Chuck rolled over with a groan, his head throbbing and his mouth thick with the taste of stale vomit. My god, he thought, I was right – we did pass out. Squinting through tentative, pained eyelids he strained to look at his watch, but found his wrist was bare. My god, he thought, I was right again – he did rob us blind.
The full enormity of that conclusion suddenly hit him, and he jerked upright in a panic – immediately regretting the sudden move. Stealing himself to the simultaneous challenges posed by loose bowels, a churning stomach and a dried out brain rattling around his skull case, Chuck lurched to his feet and began to catalogue the situation. Money – gone; weapons – gone; duffle bag – gone. Nothing remained but the empty two-liter Pepsi bottle lying in the dust and a few empty crisps packets. Chuck’s frantic scrambling soon woke Quigley, who went through a similarly agonized inventory.
“They took my fucking sword, man!” Like a crazed bear, Quigley spun back and forth in rage and frustration, his clotted beard and pony tail swinging.
While Quigley dropped to his knees and pounded the dirt with impotent fists, Chuck began to follow a trail of debris leading back down the ravine. A broken headlamp. A little further, a half eaten Nugalicious Snicker’s bar. Their interloper had apparently conducted a walking review of his haul, discarding what he didn’t need or want. Quigley’s Lonely Planet guide. And there, a flash of color in the washed out stream bed. The pink plastic folder, still securely fastened.
“I found it!” Chuck almost shrieked with delight. “He threw it away!”
“They took my fucking sword!” Quigley continued to wail.
Chuck waved dismissively, clutching the folder to his chest and laughing with relief. “I’ll buy you a new sword, dude. We’ve still got the one thing that matters. We still have a chance.”
“Not without my sword, we don’t.”
“Will you shut up about the goddamn sword? Seriously, we’re in the middle of the fucking Khyber Pass. I swear, we’ll find you a new one. But we have to hurry. Sun is coming up and I want to get into the customs yard before the guards show up for the morning.”
“Also, I think I pissed myself.”
“Well, you can’t smell any worse than you already did, and it’ll dry. Come on!”
Rosy fingered dawn was painting the valley a deceptively gentle hue of golden pink, as the two men darted across the macadam and into the shadow of a white washed guard hut. Sandled feet poked out from a floor littered with used hypodermic needles, and the slightest plume of marijuana haze was leaking from a window half-curtained with a dingy towel. Carefully picking their way, they edged past and into the HESCO walled customs yard. Row after row of jingle trucks were stacked almost atop one another, followed by fuel tankers, and last of all un-freighted shipping containers. Red, blue, bondo gray, and some so rusted they could have been left by the British on their flight from Kabul in 1842. Chuck stopped at one of the latter and spun through a combination lock of more recent vintage. With a clatter and groan the chain fell away and the first door opened. Inside was a slightly smaller, more modern container with an electronic pass-code key pad. Past this barrier was the final matroshka doll, sealed with a retinal scanner.
At last inside, Chuck closed the door and pulled the chain on a single utility maintenance light strung from the ceiling, the bulb bright behind metal mesh, and the orange rubber extension cord spooled below onto the floor. The room was clean and strangely cool, though the closed space quickly reminded both men how badly they needed a wash. At one end stood a metal desk and a single chair on rollers, with a vaguely 1950’s utilitarian air. A lone iMac occupied the surface, paired with a single scanner/printer. The room was otherwise empty.
“Um, color me unimpressed?” Quigley observed. “This is it?”
“It’s what you can’t see that’s impressive. That’s partly the point.”
“Why do I get the feeling we’re on a wild goose chase?”
“We’re not on a goose chase. That’s Fowler’s job.”
“Never mind. Let me show you.” Chuck walked over to the table and switched on the computer.
The machine purred and the screen came to light. Against a purple backdrop and a scrolling screensaver with the words Umbratile Ouroboros, Chuck typed in a username and password. He then clicked on an e-mail icon, when suddenly his screen was locked by a flashing yellow warning prompter.
“Oh my fucking god!” Chuck cursed, stabbing at the keys. “Not now…no, no, no!”
“What’s the matter? Is it broken?” Quigley asked. “Is there a virus? And what’s an Umbrella Orangutan?”
“It’s Umbratile Ouroboros,” Chuck answered. “That’s who I work for. Kinda, sorta, sometime, though I probably shouldn’t have told you that. And it’s not broken or a virus.”
“Then what’s wrong?”
With a resigned sigh, Chuck sagged into the chair. “Well, all our UO systems run on independent servers and networks. But for some functions, like the one I need to do now, we tunnel in through U.S. Government systems. To do that, we have proxy government accounts.”
“So, a proxy government account works just like any real government account in whatever Department we’re spoofing. It’s also subject to the constraints of those real accounts.”
“Like…” Chuck squinted at the list of programs stacking up in his queue. “I can’t access my e-mail till I’ve completed by periodic mandatory training modules. I haven’t used this for a while, so that means I have to complete Anti-Terrorism Awareness, and Information Assurance. Oh fuck, that’s the one that runs a customized program that keeps locking up, and it’s interactive, so you can’t just click through the slides.”
“Is that it?”
“Oh no, of course not. There’s also Equal Opportunity, Sexual Harassment, Cultural
Sensitivity, Understanding Islam, and…oh goody, this is new…Repealing Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell. You know, for a job that nominally involves killing people, there’s an awful lot of mandatory training about who we can’t hate and why. I wish there was mandatory training about who we should hate. I suppose there is, though in an indirect way, because I very definitely hate the fuckers who impose mandatory training. Anyway, you might want to take a walk or a nap, because this is going to take a while.”
Hours later, Chuck nudged the snoring Quigley with his boot.
“Huh? What?” Quigley sat up, wiping crusted drool from his cheek. “Do we have any water?”
“No, but get up. It’s time.”
“But I’m thirsty.”
“I’ll buy you a Pepsi later.”
“I don’t want a Pepsi, I want Coke.”
“No Coke, Pepsi. Anyway, shut up and get that paper we’ve been carrying around. Just feed it into the scanner.”
“What are you doing?”
“It’s not what I’m doing. It’s what we’re doing. Listen, there’s not a lot of time for storytelling, but I know you’ve been hunting the Jabberwocky Plan for a while now. So have I. So have a lot of people, actually.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Admiral’s orders. Said I was to keep tabs on you but not to interfere, something about post-modern geography and chaos theory. Then he started getting philosophical and I stopped paying attention.”
“So you’re planning to steal my work? So help me god, if I had my sword…. But bare hands will do, if need be.”
“Calm down, big fella. I’m not stealing from you, I’m helping you. This plan is too big and too complicated for any one person to track down alone, so we’ve got multiple teams going after it. And so do our enemies.”
“Well, technically my enemies, I mean UO’s enemies. But these bastards are the bane of of good men everywhere, so I’m including you in the first person plural.”
“The bane of good men? Who talks like that?”
“Shut up, I’m almost done,” Chuck tapped out several key strokes, and a “compiling” tab began to scroll on the screen.
“Done with what?”
“Well, we don’t have the whole plan yet, but others have been picking up pieces. The scheme is to enter our respective elements into the database, so then everyone can see what the others have. It’s like putting together a jigsaw without the cover image as a guide. We just have to see what fits where, while slowly but surely the picture starts to emerge. And, dude, this is one evil picture. Some very bad men somewhere are planning something special. We simply have to find out exactly who they are and exactly what it is to have any hope of stopping them. Read it and weep.”
Chucked pushed the chair back, and Quigley bent over the computer screen.
E.O.S. 71629 [London]
7. ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACTS. WHILE THE SIZE AND IMPACT OF THE DOWNWIND HAZARD CLOUD, AND ITS CONSEQUENT ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT, WOULD NATURALLY DEPEND ON THE SCALE OF THE ACTUAL NUCLEAR EXCHANGE, FOR PLANNING PURPOSES WE CAN EXTRAPOLATE FROM THE MID-RANGE PROJECTIONS PROVIDED BY — REDACTED – IN MAY 2008. BASED ON THIS MODEL OF AN EXCHANGE INVOLVING – REDACTED – WARHEADS, WE WOULD EXPECT DRAMATIC SUSTAINED IMPACTS TO THE AGRICULTURAL SECTORS IN – REDACTED – AND – REDACTED – SUCH THAT THEY WOULD REQUIRE EXTENSIVE EXTERNAL FOOD ASSISTANCE FOR 5 TO 7 YEARS. AGRICULTURAL ACTIVITY IN – REDACTED – WOULD BE SERIOUSLY IMPACTED, AND WOULD BE CHALLENGED TO MEET DOMESTIC CONSUMPTION REQUIREMENTS FOR 3 TO 5 YEARS. THE GLOBAL AGRICULTURAL SECTOR WOULD EXPERIENCE CLIMATE RELATED ATTENUATION FOR A MINIMUM OF THREE YEARS, AND POTENTIALLY MUCH LONGER BASED ON ARCTIC AND UPPER ATMOSPHERIC FEEDBACK EFFECTS.
8. IN A MORE POSITIVE CONSEQUENCE, THE MILD NUCLEAR WINTER EXPECTED IN THE AFTERMATH OF SUCH AN EVENT WOULD LIKELY RETARD THE PROGRESS OF DELETERIOUS PHENOMENON ASSOCIATED WITH GLOBAL CLIMATE CHANGE BY UP TO A DECADE, SUBJECT TO THE ARCTIC AND UPPER ATMOSPHERIC FEEDBACK INPUTS NOTED ABOVE.
9. ADDITIONALLY, THE PROFOUND ECONOMIC EFFECTS FOR – REDACTED – AND –REDACTED – WOULD LIKELY DELAY INDEFINITELY THE PROFOUND RISE IN THOSE NATIONS’ FOSSIL FUEL CONSUMPTION ENVISIONED IN CURRENT FORECASTS. AS THIS INCREASE IN FUEL CONSUMPTION IS CURRENTLY IDENTIFIED AS AN ACCELERANT TO CLIMATE CHANGE AND RISING STRESS ON GLOBAL FUEL MARKETS, REMOVAL OF THIS ACCELERANT WILL LIKELY HAVE A SALUTORY EFFECT ON THESE ASSOCIATED PHENOMENON. HOWEVER, FURTHER MODELING AND ANALYSIS IN THIS REGARD IS STILL REQUIRED.
E.O.S. 71629 [Spin Boldak]
11. EFFECTS ON THE AL QAEDA NETWORK. ASIDE FROM SEVERAL SAFEHOUSES IN KARACHI, MOST AQSL DO NOT CURRENTLY RESIDE IN LIKELY TARGET AREAS, AND SO WOULD NOT SUFFER THE IMMEDIATE IMPACTS OF ANY ACTUAL STRIKE. HOWEVER, MANY OF THEIR FINANCIAL FACILITATION OPERATIONS AND OTHER SUPPORT ACTIVITIES ARE CONDUCTED IN THE POPULATION CENTERS AND WOULD BE DESTROYED.
12. CUT OFF FROM THEIR SUPPORT STRUCTURES, AND EVEN THE MOST BASIC LIFE SUPPORT STRUCTURES WHICH SUSTAIN THE POPULATION IN THE FATA GENERALLY, AQSL WOULD BE ISOLATED BEYOND ANY REASONABLE REMEDIATION. FURTHER, THEIR ACCESS TO INGRESS/EGRESS ROUTES FROM THE CURRENT SANCTUARIES WOULD BE ALMOST ENTIRELY UNAVAILABLE FOR DECADES, DUE EITHER TO THE STRUCTURAL DAMAGE IMPOSED BY BLAST AND FIRE, OR THE ENDURING EFFECTS OF RADIATION. SIMPLY PUT, THEY WOULD WITHER AND DIE IN PLACE.
E.O.S. 71629 [Kathmandu]
18. DELIBERATE EXECUTION OF SUCH A PROGRAM OF ACTION, WHILE PERHAPS ULTIMATELY DESIREABLE FROM THE PERSPECTIVE OF STRATEGIC EFFECT, WOULD CLEARLY EXCEED THE BOUNDS OF CURRENT LAW AND POLICY, IF NOT THE FUNDAMENTAL CONSTRAINTS OF HUMAN MORALITY. THE STUDY GROUP ASSESSES THE POSSIBILITY OF ACHIEVING CHANGES TO THOSE LAWS AND POLICIES – NOT TO MENTION FUNDAMENTAL HUMAN MORALITY – THROUGH LEGISLATIVE OR OTHER REMEDIES IS PRACTICALLY NIL.
19. THE STUDY GROUP HAS CONSEQUENTLY CHOSEN TO ABJURE FORMAL RECOMMENDATIONS, AND INSTEAD PURSUE NON-INSTITUTIONAL ALTERNATIVE MECHANISMS TO PURSUE THE AFOREMENTIONED COURSES OF ACTION. WHILE COGNIZANT OF THE ASSOCIATED RISKS, STRUCTURAL WEAKNESS AND MORAL HAZARD, THE STUDY GROUP ASSESSES THIS AS THE ONLY FEASIBLE APPROACH.
“Am I dead yet?” Chandler groaned from the backseat of the hired Tata. “Is this Hell?”
“You’re in Uttar Pradesh, India, and it’s summer,” Fowler replied from the passenger seat. “You tell me, is there a difference?”
Chandler turned a despairing eye to look out the window at the sun bleached landscape rolling by. Plains so vast and bleak, they felt like a khaki terrestrial version of the Montana sky. Small villages would pop up from time to time, isolated outposts in the wilderness, whitewashed walls covered with hand-painted murals advertising Coca-Cola and Kit Kat bars. More rarely, vast slabs of rock would erupt from the earth, breaching leviathans with tiny remote temples balanced on their snouts like a Sea World trick.
“I think Hell wouldn’t have so many Kit Kat bars,” Chandler concluded.
“Possibly,” Fowler said. “But Hindus don’t believe in Hell. They just keep getting reincarnated over and over. Coming back to this forever. That might be worse.”
The Tata slowed, swerving to avoid an emaciated, walking bovine cadaver in the middle of the road as it approached another village.
“What’s that?” Chandler asked. “Some kind of checkpoint?”
“Just villagers,” Fowler shook his head. “They put down rows of stones as speed bumps, so we’ll slow down when we drive over their grain.”
“They want us to drive over their food?”
“It’s easier than grinding by hand,” Fowler replied. “For all its faults, that’s why I have high hopes for India. They always find a way.”
“Too bad they haven’t figured out the principles of leverage,” Chandler pointed at one of the women bent double by the side of the road, sweeping away the grains with a bundle of brush in her hand, rather than tied to a broom handle.
“But they do have nuclear weapons. And, I might add, they’ve won four of the last five Miss World beauty pageants.”
“Oh, well then, forget I said anything.”
“I already have. Anyway, we’re coming into Cawnpore…I mean Kanpur. Bloody Indian publishers must make a mint, republishing atlases every six months when someone wants to cast-off imperial London’s yoke by changing the name to something that at least sounds more Indian. Then the local council decides to cast off Delhi’s yoke by picking something more provincial. Makes for interesting affective cartography, though.”
Fowler rolled the window down a crack, allowing precious bursts of air conditioning to escape while he smoked a cigarette. Chandler sat back and tried to down a Kit Kat bar with swigs of warm Coke, more hoping than expecting that his stomach wouldn’t rebel. Around them, wilderness gave way to industrial bustle and the maddening crush of cars and jingle trucks, rickshaws and people – more oppressive even than the baking, swampy heat. And the noise. Chandler could literally feel his temples beginning to cave in, and started talking again just to distract himself.
“So where, exactly, are we going, anyway?”
“A place that isn’t. Or at least a place that was, and is something else now.”
“Why do you always have to talk like that?”
“Why do you always have to complain? At least you don’t have to carry the goose anymore.”
“Fine. Thanks for that, I guess. But seriously, what kind of people do you actually work for? Who pays for this sort of thing?”
“Listen, are you a Star Wars fan?”
“Well, when I was a kid, I suppose, in the normal sort of way.”
“Did you ever see, or ever hear of, the Star Wars Christmas Special?”
“Bea Arthur in the Cantina singing a musical number? Grandpa Chewbacca and his virtual reality porn machine? Guest appearance by Jefferson Starship?”
“Dude, you rarely make sense, but still.”
“Trust me, it happened. On national TV, just after the first movie came out when they were milking every last dime of commercialization. Back when every kid had an X-wing sleeping bag and a Darth Vader Pez dispenser. But it was so awful, so excruciatingly embarrassing that George Lucas later decided it needed to go away. And it did. Not just go away, but never actually happened. I work for the sort of people who did that.”
“OK, I’m now definitely malarial, and this is a fever dream.”
“You know, I have a theory,” Fowler offered.
“Oh god, no.”
“You’ll like this. It’s about the Taliban and Star Wars.”
“Of course, it is.”
“You see, I think the Taliban have watched Star Wars too often, especially Episodes Four and Six.”
“You mean Episodes One and Three. The prequels don’t count.”
“You’re the one who started talking about Star Wars.”
“Anyway, they’ve been convinced that a bunch of teenagers and teddy bears can take down an empire, because the hulking technological behemoth always has a single flaw that will destroy the whole system.”
“I always like the Empire Strikes Back best.”
“Of course, you do. You’re American. Naturally, the Americans have their own Star Wars induced strategic blind spot. Take the entire theory behind Effects Based Operations, Network Mapping and Center of Gravity Analysis. Behind this whole strategic architecture is an almost theological belief that there’s one nodal point, and if we can just hit it – we win. All American strategic thinking is fundamentally framed by the theory behind the Death Star trench run.”
“That settles it, I’m definitely in Hell. Please make it stop.”
“Oh, quit your bitching, we’re just getting started” Fowler smiled brightly. “Because we’re here.”
“Here where?” Chandler struggled upright as Fowler jumped out and opened the rear door.
“Welcome to Nana Rao Park, the place where two hundred British women and children were butchered and stuffed in a well, to be followed by countless Indians when the British troops returned to take revenge. Also popular with fitness groups for jogging, yoga and healthy morning walks.”
His shirt already sweat soaked and clinging to his flesh, Chandler staggered after Fowler as they grabbed their bags from the Tata’s trunk and passed through wrought iron gates into the park. The concrete path led past a children’s playground and through a tunnel of slender trees, which provided at least token merciful shade. As the hum of traffic disappeared into the leaves, they emerged into a round courtyard. A circle of bricks framed a span of shuffle-board smooth stone; and in a concentric circle further out, the entire space was ringed by pedestals topped with busts.
“There,” Fowler pointed at the ring of bricks.
“There, what?” Chandler asked.
“Don’t you see it?”
“More brutality and blood per square inch than the Somme.” Fowler began to strap on his network of wires and sensors and GPS as he spoke. “ I mean, they didn’t just kill people here. They butchered women and children who had surrendered, and stuffed them in a hole. And when the Brits came back, they made Indian prisoners lick the blood of those earlier victims from where it had soaked through old carpets, before blowing them from the mouths of cannons. And now you can play handball or do Kundalini meditation or whatever.
“For years after 1857, the Brits had this amazingly awful giant white marble memorial to the victims of the Indian Mutiny; but after 1947 it was torn down and replaced by these busts on the pedestals to commemorate the heroes of the First War of Indian Independence. The affect here is sedimentary layers deep, and we need to measure it. That’s why I brought you along.”
“Wait, what? What do you need me for?”
“Well, I’m not necessarily sure I need you, per se.” Fowler began walking around the circuit of bricks which marked the mouth of the now filled and covered well. “Look, affect mapping has a temporal aspect as well, which requires different tools. So what I do need is that watch you’re carrying, but which for reasons I don’t fully understand, I’m told belongs to you. At least for the moment.”
“You knew about the watch all along.”
“Of course, I did. You told me about it. Did you think I was stupid?”
“No, but I do think you’re mad as a hatter.”
“That’s just an affectation.”
“Anyway. But I mean, you really knew. You know what it’s for. You know how it works.”
“Yup. Can I see it now?”
“So, um, what is it for?” Chandler pulled the box from his backpack. “How does it work?”
Fowler opened the case and began to unloose the mechanism inside. “You know the old cliché about how we haven’t been fighting a war in Afghanistan for five or ten years? How we’ve really just been fighting different one year wars in succession, because of our deployment policies?”
“Well, that may be true for us. But the Afghans have indeed been fighting us for a decade – and depending on how you want to look at it, they’ve been fighting the same war for decades or even centuries, in the same places. Places that are now knee deep in affective layers. Places kind of like this one, and what happened then matters to what happens now. Do you know how quantum entanglement works?”
“That’s too bad, because neither do I really. I mean nobody really knows how it works, but still. Anyway, the theory is that at some quantum level, particles can become entangled. So that when one undergoes some kind of change, its entangled partner undergoes the same change, no matter how far the two are separated in space or time. Maybe what happened in Afghanistan in 1842 and 1989 looks so similar not because history repeats itself, but because the same events were occurring simultaneously in entangled space. If so, it’s desperately important that we understand before it happens again – or I mean, a third event in the same time.”
“Um, just granting that this is all crazy talk, and probably just a figment of my feverish imagination. But if that is what you’re interested in, why are we in the middle of India?”
“Imperial power, overstretched and far from home? A thin veneer of proselytizing Christian occupiers training and leading their native Muslim, or Hindu, troops? Troops finally get tired of the charade, and rise up to butcher the occupiers? Sound potentially familiar? Anyway, some of our initial measurements suggested there might be connections, and that’s why I’ve been working an affective map of 1857. I also had a colleague in Lucknow I was supposed to link up with, but he ran into some trouble and had to bail. Apparently, others have had the same idea, or suspect what we might be up to and want to stop us. It’s lucky I found you first, or you might never have left Kathmandu alive. They want the watch as bad as we do.”
“Another technological solution? How does this fit into your Star Wars model?”
“It’s not really technological. That watch is actually very ancient, or at least modeled on the ancient Antikythera device. Everyone thought that was really for astronomical measurement, but once we cracked the operational codes hidden in the Voynich Manuscript, we realized it was something far more sophisticated and profound.”
“Are these even actual words anymore? Or are you just making this all up?”
“We’ve got some crack chrono-technicians with spare time who watch a lot of the History Channel.”
“Hmmm. I prefer Fashion TV – you know, for the South Asian version of soft porn.”
“Yeah, well, when I’m not working, I like ‘When Aliens Attack’ on NatGeo – you know, for science.” Fowler scowled at the device, making minute adjustments and jotting short numerical measurements in a pocket notebook. Then looked up and handed it back to Chandler. “I think you better hold on to this for now.”
“Because Quigley gave it to you, not to me.”
“You know about Quigley, too?”
“We’ve been tracking you since the two of you met in Peshawar. I told you, I’m not stupid.”
“Come to think of it, there is a measure of batshit insane resemblance. Does Quigley work for your people too? The Center of Extraordinariness, or whatever?”
“I’m actually just a temp contract for the COE. My actual bosses are the Star Wars Special Disappearing People. Call them SWSDP, for short.”
“Uh-huh. Anyways, so does Quigley work for the SWSDP as well?”
“No, he’s more of a freelancer, but we like to keep track of him. He injects a useful amount of chaos into the system. And do you know the thing about chaos? It’s fair.”
“I find it deeply disturbing that you choose to quote the Joker, rather than Batman.”
“You should be disturbed. Come on, let’s go. This place gives me the creeps.”
An undisclosed location
“Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the Communist Party?” The disembodied voice came from the pitch black darkness beyond the bright point of the spot light which filled Lover’s vision.
He squinted painfully into the light, almost missing the blacked out goggles he’d been wearing for what seemed like days. The straps which bound him to the wooden chair were beginning to chafe, and his rendition Snuggee was too hot. “Is this some kind of joke?” He laughed, bitterly.
“Most assuredly, it is not,” the voice replied. “Though, it’s not really a serious question. Just a warm up, really, to get an audio baseline for your stress levels.”
“Well, I can save you the trouble, jack. My stress levels are pretty damn high! Now, what the hell is going on here?”
“Hell, indeed. Or something worse than Hell. This is the place that you disappear.”
“This is the place that I….? Now come on. If you were Al Qaida or something, I’d be in an orange jumpsuit right now getting my head sawed off with a butcher knife. The accent and the Snuggee prove you’re Western, of one flavor or another, so there’s clearly been some kind of mix up.”
“Are you now, or have you ever been a member of Hizb-ut-Tahrir?”
“Have you ever donated funds to, or facilitated donations to, Jamaat-ud-Dawa?”
“Are you now, or have you ever been, associated with a member of the American Environmental Jihadi Movement?”
“Is that even a real thing?”
“No, actually. That was just another baseline measurement.”
“Look, this is silly. Why on earth would you think I’m some kind of jihadi terrorist? I mean, look at me.” Lover instinctively tried to throw up his hands, but just wriggled uselessly at his restraints.
“We are looking at you. Looking very closely indeed. Over the years, we have become alerted to the growing threat of domestic converts. Sinister agents who could pass undetected before our very eyes. As could have you, until you made one very fundamental mistake.”
Lover sighed. “To be honest, of late, my life has been one pretty consistent string of mistakes. To which one, in particular, are you referring?”
A hulking shadow passed briefly in front of the spot light, pausing to place an object on the table next to the base of the lamp. The shadow then moved back into invisible darkness. Lover squinted at the object, then tried in vain to crane his neck and peer beyond the pool of light.
“So, um, yeah? What?” Lover asked.
“What do you see on the table?”
“A watch, a digital watch. Is this a timed question or something?”
“Your digital watch.”
“Yeah, it’s my digital watch. Not my good one, since that got stolen. But, so?”
“A terrorist digital watch.”
Lover sighed in exasperation. “How can a digital watch be a terrorist?”
“The digital watch isn’t a terrorist, it is the watch of a terrorist. I meant terrorist in a possessive adjective way, not a noun way.”
“If I’m being interrogated for grammar usage, this is going to end badly for all of us.”
“Listen,” the disembodied voice grew more agitated, “Mockery does not help your case. You were apprehended wearing a Casio F-91W digital watch. And everyone knows that terrorists wear Casio F-91W digital watches.”
“Everyone knows this?”
“Like everyone knows that all spies wear Rolex Submariners?”
“Actually, I thought all spies now wore Omega Seamasters. Or is it the Omega Planet Ocean? Wait, stop trying to change the subject, and answer the question.”
“You didn’t ask me a question. You made a statement. Perhaps you’re the one with grammar problems.”
“Enough of this. Tell us who you are before we have to start playing the heavy metal music.”
“I’m Major Christian Lover, United States Army. I think I told you this before you stuffed me in a sack.”
“Yes, you did, and we’ve run checks in all relevant databases. There is no record of a Major Lover in the United States Army. And what kind of name is ‘Major Christian Lover,’ anyway? Are you a major lover generally, or just a major lover of Christians, as opposed to Jews or Buddhists? Frankly, I think this is some kind of joke name, like Centurion Biggus Dickus.”
Lover had to choke back an unexpected laugh, which came out as something of a snort. Composing himself, he tried again. “Listen, just call the U.S. Embassy in Kabul and ask for my supervisor. He can sort all this out.”
“And who is this alleged supervisor?”
Lover paused, grimacing before he said it. “Umm, Captain Jim Admiral.”
“So, Major Lover, you want us to call your supervisor, Captain Admiral, to sort all this out? Now, you’re just fucking with us. We’re done here.”
And the light went out.