You are in for a real treat, dear readers. Beginning today I’m going to be presenting a work of fiction from ‘LTC Estragon’ (a pseudonym) who has graciously given me permission to publish his (her?) story here.
While fantastical, for those of you who aren’t familiar with the American military of the early 21st century, there’s more truth here than you’d believe. For those of you who are familiar with the military…well, there’s probably more truth here than you’d like to admit.
This is a rather long work, so I’m going to break it up and serialize it into weekly bits. I’ll publish every Friday for the next ten weeks. If you like it, feel free to pass it around or leave your comments and I’ll pass them to the author.
“Well, that was unexpected.” LTC Estragon squeezed through the narrow carpet-walled partitions of the cubicle farm, dropping the slide packet on his desk and slumping into an ergonomic Herman Miller Aeron chair.
“What happened?” MAJ Vladimir asked.
“Well, I just briefed the Boss on the Plan. I mean literally, the Plan for the Apocalypse.”
“What did he say?”
“Nothing, that was the weird part. Well, almost nothing, I guess. He flipped through the packet and stopped at slide six. Made a pen and ink correction, and said, ‘It’s one space after a semi-colon, two spaces after a colon.’ And that was it.”
“Can I see?”
“Sure.” Estragon passed Vladimir the slide packet. The major began to flip through the papers, and suddenly his eyes grew wide.
“Holy shit,” Vladimir gasped. “Tell me you did not just brief this for real.”
“What do you mean?” Estragon sat up, his stomach churning. “Of course, I did.”
“Dude, this was a joke!” Vladimir’s tone sounded like he was torn between panic and hilarity. “You built these slides off the estimate we got from Thompson down in logistics. Well, Thompson downloaded this off the internet and passed it around for laughs, it’s supposed to be like an article from The Onion or something.”
“You mean, like the one I passed to the Chief of Staff last month for inclusion in the daily update? Why didn’t you fucking tell me?”
“I thought you would have figured to be a little more careful after last time. I guess sometimes it’s not enough to lead the horse to water, and you’ve got to water board the horse.”
“That’s not fucking funny. My clearance review board just closed. And now this.”
“Not my fault, man. Did you think it said Reindeer Games when you signed up for Rendition Games? You’ve got to read the fine print, just like this time.”
“Well, now I’m really and truly screwed. What are we gonna do?”
“What do you mean ‘we,’ sir,” Vladimir tossed the slides back onto Estragon’s desk as if they were burning his hands. “I don’t even know what you’re talking about.”
Estragon tucked two pieces of 4mg Nicorette in his mouth and began to chew vigorously. “Maybe we could just say it was never serious. It was just Information Operations, or PSYOP or Military Deception.”
“That’s all bullshit. Nobody takes any of that seriously.”
“Exactly. It’s like the formal, technical version of a joke,” Estragon ran his fingers through close cropped hair, tapping his foot nervously. “Ok, here’s what we’ll do. You go and shred these slides, and I’m going to delete every copy of the presentation from the hard drive.”
“What if the boss asks about it again?”
“I’m not worried about that – his ADHD will take care of it. But just in case, I’ll save a copy on my Senate Hearing thumb-drive.”
“Your Senate what?”
“You know, all the e-mails and orders and briefings I’m going to want one day when I’m sitting at that green baize table, answering, ‘Mr. Senator let me explain….’ I’ve kept one ever since Baghdad.”
“Well, good luck with that. Just don’t lose the fucking thumb-drive.”
Introduction (stolen from Lucian’s ‘True History’)
ATHLETES and physical trainers do not focus solely on finding and executing the perfect workout. They say that rest and recovery are just as important as work – and include these in any fully developed exercise regimen. I hold it equally true for soldiers and scholars of strategy that after severe study they should unbend the intellect, in order to apply it fresh to the next task.
The rest they want will best be found in a course of literature which is not purely entertainment, an action-packed screenplay in-waiting, but is also capable of stirring an educated curiosity—a function I hope the following pages will fulfill. They are intended to have an attraction independent of any originality of subject, any happiness of general design, any verisimilitude in the piling up of fictions. This attraction is in the veiled reference underlying all the details of my narrative; they parody the stories of eyewitness accounts, battlefield journalists, and allegedly well-informed insiders; I have only refrained from adding a key because I could rely upon you to recognize as you read.
Tom Clancy is the well-compensated dean of military story-telling, despite never having served a day in uniform. Jan Baz, at Miskatonic University, is famous for his Corollaries of War study, a statistical regression analysis of places he has never been, deeds he has never done, and things he has never seen. COL (Ret.) Terrance McCall’s account of the Siege of Krishnapur is full of marvels – a manifest work of fiction, embellished by the many black-lined redactions of secrets that really aren’t. Sensuous in their veiled obscurity, however pedestrian the matters they purportedly conceal. It is pleasant reading all the same. Many other writers have adopted the same plan, professing to relate their own travels, and describing wild landscapes, terrifying brushes with death, and strange ways of life. The fount and inspiration of this genre is the Homeric Odysseus, entertaining the court with his tales of cannibals, one-eyed men, and enchanting nymphs; the Phaeacians were simple folk, and he fooled them thoroughly.
When I come across a writer of this sort, I do not much mind his lying; the practice is much too well established for that, even with professed philosophers; I am only surprised at his expecting to escape detection. Now I am myself vain enough to cherish the hope of bequeathing something to posterity; I see no reason for resigning my right to that inventive freedom which others enjoy. Indeed, should I even wish to write the truth, I’m not quite sure to which truth I would refer. My topic would presumably be the Global War on Terror, but apparently there is no such thing anymore, and I’m not entirely certain there ever was. The map upon which I would trace the narrative is full of places that aren’t, like the Durand Line, and places that only used to be – the province that used to be the NorthWest Frontier, the city that used to be Bombay, the country that used to be the Kingdom of Nepal. These imaginary places are populated by imaginary creatures which you, dear reader, may well find familiar (over 60% of Americans believe in angels, and over 90% of Pakistanis believe in jinns). As I thus have no truth to record, I fall back on falsehood–but falsehood of a more consistent variety; for I now make the only true statement you are to expect–that I am a liar. This confession is, I consider, a full defense against all imputations. My subject is, then, what I have neither seen, experienced, nor been told, what neither exists nor could conceivably do so. Or perhaps I have, and they do – it is, after all, a pack of lies. I humbly solicit my readers’ incredulity.
Colorado Springs, Colorado
At the Royal Tavern in Manitou Springs, under the shade of Pikes Peak and next to the anachronistic penny arcade, Don Quigley enjoyed farewell drinks with his friends. Most of these sported sleeve-length tattoos, motorcycle leathers, and an airport scanner overload of piercings. In khaki combat pants, hooded cotton sweatshirt and Colorado Rockies baseball cap, the Don was less exotically costumed; but his Grizzly Adams beard and ratted braids, atop a bulky six foot frame, gently sliding from youthful muscle to middle aged sag, allowed him to fit in. His check baggage – a duffle waiting in the back of his pick-up at the curb – was similarly dissonant. Beside the Holy Bible, the Lonely Planet Guide to Pakistan, a first aid kit and iodine pills, sat binoculars, a sword and a folding crossbow.
New Delhi, India
The first rains of the monsoon roared thick and black through the Embassy skylight, turning the atrium’s duck pond brown and viscous. An old man in kurta pyjama, the trousers rolled into wrinkled sausages around his knees, waded into the water with a skimming net and a wire brush. For the remainder of the day, and well into the next, he would strain and scour the pond until it returned to its native robin’s egg blue – just in time for the next deluge. On the plus side, he could pee down his leg into the water whenever he felt like it. It was warm, and relieving, and it pleased him to think the ghoras regularly had their cocktail functions on the rim of his personal toilet. As the rains subsided, doors around the courtyard tentatively opened with a cold rush of air – offices cooled to near sixty degrees meeting with an outside atmosphere well above one hundred, creating a swirl of tiny micro-climates, and ensuring the staff who darted between one biosphere and another remained reliably ill throughout the hot season.
Captain Jim Admiral, U.S. Navy, was dressed in the military’s unofficial embassy uniform, a polo shirt, khakis and penny loafers scuffed with the slick grime of Delhi’s monsoon streets. Tucking the blue ballistic nylon briefcase, its zippered compartment locked and the key removed, under his arm, he punched in the keypad access for the defense attaché’s office.
Access denied. Password expired. Enter new password.
Password denied, inadequate password strength. Requires ten characters including numbers, lowercase letters, uppercase letters and special characters.
Password denied, inadequate password strength. No two characters of the same class can adjoin each other.
Finally, the door buzzed open and Admiral passed from the malarial tropics to the frigid northern hemisphere in a matter of inches. As the door closed, he scribbled the new password on a sticky note and shoved it into his briefcase along with a dozen other sticky notes which carried the passwords you were never supposed to write down. The other documents inside the briefcase had begun life as scribbled shorthand in a notebook, jotted down in a restroom stall between rounds of a whiskey soaked evening at the Gorkhana club. Flimsy, common pages suitable for blotting up a spilled drink or marking pages in a novel. But typed, formatted and serialized with a TD number, they had gone through a sort of bureaucratic transubstantiation – now they could only be hand carried under lock and key, read by individuals with specially colored badges, and transmitted on highly controlled computer systems. The kind that required a password with ten or more characters, including numbers, lowercase letters, uppercase letters and special characters, no two of which character classes could adjoin each other. The kind of complicated, strong passwords no one ever wrote down.
Across the capital city, quiet and heavy beneath a solid charcoal blanket of monsoon cloud, Nisha Khatri finished her milky tea and tossed the small plastic cup in the trash, before descending the stairwell to the basement of the National Archives. Here too, the documents were kept locked within a cage, and access was limited to those who provided the triplicate form weeks in advance, with the details of their father’s place of birth and at least three endorsements from academic institutions (though, since no one checked, you could be rather creative with these). Classified once, perhaps, for reasons of national security, they were now protected as artifacts of national memory. Those in Delhi – among the dust and the damp, where “climate control” meant a single, idling fan, and a troop of janitors who painstakingly maintained the archive with handheld hair blow-driers – were perhaps less well-off than their counter-parts in the British Library, where the Raj Era government records were split in two repositories after 1947. Nisha took the cardboard folder from the fat, sweating archive matron and walked down the row of tables, avoiding the leering eyes of a young ghora graduate student – the insufferable Moleskine toting type.
Here, no surgeon’s gloves interfered in the contact between living flesh and the brittle skin of history, and you could literally feel, smell and sometimes almost taste the past. Mimicking the stratigraphic approach of physical archaeology, Nisha peeled back layer after layer of time. An initial, elegantly handwritten note on the side of an envelope by a rural collection officer, protesting interference from officers of another department, gives way to a more carefully hand-printed memorandum, serialized, annotated and in official format from the district resident. In turn, this page gives way to a series of typed inter-departmental memoranda in far-off Calcutta, as the petty bureaucrats of the Raj jealously defend their institutional prerogatives. The Committee for the Destruction of Thuggee and Dacoity, it turns out, is disinclined to abandon its right to render suspected thugs across political boundaries, to stand trial in the Committee’s special courts, prosecuted largely on the strength of plea-bargaining informants. And the threat posed by Thuggee is apparently so great, that the administration is unwilling to press the issue. The rural collector never receives a reply.