London, United Kingdom
Nisha wound her way through Heathrow airport, idly browsing at shops she couldn’t afford. It was certainly more posh now than her childhood memories of frequent transits, but the fuming volcanoes of un-walled smoker’s lounges, where directed airflow failed to contain the toxins, made her slightly queasy. She had planned to stay in London for another week, or even take a quick excursion to the Lake Country; but with every passing day, the sense of foreboding which had begun on that afternoon in the British Library had grown ever more oppressive.
At last, she had grown tired of constantly looking over her shoulder, and booked tickets for the U.S. Then, for reasons she didn’t quite understand, but in some way related to the constant feelings of being threatened, she boxed up all her research materials and FEDEX’ed them to her sister in New Jersey. Kalpana was a bit flighty, and an almost stereotypical American Born Confused Desi, Emigrated From Gujarat, House In Jersey, Kids Learning Medicine, Now Owning Property, Quite Reasonable Salary, Two Uncles Visiting, White Xenophobia, Yet Zestful. For long years, she had been working on her soulful novel about the struggles of a young Indian woman torn between the cultures of east and west. For so long, in fact, that she really wasn’t all that young anymore. Still, it kept her happy, and she was reliable. As sedentary as her sister was mobile, Kalpana virtually never left her flat in Edison’s Little India district, aside from a once a year pilgrimage to visit the extended family in Ahmedabad. Nisha’s package would have a secure home until she arrived.
Boarding pass in hand, as she approached emigration, Nisha pulled out her battered U.S. passport, bulging with extra pages stapled in to accommodate her encyclopedic collection of visa stamps. She had grown so accustomed to passing to and fro across borders with minimal drama, that when a customs officer asked her politely to step out of the line, she did not at first expect trouble. But then, no one expects the Spanish Inquisition.
Of course, it didn’t become all that alarming all that quickly. It was an elderly gentleman, his uniform hanging loosely from a gaunt frame, who had first taken her aside into one of the offices. Probably an ex-police or serviceman in an easy post-retirement gig. Fifteen minutes later, a uniformed young woman, roughly Nisha’s age and also apparently of South Asian origin (though she didn’t respond to Nisha’s few words of Hindi) came to lead her into another office, further back into the warren of administrative spaces and away from the immigration hall. She brought Nisha a cup of lukewarm tea in a paper cup, and then asked her for her passport. With the first tremors of serious misgiving, Nisha handed over the small blue book.
“What’s wrong?” She asked.
“Nothing at all, love, I’m sure.” The woman winked and gave a wry, apologetic smile. “Probably just another case of flying while brown. We all get it, sooner or later. They’ll probably run your numbers through the computer, and come back all apologizing for the inconvenience. How long till your flight?”
Nisha glanced at her watch. “About an hour.”
“Clever you to start early. We’ll have your clear and through well before then.”
Despite the assurances, Nisha heard the door lock as the woman departed, and misgiving shot straight past concern, through worry and began to flirt seriously with panic. The thirty minutes which then ticked by didn’t help; but the sixty more after that served to channel her disquiet into simmering rage, as she contemplated the hassles associated with getting another flight. When the door opened again, Nisha was seething, a dozen choice epithets she had mentally been rehearsing poised to launch from behind clenched teeth. But something deep down inside her belly recognized that something was seriously wrong here, and flying into a self-righteous rage was unlikely to improve the situation. Her new companion was a man, middle aged, but dressed in a suit rather than a uniform. This latter fact troubled her more than she would have guessed – this wasn’t airport security anymore; and maybe not even the British Government. The button down shirt, the sack cut of his suit and the center vent all suggested American. When he spoke, the accent confirmed it.
She started to speak, but found her tongue dry and her throat congested. She just nodded.
“Hello, I’m John Smith.”
She coughed and cleared her throat. Not intending to be so melodramatic, she blurted out, “Is that your real name?”
He smiled and laughed, then replied with even more unexpected melodrama, “Of course it’s not. And is Nisha really yours?”
“Why would I make something up? I’m just a woman trying to go home to visit family, not some creepy guy dragging innocent people into unmarked offices and making them miss their planes for no apparent reason.”
“But if you are Nisha Khatri, the reason must be more than apparent.”
She shook her head. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
Smith shook his head, as if disappointed with a truculent child. “We have more than one hundred reports on file detailing your association with Chechnyan terrorists, your smuggling activities in south and central Asia, and your connection with Albanian heroin traffickers.”
“My activities? I’m a freakin’ post-doc archival researcher. Sorry, but you’ve got the wrong gal.”
“You are Nisha Khatri. You admitted as much.”
“Yes, but not that Nisha Khatri. There are more than one of us, you know. What, do you detain every guy named Mohammed or Osama?”
“Listen, go ahead and check my passport numbers, run my social security number, whatever and let’s just call this an honest mistake. I admit I’m a little upset about missing my flight, but I won’t make a federal case about it.”
“Oh, I’m sure you won’t,” Smith chuckled. “I feel quite sure about that. But let’s talk about this somewhere more private, we get a fair amount of traffic through this ante chamber.”
Nisha stiffened as if to flee or struggle, but Smith clucked his tongue and rolled his eyes to suggest the futility of such an option. Shoulders sagging in resignation, she stood and followed him to another door. Smith pulled out an old fashioned key, turned the knob, and pushed open the door. Featureless blackness yawned on the other side, like the gateway to oblivion. After letting her consider the prospect for a long moment, Smith reached around the doorjamb and flicked on the light. Despite herself, Nisha jumped and startled backwards.
Nothing. Well, nothing uncommon, anyway. Muted gray walls, tasteful track lighting, a plastic potted plant in one corner, and slightly utilitarian blue carpeting that recalled a high school cafetorium. And two rent-an-office, straight back chairs facing each other in the center of the room. The only real difference between this room and the one they were leaving was the complete lack of windows.
“Have a seat,” Smith offered, as he took one of the chairs.
Nisha sat down. “So, is this the part where you tell me you’re CIA, or something?”
“CIA?” Smith snorted contemptuously. “Oh god, no. Those guys are all Mormons and kind of creep me out. But while our respective organizations may differ significantly in our respective task and purpose, there are some similarities in our modus operandi. I actually work out of the Consolidated Information Center in Pueblo, Colorado.”
For a moment, Nisha was taken aback enough by this strange tidbit to forget how frightened she was. “Seriously, Pueblo, Colorado? Why on earth would you do that?”
“Pueblo is the place for every information need, and I don’t just mean Federal Citizen Awareness pamphlets. If you were really American, you would know that. But we both know you’re not, which brings us back to your original question. Now, this is the part where you tell me what you’ve done with the information you’ve acquired.”
“The information I’ve acquired? What would Pueblo, Colorado, or whoever you really work for, want with that? It seems a bit irrelevant to national security, or whatever. Penal rolls for the Nerbudda Territory from 1820-1835? Disposition of outstanding criminal cases before the Supreme Court of Madras upon passage of the 1861 High Courts Act? Or maybe outstanding tailors’ bills entailed to the estate of Edmund Rowe in 1840? I mean, seriously. I’ve always fancied the intelligence world has some arcane interests, but really.”
“Ah, there, at the last, you touch upon it.”
“Tailor’s bills? Honestly, not to be rude, but you look like you shop off the rack.”
“Charming, to the last. No, it was your e-mail to the Miskatonic Illicit Antiquities Research Center that alerted us to your activities. We have a unit that monitors antiquities trafficking, and they took your case at first. As you said, there are many Nisha Khatri’s, and we weren’t sure yet what we were dealing with. You were under surveillance from the moment you landed in London, and as soon as we received the British Library report, we transferred you to the Counter-Terrorism directorate.”
“What was in this so-called report?” Nisha’s heart was racing, remembering now the strange sheet of FAX paper.
“Don’t be coy. That file you opened was the dead drop for an extraordinarily sensitive piece of intelligence. Interesting choice of yours to only copy the text and leave the actual document behind. It almost succeeded in convincing us this was a decoy. Bereft of context, that paper is almost gibberish. But we have the context, and we know exactly what you’re involved in. Our only remaining question now is, what did you do with that information? We know it’s not in your personal belongings, nor is it any electronic communication, which we’ve been monitoring for weeks now. Another dead drop, perhaps?”
Kalpana! Nisha’s throat closed tight, till she felt like she was choking. Dear, sweet, stupid Kalpana and her silly book. But if they were asking, they must not know yet. Their surveillance could not have been quite so thorough. For a moment, she contemplated telling him everything and explaining it was just a whim, a thoughtless error. But nothing so far had suggested any reason to place the least confidence in the people she was dealing with. If nothing else, she would not drag her sister into this.
Nisha smiled, her lips a thin, harsh line. “Now I remember the piece you mean. Yes, I did copy it, since it seemed so out of place. But mostly, I was annoyed. I actually do take my research quite seriously, and I was angered both that another researcher could have been so careless, and that the library staff hadn’t picked up on it. I almost spoke to the curator, but it was late and I wanted to get home. I never took it seriously enough to pay any attention to it, as I’m afraid I don’t have the context you describe, and it did indeed read as gibberish to me. If it’s not in my things, I must have thrown it away as scrap paper or something.”
Smith leaned back in his chair, chewing a thumbnail as he considered her. “I saw you flinch when we entered this room,” he said, at last. “What did you expect to see?”
Nisha shrugged, her hands clasped tight together in her lap.
“Meathooks, cattleprods, a car battery with cables, perhaps? No, no, no. Perhaps elsewhere across the globe, amongst some of our associates, you may encounter such things. But we are still among civilized people.” He smiled in a way that made her skin crawl. “After Abu Ghraib and the infamous Italian affair, especially. Not my outfit’s doing, but still, a little bad press paints us all in an unflattering light. No, now we take a kinder, gentler approach to the war on terror. Though actually this room, Ms. Khatri, is likely to be the most frightening place you ever see in your life. Can you guess why that is?”
She shook her head, lips pressed tight and trying to muster the anger that could drown out the fear rushing in her ears.
“Because this is the place you disappear. Worse still, this is the place you know you’re disappearing. Like death. Everyone dies, and there’s not much to it – lights on, lights off. It’s the knowing it’s happening that really scares us. A gunshot to the head or an explosion probably isn’t much worse than dying peacefully in your sleep surrounded by loved ones. But, ahhh, the long seconds plummeting from a height, the agonizing minutes riding a plane that’s going down, the hours our ancestors or an unfortunate hiker might pass after an animal attack, literally watching themselves being eaten alive. And you’re going to know what’s happening to you for days and weeks and months. My goodness.”
Smith looked at her with heavy lidded eyes of desire that had nothing to do with sexual attraction. Then he shook himself, jumped from his chair suddenly, causing Nisha to leap to her feet as well.
“But, to show we’re not complete bastards,” Smith said. “I’m going to give you a choice. Well, not so much a choice as a chance. It’s kind of like spin the wheel of fortune. Guantanamo and Bagram aren’t really in our lane, so we’ve developed an alternative destination for similar purposes. So you get to pick: one, two, or three?”
“Why should I?”
“Because if you don’t, I will. And I’m more interested in inmate population management than the conditions of your soon-to-be confinement. Besides, it gives you the illusion of having any control whatsoever over your destiny from here on out.”
“Fine. Number Three.”
“Very nicely done. Nauru isn’t exactly a tourist destination, but still, it is the South Pacific. And to be honest, the Republic of Sealand and the Sanjaak of Novi Bazaar are pretty crap. So, without further ado, let’s get you into your rendition Snuggee.”
“You know, as seen on TV. Well, there are straps and chains and things, but the body is made up of very soft Polartec 300. I did tell you, it’s a kinder, gentler war on terror. The boys swear by them and use them for taking naps, if they’re stuck in the cargo hold for a long haul.”
And then the hood went on, and the goggles and the tape, and then the long night began.
“Mind the gap.”
Admiral slowed, looking down at the crevice opening in the mountainside beneath his boots. Uneasily gauging the distance, his depth perception unreliable through the night vision goggles, he jumped across and narrowly avoided tripping and falling in the brush on the other side. God, how he hated going out on missions with the operators. The constant risk of embarrassment was almost worse than the fear of violent death, and it started before they even left the wire.
As a stranger linking up with a group of operators, you always felt like a new kid arriving at a strange high school. And since Admiral’s duties involved liaison with various different ‘special’ outfits, it was like going to another new high school almost every week. What was cool to wear and to say? Some of the units were all business, and wore regulation patrol hats. For some, that was too “Big Army,” so they wore ball caps with Velcro American flags whenever they could; and for others, even that was too conventional, and you needed a ball cap with a sports logo or “NYFD.” The variations in facial hair were even more numerous; but since he wasn’t authorized relaxed grooming, Admiral didn’t have to bother worrying on that count – though he always felt vaguely prepubescent sporting a smooth jaw. There was personal kit – do I wear my pistol on a hip drop belt for “quick-draw” action like some of the CQB guys? Or does that just drag my pants down over my ass and make me look like a Han Solo/cowboy wannabe? Depending on the troop you were with, you were generally addressed by your rank in some, first name in others, last name in others, bro/brother in others (and the distinction between the two had additional nuance), and in the really special mission units, by nickname. Not having a nickname there was tantamount to publicly professing a taste for sodomy. And god help the man who transgressed the very specific local protocol in that regard. Even if he got past the salutations, Admiral could never quite master the very precise choice of slang adopted by any individual unit. To express an admonition to be on alert, was the proper formula ‘heads up,’ ‘eyes open,’ or ‘heads on a swivel?’ They all meant the same thing, but they were very definitely not interchangeable, and trying to keep up was like a parent trying to talk hip-hop: whether you were in the ‘house,’ the ‘hizzy,’ the ‘hizzouse’ or the ‘hizzle,’ you always sounded stupid. He wished he had Chef around to keep him straight.
It just so happened that, as his mind wandered on these musings, his head was not ‘on a swivel,’ just when it should have been. There was a rising crackle of gunfire, gradually trailing down the slope towards him, initially sounding more like popcorn before it became louder and more terrible, flashing through the undersea green of his optics. Before he could even drop, as he should have, he felt himself tackled, and began to roll across the rock strewn hill side, struggling to upend his opponent. More out of luck than skill, he managed to free his knife and began to saw at the other man’s neck, blind now with his goggles knocked ajar. Jab and rip as he would, though, the blade could not get through the straggling beard. Frantic, he grabbed a rock and began to hammer downwards with all his might. Sometimes invisibly striking dirt in the darkness, sometimes something soft, becoming softer with each ensuing blow before….
No! Admiral bolted upright, his sheets and pillow soaked with sweat. That wasn’t a memory, it was just a dream. And it wasn’t even his dream. He had to stop taking so much mefliquine (though admittedly, he had begun taking it not to avoid malaria, but specifically because he was intrigued for amusement purposes by the warning of side effects including vivid, violent dreams). No. That was from a war of tragedy, and there were already too many stories of that. His was a war of farce, undertaken years ago when he had realized there was no sensible alternative.
Arlington, Virginia (just to be clear, this is a flashback)
“Baghdad, this is Arlington. Audio-visual check, over.” Admiral released the microphone button on the Tandbergh remote. He could see the conference room on the other side through the screen, but heard no reply. “Jimmy, what the fuck? I thought you said you had this wired.”
“It is, dude. You’re just pushing the horizontal control button. Try this one instead.”
“Oh, sorry, my bad. Late night in Georgetown, and yesterday me is kicking today me’s ass. I hate that fucker. Let me try again.” Click. “Baghdad, this is Arlington. Audio-visual check, over.”
“Arlington, this is Baghdad. I have you Lima Charlie, over. Who’s your senior?”
“Colonel Lyons is in the room. Your end?”
“Our senior will be Brigadier General Mills. Expect him in less than five mikes.”
With the Tandbergh muted, Colonel Jim Lyons began to laugh. “Oh Christ, General Mills. I wonder what he eats for breakfast.”
“Froot Loops, I think. At least, everything he ever learned about COIN, he got from reading the back of his cereal box.”
Leaning back in a HermanMiller Aeron chair, Lyons pulled out his coyote tan rucksack (this was before foliage green). “Hey, if you’re still feeling crap from last night, I had this left over from Rachel’s. I find that some secret VTCs really require a drinking game to make them bearable.”
“You’re on. I can’t believe they’re making me take this meeting while I’m on leave, not to mention the hour. I fucking hate Zulu time. Ground rules?”
“Let’s say ‘Heuristic,’ ‘system of systems,’ ‘holistic,’ and ‘agile networks’ are must drinks. ‘Out-of-the-box,’ and ‘whole of government’ are optional.”
“I’ll be bloody legless. Thank god I’m not driving.”
“Did you ever play the Sherlock Holmes drinking game?”
“How can you play a drinking game to a book?”
“We used the Jeremy Brett BBC series, as the most canonical.”
“Canonical? It’s not the freakin’ Bible.”
“I beg to differ. Sherlock Holmes is the third most read text in the world, after the Holy Bible and the telephone book.”
“You must be hell at Trivial Pursuit. But does anyone even actually use telephone books anymore?”
“Does anyone play Trivial Pursuit anymore?”
“Anyway, about the drinking game….”
“Turned out to be a bust, but philosophically instructive. We decided to do a shot any time Sherlock actually ‘deduced’ anything.”
“And, you would think you would be ruined by the end. But not so. You’d get a little buzzed at the beginning when he was showing off to Watson or a new client, but after that, virtually nothing. His cases were mostly solved by regular old fashioned police work, random luck, and Victorian parlor drama. We were pretty liberal about what constituted a ‘deduction,’ because we really wanted to do the shots. But still.”
“Tragic, I’m sure. But what’s the point?”
“The point is that you can achieve worldwide renown and lasting fame for something you don’t actually do all that much. It’s enough that people think you do it.”
“Like thinking you know how to run a war? Mills has been insufferable ever since he calmed down Tierra del Diablo by co-opting the Circle Trigon Forces, but I think he’s getting worse. Anyway here they come, better straighten up.”
“Who’s the chick?”
“I dunno. Presidential fellow? Academic? Washington’s pretty much run these days by thirty year old post-grads in mini-skirts.”
“Pretty hot, though, Mills has good taste in advisors.”
“Hard to say really, on this connection. I’ll give her a SVTC ‘nine,’ and guess real world ‘six.’ But depending how holistic this meeting is, her ratings may improve by the end.”
“That doesn’t count, by the way. It has to be actually in the meeting.”
“Jim, Mark, good to see you both,” the general’s voice sounded tinny through the speakers. “Sorry I had to bring you in off leave, but with the OPTEMPO like it is, I just can’t have you out of pocket for too long. Before we get started, I wanted to chat quickly on the draft report you sent in before you left.”
“Problem, sir?” Admiral asked.
“Well, the title for starters is a bit puzzling. I asked about proposals for Iraqi reconstruction projects, and you produce ‘A Plan for Recovery in Mesopotamia.’ What’s that all about?”
“Well, sir. Mesopotamia is the historical name for Iraq.”
The general slammed down the report the table. “Captain Admiral, do you think I’m stupid?”
“No, sir, not at all.”
“This isn’t Mesopotamia, this is Asia Minor.”
“Ummmm….” Mute. “Jim, do we get a special shot for this?”
“He’s pretty pissed, we better behave for now.”
Through the screen, ‘SVTC 9’ leaned over and whispered in the general’s ear. The general leaned back, scratched his chin thoughtfully, and then made a quick note before turning his microphone back on. “Well, I guess I stand corrected, it is Macedonia, after all. Just a quick tweak then to the title.”
Mute button still engaged, Lyons and Admiral struggled to contain a bout of church giggles.
“Now, that totally fucking counts,” Lyons giggled, bending over to surreptitiously fill two paper cups.
“I’m still going to have the Chief of Staff do another chop, though. It’s gripping reading, and makes a compelling case; but the language is too ‘purple.’”
“Purple, sir?” Admiral asked, confused.
“You know, too showy and interesting. You’ve got all these adjectives and adverbs and what not. The whole point of bureaucratic writing is not to be read.”
“I’ll try to do better next time, sir. Maybe I was trying too hard to take a heuristic approach.” Click. Mute.
“You are such a dick,” Lyons sputtered, his first shot of vodka snorting back up his nose. “Do you even know what ‘heuristic’ means?”
“Not really, no. But neither does he, and I’ll bet he won’t fess to it.”
“Good point, Mark,” the general said. “Anyway, the main agenda item for today is to link you up with Linda Barker, here with me from NSTS in New York. She’s out here doing research for a holistic look at our nested strategic challenges to prompt some out-of-the-box thinking.”
“Jesus Christ,” Admiral gasped. “He’s trying to kill us. You better get some water glasses if we’re doing five shots every five minutes.”
“And a bucket,” Lyons observed.
“I know they’re funding Linda’s research project inside the Beltway, but this was explicitly designed to support the operators in the field, so I wanted to make sure she got some face time with my lead planners.”
“Wait a minute,” Lyons said, leaning back out of camera range, to down another shot. “I remember this boondoggle. NSTS put together this proposal a few months ago. Their contract only pays out when they’re supporting a request from the field. So they drafted a ‘request’ that was supposed to come from us, asking us to submit it back to them.”
“So you endorsed this?” Admiral asked.
“Fuck no. We sat on it. But you know how it is back there. Everyone’s passing around so many pre-coordination drafts, no one knows what’s actually real or not. They probably submitted their draft to get the wheels turning, and no one thought to check whether it was actually submitted.”
“That’s why thirty year olds in mini-skirts are running the place, and we’re getting shitfaced on a SVTC.”
“Shhh. Shhh. She’s talking now. I’ve got to hear this.”
“Our analysis indicates that our principle near term problem is the residual strength of Al Q’aida in their Pakistani sanctuaries, and the associated utility of those sanctuaries for Taliban and other insurgents preventing a successful conclusion to our campaign in Pakistan. Further out, even should those near term threats be defeated, the prospect for further radicalization of the emerging Pakistani youth bulge presents an even more serious challenge as we enter the 2020s. Simultaneously, in roughly this time frame we see a distinct possibility of China transitioning from following competitor to legitimate peer as its economy continues to grow. In conjunction with India’s associated growth, consumption patterns in both countries will accelerate the approach of peak oil; while production patterns in both countries will accelerate global climate change. This system-of-systems is not amenable to reductive, piecemeal solutions, and must be addressed by creative, synergized policy choices.”
“You pour,” Admiral said. “My hand is getting shaky. But give us a bonus round for ‘synergized.’ That should always be automatic.”
“So, gentlemen,” the general asked. “What do you think?”
Lyons swallowed fast, feeling his throat burn. “Fascinating analysis, sir. We really appreciate the opportunity to hear Ms. Barker’s thoughts.”
Admiral covered his mouth with his hand from the screen, whispering, ‘You are such a fag.’
“I know that, Jim,” Mills said, sounding impatient. “But I want to hear your proposal for options.”
“You know, response options, to what she said.”
“Well, honestly, my sense is that’s more policy direction stuff. Maybe she could share her ideas back here to prompt more guidance from the civilian side, that we could frame into real military missions.”
“Enough of that. You planners are always going on about ‘missions’ and ‘reality.’ That’s just an excuse. By the time you get back, I want to see a full range of options. Be bold and don’t be afraid of the plan. Mills out.”
The screen went black. Admiral and Lyons leaned back in their chairs, staring at each other woozily.
“I know I’m very drunk,” Lyons said. “But did that make any sense at all?”
There was a long pause while Admiral stared deep into the bottom of his paper cup. “Dude, wake up. Don’t pass out on me.” Lyons kicked him under the table. “I asked you
if that made any sense?
Admiral shook himself alert. “No, no, of course not. But then again, I’m just a planner, and I’m frequently handicapped by an obsession with reality.”
That was it, Admiral silently realized, unwilling to share yet the idea blossoming through a cloud of alcohol. You didn’t need a mission, you didn’t need reality, you didn’t really need to do anything to be famous for it, you didn’t actually need orders or authorities. You just needed a really good draft proposal, so boring that no one would ever read it.
That, certainly, was within his skill set.
* * * * INTERLUDE * * * *
We will now divert from our story for six years, to pay attention to a story different from and unrelated to this one of a war that isn’t. In the meantime, while you’re waiting, I recommend Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Pynchon’s Against the Day, and Tharoor’s Great Indian Novel. When you’ve finished, you can come back to this one. But rest assured, nothing at all has changed in the interval, and we’re pretty much right where we were.
* * * * INTERLUDE * * * *
extract from SMS log, cell phone number: 99-871-XXXX-24-XXX
omg!! wont belve wht hppned
Did u find gin bttle
hid gin bttle 2 stop drnkng but was drnk and forgt wre
no saw bomb
not bombay was tanqery
not bomb gin bomb boom fire smok polce
were r u
martinre schl park
thot u broke up
not imprtnt saw big bomb!!
idk rss mayb
really simple syndication?
no. rashtriya swayamsevak sangh
why there w shashi
ugh. Wll call u
extract from e-mail account: email@example.com
u wont believe what I saw today. Steve and I were at the Martiniere School tonight walking in the park. Its really cool btw, like a european palace but all these Indian cupolas and spires and stuff. Anyway, was just getting dark, and suddenly BAM! Huge explosion on lower floor of the school not more than a hundred feet from us. Kind of weird, cause I’m not sure if it was a bomb or not, but really bright flash of light, breaking glass, and smoke pouring out of the windows. Don’t worry, Im fine, though probably too stupid – didn’t duck or drop or whatever ur supposed to do. Just stood there staring. Glad I did tho, cause then I saw this total ninja guy jump thru the window – I mean the whole black pajama thing. A minute later the ninja comes back out dragging this guy who is totally naked, and threw him in the back of a Tata SUV. A minute after that some other guy comes stumbling out, staggering around like he just got felled by an axe, till he starts running off into the trees. Anyway, Steve was kind of freaked there were gonna be cops and stuff, so we took off right away. Have been in one Indian police station when Steve lost his passport, and once is enough forever – the smell of curry and B.O. is still in my sweat pants. Definitely living the adventure. Leave Lucknow tomorrow, and then off to Chennai. Love to D.
extract from DIR 2213FDT-2100K
//SOURCE HAS UNDERGONE SOME VETTING, SOUTH ASIAN BUSINESSMAN WITH ROUTINE ACCESS TO SUB-SOURCE, DOES NOT RESPOND TO TASKING. SOURCE MAY HAVE INTENDED TO INFLUENCE AS WELL AS INFORM.//
//ACCORDING TO SUB-SOURCE, IED ATTACK AT MARTINIERE SCHOOL WAS EMPLACED BY BANGLADESHI HUJI-B AGENT RAWAL NAZIMI. NAZIMI TRAVELLED FROM DHAKA TO KATHMANDU ON 12 MAY TO COORDINATE WITH LT FACILITATOR ABDUL ALIM. ALIM PROVIDED SEMTEX, SPIDER DETONATOR, AND 1200 INR. INTENT OF ATTACK TO STIMULATE COMMUNAL TENSION IN LUCKNOW BEFORE UPCOMING WORLD CUP MATCH.//
Extract from station cable EOS 442199PT6
4. Despite our interlocutors’ insistence that the attack at the Martiniere was related to a internecine struggle amongst Lucknow criminal syndicates, all source analysis and sensitive reporting strongly suggest this event was staged by the Muzzafarabad based Commander Waseem Group (CWG). While we have not been given access to witnesses or the crime scene, MASINT and technical analysis indicate a much larger explosion was intended, but unidentified device flaws inhibited the detonation.
5. The Martiniere School holds little symbolic significance, but is frequently visited by foreign tourists, including Americans. The choice of target indicates an explicit intent to injure/kill Americans. This marks a significant escalation by the CWG, which has long expressed a desire to target Americans, but has never actually carried out such an attack. Given CWG’s limited technical capacity and limited sphere of operations, the likelihood of AQN affiliation/support is moderate to high. Recommend legal counsel review for re-designation of CWG for AUMF applicability and nomination for inter-agency targeting action.
extract from SMS log, cell phone number: 99-871-XXXX-24-XXX
u didnt call
u didnt pick up
r u drinkg
sock drwr left self note that said u suck
no I suck
u do suck
35,000 feet over Myanmar
“Christ, what happened to my head?” Lover rolled over in his sleeping bag, rubbing his temples and wincing in pain.
“You’re slightly concussed,” A woman’s voice answered.
“It sounds like a roaring in my ears.”
“It is a roaring in your ears. To be more precise, it’s the sound of four fully-reversible Pratt & Whitney PW2040 series turbofans.”
Lover blinked his eyes open, squinting against the bright light overhead as he looked around at the low curving metal ceiling above him, two tiny windows in the wall with ratty lace curtains, a small sink and a door which he guessed led to a toilet. The entire space probably wasn’t broader than 60 square feet. “This doesn’t look like a plane.”
“It isn’t. It’s a trailer. But the trailer is inside the plane.”
Lover gave up, closed his eyes and slumped back. “OK, whatever, I’m just going to let that one go for now. Would I regret it if I asked how I got here?”
“That depends on how modest you are.”
“Well, you were naked as the day you were born when I found you. That might embarrass some men, given the context.”
“What?!” Lover sat bolt upright, eyes fully open now. He recognized the woman sitting on the narrow bench beside him (it was hard to forget someone so strikingly beautiful), but the name escaped his concussed brain. “Gaum Trout? Goom Tret? I’m sorry, but I’m terrible with names.”
“It’s Glaum Traubt,” she answered, brushing a perfect sable bang back across a flawless cheek with achingly elegant fingers. “But everyone calls me GT for short. Gaum is such an ugly name, and besides, I really love Gin and Tonics.”
“No, I mean really, really love. At least, in so far as I know what that means. Emotions aren’t my long suit, and I have an EQ of, like, 12.”
With the sleeping bag bunched around his waist, Lover hugged himself and shivered. “It’s freaking cold in here.”
“It tends to get that way in the cargo hold of a C-17.”
“You know my next question.”
“Why are we in an airstream trailer in the hold of a C-17?”
“No. I was going to ask why you have my windbreaker.”
“Because it’s cold.”
“Exactly. It’s cold and I’m freezing and you have my windbreaker. It’s kind of a subtle hint.”
“I’m terrible at subtle hints, it’s the whole low EQ thing.” GT shrugged, her slender figure almost lost within the black nylon jacket. “Anyway, as for the question you didn’t ask, the answer is that we’re en route to Ulan Bator.”
“The Lover refuses to go on any more of these ridiculous missions. I don’t mind the idea of getting shot by a sniper, or blown up by an IED. But riled up kittens are a whole different kettle of fish.”
“You’re lucky he didn’t use the fish. That’s another one of their techniques, and it’s even worse than the kittens. Besides, what’s this ‘Lover’ business?”
“The Lover will now only refer to himself in the third person until you say something that makes sense.”
“That might be a while. You’re going to have to learn the White Queen trick if you want to keep your marbles in your melon.”
“The White Queen trick?”
“The ability to believe six impossible things before breakfast.”
“Speaking of which, I’m starving.”
“Have a pop-tart.” GT tossed him a foil wrapped package.
“And give me my damn windbreaker.”
With a sigh, GT pulled off the jacket and tossed that over as well, her black t-shirt now revealing perfectly sculpted arms.
Now warmer, Lover mumbled through a mouth full of strawberry cream fragments, “Thanks. Now, the Lover may be willing to start using first person pronouns if you can explain what happened back there.”
“Nothing too dramatic.”
“It seemed pretty dramatic to me.”
“Just straightforward personnel recovery. Fortunately, your pal wasn’t on particularly friendly territory, and only had two locals as backup. They weren’t much trouble, and a flashbang grenade did the trick on him. Was in and out in under five.”
“Didn’t anybody notice?”
“Sure, they noticed, but that doesn’t mean they understood. Stuff like that in India happens all the time. I’m sure there’s a dozen different journalists and intell analysts writing up stories about another LeT or Indian Mujahedin terrorist attack. Very few know who the Vulcans are, and nobody knows who we are.”
“The Jewish-Hindu-Jihadi terrorists are called Vulcans? As in Star Trek?”
“No. Vulcans, as in the early Bush national security team. It was kind of an ironic joke at the time, but it stuck. You’re lucky I showed up. Vikram Singh is one of their most dangerous operatives.”
“You know him?”
“You mean in the biblical sense?”
“No, of course not. Why would I ask something so stupid?”
“Actually, it happens more than you would suspect in these circles. But anyway, we’ve had a run in or two over the years. If he’s involved, something serious must be going on.”
“Is that why you showed up?”
“No. I just happened to be in the area, so popped over when I heard you were in trouble.”
“Popped over from where?”
“I was in Lahore. Twenty ISAF container trucks got lost en route from Karachi to Torkham Gate, and I was trying to track them down.”
“What was in them? Weapons? Sensitive commo gear?”
“Ice cream and cake. We think Al Q’aida is planning a party. And that’s never a good sign.”
“So this is what you do for Admiral? You alternate between sleuthing for party treats and killing terrorists.”
“Whatever, something like that. You know, it’s like being an apprentice to a Pirate Captain.”
“Like he wears an eye-patch and drinks rum?”
“Not usually, but he does love ham, and there’s frequently lots of roaring.”
Lover shook his head, trying to clear it and wondering whether he might seriously have a concussion. “Listen, I’m not sure why I’m here, but how did you get into this line of work? Whatever this line of work might actually be.”
“Well, I was at Stanford working narrative algorithms, and was recruited to work on General Mills’ personal staff. Apparently, for senior combat commanders, a civilian female academic advisor has become quite the ‘must have’ fashion accessory – kind of like a Moleskine notebook. But just before I showed up, apparently Mills had some indiscretions with a woman described as a ‘SVTC 9.’ I think it blew over, but his staff were worried what might happen if he spent too much time around a ‘real world 10’ – their words, not mine, by the way – so I was reassigned and ended up in Admiral’s outfit.”
“Perfectly reasonable. Listen, I think it might be more helpful for me to pass out again now.”
“Wouldn’t you rather shag?”
Lover sat up again and stared at her. GT’s expression looked perfectly serious, though there was something unsettling about the way her eyes drifted slightly and didn’t quite meet his. Beautiful as she was, there was an uncanny valley aspect to her, as if the animation wasn’t quite right.
“Umm. That was rather direct.”
“Well, I have seen you naked, and there’s nothing much to do for the rest of the flight. Besides, that wasn’t a ‘no’.”
“Er, I suppose it was more of a ‘can I think about this’?”
“I get that response surprisingly often.”
“It’s your delivery.”
“Like I said, I’m not good with emotions and all that people stuff. And when I got my EQ score of 12? I was cheating to get a better grade.”
“Um, right. So. Any objection if I do go back to sleep? I am awfully tired.”
“Actually you can’t. That’s one reason I offered something to keep you distracted. But with your concussion, you need to stay awake for a while to make sure everything is in working order. Offer still stands.”
“Seriously, no. It’s awful generous of you, but my kitten scars hurt. Couldn’t you read me a book or a newspaper?”
“I could tell you a story, though I’m not very good at it.”
Lover scooted back against the wall of the trailer, worming just a few more inches away from the stunning woman beside him. “Sure, fine, whatever.”