'll join them as soon as we can."

"Sure. How long do you think you'll be?"

"Hopefully not more than fifteen minutes."

"OK, I guess I'll wait on you. I haven't had any better offers for the evening. By the way, do you know a Barbara Haywood?"

"Yes, why?"

"Ryan said she called the shop shortly after we left and wanted to talk to you. I have her number."

"Thanks. Let me pull over so I can write it down. And before you get jealous, she's the new head librarian and her husband's the assistant commander of the Army ROTC unit. I invited him to join the paint-ball party tomorrow."

With Kyle's revised perception of their relationship he can actually sense her feelings of anxiety diminish, even over the phone. She gives him the number and they both linger on the phone, for a moment, with small talk before saying good-bye.

Minutes later Kyle pulls into a gas station and selects the Ultimate Car Wash option. After filling up the over-sized gas tank he drives around to the automatic car wash. While the car-wash goes through its cycles he returns Dr Haywood's call.

"Hello?"

"Doctor Haywood, this is Kyle Alexander. You left a message at CyberFun for me to call you?"

"Yes, Kyle. Marc asked me to call and let you know we'd love to participate with you tomorrow. Where and when can we meet you?"

Picturing the tall, graceful lady he'd seen in the library, Kyle is shocked to learn she'll be a participant. For some reason, he can't imagine her in old casual clothes covered in paint-ball splotches.

As a result Kyle almost stutters, when he asks, "Doctor Haywood, you do understand what tomorrow entails, don't you?"

Laughing at his reaction, she replies, "Kyle, Marc and I've done this for years. I'm very comfortable with firearms and usually hit my target."

"Good! Maybe, with your help, we can get more women involved with the sport."

"Are you sure you want that? A team of us girls might whip the men's butts."

"Actually, I think that would be great. I would love to see more women with that kind of confidence and ability. The world would be a far better place."

Kyle's remark impresses Barbara, but she's distracted by the noise in the background. Finally curiosity gets to her, and she asks, "By the way, Kyle, what's the noise in the background? It sounds like you're inside a dishwasher."

"You're close, as I'm going through a car-wash. I thought my date for the evening would appreciate being able to see my car's natural color."

"Oh. Who's the lucky lady?"

"Kathleen Kennedy, she's a senior in business management."

"Have you two been dating long?"

"I'm not sure we are dating, at least as a couple. On the other hand, earlier this evening my Grandfather, Jonas, implied we'd been dating since I was six and she was four."

"Jonas Alexander! Now that's not a connection I was expecting. I really like your grandfather. Despite his accent, he reminds me of an old southern gentleman. He's a throw-back to a time and code this country will sorely miss."

"Thank you. Since he's helped raise me, I try hard to emulate him, his attitudes, and his actions. Now, I hate to cut this short, but I've arrived at my destination. How about you and the Captain meeting Ryan and me in the back of CyberFun around oh seven hundred in the morning?"

"That's fine. Have a good time tonight. We'll see you tomorrow."

Kyle ends the call and drives to the closest grocery store. He parks his car and runs inside. In the florist department he quickly selects a single red rose in a pretty bud vase. The girl at the florist counter adds some fern and baby's breath, and wishes him luck. He pays at the front register, sticks the receipt in his pocket, and runs back to his car. Five minutes later Kyle pulls into KK's driveway.

She runs out the door, but stops short when she sees him standing there with a rose in his hand.

In a demure voice Kyle has never heard before, Kathleen asks, "Is that for me?" When Kyle nods and holds it out to her, the surprised young woman asks, "What's the occasion?"

"I think it's the kind of thing a guy is supposed to do to impress a girl on their first date."

There's hope in her eyes when she asks, "Is this a date?"

Kyle shocks her even more by using her real name, "Kathleen, I don't know if it's true, because we're just always together. Things changed tonight when Jonas informed me we've been dating since I was six and you were four."

Kathleen smiles as she replies, "I always thought your grandfather was an astute person; now I know so!"

"So he's right?"

"Most definitely! I can't remember a time when I didn't love you and dream of spending the rest of my life with you. Do you realize I'm twenty-four years old and I've never even had a date other than with you? I'll be right back because I want to put this beautiful rose inside."

This shocks Kyle to his very core. KK is one of the most beautiful women in El Paso, if not the whole state of Texas. Her chestnut hair accents her emerald-green eyes and a cute button nose. She's tall at five-eight and her slender body is more tomboyish than centerfold material. However, Kyle begins to realize, from her statement, Kathleen has never gone to a prom, football game, or anything else with another boy. It's an image Kyle's poor mind can't even fathom.

When Kathleen returns Kyle holds the passenger door open for her. When she starts to enter the Jeep it dawns on her he's washed the car since he drove past her house minutes earlier. In a surprised tone, she says, "You washed your car! You never wash your car!"

"I felt someone as beautiful as you shouldn't have to ride in a filthy car."

An emotional Kathleen pulls Kyle close and gives him a kiss on the cheek. She pulls back for a moment, and suddenly decides the first kiss wasn't good enough. She kisses him again, this time on the lips while she puts her heart and soul into it. She wraps her arms around him and their lips and hearts merge, causing the toes on the feet of both of them to try to curl.

When they back away this time Kyle hands her his keys, and says, "I think you'd better drive. I'm not in any shape to safely handle the car at this moment."

"What makes you think I'm in any better shape? I've waited twenty years for that kiss."

"Because you're a woman; women are always stronger than us weak emotional men." Kyle's response causes both of them to laugh as they climb into the jeep and drive off.

When they pull out of the driveway neither one sees the living room curtains move back into place, nor do they hear the voice saying, "Well, it's about time."

Kathleen and Kyle are only fifteen minutes late to the restaurant. When they reach their table they learn Larry and Nadia have just been seated. It seems no one told the restaurant of the need for a wheelchair accessible table, and it took them a few minutes to clear an appropriate area and get one set up.

The waitress takes their drink orders, and Kyle adds a Desert Blossom, one of those batter-fried onion blooms, as an appetizer. When she returns with the drinks and the onion Kyle orders a fourteen-ounce rib-eye with baked potato and salad. KK orders the same thing, only a little smaller. Nadia has no idea what to order and asks Larry to share his with her. Based upon her request, Larry orders a twenty-eight ounce Porterhouse steak for two.

For the next hour the couples enjoy the food, the casual atmosphere, and, most of all, the company of the others. The dinner itself is an interesting study of conflicting emotions and interpersonal interactions.

Kyle finds himself divided between the emotions of learning KK is in love with him, and trying to help Larry and Nadia. Kathleen is also trying to help her two new friends, but her own emotions regarding Kyle are overflowing like Coke poured too fast into a glass full of ice.

Larry is trying to learn more about his two new friends, but as the evening progresses he finds emotional barriers and feelings regarding Nadia and his paralysis are being lowered.

Sweet Nadia tries to focus on Larry and their new friends, but she's repeatedly distracted by the sights, sounds, and smells which surround her.

Near the end of the meal Kyle and Kathleen move the conversation to the problems that caused the afternoon's outburst in the Study Hall, and, with KK's encouragement, Nadia expresses her feelings.

"It's true,"Nadia confesses, "I've committed my life to help take care of my hero; the man who took a bullet to set me free. The problem is my feelings have deepened, and I'm definitely falling in love with him. Honestly, I don't care if he ever walks again or gives me children. All I want to do is be by his side and be the best wife and mate I can. Though I would love to have children, in my mind, caring for Larry is far more important than caring for a baby."

Larry responds, "I hear what Nadia's saying, but I can't see how she'll be happy over the long term with someone who's less than a man. Because of that, I can't get past the idea that the only reason she wants to stay with me is pity or from a perverted sense of guilt. The idea she can truly love me as I am is beyond my comprehension."

Kathleen responds, "Then my suggestion is: the two of you table any discussion of a long term romantic relationship for a while and see how things progress naturally. At the same time, if either of you need a sympathetic shoulder or ear, please call us."

Kyle silently agrees with KK's suggestion. From one perspective he hurts for both Larry and Nadia, but he also knows he and KK have planted seeds of hope and a future. Now the seeds need time to sprout before they receive much water or fertilizer. In fact, he's certain if he and KK try to push the point any further tonight everything they've done to help this couple could become unraveled.

Thus Kyle changes the direction of the conversation, by asking, "So Nadia, what did you think of the meal?"

"Honestly, I'm most pleased and actually surprised by the food. I've eaten at some of the finest restaurants in Russia, Europe, New York, and the Middle East, and by their standards this meal is considered too simple and plain. In fact, many of those sophisticated people would describe this meal as a throwback to the days of the caveman burning his food over a fire outside the mouth of his cave. If that's the case, after tonight I suspect man has not evolved as far from those times as these people would like to think. The meal was a delight to both my sense of smell and my sense of taste."

Pleased with Nadia's comments Kyle actually enjoys paying the bill, and makes sure he leaves a good tip. He mentally notes the waitress' name because she was attentive while giving the couples space for quiet conversation. He plans to make a short note in his PDA to talk to KK about the young woman. She could be an excellent addition to their sports bar.

In the parking lot Kyle and Kathleen walk with Larry and Nadia to a specially prepared handicapped van. After their guests drive away Kyle and KK walk hand in hand back to his car and drive back to Kathleen's house. Once they arrive the two sit in the driveway and kiss for several minutes before he walks her to her front door. They share one more of those deep, curl-your-toes kisses and then a blurry-eyed Kyle drives the two blocks to his grandfather's home. A few minutes later he's asleep in his bed.

When his alarm goes off the next morning Kyle is surprised to smell food being prepared. He stumbles into the kitchen still in his t-shirt and sweatpants, and finds his grandfather putting a plate at his place. The plate contains a thick ham steak, a Spanish omelet, and home fries. A cup of light tan coffee sits next to his plate. Looking close, he sees fresh cinnamon floating on the surface. Kyle sits at his place and Jonas joins him with a similar plate.

"To what do I owe this honor?"asks Kyle. "I don't think you've fixed my breakfast since before I was sixteen."

"I know you're facing a long, physical day, so I want to help it get off on the right track."

Taking a bite of the omelet Kyle savors the delicate flavor of the homemade salsa mixed with and on top of the fluffy egg concoction. It's truly a delightful way to start the morning.

"Well, it's sure appreciated."

Jonas asks, "By the way, how did things go last night?"

"Thanks to you I may have found my life mate. Did you know she's never had a date; she's been waiting for me?"

"Yes, I did. Her mother told me, awhile back."

Though they talk as they eat, Kyle mentally considers what he's learned in the past few hours concerning his lifelong friend. He's very disturbed he's been oblivious to the whole thing and wonders how he missed it all. When he finishes eating Kyle walks around the table to be at his grandfather's side.

Jonas stands and gives his grandson a hug, and says, "Kyle, I'll miss you today. Be careful, know I love you, and I'm very proud of you."

"I love you too, Jonas."

With that Kyle heads out the door. Ten minutes later he pulls up to the loading ramp at the back of CyberFun, where he finds Brain sitting in his car waiting for Kyle to arrive.

Kyle exits the Cherokee Sport and walks over to his friend's Blazer. Brain rolls down the window, blasting Kyle's ears with a country and western tune and asks, "Hey, what happened with my sister last night?"

"I kissed her, why?"

"She floated through the front door like she was on a cloud or something. I'd even borrowed something from her room, but she just shrugged it off. It was radically weird. Do you think she's got some disease or something?"

Kyle laughs, "I think it's the or something. Now let's get these trailers attached to our vehicles and check to make sure we haven't forgotten anything. We've got guests meeting us here in a few minutes."

"Guests! What guests? We don't need no stinking guests."

Kyle laughs, and suddenly has an even funnier thought. "Brain, that Cheech and Chong line has become a part of our culture."

"Oh, it's more ingrained than you know. It was originally said by Humphrey Bogart in a nineteen forty-eight movie."

"Are you serious?"

A female voice behind them adds, "He's partially right, Kyle. The line does come from the movie The Treasure of Sierra Madre, but it was spoken by Alfonse Bedoya, not Bogie. It was also used in other movies like Blazing Saddles. Cheech and Chong may have used it in comedy routines, but it was never actually in one of their movies."

Kyle turns, and sees Dr Haywood is the source of the voice and the information. Her husband, Marc, is standing beside her. They're both dressed in desert camouflage BDUs (Battle Dress Uniforms). What really surprises Kyle is while he knows Marc is a captain, Dr Haywood is wearing the oak leaves of a major. Kyle introduces the couple to Ryan, mentioning his nickname is Brain.

Dr Haywood remarks, "Now the name begins to make more sense."

Kyle queries, "What name?"

She grins, saying, "The limited liability partnership that owns this corporation: Warrior, Pinky and the Brain LLP. It almost sounds like someone who wants to take over the world."

Kyle laughs at her reference to the cartoon series Pinky and the Brain, finding another interesting aspect of this complex woman who seems to want to be a friend. He can't imagine why she's even interested in CyberFun's ownership, but his biggest surprise is she's penetrated their corporate veil of secrecy. After a long moment of silence, Kyle answers, "I won't confirm or deny that fact, but why the interest?"

"Kyle, a lot of what Marc does is top secret. When we get invitations for something like this we want to know who's really involved and if there's any ulterior motive. I've done some research on you since you first extended the invitation, and I'm quite impressed with what I've found. The one thing I was concerned about was the ownership of the corporation. Someone went to great lengths to hide the real owners, and that raised a red flag."

"My grandfather had his attorney set up the corporate structure that way to keep my family from learning I was anything more than an hourly employee. I never thought about it causing others a problem."

"With that clue I don't think it's now a problem, and that makes me happy. Marc and I are both excited about being a part of your new venture. In fact, Marc has an entire group that'll be taking part."

"That's great, because we need at least twenty players to break even on this project. I wasn't sure we'd get that many."

Marc replies, "Some of my people have been challenging others. I won't be surprised if more than a hundred show up."

Ryan looks frightened, when he says, "I hope not! We don't have the resources for that many people."

Kyle calmly responds, "Ryan, calm down. If it happens, we'll figure out a way to handle it."

Marc smiles at Kyle's calm, assured demeanor, and asks, "How can we help?"

The four of them discuss their different options, and determine a course of action. Kyle calls KK and one of his part time people, asking them to come in early to help. Barbara, as Dr or Major Haywood wants to be called when away from the library, offers to help KK in the kitchen preparing more sandwiches and other snacks for sale. The part-time girl Kyle called fills two more ice chests with soft drinks and juice and three additional large thermos jugs with coffee. While the women are working inside Marc helps Ryan make sure all the paint-guns, masks, and supplies are securely loaded in the larger trailer while Kyle drives to his supplier and buys additional paint-guns, assorted ammunition, goggles, air bottles and other related supplies.

Everything is finished by 08:25 and, while they're a little late, they're much better prepared for the revised projected turnout for the event.

Kyle thanks everyone and slips the part-timer a twenty as a bonus. He gives Kathleen a kiss that causes Ryan to do a double take and stare. After that KK returns home and the Haywoods follow the two cars with trailers out to the battle site.

Chapter 2 »