In the 26thCentury, technologies exist you could not dream of, inconceivable devices that make your iPhones the techno-equivalent of fingernail clippers. Combined with an ability to travel through both time and space, our vision penetrates all things. Yet one Steven Jobs axiom persists: Observe, Record, Share. This no longer requires holding a rectangular plastic object in the air and pointing it at what interests you. Our wholeware actually recreates and represents scenes never observed, save by their participants. We visit Marie Antoinette imprisoned in the Conciergerie on the Île de la Cité, listen to her curses and prayers. We know every detail of the events of November 22, 1963, though to reveal them to you would cause repercussions. Trust me.
But then you have no choice, do you.
In the first part of this work, I will take you in narrative form deeply into the everyday lives of the main protagonists in certain events that occurred in the early 21stcentury. It is not an assignment I am proud of. I present it anyway, knowing full well that in your time no one may ever read it. I mean, do you think someone like myself, a top agent of the Trans-Temporal Corrections Agency can hang around in your century building a social network, creating backlinks to a web page, shooting video trailers or using QueryTracker.com to endlessly appeal to literary agents who lust only after the next breakthrough young adult novel? Who do you think I am?
Wait a minute. Let me check my Trans-Galactic ID Card. Oh yes. Here it is…I am Legion Ayers!
What were we talking about? Oh yes, the story of my visit to 2014 and a heretofore unknown intrigue involving the first Afro-American president, an improbable pair of terrorists, a frightening nuclear threat, some really good drugs, and…well, shall we begin?
The Main Man
There was that famous picture of us standing at the door looking like we was scared to go in. Or maybe it was just me had a bad feeling. Didn’t want to set foot on that big carpet. Twin Peaks come to mind, Kyle MacLachlan in the Red Room with Bob the Fiend chasing him, then Bob grab hold his shoulder and Kyle come back all evil. Barry and me used to watch Twin Peaks back in Chicago. He used to listen to me a lot more then. Farther back, when we be gettin’ high, we were super-tight. You could shoot from the hip, say what you feel.
“Well, here’s the moment we all waited for,” he says. Then he flash that big African grin and we went up in there. People don’t get how African it is, even trips out some of the brothers sometime. Barry sits on down at the big Resolute desk. FDR sat there. JFK too. Dick Nixon paced this room til the day he drop to his knees and beg Kissinger to pray with him. Felt like Caesars’ palace and I don’t mean Vegas. I mean I could feel the blood everywhere, all the people got killed cause of shit went down in the room. William McKinley fucking over the Philipinos in Asia, we bombing this city, fighting that country. Yeah we saved the world from Hitler, but Truman sat here too, say what the fuck go ahead drop that shit on Hiroshima and kabloom 60,000 souls, women and children in the street burned to a crisp and a week later another 80,000 gone in Nagasaki. Kennedy heads off to Dallas and he come back in a box. What was that about? We never gonna know. Some bright moments, JFK sending troops into Birmingham. Eisenhower on TV warning folks about the military-industrial complex.
But like I say, mainly I could smell the blood. I knew that room was up to no good. When Barry got the nomination, he start backtracking fast. People said what the hell, Barry doin’ the practical thing, Barry movin’ to the center. The center of what? Center of the Red Room, baby. I knew that room was up to no good. Hell, I dug the pressure: banks going under, whole world falling apart. Wouldn’t you know: let a colored man take over the plantation and before he can move in they set the damn mansion on fire. Call the fire department and here come a redneck fire chief sucking on a toothpick staring up at the flames talking about, “How much you pay me to put out this fire, boy? Hey, how about your soul! I put this mother out in a jiffy, you give me your soul!”
Looking back, they had him sized up. CIA, FBI got so much cash to play with, they was likely on his case early on. Great compromiser at Harvard? Hotshot Negro speechifier at the Democratic Convention? They was on Barry like Hershey on chocolate. New black senator from Illinois? We can work with this guy, they must have figured. Even if hell freezes over and he gets elected, we can mold his ass to a tee. This boy looks malleable.
Back in ’86 in Chicago at the Developing Communities Project, him being a high color dude from Hawaii, he wasn’t ready for no hard core Windy City black attitude, so we tried to get him up to speed. We dug his heart was in the right place. You could see that on the basketball court, the warrior in his African ass come out. Brother could shoot hoops. I mean, we was tight. But it was always checks and balances with Barry, find the middle road. You get to a certain point and he always looking for the compromise position. We’d go at it late at night. Sometimes, seemed like you was talking to a ghost, the way he’d wiggle around. Barry the Friendly Ghost. Thought he could make friends with everybody. And that was the days when Reagan was crushing unions and Papa Bush’s Contras were running their genocide shit in Guatemala.
Then Barry’s off to Harvard, leaving us homies far below. He come back a celebrity professor of law and all. But he tracked me down and we went back to playing hoops again, talking shit, but over coffee now. Years went by – I was just a cat he’d hook up with on the sly more or less. Finally, he’s a damn Senator and then boom– he’s shooting for the White House like Michael Jordan on a night he knew he couldn’t miss. A few days after the convention he send me a message that he gonna need me. Me! To watch his back, he said. A lot of help I was. He never heard much I said. But I showed up.
Now after he nailed the nomination, it was like we could feel something breathing down our necks. There was some subtle shit, little nuances. Like with the Secret Service. Barry thought he could have a casual conversation with them coming out a hotel or riding to the airport. I told him, you think just anyone gets this assignment? There were these little remarks about safety. Subtle shit. Coming into L.A., I remember we got up in the Humvee and they locked it down. The agent – who was a brother – get on his walkie-talkie: “All right, SENBO secure, let’s roll.” So Barry thought he’d make a little joke.
“SENBO?” he says. “Sounds a lot like Sambo.”
“It means Senator, plus your initials sir.”
“You’re Darnell, right?”
“Yes, agent Hopkins, sir.”
“Look, we’re rolling now, you can relax, brother.”
“Yes sir, thank you sir. You sounded good today, Senator.”
“Well, thanks. Hope I get your vote.”
“Senator, my main concern is you staying healthy.”
Barry laughed, sort of stiff-like. “Whoa, brother, you think I’m in that much danger?”
“We get reports, sir. It’s our job to check ‘em out.
Then he pause for a minute and say, “I think you did the right thing to step back on that telecom immunity thing, by the way.”
“What does that have to do with my safety, Hopkins?”
“It just makes my job easier, you could say. It’s not just the crazies out on the street, sir. There’s bigger fish we have to keep an eye on too. You’d be surprised. You know how it is, sir.”
So right from the start they were dropping these lugs. When I heard the agent’s rap I knew right away he wasn’t no regular Secret Service. Blood had to be workin’ with someone else. That shit come from up high.
Like I said, back in Chicago, early days, we were tight. We’d finish each other’s sentences, think the same way, like we say in the hood, weave, devil, weave. But you always felt that little white part of him going on.Then too, his father being a big time politician in Kenya until he dissed the wrong people and Kenyatta throw him under the bus. His old man got drunk, had the car accident and died young. I do believe that had an effect. You know, “step out of line, the man come and take you away.” He don’t want to wind up like his dad, so when push come to shove, he go into his “why can’t we be friends” thing. Mellow, like Kyle MacLachlan in Twin Peaks.But generals get up in your face quick when they smell mellow. It happened at the first security briefing. I’m sitting in back, still amazed Barry got me cleared for a meeting like this. Halfway through, this Marine four-star General McCaffrey, clears his throat, like he wants to spit, and just jumps on in.
“Mr. President, may I speak freely?”
“Go ahead, General.”
“I want to make two points, sir. First, the United States is at war with an enemy determined to destroy it by nuclear or any other means. Unlike the cold war, we cannot establish a balance of terror. Secondly, war, Mr. President, is hell. Women and children die in war, Mr. President. The question is will it be the enemy’s children or ours. No American women or children died in Vietnam because we took the fight to the communists. Political treachery at home forced us to withdraw, but we punished the enemy severely and ended his hopes for world domination. Now another enemy appears, as he always will, and inflicts a terrible wound on our homeland. Even as we speak, he seeks ultimate weapons to realize his goal. Our duty is to inflict pain on him, remorselessly, cruelly, without a trace of mercy. He must know we have no compunctions or concerns about his families or his homes. Our rage, sir, must exceed his.”
Barry waited him out and said, “I appreciate your passion and your patriotism, but you know I was opposed to going into a country that never attacked us and we now know was uninvolved with the events of 9/11. Look, we need to move past partisanship. I deeply respect the sacrifices of our men in uniform. But in my judgment the time has come to reduce our profile in Iraq.”
This guy was checking Barry out like he was breaking a horse. “With respect sir,” he goes, “your knowledge of the geo-political, military and technical aspects of our operations is fairly limited. It is imperative that we maintain a strong footprint on the ground. We cannot withdraw, realistically speaking.”
‘With respect, sir?’ ‘Your knowledge is limited?’ Barry bristled and told the general he’d be the one to decide that. The guy just kept throwing punches. “In one form or another,” he goes on, “we’ll need an ongoing presence to interdict and destroy terrorist elements in the region. We have a wide range of tactical tools to put at your disposal going forward. But these are very dangerous people, not some Chicago politicians we’re dealing with here, Mr. President.”
I remember how that shit echoed off the walls. Barry just twist his head and do this little smile. Then he change the subject. McCaffrey read that smile as weakness. Man, the blood rushed to my head. I wanted to jump in that honky’s face right now, but I felt Barry check me like we was on the court. So I bit my tongue.
But Barry’s nothing if not a quick study. You ever watch a big white cumulus cloud on an autumn day? You watch it close, it doesn’t seem to move. But look away, then back again after half a minute and its shape has totally changed. That’s Barry. Step by step, inch by inch, there he go. First he snap to the center like he’d been held down on the left with rubber bands. Snap! Then he gets in office and the real shit goes down. CIA briefings, Joint Chiefs of Staff, NSA, CIA, the bankers, the insurance companies – you know, forget it. Andthe thing is, Barry is definitely digging the power. But he never even punched no one when he was on the street. But what he going to do? Oval Office is like a jet fighter cockpit. Bogies at 3 o’clock!Kaboom! Rat-a-tat-tat! Who the hell would have thought it? Of course, some Afghan farmer loses his babies to a drone, that man can’t get in Barry’s face like a general can.
But as for me, I can’t walk out on the brother. We been tight too long. He’s under a lot of pressure, on a tight leash. But maybe something gonna snap him back the other way one day. People say the “change you can believe in” thing was all a front. They say he look black but be white. But he got something more inside him than people realize.
Akbar Hamid Al Sabah closed his quantum physics textbook and watched his students scattered through the lecture hall slowly file out. Outside his country’s borders few imagined that such modern fragments of pre-invasion Iraq clung to life. They weren’t even aware how advanced Iraq’s infrastructure and civil society had been before the Americans blasted it into rubble and three hours of electricity per day. Certainly, he reflected, life under Saddam was oppressive and dangerous, but there’d been clean water, dependable power, the benefits of modern society. Now they were gone.
He donned a light jacket and made his way out of the building and onto the street. A U.S. Army jeep rolled by, its occupants armed to the teeth, casting cold, robotic stares at those about them, himself included. It always sent a chill up his back. Before, there was the fear of Saddam’s police, but you knew what to say, what not to do. Now, these Americans, it was impossible to read their thoughts. If you spoke no English, you were possessed by fear and worried about rousing their suspicions. And then there were his Shiite neighbors and the waves of unspeakable violence ripping through Baghdad almost daily. Akbar, his wife and two children lived in a Sunni enclave bordered on two sides by Shiites. There was tension everywhere. No one knew what the next day would bring.
He was 38 years old, a young professor formerly possessed of a bright future. He had thought of himself as a citizen of the world during the four years he had studied at M.I.T., graduating with a doctorate on an obscure aspect of quantum physics. Now the world had closed in on him and his days in America were a distant dream. Well, he thought, I have my family. And luckily, a job in a university that is still operating. Things would slowly improve. It would not always be like this.
Despite his highly developed powers of logic, honed by mathematics and the laws of physics, Akbar retained the faith given him in childhood. Especially now, when chaos and catastrophe surrounded him, he clung to his conviction that Allah would see him through. He held no anger in his heart against Shiites – his education and worldliness allowed him to see the schisms of Islam as the sectarian nonsense they were. Would that all the followers of Allah could express the simple demands of Mohammed: piety, charity, justice, morality, not so different from other religions as far as that goes.
Akbar was of medium height, thin, almost gaunt now, but determined in his movements. His face was all angles and planes, his beard closely cut in the modern style. He laughed less now than before, but in his eyes his family always saw hopefulness and great love. Making his way home, he stopped in the marketplace to buy pomegranates and fresh plums. His wife and children would enjoy them. He had known Shada since their youth, a neighborhood girl who had entranced him the first time he saw her. From the beginning she had a way of mocking him with her eyes, making light of an adoration he could never hide. It was not until the end of high school, when he acquired a certain maturity and bearing, and as she watched him surpass his classmates in every endeavor, that she allowed him into her heart. Then he had approached her and asked for her hand. He proposed a four year undergraduate courtship, then marriage. As it happened, his efforts there earned him a government scholarship to do graduate work in the U.S., and he was accepted to aprestigious school in Boston. There was not enough money for her to join him, but she agreed to wait until he returned. When he did, they consummated their love, brought a daughter, Leyla, and then their son Gabir into the world.
By Baghdad standards, their home was spacious enough, an apartment on the second floor of the Khadimiyah district. On his return, Shada always concocted something delicious for the family. If there was no electricity, she used their small gas burner or they ate bread and fresh vegetables and fruit. Her job at a local textile factory was long gone and unlikely to return, but they had enough to get by.
Tonight, Gabir, age six, met him at the door with a customary leap into his father’s arms. The boy was getting so big now, too heavy to hold for more than a few moments. Leyla approached quietly and waited for her kiss. Shada called out a greeting from the kitchen, her voice like music. Akbar opened his bag filled with pomegranates for the delighted children. “Take these to your mother,” he instructed them. Layla grabbed the bag and ran off, but now Gabir’s mood changed. “Did you hear the explosion today near the market, Papa?” he asked his father, with a look in his eyes more serious than a boy of six should have. In my youth, Akbar thought, I worried about lightning and sandstorms. No child should have more to fear than that. “Yes,” he answered, “but it was far away from us. Let’s not worry about it. Allah is watching and protecting us.”
“But why doesn’t he protect everyone?” the boy asked. “Why the bombs? I hate hearing guns at night.” Words like this tore at Akbar’s heart. Once again, he was possessed by thoughts of escape, of a way to gather his family and run far from this insane city, this tragic country.
“Don’t bother your father with questions he cannot answer!” Shada entered from the kitchen with a generous plate of biryani, a spicy dish of meat and rice. “Only trust in Allah,” she said. “He has shielded us this far. And soon peace will come again. This trouble will not last forever.” A muffled boom from far across the city shook the windows just as she finished speaking. Akbar spoke quickly to dispel the fear that seeped into the room. “Let’s enjoy your mother’s delightful meal, my children, prepared by the most beautiful woman in Baghdad!”
Later, as the children slept, Shada crept closer to Akbar in their bed. “Is there still no news from your friends in America?”
“Don’t you think I would have told you, Shada? I pray each day for some response. Dr. Solvay has repeatedly contacted Immigration in Boston offering to sponsor us, but with no success. You’d think they would welcome a scientist like me, but the political situation is so sensitive now.”
“Can’t we run away? Many others have done it.”
“Wait a little longer, my love. If there is no news by spring, and conditions here don’t improve, it may be best – despite the hardships we would face in the refugee camps. Now please, let us sleep. Tomorrow is another day.”
The question first occurred to me in the ninth grade as I read a biography of Einstein. At the instant he mathematically confirmed the relationship of space and time – what was that like? That is, how did it feel to be transformed in a moment from just a gifted scientist into the equal of Archimedes and Newton? At what point, in other words, did he realize he was…Einstein! Was it like a shaft of light illuminating hisbeing? The Holy Spirit descending on him? What was it like for Balboa to reach the crest of that last hill and behold the Pacific spread before him? Over the years, I’ve reflected on the seminal moments of those who passed through the entranceway to greatness. Men like Napoleon, Stalin, even Babe Ruth or Bob Dylan.
I realized it was partly a matter of being in the right place at the right time. This was true of Einstein, whose ideas blossomed from soil prepared by Lorentz and Poincaré. And the great are imperfect. Ruth didn’t look like an athlete. The young Dylan was no feast for the eyes, his songs were a mishmash of beat poetry, blues and a baying voice that happened to catch the nascent cynicism of his era. Napoleon was famously short. Stalin was seen as a stupid rustic, a perception that worked to his great advantage. These weaknesses would have discouraged other men. Nevertheless, at a key moment each had a realization: I’m an extraordinary human being! My destiny is far, far above other men’s. They saw open field ahead, their competitors far behind them, nothing between them and greatness. I was fascinated by such a psychic event. I wanted it for myself. I didn’t get the very best grades. I was racially mixed in a country that tended toward racism. I didn’t even know my own father, who had wound up a drunken loser. On the other hand my mother persistently built me up, said I was special, descended from kings. And my father had been political, very bright, a Harvard man and a serious player in Kenyan politics.
When I reached Occidental College in the ‘70s, students were obsessed with South Africa and apartheid. I was a natural fit. There was a synchronicity to it. I was half-Kenyan. They asked me to give a speech. At the rally students watched me, I saw a look of fascination in their eyes. I heard the sound of my own voice, larger than life, a seductive amalgam of intelligence and moral authority. It was like picking up a trumpet and playing it, sweet and sudden. That speech had a lightning bolt quality. It awakened dreams, made me want to move East to Columbia in the same way jazz musicians seek out New York. Later, it led me to walk away from a career on Wall Street to pace the streets of Chicago testing myself as a leader. Always in the back of my mind I wondered: am I destined for greatness? Then Harvard opened its halls to me, and in that rarified air I found Chicago had helped prepare me for intellectual battle. They say death focuses the mind wonderfully. So do a whole lot of Windy City brothers in your face with attitude. My escape from that exhausting two-year street exercise was bracing. I found I could focus on the mental challenges of America’s top law school with great precision.
This more than any public recognition was my moment of illumination. Now I could fully sense the merging of my intellect and charisma. I was older than the other law students. My racially mixed international heritage gave me definite cachét. My life journey from Hawaii to Indonesia to Chicago empowered me to see others more clearly than they could see me, and I cultivated that opacity. As I carefully rephrased their ideas, they inferred I supported them. White liberals projected their far-left sentiments onto me. Those on the right found me open-minded. What greater political asset could there be? But to realize I could grasp subtle legal issues, to find I could thrive in debate with the best of the best, this was my open-field moment. It completed my needed circle of personal characteristics. This realization occurred long before the public event that elevated me into an elite circle. When I agreed to run for the presidency of the Harvard Law Review, when the conservatives threw their votes my way, I thought of Sun Tzu: “Every battle is won before it is fought.” I already knew I was unique, on theway to a great summit, that my future was absolutely unlimited. I feared no one. I had achieved clarity.
It took time for Mariella Aguilar to grasp her brilliance. Once her fifth grade her teacher asked if she wondered why she was so much smarter than her schoolmates. “No,” said Mariella sweetly, “I wonder why everyone else is so dumb.” By the time she was twelve it was clear she was not only very bright, but going to be attractive as well. Not in the conventional sense, she was underweight and gangly, but at fourteen, her eyes and lips held promises such that grown men would catch themselves staring and guiltily look away. By then, she knew what the glances concealed, already able to look through most people, read motives, assess hearts.
She lived in a pleasant home in the Oakland Hills, several cuts above the dangerous East Oakland flatlands. Her father Ruben was a sociology professor at Mills College who as a child had witnessed the tumult of the 1960s from too-close a vantage point. His own father Benedicto had been clubbed by Oakland police at the U.S. Army Induction Center and never recovered completely, his vision impaired and speech slightly slurred. He had quit graduate school and taken to the bohemian life, doing odd jobs, staying high, immersing himself in Gil Scott-Heron’s proto-rap and eventually daily doses of Red Bull malt liquor. Fortunately for Mariella, his son Ruben was the sort to learn from parental disaster. He put himself through Cal Berkeley in the days when a student could still do that. But as she matured and her perceptiveness grew, Mariella appreciated more her grandfather’s rambling monologues. The old man spent much of his time at Brookdale Park, a patch of green off High Street where seniors, mostly black, gathered to chew the socio/political fat, interspersed with speculations on the fortunes of the Athletics or the Raiders.
From her baby days, Mariella was Benito’s special angel. Saturday mornings were their together-time during her girlhood, so much so that his love for her insured his Saturday afternoon sobriety. He took her on trips to Lakeside Park or Jack London Square or up to the Oakland Zoo. In her teens, she was mainly with friends, but some afternoons in high school, Mariella found time to drift by Brookdale Park, especially if she had a social science or history assignment on the burner. Benito’s knowledge of politics and economics was encyclopedic. He lifted away veils of illusion and grounded Mariella in socio-economic realities that were seldom aired in her (mostly white) classes at Skyline High School. She would mention a topic to him – American expansionism at the turn of the 19th century or the early labor movements and Benito would ramble on for thirty minutes, connecting historical threads all the way to Reagan’s modern-day union busting or George W. Bush’s disaster in Iraq.
“I can see now, mejita,” he would tell her, “the Sixties was just a brief letup from the ascendency of the elites. I mean yes, at root capitalism is cool in certain ways, commerce and exchange is natural for the human species, but let those power brokers and arbitrageurs run the show, let empire builders have their way, the people get stepped on. Always have. Power corrupts, mejita. I don’t care if it’s a Bush or an Ayatollah or some Saudi prince. They get off turning the screws on the little people. They hang out together. And don’t get in their way. You’ll be in the danger zone.” Then Mariella would kick out a superb essay for her class, articulating his ideas with impact and style. Yet she agonized over the question Benito could never answer: how could you change anything? Her grandfather was living evidence of the ability of power to destroy lives. “Don’t worry too much about this stuff, mejita,” he would tell her. “You’re young, you’re beautiful – enjoy life while you can. Soon enough you gonna have niños and niñas of your own – life is long, our days of freedom are short!”
“Hey, grandfather! Women aren’t just baby-makers any more. Don’t fence me in, OK?”
“Perdoneme, mejita, feminism isn’t my strong suit. It came in after my formative years. You go do your thing. You’re special, the future belongs to you!”
In 2010 she won a full scholarship to Stanford. She had grown into a lissome 5’ 10” athlete and an all-countyforward in girls’ basketball. Being a minority woman helped, but Stanford came with a sense of social estrangement. Skyline High had accustomed her to affluent Anglo-Saxon youth but so many at Palo Alto, despite their cultivated 21st century hipness, reeked of entitlement. It was subtle, revealed in chatty accounts of a Vale ski trip or shoulder-shrug attitudes to political injustice. At 18, her heart was wide-open to suffering and impatient for change. At Stanford, driven to find solutions, she gravitated to hard core political science rather than typical cultural and gender studies. But determined to excel in a hyper-competitive environment, she avoided overt political activity.
It was in her junior year that the idea germinated, at a beer party, of all places. It was early 2012, and by then it had become very clear that the man Mariella and her friends had been so entranced with, the man they had gone door-to-door for to make the first black president, was disappointing them. The disparity between his imagined promise and his performance left them dazed, whether it was civilian bombing deaths in Afghanistan, his too-cozy connection to Wall Street or his extension of the security state, including his implacable war on whistleblowers. It was an administration they had not dreamed possible in the heady days of 2008.
Marty Seymour was an oriental philosophy major focused on Japanese culture, but also on the occasional joint – occasional being a good idea since his style was so obscure that the ganja was the last thing he needed. Mariella’s coterie of left-leaning friends had gathered in the campus Rathskeller on a November evening, and talk naturally turned to the change in mood from four years before, when all was idealism and celebration of a new era. Marty was sitting on one end of the big couch, staring off into space. The others chattered complainingly about the political situation. Out of nowhere, and to no one on particular, he began to speak.
“You know, to get this done, I would need a mole.”
Sam Duncan, a second-string basket-baller and the athlete of the group, had at Marty.
“You mean a birth mark? Like a mole on your butt?”
“No, stupid, an infiltrator, a plant, a spy.”
“Is this about passing a test? Is this about that tort course you’re taking?”
“No, it’s about changing the world.”
The little group fell silent. “Marty,” Slam countered, “don’t hold out on us. You must have another joint somewhere. I know you didn’t smoke the entire stash.”
“You guys are bitching about political betrayal, but you don’t really know what’s going on in the Oval Office. And much less what goes on in the guy’s mind! It’s all fucking speculation.” Marty’s voice rose to a crescendo on the last word. “We need a mole.”
Mariella spoke up. “You’re right, Marty. That’s perfectly logical. And if we had a mole in heaven we could read the mind of God. That’s about as feasible as infiltrating the White House.”
“Maybe more feasible than you think. Look, they infiltrate any organization they see as a threat, right? Why shouldn’t we have a fly on their wall?”
“Of the White House?” broke in Daniel, a junior in computer science from the Philippines. “And how does this fly get in the window?”
Marty smiled and showed his ace. “Hello! Ever hear of the White House intern program?”
“Dude,” said Slam, “please, gimme a toke. My metabolism is very sensitive. One puff and I can be up there with you.”
“Don’t underestimate me, man.”
Slam smiled condescendingly. “Check it out, Fidel, it’s a summer intern program. Three months, max. Interns work across the street at the Executive Office Building running errands. They might see the president once, for a photo op.”
“And Steve Jobs started out in a garage.” Marty sighed. “Americans, always in a rush. It’s just a first step. Our mole’s objective is to make an impression, to stay on, move up the ladder, become indispensible. I admit it’s a long shot but…”
“Ya think?” Slam turned to the others. “Anyone else gonna help me score some herb? Marty’s no help.”
“I don’t know, Slam,” Mariella put in, “It’s an interesting challenge for the right person. We have to eliminate you and Marty though. I heard you have to take a drug test.”
“Exactly. And here’s the skinny. To be all the way honest, it was more Mehal’s idea than mine. We brainstormed it together over coffee this morning.”
Mehal, an engineering major from India, had been silently scrolling through email on his iPad. “I asked you to keep me out of it, man. It’s just conjecture, an extreme long-shot. But this person who’s supposed to somehow access the inner circle– it’s not a he. It’s a she.”
“Why’s that?” Marty asked.
“You need more than observation, more than reporting back to a bunch of nonentities at Stanford. It means persuasion, captivation, even, dare I say, seduction.”
Mariella reacted reflexively. “Seduction? That’s been done, Mehal. Monica didn’t change the world”
“That’s only because,” put in Slam, “she couldn’t talk policy with her mouth full.” Male oohs filled the air.
“Shut up, Slam,” Mariella snapped. “You’re disgusting.”
“Yes, Slam, please shut up. OK, a bridge too far there. Let me re-word it. We’re talking about a woman with intellect to match anyone in the room. But also allure, feminine charisma. A woman’s moral force, her conscience and spirituality…all the good stuff. Think Lady Eowyn, think Galadriel – she ruled Aragorn!”
A silence fell. Mariella felt a tingle go up the back of her neck. It was obvious what the men were thinking.
“Look, guys,” she said, feigning calmness despite a buzz that had moved to the top of her head. “I’m the poli/sci major here, the realist. You guys are dreaming. If you want change, there’s serious work to be done, organizing, jump-starting a movement, educating people. Life is not like Star Wars.”
“You mean the Force is not real? Next thing you’ll tell me Luke Skywalker’s gay!”
“You hadn’t heard? But let’s stay on topic, man,” Marty said. “Mariella, you’re dynamite in three or four categories. Everyone knows that. I gotta admit, you’re a perfect fit. For one thing, you’d turn up clean in the background checks. All you’ve done is study and do a little volunteer work. Hey, forget the conspiracy, it would still be a nice career move, right?” Her momentary hesitation lent him confidence. “It’s just three months, very cool on your resume. You could let it play out, see what happens.”
Mariella took a careful sip of her Dos Equis, continuing to gaze up at the ceiling after putting the bottle down on the table. “Our communications would be verbal only, by Skype, say. There can’t be any email record showing ulterior motives on my part – you know, if I had some sort of strategic breakthrough.”
“Yes!! She’s on board!”
“No, just playing with the idea, Marty. Actually, they can probably hack video chats too. I’d need to be 99.9% under cover if I really got my foot in the door.”
“Your pretty foot, sweetheart.”
“It’s not about that.”
“Yes, but look, the First Lady is as big a disappointment as her husband. After she goes ‘this is the first time I’ve been proud of America in a while,’ she just became apolitical. Some of those campaign speeches she gave, I thought she was going to be his back. Now she’s just this fashionista talking about healthy diets. I mean, she’s like an Oprah double.”
“And the connection with my feet would be…?”
“I guess I imagined her talking to him in bed, Mariella. Like when he was cutting deals with insurance companies, she could have been on his case. All the times he caved, she should have straightened his backbone. Wives are supposed to do that. A woman should look out for her man’s soul. Vice-versa, of course, but usually it’s the man out there climbing the ladder. She should have…”
“I’m not convinced she hasn’t tried. Like they say, no one knows what goes on behind closed doors. Anyway, if the guy doesn’t have it, you think his mama can fix it?”
“Maybe not. I should have seen it in 2008, but everybody was tripping they were the second coming of Dr. and Mrs. Martin Luther King.”
“I thought we were just going out for a couple beers. Now I’m supposed to be a cross between Joan of Arc and Elizabeth Taylor.”
“Elizabeth who?” Slam put in.
“Taylor. You know, she broke up Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher’s marriage.”
“Was that before Van Halen?”
“Never mind, Slam.”
Mehal spoke again. “Mariella, if you decide to apply – for the purposes we’ve discussed here – I know some interesting self-empowering techniques I could show you.”
“I’d really like that,” she answered, then shook her head and blinked. “What the… did I say that?”
“You did. That’s just a quick demonstration. It’s all in the eyes and the lips. Some people learn quickly, some cannot do it. We’ll have to see.”
“Where do I sign up?” asked Slam. I know several young ladies with respect to whom I need self-empower…”
“Not. This is ancient Vedic knowledge, not to be abused by vulgar dilettantes. But if Mariella is setting out on a quest for justice and peace…”
“The Force will be with her!” Slam shouted.
“Speaking in teenager-ese, yes,” said Mehal. “Let me know what you decide, Mariella.” He rose and said goodnight, slipping carefully past the noisy tables filled with beer-swilling students.
Abdul Qadeer Khan put on his winter coat and stepped onto the front steps of his comfortable home in the highlands north of Islamabad. The walled manor lay equidistant from Quaid-e-Azam University, the Pakistan Technological Center and the National Center for Physics. Gazing out at the expansive view, Abdul Khan took a few deep breaths. His smile bore a certain quiet ferocity. He was observing the anniversary of the day the last vestiges of his insulting house arrest had been rescinded and his name officially returned to the place of honor that he and his countrymen felt it deserved, Allah be praised. Indeed, he felt the power and the will of the Prophet surging in his veins, as if the Sword of Allah itself had been placed in his hands, as it had been in that of the great Khalid ibn al-Walid in the 7th Century.
Why had he been placed in such a position at this critical historical moment? Why was he blessed with such prodigious powers of intellect, able not only to probe and manipulate the secrets of the atom but also conceive of and pursue political action? Why were pious men drawn to him looking for leadership? As these thoughts flowed through his mind in the bracing February air, his cell phone rang with the call he was anxiously waiting for. He reached into his coat, flipped it open and heard the voice he was expecting.
“Dr. Khan, our ecological research is going well.”
“How are the density readings in the lake?”
“As we expected.”
“How many of the measurement tools are usable?”
“Both of them seem to be functioning perfectly.”
“That is good. Please visit me next Monday so I can see your data.”
“Of course, Doctor. Goodbye for now.”
So it was true. What he had sought for so long was nearly in his hands. And on this, a day of personal celebration! He recalled how, as a lowly shepherd, the Jewish David had slain great Goliath. He thought of the English King Henry V and his impossible victory over the French at Agincourt. Such things happened in olden times, he thought, and now will happen again. But this time, if the laws of Allah are not submitted to, the vengeance will be on a far greater scale. He smiled again and stepped inside for the warmth of some Masali chai, the sweet milky tea that would help calm his excitement.
His life had been showered both with honors and disgrace. He had to battle for the former for years before his country acknowledged his invaluable contributions and leadership in Pakistan’s nuclear project. They were safe from India today because of his efforts, despite the obstructionism of Munir Ahmad Khan, his scientific rival. That small-minded fellow, he thought, not a political bone in his body in an age where Islam struggles to rise from the centuries-old chopping block of Infidel imperialism. Of course he had endeavored to provide Libya and Iran with the means to protect themselves instead of standing naked before the West. Would Iraq be a chaotic wasteland bombed forty years into the past, littered with spent uranium shells if the apostate Saddam had possessed the right weapons? Would Libya have descended into anarchy if Kaddafi could have threatened to obliterate Paris?
And still today Islam – even Pakistan – cowers like weaklings before an American president who insultingly bears an Islamic name, yet rains terror down on its people, its women and children, devout followers of Muhammad. Christians talk of an anti-Christ. How then should Muslims perceive this quisling, this bizarre historical creature, this repulsive joke of a man? He can only exist as a tool created by Allah to impel us forward to revenge his holy name. There is no other explanation for it. Yes, this presidency is a sign, and yes, today’s phone call is our signal to proceed.
So flowed the thoughts of Dr. Khan as he sipped his tea and waited. The next morning men came to his home. He guided them to the sitting room. Tea was served, and they chatted amiably about the weather and simple matters. Finally, Khan fell into an expectant silence.
“We have two suitcase-devices, Sahib Dr. Khan. That is the fact. There was a chance for another, but for some reason it was not provided. We have done a brief inspection and they seem to be real Russian RA-115s. As you know, they are described as around six kiloton weapons, less than half the power of what was used in Hiroshima, but quite enough to destroy most of Manhattan or the heart of Washington, D.C.”
“Let’s not talk about such things. We pray such actions will not be necessary.” Khan intended to maintain a statesmanlike image, and a statesmen would talk thus. “I want Dr. Ahmad and Dr. Hamid to do more complete inspections in my private laboratories in the Institute. They should report back within a week. I am concerned about agents monitoring our activities. Exert yourselves to use the highest caution in every communication or action. Our lives and the fate of Islam itself is in your hands.”
“We must also find the brave martyrs who will bear these gifts into the heartland of the Infidel’s power. Their souls must be on fire with love for Allah and the Prophet. I believe we will be led to them, for they will be figures of legend for centuries to come.”
Dr. Khan gave in to a moment of passionate expression. “Think of it, gentlemen! To finally have our knife on the throat of the Evil One!”
When we dug her in 2012. I think Barry and me felt the same thing over at the Executive Office Building, greeting the summer interns. “Mr. President, this is Mariella Aguilar,” says the Director of Interning. “She’s a political science major from Stanford University.”
“It’s a pleasure,” he says, in a voice he hadn’t used with the others. A little extra sweetness in there. Lady had eyes that drill right into a man. Girl can’t help it, I guess.
“You might be interested, sir, Ms. Aguilar was an all-county basketball player in high school.”
“Well, you got to come across the street for a little three-on-three game, Ms. Aguilar,” I said, “and show us your jumper.” That blew Barry out of the water. I was totally out of line, you know. I never do that. The girl looks at the president drop-jawed.
“On the other hand,” Barry goes, “I’m sure the director has your work cut out for you.” He trying to cool everyone out. But then Maria turns those eyes on the director and nails him with a killer smile. “Well,” the director grins, “I might be able to let her go for an hour or two.” Barry smiles and says he’ll put it under advisement, whatever that means. Now the lady speaks up.
“Mr. President, she says, “I just wanted to congratulate you on the passage of the ACA, your decision to outlaw waterboarding, and the whole range of reforms you’ve been trying to institute since taking office.” The interns next to her smirk, but wish they’d said it. Barry looks impressed.
“Thank you, young lady. But that doesn’t mean you’re going to get any free shots.” Everyone laughs, and the president moves on down the line.
So the lady was playing on my mind. She just seemed to have something going on, a cool energy. Barry had forgotten all about her, but in July he was getting out to the new court on the South Lawn pretty often, so I made a call and arranged for her to visit on a day Barry had scheduled a quick game. Told her to dress casual. Whatever happens, happens, I figured.
They drove her up a bit late, after the game had started. He looked surprised, then ignored her, but I knew he wanted to see her play. Well, she was wearing these black tights under some basketball shorts. It definitely changed the mood. After the set, I told her to go ahead and take some shots. She sets up in the corner, looks me dead in the eyes and buries it. Then comes the smile. So one of the guys drops out. The men played her low-contact of course, and she sunk enough of her pretty jumpers to win.
Anyway, I can’t remember when it was, but at one point she just looks up at me, breathing heavy, and says, “Why you always hanging on the outside? You should get aggressive, drive the lane more.” Sort of shocked me the way she said it, couldn’t figure it out. Like did she even know who I was, to speak like that? Someone else, I’m gonna tell them mind their business, especially her being lucky just to make a scene like that. But she just left me at a loss for words. Next thing I knew, off she goes back across the street to her gig, thanking everyone, drifting off like a summer breeze. Damndest thing. And then, well, a couple months later I pulled a string to bring her on board in-house, so to speak. With all the heavy stuff going down, the Great Recession, health care wars, Iraq, Afghanistan – well, she just seemed to brighten up the place.
Hector and Ariel
“Damn. Is that a fire I smell again?”
“I think so, honey. It’s not what we’re smoking.”
“Getting to be par for the course in summer.”
“God grant it’s not coming our way.”
“The Goddess directs the winds, honey. Pray to Her. God’s the one you talk to when your ass gets blown off on Guadalcanal.”
“Sweet. Hey, is that thing still lit?”
“Here you go. Don’t drop it in the lake.”
Ariel pulls the joint from her lips and holds it out for her husband in the plastic holder that keeps it dry. He takes a long drag and exhales towards the fleecy clouds sculling across the sky. Floating is second nature to them, their breathing a meditation. Barely noticeable wavelets rocking them serenely twenty yards out from the jetty. The lake water a light milky green in the sun. A tilt of the head reveals a pristine, pine-clad shoreline all around.
Hector grunts. “That chopper this morning, haven’t seen one in a while.”
“It’ll be drones next. With little cluster bombs.”
“They wouldn’t do that. Besides, legalization’s just around the corner.”
“Sure. They don’t spray like they used to, right?”
“That’s cause we put the plants under polyethylene sheets. Conservatives never give up. Remember Nixon? When he imploded, they just took a break and went back for a double shot of Reagan. Then…”
“Honey, don’t start. I barely remember that. Don’t you love me? Don’t you love your pretty wife?”
“Like life itself, baby.”
“Then lighten up. Try to be more positive. Just stay in the moment, honey. It doesn’t get any better than this.”
“Maybe you’re right. Bobby Dylan said it’s all good.”
“You’re basically a very spiritual guy, you know? We must be the only growers in the county who aren’t armed to the teeth.”
“Sometimes I wonder if I should own a piece just to cool myself out. I get so upset at the whole fucking planet. Not the planet, you know, the people on it.”
“Oh, that would solve everything, you with a gun.”
“I know. But look what they’re destroying. These trees, this priceless lake. Fifty years from now it’ll all be gone. It was nearly nuclear war in the 60’s. Kennedy, Cuba, all that. But this, this is pure science fiction horror stuff. They could be turning the earth into fucking Venus, Ariel, a burnt-out carbon dioxide oven!”
“And what exactly can we do about it? By the way, you’re dick just went soft.”
“Yeah, I noticed that.”
“You disconnected from your life force, baby. You gotta stay in the peace zone.”
“Warrior dicks are supposed to be soft. You can’t fight enemies with a hard on.”
The image makes them both laugh. Ariel rolls over onto Hector and they submerge, rolling and hugging under the surface, then emerge breathless and swim toward the dock. Ariel jumps out first. When he climbs out he pulls her down and rolls her onto him.
“Hector, don’t. Kevin might come out…”
“He’s totally napping. Consuela said he went out like a light half an hour ago. Then she went back to her cottage.”
Ariel sinks down onto him under the hot sun. When they’ve finished and caught their breath, sweating in the heat, they roll and splash back into the water and surface, exhilarated and laughing. Later, they sit on the cabin deck with sandwiches and iced tea as the day’s real heat sets in. The lake shimmers in it. Hector gulps his tea down, crunches on his ice. He looks out at his plants, ready for harvest. He turns a grizzled face toward Ariel and gazes at her skin, her long hair, the slope of her shoulders.
“I loved you the first time I saw you…”
‘“…that’s an old songwriter’s cliché’ – don’t quote Paul Simon, give me something original.”
“I did though, I fell in love as soon as you went into your crazy rap.”
“And I adored you. But you didn’t show it. You made me pay for my lunch.”
“Hit on a girl sitting in a booth at Denny’s, you don’t pick up her tab. It’s too much pressure. It suggests expectations.”
“You could have offered. You blew the magic.”
“I was taking it slow. My dad told me to always take it slow.”
“You’re 52 and you treat women like your Dad told you?”
“You’re here, aren’t you?”
“Yeah, I am.” She sniffs the air. “I don’t smell the smoke anymore. Don’t see any either.”
“You’re tired of living with me. There’s nothing happening up here in the mountains.”
“They’re not even mountains. They’re sad-ass foothills.”
“Don’t leave me, Ariel.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll never let Consuela have you. You think I don’t see the way you watch her?”
“Consuela? I can’t believe she can eat so many chimichangas.”
“That’s a weightist remark.”
“There’s no such word.”
“It’s new. Anyway, I still love you. And you promised we can move to Hawaii next year. Kevin can go to kindergarten there. Time marches on.”
“I know, I know. I’ll figure something out. I can’t go on like this either. I’m too paranoid. Can’t talk on the phone, can’t do email, Google Earth sees everything we’re doing. I can’t write diatribes against Obama online. They watch everything I do. It’s ridiculous.”
“No, you’re ridiculous. But yeah, we need to stop.”
“It’s everywhere. The Chinese hacking the Pentagon, the Brits hacking the EU, the U.S. hacks fucking everybody. It’s like Reservoir Dogs, everyone pointing a pistol at everyone. Governments are nuts.”
“You know why?”
“Men don’t know how to make peace. They live for war. Their default emotion is fear. You’re not as different from them as you think. Look at the life you live.”
“OK, I’m a warrior, but like in Castaneda’s books.
“For me, everything is a challenge. I walk only on paths with heart. I live by acting, not thinking about acting.”
“Like I said, men can’t make peace.”
“Look, I’m making the delivery Tuesday. Javier and I harvest the plants and pack them up on the weekend.”
“Can we leave Kevin with the two of them? It’s just a few days, right? It’d be nice to have time alone like in the old days.”
“That sounds sweet. Yeah, of course.”
“You need to get out of the mountains. Me too. You could go shopping in Pasadena, we’ll see a Dodgers game, hit a Sunset disco.”
“Oooh, exciting. After you sell your goodies, OK?”
There is a rustling inside the kitchen and then a bang as little arms fling open the screen door.
“I’m up! Papa, can you read to me? Or play hide and seek. Either one is OK.”
Hector pinched the bridge of his nose with a thumb and forefinger, resting his head there, closing his eyes.
By The Tigris
Akmal walked on aimlessly along the west bank of the Tigris north of Baghdad, close to Khalaf al Ja’ata. He had taken off his shoes and thrown them into the river. Sharp stones cut his feet and he glanced down with satisfaction at the blood that seeped up between his toes. Now along the riverside, the groves of fruit trees gave way to a bare open area strewn with carved stones and other objects of antiquity. He turned toward them and stopped to rest in the shadow of a crumbling brick wall. Distractedly, he rubbed the soles of his feet, then his sweaty face, streakingblood across it. Archaeological ruins in this land could be 3,000 even 4,000 years old, they humbled a man, made him feel like nothing, a speck in an endless procession of anonymous souls. Indeed, for most of that time, people had no expectation of living beyond forty.
But even 4,000 years ago, men hoped for their children to outlive them. Strange thoughts came to him now, thoughts he never expected. That he was lucky. That Allah could have been more cruel. That he might have had to watch them die. He might have heard them crying, calling out his name in their last suffering. Oh, he might have held them in his arms and seen the light fade from their eyes. But the rescuers said they died immediately, quickly crushed when the building collapsed. Hate. He should hate someone. The Shiite neighbors all around him. He should get a weapon and kill some before turning it on himself. An image came of firing an automatic weapon in the dark, spraying bullets into a pitch dark that enveloped him.
But this only distracted his rage away from its primary object, himself. It was he who – God, no, take away her voice, the memory of her eyes – it was he who ignored his wife’s pleas to escape this hell. He was the criminal, the unworthy husband and worthless father. Fathers protect. Nothing is more central to fatherhood. He had failed and his family was dead as a result.
He wanted to die but did not know how. The Prophet had said, “But do not kill yourselves, surely God is most merciful to you.”So he could not destroy himself out of sorrow. But life was pointless. If he could only transfer his hatred for himself to those who had brought death and destruction to his country, martyrdom might be acceptable. Sitting in this ancient plot of land, gradually his heart moved toward this.
It was America, after all, that first devastated Iraq with bombs and violence in its reflexive vengeance against a country totally uninvolved with the disaster in New York. They had set off the firestorm of Shiite against Sunni, probably gloated over the mutual slaughter. In their hearts they hated Muslims. They hated blacks, Mexicans, anyone unlike them. He listened to his own thoughts half-convinced, but behind the rationalizations lay the image of his death, the ecstasy of self-obliteration. There must be people he could contact among his Sunni brethren, some who were still bent on destruction. He would not attack Shiites, only the Americans, but he must hurry, for more and more of them were leaving Iraq. Toward sunset, he rose and turned back toward Baghdad.
Mariella Calls Home
“Yeah – Mariella?”
“Do you always know who it is automatically?”
“No, just sometimes. What’s up?”
“I’m calling from a phone booth, like you suggested. How’s everyone?”
“Same old stuff. And you?”
“I think he’s dissociated or something.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, it got arranged for me to work in the White House, right? But the first time I was sent to bring him some reports, he looks at me like a stranger, he had this far away look in his eyes, then snapped out of it, but his voice was cold, indifferent. Then, when I opened the door to leave, he calls out, ‘So how’s the new assignment going? You settling in OK?’ He’s suddenly all sunshine and roses.”
“Well, maybe you’ve affected him, but that’s no reason to think…”
“It’s just my feeling, OK?”
“You might be imagining things, Mariella. But go ahead and use the techniques. Be direct with him in the moment. Probe his affective level. You’ve made great progress, Mariella. Don’t think or analyze so much. There’s a risk he’ll react against it. But when the energy is, what did you say, ‘sunshine and roses?’ try to explore the state a bit if you can. Your timing is critical – not when he’s busy of course. You’re a woman. You should be able to sense the moment. Let me know how it goes.”
The cell phone rang as Khan sat in his study. An assistant began excitedly describing someone he called an individual of interest.
“The police found him wandering around downtown Karachi, talking to himself. He’s just skin and bones.”
Dr. Khan cleared his throat impatiently. “And why do you find this Iraqi so interesting?”
“He claims to be a scientist. A professor of physics.”
“And he wants to become a martyr. He lost his family to the Americans, he says. He seeks revenge. And death.”
“But he is irrational? He talks to himself?”
“Sometimes. I think it’s because he’s been so lost. As our people befriend him, he seems to become calmer, more lucid. We want to care for him a bit longer and encourage him.”
“Tell him nothing about us but try to establish who he is, how accomplished he really is. Any disturbed idiot can claim to be a professor.”
But this man really was. After confirming his identity and learning of the tragic circumstances of his exodus to Pakistan, they provided Akbar with his own apartment, decent clothes, and a temporary position assisting in some routine research at Khan’s labs. Eventually, he was brought in for an interview by the Director.
“Ah, Doctor al Sabah! I assume you know who I am?” Khan inquired in a friendly way.
“Yes, of course, Doctor. It is an honor. I have followed your career with great admiration. I cannot thank you enough for saving me.”
“How are you feeling these days? Are you comfortable in your apartment? You have suffered greatly, I know.”
Akbar looked at the floor. “I pray. I sleep a little. I am besieged both by sweet memories and scenes of horror. Then I pray again. But it is a little better than it was, thanks to your kindness.”
“It is you who are the heroic figure in this room, my son. I have never suffered such a loss. It is unimaginable to me. But tell me, don’t you wish to take up your life again someday? Not immediately, I know, but someday? I can offer you a position in the Institute. Each day that passes, your wounds heal, even if you cannot sense it. Someday…I don’t know, you may meet another…”
Skillfully, Khan paused as if embarrassed to go on, and waited to see if the younger man would react. And Akbar did. He stopped gazing at Khan’s desk at stared up at him, his eyes widened in shock. Good, this was what was needed. In those eyes, Khan saw how deep the talons of death had sunk into Akbar’s soul. He was no longer really of this world, this wretched man.
“Please, Doctor. I am done with science, done with every living thing I see around me each day. You rescued me from the streets, but you can only be my savior if you find a way for me to die in some honorable way. As you said, what I have been through is unimaginable to you. You must take me at my word.”
Khan stared back at him in the silence that followed. Was this the chosen one? He wanted to act quickly. Discovery was always possible. Here was an intelligent and capable warrior before him. Surely, another sword had been placed in his hands.
“There is…well, a project you may be interested in, Doctor. Of course it is a matter of the highest secrecy. Let us spend some time together over the next few days and talk more of matters both secular and spiritual. Perhaps hoping you can play some role. Come, let us go for a walk in the gardens. It is a lovely day, is it not?”
The Ovaltine Office
After the Secret Service agent checked her badge and nodded Mariella knocked on the door and carefully opened it. The president was at his desk, head in one hand. Sleeping? Worried?
“Uh, excuse me, Mr. President…”
He looked up, obviously exhausted. The speckles of grey in his hair were more prominent day-by-day.
“Hi Mariella, what’s up?”
She risked a joke. “If you don’t know, sir, I certainly don’t.” Her humor didn’t take.
“Well, young lady, fact is I know too much. They say knowledge is power, but …” He seemed to drift off for a moment, then snapped out of it. “What do you need from me, Mariella?”
“Something from John Brennan. Your eyes only.” The president tilted his head, sort of like Reagan, but he just looked like he had a migraine.
“Brennan? His stuff always makes me feel like Lincoln getting casualty reports from Antietam. Except…” He wandered off again, worrying Mariella. He shook his head. “OK, thanks, just get back to work now,” he snapped.
Mariella stood there squarely, her eyes fixed on his. “You want to talk.” She said it slowly, in an impassive monotone.
The president shifted and rubbed his cheek. “I wish we could. You’re perceptive to notice that. But…”
She kept her level tone. “You seem extra-serious today.”
He stared at her for a moment. “Do you know ‘Evil?’ Stevie Wonder? It’s in ‘Innervisions,’ right?”
“No, it’s ‘Music Of My Mind.’”
”You mean, like, Evil, why have you destroyed so many minds…? Yes, I think about that sometimes. It’s an amazing song. What is so beautiful to me is Stevie’s anger. He’s so angry at the power darkness possesses.”
A flash of surprise in his eyes, then he looked down. “Right, that stood out to me too.” He brightened and lit up the office with his famous smile. Now a knock on the door. Valerie Jarret breezed in. “Mr. President, I…” She glanced at Mariella.
“Are you busy?” she asked drily.
“No, Mariella was just delivering some documents. Thank you Ms. Aguilar.”
With the instincts of an inveterate texter, Fahran felt someone approaching his cafeteria table and looked up from his iPhone to see Dr. Qadir, bespectacled and sweaty, as usual. A visiting physics professor from the United Arab Emirates, he had arrived in Los Angeles one year ago, and in speech and manners his incompatibility with the world of Southern California couldn’t be more obvious.
“It is the hour of prayer, my friend. Let us honor Allah together.”
There was nothing to be done. One did not refuse these things. He pocketed his phone and smiled at the older man. The two headed for a room on the 4thfloor of the UCLA student center set aside for the religious needs of Muslims. It was not spacious there, and kneeling on the prayer rug, the heat of Qadir’s body next to him, he felt suffocated. He sought surrender to a power he had instinctively accepted as a child, but one whose nature now more and more confused him. His mind wandered to places he knew were unacceptable, even blasphemous. All the while he sensed Qadir’s unquestioning passion, as intense as the heat emanating from his body, disturbing as the pungency of the man’s physical odor.
“I worry about you, Fahran.” They had finished prayer and were making their way toward the Molecular Sciences Building across campus. It was an unseasonably cold day for Los Angeles in late spring. A melancholy grey haze off the Pacific had unblued the Southland skies. “I hate having to check up on the strayings of believers.”
“What are you talking about, Qadir?” But he knew instantly.
“The claw of the Infidel never ceases reaching out for us in this shameful land, my friend. Sometimes they catch us. We must pull ourselves free, time and again. Especially their music entraps.” He paused and glared at Fahran. “Why are you so weak?”
Cut to the chase. “Someone saw me at the disco last night, it that right, Qadir?”
“The someone was myself, Fahran. I take no pleasure monitoring your wanderings – but it is what I’ve been asked to do. Fortunately for you, your country is interested in you.” Qadir’s smile was a frozen thing. It chilled Fahran like an ice cube down his back. Pakistan, Islamabad, his cloistered old life with his parents, these things he felt he had moved beyond. But as a student of physics studying in the U.S., he inevitably attracted the attention of Pakistan’s secret service.
“Why do you tell me this today? What’s this interest you speak about?”
“Fahran, a man of your gifts, of your scientific talents, automatically attracts notice. You are young and impressed by the Americas exalted freedoms, but forget you are in reality a budding flower of the great tree of Islam. You would have no life without your people and your faith, any more than a flower cut off from its roots. Spurn us and you will quickly wither and die.”
“I spurn nothing and no one, Qadir. Why do you say that, what did you see? Was I doing evil or plotting against anyone?”
“That degenerate club was no place for a believer, Fahran!”
Fahran thought back to the night before and a club on Sunset called Motown West featuring bands dedicated to ‘60s soul music. “Qadir, I mean no disrespect to Allah. The Prophet spoke many times of compassion. That music is filled with compassion and brotherhood. Do you know anything about Mr. Marvin Gaye?”
“Now you speak of homosexuals! How far you have fallen! We can’t tolerate this…”
“No, no, Qadir, Gaye was just the man’s name. He was a normal man, a beautiful artist who sang a song called ‘What’s Going On.’ Do you know it?”
“Of course not.”
“He said war is not the answer, and mother, mother, there’s too many of you crying…brother, brother, too many of you dying.”
“Fahran, Fahran, please. You’re young. Satan has many disguises, many strategies to pull us into sin. We have no mothers or brothers outside of Islam. There is only the true word of the Prophet to guide us.” They had reached the Molecular Sciences Building. “Come to my office, Fahran. Let us talk a little more.” Grudgingly, the younger man acceded. The office was dark, papers piled on the desk, scientific books on the walls mixed chaotically with Islamic texts. Qadir pulled a book from a shelf behind him and opened it to a marked page.
“This writer makes an important point. He quotes the Prophet:
Let him beware! If he does not stop, we will take him by the
Naseyaha, the lying, sinful Naseyah!
“Then he explains that Naseyahis the pre-frontal lobes, the center of planning and motivating action that is referred to here. Western science only discovered this area very recently. The Prophet knew about it long centuries earlier. You too are operating from the front of your head, thinking you can figure out everything there. Today, from this moment, you must turn away from all this. The time has come. Lucky fellow, I am come to be your friend in this moment of temptation and opportunity. Even as I speak, you are being gradually healed of all sinful urges.”
Fahran heard something in the room, a buzzing, a droning. It seemed the ecstasy he’d done at the club hadn’t worn off. Maybe this was a kind of flashback. It didn’t feel like bad, but it felt different.
“Just relax, Fahran. Your struggle with Satan is almost over. A new path awaits you. Be strong. As I say, you are a lucky fellow, perhaps the luckiest in the world. No need for details now. Just relax and open your mind. Wonderful things are coming your way.”
Fahran closed his eyes and shook his head to dispel the sound. Slowly, it diminished and he opened his eyes, but he was no longer in Qadir’s office. He was sitting at the kitchen table in his apartment. Water was boiling on the range. Oh yes, he had been making some coffee.
The summits of November, 2008 and 2012 were illusory. My lucky star, my charmed life, my easy ability to shed difficulties like lint brushed off my shoulder, they did not apply to me after all. Rather the opposite was true. As the first inauguration approached, most vivid in my night-imagining was the figure of Icarus, falling through lightning-laced clouds into fathomless water. Or that I was blind, being led along a precipice.
The opportunities I had seen to point the country in a new direction seemed in that bitter winter so far out of reach. I discerned my real parameters. I met privately with the insurance companies in December and accepted their basic demands. They were reasonable in many ways and, immersed in policy discussions, I felt in my own element again. Concessions were made, but on balance I achieved something worthwhile. Business is business after all, and companies must make a profit. I felt I could make adjustments later. But how ironic for a teacher of constitutional law to discover, from the very apex of its structure, that it was obsolete, in fact a shadowy, impotent shroud riddled with holes. We were, after all, custodians the American Empire, the mightiest in the history of the world. Its real borders stretch far beyond the California shore or even Hawaii. Where power resides, power must be exercised. I was like one of the fabled blind men describing an elephant – what was the real shape of this thing? I did not know.
Now, for a few years in office, I have watched and reacted to events. There are those who like to keep old ways, who refuse to learn new realities. I have never been like them. How can a man loafing in the valley instruct one who has attained the mountain top? How can a child who is cared for and protected decide things better than his father, who sees the world clearly, who through hard effort has gained access to facts the uninformed have no knowledge of? Many men are like children in their innocence, emotional and sympathetic as women. When they were children they thought as a child, and they still do. They think problems can be solved with a friendly conversation. They speak of justice and peace when there is no peace, of a world without war when it has always been filled with crazed and irrational men, tyrants, conspirators, religious maniacs who love death more than life. The wise father knows this. He has slowly come to respect the fathers who came before him. He knows of their bloody hands but loves them all the more for the cruelty they inflicted when it was called for, because the world is cruel and they came to learn that fear makes the world go around, not love. And money, of course. Money and force. It is a sad thing, but this is the soil in which the roots of the tree of life find their strongest hold.
And so all this I have learned. And so, my enemy, raise a hand to strike my people, I will strike back. I will protect my sons and my daughters. Only think of striking me, only say a word, and I will destroy you utterly. A man does not make his life. Life makes a man.
Akmal stirred in his bed and tried to sink back into sleep, but it was gone, the dream of his wife and his two children. He had been in the open desert, save for a single palm tree he approached and touched, and then tears had come to his eyes. He turned and they were there. He embraced each onein succession, very deliberately. Their eyes smiled. So real theyhad been. He had turned to look for water, for a well, thinking there must be one nearby. He turned again and they were gone, the palm tree gone as well. But instantly he knew they were unquestionably alive somewhere, in heaven certainly, so very alive. There were no tears, they were well and strong. But now they were gone again. How he ached for them.
He opened his eyes into the dim light of dawn. The night had been hot, but not the dry heat of the Iraqi highlands. It was moist and tropical. He turned his head toward the bed where Fahran lay, still sleeping. Tonight would tell a story, seal their fate. He heard the man who lived next door drive up on his motorcycle, a man he’d never seen and would never see. Eight days he and Fahran had squatted down in this hovel, given a few tortillas and eggs, some bitter chorizo, folding it all together to keep their stomachs half-full. You’d think they would treat us better, he thought. He rose from his grimy bed and went to the sink to splash brown water on his sweaty face. He missed his beard, felt less than a man without it, but clearly there was more to manhood than that. He was living proof of it. His hands trembled a little.
The phone in the corner rang.
“Paco,” the voice said. “Como esta?”
“Es demasiado caliente, pero ésa es vida,” he answered in his clumsy Spanish.
“Forget about bowling,” came the response, in Spanish. “I’m coming down with a cold.”
Akmal mouthed the memorized words. “It’s all right, I don’t want to go anyway.”
“Right.” The phone line clicked off. So their handlers would be coming on schedule. Those men had nothing to lose, unless the Americans were really watching them all. They would just take him and Fahran to the drop-off spot and head back to town for beer and more drugs. The Tijuana Cartel owned this part of Ensenada. They were invulnerable. The phone camouflage was just insurance.
“Fahran, wake up.” He had to shake the man, he was deeply asleep. “We’d better eat something before we leave.” Fahran sat up bleary-eyed.
“Why there is nearby no McDonalds?”
“There is nearby nothing. What were you dreaming of?”
“I can’t remember. Wait! I was at an AC/DC concert. They were playing Dilbar.”
“What the hell is that?”
“Dilbar is hit song by Mirwais Sahab. You remember. It’s like a World Beat thing with hip-hop vocal. In my dream, Steven Tyler was singing with Mirwais, it was amazing. Angus Young makes screaming solo and…”
“You are talking crazy. Think about our mission, Fahran. We have spent too many days drowsing in this hovel, your mind is confused.” Akmal went to the narrow kitchen and pulled out tortillas and some cheese, a few lumps of chicken meat and began to heat a frypan. Such unpleasant food, barely digestible.
Fahran rose and went to the other room and reappeared with two big, normal-looking suitcases, the innards of which were not at all normal. They had practiced lifting them as casually as possible so as not to betray their weight, about 75 pounds each.
“Not yet,” Akbar snapped. “It will be another two hours. Those cases make me nervous.”
“For me it is a blessing to be close to them. I can feel the vibrations, the power. I can feel the hand of Allah himself within. They are almost…sexy!”
Only someone like Fahran could make a blasphemous remark like that, combining the presence of the Holiest with a sexual feeling. He had lived too long in America. How could a supreme quest like theirs succeed with a dunderhead like him involved? Fahran had studied his physics at UCLA, he was brilliant, but had spent too much of his time at the beach. The mission’s planners selected him for his knowledge of weapons technology, but for Akmal too much about him was unstable. He was supposed to have been indoctrinated for the mission, subjected to some sort of psy-ops process to insure his total dedication and single-mindedness. At first he seemed totally focused, but in the heat and deprivation of the last week his ardor had faded.
“Leave them in the closet for now, Fahran. And do not use foul words in the same sentence as the Holy One. Let us watch our every step. Allah rewards the judicious.”
It was mid-morning when the pickup truck rolled up outside. The truck had a camper shell over the bed into which Akbar and Fahran, with false facility, loaded their cargo.Then they climbed in and squatted down next to it. To their escorts, they were not Fahran and Akbar, but Ajram and Haddad, Lebanese middlemen for an Afghan heroin cartel. Of course, it was essential that the two suitcases remain locked. No one could predict what would happen if the Mexicans saw their contents. At the very least Fahran and Akbar’s lives would be forfeit. What these murderous outlaws would do with two atomic devices – if they could identify them – was anyone’s guess. But if all went well their people had promised a clandestine entry onto a U.S. shore. In a seaworthy cruiser, with their knowledge of the long California coastline, they said it was not such a difficult matter.
They drove north along the coast for the next two hours, leaving the city behind, moving through a series of small fishing towns on the unlit highway. The two men, used to the rough roads of their home country, were undisturbed by the bumpy ride. The smell of marijuana drifted back to them from the cab, accompanied by the sounds of guttural Spanish and occasional outbursts of laughter. At length, the truck pulled onto an even rougher road that led down to the ocean. Soon, it rolled to a stop and the driver came around to pull open the camper shell flap.
Here before them was the smooth, expansive Pacific and built out from the shore, a long concrete jetty. Pulled alongside, maybe thirty yards out, rode a sleek, powerful looking vessel that rolled slowly on a calm sea. A casually dressed, deeply tanned fellow with a stubbly beard approached the two travelers, smiling a smile that chilled more than warmed.
“En su servicio, señors
“I’m sorry,” said Akbar. “We can only speak a little English.”
“That will be fine. My name is Garcia. Let’s get you on board before the weather changes. We have some wind coming. Have you sailed before?”
Fahran grimaced. “Not really.”
The man looked surprised. “But Lebanon was always a seafaring country, wasn’t it?”
“These days, the sea is for fishermen or the rich. We are neither. How far out must we go?”
“Are you more concerned about your stomachs or staying out of Guantanamo?”
Akbar sighed. “Go where you must, captain. Our business is all we care about.”
“I thought Allah was all you people care about,” the captain said with the slightest tone of disrespect.
Akbar bristled, but Fahran broke in. “Some of us would prefer to have our forty virgins in this world, captain!”
The atmosphere lightened with this, and the Mexicans laughed, though Akbar’s was more grimace than gaiety.
“Yes, money rules the world, doesn’t it,” the captain chuckled. “Without it you are crushed beneath its weight. Your people have lots of it, that is what matters.” He stiffened.“However, please understand we cannot allow passengers to bear weapons aboard ship. Do you have any weapons with you?”
“We do,” Akbar admitted, to avoid a search, but after he relinquished his Glock, and Fahran a Beretta M9, they frisked them anyway and took their combat knives.
“Please co-operate with us, my friends. Do you think you can take over our ship with a couple of shivs? Anyway, where would you sail this yacht on your own, to Hawaii for surfing?” The Mexicans’ laughter was hard and derisive.
“It is not comfortable to be unarmed in a strange land,” Fahran argued, his head hung down.
“You are protected by people far more powerful than either you or I, señor. Relax and enjoy yourselves. Vamanos, muchachos, let’s go.”
Garcia led them along the quay and aboard ship. It was a magnificent thing with polished wood decks, sparkling brass fittings and chromium rails. The two men were shown to a shared room below, clean and well-appointed, luxurious beyond anything in their experience. Within moments, they felt the motor cruiser back away from the dock, then smoothly, powerfully move forward. Akbar turned to his compatriot.
“One of us should stay here with the suitcases at all times. Don’t let them out of our sight.”
“Of course. I don’t trust any of them. Anything could happen to us out here. We are at their mercy.” He rubbed the rough stubble where his beard once was. “But we should hang out with them a little, you know, to give the impression we are friendly.”
“I don’t want you getting high with them, Fahran. Allah will not protect us. Please, this is a sacred mission! The world will be changed if we succeed.”
“I know, I know, but this is also like the American action movie. It is a caper! Each day I feel like a Pakistani Tom Cruise. Especially now, on this fabulous cruiser.”
“You like too much the degenerate American culture. Many have told you this. Think of what they did to my family.”
“They await you in heaven, Allah be praised. I have no words to express my anger at that hideous crime. But look, Akbar, we Muslims have to compromise a little. It is not Steven Tyler killing our people, it is not Tom Cruise or Michael Jackson. It is those fucks in Washington.”
“Michael Jackson will kill your soul, Fahran. It is more valuable than your life.”
“You must lighten up, Akbar. Michael had soul. Mirwais Sahab knows this, and he is still a good Muslim. Someday you and I will party and be rocking theworld.”
Akbar gave up, shrugged and turned away to test the softness of his bunk. Lying down, he felt like a sultan, but fought the sensation. He feared falling under the decadent spell of Fahran. They felt the cruiser’s engines below and the vessel surging across the sea. It was late afternoon. He began to drowse and did not notice when Fahran stepped out the door and up the stairs to the deck.
He awoke to the sound of men shouting in Spanish, the sound of a confrontation about to turn violent. A chill ran through him. He could tell by the tone of voice that at least one of the Mexicans was spoiling for a fight. Then, cutting through like lightning came a metallic voice booming through a loudspeaker,
“United States Coast Guard! Prepare to be boarded! Ahoy – prepare to be boarded!”
He lay paralyzed on his bunk. He was dreaming. He turned his head to look for Fahran, but his partner was not there. The roar of a patrol boat engine became more and more audible. The worst possible scenario was occurring, he thought, but he was mistaken. For a few moments later, he heard the unthinkable sound of an automatic rifle firing from above him, then another. A black hole opened in his stomach. His entire body began trembling. He tumbled off the bunk and staggered toward the hatchway and the stairs. As he stood in fear, trying to find the courage to ascend the passageway, he heard even more weapons. Shouts, swearing, pounding feet on the deck above his head, then a terrible cry of pain, and another. What could he do on deck unarmed, he thought. He decided to wait. If men were coming with guns to kill him there was nowhere to go anyway. The firing grew more sporadic.
Without warning came a hard jolt that rocked the vessel and threw him to his knees, as if the ship had collided with a dock, with something heavy. A long pause. Then the sound of just a single rifle spraying bullets at some distance. More silence. The heavy rolling of the sea. Then, a thud, as feet hit the deck above him. Another burst of gunfire, close at hand, a full-throated scream. Immediately, footfalls over his head, then feet descending the steps on the stairway, approaching where he stood. He braced himself to die. The door was flung open and there stood Fahran panting, a wild, desolate look on his face, a splash of bright blood across one side of his shirt, and one of the Mexicans’ rifles clutched in his hand.
“Oh, shit, Akbar, this is not caper!” His face was wet with tears. “This is fucking Kill Bill! Oh shit, Akbar, oh shit!”
They heard movement up behind him on deck, and Fahran spun and rushed back up the stairs, firing his weapon wildly. Akbar saw only Fahran’s legs, heard him shouting, “Fuck you, mister! Fuck you!” then sink down onto the steps and drop his rifle. It clattered halfway down, terrifying Akbar. Fahran threw up then, vomiting on the stairs, folding in on himself, crying, sobbing, wailing at the top of his voice for Allah to forgive him. The two men remained thus for a few minutes as Fahran slowly began to regain control and Akbar worried that another attacker might appear. But it was deadly quiet. Again, he became aware of the slow rocking of the ocean. He knew he should go on deck and see whatever horrors awaited there, but fear and shock kept him motionless. Finally Fahran raised his head. The look in his eyes drew Akbar toward him. He took three steps up the stairs.
“What have you done, Fahran? What happened?”
Fahran rose painfully to his feet. “Come, my brother. We must try to save ourselves, but I fear all is lost.”
The two men ascended to the deck, where an unbelievable nightmare confronted Akbar. A shaft of blinding light struck him from the helm of a Coast Guard patrol boat that lay wallowing a few yards away on the moon-sparked seascape. It was loosely lashed to their ship by a towing hawser. In the garish moonlight he could make out two young Americans lying in dark blood on its deck.
“There’s more below, I think” Fahran said. “It was like a dream, Allah must have possessed me. Now He has left us alone here to wait for death.” Akbar looked around him. The captain, the man named Garcia, lay sprawled over the own ship’s gunwale. Blood was still oozing from the matted hair on the side of his head, dripping into the sea. Some part of Akbar understood Fahran’s words: he felt as if he were on the set of a movie. This wasn’t real. He struggled to accept that it was. They moved toward the cabin where two more Mexicans lay among shattered glass. Streaks and pools of blood assailed their sight everywhere. Averting his eyes, he gazed up at the sky and saw a gibbous moon hanging among the stars. The obvious resolved itself in Akbar’s mind.
“We must escape from here. There must be a life raft or something. Move quickly! More ships will be coming very soon – and planes!”
“There must be something onboard!” The two men began moving desperately around the decks, pulling open hatches, peering into cabins until a shout came from Fahran. “Here in the back!” Akbar ran aft to find his partner holding a canister, on which was inscribed Throwable Rescue Platform. Toss overboard to activate in bright red letters. They stared at each other. Fahran shrugged and threw the device down onto the dark sea. In a few seconds there was a loud pop and the sound of compressed air being released. A yellow and black rubber raff was slowly deploying, swelling up into a rectangular shape, finally flopping over onto its back, ready for boarding. Fahran hauled it back against the hull by means of the rope still attached to it. It seemed remarkably sturdy, an expandable metallic ribbing supporting its passenger area. What Akbar hoped were telescoped oars seemed to be lashed along the inner walls. “Too bad it’s not black,” Akbar complained. “Our chances are bad enough anyway.” He took a deep breath, with great seriousness and weight, as if it were his last. Then he snapped at Fahran, “Let’s get the RA-115s. Quick!”
“Are you crazy? It will never take all that weight!”
“Then let us die like cowards, let us dump the mighty swords given us by Allah into the sea.”
Fahran bowed his head, shamed. The pair stumbled toward the bow. Fahran slipped on the deck and fell to his knees on blood-slippery hands. They descended to their cabin and got the two suitcases up the stairs. Next was the matter of guiding themselves along the slippery, rolling deck, hanging on to the rail, struggling to remain on their feet. Carefully, Akbar swung himself over the rail and three feet down into the raft.
“Lower the first case down to me,” he rasped. Fahran managed it, and the craft remained stable and buoyant. The second case followed. Then Fahran joined his accomplice in the boat and still the sides of the raft remained a full foot above the sea. Akbar paused and studied the garish scene around him. Suddenly an obvious imperative struck him.
“Fahran, have you still your weapon?”
“It’s on deck somewhere.”
“Hurry and get it. Then shoot out that searchlight for God’s sake.”
It took just a moment for Fahran to locate the rifle near the stairs, raise its sights to the Coast Guard searchlight and shatter it. Now they were pitched into blackness. Only the moon lit in shadowy greys the scene of battle. Fahran again lowered himself into the boat. By now, Akbar had undone the objects he’d seen, and as he’d hoped, they expanded out into short but serviceable oars. Caring nothing for direction, he braced his feet against one of their terrifying pieces of luggage and began to row away from the two death-laden ships. Now, only the sound of the night wind and dipping oars and their own panting. They took turns. After twenty minutes the two ships seemed much smaller and distant enough to suggest that what lay there in the dark need not be their affair. As their sense of shock receded, the next critical and obvious issue clicked into place, this time in Fahran’s head.
“Where should we go next, Akbar?” They had no idea of their position at sea. Hopefully, they were close to the coast – the appearance of the patrol boat suggested that, but no lights could be seen anywhere on the horizon. “At least let us guess our direction,” Akbar replied. For the first time, he glanced at his watch. In the moonlight, it showed it was a few minutes before onein the morning. They had perhaps five hours to reach shore before dawn. Above, he found the north star and then from the westward inclination of the moon deduced they had been moving more or less parallel to the coast. Where along that coast they were and how far from it he had no idea, but he turned the raft towards where it should lie. Then he began rowing again.
“Tell me now, Fahran. How did this happen?”
“It is as you said, I was fool to join those men. It was not just marijuana. It was cocaine. There were other things, other powders they put into their cigarettes. And whiskey – can you believe it? I tried to leave, but they stop me. Next they want to see our shipment! Captain Garcia said no, but other drug guy, Roberto, arguing with him, all shouting like crazy men. This is when American boat comes out of nowhere. Garcia grabs rifle, runs outside and shoots out at the other ship. Then Roberto shoots Garcia! He shoots his captain! I can’t believe it. But I am very high. I go out like a fool to help Garcia but he is dead already. I took his rifle to defend my life, but after that…” Fahran dropped his head into his hands and furiously clenched his black hair, then looked up again.
“The men in other boat begin shooting now. They kill our people, but Roberto is crazy man. He is Al Pacino in their face! Their boat crashes against us and he jumps over there shooting and killing. They can’t stop him like Clint Eastwood. He goes down into their boat shooting until it is quiet again.”
“And you did nothing? How did he die?”
“Please, my mind will not go there. It’s enough, what I remember is enough. Let me row now, I have to move my body.”
“How did he die, Fahran?”
“I shot him when he comes back on deck from the other boat…he would kill us next, of course! I shot his body and he was just falling down into the ocean. So I did this thing. Now let me row!”
“Maybe you did the right thing, Fahran. Maybe you had no choice. OK, It’s over now. We must try to survive. Here, take the oars.”
Akbar rose up carefully and exchanged places with his partner. “Point the raft away from the moon. It is in the west now. We must go east.” Fahran took up the oars and began rowing with determination. In the distance, they heard the sound of a jet, but it was quickly identifiable as a airliner approaching the coast, perhaps from Japan. Fahran kept his gaze on the moon, then gave out a cry.
“Look at the moon, Akbar! Look how the plane is crossing the moon!”
“Do you not know the miracle of the splitting of the moon in Qur’anic verse? It tells how the Messenger of God was able to do such a thing, and look, this was just like that. That plane split the moon! It went very precisely through the middle! This is a sign! We will be all right, Akbar.”
Akbar was a scientist who viewed the finer details of Islamic holy scripture with skepticism. He also knew many Muslim scholars disputed the veracity of the moon-splitting story. So he nodded his agreement with Fahran, but with a sigh that betrayed his real feelings. He knew Fahran was traumatized and still high on his drug binge. What a fiasco. But the dark scene of the dreadful battle was no longer visible on the horizon. American rescue ships, for some reason, still could not be seen. After a while, Fahran, sculling smoothly through the seas, began singing softly to himself.