A Tunnel in the Sky

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The 'Sky' Series
by Weston Ochse

Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted September 27, 2018
Edits and Addendum on November 16, 2019

Burning Sky / Dead Sky

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As far as I know, neither the author or publisher have given this duology a collective title, and the only place I've seen that has is fantasticfiction.com, which calls it simply the 'Sky' series. I expected Burning Sky to have a science fiction or horror element, but was surprised it was more mystical/supernatural. However, verification of that element didn't appear until approximately halfway through the book. Until then, there were a few puzzling clues that indicated something strange was going on, but I suspected it would be more like lost memory, possibly hypnotic control. It was actually both, but not in the way I was thinking.

It starts on a dusty plain in Afghanistan, where a TST (Tactical Support Team) is escorting an officer to a meeting. Bryan Starling, call sign Boy Scout, leads the TST. He wonders why they are so far from any military installation, and why they didn't come by chopper instead of a ten hour trek in Land Rovers. Another vehicle approaches their position, the general confirms it is whom he is meeting, and he walks to the rendezvous. Then a flying object approaches, which they initially think is a missle, but that notion is dispelled when it stops dead mid-air. The other SUV opens fire, but is destroyed by a blast from the mysterious object, which then turns and targets the TST convoy. Starling thinks the craft is shaped somewhat like a medieval knight's shield, but it's hard to tell since it is surrounded by a shimmering aura. What is it, an experimental weapon? If so, what is its origin? It is certainly beyond the capablility of the Taliban, Al Qaeda, or any other force they've encountered. They respond with RPGs and automatic rifle fire, but the scene ends without a resolution to the confrontation.

Flash forward to Starling back in the States. He wakes on the floor, in a pool of his own vomit, surrounded by empty pizza boxes, beer and liquor bottles, with a cockroach chewing on his eyelashes. He has gained a lot of weight, and has apparently been on a long alcohol/drug binge. His stupor is interrupted by a phone call, and after a curt exchange he realizes the caller is Larrson, who has another assignment for him. Who is Larrson? Is he a former comrade-in-arms? All of the other TST members had been identifed by name and call sign, although the general was only referred to as Alpha. Why does Larrson want Starling to go to an address in Koreatown, and why does he assume Starling will know what to do when he gets there? Why does the woman at that address, Joon Park, say Starling has been there before, multiple times, when Starling has no memory of it? He asks what has happened those other times. She says sometimes he has beaten her, sometimes kicked her when she was on the floor, and at least once she thinks he killed her. ?!?

Is Starling in some type of simulation, or a drug-induced reverie? Joon is able to convince him that what Larrson wants is to take her son, a quadriplegic, and return him to his father. I won't tell you the reason the father would want to take on that responsibility, just that it is reason enough for Starling to decide that he will do the right thing. He won't hurt her this time, he will help her. He knows if he doesn't make the rendezvous Larrson will send others to get the boy, and likely kill him and Joon. He enlists the aid of McQueen, one of his former team, now a bouncer at a gay bar in LA. After several confrontations/escapes from Larrson's henchmen, they realize the situation warrants hooking up with other former comrades. They find that Laurie May (aka Lore, call sign Preacher's Daughter) has been having some weird experiences of her own. Do they relate in any way to what has been happening to Starling? They are able to rescue Dakota Jimmison (aka Dak, call sign Narco) from an Arizona prison work detail. When they realize they have all been having the same recurring dream, they think it has something to do with what happened in Afghanistan. They are all wanted now, so it takes Narco's contacts and inside maneuverings from Oscar James (Oz, call sign Criminal) to get them forged papers and transport. Criminal has a cushy job on a base in Doha, Qatar, which he doesn't want to leave, but someone else draws up papers that transfers him to Boy Scout's team. No one has seen or heard from Sara Chavez (call sign Bully), but they don't think they have time to track her down, so they're off to Afghanistan.

Not even to the midway point. I have to refrain from revealing too much, but I feel I must talk about certain things, even if it scares off potential readers. Boy Scout and his team do find Bully again. They do discover the reason for the shared dream. They realize what has been happening to them is a simulation, or more accurately, a fugue state. In some ways it reminded me of Christopher Nolan's Inception, a potentially never-ending dream within a dream. Elon Musk is not the first person to speculate that we are all in a simulation. I'm left pondering if everything in the book is part of a simulation, including the opening and closing scenes. Ochse has written other works of straight military fiction, some non-fiction, as well as horror. The previous trilogy that began with Grunt Life was a standard science fictional one, a military campaign against an alien invasion. Things are quite different here, depicting a foe on a transcendant spiritual plane, and that's where he might lose the interest of some readers. If so, that would be a shame. Ochse is a soldier himself, in fact recently returned from another deployment in Afghanistan. He knows the soldier's life, the weaponry and tactics. I know most of his work will be especially relevant to other soldiers, but this work transcends that, reaching toward more esoteric heights. The old saying is "there are no atheists in foxholes." Surely being perpetually confronted with the prospect of imminent death has resulted in many soldiers' spiritual musings. Here those musings are related to Middle Eastern concepts and beliefs, which were concurrent with, or pre-dated, possibly even influenced Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

This is highly recommended. I'm willing to follow wherever Ochse leads, and I need to track down some of his earlier work. Yesterday I rated this 5 stars at Amazon and Goodreads, and also mentioned that the author might be surprised about other books I thought of while reading. One of them was still very much fresh in my mind, since I had read Joe Haldeman's Hugo and Nebula winner Forever Peace for the first time last week. What I'm referencing is only the part about the Jupiter Project and the speculation as to what might happen if it was completed. Another book I thought of is Olaf Stapledon's Star Maker, still one of the best books I've ever read. It is all about the vastness of the cosmos, the wide range of species that dwell on various planets of the far-flung galaxies, and the possible discovery of the ultimate creator of it all. I've typed several other sentences, edited them, then decided to delete them as too spoilery. I'll leave it as an exercise for other readers to figure out why those books came to mind. Is there an ultimate beginning point to the universe, or an ultimate end point, or is it a perpetual motion machine, destined to repeat forever? Is everything Boy Scout experiences part of the fugue? Will he ever escape it? I don't know yet, but I'm anxious to find out. If you're not into such musings, if you only want military action (there is plenty of that here) this might not be the book for you. If you're game for things beyond the material world, even as a mere thought experiment, there is much here to satisfy. It has prompted me to do more research into Zoroastrianism and other spiritual disciplines, which I hope to do before the announced sequel, Dead Sky, is released.

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I re-read the last three chapters of the previous book, although I was wishing I had the time for a complete re-read, because I was initially confused at the beginning of Dead Sky. I did recall that Boy Scout had acquired a traveling spirit due to his excursions into The White (the Sefid), a dimensional plane he entered while in fugue state induced by Sufi dervishes. I didn't realize there were four different spirits, or possibly more. His dreams are full of their earthly experiences, but later Boy Scout learns at least one of them can control his actions when he is awake, so there are frequent occurrences of lost time. He continually questions if anything is real, or whether he's still stuck in that cave in Afghanistan. I had intended to do more research on Zoroastrianism, and did peruse a few wikipedia entries, but also searched for several terms while reading; sefid, daeva, yazata, dervish, as well as the 13th Century Persian poet Rumi. Another search concerned the Our Lady of Atlas monestary in Algeria, where in 1996 several of the Trappist monks had been kidnapped, then murdered, by the Armed Islamic Group (GIA). Surviving monks moved to a monastery in Morocco, but Ochse posits a few of them came to America and consecrated the Our Lady of Atlas in Exile in the San Bernadino Mountains.

If Boy Scout can trust his senses and memory, he has resided at the California monastery for several months following his unit's return to the States. It is there he meets Sister Renee de Lydia (born Jessica Fontaine). She is recovering from her experience of demonic possession, and in so doing had perfected a technique for astral projection, which she attempts to teach Boy Scout. At first it is difficult for him, but he eventually masters it beyond anyone's expectations, but it is possible one of his internal spirits might have been responsible for at least part of that. Considering some of the Sufis can also astrally project, it is surprising Boy Scout had any time at all to recover before he was found at the monastery, but with the help of his two remaining comrades, McQueen and Lore (call sign Preacher's Daughter), he is able to defend against the Sufi attack and escape. McQueen and Preacher's Daughter are completely loyal to Boy Scout, even during several instances of his lost time escapades, during which he poses a danger to them and himself. At times they ally with "Lieutenant" Poe (Boy Scout is sure he's at least a full Colonel), from a super-secret black ops organization called Special Unit 77. At other times they are not sure Poe can be trusted, since they can't figure out his agenda, and they only have his word, and they only ever meet one other of his operatives. But Boy Scout and his team are used to acting alone against strong odds, so on several occasions they ditch Poe and go their own way.

There is a standard writing tip of "Show, Don't Tell." Most writers know that's bullshit, that both are necessary at different times to propel the plot. However, one criticism I have about this book is Ochse went too far in the "Tell" department. In multiple instances characters repeated dialog and exposition almost verbatim. He should have relied on the reader figuring some things out on their own, even if it meant a detour to google something. Other than that, this is an exciting and thought-provoking book. The astral projection scenes reinforced my thoughts about Stapledon's Star Maker, although the spirits and "dieties" Boy Scout encounters are totally different. Along with the speculation about Zoroastrianism there is also a comparison of that to Bible verses, how the former might have influenced the latter. But religion is not the only reference. Even when deployed in a combat zone, soldiers experience a lot of downtime, and some take advantage of that to read, and/or binge watch television. Boy Scout makes several points in the context of various pop culture fare, from comics to books, TV to movies. Both Boy Scout and McQueen are huge fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and there are also mentions of things as wide-ranging as The X-Files, The Matrix, The Illustrated Man (the movie rather than Bradbury's stories), all the way to Heathers and John Wayne westerns. And speaking of movies, I'd love to see this adapted for the screen, if for no other reason than to see who they cast as Charlene. No, I'm giving no hints about her. Both of these books are highly recommended, and I look forward to future stories from Weston, including if Preacher's Daughter does join Special Unit 77.

 

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Author
Weston Ochse

Published
2018-19

Amazon Links:
Burning Sky
Dead Sky

Purchases through our links may earn us a commission.