“Mean World” TV

Let’s Bring Some Light onto Our Screens and Uplift Our Entertainment

 

“Whoever tells the stories of a culture really governs human behavior.”

—George Gerbner, Former Dean at  the Annenberg School for Communication,  University of Pennsylvania

 

I scroll through Netflix to see that Clickbait is the #1 TV show of the week. The description on Wikipedia says it explores “the ways dangerous and uncontrolled impulses are fueled in the age of social media.” Apparently, one of the characters “is missing, having appeared on a viral video, which contains a chilling message saying that he will die should the video reach 5 million views.” Lovely.

Several other shows in the top ten are about serial murder, suicide, rape, revenge.

 

Dayna is visiting me in Colorado and after an hour of perusing Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, and HBO Max for something to watch that we haven’t yet seen (and which isn’t soul-crushing), we have finished our dinner, eaten dessert, and are on to popcorn.

Ugh. Bummed out and grossed out, I throw the remote across the room. Why is everything so dark, depressing, and dystopian?! Why are stories about the worst possible vision of humanity so compelling and prevalent?

I’m not saying we need to get rid of all our murder mysteries, cop shows, and films about the pathos of being human. But come on. The scales have gotten way out of balance.

 

At the beginning of the pandemic, I was in such dire need of some innocent entertainment that I found myself watching episodes of Father Knows Best (yes, from 1954). Scary to think that insipid sexist storylines set in a world of racial injustice were somewhat soothing compared to most of what is on TV today. I only lasted a few episodes, but such was my level of desperation.

 

Watching Roku TV

Having struck out at finding anything to watch, Dayna and I end up staring at the Roku screensaver. Have you ever watched it? It’s actually pretty good. Speckled among the cityscape of iconic buildings and monuments from great films (the Empire State Building, the Golden Gate Bridge, Seattle’s Space Needle) we discover all kinds of movie Easter eggs—Godzilla, the Emerald City, the Daily Planet, and more. Finding as many as we can becomes our evening’s entertainment. After about thirty minutes of this, Dayna says, “Well, I guess we should call it a night.”

Mean World Syndrome

It doesn’t take much to see the link between the stories we’ve been telling and the world we are experiencing.

“Mean world syndrome,” a term coined by the great media scientist, Professor George Gerbner, is characterized by cynicism, hatred of humanity, and pessimism. It is what happens to people when they watch stories like No Country for Old Men or The Revenant—both Oscar winners for best picture.

How can this preoccupation with violence and darkness be explained? How is it that “story,” which has historically been used as a myth to teach and explore our highest possibilities, got hijacked by negativity? How is it that Hollywood and the publishing industry, the purveyors of story in our culture, have gotten so enamored with one-upping each other on how dark they can be?

 

Wired for Negativity

We seem to be wired for the negative. Our brainstem, or “reptilian brain,” the oldest part of our brains, which evolved millions of years ago, is a fear-producing machine. It is designed to scan the environment for threat to keep us alive amid what were once near-impossible odds.

“The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences,” psychologist Rick Hanson says, “and like Teflon for positive ones.”

 And our sped up, adrenaline-driven modern life, disconnected from the natural world only makes this worse. This explains why the dark, hyperbolic, and tragic keep attracting more and more of our attention.

 

Evolving Beyond the Reptilian Brain

But what if the brain weren’t designed for physical survival? Would we all just sit around all day and do what the ancient yogis and Rishis in India did—meditate under a tree, do some yoga, barely eat, and definitely not have sex and procreate?

These seers did not identify with their bodies. They were awake to the fact that this is all a big dream, that who we really are can never actually be harmed or endangered. If we had all been enlightened from the start, it would have been a failed experiment—a video game not worth playing because the avatars involved in the drama didn’t believe it was even real. Kind of uninteresting if you’re trying to have an experience of yourself, which “God” or “Source” clearly is doing. S/he is like an artist painting feverishly, canvas after canvas. Or a storyteller telling every story imaginable.

For the art, the story to work, it has to be believable, and the forms in the dream have to survive long enough to dream the dream. In order for both of these to happen, the inner eye of true perception has to be veiled by a fog of separation and fear. But what is paradoxical (you always know you’re getting close to truth when you hit upon paradox), is that our survival instinct is the very thing that is threatening our future survival. For the story of humanity to continue, we must evolve beyond the programming that previously kept us alive. We aren’t running from predators or hunting for days on end so that we can eat anymore. But we are still acting like we are. This has to end.

Beyond our reptilian or instinctual brain, we evolved an animal or emotional brain and finally a human or thinking brain. We also have an intuitive or spiritual brain located in the pineal gland and parietal lobe. We need to activate and cultivate it.

The veil of ego—just the belief in separation and a fearful, separate little me—has to be lifted from our consciousness so we can see the truth of our oneness.

We don’t need to all sit around meditating under trees all day, but we must be willing to sacrifice our old ways of being on the altar of a new consciousness. We have to put love, oneness, and “focusing positive,” as the Akarans from our novel Awake say, above all else. Yes, the ego-mind will say it’s too frightening. That reptile in there is not going to go down easy. It will keep telling stories about division and war and brutality. But we must tap into our higher mind—the intuitive, spiritual mind. The mind, which has access to what Akarans call “the Wisdom”—the love and intelligence that makes up the very fabric of the Universe. We can choose to start listening to this mind. To replace the old stories of fear and hostility with visionary stories and inspiring art that lifts us up as the magnificent beings that we are.

 

Uplifting TV

As Dayna is about to leave the room, I have a revelation! It’s Friday night. TED LASSO IS ON!!!! I jump off the couch and claw around on the floor, trying to find the remote. We turn on Apple TV+ and watch this much-needed breath of fresh air, kindness, and goodness that so many of us are yearning for. No wonder it just made history with its twenty Emmy nominations and seven wins.

A beacon of light, this show reminds us of what is possible. We can turn the tide of dark entertainment towards an uplifting trajectory by telling more stories that reflect our true nature—the beauty, infinite presence, and undivided Love that we all are. Not some Pollyanna version of life but interesting, modern, badass stories. For as George Gerbner said, “whoever tells the stories of a culture really governs human behavior.”

What stories do you want to tell?

 

 

For some inspiring spiritual entertainment, click here to read Awake: The Legacy of Akara.

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Dayna Dunbar and Julia Nadine Padawer

Dayna Dunbar and Julia Nadine Padawer

Julia and Dayna are co-authors of Awake: The Legacy of Akara , a spiritual sci-fi thriller
about the untold story of why the world didn’t end on December 21, 2012, according to
the Mayan prophecy, and how the Earth was saved by extraordinary intervention from
an alien civilization far more evolved than our own.

Design Credits

Cover design by Ruslan Us
Torus art by Anamaria Stefan
Map art by Carlos G. Rios

Please check your inbox for The True Story Behind the Story.

Click below to visit our website to discover the world of Awake and more!

PROLOGUE

On December 21, 2012, the world was supposed to end.

According to Mayan prophecy, the Earth would somehow just cease to exist. The ancient Mayan civilization (2000 BC – AD 950), once located in what are now Guatemala, Mexico, and Belize, is widely recognized for its great accomplishments in hieroglyphics, architecture, mathematics, and astronomy. But it is most renowned for its highly advanced and precise measurement of time. Mayans were obsessed with time, counting it and tracking its passage over great epochs. The accuracy of their calendars is unparalleled by any other ancient civilization on Earth—so much so, in fact, that a number of respected historians believe it is possible that they had assistance from extraterrestrial beings. But all the Mayans’ various calendars—and archaeologists have found many—came to an abrupt end on the same date—December 21, 2012. When the apocalyptic day came and went, the world concluded the prophecy was a myth.

But it was not. It was averted by an extraordinary course of events that began simultaneously on two different planets—Earth, and Akara, home to an awakened civilization far more evolved than our own. In order to protect the individuals involved, this story has been a well-kept secret. Until now.

 

Chapter One

ANOMALY

 

Location: Planet Akara—Pleiades Cluster, 445.7 light-years from Earth

Earth Date: December 19, 2012

 

Mobius clenched and unclenched his long, four-fingered hands. He had to make a choice, and he had to make it fast. If he decided to go to Earth, it would change everything for him, but if he didn’t go, it could change everything for them. For a moment, he wished he had just put the relic back in the ground and covered it over with dirt.

* * *

Six days earlier, before he even knew Earth existed, Mobius stood on the jump platform of a hovercraft as it moved high in the lavender skies of Akara over the final testing site. As the arm display of his energy suit’s control panel counted down, he grew more and more agitated. I’ll never make it, he thought. In an attempt to calm down, he looked out the transparent ribbon that encircled the craft’s hull. His two enormous blue and orange eyes squinted at the Twin Flames, Akara’s binary light source. The sun and dwarf star were caught in a gravitational embrace that made for some radical astronomical phenomena, but today, they seemed only to shine a further light on his deficiency. He was eighteen, but suddenly felt like a child again. Mobius shifted his gaze to Akara’s moons; seven of the eleven hung visible in the day sky, and they brought him a bit of comfort, like sentries watching over him.

Suddenly, the aperture beneath his feet flashed open, and he heard his mentor say, “Candidates, make the leap,” as he dropped into the upper atmosphere, free falling toward the ground. The cold geostrophic winds battered him around until he flipped over and dove headfirst, slicing through the air to stabilize his fall. As he hurtled toward the dense, green gas cloud below—a toxic remnant from the Ravaging Era a thousand years before—he tried to quiet his mind. He didn’t want to obsess about his chances of getting admitted into the Discovery Corps, Akara’s renowned space exploration program. From the age of nine, he believed his entelechy, his innate creative potential and purpose, was to become a flier with the DC. It was the only thing he ever really wanted to do and the one thing he was certain could never happen. But now he was on the verge of the impossible. If only he could pass the final test today.

As he plummeted downward, he felt a slight surge in his head followed by a mild cool sensation throughout his body, alerting him that a thologram with the mission details had just uploaded to his neurolink. He reviewed the instructions on the three-dimensional thought hologram, but the instant he entered the radioactive cloud, the neurolink glitched out. No way, he thought. It’s not enough. He knew he’d have limited intel about the mission, but he’d expected more.

For a few moments, the gas cloud obscured his view of the ground, but then the noxious mist thinned, and he glimpsed the ghostlike outlines of ancient ruins of what was once a thriving community. Just as he cleared the cloud, he activated the anti-gravity landing sequence on his suit, slowing his acceleration until he could reorient himself feetfirst. Upon touching down, Mobius struggled to find his footing on the arid ground, kicking up a plume of lapis blue dust. Residue of radioactive waste hung thick in the air, and heat from the effects of the greenhouse gasses pressed down on him like defeat. An ominous, phosphorescent glow rose from the ground, reflecting the paltry light that forced its way through the cloud above. Mobius looked around, his eyes adjusting to take in more light by decreasing the proportion of blue and increasing the proportion of orange.

One by one, each of his Supernova Crew members, Nava, Tru, and Barj, landed nearby. Their translucent suits accentuated each of their various skin colors—Tru purple-black, Barj pale yellow, and Nava burnished gold, her tone close in color to Mobius’s own warm bronze.

The crew quickly gathered around Nava, the leader for their last mission together as candidates and the most important one to date.

“Set your timers for forty minutes,” she instructed. “On my mark—three, two, one.”

In unison, they initiated the countdown on their control panels; over the last year at Entelechy Academy, they had become a tightly knit team.

“Remember,” Nava said, “head back to the rendezvous point immediately when the alarm sounds. We have only twenty minutes to get back to the ship before our shields are breached. After sixty-five minutes our exposure will be critical, and at seventy-five, fatal.”

Protocol required her to remind them, but it wasn’t necessary. They all knew the gravity of the mission, which simulated an off-planet scenario with extreme field conditions—a toxic environment, comms down, no scanning tech, and a limited energy supply. It was only a test, but the circumstances were real.

Mobius, Nava, Tru, and Barj began making their way toward the vestiges of the ancient community—gray hulking masses of crumbling structures that emerged from the ground like exhumed corpses. The ruins sat on the rim of a canyon that was one of the planet’s last sources of retainite, Akara’s most precious resource and the only material capable of containing torus energy. Without it, Akara would plunge back into the dark age that reigned before the Rebirthing.

Mobius was fascinated by the rare substance, a liquid-crystal that existed in a liquid state underground and crystallized into a solid above ground as soon as it was exposed to the argon in Akara’s atmosphere. Even though he’d never paid much attention in planetary sciences, he’d learned everything he could about retainite and was heartbroken to find out it had been mined to near depletion during the Ravaging Era for use in technology and weaponry, leaving enormous pockmarks all over the planet. The small amount that remained was buried in the canyon Mobius trudged toward, and he was excited that his current mission was to locate an extraction site. The only problem was that he’d have to do so using nothing more than his intuition.

Supernova’s rapid pace slowed. They were a physically impressive group—their hairless bodies tall, muscular, and fit—but the menacing ruins still presented a steep challenge.

“This place is unnerving,” Nava said. “The energy here is so dark.”

The candidates blinked twice, indicating their agreement.

They continued on in silence, walking through the desolate community that was one of thousands around the planet left over from the Ravaging Era. Mobius could almost feel the souls of the billions who had died during the hundred-year reign of self-inflicted destruction. Environmental disasters, including severe droughts and mini ice ages due to extreme climate fluctuations; worldwide pandemics; contamination of the food and water supply; and out-of-control warfare as a result of overpopulation, dwindling energy supplies, and a radical imbalance in wealth distribution had all brought the Akaran race to the edge of extinction. By the end of the Final War, only a few million individuals had survived. The shock of it hit Mobius harder than ever before, since he could see and feel the effects all around him. He shuddered at what it must have been like when neighbor fought neighbor over the last remaining resources.

Even though the poisoned graveyard Mobius was walking through gave no indication, a series of synchronistic events had pulled the race back from total annihilation. Most of those who endured were the more evolved, conscious members of the species, who became known as the “Wise Ones.” They had joined together in collaboration and cooperation rather than participating in the savagery and competition that had taken hold during the Ravaging. Retreating into the last unadulterated areas called “vital zones,” they created conscious communities across the planet.

It became survival of the wisest.

Mobius climbed a half wall of an ancient building and dropped to the other side, landing in a morass of sludge that came up to his knees. As he slogged along, he couldn’t help but think about what had somehow miraculously emerged from all this ruin; how the concentrated communities of wise beings had sparked a planetary awakening to the true nature of reality and the oneness of all life. That awakening had brought an end to the conflict and the dawn of a new era—the Rebirthing. With it came access to previously unused parts of the brain, a harmonization of brain wave patterns, as well as a profound opening to intuitive, telepathic, and healing faculties. Connection to levels of compassion and awareness far beyond the five senses became known simply as the Wisdom. Within a few generations of the Rebirthing everyone was born with this more highly evolved matrix of consciousness and ability. Everyone but a rare few.

Mobius’s breath came heavily, and the eeriness of this place made him even more anxious. He continued to struggle against the obstacles in his way, but mainly he fought against his handicap. Mobius was one of the rare few. He had been born an Anomaly.

* * *

After trekking for a while longer, Supernova had made their way past most of the ruins yet still couldn’t see the edge of the canyon. “This is taking too long,” Barj said. “I wonder if the sites the other crews were dropped at are as challenging as this one.”

“I hope so. I don’t need anything more going against me,” Mobius said, then checked the display on the inside of his forearm—30:13 to go. He looked at Nava. “This is impossible. What if I don’t get in?”

In the last few years at Entelechy Academy, he had explored many other life paths, including archaeology, holo-design, environmental rehabilitation, and quantum travel. After trying it all, he was more desperate than ever to get into the DC.

Nava put a hand on his arm for the briefest of moments. He became distracted by her touch and her beauty, as he had been many times since they’d met a year ago. And once again, he struggled to keep his feelings for her at bay.

“Mobius, take a breath and get centered.”

He squeezed his eyes shut for a moment, trying to focus on his breathing.

“You’ve made it this far, and Kaia believes in you,” Tru said, referring to their beloved mentor.

“And remember what she told you,” Nava added. “Open your mind and focus positive. You don’t know what’s possible.”

Barj tapped Nava on the arm. “Easy for you to say.”

“No kidding,” Mobius said. Everyone knew that out of all twenty-four candidates, she had the strongest intuitive ability.

The group moved along in silence for a few more minutes until Nava yelled out, “There it is!”

The four of them broke into a run and soon stood on the edge of the canyon, looking down on an expanse of burnt orange and yellow spires that rose like enormous pointed hats out of the flat, dry canyon floor. Some of the formations were smaller with little round balls at the top, but they were all in the same conical shape—larger at the bottom, then tapering up to a point.

“It’s fantastic,” Mobius said, taking in the extreme vertical drop and rugged landscape below.

Tru looked at him like he was crazy. “Fantastic? More like intimidating.”

Mobius felt a thrill of energy run through him at the enormity of the moment. He had the chance to become the first Anomaly—one of only .0002% of the current 500 million population—to make it into the Discovery Corps and become a flier with the space program. Even though, like all Anomalies, he had limited access to the Wisdom, he also had advanced physical abilities. Luckily, Mobius had one of the highest aptitudes in survival and adventuring the DC had ever seen, and only because of it did he have a chance of getting in.

Nava glanced at her control panel. “Okay, let’s move. Twenty-three minutes to go. See you back here at the rendezvous. Make the leap, everyone.”

“Make the leap,” they said back, repeating the phrase taken from the Discovery Corps motto—“From data to information to knowledge to Wisdom—Make the Leap.”

Mobius reached into his pack, pulled out a silver tube, and threw it down like a dagger. Five claws unfurled and burrowed into the ground, then a ring popped out the top. He clamped his rope onto the ring, then onto his suit’s harness, and hurled the rest off the side of the canyon. After backing to the edge of the cliff, he hung suspended for a moment, took a deep breath, then pushed off backwards, sliding down the rope much faster and longer than safety protocols advised. Swinging to the wall, his feet hit the rock face, then he pushed off again; he loved the rush of rappelling. On his backward arc, he looked up and saw his crewmates still far above. His speed and greater athletic ability were his only hope of finding the retainite in time.

As soon as he touched the ground, he unclipped from the harness, left the rope dangling, and pulled out a handheld probe that would confirm the presence of retainite once he located a possible extraction site. The access points to the underground reservoirs of liquid retainite were no bigger than his hand, and he knew his detection would have to be precise. Pushing the thought out of his mind, he bolted in the direction he had been assigned by his thologram.

Moving through a gap in the enormous conical formations that now towered above him, he encountered a slot canyon so narrow that he wasn’t sure he’d be able to squeeze through. The sliver of a canyon receded into the distance with huge, striated rock walls rising at a sharp angle on either side of him. Racing forward, he followed the natural trail of the canyon. At times, the path was so constricted he had to turn sideways, inch through the gap, and scuttle over rocks blocking the way. He moved as fast as he could for a while, then stopped inside a cavernous rock enclosure to check his display. With only a narrow slit of murky sky visible at the top, his eyes adjusted to read the time remaining—15:36.

Anxiety rose in his throat, and he was about to rush out of the cave when something stopped him—a subtle feeling that he should remain still for a moment. Where is the extraction point? he asked inwardly, then waited. But all he heard was his own heaving breath, quickly followed by his doubting mind. He looked around, trying to find any clue that might lead him to the retainite. It can’t be in here, he thought, it’s too narrow. And it’s too near the start. It can’t be this easy. Keep moving.

He sprinted on, bursting out of the slot canyon. The sky opened up above, but he was still in a tight space, surrounded by three huge spires closing in on him. The cone-shaped structures blocked his view completely, and he couldn’t tell which way to go. Without thinking, he shoved the probe into his pack and began working his way up the tallest formation, climbing freestyle without securing a rope. The rock was unstable, and it slipped away in pebbles as he climbed, and he knew he was taking a risk the mentors would question. Finally, he reached the top—8:49 remaining. With his feet stable underneath him, he held on to the pointed apex of the enormous cone with one hand as the other swung free while he looked in every direction. To the south, just beyond the cluster of formations, he could see an open field, and hope spread through him like warm liquid. That has to be where it is. He studied the best way to navigate through the spires to get to the field, then anchored a hook and slid down a rope in a matter of seconds.

Moving easily through the undulating pathway he’d seen from above, he ran ahead and finally reached the open space dotted with dead scrub-brush. As he crossed the broken terrain, he looked at the countdown—only 2:54 to go. It’s not enough time! His heart punished him, not so much from exertion as from fear. He began looking around frantically.

Slow down, Mobius. For a moment he thought he heard Kaia speaking to him telepathically, but it couldn’t be her since she wasn’t allowed to guide him in any way. Besides, he wouldn’t have been able to hear her even if she tried. While she was the only person he was able to pick up any telepathic thoughts from, that was only when he was physically near her and highly focused. He figured that she’d told him to slow down so many times over the past year, her words must just be ringing in his head. Forcing himself to stop, he tried to tune in to his intuition by quieting his mind, closing his eyes, and slowing his breathing like he’d been taught in mindfulness training. He struggled to listen for an answer, to access the Wisdom, but all he could think about was the display relentlessly counting down.

He opened his eyes—1:38 left before the test was over. He could hardly breathe. Desperate, he pulled the retainite probe out of his pack, ran into the field and began plunging it into the canyon floor time and time again—covering as much ground as he could in the seconds remaining—trying to locate the retainite by sheer force of will.

Suddenly, the control panel’s alarm pierced the silence. Time was up.

He had failed.

* * *

Several minutes later Mobius heard Nava call out from behind him, “Mobius! What are you doing?”

He glanced over to see her standing nearby, deep concern on her face.

“It’s got to be here,” he yelled, as he continued to obsessively stab his probe into the ground. “I have to find it!”

Nava rushed to him. “Mobius, we have to go. Even if you find it at this point, it won’t count.”

“No!” he cried.

His control panel sounded, imploring his departure as well. “Suit degradation begins in fifteen minutes. Evacuate the area.”

“I don’t care. It doesn’t matter anymore,” he screamed back at it, then futilely slammed the impenetrable display with his probe before stabbing it into the ground again. This time the probe clanked on something hard.

He dropped to his knees and began digging furiously. “What is that?”

“I don’t know, but it’s not an extraction site. Let’s go,” Nava begged.

“It may be retainite that made it all the way to the surface and crystallized.”

“That’s incredibly rare!”

He continued to dig and uncovered not crystal, but metal—a silver cylinder encrusted with centuries of dirt and grime.

“Mobius, we have to get back to the drop-off. You’re putting us both in serious danger!”

“It’s okay. We’ll just take off from here. But where are Tru and Barj?” he asked, suddenly aware of his crew.

“I sent them back to the hovercraft when you weren’t at the rendezvous. They’re fine, but we’re not. We don’t have enough power to clear the gas cloud from down here.”

At these words, he snapped out of his rage and stared wide-eyed at Nava for a split second, then yanked the relic out of the ground, and they began to run.

 

Chapter Two

ENDANGERED

 

Location: Planet Earth—Guatemala, Maya Biosphere Reserve, 75 miles south of Mexico

Date: December 9, 2012

 

The drug gang cowboys no longer wore bandanas over their faces when they confronted Diego Villela. The jungle ranger tightened his hands into fists as he stared at the four barefaced men who had suddenly erupted out of the jungle and stopped his Jeep.

“What do you have for us, college boy?” Pedro, an oily-skinned narco who usually did all the talking, asked in Spanish as he slung his AK over his shoulder.

Diego had to tell them something. If he didn’t, they would take him down, but if he did, it would endanger everything he’d sworn to uphold. Once again, he wished he had handed the drug lord back his blood money and kept his eyes to the ground.

The criminales had first ambushed Diego eight months ago on the side of a remote, rutted-out road just after he’d started working for the paramilitary ranger patrol in the lawless jungle of Guatemala. His job was to help protect the Maya Biosphere Reserve—8,000 square miles of rainforest and one of the most threatened and important habitats in the world. After running off a group of illegal pet traders trying to capture scarlet macaws, he had emerged from the jungle to find the narcos waiting for him, lined up in front of his vehicle with their faces covered and armed like terrorists. Now that Diego was on the take, they no longer bothered to conceal their identities, but he wished they still wore the damn rags, because Pedro, a rawboned pendejo, had a mug like a ghoulish Mexican mask out of Día de los Muertos.

“You’d better start talking, Diego,” Pedro barked while the jungle ranger stood silent, trying to figure out what to say.

“I’ve been working on it,” Diego finally replied, his words laced with bile. The diablos own me now. The insidious thought came to him before he could push it down, and he gritted his teeth against it. He’d believed that allying with their money, power, and the narco culture that was worshipped by the poor, powerless young guys he grew up with in the barrio—the ones who kicked his ass on a regular basis—would prove that he was not the asthmatic, scared little kid he used to be. At twenty-four, he had grown to be 5’10″ (taller than any of the outlaws in front of him), made his body fit and strong, and gotten a fierce jaguar tattoo that took up the length of his right forearm. Despite all this—even standing there in his fatigues, armed with an assault rifle and empowered with paramilitary authority—he still couldn’t shake the feeling of self-doubt and weakness.

“The boss is counting on you, cabrón,” Pedro said. “You’ve got to give me more than that.”

Diego’s stomach turned to molten lava at the mention of the boss. All he’d seen of the notorious drug lord, Manuel Menendez, was his feral black eyes above the mask he’d worn when he’d offered Diego more money than his parents had ever imagined and a chance to prove he was turning out to be impressive after all, unlike his father. “Uh, I’m telling you, there’s no real news … They’re talking about some kind of crackdown from the Policia Nacional Civil, but nothing is certain yet. Their biggest concern right now is stopping the slash and burn deforestation and illegal logging.”

Pedro raised his eyebrows and whistled under his breath, and the other men exchanged glances, all of them wearing the typical narco uniform of cowboy boots and jeans. The news was a big deal—the slash and burn areas, where outlaws like these had cut out huge swaths of rain forest, were important for drug running. The narcos used them to land their planes to drop off and pick up cocaine and heroin on their way to Mexico and the United States. They also used the clear-cut areas to create cattle ranches as fronts for laundering their money, as well as money for Salvadoran and Chinese gangs who illegally logged the timber to sell in China.

“Who is the leader of the police for the crackdown?” Pedro asked. Diego knew this meant, “Who do we need to threaten or pay off this time?”

As the ravenous December sunshine beat down on him, he wiped the sweat off his face with his sleeve. “I don’t know. They haven’t mentioned any names.”

“When is it happening?” Pedro pressed, raising his voice above the howler monkeys that bellowed in the trees.

“I don’t know that either. They keep changing the date because of all the tourists coming for the end of the Mayan calendar.”

Suddenly, a short, stocky guy with a missing ear was in Diego’s face, his AK rifle pressed up under Diego’s chin. “It’s your job to know.”

Diego tried to stand his ground, but he stepped back, his heart thundering. “If I pry, my uncle will suspect me,” he stammered, suddenly picturing the distinguished Domingo Hernandez, who was head of the jungle patrol, scowling at him from under imposing eyebrows. “He isn’t like me. He’s on a mission.”

“Don’t worry, Rafael,” Pedro said. “Diego will do his job. His job now is to get his uncle to tell him who is in charge of this police crackdown and when it is happening. If he does what he’s told, he keeps getting paid more money than he thought he’d see in his whole, stupid little life. And if he doesn’t … he will suffer very badly. So you see? It’s easy for him.”

Diego gripped his rifle tighter, for a moment fantasizing about how he could get himself out of this mess. “Give me a week. I’ll have more for you.”

Rafael backed off but glared at Diego with disgust. Moments later, the men melted back into the jungle and were gone. Diego drove away as fast as possible on the rugged road, fear pulsing through him like thick blood. He had given them some information but had concealed the fact that the police offensive was set to begin sometime in the next two weeks. Stalling allowed him the temporary illusion that he was thwarting the criminales. But he knew if he didn’t warn them before the strike happened, they would kill him for sure.

 

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