Tag Archives: War on Terrorism

How to think about al-Qaeda

Two articles about al-Qaeda that are really worth your time but for different reasons.  Both agree on a couple of key points.  Ayman al-Zawahiri is in a bad way and needs to both reassert his own personal authority as well as the position of al-Qaeda Central as the preeminent terrorist organization.

First is this piece from Matthew Levitt at Foreign Affairs titled Zawahiri Aims at Israel.  He argues that the way for Zawahiri to win back the initiative in the War on Terror and the respect of his peers is by focusing on attacking Israel.  As evidence for that theory, he sites a recently disrupted plot that was ordered by Zawahiri (it’s a long quote but please indulge me):

Abu-Sara reportedly volunteered to carry out a “sacrifice attack” on an Israeli bus traveling between Jerusalem and Ma’aleh Adumim. The plan was for gunmen to shoot out the bus’ wheels and overturn it. After that, they would they would gun down the passengers at close range. Finally, they assumed, they would die in a firefight with police and first responders. Sham and Abu-Sara also sketched out simultaneous suicide bombings at a Jerusalem convention center, where a second suicide bomber would target emergency responders, and at the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv, which would be carried out by five unnamed foreign terrorists who would travel to Israel as tourists with fake Russian passports. In preparation, Sham sent Abu-Sara computer files for a virtual bomb-making training course. Abu-Sara was to prepare the suicide vests and truck bombs, and to travel to Syria for training in combat and bomb-making. He had already purchased a ticket on a flight to Turkey by the time he was arrested.

Sham’s other two recruits — Rubin Abu-Nagma and Ala Ghanam — were working with him on carrying out attacks on Israel as well. Abu-Nagma reportedly planned to kidnap an Israeli soldier from Jerusalem’s central bus station and bomb a residential building in a Jewish neighborhood in East Jerusalem. He, too, learned to manufacture explosives online. Ghanam, who lived in a village near Jenin, a Palestinian city in the northern West Bank, was tasked with establishing a Salafi jihadi cell in the West Bank that would carry out future attacks.

That’s quite an ambitious plan given these guys were recruited and trained on the internet.  Now, I’m not a special operations type of guy but it seems to me that you’ve really got to have your act together to make something like this work.  I don’t want to dissect the whole thing here but can you even flip a bus over just by shooting out its wheels?  Cripes, and that’s just step 1!

The first time I read that plan I imagined Zawahiri’s mission briefing to look something like this

jihad-gnomes-phase-3 copyThere are many things you can say about that plan.  Well thought out and likely to succeed probably are NOT two of them.  If we assume that it is true that Zawahiri ordered this there’s one piece missing from Levitt’s article that might undermine his case.  It is possible that Zawahiri saw this as a low cost/low risk/(potentially) high payoff operation.  So, he may have been thinking that the plan was just crazy enough that it might work and if it didn’t…so what? It doesn’t sound like he spent much in the way of resources on it.

In other words, what did Zawahiri have to lose by backing this plot?

That is very different, however, from the idea that Zawahiri is refocusing his attention towards attacks on Israel.  I’m not saying the central premise might not be correct but rather that Levitt didn’t do much to prove it in the article.

But it’s the final paragraph of Levitt’s article that I have a real bone to pick over.

Zawahiri’s plotting against Israel may well have resulted from a need to reassert his position among other jihadist groups, especially in Syria, but that doesn’t mean that the threat of terrorism is less real. However one defines al Qaeda today — as a singular group with a few close franchises, or as the sum of all franchises and decentralized parts — it is clear from plots like this one that the West, including Israel, need beware.

This is typical calorie free nonsense.  Nobody is asserting that terrorism isn’t a threat.  Is it less significant (at least to the U.S. and much of the West) than it was 10 or 15 years ago? Yeah, most definitely.  And it’s plots like these that we need to be wary of?  They set the bar so high for themselves that not only did they make it very likely that they’d get caught before their attack started but even if they evaded detection they likely would have flubbed it.  Too many points of failure.

But think about it.  You could replace the terrorism related words with just about anything and get the same sentiment.  Bad drinking water, meteors, Halloween candy stuffed with razor blades.  There are risks and threats everywhere but in order to live we need to be able to put them into perspective and judge their probability.

J.M. Berger, on the other hand, writes this article which I thought I wouldn’t like (entirely because of it’s subtitle ‘We’re fighting al Qaeda like a terrorist group. They’re fighting us as an army.’) but which is a really strong overview of a complicated issue.

You really should read the whole article but his central thesis is that which al-Qaeda central and its affiliates are still interested in terrorism it is no longer their primary focus.  Instead, these groups are interested primarily in securing and holding territory (a more traditional military objective).  If you agree with those assumptions then it is no longer clear that our current orientation to a ‘War on Terror’ (with al-Qaeda as the lead protagonist) is a sound one.  Currently, we still suffer from a knee jerk reaction to the phrase ‘al Qaeda’ treating everyone who throws around the term as being co-conspirators with 9/11.

We know, however, that a lot of al Qaeda affiliates put attacking the United States pretty low on their priority list.  Many will take a shot at American interests overseas but few appear to spend their resources and personnel on conducting attacks on U.S. territory.  If that’s the case, might we be better served by taking, as Berger calls it, a more ‘agile’ approach?  Some groups may deserve the full court press of military, diplomatic and law enforcement responses while others something less and maybe even some should receive nothing more than malicious neglect.

Can horror teach us anything about the future of terrorism?

Recently, I wrote about what I see as the futility of trying to predict and prevent the last attack.  I’d like to riff off of a portion of that where I discussed an assumption about terrorist priorities.  I wrote:

In the wake of the Boston bombing there was an assumption 1, that terrorists would seek out events where media was present so that the attack could be broadcast live.

It’s not entirely clear to me that having wall to wall coverage is the best way to accomplish what terrorists have in mind:  Notably…to spread terror. The footage of the Boston bombing was horrific but in terms of spreading terror, I think a case could be made that terror is more effectively spread when you don’t have complete coverage of the event.  Think about the discussions about what went on in the Westgate mall in Kenya.  Video of the terrorists going around asking people to recite passages of the Koran and shooting those who couldn’t might make the rounds of the seedier side of the internet but the stories can travel even faster.

And, as the writers and producers of horror can tell you, the greatest horror is that which occurs in the imagination of the listener/viewer.  The tale can take a life of its own, with each retelling, getting more horrific every time, allowing each listener to fill in the blanks of the recounting with their own worst fears.  So, if you’re a terrorist, wall to wall media coverage might be fine but so might a less conventional broadcasting of your attack.  One that promises to take on a life of its own.

And in a post 9/11 world where we’ve seen airplanes fly into buildings, maybe there’s not too much more to be wrung out of straight TV reporting.  Perhaps the next level of terrorism (at least for those who don’t have the ability to conduct similarly spectacular attacks) is to not have perfect reporting on an attack.  To leave enough gaps in the ‘story’ to allow terror to spread through misinformation and exaggeration.

Terrorists 2 won’t want less coverage of an attack but, I think they very much would like fewer documented (i.e. visual) details and a whole lot more speculation.

Out notion, therefore, of what a ‘spectacular attack’ is may have to change in the future.

  1. to be fair, this was an assumption that was much older than Boston but that attack was seen as confirming evidence
  2. And here I’m talking terrorists who have the sort of apocalyptic viewpoint like we’ve seen by al-Qaida and its affiliates.  It may go broader than that but I haven’t thought that through

Homeland Security hodge podge

Things remain unclear about the attack in Boston but some things of note can already be discerned.  Here’s my list so far…

Network news is terrible at covering unfolding events.  I don’t think it was always so, but maybe it was and I just didn’t it or my information needs were different.  In any case the 24 hour news channels were uniformly useless.  The normally quite good John Dickerson gives a pretty weak defense of the institution (While mistakes may have been made it’s really the fault of the viewers…or twitter…of Blitzer’s beard!)

The news channels weren’t about providing information and context.  They were about spreading rumor, speculation and regurgitating the few facts they did have.  This led to the second problem of the news organizations (not new but exacerbated by this story) which is that even though these channels have 24 hours to fill with programming they suffer from myopia.  Nothing important was going on elsewhere in the world during the entire week?  Really?  I find that hard to believe.

Social media was even worse.  Twitter was a disaster and Reddit users were on their way to forming virtual lynch mobs.  It would seem, not the greatest set of days for the idea of crowd-sourced intelligence.

But not so fast.  I suspect some of that was the messy nature of self organization.  There was very little attempt to give people ways to connect to the story in helpful (or, at least not harmful) ways.  That is what government can do although the agencies upon whom this responsibility would normally fall (law enforcement or homeland security) don’t really seem interested in communicating more than they absolutely have to with the public.

Aside from the occasional photo op, the customary speech laden with rhetoric about “our partners in the private sector, blah, blah, blah,” and of course the obligatory platitudes that we see in news releases and congressional testimony, the level of engagement with people outside the red brick walls of the DHS complex is anemic, if not nearly extinct.

Lesson Learned:  Shut off the news on the second repeat of ‘what we know’.  Tune back in at the end of the day.  Avoid social media (as it’s currently configured) unless you have some specific information needs you think you can fill through those sources.  Anything else is the virtual equivalent of rubber necking and will do nothing except waste your time and risk getting you caught up in the same useless feeding frenzy everyone else is in.

We’ve already heard calls for new changes to account for this incident.  We should charge this American citizen as an ‘enemy combatant’ and deny him his constitutionally protected rights.  This attack ‘proves’ that Putin is a guy we want on our side, after all.  And all those Muzlims!  Muzlims everywhere!

One incident is one datapoint.  That’s all.  Any assertions that this is part of some sort of trend is engaging in baseless speculation.  We have no idea if this event means nothing or is a harbinger of something significant.  I suspect the former but we have to wait and see.

Lesson Learned:  STFU until you know what you’re talking about (and even now, we don’t know much).  If you don’t know what you’re talking about but want to speculate anyway, make sure you don’t make your speculation have to bare more weight than it can carry.

YouTube Preview Image

We’ve been very fortunate in that the U.S. suffers from very little terrorism.  Less in the past ten years than in the 1970s 1 but I suspect people, like me, that grew up in the 1970s didn’t feel like we were living in a terrorist wonderland.  9/11 may, indeed, have changed everything but perhaps not for the better.

So, while perhaps not popular I recommend Rose Brooks’ occasionally condescending yet still good ‘Keep Calm and Shut the Bleep Up‘ as we gird ourselves for countless stories that go something like:  ‘You know…I was thinking about running in a marathon before I died.  That could’ve been it.  I was that close…’  We get it.  If you didn’t have a head cold you totally would have been in Boston and wow…coulda been you.  Just because the odds of you getting killed in a terrorist attack are increased from 1 in 3 million to 1 in 1 million, don’t expect me to come down with a case of the vapors.

Lesson Learned:  Chill out.  You, your family, your friends and everyone else you care about are MUCH more likely to die in many more ways than terrorist attacks.  If you’re going to freak out…pay some attention to those risks.

 

 

  1. By quite a bit, I might add.   There were almost TEN TIMES the number of terrorist attacks in the 1970s compared to the decade starting on September 11, 2001.

Lindsey Graham doesn’t know jack about terrorism

Lindsey Graham made the unfortunate decision to go on Meet the Press yesterday to talk about the Benghazi attack.  The appearance reminded me of a quote attributed to Mark Twain.

It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.

Here’s the clip.

Visit NBCNews.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Just a couple of points:

Graham says that the Benghazi attack ‘destroys the narrative that al-Qaida‘s been destroyed and bin Laden’s dead.’

Ok, are we not going to have to listen to tin foil hat theories that bin Laden isn’t actually dead?  Given the rejection of reality from the right recently I guess I shouldn’t be surprised but let’s give Lindsey a pass on this point and chalk it up to him being nervous given this must be his first time on the TV.

Second, it completely escapes me how the Benghazi attack ‘proves’ that al-Qaida is resurgent. An attack occurs in a country that is emerging from a violent civil war, with little to no real control from the central government and with a plethora of weapons and that is the evidence that al-Qaida is roaring back to life?  Really?

The fact that al-Qaida has only been able to operate in such places is an indicator that they are, in fact, ‘decimated’.  Remember the last time al-Qaida was able to carry off an attack in the West?  Think hard…

Yeah, almost eight years ago.  And while time isn’t the only (or necessarily a very good) indicator of future terrorist activity, it is very hard to imagine that al-Qaida has been biding their time over the past eight years and waiting for this totally awesome moment to bring the West to their knees.  If they could have launched an attack by now they would have.  Al Qaida isn’t like Monty Pythons Spanish Inquisition…

YouTube Preview Image

But, Graham, along with his neo-con pals ‘Get off my lawn!’ McCain and Droopy Dog have resisted any move that takes the country away from where it was in the afternoon of 9/11.  These guys simply are in love with the idea of perpetual war and will fight anyone who even suggests that the threat might be a smidgen lower.

And, of course, McCain & Co. remain pissed that he lost in 2008 even though he ran such a brilliant campaign and made such good decisions.

Al-Qaida is a Gimp

Al-Qaida is a Gimp (Photo credit: silverfox09)

Homeland Disfunction – The true and astounding adventures of Peter Wesley part 2

Part 1 here.

“Ok, everyone.  Gather ’round.” Fred Marko, the Admin officer for the fusion center said aloud, twirling his finger in the air like a cowboy calling for all the chuck wagons to circle.

Peter popped his head over the cubicle wall, saw Fred and quickly looked around at the other cubicles.  He’d learned early to follow the pack before listening to instructions thrown out to the crowd.  The first three times people had called our some variation of “Hey, everyone! Over here!” he’d gone over to the speaker only to find himself alone and selected to attend meetings and given projects whose tediousness was exceeded only by the After Action Reports he was forced to compose for the various supervisors who were supposed to attend in the first place.

His co-workers, meanwhile, kept their heads down and pretended not to hear.  Particularly insistent types would go from cube to cube trying to get the attention of each individual.  Everyone would do some variation of the ‘What? Me?’ look.  Those who were quite adept would always have a pair of headphones on and pretend to have been lost in music.

Mary, his cubicle neighbor, was a master of deception being able to mimic the movements of removing headphones so perfectly that no one had noticed that she never wore them.

“It’s all in how you twist your head.” She explained over coffee.  “Most people over exaggerate their hand movements but leave their heads rigid.  It’s a total giveaway. I spent about four months last year researching how the human brain processes visual information and detecting things that are outside the norm.  Best four months of my professional career.”

“Where’d you do that?” Peter asked.

“Right here.  They assigned my some bullshit project to do that I finished in an afternoon but they forgot about it almost as quickly as they assigned it.  After that, I realized I was in this weird Twilight Zone and unaccountability.  Whenever someone asked what I was working on I told them I was finishing the assignment they gave me.  They were so embarrassed that they forgot what the project was supposed to be that they just smiled and asked how it was going.  Eventually I felt bad for them and handed it in but it happens once or twice a year.  I should finish my Masters Degree next year at this pace.  Next I’m going to learn Italian.”

He practiced the fake headphone trick bu he could never really get it right and resorted to just sticking earbuds in his ears first thing in the morning and taking them out a few minutes before he left for the day.  It almost always worked.

“C’mon, hero.” Mary motioned to him.  “This is one we can’t dodge.”

People began to emerge from their cubicles like survivors coming out of fallout shelters after a nuclear strike.  Looking vaguely disoriented and unsure of what was to come they began to cluster around the large conference table in the center of the office.

“Ok, folks.” Fred began. “I just want to begin by saying you’re all doing a super job.  Really amazing.  I just want to make sure we’re on track to keep up our high standards.

“So, I think there may have been some confusion about our admin reports so I want to take this opportunity to review.”

Peter noticed a collective sagging of everyone’s shoulders.

“I’ve noticed that not everyone is doing their scheduled reports.  Peter, for example.”  All eyes swiveled and locked on Peter.

“Uh, I’ve been doing my Daily Activity Report .  That’s what it says in the handbook.  Right?”

“Well, that’s you D.A.R. and that’s fine but you haven’t been doing your WAR or MAR.”

“My what?”

“You’re Weekly Activity Report and your Monthly Activity Report.  After all, if we don’t have those, how in the world will we be able to put together the Annual Activity Report?”

“Oh” Peter started.  “I wasn’t aware of those.  If you can send me a template I’d be happy to do them.”

“They’re just like the D.A.R. except the columns are shifted around a bit.”  Fred answered.  “After all, we want you to take these reports seriously so we don’t want any ‘cut and paste’ jobs.”

“So,” Peter began slowly, not quite sure he understood. “You want me to fill in the same information just in a different format so that it will take longer?”

“No, not so that it will take longer.  That’s just the way it ends up.  The DAR goes to Human Resources, the WAR goes to management and the MAR goes to the Department of Homeland Security.  Each wanted the information in a specific format.  Then they meet quarterly and annually and check to make sure the reports all match.”

“Yeah, but…” Peter was cut off by a look from Mary.

Don’t bother asking. Her expression said.

“Uh, sure.  No problem.” He finished.

“Great!”  Fred beamed. “Don’t forget now, these reports are forward looking so we want you to describe the activity you’re going to do over the next day, week and month not what you’ve already done or are currently working on.  If you do something that you didn’t anticipate you’ll need to fill out the appropriate correction form, email it to me, the command staff, and Human Resources.  Then, fax a copy the command staff and hand carry a copy to Human Resources, making sure to get a receipt and bringing that back to me.  Once you do that, you should get a confirmation in your email within 96 hours.  If you don’t, you’ll need to send an email to the Command Staff secretary asking to track your request and if they can’t identify where it is in the system you’ll need to repeat the process at the time you file your next report. Got it?  Good!”

Everyone took that as a sign that the meeting was over and began to shuffle back to their cubicles.  Peter looked at his watch as Mary came up alongside him and he stopped in his tracks.

“Two hours?!  That meeting took two hours?  Don’t tell me this watch is busted.  I know it’s a Pakistani knockoff but I still paid a lot for it.”

“It’s not broken.” Mary whispered.  “We were there fore two hours.  Why do you think I gave you the ‘wrap it up’ look.  If you didn’t shut up we would have been there for another two.”

“Wait, what?  How is that possible?  We weren’t there for more than 10 minutes.  It seemed interminable but it wasn’t really that long.”

“Look,” Mary took him by his elbow and pulled him out of the way of the foot traffic. “I guess I’ll have to tell you.”  She sighed.  “This place is kind of funny.  ALL meetings take at least two hours here.  It doesn’t matter how long they really are.”

“Oh,” Peter replied with a smile.  “I get it.  Haze the newbie, right?  Mind games?  What’s the punchline?  You can tell me, I’ll play along.”

“No, you really need to understand me.” Her face became even more serious.  “All meetings here take at least two hours.  You remember a ten minute meeting right?  Well, so do I but I guarantee you we remember different ten minute meetings.  And if you asked everyone else they would all remember different versions of the meeting.”

“I don’t understand.” Peter said.  He was scrambling to try to figure out the angle but Mary didn’t appear to be joking or insane.

“I know.  Nobody is sure why but weird things happen here with time.  Some people think it’s because this place is situated on an old Indian burial ground, others think it’s because of that whole Mayan calendar doomsday stuff.  Me?  My favorite theory is that there’s a microscopic black hole in the center of the earth but not the exact center.  It’s a little closer to this location and the effect of this super massive object being just a few centimeters closer to us results in all sorts of distortions in the space time continuum.  One of the ways that manifests is that all meetings take at least two hours.”

“I don’t understand.”

“The thing about all these theories is that, ultimately, none of them explain the phenomenon here very well and, perhaps more important, believing any one of them really should certify you as bat shit crazy.  Still, once you eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth, right?”

“I don’t understand.”

“Yeah, you’re going to need to stop saying that.  It makes you look stupid.”

“Oh, sorry.  So, I guess I just avoid meetings and I’ll be OK, right?”  Peter attempted to put on his ‘very thoughtful’ face in the hopes of not looking quite so befuddled.

“Well, it’s more than that I think.  It can actually be dangerous.  A little while before you got here there was a guy…Jason, I think his name was.  Maybe Josh.  Something with a J.  Definitely a J.”  She drifted off in thought for a moment.

“Anyway, he booked himself for two meetings 30 minutes apart.  You know, to test this theory.  Now, people remember his being at both meetings in their entirety.  He was at two places at the same time!”

“I don’t…wait, that’s not possible.” Peter was starting to feel like he was in free fall.

“Even weirder, is the fact that he was never seen again.  I can’t find his name on any paperwork or emails.  His desk, the one you sit at now, gradually emptied out but I don’t think anyone actually removed anything from it.  I barely remember him but I’m pretty sure we dated for awhile and I think I may have slept with him.”  Mary put her hand to her chin and looked down, deep in thought.  “Yeah…definitely a name with a J in it.”

Peter really didn’t’ understand what was gong on but clearly repeating that fact out loud wasn’t a winning strategy so he figured he’d try something different.  “So, what are you saying?  Some secret government goons are removing this J guy’s stuff because he uncovered some secret of the universe.?”

“No,” Mary said firmly.  “I don’t think people are doing this.  I think the universe is erasing this guy.  He violated some sort of basic laws of physics and that created an irritant to the underlying structure of reality.  I’m guessing that when that happens things have to resolve in one of two ways.  Either, the irritant has to be erased or the universe does.”

“I knew I should have smoked hash is Afghanistan.  I think this might make more sense if I was high right about now.  So what do the overlords who run this place say about all this?”  Peter needed something stronger than whatever was available at the Keruig machine in the kitchenette.

“Not everyone notices.  You saw Fred.  He thinks these meetings are great.  He describes them as super efficient.  Oh, by the way.  When you fill out your reports, you can’t indicate that these meetings take so long.  It creates all sorts of problems and makes management aggressive.  Make up some bogus project and list that for all the extra meeting time.  Oh, and don’t mention how much time you spend filling our these activity reports.”

The got back to their cubicles and Peter sat down trying to absorb what Mary just told him.  Looking down, he saw a piece of paper peeking out from under the cabinets behind his desk.  He reached over and pulled it out, seeing it was a torn print out of an email.  What was left of the paper read:

This meeting appears to conflict with another appointment you have scheduled.  Would you like to cancel this one?

He looked at the ‘To’ line which is where the tear began on the paper.  The only thing that remained was the beginning of a name.  ‘J’.

Yep, definitely a ‘J’ name.

 

Don’t feel too smug…

I’ll begin this post by saying I don’t know anything about Hungary.  I was in Budapest for a few days in 1990 as a tourist but just about all I remember were the number of people offering to exchange money for me on the black market and I couldn’t figure out the map.

Still, this is a pretty amazing article about the rise of secret security forces in the country. Two new agencies (independent from both the police and military) have come into existence.  The first is answerable to the Prime Minister and the second takes its orders from parliament.  There’s essentially no oversight on either group and their powers appear extensive and intrusive (even for post Patriot Act America).

I bring your attention to it as it seems to be an example of how a small agency, created for a very specific purpose (to provide security during Hungary’s presidency of the EU) quickly gets a life of it’s own and struggles to continue its existence and expand it’s mandate.

‘Ah,’ I can hear you say ‘those crazy Europeans don’t love freedom like we do.  That’d never happen hear.’

Rick Perlstein does an adequate job (he really could have done better but it’s still worth a read) bringing up two important issues in our own secret police activities.

  • The absolutely essential nature of informants in many domestic terrorism cases.  Not essential for prosecutions but to goad/prod/handhold the suspects to a point at which they can be found guilty of any crimes.
  • The shocking continued ignoring of ‘right wing’ terrorism.  A bunch of people want to shoot up a courthouse?  A county republican party threatens ‘armed revolution’ if President Obama is reelected?  The sound of crickets is deafening.   Half a dozen people decide to hold a peaceful rally about income inequality?  Call out the SWAT team!

Hey, but that’s not all.  Always be wary when a lawmaker says this or that law ‘ties the hands’ of law enforcement, the military or politicians.  Case in point, are Representatives Mac Thornberry from Texas and Rep. Adam Smith from Washington State who seem convinced that al-Qaida is winning the propaganda war in America.  After all, so many millions thousands hundreds a few dozen people have taken up the AQ banner and only a couple hundreds few hundred thousand people have joined the military since 2001 and AQ remains almost as unpopular as Congress right now.  So, to rectify this horrible situation, these knuckleheads want to overturn a couple of laws that prohibit the government from creating and disseminating propaganda to American audiences.

The new law would give sweeping powers to the State Department and Pentagon to push television, radio, newspaper, and social media onto the U.S. public. “It removes the protection for Americans,” says a Pentagon official who is concerned about the law. “It removes oversight from the people who want to put out this information. There are no checks and balances. No one knows if the information is accurate, partially accurate, or entirely false.”

Oh, yeah…this is gonna end well.

COIN, terrorism, fear and bureacracy…

Kings of War has a description of a fiercely fought campaign against cunning and determined insurgents.  The protagonists are the author and his wife on one side and mice on the other.

Remember when the US was collectively shitting its pants over the idea of bringing suspected terrorists to trial?  Not our finest moment as it really (imo) gave people a peek behind all the ‘kick ass’ bluster and demonstrated that we might not be all that committed to those founding principles we always praise when the chips are (kind of) down.

Norway provides a pretty interesting alternative.  There, a guy who killed almost a hundred people in a sophisticated attack and claimed to be a part of a larger secret organization is being brought to trial.  While his guilt may not be presupposed (he admitted to committing the acts) his sanity is and there’s a chance (albeit a small one) that he’ll spend many years in an asylum.  Even if found sane he’s looking at around 20 years in prison which means it’s entirely possible that Anders Breivik may yet again walk the streets of Norway.

Max Fisher from the Atlantic compares the two decisions and finds the US wanting.*

David Betz over at Kings of War is a bit uneasy about how well he thinks Breivik is aligning his strategic narrative with popular opinions and within these times of increased connectivity and opportunities for ‘super-enpowerment’.

…Breivik himself is an extremist…but the essential underpinning of his strategic narrative is not. In the past few years, all the major European leaders have made speeches to the effect that multiculturalism is a failed policy–in Angela Merkel’s estimation, as an example, it had failed ‘utterly‘…In other words, at a rough estimate a good half of Europeans would likely agree with a good half of his rationalisation.

Super-enpowerment?  That’s the ability for one motivated person to conduct an attack like Breivik did.  Or 19 guys to do a 9/11 (admittedly with the support of others).  In any case, the ability to do such things (for good or ill) is still a new phenomenon.  There’s a reason the Roman Empire stood as well as it did, even though, at various times, there were a whole lot of people who wanted to throw off their yoke.  No matter how mad you were at the Romans in 50 C.E., as an individual (or a group smaller than an army) you just weren’t capable of doing that much.

Betz concludes with the following:

The bottom line is that you can expect lots more Breiviks. The techniques are more than adequately demonstrated. The means are readily available if you know where to look. It’s the causes which are more nebulous. ‘Counter Jihad’, in my view, is the most likely to metastasise into something larger and more virulent. But all sorts may give it a try: anti-vivisectionists, radical environmentalists, post-crash anti-capitalists, neo-anarchists…

Although, I don’t think you needed Breivik to make this point.  It’s all around us.  Both in terms of illicit activity (just look at Anonymous) and legal activity.

Ever heard of Frances Grady?  Probably not but Matthew Harwood over at Salon writes about him to demonstrate some of the absurd ways we treat terrorism.  Grady tried to burn down an abortion clinic.  So…a guy who, because of his ideological beliefs, destroys property in an effort to intimidate or coerce a government or segment of the population.  That’s terrorism, right?

Well, yes and no.

Grady was not charged under any terrorism statutes because (according to the prosecutor) he ‘torched an unoccupied room in an empty building.’  The attack took place after business hours.

Oh…so, if you don’t do violence to a person (or in a circumstance where a person could reasonably be expected to be hurt) that’s not terrorism, right?

Well, yes and no.

You see, when we talk about right-wing (and/or Christian inspired) terrorism they often mysteriously don’t get charged as terrorism in cases like this.

But, if you’re a radical environmentalist…boom! You’re the most dangerous terrorist threat in the nation.  You see, there are very few instances of environmental or animal extremists (which I’m defining here as those willing to engage in criminal activity beyond ‘traditional’ civil disobedience) actually committing violence in the U.S.  But, they do cause economic damage.  More importantly, they cause (or threaten to cause) economic damage to monied interests that have significant political influence.

That’s why you get a whole host of laws put in place to classify a guy who sends ‘black faxes‘ to a pharmaceutical company in the same group as al-Qaida.

It’s also why we’ve had ten years of wild fanfares every time the FBI could trick some mildly retarded Islamist to talk about an ‘attack’ he was incapable of conducting if not provided the full cooperation of the federal government.

This is counter-terrorism conducted with at least one eye on political pandering and the other on anything other than the ball.

Mike German, a former undercover FBI agent and now senior policy counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, notes that there is no way the FBI would use such aggressive tactics to catch antiabortion extremists, even though they present a violent domestic terrorism threat. Usually, tactics such as these are used almost exclusively against Muslim-Americans. “[The ACLU has] evidence that the FBI has sent informants with criminal records into Muslim religious communities, not with a specific focus on particular suspects but rather to spy broadly on the community,”

“Within the last 10 years, the FBI has repeatedly said that the environmental terrorism is the No. 1 domestic threat,” he says.  “If you look at the numbers they count, it excludes similar conduct that wasn’t charged to terrorism on the right-wing side.”

I know I should get it by now and just be a full time cynic but the idealist in me continues to struggle for life so I’m continually shocked by this buffoonery.

*I have to admit, I think my post from late 2010 still holds up pretty well and is much more snarky insightful and entertaining than Fisher.

Homeland Disfunction – The true and astounding adventures of Peter Wesley

Hopefully you’ve enjoyed True History – Imperial Farce.  You may remember the character of SSG Wesley (from part 2).  He doesn’t play a major role but I began wondering what happened to him.  So, I figured I’d dive into the deep end of fanboyism and try my hand at a bit of fan fiction.  In what may be a reoccurring series* we’ll follow Mr. Wesley after his return from Afghanistan, demobilization and fortunes as a shiny new analyst in the civilian side of the war on terrorism.

*Depending on my motivation and your proclivity to tolerate my pretentiousness.

Peter Wesley looked out over his new kingdom. The cubicle had been filled with various notices, phone numbers, pictures and tiny mementos to his eventual satisfaction. Even though he’d been home for three months, he still took pleasure at how his things didn’t acquire a coating of dust if left alone for a day or two.

“Hey Pete, you got a minute?” Johnny Donivitz asked, popping his head out of his office. As the director of the Joint Emergency Regional Center (pronounced ‘Jer-See’ by management and ‘Jerk’ by everyone else) he merited four walls that went up all the way to the drop ceiling and his own flat screen TV.

“Sure.” Wesley replied moving to Donivitzs’ office. Virtually every inch of wall or shelf space was taken up with military patches, coins, scale models of tanks and books with titles like ‘Go! Go! Go! Leadership Secrets of the Navy SEALS’. This struck Wesley as a bit odd since as far as he knew, Donivitz had spent his whole career in law enforcement.

“You settling in alright? How’s everything going?” Donivitz was so full of energy he was practically bouncing in his chair. He didn’t even let Wesley answer before continuing. “Good. I’m really glad you’re on board here. It’s going to be nice to get another warrior here. We’ll have to do lunch and talk about Afghanistan. When were you there again?”

“Uh, I just got back a few months ago. Were you there as well?”

“Yeah. Back in ’08. Man, did we get in the shit.”

“I didn’t know you were in the military. What unit were you with?”

“Wasn’t in the military. But after all, we’re a paramilitary outfit so it’s the same thing. I went there for ten days as part of an employer appreciation thing. One of my subordinates was in the National Guard so he got me a trip to Bagram for a couple of days and then to Qatar for some R&R. It’ll be nice to have another Afghan vet here in the unit. We’ll be able to swap war stories. I’ll tell you, all these civilians don’t get what it’s like for guys like us when we come home.” It looked like Donovitzs’ lip began to quiver and his eyes began to unfocus. “That TCBY had the best yogurt I ever tasted.”

Oh god. Wesley thought. Please don’t cry. Please don’t cry. Please don’t cry. Got to get off this subjet.

“So, what can I do for you?” Wesley asked.

“Well,” Donivitz replied composing himself quickly and picking up a small green army man that was part of what could only be described as a diorama that decorated his desk. “Now that you’re all set up I’d like to talk about your assignment. We were really glad to get you on board as an intelligence analyst here since we’ve got some big projects coming up that you’d be perfect for. As you may know, cyber terrorism is the next big thing in homeland security. Al-Qaeda is sucking wind in Yemen or someplace like that and we haven’t really had any good domestic terrorists in almost twenty years so DHS has decided cyber is where it’s at. So, congratulations Mr. Cyber Analyst! Now, what I’d like you to do is start working on a full workup on all the threats that we might face in our region and who might commit them. How long do you think something like that might take?”

“Um, that sounds interesting. I hate to be a drag but I do need to tell you that I really don’t know that much about information technology though. The Taliban didn’t spend a whole lot of time hacking computer systems.” Of course a few did, but mostly it was to try to access porn sites for free. Wesley didn’t share that however, as that remained part of a highly classified project to determine if there was a correlation between terrorists’ porn preferences and attack targets and time. Terrorists viewing porn involving actors portraying pizza delivery men were four times as likely to detonate an IED near a delivery vehicle than those who watched porn without pizza guys. IARPA was still trying to determine how to actually use that information.

“Oh, that’s no big deal. I’m sure it’s won’t be that hard to pick up. Here’s a pamplet I picked up at a briefing I went to last week.” Donovitz handed over a wrinkled piece of paper with a heading that said ‘Mr. McRuff says: Don’t be a cyber bully!’ “So, what do you think? A day or two to familiarize yourself and then we can start expecting some products? I already promised the director we’d be unveiling a new cyber initiative newsletter to all the law enforcement agencies and private companies in the region. I’m thinking we’ll call it ‘JER-C Bits and Bytes’. Pretty good, huh? I’ve found some really cool clip art you can put on the front.”

Wesley began noticing a pronounced throbbing around his temples.

“Also,” Donovitz continued, lowering his voice conspiratorially, “we’re coming up on a new round of federal grant funding. I hear that fusion centers that have a cyber program are automatically going to get 20% more this year. So,” his voice returned to its normal volume. “there’s no time to waste.” He began to get out of his seat, giving the universal sign for ‘this meeting has ended’.

“But, wait.” Wesley said. “Can you give me any specifics? What kind of information are you looking for? Do you want this relevant to technical experts or laypersons? Executives or entry level? Who’s going to use this information and how?”

“Yep.” Donovitz replied. “Sounds great!” He moved around his desk and motioned Wesley up and out of the office. “I’ve got a meeting to go to but you’re asking the right questions. Try to get me a draft tomorrow.”

“But I don’t know what you’re asking for.” The pounding in his temples was spreading. “What format should it be? Can you even tell me what font you want it in?”

“Absolutely. This is going to be great. I knew we made the right decision hiring you. Go get ‘em tiger!” Donovitz had shuffled him out of the office offered him a big smile with two thumbs up as the door shut.

Seconds later, from behind the door he could hear the faint sounds of someone impersonating the sounds of a tank driving, machine guns firing and explosions. “Hotel five, this is Tango two! Enemy at six o’clock! Pow! Boom!”

Wesley stood there with his head pounding and a crumpled fact sheet about cyber bullying designed for 5th grades in his hand.

All of a sudden he began to miss the Afghan dust that would cover everything if left alone for a day or two. He wondered if he still had the phone number for that recruiter.

True History – An Imperial Farce Part 10 – Conclusion

See Part 1 of the series here.  Find all of Imperial Farce here.

Peshawar

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.”

“Me?”

“ ‘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…”

“Musifir.”

“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.

“Oh, fuck.”

Konar

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?”

Real Army.”

“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.

Why not?”

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.”

IEDs?”

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.”

Chandigarh

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.”

“Who? What?”

“Never mind.”

Gwador

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?”

“Mormons.”

“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.”

“What’s 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.

They fight.

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.”

 

Fin.

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?”

“Either.”

“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.”

“Cigarettes?”

“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.”

“Huh?”

“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.

Detroit

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?”

“Yep.”

“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.”

Detroit

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

—————————————————————————————————————–

3. THE DYNAMIC SYSTEMS STUDY GROUP WAS TASKED BY THE CRG TO EXAMINE ALTERNATIVE APPROACHES TO MANAGING REGIONAL STABILITY. AN INITIAL POSITION TAKEN BY THIS GROUP WAS TO INTERROGATE FUNDAMENTAL CURRENT APPROACHES TO MANAGING INSTABILITY. FIRST AND FOREMEOST AMONG THESE IS THE PRESUPPOSITION THAT INSTABILITY IS, OF ITSELF, NECESSARILY DELETERIOUS; AND SECOND IS THE ASSUMPTION THAT INSTABILITY IS IN FACT A CONDITION WHICH POLICY CAN SIGNIFICANTLY CONSTRAIN. THE STUDY GROUP ANSWERED BOTH QUERIES IN THE NEGATIVE, AND FOUND THAT IN MANY INSTANCES INSTABILITY CAN HAVE AN ADVANTAGEOUS TRANSFORMATIVE EFFECT; WHILE REGARDLESS OF THE EFFECT, IT LIES BEYOND THE REALM OF POLICY TO SUBSTANTIVELY INHIBIT SUCH TRANSFORMATION.

4. WHAT REMAINS WITHIN THE REALM OF THE POSSIBLE IS TO ACCLERATE OR SHAPE THE FLOW OF EVENTS EMANATING FROM UNSTABLE CONDITIONS. THE GROUP APPLIED THE ANALOGY OF A FLOODING RIVER. IF A MAJOR RIVER FLOODS, IT CANNOT BE BLOCKED WITH A DAM. THE ONLY PRACTICAL AVAILABLE COURSE OF ACTION IS TO BUILD DOWNSTREAM LEVEES OR CHANNELS TO SHAPE THE FLOW OF THE FLOOD WATERS AND MITIGATE THE CONSEQUENCES TO VITAL INTERESTS WHICH MIGHT BE IMPACTED. SIMILARLY, IN THE CASE OF AN UNSTABLE REGION PRONE TO CRISIS, EFFORTS TO EXTERNALLY IMPOSE STABILITY ARE DOOMED TO FAILURE. A MORE PROFITABLE APPROACH IS TO ACCELERATE THE INSTABILITY AT A TIME, PACE AND FASHION OF OUR CHOOSING TO ENSURE THE INEVITABLE CONSEQUENCES ACHIEVE THE BEST AVAILABLE COST/BENEFIT OUTCOMES FOR OUR INTERESTS.

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.”