True History – An Imperial Farce Part 9

Miram Shah
Salutations Templeton wiped the dust from his tortoise-shell Persol sunglasses with the hem of his purple scarf. Placing them back on, he peered through the searing, shimmering heat of North Waziristan and watched an approaching plume of dust rolling up the dirt road from town. His own Toyota Landcruiser was parked out of sight in the ravine below, and he waited, sweating through the cotton, for his new ride to arrive.
The dirt streaked, white Toyota Corolla finally skidded to a halt with a spray of gravel into the small patch of shade from a plane tree, where Templeton stood sipping from a corrugated plastic water bottle. The doors banged open, releasing a clamor of tape cassette sermons at maximum volume, to be followed by a giant of a man – his six foot two frame exaggerated by an impossibly teetering turban. All billowing beard and jangling photographer vest, he embraced Templeton warmly, smiling below aviator sunglasses.
“Welcome, my brother,” the bearded man boomed. “I hope you haven’t been waiting too long. I fear our mountain sun might be a bit much for the fair-skinned likes of plainsmen like you.”
Templeton smiled wanly, “It only means we are closer to God. And who can complain of that, Nasruddin? Though I’ll admit, it seems to me unwise to meet in such lonely surroundings. The drones don’t strike in town, and we would be much safer there.”
“Safe? Pah!” Nasruddin spat into the dust. “The sheikh fears nothing in his mountain fortress. Besides, the Americans won’t be tracking us. I gave my old Nokia to my cousin’s husband. He’s a worthless lout, and it will serve him right if the Americans blow him up. Besides, I have a new iPhone. See?”
Templeton dutifully admired the black rectangle glinting in a gnarled paw. “I admit, I was tempted to get one as well. But I went with an Android. It allows more customizable, open architecture software, while you’ll be locked in with Apple.”
“Don’t worry, my cousin Hazrat is a techno-wiz, he can reprogram anything.”
“Your cousin Hazrat? Hazrat is so stupid, if you gave him your Apple, he would try to eat it.”
Nasruddin laughed and thumped the other man on the back. “Maybe so, maybe so. But it’s still a wonder. Last time I was in Peshawar, I downloaded two programs from iTunes. One for calculating sniper ranges, and another for determining indirect fire azimuth and elevation – both developed by American soldiers. I used them during a raid on FOB Lilley two weeks ago, and killed three kaffirs. Shabash!”
Shabash indeed,” Templeton agreed noncommittally. “Regardless of which phone you’re using, though, I think we’ve probably stayed in one place out in the open long enough. Perhaps we should be moving again?”
“Ok, ok,” Nasruddin ushered back to the car. “You sit in back, with my uncle Yusuf. My nephew Musifir can drive.”
With all four men packed tightly into the car, Templeton’s lavender perfume was quickly overwhelmed by the smell of sweat and unwashed clothes. His companion in the backseat looked like an ancient version of Nasruddin, the bushy beard now snow white, and the glasses perched on the crooked hawk-nose were now black-rimmed reading glasses rather than aviators. Similarly, Musifir looked like a teenaged embryonic version, sunglasses almost ludicrously outsized above sharp cheeks, and his chin boasting only the first aspirations of the thatch yet to bloom.
Musifir turned the ignition. “Please, uncle, may I use your phone? For the compass.”
“Why do you need a compass? The road is straight,” Nasruddin answered. “But, OK, you can try it.”
“Our boys these days are growing weak and unskilled,” Yusuf objected from the backseat. “Soon they will not even be able to read a map.”
“What are you grousing about, old man?” Nasruddin replied. “You don’t know how to read, period.”
“In my day, the mujahedin did not need to read, map or paper. We knew the land, and the land knew us.”
“Of course, of course,” Nasruddin laughed. “Back when the mujahedin were real men and had to march back and forth twenty miles every day to the jihad. Through the snow. Uphill, Both ways. Was that in the jihad against the Russians? Or the British? Or maybe the Greeks? It’s not like the old days, uncle, and it never was.”
“Well,” the old man grumped, “Your phone is haram anyway.”
“Why is a phone haram?”
“Because that phone shows the image of man, which is reserved for Allah alone.”
Nasruddin scowled, and then reached into a bag on the seat. “Well, don’t look at this then, uncle, I don’t want to endanger your immortal soul.”
Templeton began to feel slightly queasy, trying hard not to breathe in a stench that was filling the car, far more pungent and sickly sweet than mere body order. “I hate to interrupt,” he interrupted. “But what is that awful smell?”
“Oh, that? Don’t mind about that. It’s just a spy we shot in town and shoved his body in the trunk. We’re going to dump the corpse with a note in the next village.” Nasruddin waved away the concerns as he shifted to lean his upper body over the seat. “Now look at this, brother, I also have an iPad!”
“iPhones? iPads?” Templeton laughed. “I think the boys from Abpara are compensating you rather too handsomely.”
“It’s OK,” Nasruddin reassured. “We have more money than we can spend. USAID is building a new district center and medical facility across the border, and since we own all the contracting companies, we’re making profit like mad. Of course, once it’s finished, we’ll blow it up. Then they can pay us to build it again. I hope this war never ends.”
“Don’t we all,” Templeton said.
“Anyway,” Nasruddin began to drag his fingers across the tablet. “I wanted to show you a few of our new proposals you might be able to help us with. Look, I put this together in Keynote, which is much better than PowerPoint.”
“Tell him about the body bomb, uncle,” Musifir pleaded.
“Not now, boy.”
“Please, uncle?”
“Fine,” Nasruddin sighed in resignation. “The boy thinks it would be a good idea to use surgery to put a bomb inside someone’s body. That way they could pass any security check ever. Once inside the target area, we could detonate it remotely with a cell phone.”
“Thanks for the idea, kid,” Templeton laughed. “We actually tried that with a couple of particularly unhelpful prisoners. Turns out the body mass absorbs most of the explosion, and you don’t get much impact. But anyway, you saw that in Batman, didn’t you?”
“Western movies are haram,” Yusuf objected again.
Nasruddin ignored him, eager to get back to his pitch. “Well, as you know, we have a fairly robust movie industry around Peshawar. We spend about half our effort making beheading videos, to inspire the jihad; and about half making Bollywood style dramas, to make profit to fund the jihad.”
“Bollywood is haram.”
“Anyway, it occurred to me that maybe we could have a bigger impact if we tried a different approach.” Galloping horses appeared on the screen to the accompaniment of an Elmer Bernstein soundtrack. “You see, we remake the Magnificent Seven, or the Seven Samurai, or even just dub the originals in Pashto. The peasants are the Afghans, the bandits are ISAF, and the heroes are the mujahedin. I bet it would be even more popular than Titanic.”
“Stealing intellectual property is haram.”
Nasruddin threw down the tablet with a growl. “Are you addled, old man?” He roared. “Why is everything haram with you?”
Yusuf’s frail old body shrank into the corner of the seat. “I just like the word,” he answered meekly, as the car suddenly began to shake and rattle as it ran off the shoulder of the road.
“Stop texting, and pay attention to your driving,” Nasruddin growled, as he snatched the iPhone from Musifir’s hand.
Templeton sighed and buried his head in his hand. “Is this all you called me down here for?”
Nasruddin looked suddenly abashed, well, as abashed as a six foot two bearded guerilla fighter with hand grenades hanging from his chest can look. “Well, mostly. I thought you were interested in media things.”
“I am interested in those things. But what I’m really interested in is what I’m paying you for. You know that thing I told you to look for? That thing I need you to find? Any luck with that?”
“Um, no, not yet. But I’m working on it, and all the new technology will help. I think there’s an app for that.”
Templeton raised his face wearily. “Do you like stories about Mullah Nasruddin?”
“But I’m not a mullah.”
“Not you, Nasruddin. Mullah Nasruddin, like the stories your grandfather probably told you.”
“My grandfather was crushed by a Russian tank, peace be upon him. My grandfather I mean, not the tank.”
“Anyway, so just listen. One day Mullah Nasruddin was up working on his roof and a stranger came by.”
“Did he shoot him?” Musifir asked eagerly.
“Who? Nasruddin or the stranger?”
“No, neither of them shot the other. The stranger said he had a question to ask Nasruddin, and the Mullah had to come all the way down the ladder to hear it. Now Nasruddin was an old man by now, so it was a long painful climb down. At the bottom, the stranger asked for money. Nasruddin thought for a minute, then replied, ‘I have to give my answer on the roof.’ After they both made the long painful, climb back up, Nasruddin said, ‘My answer is no.’ And sent him on his way. Is any of this getting through that thick mountain skull of yours?”
“I would have shot him,” Musifir opined.
“Shut up,” Nasruddin snapped.
“Sorry, uncle. But tell him about my other idea.”
“What other idea?”
“The one about the flash mob.”
“Is that the movie about the American whore dancer?” Yusuf squeaked. Nasruddin slapped him in the head with the iPhone and the old man fell silent again.
“No, no, uncle,” Musifir protested. “That’s Flashdance. I’m talking about a flash mob.”
“What’s that?”
“It’s where a bunch of people are moving around in a public place, like the bazaar or the train station, and they seem like normal people to everyone else.”
“And then an IED blows up?”
“And then a suicide bomber conducts a martyrdom operation?”
“No. And then, at an agreed upon time, they all start to dance. And since they practiced, it seems like it was all synchronized.”
“And then they start killing everyone?”
“No. Then everyone is surprised and happy. There’s lots of videos on the net.”
Nasruddin was about to beat the boy with his phone, when suddenly the car went off the road again. But not onto the shoulder. Off the road, as in, off the ground and into the air. They were still soaring forward when they heard the enormous detonation behind them and felt the heat wave of the fireball. They came crashing back to earth, and the expanding pressure shoved them forward like a giant’s hand playing with a Hot Wheels car.
“Drones!” Templeton shrieked, in a voice even more effeminate than usual. He was an extraordinarily shrewd and cunning man, but cunning isn’t courage, and he had visibly paled beneath his rouge and lipstick.
“Drive! Drive!” Nasruddin roared, as a shaken Musifir stepped on the gas.
“I told you this was a bad idea,” Templeton wailed. “We should have met in town.”
“They didn’t track my phone,” Nasruddin snarled back. “It’s probably your damned Android. Everyone knows Apple has better security.”
There was another roar and another explosion, and this time the Corolla went tumbling end over end. Templeton’s ears were still ringing with the shrill sound of tearing metal and breaking glass as he crawled away through brittle grass. Wiping the blood from his eyes, he turned back in time to see Nasruddin stagger from the wreckage, just before one of the grenades on his vest caught on the twisted door handle. Hmmm, Templeton thought, he had never heard a Mullah Nasruddin story that ended with an explosion of blood and ragged chunks of flesh. Something to think about for the future.
Nauru (aka an “undisclosed” location, which I suppose now makes it a “disclosed” location)
In what was becoming a definite trend, Lover woke with a groan and a pounding headache. Yet again, he first opened his eyes to see GT sitting nearby and gazing out into the distance, legs folded in the lotus position, her spine extraordinarily straight. Her hair was pulled up in a pony-tail, revealing a graceful neck that just cried out for a kiss. Too bad she was just so weird, Lover thought. You know what else is weird, Lover thought, this time she wasn’t sitting on a window bench, but rather on a smooth sweep of white sand. Really, really white sand. And this time, the horizon was an endless expanse of blue sea. Really, really blue sea. As his senses returned, he could hear the gentle lap of the surf on the shore, and the distant, fainter sound of reggae music. He wasn’t entirely sure, but he thought he could smell a whiff of ganja.
Lover wasn’t quite ready to risk raising his head, so when he spoke, he got sand in his mouth. Really, really white sand. “So, um, hello? I presume for some mysterious reason I’m not dead. At least, not yet. So where are we? Guantanamo?”
“They don’t let you lie on the beach at Guantanamo,” GT didn’t stir or move her head.
“Wow, I’m so not in a state for twenty questions right now. Could you possibly be a little less enigmatic?”
His only answer was the sigh of the wind.
“So I guess that would be a no?” He asked more or less rhetorically, before closing his eyes again and sagging back into the warm sand. It was very warm, he admitted to himself, and very soft. And so very, very much better than an Indian train, or the back of a C-17, or the lashed rails of a rendition gurney. So maybe he wouldn’t complain for now. Maybe he would just relax and listen to the wind and the waves and the distant music that sounded like someone was having a party somewhere. Drifting back to sleep, he thought, this isn’t so bad.
“This is the Republic of Nauru.”
GT’s voice brought Lover back to waking, and he opened his eyes to watch her unfold from her yoga pose and brush the sand from what was really a very shapely ass. It was such a shame about the weirdness thing. In turn, he sat up, shaking the sand from his hair as she approached with long, elegant strides. Without a word, she dropped to her knees in front of him and clasped his face in her hands.
“Look at me,” she commanded.
Unable to resist, Lover stared back into eyes the strange icy blue-gray of a melting glacier. Painfully lovely, but there was still that weird vacant look, as if she were staring through, not at, him. A long minute went by, and Lover shivered. Oh God, he thought, she’s going to try to kiss me.
“Don’t worry,” GT answered the unspoken words. “I’m not going to try to kiss you. I’m checking for evidence of concussion. You’ve got a big swollen knob on the back of your noggin, and they must have given you quite a farewell wallop before they tossed you out here.”
“And where, precisely, is here? I mean in a sense more precise that just the Republic of Naboo or whatever, not that I even know what that is.”
After a moment longer , she let go and stood up, motioning for him to follow. “Come on, I’ll show you. You probably wouldn’t believe me if I just told you.”
GT was right. He wouldn’t have believed it. The sound of Bob Marley grew louder as they walked between a line of palm trees and the white ripples of waves washing around coral outcrops. The castaway emptiness was finally relieved when they turned a bend in the shore to find a white clapboard building with a tar-papered roof. Rickety and dilapidated, it was perched precariously on a rocky outcropping; and in some places, the covered boardwalk porch which surrounded the building proper actually extended out over the churning surf. This was the source of the music which came floating back to them on a warm breeze, which also carried the smell of barbeque and marijuana. Lover was suddenly ravenous.
“Suddenly, I’m feeling ravenous,” Lover remarked.
“Don’t worry, it’s all you can eat,” GT reassured him. “Hamburgers, hot dogs, ribs, corn on the cob.”
“And beer?”
“And beer.”
“Camels regular and light, Kool menthols, and the ones with the funny weed.”
“OK, maybe I did die and go to Heaven,” Lover wondered. “But on other hand, if I did die, I wouldn’t go to Heaven; and even if this was heaven, you wouldn’t be in it.”
“Fair enough. But you didn’t die, and this isn’t Heaven. This is the Nauru Detention Center.”
“Nauru Detention Center? Never heard of it.”
“You’re not supposed to have. That’s the point.”
They walked up the creaking wooden steps and passed through an open door into a broad common room, with three sides pierced by open windows looking out to the sea and shore. On the fourth side was a counter which accessed a canteen-cum-café, and Lover made a bee-line for cigarettes, beer and French fries. In that order.
“How am I supposed to pay?” He asked.
GT shook her head. “No need, it’s an all inclusive package.”
Sustenance in hand, Lover looked around for somewhere to sit. Most of the couches and chairs were occupied by a variety of vaguely Middle Eastern or South Asian looking men. Some looking at what appeared to be porn magazines, some watching soccer on TV, a few clustered around a set of screens in one corner apparently playing Xbox, and some just lounging while they smoked and gazed out at the horizon.
“Not that I’m complaining,” Lover said, “But this feels more like a rundown summer camp than a detention center.”
“An apt description, but this is something of an experiment. Come on, let’s go sit outside.”
They threaded their way through the sofas and coffee tables and out on to the porch, where they found an unoccupied picnic table.
“You see,” GT explained. “The various authorities learned that something like Guantanomo or Bagram is almost impossible to sustain indefinitely in terms of costs and manpower, not to mention legality. Why not just dump the undesirables someplace they can never escape for all practical purposes and leave them to their own devices?”
“And that’s what this is?”
“If you took a map and looked for the spot which was most precisely in the absolute middle of nowhere, that would be Nauru. It’s barely 20 square kilometers of land, 300 kilometers from the next nearest island. There’s an excuse for a town on the other side of the island with an airstrip, but there are very few flights and can be easily monitored. And since there’s no discernible industry or economy, ships almost never come to call. That’s partly how they were able to do this.”
“Well, it’s not completely deserted, though the population is less than Vatican City, and they do have something like a government – people who wouldn’t normally be eager to accept a free roaming population of alleged terrorists and other miscreants. But they’ve been forced to be creative in raising funds. From time to time, they’ll offer to diplomatically recognize some breakaway country or dubious junta for a hefty fee, buying respectability in the UN, where they have a seat. Then for a while, they served as a useful laundering site for Russian mob money. And they’ve even served as a detainee destination for various sorts of undesirables before, so this was a natural fit.”
“I guess that kind of makes sense, but what about all…this?” Lover waved vaguely with his cigarette to encompass the Xboxes and the porn and the booze.
This is where the experiment comes in. For all the detention centers like these, the idea was always to eventually rehabilitate the inmates so they could be released. Give them job skills, teach them the peaceful meaning of Islam – the lesser jihad and the greater jihad. All that sort of stuff. But it practically never worked, and they never changed – or faked it and then went right back to whatever it was that got them detained in the first place. So someone had an idea to try a different approach. Instead of trying to make better Muslims, or better citizens or whatever; why don’t we try indulging all the appetites that make Westerners weak, apathetic and lazy? Booze, pot, porn and video games. All are amazingly cheap compared to what gets spent on high security confinement facilities and byzantine behavior modification regimes. And if they have all that, they’ll eventually lose whatever motivation drove them to violence or crime or religious extremism. They might not even ever want to leave.”
“Hell, I don’t want to leave,” Lover said as he drained a Miller light, and popped the top off another.
“Well, that’s not really an option….”
GT was interrupted by the approach of a slender woman, with skin the color of coffee crème on ample display in cut-off shorts and a too tight NYPD t-shirt. Pushing a jet-black pony tail back over her shoulder, she sat down at their table and immediately snatched one of Lover’s French fries.
“Sorry to barge in, GT,” she said with a lilting accent, somewhere between Mumbai and London. “But Dmitri is in his cups again. I’m certain he was about to start his Great White Squirrel rant again, and I just couldn’t take it.”
“Dmitri?” Lover asked.
“Mad Russian,” GT explained. “But he’s the only other inmate who speaks English, so the three of us – now four of us – are more or less forced into a small club. By the way, this is Nisha Khatri.”
“Charmed,” Lover said with a grin as he offered his hand. “I’m…”
“Chris Lover, yes I know,” Nisha cut in. “I’ve heard all about you. Besides, I’ve been reading some of the stories on the Internet.”
“The Internet?”
“Yes, we have surprisingly good broadband connections here. Mostly to facilitate all the porn these guys download, I suspect.”
“But why are there stories about me on the Internet? Old girlfriends bearing a grudge?”
“I wouldn’t be surprised,” Nisha laughed. “And I would adore reading some, if I could find them. But sadly, no, at least not that I’m aware of. Mostly stories about the adventures of you and your friends.”
“What?!” Lover turned to GT. “I thought this was all supposed to be secret squirrel stuff.”
“Oh, relax,” GT said. “It’s all creative writing fiction. Don’t worry.”
“You know,” Nisha went on. “People like you really should read more. Your enemies certainly do. You know, like actual books. Maybe that’s the side benefit of sitting in a cave or a house in Abbottabad for years. You have time to actually read and think. Like this place. I think your so called ‘Information Dominance’ with a thousand e-mails and powerpoints keeps anyone from understanding a topic which can’t be summarized in 15 words or less; or think in time frames beyond three months. It’s a strategic liability.”
“It’s OK,” GT interjected. “Nisha’s an academic, when she’s not a prisoner. They talk like this.”
“Oh, I don’t mind. Please go on,” Lover wasn’t hearing much of the words, just the lovely voice. So long as she went on talking, he could go on looking at her – which was a very easy thing to do. And she wasn’t the least bit weird.
Before the melodious sing-song voice could resume, they were distracted by a clamor from inside.
“What you mean, no more goddamn rum?” A Russian accent roared. “I want my goddamn rum! But if you got no rum, give me goddamn whiskey.”
A pint glass of whiskey sloshing in his hand, the peculiar figure turned, stumping away from the canteen and out onto the porch. A grimy sailor hat perched jauntily on his head and a corn cob pipe clenched between scowling lips, his heavy bulk teetered awkwardly as he lurched forward on the wooden peg which served as the lower half of his right leg. He slammed the drink down on the picnic table and sat down to sulk.
After a few moments of awkward silence, Lover turned to GT. “This is Dmitri, I presume?”
GT nodded with a shrug, and Lover turned to their new companion, who was moodily staring into his whiskey and grinding the pipe between dull, yellow teeth. “I thought Russians drank vodka,” Lover said.
“Vodka here is piss,” Dmitri growled. “Besides, I am sailor, and sailors drink rum.”
“Oh,” Lover replied. “Is that why you have the wooden leg? Accident at sea?”
“No, lost leg on land in summer of ’87,” Dmitri began.
“Oh god, no…” Nisha groaned, but it was too late.
Dmitri leaned forward towards Lover, a zealot’s gleam in his eyes, and an alcoholic’s apple blossoms in his cheeks. “Just outside Chernobyl, when it was still No Man’s Land. That’s when I meet him…Great White Squirrel. Size of full grown hog, maybe size of horse, and white as winter snow. Damn squirrel gnaws Dmitri’s leg and leaves him to bleed out in wilderness.”
“Wow,” Lover said. “Was he, like, some kind of radioactive super-squirrel?”
“Don’t encourage him, Chris,” Nisha urged. “Can I call you Chris?”
“You can call me anything you like,” Lover answered.
Undeterred, Dmitri went on, momentum building. “Not super-squirrel. Evil squirrel. Teeth size of dinner plates, and red eyes blazing with fires of hell.”
“Really, please,” Nisha pleaded. “I can’t take hearing the whole thing again. You know, Dmitri, we were already having a conversation before you barged in. We were talking about stories.”
“Stories?” Dmitri perked up. “Dmitri likes stories. One time there was this squirrel…”
“No,” Nisha cut him off. “Not stories about Dmitri or squirrels. Stories about Chris and his friends.”
“They’re not my friends, by the way,” Lover interjected with a glare at GT. “More like…unfortunate professional associates.”
“We’re not unfortunate,” GT protested.
“Maybe not,” Lover replied. “But I have very definitely been unfortunate ever since I took up with you lot. Which I did under duress, I’ll have you note.”
“Regardless,” Nisha went on. “The stories are fascinating, in a post-modern sort of way.”
“Oh really?” Lover asked, his tone suddenly softening. “You find me fascinating?”
“Not you, exactly,” Nisha corrected with a gentle laugh. “But the stories themselves and the cast of characters. You and your ‘professional associates’ running back and forth across Asia, in this so-called ‘war’ of yours.”
“What’s so fascinating about it?” Lover asked. “I was there for most of it, and I mostly found it decidedly uncomfortable and annoying.”
“It’s just that they’re so….” Nisha mused, looking for the words. “They’re just so very ‘White.’ I mean you’re crashing around a continent with more than a billion brown people, and they rarely show up as more than bit players and stage props. You’re allegedly fighting a war, either for or against them, but they’re essentially an afterthought to whatever master narrative you’re playing out, in some kind of imperial farce. You can’t possibly really mean it, it’s more like, I don’t know, the WWF or something; and all the crashing folding chairs and pile drivers are just for show.”
“I think you mean WWE,” Lover gently corrected. “They changed the name years ago after the World Wildlife Fund objected.”
“Fucking hippies,” Dmitri snorted.
“I know,” Lover agreed eagerly, turning to his new found fellow fan. “It was so much better back in the day, with Hulk Hogan and Rowdy Roddie Piper.”
“And Cyndi Lauper,” Dmitri added with a leering grin.
“Jesus Christ,” GT spluttered. “What is this? A meeting of the fucking Goonies fan club?”
“Hey, I happen to like that movie,” Lover objected.
“Besides, how you talk like that?” Dmitri pointed an accusing finger at Nisha. “You Brit, right?”
“So?” Nisha replied.
“So, you had big goddamn empire once and play silly games. Just like Russians, just like Americans. But smarter.”
“Smarter how?”
“You knew you were losing, and got ready for hand off. Now you have Eshel..Eckelon…Esch… Fuck, I’m drunk.”
“I can see that.”
“Anyway, Brits, Americans, Canadians, Australians all share intelligence. It’s like special classification, “Imperial Secret.” And fight all your wars together. When Russians lost empire, gave it to no one, and just got shit left over. Americans, too. Who they going to give it to when they lose? China? Brazil?”
“You know, this is all really very fascinating,” GT coolly observed. “But now that Lover’s out, we need to start figuring a way off this rock.”
Lover’s eyes widened in mock horror, swilling a beer and drawing deeply on a Camel. “Why? This is the happiest I’ve been in months.”
“No doubt,” GT noted, her lips turned down in wry disapproval. “But our mission is much too important to abandon.”
“Yeah, I’ve heard that a lot, but as far as I can tell, our so-called mission is principally made up of me getting hit on the head, tasered, tortured and clawed by riled up kittens.”
“Kittens, I loved that part,” Nisha chuckled.
“Yeah, har de har,” Lover said. “Me, not so much. Anyway, you said so yourself, there’s no way off this island. They monitor the airstrip, and ships don’t come here. What are you gonna do, build some kind of Gilligan’s Island raft out of bamboo?”
“I know way,” Dmitri muttered into his drink.
“I wouldn’t recommend that,” Nisha said. “I was talking to some of the Pakistanis the other day, and they said a few guys tried the raft idea a month or two back.”
“And?” GT asked.
“And the inmates here sat on this porch and watched as the sharks ate them before they passed the outer coral reef.”
“See?” Lover jabbed with his cigarette. “Fucking sharks, man. Even you can’t fight fucking sharks.”
“I know way,” Dmitri gurgled again, looking up with bloodshot eyes.
“What’s that?” GT asked, suddenly attentive.
“I said, I know way,” the words enunciated with a drunk’s precise articulation.
“What? How?”
“Not what, not how, but who.”
“Okay. Who?”
“Captain Nemo.”
“Oh Christ,” GT waved dismissively. “You really are wasted.”
“No, wait a minute,” Nisha interjected. “I think I know who he’s talking about.”
“Me too, I’m not stupid. I’ve read the freakin’ book.”
“I’ve seen the movie,” Lover offered helpfully.
“No, no, I’m not talking about the Disney character,” Nisha went on.
“H.G. Wells, actually,” GT corrected.
“Anyway, it’s not a fictional character I’m talking about, though there is a flair for the dramatic about him. ‘Captain Nemo’ is the nom de guerre or nom de plume or nom de something of a real local character. He used to be a smuggler for the cartels in Colombia or Mexico, and he piloted a submarine to slip past the counter-narcotics patrols.”
“You’re kidding, an actual submarine?”
“I know it sounds crazy, but it’s completely true,” Nisha nodded vigorously. “Anyway, Nemo – I think his actual name is Matteo – was really more of a hippie than hardened mercenary. When the killing got out of control, he and his guys basically pulled a Red October and fled for the South Pacific. Rumor has it that he found an island with the remnants of a Cargo Cult still functioning, and he presented himself as the returning white god from the sea. Now he goes out on patrol every couple months and does a little trading so he can bring back tinned Spam and balloons and peanut butter, just enough to keep the cult alive. Generally tries to keep a low profile, so he sticks with out-of-the-way places like Nauru and Vanatau. But I can’t imagine he’d risk smuggling out inmates and chance getting involved with the authorities.”
Dmitri’s head was now down, cradled in his crossed arms, and he spoke into the whiskey soaked planks of the table. “Dmiti and Nemo in special club. Has to help if ask.”
“What kind of special club?” GT asked. “Like Freemasons or something?”
Dmitri mutely pulled up the sleeve of his t-shirt, revealing a tattoo of a rainbow.
“Holy shit,” Lover whistled. “I don’t believe it.”
“What?” GT asked, confused. “Is it some kind of gay pride thing? Dmitri doesn’t look gay. And he kept pinching my ass till I threatened to break his arm.”
“No,” Lover corrected. “That’s a Cutie Mark. Rainbow Dash, to be precise.”
“What’s a ‘Cutie Mark?’ And what’s a ‘Rainbow Dash?’ It still sounds gay.”
Lover shook his head. “Dmitri and this Nemo character must be Bronies.”
“Like girls who sell cookies and earn merit badges?”
“Not Brownies. Bronies. Bro’s who love Ponies.”
“Bestiality? I preferred gay-ness.”
“Not Bro’s who have sex with ponies. That’s probably some of the guys inside. Did you know Pakistan is among the top nations in the worlds for hits on bestiality internet sites?”
“No, I didn’t know that. Why do you?”
“That’s not important right now. Anyway, what I’m talking about is Bro’s who love Ponies, as in fans of the cartoon My Little Pony.”
“You mean the show I watched when I was a little girl?” Nisha asked.
“Not technically,” Lover replied. “The Brony movement is focused on the later, early 21st century version called ‘My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. MLP:FiM, for short.”
“Of course. And why do you know this?
“That’s not important right now. What is important is that Bronies will do anything for each other in an hour of need. I don’t know about this Nemo character and his alleged submarine. But if he’s a Brony, Dmitri’s right and we can count on him.”
“Why do I feel like I’ve suddenly fallen into a fever dream?” GT asked.
“Welcome to my world, sister,” Lover replied with a smile.
So this is how empires fall.
Vikram smiled grimly as he looked down on the ruined city from the right lane of the Ambassador Bridge. Detroit stretched away to the north, a patch work of ruined buildings and deserted neighborhoods and empty factories. He had heard they were withdrawing municipal services from some areas as the population dwindled – no more police or water or fire department. Marines, we are leaving! Other districts were planned for bulldozing, to be covered in topsoil and turned into urban farms. At what point does a city stop being a city, he wondered.
Night was falling as his ruby red Ford Mustang passed without trouble through the customs gate and wound its way down into the warrens of concrete. He had to admit, the support team had made an inspired choice in selecting Detroit as their center for North American operations. He had assumed they would pick someplace like Little India in Edison, New Jersey; but the entire East Coast was blanketed by Homeland Security types. But Detroit? Nobody cared about Detroit. Even though the Ambassador Bridge was the single busiest international portal into the U.S., followed closely by the Windsor Tunnel beneath the river just to the north. Even though the suburbs boasted one of the largest Arab communities in the U.S., so immigration officials at Detroit Metro were blasé about passports with exotic stamps. Even though the city government was a government in name only. The Americans had wasted an awful lot of blood, sweat and treasure worrying about ungoverned spaces in the Hindu Kush, Vikram chuckled to himself, when they should have been worrying about ungoverned spaces much closer to home.
He had deliberately arrived early for his evening rendezvous. Even though he knew and trusted most of his fellow operatives, there was no point in being needlessly unprepared; and despite the lax security at the customs crossing, he hadn’t cared to risk bringing a weapon across the border. Besides, it pleased his sense of irony to use the Detroit Institute of Arts as a cache drop, since the acronym echoed that other DIA – the Defense Intelligence Agency, which hunted him with such ardor but such little success. Parking the Mustang at a street side meter, he jogged up the steps to the museum’s neo-classical facade and passed into the entry hall. Dropping a five dollar bill into the donation box, he spent an idle half hour wandering through some of the galleries before returning to the coat and bag check near the entrance. In return for his ticket, he received a Halliburton Zero Carbon Graphite briefcase – the support team must be splurging.
Vikram was about to walk out the door, when he suddenly slowed his pace. He wasn’t superstitious enough to believe in some kind of spidey-sense, but he had recognized over the years that there was some kind of undefined sensory faculty, akin to peripheral vision, which alerted him when danger was near. It was one of the reasons he was still alive, and so he gave that sensation great respect. It was tickling at the back of his neck right now, and so he paused and scratched it as if thinking. Like someone who suddenly realized he should probably make a restroom stop before heading off on a long drive. He turned aside and walked back and down to the restroom. It was empty, and he paused for a few moments before flushing and turning on the sink. Washing his face, he looked into the mirror, bringing all his battlefield faculties back on line. He normally considered Detroit a relatively safe zone, and tended to lapse a bit. But with a few deep breaths and the wipe of a paper towel, he was ready.
Coming down the steps of the DIA, he waited patiently for the signal at the crosswalk and proceeded across the street into the Detroit Library – a similarly monumental structure opposite the Art Museum, both relics of the Motor City’s faded glory. The urban layout in this area was not ideal for surveillance detection or evasion, but Vikram didn’t really need either. Without looking, he was certain now that he was being tailed; but he was more curious than alarmed. Vikram didn’t want to lose his stalker, so much as draw him someplace where he could be dealt with discretely. He only wished he was dressed in something more appropriate for urban combat than a Brooks Brothers blazer, J.Crew khakis and ColeHaan loafers. Oh well, hopefully it made him appear deceptively harmless.
Passing through the central corridor of the library and under the enormous foyer globe, he emerged on the other side and entered the maze of buildings which made up the campus of Wayne State University, home of Casey Kasem. He knew the area well, and thought it fitting that many of the buildings at the heart of this city – symbol of America’s decline in one sense – were designed by the same architect behind the World Trade Center towers – symbol of America’s decline in another sense. The campus was empty at this hour, and Vikram disappeared into the shadows of Minoru Yamaski’s New Formalist colonnades, kneeling briefly to open the Halliburton case. Withdrawing the .45 ACP pistol, he quickly loaded the single magazine, and then emptied out the shaped foam casing. He briefly considered discarding the briefcase altogether, but the Carbon Graphite was really very nice.
Vikram remained in shadow, slowing his breathing as he listened carefully in the gloom.
Footsteps. A pause. More footsteps again, softer and slower this time. His stalker must be aware that the game was afoot now. Then, silence.
“Marco?” a voice called out from the shadows.
Er? Vikram wiggled a finger in his ear. He couldn’t have heard that right.
Silence, followed by footsteps. Then the same voice from another quarter. “Marco?”
Vikram wondered if he was beginning to lose his touch. Had he misread the situation from something far more banal?
The rustle of brush, then one more time. “Marco?”
Nonplussed and at a loss for what to do next, Vikram shrugged and answered. “Polo.”
The gunshot was instantaneous, the muzzle flare a brilliant burst, followed by a spray of concrete where the round struck, mere inches from Vikram’s head. He immediately fell forward in an Aikido roll, then crouched to move along behind a row of hedges. Well, at least that clarified things.
“Three blind mice, see how they run,” the voice went on, like a B-movie villain taunting a cheerleader.
But Vikram was no cheerleader, and his pistol answered the taunt with a roar. He heard a grunt, and then a curse. It was a random shot in the dark, but could it have been mortal?
Vikram’s Droid suddenly rattled in his jacket’s breast pocket. Surprised, he fumbled to mute it, but not before another round came his way, sending him scuttling. Ok, this was getting silly, he needed a plan. Glancing around, his eyes alighted on the statues which emerged from the sunken garden in front of the McGregor Center. Still crouched, he made his way over to the guard rail, then tossed a stone into the reflecting pool which surrounded the statues. Another shot splashed into the water. Bait taken. Vikram lowered himself over the side, then aped the twisted shape of a bronze figure, disappearing into its shadow. For a moment, he worried whether all the gunfire might draw the police, then reminded himself – this is Detroit. Benign neglect towards public violence was another good reason to choose the city as a hub for shadowy operations.
Soft footsteps announced someone descending the stairs into the garden.
“Round and round the mulberry bush,” the voice was singing quietly. “The monkey chased the weasel.”
The crunch of gravel only a few feet from Vikram’s statue.
“The monkey stopped to pull….”
Before the end of the phrase, Vikram spun sideways and up, the briefcase cracking into a shattered jaw, before the butt of the pistol came down on the back of a head.
“Pop goes the weasel,” Vikram spat down on the prone form lying before him. He then knelt and checked for a pulse. Good, still alive.
This wasn’t the most private place for an interrogation, but he didn’t have time to find someplace better, nor was he inclined to haul a dead weight around campus. Working quickly, Vikram stripped the man’s belt and used it to bind his hands behind his back, then pulled off the shoes, knotting the socks and stuffing them into the slack, gaping mouth. Cupping his hands into the reflecting pool, Vikram splashed the unconscious face with cold, slightly slimy water until it sputtered awake.
Brandishing the pistol briefly in a bright sliver from a far off street lamp, Vikram whispered, “OK, this is going to be as quick as you’re willing to make it. I’m going to pull that sock out, and you’re going to tell me who you work for. If you shout, I’ll shoot you. If you don’t talk, I’ll do something worse.”
Vikram removed the sock and waited expectantly.
“Fuck you,” a pale and sweating face hissed.
“Ok, so it’s going to be like that,” Vikram said with a resigned sigh. Pulling a Gerber folding knife from his pocket, Vikram took one of the man’s legs and braced it firmly to the ground with his knee. He then took a bare foot in his hand. “You like nursery rhymes, right? How about this one? This little piggy went to market, this little piggy stayed home. This little piggy had roast beef, this little piggy had none. And this little piggy went….”
“EEEeeeeeerrrr!” The strangled scream gurgled around the rolled up sock, now thick with drool and a little bit of vomit.
“You didn’t let me finish,” Vikram chided. “And this little piggy went wee, wee, wee, all the way home.”
Vikram tossed the severed toe into the pool with a splash, and waited again for some indication of compliance. Failing that, he returned to his nursery rhyme. Only the little piggy who went to market was still attached, before desperate grunts indicated he should pause. Vikram removed the gag and sat back on his haunches.
“Mink,” the man gasped, spitting and choking, really vomiting this time. “I work for Mink.”
Vikram paused for a moment, scratching his chin and thinking. Then with a flash, the knife went down and in, disappearing beneath the man’s chin and emerging somewhere inside his brain case before wiggling about a bit. When the death spasms subsided, Vikram pulled the knife out, washing both it and his hands in the reflecting pool before standing to survey the scene. He briefly considered trying to hide the body, but then again, this was Detroit. He stowed the pistol and knife, and picked up the Halliburton. Checking his watch, he figured he could still make his appointment on time. Good thing he decided to arrive early.
Somewhere beneath the Straits of Malacca
“We have a problem,” GT announced as she ducked to pass through the bulkhead door into the storage cabin where Lover had camped out. Originally designed to haul bulk shipments of cocaine, it was now littered with a sleeping bag, empty chip wrappers and a gallon milk jug full of urine.
“Don’t tell me,” Lover replied. “Giant squid?”
“No, something worse,” GT paused, wrinkling her nose. “My god, what is that smell? Smells like…ass and cat vomit.”
“Don’t bitch, this wasn’t my idea. I was perfectly happy with a beer on the beach. But ‘oh no,’ says you. ‘What about the mission,’ says you. ‘We have to save the world,’ says you. So here I stew, in a week’s worth of trash and my own waste.”
“You’re disgusting.”
“Tell me something I don’t know. Anyway, what’s the problem? You didn’t come back here to compliment me on my interior design choices.”
“Oh, yeah, well. I just couldn’t stand another minute forward with those two chuckleheads.”
“Too much Brony mania?”
“Listening to a drunk Russian and a Rastafarian submariner debate the relationship between My Little Pony’s Elements of Harmony and Augustinian theology is like having an ice pick driven into your ear. I think I may be getting medically stupid. There’s no way I’m going to last till Gwador with my sanity intact.”
“Gwador? I presume that’s our destination?”
“And just where is this Gwador?”
“Makran coast of Pakistan.”
Lover sat up straight, “We’re going back to fucking Pakistan? For god’s sake, why?”
“You know – the mission, saving the world and whatnot.”
“But, but, still…” Lover sputtered. “How did you talk Nemo into it? I mean helping a Brony out is one thing, but going half way around the world is a bit above and beyond the code.”
“It’s funny, but if you can convince someone they’re doing something super secret to save the world, they’ll do almost anything. Well, that, and maybe a little bit of cleavage. You’re still with us aren’t you, dumbass? You could have stayed there back on the beach.”
“Fuck you.”
“Really? I’m still game,” GT smiled suggestively. “What made you change your mind?”
Lover sighed and fell back against the bulkhead. “Oh, just shut up.”
Vikram pulled his Mustang into the parking lot of the Scarab Club, right alongside a red MiniCooper with a British Union Jack roof. Oh good, he thought, Templeton’s already here.
In fact, Templeton was standing outside the door, just beyond the mandatory exclusion line for the Virginia Slim he was drawing on through purple lipstick. In all elegant Ninja black, he was wearing a long cotton jacket with a Nehru collar, above tight leggings and tall leather boots. The red silk scarf draped against that background looked like a vicious wound. He waved daintily as Vikram approached.
“Salutations, Salutations,” Vikram said. “You look fabulous, I must say.”
“Thanks. You look like shit.”
Vikram looked down at himself and realized Templeton was right. His trouser and jacket were scuffed and grass stained, and his sleeves were damp with water and something thicker and darker. “Yeah, well, sorry about that. Had a diversion on the way. I’ll explain inside.”
“Will they let you in? You look like you rolled out of a gutter.”
“They have to let me in,” Vikram shrugged. “I’m a member.”
Templeton stubbed out his cigarette and the two men entered the club, leaving behind the barren streets of Detroit for ancient oak beams decorated with the doodles and signatures of countless artists and musicians. All gleaming wooden fixtures, and Arts and Crafts paintings, the club felt like it had been airlifted from some European hideaway and dropped in the middle of a modern urban ruin.
“This is quite a find,” Templeton observed approvingly. “How ever did you become a member?”
“I joined when I was getting my Master’s Degree in Architecture at the University of Michigan.”
“I didn’t realize you’d spent time in Ann Arbor. My aunt is a curator at the University Museum. Ever eat at Zingerman’s?”
“Don’t get me started. Incidentally, did you know there’s a very similar deli in Tampa? ‘Datz,’ I think it’s called. The owner went to cooking school with the Zingerman’s people or something.”
“Tampa? Ugh. What on earth were you doing there?”
“Back when I was in uniform – training exchange with Central Command.”
“Lovely, hope it was something useful.”
“More than they could have guessed,” Vikram laughed. “Counter-Intelligence. I’m sometimes tempted to call them up and let them know what I’m up to. Just to be a dick.”
“Fascinating,” Templeton said as he slid into a leather chair. “But I could really use a beverage just about know, ideally something with Hendriks gin.”
“You’re drinking again?” Vikram’s eyebrow arched.
“Allah can’t see me in America, and I so rarely get this chance.”
“How long have you been back?”
“About a week, something of a road trip. I wanted to stick with ground transport after a close call at LAX.”
“What happened? Were you tagged?”
“Almost. They were doing that creepy thing where they look at the computer, then back at your passport, then phone a friend. Lucky for me, they got distracted pat searching an 8 year old and making a 90 year old woman in a wheelchair take off her Depends diaper. God bless the TSA.”
“Even I will drink to that. Surely Allah smiled upon our endeavors when they stood up the TSA. But where were you going, anyway? I was surprised to hear you were State-side when they set this up.”

We were getting tippers about suspicious activity associated with the Federal Citizens’ Information center in Pueblo, Colorado. So I did a quick recce before coming up for this meeting.”
“Find anything interesting?”
“Very,” Templeton replied, then looked at his watch. “But after dinner, I’m famished.”
“Nice watch. New?”
“Marathon GSAR,” Templeton brandished the thick, heavy diver’s watch on a bright orange nylon band. “They’re issued to NASA search and rescue types. And it says ‘U.S. Government’ on the face, which I find precious. What are you wearing?”
“Timex Easy Read Indigo on a grosgrain ribbon band. It’s kind of part of the outfit – I put it together from the Unabashedly Prep website.”
“So bourgeois?”
“Know your enemy, etc. Besides, I was working on a project in western Massachusetts, and this sort of fit.”
“The Miskatonic Illicit Antiquities thing?”
“Partly. That operation has proven pretty fruitful, particularly in conjunction with our Gallerie LaCroix here in Detroit. I was using that network to collect on what I suspect was an enemy courier, but someone else picked her up before we could close the net. But it’s also developed an unexpected role as an outside income generator. Turns out, it generated so much interest from oddball research types, that we set up an associated shell online degree program. Arkham University. We even established office spaces in the old Northampton Lunatic Asylum, perfect Kirkbride-style aesthetics. I haven’t quite worked up the cheek to offer a course in the Necronomicon, but there are enough pseudo-science buffs willing to pay for degrees in everything from paranormal investigation to ancient aliens and the occult. We’re making a mint, since Americans increasingly find that sort of rubbish credible. God bless the History Channel. And Batman.”
“Yes, and Batman,” Templeton replied. “Funny you should say that, since I recently had another Batman-related conversation in very incongruous circumstances. The FATA, of all places.”
“Did Nasruddin’s guys find what we were looking for?”
“No, they just managed to get themselves blown up with poor OPSEC, and very nearly took me with them.” Templeton pursed his purpled lips and shook his head. “That was a dry hole. But Pueblo proved quite different.”
“You’re holding out on me, Salutations. And I’ve had a really long day.”
“The diversion?”
Vikram nodded. “Just had an attempted hit. It was an amateur, but still – here in Detroit of all places.”
“Admiral’s people?”
“No. Mink’s.”
Templeton’s eyes narrowed and he tapped a deep violet painted nail against perfect teeth. “That fits, actually. I recently got word from one of our intermediaries that he wanted us to back off the Ouroboros crowd for a while. Threatened to shut down our heroin godowns in Nangarhar if we didn’t. But this ups the ante a bit. Do we need to take him out?”
“Not yet. For one thing, he’s too dangerous and we still need him. For another, I don’t think this was a serious attempt, or he would have sent a pro. I think this was just a message.”
“So far as I’m concerned, the message is that we must be getting close, or we wouldn’t be getting so much pushback. Especially in light of what I found in Pueblo.” Templeton reached into his black calfskin handbag, and pulled out an envelope with a ‘Day’s Inn’ crest on the flap.
Vikram opened the envelope and read the single sheet of paper inside.
E.O.S. 71629
Vikram let the paper fall to his lap, his dark features ashen. “They’re really going to do it, those bastards,” he breathed.
“Damn dirty apes,” Templeton agreed. “We may only have this one piece and the other fragment from Colombo, but from what we can infer about the other material, they’re serious.”
“How much have Admiral’s people recovered?”
“Can’t be certain. But from the flurry of recent activities and some of our intercepts, I would say well more than half. It won’t be long now.”
“But we still don’t know who’s behind this, not really.”
“You don’t think it’s Ouroboros?”
“I’m not sure. If it were, why would they be chasing this down, rather than moving out with execution?”
“Maybe they just want to cover their tracks? Make sure there’s no record? If this got out, the damage could be enormous.”
“Not as enormous as if they do it. Any word on Admiral’s movements?”
“Regional Command-East, last I heard.”
“That’s odd, not part of his normal pattern,” Vikram chewed nervously at a hangnail before dropping his hand in his lap with a frustrated sigh. “You know, sometimes I think about hanging it up.”
“Why? And why now?”
“I’m getting too old for this shit, frankly.”
“But, Vikram, just think. We actually do things, we change the world. Our enemy is reactive. Counter insurgency, counter terrorism, counter terrorism, counter narco-crime-illicit commerce-trafficking and so on and so on. Really, they do no-thing, and leave the world the same rotten place of injustice they found it.
“If they carry out Jabberwocky, it’ll bloody well be a new world,” Vikram laughed bitterly. “And anyway, what’s so wrong with the world as it is? After a decade of this, it’s who we are. In a new world, we would be like tired old American generals training endlessly to fight the Soviets in the Fulda Gap. We too are in danger of becoming a John Le Carre cliché. You almost sound envious of whoever’s behind this. Would you too want to change the world, however horrible the costs?”
“You’re being melodramatic.”
“You’re sounding kaffiri. Maybe they’ll denounce you at the next jirga.”
“Look at me, Vik, could I possibly be any more kaffiri? Of course I am, but I’m in so long as the checks get signed. Anyway, whining aside, what are you going to do now?”
“I guess I’m going back to Afghanistan,” Vikram sagged forward, head in his hands. “Maybe it’s just a matter of principle now, but I’m going to catch up with Admiral before this all ends.”


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