All in all, it was anything but a pleasant place. While coastal India may be known for palm trees and lavish farmland, Northern Uzbekistan was about as far as it was possible to get from "paradise". While the village may have had enough pipeline to keep it from turning into a dry husk, only a few feet beyond its last road the Desert of Red Sand began in full force. Kyzyl Kum was a place so waterless that the term "dry" could no longer even apply to it. The few gangly shrubs that did manage to worm their way up through the endless miles of sand were haggard, and the small clumps would suddenly give way to another massive, rolling dune. During the day, the sun beat down upon the pale sand, and the heat rose in waves, distorting the air and turning the world into some sort of phantasm. During the night, without anything to hold the heat in, the temperature would plummet, and the little animals would burrow their way into the sand to try and collect the last dregs of heat. The heat was now at its greatest, and the few locals who managed to scratch out a living in this desiccated land had wisely retreated from the heat. In some ways, this was ideal for the Navy SEAL team that rolled its way in a little after midday. With fewer people in the streets, the chance of getting spotted before closing in on the target was greatly reduced. But this also meant bearing the full heat of the sun, and while the bulletproof camouflage suits may have been as pale as the desert sand, it didn't keep the heat from building up. But they bore it with the stoic, nervous sort of tension typical of any big mission. And this was the biggest they had received yet. When the revolution began in India five years ago, the leaders of both political parties had scattered to the winds. Had the revolution only mattered to the Indians, it might have been settled quickly. The lowest Caste system members could rebel all they pleased, but if they could not get food and shelter their revolution would quickly die out. Had the first election been between democracy and something other than a Communist party, the US may have not deemed it necessary to tamper with the election, despite the massive support the party received from the working class. Had the information not gotten out, those same people might have waited for the next election, believing that enough effort on their parts might change things. And, perhaps, if Russia had not quietly lent its complete support to the Communist party, their leaders would never have dared ignore the peace talks after the information came out. But the past was not a place of "what ifs". It was a Communist party, America did tamper with the election to ensure a Democratic win, and the working class of India did find out. Russia was infinitely eager to have both the first and second most populous countries in the world as Communist states, and the US would do anything to make sure that did not happen, even if it meant resorting to assassination. And so the full on war began with the final goal on both sides being to kill the leaders of the other side. Then the resistance would crumble away. That was why the SEAL team worked its way slowly past the buildings, exchanging a quiet, nervous word and sharing a brief laugh to relieve some of that indefinable pressure of responsibility. They were looking for one of the Communist leaders, no one as important as the running "President" or "Vice-President" but someone who, with the right prompting, could reveal a location that might get the US teams one step closer. Of course, there was also the matter that the US had to quietly protect its interests in the Indian Democracy in such a way that the Russian and Communist teams would not find out. And both sides did their absolute best to do these assassinations quietly. No one wanted another Cold War. And so, even though the whole world knew that America and Russia were only a step away from war, no one said a word, as though it would break some sort of unconscious treaty that kept the bombs at bay. The village had not been a particularly attractive place. The walls were made from the same sand that surrounded the village, and it caused the buildings to almost look like dunes of their own. The streets were continually dusty, and they funneled the heat like a sauna. But now that they were through it there was no time for complaint, no time for anything but one last small joke, one last attempt to pretend that this was nothing more than normal, one last moment to remember that they were doing this for the greater good, and they must succeed. And so they wiped a couple of drops from their foreheads, and then received the order to move forward. From the rooftops, one man had watched the procession pass through the village with silence written on his face. A small, wry grin spread across his face as he watched the team move slowly forward. His clothes were loose but neat, the kind of lazy professionalism that only came naturally to those who had been under observation their whole life. His white-blonde hair was shaggy but neatly styled with small curls coming down to frame his ice blue eyes. Despite the bright, fierce sun, not a single drop of sweat beaded on his fair skin. The grains of sand that flung themselves fearlessly into the wind and raced each other along the rooftops did not nestle into the folds of his light blue collared shirt and his grey slacks. In fact, they did not touch him at all as they skidded straight through his outstretched hand. At the moment, he called himself Connor, for it was the name that Italy Hershal had given him. This was after she had finally convinced herself that this apparent figment of her imagination was not a sign of impending madness, but rather a man in his own right even if he was only visible to her. He had refused to give her a name, and so eventually she had been forced to pick one. Connor. The name she had always meant to give to the pet dog she never had. In some ways, it was an appropriate name. For, like a dog, Connor stood up and began to jog after Italy as she drifted from his line of vision., His bare feet sunk half an inch into the rooftop that would not hold him, and he cared too little to rectify the lapse. No one was watching after all. When they reached the edge of the little community, he jogged out through the open air as fluidly as he had across the rooftops. He was making for a run-down building with heavily boarded windows. It was a dilapidated old thing, and had been made to look as though it had been uninhabited for years. That was, after all, the point. That was the point of coming to hide in such a godforsaken little place, where the only ones to keep you company were locals who had so faded from the rest of society that they only knew the things that were of direct relevance to their own survival. No one was supposed to be able to find them, and to keep their own necks safe even politicians who had grown used to the comforts of civilization over the course of a pampered life would retreat to the most menial of existences. After five years, though, it was only human to become a little lax. They had gone into politics for the money and fame, most likely, and while they may truly believe in the creeds they professed, there were things that were more important in life. Pleasure and entertainment, if they could not be found wherever the men were, would have to be brought in. A satellite TV, however carefully smuggled in, stood out in a landscape where most residents didn't even have a mobile phone. And who wouldn't want to grant these men a few of their small wishes? They had, after all, sacrificed five years of their life for this greater good. As he grew close to the building, Connor slowed and dropped a little bit from the sky. He came to rest in front of a wooden door and paused, stretching out his fingers slightly. This time his fingers didn't pass through the door, but rather settled on the cracked grey wood with the merest whisper of contact. It was like the echo of a dream, something too impossible to truly be understood, but put into context of something to processed upon re-awakening. Italy’s world was like that for Connor, only an echo of sight, sound, and sensation that was too dreamlike to be reality, but far too real to ever be relegated to nothing more than a dream. Sometimes, when Connor slipped back out of Italy’s world and into his physical body, that was the only thing that kept him believing it had really happened. The realness allowed him to know it truly wasn't just a dream, a hallucination created by his desperate mind to give him back some form of influence. His physical reality was four walls, and the inability to control his own destiny. Italy’s world was a dream of power, a dream that proved his own ability to change his own miserable existence, for how could it even be called a life, that he led. And it was far too true to ever be a dream. And as his phantasm fingers touched the door, the door touched him back, and the world passing around him paused. In the mind within his own mind he stepped away from the door, and turned to look around him. In that indefinable way of dreams, he knew he was looking at the world as it had been five years ago. In the end, little looked different from present day. There were only two things that separated Connor’s dream of contact from Italy’s reality where a young Navy SEAL led her mission. The first was that it was night. The moon was high in the sky, but its cat-scratch glow did little to illuminate even these pale red sands. The second was the beat of helicopter blades echoing within his ears. It descended slowly, sending the sand that inevitably piled up in the shelter of crevices scattering away to a new and more peaceful destination. The skids had yet to even touch down when seven men started jumping out. One hesitated briefly, but a firm push on his overlarge buttocks tumbled him out. Only the arms of another man waiting below kept him from falling flat on his face. As the last man in the helicopter jumped off, the barrel of his gun caught a single beam of moonlight and glinting dangerously. He pushed his way through the small milling crowd of solders and the blubbery politician as the helicopter blades sped up and pushed the aircraft away. The man rammed his shoulder into the door, springing it open, and the other men herded their principle into the house. Connor pulled his hand away from the door, and studied his fingertips for a moment, a cursory sort of curiosity in his face. Italy would be pleased because there was no doubt that her target was in the building. But that soldier had the look of a man who had endured many campaigns, and he knew the risk of laxity even if the others did not. It was surprising that he had not yet realized there was a hit-team crawling up towards his door. Connor's eyes suddenly went wide, and he whirled around, taking the shortest path back to Italy. Had he physically been there he would have made it back in time. But he had no such limitations. He appeared in front of Italy only a split second before the bullet hit her forehead. The moment it touched her skin all of its momentum vanished, and it clattered harmlessly onto the stone in front of her feet. At the same instant, Connor's head rocked back, so hard that it seemed his neck should snap. A wash of blood sprayed from his forehead, and he could not help but cave forwards as his knees gave out from underneath him. Away from Italy’s world, back in his physical body, he could feel the scream start, a harsh, keening shriek that would draw the attention of anyone nearby should they care enough to wonder why he was screaming. But they didn't. They had long ago learned to ignore his screams. The pain, the all consuming agony, did not touch his phantasm face. Not while Italy was looking. Dealing with that pain was left to the physical body, it would have to find its own way to cope. He stood slowly, the cavity in his phantasm skull already starting to form back into a proper shape. Only the slightest flicker of darkness deep within his light eyes could attest to his silent suffering, but it was so easy to miss, especially when the only person who could see him would not want to see the pain she caused. "Latimer is in the building," Connor told her, his rich tenor unchanged from its usual sweet lilt. "But his 'security' has spotted you." He paused for a moment, and almost seemed to flicker. "There is a sniper on the roof at about ten-thirty. And he's aiming for Hanks."