Peshawar. They were back in Peshawar. Well almost.
“My ass hurts,” Quigley moaned. “And you’re making my legs numb.”
Every seat in the packed mini-bus was doubled up, and Chuck twisted on Quigley’s lap.
“I think I’m going to be sick,” Chuck croaked.
“Well, do it out the window then.” Quigley bucked his legs, pushing the other man up and over till his head was hanging out the open window.
With a choke and a grunt, Chuck spewed out his guts in a liquid spray, contributing another yellow-brown line to the tiger stripes which decorated the side of the bus. Swaying for hours down from the Khyber Pass to the plains below, more than half the passengers had left a little something of themselves, either along the sides or pooling on the floor of the bus. Unexpectedly, the broken down Mercedes jerked to a stop, the sudden lurch forcing Chuck to puke yet again.
He fell back against Quigley, wiping vomit from his mouth. “Thank god, we’ve stopped,” Chuck whispered. Wriggling to find a comfortable position, he froze. “DQ, if you’ve got a hard-on, I swear to Christ I will puke on your fucking head.”
Their exchange was interrupted when gun shots echoed from the broken countryside around them, and a murmur of rising panic rippled backwards through the cramped passengers.
“Um, hold that thought,” Quigley suggested. “This can’t be good.”
They soon found themselves pulled from their seats and hustled forward amongst a tangle of frightened, sweaty bodies. Through the windows, they glimpsed motorcycles and white pickups, and bearded men with guns. Lots of guns.
Out in the blazing sunlight and suffocating heat, the passengers were herded and sorted, men separated from women, and all separated from their valuables. It took a moment for the bandits to see through the sweat and grime and sunburn before they realized they had two Westerners in their clutches, but when they did, a long, loud ululation rose into the air. Quigley and Chuck soon found themselves pulled away from the crowd by their hair, and then thrown face down into the gravel. Booted feet held them down, while fierce voices passed back and forth above them.
“What are they saying?” DQ whispered.
Chuck paused for a moment, concentrating as he tried to distinguish Urdu from Pashto. “I’m not entirely sure, but I think they’re debating about whether they should kidnap us and hold us for ransom, or cut off our heads and video tape it.”
“Oh good. Which side is winning?”
“Can’t tell, yet. Just so you know, I’m blaming you for this.”
“ ‘Let’s go back to Pesh,’ you said. ‘I’ve got a safe house,’ you said. Well, I don’t mind telling you, I don’t feel particularly fucking safe right…”
He was interrupted when powerful, gnarled hands yanked them both to their feet. Blinking back the dust and fierce sunlight, they saw a teen-aged boy approaching, pulling an absurdly large video camera from his nylon Adidas shoulder bag.
“I guess we know who won,” Chuck shrugged.
“This is so not good.”
“Thanks for the news flash, ass hole.”
The boy was raising the lens finder to his eye, when he suddenly stopped – dropping the camera to stare at them intently. Then he turned to the others and began to yammer excitedly. The mood of the crowd began to slowly change, bright smiles replacing fierce scowls nestled within bristling beards. The boy ran up and embraced DQ, knocking his outsized aviator sunglasses askew.
“Quigley bahadur!” The boy shouted. “Welcome, welcome. Quigley zindibad!”
Confused, but smiling with relief, DQ turned to his companion. “Who’s the asshole now?”
“Hey,” Chuck shrugged. “I told you everyone knew you. Apparently, you’re a goddamned hero.”
Any hope they might have had that this recognition and applause might lead to their release was quickly abandoned as they found themselves hustled into the back of a white pick-up, albeit among smiles, and with much friendly backslapping and offers of bottled water. The boy jumped in beside them as the convoy began to head off back into the hills, leaving the confused, and much poorer, bus passengers standing by the side of the road.
“I am Musifir,” Musifir introduced himself with a grin.
“Pleased to meet you,” DQ said, offering a handshake. “And even more pleased you recognized me. I thought they were going to kill us back there.”
Musifir nodded energetically. “Oh, most surely they were. Without Musifir, you would be on your knees now, squealing like pigs, while blood spurts like fountain.” He threw a hand high in the air to illustrate the notional arc of arterial spray.
“Um, yeah, great.” Chucked smiled awkwardly. “But, um, so, if you’re not going to kill us, where are we going?”
“Quigley bahadur is very great and famous man,” Musifir said. “We know all his stories. It is very great honor to show him our hospitality. Our home is not far. And maybe after, Quigley bahadur will do Musifir favor, since Musifir keeps Quigley bahadur’s blood from spilling in sand like piss.”
“Sure, kid, whatever,” Quigley said. “What kind of favor? You want me to autograph a soccer jersey or something?”
“Favor is surprise,” Musifir was suddenly shy. “You see soon, almost there.”
With a roar and more gunfire, the convoy rolled along the edge of a thin ribbon of water, past a thatch of green lawn and small fruit trees, and then through massive wooden gates which swung open between mud brick walls more than a dozen feet high. The vehicles rolled to a stop, and the men clambered out, arguing already over the division of their spoils. Musifir led them away from the crowd to a shed at the side of the interior courtyard. He opened the doors and they peered inside. More video cameras were piled on the shelves, along with bulky tape decks, audio mixers and spot lights. From pegs on the walls hung two orange jumpsuits and half a dozen U.S.-style military uniforms.
Musifir pointed, smiling. “You put those on.”
DQ and Chuck shared a look, then DQ turned back to the boy. “I’m all for surprises and everything, but I thought they weren’t going to kill us.”
“No, no, bahadur. Not jumpsuit. You wear Army clothes.” Musifir turned away modestly.
“I don’t think that’s much better,” Chuck whispered to his companion in the gloom of the shed.
Quigley pulled down a camouflage jacket and began to change. “So, Mustafa…”
“Right. So, Musifir, is this part of the surprise? New clothes?”
“No, bahadur. Musifir will make bahadur movie star. And bahadur will help Musifir honor his uncle’s memory.”
“OK, always happy to help with family honor, and whatever. But I don’t know if I’ll make a convincing soldier with the pony-tail and the beard.”
Chuck and Quigley emerged from the shadows of the shed and presented themselves for inspection. They were indeed a very unconvincing pair of soldiers.
“No problem,” Musifir waved away their concerns. “You white. Good enough. This was very big worry for our movie. Need American soldiers. Have American uniforms, but no white faces. Very lucky for you and for me we find each other.”
“Your English is very good, by the way,” Chuck observed.
“Lots of American movies,” Musifir smiled. “Like Magnificent Seven.”
“You like Westerns, huh? That’s great,” Quigley was relaxing a little bit. “I’m from Colorado, you know. Real cowboy country.”
“Yes, yes, we know all about you, all about Colorado. Now real cowboy can be in my cowboy movie.”
“We’re making a cowboy movie?” Quigley was genuinely pleased and amused now. “Good, Bad and the Ugly? Fistful of Dollars?”
“Magnificent Seven, Pathan style. But this one, Americans are bandits, and Taliban are heores. This was dying wish of my uncle Nasruddin, peace be upon him.”
“You hear that, Chuck? We’re going to be in a real life cowboy blockbuster.”
Chuck didn’t reply. One hand shaded his eyes from the sun as he scanned his gaze back and forth across the empty sky.
“Chuck? What’s wrong?”
Chuck dropped his gaze and shrugged. “Nothing, I guess, just thought I heard something weird. Buzzing like something familiar.”
“You’re just dazed from all the excitement, pard’ner. You heard buzzing? Well, don’t know if you noticed, but this place is crawling with bugs. Come on, let’s go make a movie.”
“Yes, yes, here comes director, Ajub Gul,” Musifir waved at a slim man approaching from the cluster of vehicles. “He is husband of cousin of my uncle, peace be upon him.”
Ajub Gul paused his stride, clutching at his pocket as if he felt his cell phone buzzing. He pulled out an old Nokia, the kind no one carried anymore if they could afford it, and held it to his ear.
The roar of raining death came little more than a heartbeat later. Chuck had just time to look over at the Don.
Admiral dragged his duffle from the BlackHawk, squinting against rotor-blown dust and grit as he stumbled away over the gravel paved Landing Zone. Surface-to-air fire and rocket propelled grenades were frequent visitors from the stark mountains above, and the helicopter only remained on the ground for the few moments required to disgorge its cargo. Getting supplies to this isolated outpost was a difficult and dangerous affair, achievable only by air, and thus every inch aboard every aircraft was extremely valuable. Admiral had to pull a lot of strings to get himself a berth, especially in such a fashion that kept his presence from being widely broadcast. But a Navy Corpsman he had worked with on a Provincial Reconstruction Team in the long ago was now posted to this lonely patch of rock, and had proven willing to help an old comrade. Completely out of uniform in t-shirt, camouflage pants and flip flops, Master Chief Rogers soon appeared to take his former boss under his wing.
“Welcome to FOB Carnehan, sir. This way!” Rogers shouted over the retreating roar of the BlackHawk, grabbing Admiral’s duffle. “I hope you don’t mind bunking with the enlisted men. Not that the officers’ hut is any nicer, but you said you wanted to keep a low profile. I take it you’ll not be staying long?”
Admiral nodded. “Only as long as it takes to get myself oriented, and then I’m headed out to COP Dravot.”
“Still planning to go alone? I take it you know that’s a suicide mission, even for you.”
“No choice, Master Chief. But sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do.”
“Of course, you’re not going to tell me why. Are you?”
“Not a chance,” Admiral laughed. “You should be ashamed for even asking.”
Ducking beneath a canvas flap, they stepped into a hut cobbled together with plywood, sandbags, and the crumbling bricks of the ruined Soviet outpost which used to occupy the promontory – before the mujahedin shelled it to dust and butchered every man inside.
“Ladies,” Rogers announced. “We have a visitor. Perkins, clear out the guest bedroom, will you?”
“Roger that, Master Chief.” A gangly young man tiptoed delicately through the tangled forest of duffle bags, wet boots and power cables strewn across the floor. He began to pull away bundles of clothes that lay piled on a cot in one corner, then paused, wrinkling his nose in disgust. “Jesus Christ! It is sooooo not my turn to empty the piss box.”
Rogers winced in embarrassment, as Perkins pushed forward with his boot a cardboard pallet filled with 16 ounce disposable water bottles. Only they weren’t filled with water, and their yellow-brown contents sloshed evilly. “Sorry about that,” he said quietly to Admiral. “But going to the latrine at night is a nightmare, what with having to pull on your battle rattle and stumble across the compound in the dark.”
“Burton was on the duty roster for yesterday,” Perkins continued to protest.
A prematurely bald sergeant looked up from his computer, “Just a minute, dude. I’ve got to finish my turn.”
“What are you playing?”
“Oh, fuck no. That’s the one where you just fill out requisition forms and sit around waiting for something to happen.”
“Just like the real army, man.”
“But those turns take forever. Why don’t you play it on extreme mayhem difficulty?”
“I like it on easy, it relaxes me. Kind of a Zen thing.”
“Pussy. Come on, be Army Strong.”
“Army Strong? Not me, bro. I’m not even an Army of One. I am bona fide pre-multicam, pre-ACU, pre-ASU, pre-DCU, pre-berets off, pre-berets on, pre-desert boots. I am one hundred percent BDUs and black leather boots Be All That You Can Be vintage.”
“What you are,” Rogers interrupted, “Is a lazy bastard. Now pause the computer, piss boy, and haul that carton outside.”
Grumbling, Burton stood and picked up the fetid, slightly soggy cardboard box. Once it was out of the way, Admiral dropped his duffle on the cot, and brushed away the few remaining garments. Holding up a crusted pair of black PT shorts, he turned to Perkins. “Gross, did someone blow their nose in these?”
“No, dude. Those are Burton’s jizz pants. He just pulls those on when he needs to rub one out.”
“Sick!” Admiral threw away the stained shorts. “Can’t he just use a sock like everybody else?”
“He was running out of socks. And clean, dry socks are like gold when you’re patrolling every day.”
“Then what’s with the sock puppet?” Admiral pointed at a green wool sock draped over a nail in the plywood wall, plastic google eyes over a cardboard mouth and felt tongue.
“We used to use it to play with the local kids, do little shows when they came up to the compound to get candy or school supplies.”
Admiral reached out to pick up the puppet, but was interrupted when Burton returned through the canvas flap door. “I wouldn’t put my hand in there,” Burton said.
“I jizzed in it. We had to stop the puppet shows when we figured out the kids were actually spotting for Taliban mortar crews. Figured I might as well put it to some good use.”
“Christ,” Admiral shook his head. “Is everything in here either piss or cum-stains?”
Burton shrugged. “Pretty much, I suppose. Not much else to do here except get shot at. But Perkins is the real innovator. Show him your science project, Perkins.”
“No, really, that’s quite OK,” Admiral protested in vain.
Reaching under one of the cots, Perkins withdrew an object covered in a brown hand towel. With a flourish and a smile, he unveiled it. “Behold! Perkins’ Patented Pocket Pussy. You just cut off one end of a windex bottle, insert a rolled up yellow sponge, lubricate liberally with Vaseline, and – instant love. My girlfriend would be jealous if she knew how much attention this baby got.”
“Your girlfriend would be disgusted. That’s gross.”
“Had no choice man. It was beginning to be an operational effectiveness problem. I was getting carpel tunnel from jerking off by hand so much, started having trouble with pulling my trigger finger. But with the PPPP, all that is cleared up.”
Admiral turned to Rogers with a “what the fuck” expression on his face. “Maybe I should just leave tonight.”
“Hey, I warned you that you were bunking with the enlisted,” Rogers shrugged and laughed. “Anyway, it’s getting too late now. You’d never make it through the mountains in the dark, even with NODs.”
“How far is it?” Admiral asked.
Rogers unfolded a map from his pocket and traced a dotted trail across dizzyingly crowded contour lines. “Only about three miles, as the crow flies. But you won’t be flying. By foot, it will take you the better part of a full day, presuming you don’t get shot at. Which is a pretty big presumption, by the way.”
“Probably not along the route. After we cleared out the bodies and the sensitive equipment, nobody has been back up there, so they probably wouldn’t bother mining the trail. SOP though, when we abandon an outpost, they loot everything they can carry and then seed the post with a bunch of booby-traps in case we ever change our minds and come back. So, good odds you’ll run into a few surprises inside the perimeter.”
“Great, sounds like fun. And you’re absolutely sure it was 1-505 there when they got overrun?”
“Brother, I was recording the dog tags when we zipped up the body bags. So yeah, I’m sure. Why is that important?”
“There was a LTC Estragon attached to the 1-505. I know he was KIA in Nuristan, but the records were a little sloppy about exactly where.”
“Was he somebody important? A general or Senator’s kid?”
“No, he was somebody who fucked up.”
“Well, yeah, obviously. Look what happened. That was about as fucked up a scene as I’ve come across in this war.”
“No, before that. He was actually in a pretty cushy staff job, but he screwed up royally and they sent him out here as penance for his sins.”
“That’s some serious fucking penance. Did you see the pictures of what they did to the bodies?”
Admiral shook his head.
“I’m talking medieval. You know those old colonial horror stories about Afghans cutting off a guy’s junk and shoving it in his mouth? Well, those aren’t just made up. That’s why I’m telling you – going out there at all, and especially alone, is a very serious mistake. And I still don’t understand why. I mean, too bad for this Estragon guy or whoever. But he fucked up, he died, and we sent the body home. It’s probably six feet under in Arlington or somewhere, but there’s nothing left up in those mountains.”
“You’re probably right, but I have to be sure. There was something he had, something important that he would have kept with him. But it wasn’t with his personal effects or his family. I checked.”
“You know why it’s called COP Dravot, right?”
“Does it matter?”
“Some clever fucker on the staff named it after the Kipling story, the Man Who Would be King.”
“You mean the Michael Caine and Sean Connery movie?”
“Yeah, that too. Anyway, Dravot was the first white King of Kafiristan, and since Nuristan used to be Kafiristan, someone thought it would be fun to name our highest outpost in Nuristan after the guy. Of course, they forgot it ends with Dravot getting killed by the Kafiris. All I’m saying is, there’s some bad juju up there, man. And while you know I love saying, ‘I told you so,’ this is one time I hope I don’t get to.”
Fowler looked out the window at the rugged terrain rolling slowly by. They were on the train headed up to Shimla, the pace progressively slowing as the grade grew steeper and they entered the foothills of the mountains. “Something’s not right,” Fowler said. “It feels like we’re speeding up.”
“Are you kidding?” Chandler laughed. “I could walk faster than this. I wish we would speed up, I can’t wait to get into the mountains and out of this heat.”
“Not like that,” Fowler shook his head. “Something different. Let me see your watch.”
Chandler held up his wrist.
“Not that one, you idiot. I have a regular watch, too. I want to see the special one.”
Chandler reached into his bag and pulled out the metal case, slightly surprised. “Why?”
Fowler ignored the question, instead pulling out an iPhone and thumbing madly with the screen. Without a word, he then turned and opened the watch case, scowling intently at the device inside.
“Fuck,” Fowler bit his lower lip.
“What?” Confused, Chandler looked down at the watch, but it was as inscrutable to him as ever. He wished it were a little more scrutable, then wondered whether “scrutable” was an actual word.
“I was right,” Fowler said, with a disappointed sigh. “We are speeding up, and fairly rapidly, I’m afraid. It probably won’t be long now.”
“What are you talking about? Not that you ever really make sense, but you’re especially not doing so now.”
“I mean the watch is running faster.”
“Is it broken?”
“No, it works fine, but it’s running on new inputs. Here, read it and weep.”
Fowler handed over the iPhone, and Chandler read an e-mail titled, ‘From the Editor.’
“This makes no more sense than you do,” Chandler handed the phone back. “Is it some kind of club where you just send nonsense to each other? Besides, I didn’t know you even had an editor.”
“We all have an editor, brother. There’s no getting away from it. And our editor has given us forty-eight hours to finish the story.”
Still not fully comprehending, but starting to feel slightly panicky, Chandler asked, “But that doesn’t make sense. What if our story isn’t finished? What if there are places we still need to go, or things we still need to do?”
“I guess they don’t care,” Fowler shrugged. “Originally, our story began in competition with a story being produced by a rival publishing company. And so, logically, we would have concluded based on narrative conditions. But the rival editor suddenly died, and our bosses just want to wrap this up, so we’re going to conclude based on a calendar, rather than conditions.”
“So what was the point? We just ran around doing random stuff, and then it ends?”
“That’s life, brother. People just running around doing random stuff, and then it ends.”
“But that’s stupid.”
“Don’t get too lippy. The editor could still strike your character from the story entirely.”
“Oh, right, sorry,” Chandler chewed at a hangnail with worry. “Um, incidentally, you know I’m sort of getting the hang of going along with your fever dreams. But just say, for the sake of argument, we actually are characters in the story. Aren’t we supposed to not know that? Doesn’t talking about it break the fourth wall or something?”
Fowler nodded. “You’re right. It’s not like you would ever hear Kirk and Spock talking about what an asshole Roddenberry was. But that’s a symptom of narrative strain, especially when the narrative was already kind of divorced from reality. The seams start to show, and the real world starts doing funny things to the story.”
“Wow. Well, that’s disappointing, I guess. I suppose I really wasn’t ready for it to end, not like this at least.”
“Hey, look at the bright side. Sometimes it’s better for the story to end prematurely, since you don’t know how it’s supposed to end for you. I bet Rosencrantz and Guildenstern would have been much happier if Hamlet ended before they left for England, and Quigley and Chuck would have been better off if we had ended a few pages earlier.”
Gorgeous aquamarine waves lapped gently at the windswept coast of Baluchistan, bath water warm around Lover’s ankles as he jumped out of the rowboat and began to drag it up onto the sand. In the middle distance, he could see massive piers jutting out into the sea and concrete towers looming against an azure sky, but it was strangely serene. No buzz and hum of traffic floated over the ocean breeze, and the blue horizon was free of the gargantuan freighters which generally clustered around major sea ports. Even the periscope of Nemo’s submarine had disappeared, and only a few small fishing dhows bobbed with the rolling swell.
“It’s so quiet,” Lover said. “Is this some kind of ghost town?”
Splashing along beside him, GT shook her head, pensively staring at the screen of her phone. “No, not really. It’s more like a story someone forgot to finish.”
“What do you mean?”
“Gwador. It’s like a story someone forgot to finish. Once upon a time, it was a major shipping hub for Omanis coming across the Gulf. Then that fell away with independence and changing commerce patterns, and it reverted to a sleepy fishing village. Later, the Chinese came in and built up all that infrastructure you can see now. It was supposed to be a major outlet for commerce passing back and forth from China through Pakistan and over the Karakorams. But after they built the buildings, they forgot to build the roads. So it just sits here, between the sea and the desert, waiting for someone to come and finish it.”
“That’s actually kind of sad.”
“Not really. There’s always room for a sequel.”
“A sequel? That doesn’t make sense.”
“There’s always room for a sequel, and no story ever really ends. After Genesis you get Exodus, and after Exodus you get the Gospel, and after the Gospels you get Revelations.”
“What comes after Revelations?”
“I was right the first time, that is kind of sad.”
“Just look out there,” GT shaded her eyes with one hand, and with the other gestured out over the endless expanse of sky and sea and sand. “It’s limitless. We can go anywhere from here.”
“And where, precisely, are we going?”
“Will have to wait for the sequel. I just got the memo, and this story is almost over.”
“What a pity, and there were so many things I still wanted to do,” Lover looked longingly back at Nisha’s graceful figure, seated alone back in the rowboat, black hair blowing across elegant cheekbones.
“Well,” GT observed. “There’s probably still time for a shag.”
“Funny, I was just….” Lover began, musing out loud before he caught himself and turned from Nisha to GT. “Forget about it, not on your life.”
“Ah, well,” she shrugged. “Like I said, there’s always the sequel.”
Combat Out Post Dravot
Jim Admiral lay dreaming beneath a curly haired Buddha, serene in sculpted grey schist. In ragged turban and filthy shalwar kameez, his mufti disguise had allowed him to travel up the mountains unmolested; but it had been a roundabout route, and night was falling as he first approached the silent HESCO walls of the abandoned outpost. Unwilling to risk the likely IED bazaar inside until daybreak, he had taken refuge in a small Kushan temple carved into the cliff side above. Preserving the First Century AD confluence of Greek aesthetics and Buddhist iconography, the temple felt like a tiny, preciously transported sliver of Athens dropped down amid the crags of the Hindu Kush. In sculptured panels around the walls, bearded men in togas acted out the key events of the Buddha’s life; and slender columns stood watch over a broad stone porch which seemed to leap from the mountainside and out into the morning sky.
A sliver of roseate dawn penetrated to the small monk’s chamber at the back of the temple where Admiral had taken shelter. Blinking awake, he rolled over and groaned, stiff and aching from sleeping on the stone floor. Stumbling outside, he paused to breathe in the morning air, cold and crisp as it flowed off icy mountain peaks. The outpost lay spread out below him, looking very much like something sad and abandoned, and not at all like a death trap. Well, no point in putting it off any longer. He took a drink from his water bottle, and then felt a powerful blow across his throat, sending him spiraling backwards to crash against the temple walls. His head cracked into the stone, his sight going red with blazing shards of pain as he fell to his knees.
He choked and wheezed, laboring to get oxygen back into his lungs, before he could finally gasp out, “What the fuck!”
Admiral heard a soft chuckle behind him, and then a South Asian accent taunting, “No one expects the Spanish Inquisition.”
Admiral fumbled in his robes, clutching for the pistol concealed within, but a booted kick sent him tumbling across the porch, and the weapon went skittering away down the steps. Now lying on his back, Admiral blinked away the sweat and pain, until a surprisingly familiar figure filled his swimming vision.
“Vikram!” He hissed.
“You sound surprised,” Vikram replied. “But hopefully not too put out. It seems so fitting that we should be here, together, at the end of things.”
Singh sauntered closer, all swaggering menace as he swung a boot for another kick. But Admiral was not quite as spent as he appeared. Rolling to the side, he grabbed Vikram’s ankle, pulling forward and using the man’s momentum against him. Both were on the ground now, rolling and kicking and biting, before eventually breaking apart and coming unsteadily to their feet.
“Jesus Christ, Vikram,” Admiral panted, desperate for air. His exhales plumed out in a crystalline fog, brilliant in the glorious mountain sunrise. “I’m getting too old for this shit, and so are you. Can’t we just shoot each other like civilized men?”
“We have to have a fist fight.”
“For god’s sake, why? We’ve been shooting at each other for years. Why stop now?”
“It’s very simple,” Vikram rolled his eyes and placed his hands on his hips, adopting a lecturing tone. “You see, this is the climax. I’m the protagonist, and you’re the antagonist, so we have to have a fist fight. It always ends that way.”
“But I’m the protagonist, and you’re the antagonist.”
“That depends on your point of view, but let’s not fight about that. Still, admit you see where I’m going with this.”
“But that’s such a cliché.”
“This is a satire, Jim. That’s what satires do. They mock, while staying true to the clichés of the genre they’re satirizing.”
“You’re doing that fourth wall thing.”
“That’s been happening more and more, lately. We should probably hurry before it gets worse.”
“So be it.” And with that, Admiral launched himself forward, smashing into Vikram with a football tackle that sent both men rolling and clattering from the temple porch, and down the rocky slope towards the outpost.
Blow and counter-blow, strike and parry and reel from the explosions of multiple IEDS as they knocked each other back and forth around the compound. If this were the script for Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith, it would summarize twenty minutes worth of action with only the direction: “They fight.” So imagine something like that.
During a breath catching pause, Admiral wiped blood from his mouth and spit out the fragment of a tooth. “So tell me, Vikram. Aside from killing me, what is it you’re really trying to do here?”
“I’m trying to stop you from destroying the world.”
“Oh, stop being melodramatic. American capitalist global hegemony might be a bit of a downer, at least if you’re not American. But it’s not exactly destroying the world.”
“That’s not what I’m talking about, you bastard. I’m talking about nuclear annihilation. I’m talking about Jabberwocky.”
“Don’t play coy with me. We don’t have the whole plan, but we know enough. I’ve even committed some to memory. Does this sound familiar?” Vikram’s voice took on a tone of recitation. “If we were to sponsor an apparent terrorist strike in a population center, this could initiate a pattern of escalation, which if properly encouraged and inflamed could ultimately lead to…”
“Wait, stop,” Admiral interrupted. “Where did you read that?”
“Oh please, I may be many things, but I’m not an idiot. Even you must admit that. You know very well where I read that, since you wrote it. Paragraph Twenty from the Jabberwocky cable.”
“Oh my god,” Admiral breathed. “It’s even worse than I thought. I mean we suspected, but we only have through Paragraph Nineteen, we didn’t know how it ended.”
“Really?” Vikram’s sarcasm was dripping. “You didn’t know? And that’s why your people have been running around the world collecting all the evidence, so it could be destroyed before anyone traced it back to you?”
“We weren’t trying to cover up the plan,” Admiral protested. “We were trying to uncover it, so we could prevent it. We still don’t know who wrote it or why, but there was a LTC Estragon involved somehow. He died, here in this place, and I think any surviving clues might still be here.”
Vikram laughed, bitterly dismissive. “I will do you the courtesy to forebear from calling you an idiot. But you are a liar, and I am going to stop you!”
With a snarl, Vikram swung his fist and they began again.
Back and forth, until they twisted and punched their way back into the ruined debris of the living quarters. With an arm twist, Vikram flipped Admiral over his hip in a judo throw, and Admiral rolled across the floor until his head cracked into a broken wooden footlocker.
His eyes now stinging and clotted with the black oily smoke billowing from burning tires initiated by one of a series of IEDs, Admiral started to get up, then suddenly stopped.
“Wait!” Admiral cried out, then pointed down at the footlocker. “Look at this.”
A piece of green duct tape across the lid. “LTC Estragon” written in black Sharpie.
“And you look at this,” Vikram pointed to the piece of fishing line he held in his fist. It ran across the floor and into an ill concealed pressure plate mine behind the footlocker.
“Is this how you imagined it ending, Admiral?” Vikram smiled. “Just one little pull, maybe a pound of pressure or so, and you’ll get to find out whether your God is more real than mine.”
Admiral paused, then slowly shook his head as he began to grin confidently. “No way, Vikram. You pull that line and this chest gets blown apart along with me. You want to see what’s inside just as badly as I do.”
A long moment passed as they stared at each other in silence, the roar of flames crackling in the background.
“Seriously,” Admiral chided. “I swear to God, after we’ve looked inside, I’ll let you try to kill me again.”
Sighing in resignation, Vikram sagged and dropped the wire. “OK, just till we know. And then I am going to kill you.”
“Whatever, come on,” Admiral turned and carefully disarmed the device, then opened the footlocker. Empty water bottles, bits of tape, some crusty shorts and a box of Jacques Cousteau documentary DVDs. “Hmmm, DVD porn. Surprised these got left behind.”
“My brothers in the hills prefer their porn with goats in it,” Vikram observed wryly. “What else?”
Admiral fumbled blindly in the dark corners of the chest for a moment, then a slow smile began to spread across his face. “I think I’ve found something.”
Admiral’s fist emerged clutching a thumb drive, encased in safety orange rubber. Fumbling in his pockets he pulled out his PDA, and then cursed, dropping it to the floor. “Fuck, it got broken in the fight!”
“Here, we’ll use mine,” Vikram offered.
“Sweet,” Admiral whistled appreciatively. “Is that the new HPC Indigo? Does it have 3G?”
“4G with LNSR.”
“Does it run off Sprint or ATT?”
“I use Verizon when I’m in the West. But I’ve cracked it here to run on Roshan.”
“Cool. Anyway, what have we got?” he rose up on his haunches, peering over Vikram’s shoulder as they plugged the thumb drive into the USB port.
Two faces, bruised and blackened with smoke, studies in mutual concentration as the blue light of the screen flickered in their eyes.
“No,” Vikram gasped at last. “No, no, no. This can’t possibly be true.”
“Well, fuck me running,” Admiral mused as he sat back with a grunt. Then there was a little chuckle, and then a snort, and he was overtaken by full on hysterical laughter.
“This isn’t funny,” Vikram admonished sharply. “I just don’t understand.”
“What’s not to understand?” Admiral managed to choke out between giggles. He was lying on his side now, clutching at stomach spasms. “It was a joke, dude. It was all a fucking joke.”
“But this doesn’t make sense. Why would anyone have thought it was true?”
“Why did you think so? Why did I? I don’t know, man, it was probably the packaging. Somebody posted the story on the Internet, this story that we’re in, and then some asshole at ISI or somewhere cobbled it together as a fake WikiLeaks cable or something.”
“But it could never have gotten so big if it weren’t real.”
“I dunno, stranger things have happened. St. Luke was probably making up silly stories, and then his buddies cribbed the jokes, and the next thing you know, you’ve got the New damn Testament.”
Vikram threw this HPC to the ground in disgust. “This was supposed to be the climactic battle in a war for the future of humanity, and you can’t even take it seriously.”
“Dude, it was supposed to be a satire anyway, remember? And if the real war we’re making fun of can’t be bothered to make any sense, I don’t see why we should have to do any different.”
“You know. I really fucking hate you.”