Chapter One: Like No Other Wake-Up Call!
With perfect clarity of mind, Matt knew he was dead. What he couldn’t figure out, however, was why he was stretched out in a hammock, swinging between two giant Ponderosa Pines. He wasn’t sleepy, but he did feel a deep sense of peace and relaxation covering his body like a warm blanket in winter. It took his mind back to waking up in his Papa and Nana’s cabin during Christmas vacation, and watching the sunlight dance on the log walls, and smelling the amazing aroma of bacon wafting up the stairwell from the first floor. He remembered wanting to stay in that quilt cocoon forever, and just enjoy the warmth and security of home, traditions, and loved ones waiting to shout “Good morning,” and dispense hugs like he’d been off to war instead of eight hours of sleep.
In the shade of the massive pine trees, the air was cool and clean, and his brain shouted, “You’re not in Chicago anymore!” He pivoted his body into a sitting position and looked at emerald green meadows angling down in all directions until disappearing under the cover of the huge pine limbs above him. He could hear voices off in the distance shouting and laughing, like the sound of a sporting event over the next rise.
Off to his right, he saw someone walking in his direction. Even from a hundred yards away, he could see it was an older person. Of course, being fifteen, everyone over thirty looked old to Matt. This man looked to be the age of his parents – late forties, early fifties, with longish gray-speckled black hair, and a matching full beard. Not a Duck Dynasty beard, but a full and neatly trimmed beard. He wore a plaid shirt with blue jeans and work boots. He reminded Matt of a lumberjack, but without the brawn and ripped body. As he got closer, Matt was drawn to his friendly smile and his bright brown eyes.
As he came under the shade of the pines, he said, “Hi Matt. How are you feeling?”
“I think I feel fine,” he said, as he patted himself with both hands, as if to feel if something was out of place. “Where am I? Is this heaven?”
The man’s face broke into an even bigger smile, and happy wrinkles creased his eyes and mouth as he chuckled. “Good guess, Matt, but no – that’s not quite where this is.”
“But this is beautiful,” said Matt, “and you know my name?”
“Well, you’re not far off with your guess, but first, let me introduce myself to you.”
Matt jumped from the hammock, and assumed the proper stance to shake hands with and adult.
“Wow” said the man, as he stuck out his hand, “I like your manners. My name is Barnabas, and I am here to officially welcome you. Step over here, and let me show you around.”
He took Matt by the arm, and led him out from under the pine limbs back in the direction from which he’d just walked. It was a sprawling valley, almost a bowl, with patches of pines and blue spruce trees scattered around like little islands of shade, and on the upper side of the valley were some stands of aspens, with their bright white trunks and golden yellow leaves. There were buildings back in the trees in all directions, but there was one large log structure at the top, straight across from where they were standing. It had a center section that was three stories tall, with huge glass windows on the front, and two large wings angling back and disappearing into the trees. Nice gravel paths branched out from the main building, some going over the top of the valley in various directions, and one circling the entire rim. Rolling hills could be seen beyond the valley in all directions. Several people were walking around, and others could be seen sitting together on benches or on the ground at several places around the main structure and back in the woods.
“Matt, this is Camp Omega,” he said as he spread his hands in presentation fashion.
Just as he said that, the loud “thunk” of a bat hitting a ball could be heard from over the rise to their right, and it was followed by some excited yelling and screaming.
“There’s a softball game going on just over that rise. We have a large number of folks who like to play a little softball before dinner each night. It helps them unwind from working or being in classes all day. It took me a while to figure out how to play it, but now that I have some experience, I enjoy playing some days myself.”
“Wait,” said Matt, as he scratched his head, “this is a camp, and you play softball…and…you go to classes all day? So – I really didn’t die and go to heaven did I?”
Barnabas doubled over with laughter. “I never thought of it that way,” he sputtered, “You really make it sound like the opposite of Heaven!” He continued to cackle! “Who wants to die and go back to school?” He slapped Matt on the back and tried to pull himself together.
“I’m sorry, Matt! I didn’t mean to make fun of you. I think I better change my usual approach of trying to ‘ease the new guy’ into what we are doing here.” Putting his arm around Matt’s shoulders, he said, “Walk with me over to the softball game while I explain things to you.” They began walking down the hill, then up the gentle rise toward the sound of the game.
“Matt, you are here because you were chosen to be an agent. We don’t usually recruit agents as young as you, but you have some…unusual qualities, that make you a good prospect for being an agent.”
He looked at Matt’s perplexed face and quickly said, “I know that creates more questions than it answers for you, but just be patient and let it sink in slowly. This is not the world you lived in, but – it’s also not the world you want to go to. Camp Omega is part of an in-between world. You are not as physical as you were, but neither are you as much a spirit as you will be. You are both.”
He stopped then and turned Matt towards him. “Let me show you what I mean.” He reached up and pinched Matt’s cheek between his thumb and forefinger until Matt said, “Ouch!” and moved back a step.
“Sorry, but you clearly felt that, didn’t you? So you are not a spirit or a ghost!”
“Yes, but I’d have gladly just taken your word for it!”
Barnabas snickered and reached out to rub Matt’s cheek briefly.
“Now,” said Barnabas with a serious look on his face, “open up the buttons of your shirt?”
Matt had on a three button pull over, but as he reached up to unbutton it, he froze, looking long and hard at Barnabas. “It’s there, isn’t it,” he said softly. “I haven’t thought about it until just now, but now that I have…I feel it.”
He unbuttoned his shirt, pulled it open and to the left a little. Right over his heart was a jagged round scar, about the size of a dime. He had to tuck his chin to see it, but he could. He gently touched it with his hand and felt the rough surface that felt more like orange-peel than skin.
Barnabas gently put his hands on Matt’s shoulders and said, “That can never happen to you again, Matt. You are enough a part of the spirit realm that you will never die again.”
“But why do I still have a scar? Shouldn’t it be gone too?”
“Your scar is still there to remind you of life. It will go away eventually, but we all come here with some kind of scar. What we have to learn is that the scars of life disappear in service to others. Once you learn how to be an agent, and get busy doing our special work, you will be surprised how quickly that scar will cease to exist – both on your chest and in your mind.”
Matt looked at it, and touched it a few more times, then, he pulled his hand away, and began to button his shirt.
“Okay, so I’m not totally physical or spirit, I’m an…in-betweener of some kind, right?”
“Right,” said Barnabas, “you’re an agent.”
“An agent? An agent of what?”
“Agents are chosen because of two dominant qualities; integrity and courage. You were chosen because you have both, not because you were super good or super religious. You have the kind of character we look for in people who do the work of an agent. They come from all ages, genders, sized, colors, and cultures. Beyond the two dominant qualities I mentioned, the only thing they generally have in common is being average looking.”
“Well, gee, that’s awfully flattering,” said Matt as he feigned being offended. “I thought all agents looked like James Bond.”
Barnabas spun away laughing, “Oh, Matt! I love your sense of humor! Come on, let’s walk over there and watch a little of the game while we talk.”
As they came over the gentle rise, they were looking into another large bowl-like valley with an expansive level area big enough for a softball field. They were still several feet higher than the field giving them a natural bleachers view of the game. The backstop and home plate were to the left, first base was straight in front of them – about forty yards away – and the outfield was to their right. About fifty to sixty people were on the field as spectators and players. It was the most diverse group Matt had ever seen at any sporting event.
Like Barnabas had said, there were all ages, genders, races, and cultures, with every kind of combination of clothing you could imagine. Matt could see shorts, Levi’s, dresses, sweat suits, colorful flowery wraps – like from Hawaii or the South Pacific – some plaids, stripes, and bright solids, topped off with straw hats, ball hats, veils, cowboy hats, and camouflage military caps – and a few coverings that Matt recognized as foreign, but he couldn’t think of what they were called.
He saw only a couple people who appeared to be around his age – one on each team, and then he saw a couple others cheering from the sidelines. Most of the people seemed several years older. Several were young adults, a few more middle aged, but the largest group looked like they should be sitting in lounge chairs on a cruise boat rather than running around a baseball diamond. There were a lot of old folks, he thought to himself, some in their fifties, but many in their sixties and seventies – and some were playing softball!
As they sat down on top of the rise, Barnabas said, “Matt, you were chosen to be an agent, and that is a very select group. Literally, it’s a one in a million thing. You have the capabilities, and we have to be very selective.”
Matt looked at him and asked, “I guess that’s good, but just what does an agent do?”
“Agents fight the forces of evil, and we help mankind fight the forces of evil.”
“Are you talking about The Dark Side, or something like that?”
“Sort of. Evil is a real force that is constantly trying to influence mankind, and – at certain times in the history of the world – it has been very successful. Our battle is on two fronts; in the world, we try to influence people to do good, while we fight the influence of evil everywhere we can, and then, in the spirit realm, we fight the power of evil directly whenever we encounter it. There have been some gigantic battles here in the spirit realm that the world never knew about. Most of the battles right now are small skirmishes and clashes, when we run into them or they ambush us during travels.
“Where we are right now – this realm where Camp Omega exists – is not the physical world or the ultimate spirit world. We call it Yahlandice. To do our job as agents of light, we travel from here to the world, help and influence people to do good, and deal with the bad-guys when we run into them.”
Matt was listening intently, but his head was swimming with questions and wonder. He said, “So how do we fight the – the – Evil dudes? How do we help people do good? Can we do magic or do we have some kind of powers? And what about…”
“Whoa – whoa – whoa, Matt! All that will be explained – in time. Camp Omega is home for right now, but it’s also boot camp for training agents.”
Their talk was interrupted by the crack of a bat on a ball. Matt looked up and watched an elderly lady run at full sprint to first base, and do a belly-dive to reach it just before the ball arrived. Then she stood and dusted off the dirt like it was nothing at all.
“Did you see that?” Matt shouted, “She’s got to be eighty years old, and she ran faster than I can, and then…then…she dove for first base like an MLB player! What in the world!”
“We’re not in the world,” Barnabas said with a chuckle. “And she’s not eighty. She’s only seventy, and that’s what she was when she came here a hundred and fifty something years ago.”
“So how can she run so fast and slide like a twenty year old?”
“What she looks like on the outside is only how she looks. Inside, her heart and lungs – and her muscles, are as healthy as yours. In fact, I’m glad she got your attention. Let me tell you who that is. She is Mildred Waller, and she has been an agent for a long time. You’re a Civil War buff, Matt. She was in the Civil War.”
“What? That little old lady? What was she doing in the Civil War?”
“That’s the time she lived in. She was a grandmother living in Fredericksburg, Virginia in 1862. Just before Christmas of that year, the Union army launched an attack against the Confederate Army of Robert Lee. By the time the Yankee soldiers got across the river on their boats and then a pontoon bridge, Lee’s army was firmly entrenched on the hills outside of Fredericksburg. The Yankee soldiers looted the town and destroyed many of the homes of citizens. Mildred had all her family in her house, on the edge of town, and while it wasn’t destroyed, the soldiers took every scrap of food she had. But she was safe, and her family was safe, so she was thankful.
“The next day the Union army began a frontal assault on Marye’s Heights, where the Confederate army, in strongly fortified positions, ripped them up – line after line – as they attacked up hill. It was nearly a slaughter. Thousands fell, dead and wounded, and General Burnside continued to send company after company into the withering fire.
“When night fell, the attacking stopped, but thousands of Union soldiers were pinned down on the hill, often using the bodies of fellow soldiers to protect them from Confederate snipers. The moans and wailing of the wounded echo out across the river bottom, all the way into the town of Fredericksburg itself.
“Mildred heard it. Even though she was a southerner, the cries for water, for mother, and for blankets, was more than she could take. She snuck out of the house, past the town guards and around the camps of the thousands of soldiers waiting for the next day to charge the Heights, and she came to the field of carnage. With a bucket of water and a tin cup, Mildred crawled on her stomach from soldier to soldier, dispensing only a few sips of cool water to each one. Four times she crawled down the hill and refilled her bucket and went back, each time crawling higher and higher, hearing the thud of sniper bullets hitting bodies around her. Only yards from the Confederate rock wall, a wounded soldier with parched lips looked into her eyes, accepted a drink of cool water, and said “Thank you Mama” before his eyes glazed over in death.
“Mildred cried for the boy – the many boys – both blue and gray, said a little prayer for them all, and rolled over to crawl back down the hill. At that moment, a Confederate sniper saw the movement, shot at the ‘Yankee dog,’ and put a Minie’ ball into the head of one of the most courageous Rebels of the Civil War.
“She was buried in a mass grave, because by the time they cleaned up the field, no one from either side knew who she was or why she was out in that field. It really wasn’t that uncommon to find a family member, who sometimes traveled with the Army, out in the fields with a loved one. Her family never knew what happened to her.
“She has been a great agent for a lot of years. In fact, she has been part of Camp Omega longer than nearly everyone you’re looking at.”
“So,” Matt said as he thought about everything Barnabas was saying, “she looks old on the outside, but inside she’s young and healthy. AND, she’s been doing this since 1862?”
“Oh, well don’t be so impressed with that,” Barnabas said with a snicker, “she’s a kid compared to me! I’ve been doing this for two thousand years!”
“Did you say ‘thousand’?”
“I said ‘thousand’.”
“Get outta here!”
“I can’t! It’s my job!”
“I mean…you gotta be kidding me. Two thousand years?”
“No kidding,” he said with another giggle, “I’ve gone from wearing togas to T-shirts. My hair has been everything from gone – as in shaved off, to pony tail. I’ve been with Roman Legions, Crusaders, Cossacks, Pilgrims, Minutemen, and Rough Riders, just to name a few, and I was part of two of the three spiritual realm battles that effected the course of the world.”
“W-what spiritual realm battles?”
“Sorry, Matt. I got a little carried away. You’ll hear about all that in your training classes. The main thing I want you to understand is that time is different here – almost non-existent – except that we do use it to keep up with what’s going on in the world. Because you are still part physical, you will eat and drink, and – have all the bodily functions that go with that, and you will sleep – to restore your physical body. You don’t need as much sleep as you did in the world, because part of your energy, your power, comes from the spirit, and you will discover something very interesting about sleeping here. You’ll wake up knowing things you didn’t before you went to bed. You will be taught, and learn things, while you sleep.”
“Alright, that’s my kind of school. Learn while you sleep! I had several friends who thought that was how school worked normally.”
They both guffawed for a couple seconds, and watched the game for a while. Matt was excited to see they all seemed to be having so much fun. He wanted to run out there and join in, but instead he looked at Barnabas and said, “So, you are going to train me to be an agent so that I can help fight the evil forces that want to control the world. How do I fight them? When and where will this fighting take place? Do I get to use a weapon of some kind, like a gun or a phaser like on Star Trek?”
“Be patient, Matt. There is no hurry to do anything. Your job right now is to train and learn. We’ve got some incredible trainers in this Camp. Some, like me, have been doing it for millenniums, while others for centuries or decades, but they all know how to prepare you for what you will face. Most of the time, the fight is the fight for influence. We try to influence people to do what is right, but the Dark agents will be right there offering the evil alternative. There are times when we run into them in the world, but that is not where we engage them. The battles with evil agents take place in Yahlandice, and in particular, the travel routes we take as we move around the world. We have to move through Yahlandice to travel from one area of the world to another, which we can do in seconds – as opposed to using worldly transportation. But, you’ll learn all that in classes.”
Matt was deep in thought for a few seconds before he asked, “Just how big is Yahlandice – this, this, in-between realm we are in?”
“Immeasurable. It’s not a place, but a realm, another dimension that’s not limited by anything like the world.”
“You mean it never ends…out there somewhere?” He pointed to horizon.
“That’s right,” said Barnabas. “Let me give you a small idea of what I’m talking about. If you took off jogging over these hills, you would never get to the end. Camp Omega is the newest agent camp, and we are over two thousand years old. There are hundreds of other camps, all home to teams of agents, and it’s impossible to walk from one to another, because they are too far away. Then, there are also hundreds of Evil forces camps – maybe thousands, because no one knows – and I’ve never seen one of them. And when we travel, say transport from New York City to Hong Kong, we instantly enter a travel corridor in Yahlandice, and arrive there in seconds. I flew a plane only once, just to see what it was like, and not only was it boring, it was scary.”
“Wow,” shouted Matt, “you mean we get to instantly transport to anywhere in the world we want to go? Anytime? That’s awesome!”
“Well, there are some restrictions and rules. You can always return to Yahlandice and then go straight to another location on earth, but to go straight there from earth, one of the Senior Agents has to take you.”
“Several reasons, but mostly because it’s too dangerous. In those travel corridors is where we get ambushed by the Evil Forces, so we really don’t want them to know where we are going.”
Matt sat up quickly as a thought came into his head. “Do I get a transporter or something that allows me to say, ‘Beam me up Scottie’?”
Barnabas started to answer, but he quickly looked back at the ball field. “Hold that thought, Matt. Watch this guy.”
Matt noticed a medium built muscular Hispanic looking man come up to bat, and many of the opposing team where yelling jokes at him – even some of the spectators, but he just smiled and waved them off. Matt could tell it was all in fun. Then he noticed that all the outfielders started laying down, using their ball gloves as pillows.
“He nearly always knocks it out of the park,” said Barnabas. “Do you recognize him?”
Matt looked closely at him and thought there was something familiar about him, but he couldn’t put his finger on it. Just then the batter swung and knocked the ball way over the centerfielders head, and it bounced and rolled a long way farther.
As he started jogging around the bases to cheers and friendly jeers, Barnabas said, “That is Roberto Clemente. He was long before your time, but do you remember hearing about him?”
Matt said, “Oh yeah! Isn’t he the guy that an MLB award is named for? Something about… community service or such?”
“That’s right. The Roberto Clemente Award is given to a player with outstanding playing skills, but who is personally involved in community work. Roberto was an incredible baseball player, and his record of achievements, both on and off the field, is the standard by which all other players are measured. He was a good man. He was killed in a plane crash on New Year’s Eve, 1972. He was supervising the delivery of relief to the people of Nicaragua after a terrible earthquake.
“He’s actually a trainer, as well as an agent. Some of the people you see down there are trainers, and we have hundreds of other trainers who come in to teach a short class or training session. So you’ll see a lot of different people coming and going on any given day.”
“How many of those people down there will I be working or training with?”
“You can, and should, meet all of them, but only a few of the trainers will be working with you. You see, every agent is part of an agent team of six to eight agents, but most are eight. We haven’t formed a new team in many years, but that’s changing today. You are part of a new agent team that his being formed, so you’re not the only rookie in camp.”
“Are the rest of the people in my team my age?” Matt looked so hopeful that it caused Barnabas to pause a moment before answering.
“Well, not exactly.”