True History – An Imperial Farce Part 2

Kabul, Afghanistan
Pity the Nisha Khatri’s of a century hence. Even those willing to brave the legacy of colonial bureaucracy will find little to reward their efforts, as those producing the records destroy them almost as quickly as they are produced. Those that remain will likely be hidden away on a SIPR-net hard drive, discarded in a Bagram landfill. The PowerPoint’s and information papers of the action officers squirreling away at their terminals in forty-foot shipping containers, stacked in a Kabul suburb like children’s Lego blocks. If fifty-monkeys with typewriters could produce Hamlet in a century, certainly a hundred field grade officers with Microsoft Office could solve Afghanistan in a decade.

Goddamn it!” Major Chris Lover shouted, barely disturbing the night watch around him (they’re used to this sort of outburst by now). “Did you hear about the guards at the French embassy who grabbed a 12 year old boy off the street to while away their afternoon? If I read one more story about ass-fucking, I am literally going to lose my mind. Afghanistan must be the gayest country on earth.”
The NSA signals specialist seated behind Major Lover made a note – this quote would later spread meme-like as the tag line below multiple e-mail signature blocks. Otherwise, the watch was generally content to listen to the MP3s illegally uploaded to the intelligence network servers, or idly watched the ever-present “Predator Porn,” broadcast on multiple thirty and forty inch screens around the room. Like regular porn, the Predator variety does have its moments, but over- saturation and constant exposure turns the titillating banal.
Peshawar, Pakistan
The penthouse bar at the Pearl Continental was a sub-continental version of the Mos Eisley Cantina (this is before they blew it up), a more wretched hive of scum and villainy than you will ever find. Though not scrupulously applied (maybe this is why they blew it up), a foreign passport here granted you access to one of the very few Johnny Walker outlets west of Rawalpindi. Consequently, the cheap blue plastic high-school cafeteria chairs and press board laminate tables were thronged with aid workers from USAID, DFID, WHO, UNESCO, and GTZ; contractors from Halliburton, KBR and MFCENT; agents of the ISI and other three later intelligence agencies, which would be redacted from this text, even if it weren’t fiction. The jihadis might object to the drinks menu, but they found this forum useful as well, and while they eschewed baseball caps, many of the uniform photographer’s vests belonged to LeT, JI, TTP, QST, HiG, TNSM, LJ, JeM, HuM, SSP, PT, AT, IMU, IJU, and a host of acronyms undreamt of when the U.S. Congress passed the AUMF against the AQN in 2001.
There are official covers, where you pretend to be someone you’re not – or more importantly, pretend not to be who you really are – complete with back-story and forged travel documents. There are postures and personas that run only braggadocio deep, when you just pretend to others that you are who you wish you were – that you were a Rhodes Scholar, that you did two combat tours in the ‘Stan, the real kind where you were getting shot at every day, rather than hanging out at Green Beans coffee on the Kandahar Air Field boardwalk reading Maxim. There are delusions requiring only an act of will, whether conscious or not, where you pretend to yourself that you are who you wish you were – that you didn’t finish grad school because it was all empty talk, not worthy of your attention, and you really could stop drinking whenever you really wanted to. Ideally, these would all layer over one individual, who really isn’t. And then there’s just plain mistaken identity.
“What are you drinking, Jack?”
Hunched over the bar in a wrinkled, Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros t-shirt, the drinker did not reply. Medium height, medium build, brown hair just the shaggy side of conservative. Unremarkable in every way, except to those who know him.
“Jack Tierney, it’s only eleven-thirty, you can’t be blind drunk yet.”
“Excuse me?” The drinker looked up, confused.
“It’s me, The Don. I know it’s been a while, but I can’t believe you don’t recognize me. Is it the mustache? It is the mustache. My girlfriend hates it, too, but when in Rome….”
“I’m sorry, but I think you’ve mistaken me for someone else. My name is Paul Chandler.”
“Huh? Oh, I get it,” the man gave a theatrical wink. “Whatever you say, ‘Paul.’ But it was Jack, last time, wasn’t it, in Karachi? I have a hard time keeping them all straight.”
“Seriously, you’ve got me mixed up with someone else. My name really is Paul, and I’ve never been to Karachi.”
“Fair enough. Mum’s the word then. But regardless of what you’re going by these days, you need to be going out of this bar pretty damn sharpish. Bottoms up and let’s get out of here.”
“Listen, I’m charmed that you seem to think I’m some kind of long lost friend…”
“You’re going to be long lost, period, if you don’t get a move on. This place is going to vaporize into a ball of flame in just under ten minutes, and we’re late.”
The glass of scotch flipped sideways. “Late for what? What are you talking about?”
“Late for getting to a minimum safe distance. And if we don’t get moving, late as in ‘late,’ ‘departed,’ ‘deceased.’ There is a police van in the parking lot packed with ammonium nitrate and timed to detonate at precisely eleven forty-five.”
“It’s eleven forty-five right now.”
“Your watch is wrong.”
“No it’s not.”
“We can continue this conversation in hell, or across the street. I vote for the latter.”
“What about all these other people? Shouldn’t we warn them?”
“They wouldn’t believe us.”
“You mean they wouldn’t believe you. There is no us. Why should I even believe you?”
“I’m only telling you this for old time’s sake.”
“I keep telling you, we don’t have any old times to be saking.”
“And I keep telling you that you’re going to be dead in,” he glanced down at the antique pocket watch in his gnarled hand, “precisely seven minutes. Now let’s go, Jack.”
“My name isn’t Jack.”
Precisely seven minutes later. A screaming came across the street. Don and Jack (we’ll just call him that for now) were jogging down Mall Road and had almost reached the Edwardes College campus when the fireball bloomed across the parking lot, raining shattered glass and shredded concrete and shredded people through the night.
“Come on, hurry!” Don urged, although he was the one panting with exertion, his shirt damp with the sweat of a fat man running in the South Asian heat, while Jack was trotting along comfortably.
“Where are we going?”
“Someplace close, someplace safe. This way.” They left the road and began making their way across the wasted scrubland towards the railway line, tripping and stumbling in the dark over the broken ground. A black wall rose up in front of them, blocking out the dim, undersea glow cast by the stockyard lights, filtered through the haze of pollution. Closer inspection revealed that the wall was composed of stacked forty-foot shipping containers, smelling of diesel and rust and damp. Don fumbled in his pocket to find a key, and with a slithering clank of chain, he pulled the door of the last container open with a grunt. “In here.”
With a clink and a curse and a crank, a small portable generator sputtered to life, sparking the hesitant flicker of a single fluorescent tube strung from the ceiling. The inside of the container looked like a military surplus store had been upended and vigorously shaken – camouflage netting lay in heaps, surrounded by a scatter of tan-packaged MREs, and teetering stacks of black plastic shipping cartons.
“What is this?”
“My rabbit hole. ISAF cargo container. Got ‘misplaced’ on its way to the Khyber. More importantly, it’s sterile.”
Jack looked down at the thin slime of mud and oil which coated the floor, and now his boots. “Huh?”
“No windows, fluorescent lights, no clocks of any kind,” Don waved about, digging into one of the haphazard piles of gear. “It’s like Las Vegas. Time doesn’t operate inside here, at least not in any way that you can measure. It’s the only environment for safe storage.”
“Um, I’ll probably regret asking, but what are you trying to store?”
With a eureka grunt, Don produced a green steel ammunition can (marked for 5.56mm ball), slipped the antique watch from his pocket inside the canister, and snapped it shut. Placing it gently on the floor, he sat back on a mound of webbing and pointed down at the olive box, accusingly, as if it where ominously ticking. “I’m storing that.”
“And what is that?”
“It’s a watch.”
“I gathered as much, but sooo….okay, wait a minute. I admit I’m a little bit drunk – well, maybe a lot drunk, it’s after midnight, and I’m in a box on a railway siding with a complete stranger, having just narrowly avoided being blown to bits by an IED. I need to make a gesture at least towards returning to sanity. Who the hell are you?”
“Don Quigley,” Wiping his hands on his cotton cargo-pocket trousers, he offered a handshake. “Friends call me DQ for short. Good friends call me The Don.”
Jack accepted the handshake gingerly, as if suspecting it might bite him. “Okay, I think I’ll just stick with ‘Don’ for the time being. So why, Don, are you storing a watch inside an ammo can inside a stolen storage container? And what does it have to do with exploding vans? And what does it have to do, for that matter, with me?”
“I told you, brother, I owed you one. Was pretty surprised to see you here in Pesh – I thought you got PNG’d after the Taxila thing, but hey – stranger things have happened. Anyway, couldn’t just leave you there, knowing what was gonna happen.”
“I’m not, I didn’t…” Jack began to protest.
“I never forget a face, brother.”
“I’m sure. Anyway, forget about that for now. How did you know about the bomb? Are you some kind of secret agent or something?”
“Just a public minded citizen.”
“But how did you know? There were dozens of locals in there, not to mention the rest of the hotel. How could they not know and you did? It’s not like you really blend in, or some terrorist might confidentially give you a tip-off by accident.”
“The watch, man.” Quigley pointed again towards the ammo can.
“The watch?”
“It’s set to Pakistan Real Time.” Quigley stared at Jack, as if expecting him to understand the gravity of such a claim.
“What? GMT plus five?”
“No, that’s Pakistan Standard Time. This watch is set to Pakistan Real Time.” Again the air hung heavy as if some statement of momentous import had been made.
“Wow, I’m drunker than I thought, or the blast wave did something to my brain. Still not getting you? Do you mean it’s set 15 minutes slow or something? One of my friends at the embassy does that, keeps her from getting so frustrated when Pakistanis are always late for meetings.”
“Kind of, but different. You remember when we where in Anbar, back when we were both in one service or another? Remember Petreaus talking about the Washington clock running faster than the Baghdad clock?”
“No…I was never in…..wait, never mind. Yes, I remember that line.”
“And when they sent him out to Afghanistan, he was always talking about the Kabul clock versus the DC clock.”
“This is going somewhere?”
“Turns out it wasn’t a figure of speech. Time is an environmental factor, just like light or temperature, and it’s different from place to place. There’s technological fixes to other environmental stuff. You can make day into night time, you can make the tropics arctic. Stands to reason you could do the same with time. The watch does that. Pakistan Real Time is thirty to forty minutes behind the time on our watches. It’s not precise, which can be a problem, but by switching between the two, I could see the explosion in our time half an hour before it happened here. Warn you, and get out. Stands to reason.”
“Uh huh, stands to reason.” Suddenly infinitely tired, Jack slumped against a pile of tentage. Wincing at a sharp pain beneath his seat, he reached down to find a knurled pommel sticking up from the folds of rubberized cloth. He began to pull, before suddenly stopping with a hiss of in taken breath and a flash of Ephesian clarity. “Dude!”
“The Don.”
“Don, seriously…”
The Don.”
“You’re that guy. You’re nuts, like seriously medically nuts. You’re that guy that’s been chasing Osama Bin Laden with a sword.”
“Not any more. Bigger fish to fry these days.”
“Really? I mean, since we’re through the looking glass anyway. What’s bigger than that?”
“I’m hunting the Jabberwocky.”
“Like the ‘eyes of flame…whiffling through the tulgey woods kind? Though by the way, it’s actually called a Jabberwock. Jabberwocky is the poem.”
“Jabberwocky isn’t a poem or a thing. It’s a plan. It’s The Plan. And I’m so close to finding out what it is. Just maybe not close enough to find out in time to stop it.”
“Seriously, you’re crazy.”
“Maybe. I was right about the bar, though. If I wasn’t crazy, you’d be dead. And now you owe me one.”
“And what does that mean, exactly?”
“You’ve got to go to Kathmandu.”
“Really?”
“You’ve really, really, really gotta go.”
“What, did Bob Seger die?”
“Something like that.”
Kabul, Afghanistan
Staff Sergeant Wesley stormed onto the watch floor. “Who took my motherfucking toothbrush?”
Major Lover looked up from his terminal, more bored than interested. “Which one was it?”

The pink one.”

You have a pink toothbrush?”

Had a pink toothbrush. As in don’t have it anymore, ‘cause somebody fucking stole it.”

But it was pink?”

Hey, some bitches around here get to go up to Bagram every week and eat at Dairy Queen and shop at the Wal-Mart, and some bitches never get to go out, and have to make do with what they’ve got at the Kwik-e-Mart.”

Well, I haven’t seen it, and anyway, you’re out of uniform. It is still dark out, you know.”

Huh?”

Where’s your reflective belt?”

I’m wearing fucking camouflage….sir.”

Exactly, so no one can see you.”

That’s the point, isn’t it?”

But it’s dangerous. You could get run over.”

So I’m supposed to wear camouflage so no one can see me, and a reflective belt so they can?”

Exactly. Anyway, if you’re done bitching, I wanted to ask you about this bullshit trend analysis.”

What’s wrong with it?”

Well, your data is showing a sharp increase in violent incidents, but your analysis says this is a sign of progress.”

Yes, sir. That shows we’re taking the fight to the enemy and making them insecure, so they have to lash out.”

But last month, you showed violent incidents going down, and that was a sign of progress, too.”

Absolutely, sir. It shows we’re beating him down, and he can’t muster the combat power to fight.”

So, if violence is going up, we’re winning; and if violence is going down, we’re winning. How would we know if we’re losing?”

You can’t. That’s the beauty and elegance of my system, sir. The general loves it.”

You’re talking about a general that doesn’t know the difference between David Hasselhof and Kevin Bacon.”

Oooooh, you said it first. You’re on, sir. Kevin bacon to Haji Ahmed Mohammad in six degrees or less.”

Come on, that’s not even a real name.”

Sure it is. I’ve got thousands of Ahmed Mohammad’s in the data base.”

Exactly. That’s like saying Kevin Bacon to John Smith. You have to be more specific.”

OK, try Maulvi Akhtar Mulaki.”

One-eyed Mulaki, or two-eyes?”

Which one just got killed?

Two-eyed.”

OK, do the other one.”

Hmmmm. Allright. One-eyed Mulaki’s financial facilitator was Amruhd Haqqani. Haqqani traveled to Kathmandu to launder money through the Arab Hospital in Biratnagar, and he stayed at the Hyatt. Sting went to Kathmandu to study tantric sex, and he stayed at the Hyatt. Sting’s hairdresser briefly dated Kevin Bacon in 2002. Ipso facto sum.

Is that a Star Wars character?”

No, that’s Latin. Grey Xanthos is a Star Wars character.”

Nice try, sir, but I’m calling bullshit. Grey Xanthos is an operations name. Boba Fett is a Star Wars name.”

Midnight Shadow?”

Op name.”

Crimson Manticore?”

Op name.”

Trick question, actually. It’s both.”

What? There’s no Star Wars character named Crimson Manticore.”

He’s a bounty hunter in the Clone Wars animated series.”

Cartoon Clone Wars, or CGI Clone Wars?”

Cartoon.”

That doesn’t count, it’s not canon.”

That’s never been part of the rules – anything filmed or video games counts; novels and comic books on a case by case basis.”

Still….just sayin’.”
Lover turned back to his computer terminal. “Hey, Moreles! Where’s your romance folder?”

Oh my, is our major feeling a little ornery?”

No editorial comment required. Just give me the link.”

It’s in the ‘Systems Applications’ folder on the R drive. Then go to the ‘Data’ sub-folder, then click on the ‘.exedat’ sub-sub-folder.”

Aren’t you worried one day the IT guys will find your little treasure trove?”

Sir, who do think set it up? I’m just jumping on their bandwagon.”

Anything new and good in there?”

Got some screen captures from Times of India’s Bollywood starlets page – I love South Asian media. They’re only thumbnails though, ‘cause when you click on the ‘enlarge’ tab you get the Blue Filter screen of death. Well, at least of naughtiness. But if you’re that hard up, why don’t you just go get a DVD? The bazaar opens in a few hours.”

They don’t sell porn DVDs at the Afghan bazaar.”

Sure they do, sir.”

Where?”

All over.”

I’ve never seen them.”

Ah, there’s the problem, my dear Watson. You see, but you do not observe.”

I’m not following.”

Come on, sir. You’ve seen all the Discovery Channel type stuff. The history of the Roman Empire, and ‘Canines’ the six DVD series, and whatnot?”

Yeah, so?”

Do you imagine there’s a big market for that sort of stuff in a population mostly made up of 18 to 20-something dudes?”

No, not really.”

Soooo….the Afghans are pretty business savvy. So, if they’re not selling something no one wants, maybe they are selling something else. Maybe something like you really want.”

You’re fucking with me.”

No, sir. Serious as a heart attack. A couple of weeks ago, I bought the PBS/NOVA documentary on the Solar System. I had to scan through a couple disks on centrifugal force and Lamphere Points, but then, well….did you even know there was such a thing as Japanese samurai hardcore? I had no idea. I thought they were only into tentacle-rape anime. But that’s what I love about this job, you learn something new everyday.”
Two hours later, Major Lover wandered through the plastic-sheeting shaded stalls, temporarily erected among the HESCO barriers that bounded the Camp Eggers parking lot. As promised, now that he knew what to look for, the choices were indeed legion. But since the methodology was a bit hit and miss, Lover wanted to make sure he bought a boxed set he might actually watch, regardless of what Easter Eggs might be hidden inside. Lover’s hand had just settled on a BBC history of the Templars, when he was interrupted by a voice over his shoulder.

Not that one.”

Excuse me?”
Lover turned to see a Navy Captain standing behind him in an unfamiliar uniform, tailored like his own but with even more Velcro patches, and a strange brown and gray camouflage pattern he had never seen before. The Captain reached over the table and picked up an enormous faux parchment package wrapped in cheap, dusty cellophane.

The National Geographic History of European Art. I think you’ll like it, especially disk three.”

Ummmm…thanks, sir? I imagine you SOF guys have the inside scoop on this sort of thing.”

SOF?”

Well, I figure in an outfit like that you must be a SEAL or some other Special Forces. You guys always have the newest Gucci kit. Which means before long, all your groupies are going to start wearing the same uniform so they look cool, and not long after that Big Army will adopt the same one so everyone feels special. And not long after that, I’ll be buying my fourth set of new uniforms in as many years. It’s the whole olive drab – coyote tan – foliage green drama all over again. I hate fashion. It’s a good thing my J.C. Penny color wheel says I’m an ‘Autumn’.”

Wow. Bitter much? I hope you feel better now.”

Sorry about that, sir. But I really hate foliage green, and I blame you guys.”

Anyway, I’m not ‘special’ forces. I’m ‘different’ forces. And that’s, well, ‘different’.”

And what, exactly, are ‘different’ forces, sir?”

That’s what I came to talk to you about.”

You came to talk to me, sir? Why? I thought you just shared my taste in salacious viewing material.”

Well, that depends. I might. Did you know there’s such a thing as Japanese samurai hardcore? Actually, as luck would have it, you happen to be uniquely positioned to help me with a project I’m working on.” The Navy officer offered a handshake. “Chris Lover, I’m Captain Jim Admiral. If you’re off shift, could you spare me an hour or so? My truck is parked over by the clearing barrel.”

Why do I feel I’m being offered candy by a stranger? I don’t suppose your truck is a white van with tinted windows?”
Admiral chuckled. “It’s a Toyota Hi-Lux, and it’s navy blue. Beyond that, though, no promises for now. Come on, and don’t forget your DVDs – they’re more important than you know.”

Are we going outside the wire? I’ll need to grab my IBA.”

We are, but you won’t. As long as you have your pistol, we’re cool.”
Lover raised an eyebrow in query.
Admiral just smiled. “I told you. I’m ‘different’ forces, and for the time being, you’re with me.”
The two officers dropped into the seats of the Hi-Lux, producing a plume of dust from the faded cushions. With a grind of gears, the pick-up rolled past the blue steel gate and the inspection area, and into Kabul traffic. On the dash, a Hawaiian hula girl bobble-head waggled her hips suggestively.

Lock and load,” Admiral directed as he chambered a round in his M-4 (this is really quite awkward to do in the front seat of a civilian vehicle). Reaching into the glove box, he pulled out a blue cloth sack, which he neatly draped over the hula girl as they passed from ‘U.S.’ space into ‘Afghan’ space. “Cover yourself, you insolent whore!”
Lover rifled through a magazine rack full of cassette tapes. “Sir, seriously….’Amnesia Ibiza’? ‘Cascada’? What’s with all the techno crap? Did you borrow this truck from the Italians over at ISAF?”

No, that’s our ABO officer. He’s a little bit Euro-trashy.”

OK. I’ll bite, since I suck at acronym bingo. What’s ABO?”

Affect Based Operations.”

You mean Effect Based Operations? I thought Mattis banned that term from our vocabulary.”

No. I mean Affect. It’s different – Google it, if you can’t remember 10th Grade English. And nobody else besides us knows what it is, so they can’t ban it.”

And who exactly is this ‘us’? I mean, besides guys that don’t have to wear body armor and listen to music of questionable sexual provenance?”

Listen to you. ‘Provenance.’ And I almost forgot about ‘salacious’ earlier. That’s different. You might fit in very well, indeed. But I can’t tell you, exactly, at least not in the car. It’s kind of a Special Access Program.”

And who controls the read-ins to that SAP?”

That information is also a SAP.”

So how do I find out…”

You don’t find out. They find you. That’s why you’re in this truck. Anyway, to answer your question for the moment, we’re the guys who beat the tiger.”

As in Tony the Tiger? That doesn’t seem so hard.”

As in there’s a now old adage about our strategy in this war. There’s a tiger and a cat in the room, and no one knows what to do about the tiger, so they beat the cat. Well, we’re the guys who beat the tiger. Actually, we have one guy who specializes just in Jihadi zoology, but you’ll see when we get to the house.”

The house?”

Actually, I think it used to be a hotel before the war, and before the Taliban, and before the Mujahideen. Well, it was a hotel a long time ago, and it still has a very nice bar. Much nicer, anyway, than the Green Bean; and the drinks list is a significant improvement from mocha frappuccinos. And here we are.”

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