The path of a pinball through a maze of bumpers is not totally random, it is inexorably attracted by gravity towards pinball oblivion in the return slot of the machine that composes its universe. I was a pinball similarly driven, bounced and bumped through a series of events that seemed to have no meaning. But like the pinball, my fate seemed foreordained - I just had no clue what that fate might be.

"Where in hell are you taking me, Laura," I asked uneasily as we sped along a switchback road, her sleek red Corvette cutting through the Santa Cruz mountains. "And don't you think you should slow down a little?" I white-knuckle gripped a handhold. I'm not much of a risk taker.

"No, I don't think I should slow down," Laura replied tersely.

"And since you want to know where we're going, I'll tell you, if you agree to not ask any more stupid questions until we get there!"

"I don't know, sounds pretty ominous to me. . . ."

"Take your choice."

So I reluctantly nodded my head in agreement.

"We're going to see my Spiritual Master, the Mahdi," Laura continued mysteriously. "We have some things to discuss with him."

My eyes rolled up in my head. My motto was to avoid religious entanglements - religiously.

"What kind of things ?" I asked. "Is this about whether I'm going to hell? And since when do you have a Spiritual Master?" I'd been raised a strict Lutheran, this wouldn't go over well with mom and dad.

"Remember, no stupid questions!" Laura almost scowled, but she was too beautiful to scowl.

There are numerous alternative religious orders and retreats in California, everything from Zen Bhuddist, to Ayun Shinrykio cells, to Shiite apocalyptics left from the anti-Zionist rebellions, to converts to the Aztlan indigenous religion, and even remnants of theist Christian monastics. So I wasn't surprised that Laura would have ties to a religious order. I could understand having a spiritual side, but what intrigued me was Laura's revelation of ties to the Mahdi, the well known leader of an amalgam Islamist/Taliban sect devoted to spreading a new Religion of Peace.

My knowledge of the Mahdi was sketchy at best, derived from a 60 Minutes show about the magnetic California Mahdi that showed up on Internet 83, my favorite obscure news channel. Who says I'm not connected to the real world! I did a Gaggle search on my heads-up visor as we drove.

The Taliban of Afghanistan are traditionalists who only entered the political stream in 1994. They view government and society very differently from the majahedim. They do not see Islam in political terms but in religious terms and seek a return to the purity of the teachings of the Quran and the Sunnah (the practices of the Prophet). They are products of religious madrassas in Pakistan whose roots go back to the Dar-ul-Uloon seminary in Debond, India. The Taliban organize themselves around regional associations rather than political parties.

The term "Mahdi" though has special meaning beyond a name. The Mahdi means "the rightly guided one", is an eschatological Messianic figure who, according to Islamic belief, will appear at the end of times to rid the world of evil and injustice. In Islam, it is said that he will appear alongside Isa (Jesus) and establish the Divine kingdom of Allah.

Historically, the number of modern Mahdi saviors has been legion, all claiming to save the world. Years ago there had been a bumper crop of Mahdis, including the Iranian Ahmadinejad, the Iraqi Moctada al Sadr, the AlQueda figures al Zarqawi and Usama Bin Laden and the Lebanese Nasrallah. Together they created a sort of competitive Mahdi soccer league in the first decade of the 21st century that became a mark of the worldwide jihadi movement. They all claimed rights to the leadership of worldwide salvation from the infidels, but each was eventually usurped by time and fatigue and the occasional bullet to the brainpan.

Laura's teacher, Mahdi Ahmadi, claimed to be very different, leading a schism within the Islamist peace movement. A uniquely American dervish sect with roots in immigrants from the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. They seemed innocuous though, devoted to an Apocalypse of Peace.

I rode in silence, watching the scenery zing past as we climbed the Santa Cruz mountains, interrupted by an occasional Tesla hurtling the opposite direction down the switchback.

"Laura, I didn't know your religious interests involved anything more than contemplation of infinity through the bubbles of a hot tub," I finally blurted out over the rush of wind. "I've heard rumors about the Mahdi's retreat, everyone has, but I'd like to know from you. Who is the Mahdi?"

"The Mahdi refers to the 12th Imam, the prophesied redeemer of Islam, the one who will change the world into a perfect Islamic society alongside the Prophet Jesus before Yaum al-Qiyamah, the End Times." Laura responded, smiling at the opportunity to convert me. "The Mahdi will rise before the day of judgement, institute a kingdom of justice, and will in the last days fight alongside the returned Islamic prophet Jesus against the Dajjal, the Antichrist or false Messiah."

Even I knew about Yaum al-Qiyamah, how could you not know with the Iran-Israel conflict in it's neverending twists sucking the oxygen out of the news for decades. Yaum al-Qiyamah was even the name of a rock band!

"Dervishes is the name given to initiates of Mahdi Ahmadi's order," Laura continued. "We believe that love is a projection of the essence of God to the universe. God desires us to recognize beauty by looking at himself within the dynamics of nature."

"And you are one beautiful piece of nature," I interrupted unhelpfully.

"Divine love is not restricted to just 'love of God'", Laura first glared and then ignored my interruption. "It also includes human love, a perspective that views everything as a manifestation of God. You hold God within you Steven, the entire Earth does as well."

"So, is this what the Mahdi teaches you? What you believe?" I asked. "That we are all connected by love?"

"Yes," Laura replied. "And it is important you understand. Our central doctrine is called Wahdat or Unity, all phenomena are manifestations of a single reality, or Wujud (being), or al-Haq (Truth, God). The essence of being/Truth/God is devoid of every form and quality, and hence unmanifested, yet it is inseparable from every form and phenomenon either material or spiritual."

My brain was frying now trying to comprehend this gibberish, so I tried to change the subject.

"You sound like me talking about fractals. Which are of course intricate self referencing lines that stretch through the complex number plain and. . ." I'd already bored Laura.

"Every phenomenon is an aspect of Truth and at the same time attribution of existence to it is false." Laura broke through my verbal sabotage. "The chief aim is to let go of all notions of duality, to let go of the individual self, and realize the divine unity. The Earth, the environment, racial justice, women's rights: they are all part of the same Truth!"

"So you can become one with the world?" I tried to interpret. "But all the environmental groups have somewhat the same Gaia message. Why do you need a Master?"

"The Mahdi teaches in personal groups, believing the interaction of the master is necessary for the growth of the pupil. " Laura replied. "The Mahdi uses parables, allegory, and metaphor to guide me. He believes meaning can only be reached through a process of seeking the truth, and knowledge of oneself. Without The Mahdi, I wouldn't know where to begin."

"Sounds like brainwashing to me," I pondered out loud, while I imagined what Laura was saying came straight from Wikipedia. "Don't tell me you are about to start dinking the Jonestown Koolaid and go on a jihad of your own?"

"I can't believe you said that!" Laura retorted, genuinely angry at my religious intolerance, and she was right. "This is a direct personal experience, not brainwashing! It is similar to Zen Buddhism or Gnostic mysticism!"

"As long as there are no holy wars involved . . ." I tried to respond.

"But surely, Steven, even you believe there are things worth fighting for?" Laura drilled me. "Don't you have a spiritual core that you would defend at any cost? Or is your heart empty?"

I had to leave her question hanging uneasily. I really wasn't sure if there were things worth fighting for. I know I'd never had to fight very hard for anything before, unless you count recovering from paralysis. But healing myself with the lightsuit was a selfish endeavor, nothing like defending the concept of spiritual peace for all humanity. I just guess I'd never fought for anything outside myself.

Apocalyptic Islamist calls for jihad and the End Times no longer troubled me like they did when I was growing up. The great Crusade that began with the 911 World Trade Center attack now seemed like a nightmare that couldn't fade fast enough. Islamists were now as likely to show up on the page ten news for cultural events like kite flying contests as they were for any radical actions like anti-infidel marches through Dearborn. Now that Sharia law had been established in the Muslim cultural territories, the tensions had faded. In fact their new hobby, making curious campaign expenditures in the multicultural California political milieu, seemed almost too normal. Of course, it wasn't like the Los Angeles Aztlanos and San Francisco Chinese Tongs with their cultural territories didn't also manipulate the voting in our fair state just as insistently.

Some in the right-wing paranoid media claimed The Mahdi was starting another cult farm up in the hills, another Jones Town, or maybe a Heaven's Gate. Others said he was a Kashmiri warlord who'd made himself rich gunrunning for Al Queda in Wajiristan after the Zionist uprisings came to an end. But California is a rumor swamp filled with imaginary alligators; sane people understood the Mahdi was simple trying to be a peaceful neighbor. That was the take of the San Francisco Internet Chronicle anyway.

The one thing I was sure of was that the Mahdi had made friends with a lot of Very Important People: industrialists, politicians, even the rock star Laura Silvan. The Sufi master was a force to be reckoned with in California. Who knows, maybe he could become Governor some day, stranger things have happened.

The little red Corvette finally broke through the trees to the ridge crest of the mountains and to my amazement I found we could see across some high sun blessed meadows clear to the Pacific ten miles away.

It's beautiful," I marveled. "I can see the ocean!"

"That's why The Mahdi built his retreat here," Laura confided. "Without a serene environment, you can hardly expect to have a calm soul, he believes creating a Religion of Peace requires solitude. Except for the White Aryan hell bikers that terrorize the mountain towns, it's been heaven on earth here."

We turned down a dirt road, passed an old cow gate and drove through a stand of pines that climbed a small rise to a meadow and clearing. I couldn't help but notice there were guards posted along the way, rock hewn Afghanis toting MAC-10s who looked like mercenaries left over from the Indian/Kashmir wars. They waved us through when they saw Laura.

"Those gorillas are scary," I remarked offhand, understating my uneasiness by a couple orders of magnitude.

"Ever since the believers at the Sufi retreat in Napa were executed, we've had to have protection," Laura admitted absentmindedly. "And the guards aren't gorillas!"

I squirmed uneasily. Laura referred to the unsolved incident that had occurred a year before when some of the Mahdi's followers in a compound near Napa had been executed for no particular reason - a Zionist hate crime it was called. Seven innocent people, including a twelve year old boy and the two teenage sister wives of the caretaker had been killed. Speculation was it was anti-Islamic racism at its worst.

"Isn't it a bit of a contradiction in terms," I asked, not totally relieved at her explanation. "A religious retreat devoted to furthering the Religion of Peace, with guards carrying guns?"

"You'd be paranoid too if your best friends had been killed by some maniac," Laura replied coldly. "The Mahdi is determined to take another path than violence, please don't confuse him with the jihadists. While the Mahdi supports the idea that we must all submit to Allah, God, he doesn't believe in killing to do it. He comes from the Sufi tradition, not the Wahabi. Not every Muslim wants to be another Osama Bin Laden, I can't believe you would fall for those stereotypes!"

We stopped in front of the main residence, a pleasant looking California-modern building designed to hold a large group of people, as you'd expect of a mosque. I did notice a prayer tower patrolled by a brother carrying an AK, but was that so out of the ordinary in these crazy times? After all, the Aztlanos were carrying real heat down in L.A. as were the Tongs of San Francisco. And let's not even mention the Somalis in New York.

In contrast to the guards, there were perhaps 20 children playing on the front lawn, some white, some Eurasian half-breeds with a Malaysian look, and two beautiful black Asian children.

"Quite a family you have here," I commented.

"These are the children of the Mahdi," Laura explained, stopping for a moment to pat the head of one small girl. "Crystal, go and tell 'The One' a visitor has arrived."

"The Mahdi doesn't seem to have restricted himself to four wives," I commented. "Maybe I should look into this religion a little more," I tried to joke, but it just came off as a boorish male snicker.

"The Mahdi only marries widows and those in distress, it is a type of charity," Laura replied. "If you tried taking more than one wife, Steven, you know in your heart it wouldn't be for the right reasons."

I was about to make some stupid male crack, but I bit my tongue, hoping Laura viewed herself as the center of a universe uncluttered with other female planets.

Fortunately little Crystal had returned dragging a robust gentleman by his little finger. Presumably it was the Mahdi himself and although he wasn't an overly large man, with his military haircut, close cropped beard and cat walk he looked like the sort who could snap an opponent twice his size in two.

"Good afternoon, Dr. Heller," the Mahdi addressed me from the verandah. "I've heard so much about you. Won't you please come in." And he smiled pleasantly enough.

His English was immaculate Oxford with only the slightest Kashmiri twang. The Mahdi was wearing a white cotton shirt and loose black pants that were casual, he had a legitimate Rolex on his wrist and a manicured military look that shouted wealth and power. I suspected he was no humble clergy mystic.

"Good afternoon, uhm, Mahdi," I stammered uncomfortably. This guy might be Laura's saviour, but he wasn't mine.

"Please call me Ahmadi. I think Mahdi is a bit pretentious, don't you?"

"Ahmadi it is," I agreed, but Laura looked green, like I'd broken some taboo.

We entered the building through a large central entryway. To one side was a high ceilinged meditation hall and there were numerous mendicants / servants moving about inside. They all seemed as lithe and robust as their leader and I could now see that Laura took after them physically in her athleticism. Amazing what a little spiritual concentration can do.

"Come into my office where we can converse in private," Ahmadi motioned to a side room. "After we talk, I would be honored if you would be my guest for dinner."

"Sure," I acknowledged, not at all sure what to make of all this. "What's going on here?" I whispered to Laura, but she gave me a look that said I should remain silent.

Ahmadi's office was simple, ebony and Chinese red in its accoutrements, scented with oriental incense (the sort of smell that would make you gag if that weren't so rude). Obviously, the Mahdi was comfortable in many cultures. What marked the room was the presence of a Berretta 9mm lying on the office desk and a brace of swords in a ceremonial rack near the wall - not exactly Samurai swords but a cross with Arabian scimitars. The sense of order one derived from this room indicated the Master was no fool, he controlled every particle of his destiny.

"What I have to say will not be easy for you to accept," Mahdi Ahmadi began. "Laura tells me you are an intelligent man, able to understand things that would not make sense to others."

"I'm not sure what you're trying to get at," I replied warily. "We've just met and I don't think you know me well at all, despite what Laura's told you."

"I am sure you sense something about your being here, even if Laura has not said anything herself."

"He doesn't know anything, Mahdi," Laura spoke up, with a familiarity to the Sufi master I damn well didn't like.

"That's just as well, it is better he learn this from me," Ahmadi mused.

"Learn what? I asked angrily now. "I've had my chain jerked around all day and its starting to irritate me!"

"I like you Americans, you are so blunt," Ahmadi attempted a compliment, but discontinued the thought when he saw I wasn't impressed.

"Do you have any children?" Ahmadi asked philosophically.


"Then you perhaps have no idea how much joy they can bring into a man's life. Children are like a flower that one grows in a garden . . ."

"I'm sorry to be rude, but this isn't getting us anywhere," I interrupted. I know enough about Zen to know the sound of one hand clapping. You should get to the point!"

"We are peaceful Islamic Taliban descendants, not Bhuddists," Ahmadi glared with a sudden fire, though his tone remained calm. Ahmadi gave Laura a look that could be described as fatherly, or perhaps as a co-conspirator, but certainly not as if they were just acquaintances. Laura shook her head as if to say yes to an unspoken question.

"As you wish," Ahmadi spoke slowly, cruelly, though I don't know why the adverb cruel would come to mind. "Those are all my children," he said with a smile, pointing cryptically to a window though which the last rays of the evening sun were now streaming.

I don't know why I was drawn to look in the direction he pointed instead of asking another impertinent question, but I looked outside. There were now perhaps twenty children gathered there, all beautiful, all half breeds with an unmistakable oriental caste to them. At the center of the children there was a young black woman, Jamaican oriental if there is such a thing, dancing.

This was no ordinary dance, it was the dance of a dervish, of one who'd lost her mind. It wasn't a fast dance or violent, but I found it most disturbing.

"Do I know her?" I found myself asking. "She seems so familiar . . . So much like someone I know . . ."

Recognition came slowly. My mouth dropped open and I stood there shocked. It was Sapphire James, the woman, or witch, or God knows what kind of damnable creature who had doomed me to this living hell.

"You knew! !" I shouted at Laura. "You've protected her all along! She tried to kill me and yet you did nothing!"

"Steven, you don't understand . . ."

"I understand damn well enough what's going on here, I'm being played for a complete idiot!" I continued to shout. By now, I was shaking out of control, my software had not been calibrated to handle such strong emotional interference, especially with the new lightsuit I was wearing.

"Watch her, Steven! Look at her!" Laura continued to protest. "Sapphire is insane Steven. She didn't know what she was doing!"

I wanted to swear to heaven and hell in rage. I paced spastically back and forth across the office with my gaze locked outside on the woman who'd destroyed me and who now joyously danced with innocent children in the setting sun. I hated her.

"A man who is wise enough to spare a child is wise enough to spare himself," Mahdi Ahmadi said from the doorway.

"Go to hell!" I spat in return.

"I'll meet you for dinner down the hall," Ahmadi continued without missing a beat and left, smiling like the Cheshire cat.

"I don't want to hear anymore of this Sufi Zen bullshit!" I told Laura when Ahmadi had left the room. "I can understand you're protecting a friend, but Sapphire tried to kill me, twice! That young lady needs help in a bad way. She needs to spend some time behind bars!"

"I thought you were a stronger man than this, Steven," Laura wheeled and suddenly attacked me verbally. "I could have turned Sapphire over to the police, and what good would that have done you or anyone? She'd have been housed in a mental institution to rot away and it wouldn't have helped you one god damned bit!"

"You're not the one who has to wake up every morning wondering what happened to his body, whether it's even attached to you or not," I tried to defend myself. "You don't know what this feels like!" As if feeling nothing could feel like something.

"Steven, the reason I'm attracted to you is that you're the first man I've ever met who didn't make excuses for himself. I've stood by you when you were hurt, when you were alone. Are you going to destroy Sapphire now just for the thrill of making another human suffer?"

"It's not just me I'm worried about," I stated forcefully. "How many other people has she tried to kill?"

"She thought you were one of the assassins who'd come to kill the monks in Napa," Laura tried to explain. "Sapphire was there when the massacre happened, you know."

"What are you talking about?" I asked incredulously.

"Do you remember the story about the monks who were executed a year ago?" Laura asked

"Yes, we've talked about it a couple of times today, I'm not stupid."

"Sapphire was there, she was the only one to survive the shootings. She hid behind a desk for two hours while the others were interrogated and butchered."

"And that's what set her off trying to murder me? A flashback because I remind her of the killers?"

"We think so," Laura admitted. "If it's any consolation to you, she hasn't been the same since."

Laura had made her point. I trusted her enough by now to know that if she believed Sapphire deserved something more than time in a prison mental ward, she was probably right. Maybe I needed to get a grip on my own emotions.

"It isn't easy trying to forgive someone who'd turned my life completely upside down." I only slowly gave in. "I guess what I care about is that Sapphire is never again in a position to hurt me or anyone else."

"That's already taken care of," Laura smiled. "It was just a matter of adjusting Sapphire's medication."

Laura's mood had changed like a chameleon's, she'd known all along I'd come to my senses.

"So if that's settled, let's eat," she suggested, knowing I'd been emotionally horsewhipped. I wasn't sure I was hungry, but I followed Laura to the dining area like a stunned puppy. Forgiving a psychotic killer would be hard work, I probably needed medication as much as that murderous Sapphire.

---Chapter 20---