Category Archives: 365 Short Stories

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Abdul

It is a beautiful day. The sun is out. We’re shopping, visiting the individual stalls in the shuk and talking to the owners – some of whom I’ve known for 42 years. The awnings of the stalls hang out into the alley between them, providing much needed shade for products and proprietors alike – just as similar awnings have done for millennia. The cobblestones’ worn faces massage my feet with their gentle edges as I pass over them.

It’s a beautiful and peaceful day.

Most importantly, Abdul is in a good mood.

I can barely get by when he isn’t. He’s 51 years old and it seems like his bad days are getting worse and worse. And his good days are getting less and less frequent. I’m 74 and his rages are getting dangerous for me. I might need to put him in a home – but he’s my boy and I don’t want to. So I accept G-d’s decree and simply enjoy the good days when they come.

Today is a good day. Abdul, my sweet, sweet boy, is following behind me. He’s carrying our shopping bags. He is very strong. Today, that’s a blessing.

There’s a stall here that sells spices. It’s owned by a man named Hassan, who was once from Pakistan. The stall itself is simply beautiful to see and incredible to smell. Dozens of spices crowd against each other in a riot of color and smell. Sometimes I buy something new, something I’ve never had before. I ask Hassan what it’s called. Sometimes I go home and Google it and find a recipe. But sometimes I just smell it and imagine how it might be heated and mixed and added to other flavors to make something wonderful and new. It is always a treat, a luxury.

Today, I feel like a luxury.

I point at something deep brown that looks like a collection of seeds and ask, “Abdul, what about that one?”

He sticks his face towards it, inhales and says in a soft voice that belies his size, “I like.”

So I ask Hassan and he measures out a tiny amount and places it in a small bag. It is enough for a few dishes, it always is – he knows I can’t afford more. I can always tell how strong the spice is by how much he ladles out.

The spice is 30 Zusim. I pay 10 from my own account and 20 in subsidy comes from the government.

Our city is different than most. We don’t receive food stamps, a pension or some monthly ration. We have to spend a bit of our own money, whether we get it from charity or work, in order to get our initial subsidy. Between my savings and my shared subsidy with Abdul, we have enough to barely get by. We could spend more, but the subsidy would diminish and our money wouldn’t go as far.

I want to keep as much for Abdul as I possibly can.

“What is it?” I ask.

It is a formality, I always ask.

“Ajwain,” replies Hassan, “Heat will reveal its flavor.”

I thank Hassan, tuck the small and precious bag into one of Abdul’s larger shopping bags and continue walking down the narrow path between the stalls.

It is then that I see a man I haven’t seen in 42 years; and even then only for brief moments.

A flood of memories come back.

He sees me and he lowers his eyes. He is clearly filled with shame.

And then I see him gather his resolve and begin to walk towards me.

“Time to get up, dear.”

The voice is soft and calm and it shakes me from my nightmare.

I open my eyes.

“How are you feeling?”

“My teeth ache,” I answer, popping out what seems to be a decorative mouth guard. “Another nightmare.”

“What happened this time?”

“Same thing,” I answer. I’d told her in the past. My dreams are always the same. I make some wrong turn, or shake the wrong man’s hand – any stupid mistake really – and I get blown up or shot dead. What I don’t tell her is that my nightmares don’t end with my death; they used to, years earlier. Now they end later, with my family abandoned and suddenly at grave risk themselves.

“It’s the first day,” she says.

“I know. Add it to the reasons I don’t sleep well.”

She just smiles.

“Are you sure you want to be here?” I ask, “With the kids?”

“My dear,” she answers, “I want the kids to see your work.”

“It might be dangerous.”

“It might be. We all have our time.”

We’ve been through the conversation dozens of times before. I still don’t buy that we have a time. I still don’t understand why she wants to be here with the children.

Even I don’t want to be here.

I roll out of bed, wash my hands, shower, pray and eat my breakfast. Oats again; watching my cholesterol. I’m not going to check my blood pressure – I’d probably be hospitalized.

I kiss my wife. I kiss my two little boys and my little girl. And then I open the front door of our trailer, 3 minutes earlier than planned.

There’s a guard there – a guy by the name of Eran. His head is clean-shaven and dark. His eyes are aggressive. Very few things surprise him, and I don’t either.

“Boker Tov,” I announce.

“Boker Ohr,” he replies, in a thick Israeli accent. That’s about the extent of my Hebrew – my work is in English.

Eran leads me out to my Jeep. There’s a driver waiting. I know him as well. The drive isn’t very long, but the Jeep is armored and the time has begun to take precautions.

My office is on the edge of the city. Well, you could call it a city, but there are no residents, not yet. Within minutes, we come to the double-wide trailer that serves as an administrative building. I’d considered living right next door to it, but I didn’t want people to always know where to find me. And I didn’t want to totally lock myself away from the town itself.

There’s a guard inside. He opens the gate and the Jeep pulls up. I get out and walk inside. Waiting for me is a room full of worried faces.

“How are we doing today?” I ask, trying to be jovial.

There is no answer. I didn’t want to be in charge. I kept trying to find others to take my place. But nobody would.

And so I set to work.

“First things first. Security. How is it looking?”

A small wiry man named Itai answers. He’d been a General once, but was now he was retired. I’d spoken to dozens of people – trying to convince them to join up. I’d chosen an Israeli because I needed somebody who knew the terrain. But really, I’d chosen the first person with the basic qualifications who really loved the project. Itai fit the bill.

“All of our systems are working, there’s nothing exciting going on. The people outside have been given pagers and spaced away from each other. We’ve got everybody on deck, nobody is on leave.”

“And the mines?”

“We found another one last night. We think it’s the last of them… We’ll find out today.”

Nobody laughs.

“Information Technology?” I ask. I turn to a tall, blond, American woman by the name of Elizabeth. She was a do-gooder who I sold on a unique chance to make a difference. She wasn’t too stupid either. She’d made billions on Internet payment systems and was ready for a new challenge.

“We distributed accounts to the soldiers last week. We’re paying them locally – partially as a supplement to their normal wages, but partially because we needed somebody to test with. One of them even started a business on the side – selling frozen treats from a vending machine. The tax and welfare system appears to be working robustly and is, at this point, bug-free. At least from a software side. At this point, we just have to see what happens when the real people get here and try to cheat it.”

That draws a few nervous laughs.

Water, sewage, electricity. We have hookups to the outside world, but little else. Gravel roads have been laid out in some kind of pattern. Warehouses of tents await the residents.

Finance is my responsibility.

“I checked the accounts and did the math last night. We’re ready to set the welfare levels. The first five hundred Zus each individual newcomer spends will have two thousand Zus in spending power. The next five hundred will have one thousand in spending power. Then 750 for the next five hundred. And then parity. If you don’t have anything to spend, even if it comes from charity, you get no subsidy.”

Elizabeth types vigorously into her laptop.

“What about tax rates?”

“We’ll start at 30%. Just so everybody knows, this isn’t an income tax. All revenue is taxed at 30% – the same for both individuals and businesses. When individuals spend, they get their subsidy. Until it is used up. And when businesses spend on their businesses or distribute their money to their owners, their withheld tax gets returned and then the owners get taxed on the income they realize. The goal is to encourage productive spending.”

People always begin to drift off at this point – even though I consider it incredibly exciting.

I just hope it all comes together as a living system; a system that pushes productivity while also helping the weakest survive. Elizabeth looks interested – so that makes me happy.

“We also have investors lined up – I think we could pull in a few tens of millions for small businesses.”

People perk up a bit at that.

I pause.

“Diplomacy?”

A striking man named Daoud, possessed of a crystal clear voice, answers, “We have import and export permits ready. The Israeli government will allow us to ship through Haifa, although inspections will be heavy at first. A Cypriot airline will provide passenger service to Nicosia – but we need to get the EU to set up a Visa program before they’ll pull the trigger. It will take a while for things to settle in, but I think, once we have a track-record, we’ll be okay.”

It was a massive hole of uncertainty.

“Finally,” I ask, “Avigail, tell us about profiling?”

“When we gave out the pagers, we collected people’s basic documents and blood samples. We’ve begun researching them. We don’t really have enough to establish real criteria for who gets in – we’ll have to play it a little bit by ear.” Avigail, a short, slightly rotund, woman with soft eyes. Avigail was an incredibly considerate person – which was probably why she was so frighteningly clear-headed in her analysis of people.

“What kind of people have come?”

“What types?” she asks.

“Where are they from? What are their ethnicities?”

“We’ve got a good mix. Some Druze, a few Yazidi, quite a few Alawites. Quite a few Arabs, mostly Muslims from Iraq, Syria and the Palestinian Territories. We also have some Pakistanis, some Eritrians and Somalians and even a Chinese family. All in all, there are fifteen thousand people waiting out there.”

The room freezes.

Fifteen thousand.

“Fifteen thousand,” says Avigail, sensing the mood of the room, “And the satellite footage shows thousands more coming in the next few days.”

I look around the room at the worried and stressed faces. The task seems enormous – our path from here to a real city seems frightfully gray. And the responsibility seems overwhelming.

And so I begin to speak.

It is the time to speak.

“Folks, this whole thing started two years earlier when I wrote an editorial. As you all know, it called for a City of Refuge. Not a city of refugees, but a city where people could run to, as immigrants. The editorial called for a place where these people could abandon the failed ideologies of the places they’d run from and build something new. It was to be like Hong Kong, or Amsterdam, or East Berlin or even the New World. It was to be a place where people could flee the ideas that had governed and destroyed their homes and instead build something new and better and hopeful. It called for a place whose ideas would ultimately infect their original homes and transform them into something greater.

“I desperately wanted somebody to take the idea and run with it. Some Prime Minister or President. Some technocrat. Maybe a general. I hadn’t expected a phone call. I hadn’t wanted one.

“But the call came and I was informed that the project had been granted a small budget and a parcel of land. Here. This land. Just south of the abandoned Syrian town of Qunietra. But the budget was small. And the manpower was inadequate. The government didn’t consider this project core to its security. So they wouldn’t require any soldiers to support the effort. And so I began to travel. I used the budget to speak and to seek out people who could help. Security experts, psychologists, informational technology experts. The shopping list was long. There was some money, but our fundamental currency was something else. It was opportunity.

“And so when I met you, I sold each of you on the ideas of a new society, a society that encouraged productivity while also providing social welfare. A society that simplified government. A society that had connection to the unchanging divine at its core; even as it encouraged constant growth and development. I showed you my vision of how it could be possible. And, one by one, you signed up.

“John Winthrop famously called the New World a City on a Hill. He wanted America to be an example to the world. He succeeded. Despite many shortcomings, his efforts were the germ of a set of ideas that transformed humankind. Now the time has come for another germ. This is our City on a Height. And you are the best – not only because of your skills, but because of your dedication. You have taken my very broad concepts and you have made them stronger and more robust. And – in a few hours – you will have made them a reality.”

“This city, this Protectorate, will not be democratic. Not at first. It will be governed by us. The check on our power will be the flow of people. We draw them in and the City will grow. If we abuse our power, they will leave, and our city will crumble.”

“At this point, it seems like we have nothing. Some tents and caravans and computers. We have a border fence. But we do not have nothing. We have thousands of people outside these walls. People who share your vision… Avigail?”

“Yes?” she answers.

“Do we have any shopkeepers?”

“Dozens.”

“So we’ll have stores. How about builders?”

“Maybe a hundred.”

“So we’ll have houses and apartments. What about civil engineers?”

“We have a few of those.”

“So we’ll have running water and electricity and sewage. Road builders?”

“We have a guy who used to drive a paver.”

“Give it a few days, and we’ll have what we need to build roads. The people will come – and they are coming to build. They are not coming as refugees or as charity cases. They are coming to build something new. So they’ll start poor, but they’ll build and they’ll produce. And they’ll sell, one to another… Do we have singers and writers and artists and directors?”

Avigail nods.

“Our city is outside these fences. All of the possibility is waiting outside. There is opportunity and hope waiting to come inside our walls. We have people walking away from the sicknesses of the societies they’ve come from. It takes courage and strength and determination to do that. It says in the Bible that you must bring in and settle escaped slaves. I believe that this is because only the best have the drive to escape. To deny them a home would be to deny tremendous human potential.”

I paused for a minute.

“But these people, the people we want, aren’t alone. There are also people who are hoping to bring their sicknesses to us. They are hoping to destroy us. They are hoping to eliminate our ideas before they can flourish. This is why our first job, today, is to sort them out. Profiling and files can only go so far – beyond that, we will need to rely on our guts.

“One hundred thousand people a month came to Hong Kong. 8,000 bombs – 1,000 of them real and 7,000 duds – were cleared by police. The Communists tried to destroy the poison of hope that had set up shop on their borders. But they didn’t succeed. Our enemies will try to destroy us as well. We won’t be perfect in stopping them. But we have no choice other than to be good enough. That is our first task and it starts today. Everybody will interview today. In the future, there will be a dedicated intake staff. And if we have hard cases, we’ll kick them up to Avigail and ultimately to myself.”

“15,000 people are out there. Tonight, some will come within our walls and we’ll have the beginnings of a new society.”

I turn to Itai, the security chief.

“Are we ready?”

“We are ready.”

“So let’s begin.”

I’d expected something more impressive. I’d expected 30-meter high concrete walls with guns emplaced at regular intervals. I’d expected something like a fortress, or a prison. Instead, I see a fence. It is solid, to be sure – but hardly imposing.

I’d hoped for instructions posted on the road, telling us what to do. But we are in Syrian territory. Signs probably wouldn’t have survived and the Protectorate probably didn’t want to regularly risk lives to post them.

So instead, as we drew closer, we hear a loudspeaker repeating – droning – instructions in English and Arabic. We are to drop off our documents, give blood samples, get some food, water and tents to tide us over and then receive a pager – as a family group.

Then, we are to disperse. They are worried about suicide bombers. The pager would summon us back.

A black woman is walking next to us. She has a baby strapped to her.

“What do I do,” she asks, in broken Arabic, “I don’t have any documents.”

“I guess you should say that,” I answer, “When we come to the fence.”

She nods and we walk on.

The sun is out and it is very very hot. The low grasses and trees of the Golan Heights don’t seem bothered by the weather. And I guess I’m not either. I’m focused on the goal.

And so we walk on.

Signs and fences warning about mines funnel us in towards a small booth. It looks like an armored porta-potty with a window. Now, I can begin to see the security. There are cameras and a few soldiers milling around. But it is so low-key I can barely imagine them resisting the forces whose violence I’d seen. I can barely imagine it, but I know my eyes are deceiving me. This is one of the most secure borders in the world.

I take out our documents out as we come nearer. My children Abdul and Mohammed are walking in front of me. I always keep them in sight. I have ever since the mortar attack.

Ibrahim is to my right, holding my hand. I turn and smile at him. He smiles back.

And then I say, mostly to myself, “I can’t believe we’re coming here.”

“Why?” asks Mohammed with the bright eyes of a precocious 8-year-old.

Abdul just smiles, as he always does. He’s been that way for the last two years. Sometimes I’m thankful for that. It can be good not to understand all the horror you witness.

“I grew up in Damascus. So did your father and his father before him. We’ve been there as long as anybody’s been keeping track.”

“So what?” asks Mohammed. His youth is showing through.

“Mohammed, Damascus is the oldest city in the world. I am so proud of it. It is in our blood and in our souls. Damascus, in its way, is the center of the world. It is the most mature place and we are the most mature people in the world. And, growing up, we knew our future was bright because of it.

“The Americans were immature newbies whose time would quickly pass. The Israelis an infection which didn’t belong. And while the Europeans had their libertine philosophies and their nationalism, we had our far more solid submission to the will of Allah. We knew the West would spin out of control. We knew their technology would only add fuel to the fire of their untethered morality. Their World Wars would multiple and grow and lead to their total destruction. We, blessed with age and perspective, would survive and eventually, we’d flourish. We would be blessed by Allah, who we had not abandoned. We’d live in the shadow of G-d. We’d respect tradition and the prophet. And we’d keep going. Forever connected to our ancient city.”

Mohammed hasn’t looked up. But I can see he’s thinking.

“But we’re here?” he asks, finally. It almost isn’t question.

“That’s right, Mohammed.”

“And this is the newest place. The youngest one in the whole world.”

“That’s right, Mohammed.”

Sometime he stuns me with his clarity.

“Perhaps that’s why I can’t believe we’re here.”

He nods, solemnly and continues his pondering as we come to the booth. A man is waiting within.

We hand our identifying documents through a bank-like receptacle. I am incredibly scared of those documents simply disappearing. But we have little choice. And then a small robotic arm reaches out and collects blood from each of us. The man gestures to the right. A small cart rolls up – it is pulled by a little electric tug. On its back is a large package. Ibrahim opens it. A tent, a pager, water and food.

The tug disconnects from the cart and leaves. “Take the cart,” says the man in the booth. Good thing too, we were already carrying everything we could. We add some of our stuff to the cart and then Ibrahim grasps the end of it, preparing to walk.

“How long will we have to wait?” he asks as we turn and begin to look for a place to set up our temporary home.

“Our turn will come soon enough,” I reply, my eyes taking in the thousands of arrayed tents.

I feel like a traitor to my own history.

“Who’s next,” I ask.

Over the course of the day, we’ve put together an informal prioritization. There’s no humanitarian crises outside the fence, so we’ve decided to sort people by occupation. We need everything, but some people are needed first. For example, doctors. Although we can send people to Israel for treatment, we need some front-line diagnostics. So the eight General Practitioners came first.

We also decided to do the initial interviews as a group – to get a feel for the cadence and the nature of the interrogations. One of two of us would do the actual interview and the others would observe from another room. Afterwards, we’d compare notes and shared criticisms and make our decisions. And we’d rotate interviewers, so everybody got in some practice.

I was the only one, as the most public target, who would not directly interview anybody.

As I watched, I was reminded of a small bit of Byzantine history. When Emperor Constantine V invaded Arab lands, he brought back all the Christian populations of the places he took. He gave them land grants and resettled them in his own territory. The idea then was simple – he’d take productive people from his enemy’s domains and use them to strengthen his own empire.

I wondered when and how immigration had become a bad thing.

Seven of the doctors passed their interviews. The eighth failed.

We’d already decided that we weren’t going to requalify anybody. There was a simple rule: whatever qualifications they possessed had to be presented truthfully. If they were licensed in Syria or Pakistan, they need to state that in order to work. If they claimed qualifications they lack, they’d face exile. But, bottom line, they’d get to work that day.

With doctors in place, we next interviewed those families who the triage guard had noticed seemed to be sick. They were brought in and immediately assessed by our brand new doctors. If their cases were emergencies, they were transferred to Israel for care. If not, their families were put through the normal process. The doctors were to be paid a flat rate for their assessments. In time, we’d transition to the new system.

But, with those priorities behind us, we needed to decide who would be next.

Avigail looked up from her notes. “How about this guy?” she asks, “He was a director of civil engineering in Mosul, under the Americans. Then he moved to Damascus where he worked on civil projects.”

Itai is looking over her shoulder. “Look at his wife.”

“Abal Hussain? What about her?” asks Avigail.

“She’s a photographer and a blogger.”

“So what?” asks Avigail.

Itai, the hardened General, replies, “We’re building something here, she can record it and share it. We want somebody like her to watch things from the very beginning. If she’s any good, she can help it flourish.”

“Is she any good?” I ask.

Avigail pulls up the blog. Gorgeous images of Damascus at war fill the screen.

“That one,” I say, pointing at a picture of the old shuk, “Click on that one.”

Avigail opens in and we read, slowly, about the history of that place and the people who lived there. It pulls us in, deeply.

“She loves it,” says Itai, drawing in his breath, “She loves Damascus.”

“She stopped eight months ago,” says Avigail.

“I wonder why?” I ask no one in particular.

“I wonder,” says Itai, “Whether she could love this place as well.”

Elizabeth, the billionaire IT genius, selects their family on the PC. She clicks “Interview.”

A few minutes later, we can see a tent being folded as another family prepares for their interview.

The pager buzzes. I glance down and it reads, in Arabic, “Come to entrance 2, bring your belongings and tent.”

It is still the first day and I’m amazed that we’ve been selected so quickly.

“What does it mean?” asks Ibrahim.

“I have no idea,” I answer, “Maybe they need civil engineers.”

He smiles, we fold up the tent and load everything on the cart. In the last six months, we’ve become experts at packing and repacking our possessions.

We pull the cart towards a large sign labeled “2” above another armored porta-potty.

A guard ushers us through and we find ourselves in a large empty space surrounded by walls. There is no roof, but the floor is some rubbery substance punctuated with small holes. There is an exit directly opposite from where we came in.

“Good afternoon,” says a voice from a loudspeaker, “My name is Itai Ben-Eliezer. I am the Head of Security.”

“Hello,” I say, feeling awkward trying to talk to a faceless box, even if it has a name.

“We are going to start today by ensuring you don’t pose any personal threat… Do you have any weapons?”

“I have a pistol,” says Ibrahim.

“Where?”

“Back of my waistband.”

As always, his answers are short and to the point.

“Please remove it from your pants, remove the magazine, open the chamber, and place it near the exit.”

He does so and then returns to the center of the enclosure.

A hand snakes out from behind the exit and pulls away the pistol.

“Now,” says Itai, “Please unpack your belongings so we can verify there are no additional weapons.”

We do as he asks. Layers upon layers of our tightly packed possession come away into smaller and smaller pieces, like the skin of an onion. At some point Itai stops us. “That is sufficient.”

“We are going to scan you for explosives. There will be a puff of air from below.”

We nod and the puff follows.

Moments later the exit opens. A young soldier is standing there.

“Come on in,” he says, “We’ll take care of your stuff.”

We walk through and find ourselves inside the Protectorate.

What I see is an empty piece of scrub land with a few trailers. One thing stands out. A massive play structure – surrounded by nothing.

I’ve always lived in a city, in an established place. This is frighteningly empty.

I take what solace I can in that play structure; and the priorities it represents.

We’re directed towards a trailer. The soldier opens the door and we walk in. I was expecting a blast of air-conditioning but the room is on the edge of comfortable. This government isn’t wasting any money. It is either a sign of weakness or of prioritization. I can’t figure out which.

A short, friendly-looking, woman stands up from behind a desk and shakes my hand. She nods at Ibrahim, respecting the space between the sexes. And then she offers us a seat.

“My name is Avigail,” she says, “I want to introduce you to the Protectorate and then you can ask me questions about it. We’ll also have a few questions for you.”

We take our seats. There are about 10 chairs there. I guess they’re ready for larger families.

“This place,” says Avigail, once we’ve settled in, “Is not like any other place on earth. Our mission here is to build and create in the image of G-d. It calls for a new way of running things. But it also calls for commitment from those who join us… Do you understand?”

“I do,” says Ibrahim, surprisingly, “I like to build.”

I nod my agreement.

“We have unusual rules here,” says Avigail, “We are focused on productivity – the fruits of which will be invested in community and connection to the timeless. You do not need to be religious to live here. But whatever religion you adhere to, we will not permit anybody to seek a connection to the divine through destruction. If you preach destruction, we will exile you. If you take a life, we will do worse. There has been enough destruction outside these walls… Do you understand?”

I nod. I’m nervous, I’m scared. I don’t have much faith in these new sorts of ideas. I imagine the implementation will be very messy.

But I want a place where my children can flourish – and the place we’ve come from has no chance of flourishing.

“I need you to say it,” says Avigail.

“I understand,” I answer. Ibrahim follows. And then Mohammed. Abdul does not. When he’s wearing his hat, his injury isn’t that obvious.

“Abdul,” asks Avigail, I guess she has his name from our file.

“His brain is injured,” I say.

“Take off your hat,” I say, to Abdul.

He raises it, revealing a significant indentation.

She checks her notes and nods. “Okay, he doesn’t have to understand.”

Her phone buzzes and she picks it up and looks at it. A look of surprise crosses her face.

“Ibrahim,” she asks, suddenly changing the topic, “Are you the father of these children?”

“No,” answers Ibrahim. Once again managing as few words as he can.

I interject, “My husband was killed, in the army. We met afterwards.”

“That’s okay,” said Avigail, “We just have a concern. A very specific concern that women like you might have had their husbands held hostage so that other men could be smuggled in. Because of this, we’re going to need to interview you separately. Do you understand?”

“Yes,” I say, “Do you also want to interview the children?”

“No,” says Avigail, “They make terrible witnesses. And the process can be incredibly stressful for them. They can play outside, if you’d like. We’ll have a soldier who can watch them.”

“I’d like that,” I answer. Abdul probably won’t climb the play structure. But Mohammed will, and he’ll enjoy it.

The soldier reappears at the door and guides my boys out.

As another soldier appears and guides Ibrahim away from me, I sit nervously.

I hope we pass the test.

“Where did Ibrahim get his education?” asks Avigail.

“Saddam Hussain University.”

“Why did he come to Damascus?”

“His family was killed in Mosul. His wife and three sons. ISIS had taken over. He’d worked with the government – he was a government official. They came to his house but he wasn’t there. So they killed his family. And he fled.”

“Why not go to Baghdad? People don’t normally flee into Syria.”

“He heard they were watching the routes towards Baghdad. He didn’t think he could make it. He thought he’d have a better chance going the other way. I don’t think he wanted to come to Damascus – just get out of Mosul. He ended up sneaking out what food and valuables he had, putting them in his bag and starting to walk.”

“What were their names?”

“Whose?”

“His wife and children?”

“I don’t know. He’s never said.”

“Why not?”

“Why not? I think he’s just been traumatized about his past. He doesn’t talk a lot.”

“How did you meet him?”

“My husband was conscripted and killed while in the army. I used to blog – taking photos and telling stories about Damascus. I spent what savings we had on ever more expensive groceries. And then I ran out. So I started begging. I knocked on doors and begged for food. I knocked on his door. I don’t know why, but he let me in. He’d managed to get himself a job with a paycheck from the government. His skills are valuable. He let us stay with him.”

The topic suddenly jumps again.

“When was Abdul injured?”

“After my husband was conscripted. He was out playing, there was a mortar. A rock must have hit him – judging by the dent. I don’t let him out of my sight anymore.”

“Does Ibrahim like him?”

“Abdul? I guess so. Ibrahim doesn’t speak much.”

“Does he love you?”

“He’s protected me. At great risk to himself. That’s what I care about.”

Avigail pauses. “Fair enough.”

Avigail ruffles through her notes.

“When?” she asks, suddenly.

“When what?”

“When did he protect you?”

“I’d brought the kids to get some ice cream – a very very special treat in a war zone. My grandparents had made it from goats’ milk. I was coming home when a militia member accosted me. The front lines kept moving and I guess, that day, we were almost on top of them. I was in sight of the house. The militia member told my kids to run – and they did. They ran to the house…”

I pause, “Do I have to talk about this?”

“Yes,” says Avigail, “I’m afraid so.”

I breathe deeply, “Okay,” I reply, “He covered my mouth and forced me into an empty store-front along the road. I tried to scream, but he hit me. Hard. I shut up. He started pulling my dress up, violently. And then Ibrahim appeared, behind him.”

“And?”

“And Ibrahim shot him. Killed him on the spot. I still remember how his face exploded. He never had any idea what we coming. We ran home. I was so scared. Ibrahim was so scared. It would be clear he’d been killed, at short-range. There were powder burns. This wasn’t some sniper – that would be obvious. We were worried for days that somebody would find out, investigate and come for us. But nothing happened.”

“Why did he come for you?”

“Why did he save me? I have no idea. I guess he cared about me. It was certainly risky.”

“When did it happen?”

“About six months after we’d moved into his house.”

Avigail again looks at her notes.

“What color were his shoes?”

“Whose shoes?”

“The man who attacked you.”

“Black” I say.

“Black,” she repeats, “Okay…”

She continues, “So is that when you left?”

“No, we left later.”

“When?”

“After they came for Abdul.”

“Who came for Abdul?”

“Militia men. They came to recruit him.”

“Why him, he doesn’t seem like an aggressive boy.”

“They wanted him to martyr himself. There’s less of a loss when the bomber is already damaged.”

There’s silence. And then Avigail softens dramatically.

“And so you left?”

“They gave us a day to decide. And we decided to run. To the only place we could. Here.”

“You, your kids, and Ibrahim.”

“Yes,” I answer.

“Thank you,” says Avigail, “I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

Avigail comes back into the control room. “How does it look?”

“The stories match,” I say, “Ibrahim doesn’t talk much, but he told us more about why he let Abal in. You might like to know.”

“Why?”

“Because he thought she might be able to get him across borders.”

“Hm.”

“Single men have a hard time traveling.”

“They sure do. So why did he protect her?”

“He doesn’t know. He didn’t really clarify – I’m guess living together made him feel some connection. You know they still aren’t married – they’re just together. He protects her and she gets him across borders.”

“It sounds like a wonderful match,” she says.

“It does, tremendous things can grow from foundations like these.”

She thinks for a moment and then says, “Have Daoud ask him about the shoes.”

Daoud, the diplomat, is interrogating Ibrahim.

“The militia man’s shoes?” I ask.

“Yeah. See what he says.”

Daoud is wearing an earpiece. I press a button and tell him what to do.

In the room, Daoud suddenly switches topics.

“What color were the shoes?”

“Which shoes?” asks Ibrahim.

“The man you killed. The man who was threatening Abal.”

Ibrahim thinks for just a second and then answers, “White.”

The answer is clear and definite and confident. Exactly what it should be.

Except that it doesn’t match.

We argue, of course. It is one question. One tiny detail in a flood of a story. But their answers were so confident and so certain. Nobody said they didn’t remember. They filled in a detail, and they got it wrong. It happens sometimes. People remember things incorrectly.

Or people coordinate their stories, beautifully. But mess up a detail.

Ultimately, I make the call.

He has to leave, he represents a threat.

There is screaming, crying and fighting.

The arguments come in a flurry of middle-eastern verbal struggle. “He has to stay,” Abal argues, “He can’t be forced out. He has to stay, they won’t let him live.”

There is more than simple convenience at work in this relationship.

But he is a threat. They can leave together, or she can stay with her children. Those are the options.

In a tearful split, they separate. Abal and her children stay.

Ibrahim is rejected. He promises to return.

I watch it all from my video – strangely disconnected from my decision.

Over the next few weeks, the city grows immensely.

For my part, I travel through it, watching and supporting and learning. The cream of a billion people are coming to a tiny city on the Golan. The sprouts of investment crack through the dirt – small markets, a medical clinic. Workmen and engineers begin to build the city – funded by our modest budget and the very beginnings of our tax revenues. Slowly, things rise.

With a tearful eye, Abal catalogues her new home and its growth. Even I can see that, reluctantly, she is beginning to fall in love with her new home.

And then 42 days in, Itai calls me into his office.

“I need to show you something,” he announces, gruffly.

He has me sit, he opens a web address, and then he plays a video.

It is Ibrahim. He is in an orange jumpsuit. And he is being beheaded.

And just like that I realize that I was wrong. I’d made the wrong call.

And I’d destroyed a life.

I stop showing up for interviews. I’m avoiding another decision.

I start avoiding the streets. I don’t want to see Abal. I’m ashamed by my decision.

Before the year is up, I’ve resigned.

The decisions that must be made are not decisions I can make.

I never wanted this position. It belongs to Prime Ministers or Presidents.

Not me.

The city has grown in my absence. There were growing pains. There were attacks. I watched the news as the little city defended itself – and was defended by others. But millions live here now, in the metropolis on the heights. Its borders have been expanded greatly. Territories in both Syria and Israel have placed themselves under its rules. Freight lines and roads connect it to Haifa. A full-size airport connects it to the world. Its citizens enjoy full rights and they have recently earned the ability to vote for their leaders. Their passports can carry them almost anywhere in the world.

The ideas behind it are infecting the neighborhood; bringing the first shoots of life and potential to lands that have for decades been suppressed by totalitarian Islam.

It is the City on the Heights. Even as the images of Ibrahim crying for refuge fill my sleep – pride fills my days. It has been 42 years. I am not a young or healthy man.

And so my wife, who insisted the whole family live in the city in the first place, insists that we visit once more.

I’m walking through the shuk, amazed. It all seems so ageless – like it has been here forever.

But I can remember the emptiness that was here when we started.

People of every color and culture surround me. The borders still haven’t closed – and refugees arrive from the world over.

The air is vibrant with the unique life of this place.

I’m walking through the shuk when I see an older woman. She seems vaguely familiar. There’s a late-middle-aged man behind her. He is wearing a baseball cap. Beneath it, I can see the edges of a familiar indentation.

I want to look away. I want to run.

But the time has come for apology.

I steel myself and approach her. She inhales deeply as I approach. She’d seen me around, in those first few weeks, but I’m surprised she remembers me.

“I’m sorry,” I say, “For Ibrahim.”

“What?” she asks.

“I made the decision. The decision not to let him in. I killed him. I thought he was from ISIS and I was wrong and they killed him.”

She smiles broadly. “You weren’t wrong,” she answers, “They kidnapped my husband. They said they’d kill him if I didn’t get Ibrahim in. I tried to get Ibrahim in. I tried as hard as I could. I cried. Not for Ibrahim, but for my husband. But you caught him. And you exiled him. And then they killed him. And it turned out they’d already killed my husband.”

“Why’d they kill Ibrahim?” I ask, suddenly confused.

“I don’t know,” she answers, “I’ve never tried to understand. Maybe because he failed. Or maybe just because they thought it would weaken the Protectorate.”

I think about my decision to resign, prematurely. They weakened me. Perhaps they succeeded.

But then I look at the city that has been built and I realize that maybe they didn’t weaken the Protectorate.

Maybe the Protectorate was stronger with somebody else in my position.

“You were in charge?” she asks, “In the beginning?”

“I was,” I answer.

She smiles even more broadly. And then she turns to Abdul, her simple son.

“This,” she announces softly, “is the man who saved our lives.”

Looking at her, he answers in a soft voice that belies his size, “I like.”

I admire the beautiful boy carrying the bags of groceries.

I feel the smoothed cobblestones beneath my feet.

And I realize that this is truly a beautiful day.

 

 

to learn more about the rough ideas behind this story visit: http://createconnectprotect.com/pp/

No Entrada

The “No Entry” sign glows in my night vision – warning us off. It seems like every other sign surrounding rural land in America. Except the words are a little off. Normally, they say “No Trespassing.”

I don’t pay the distinction much mind.

We have a clear mission ahead of us. The dossier is clear. The surveillance is clear.

In the middle of the Arizona desert, a dozen miles from the nearest town but only two from the Mexican border, is this place. It looked like a modern farm in southern Spain or the Middle East. The land seems to be covered with sheets of plastic, creating what is probably a massive greenhouse. Unlike most of those farms, these tarps are contiguous and opaque; people can move between them without being spotted. Unlike of those farms, these tarps cover hundreds of acres without a break. They are also higher than normal. Rather than hugging the likely crops below, they rise fifty or hundred feet in the air. It was hard to tell just how much volume was being concealed.

Finally, they are camouflaged – blending beautifully into the terrain.

Drugs are the likely explanation. I am a DEA Special Agent, I’m partial to that explanation.

I pass another sign. “NO ENTRADA.”

Bold letters. Below it, in English “Secure Area!”

We’re only a few meters from the edge of the place. The place is massive. Getting up close just reinforces it. I can’t imagine how it was built without anybody noticing.

I stop short of the edge and lower myself to the ground. Silently, the rest of my team takes their positions at my sides. There are 40 of us – as many as Special Agent in Charge Reams could assemble in a week. It’s dark and we move silently. We mean to take the folks inside by surprise.

The radio in my ear bursts into life.

“Are you in position?” It is Reams. She in a modified RV a few miles back which serves as our mobile command center. Her voice is crackling with excitement. I know it well. We’ve been in a relationship for almost a year now.

I look at my team. I count them. Everybody is there.

“Confirmed.”

“Proceed.”

We rise and move forward. Two of the team members, we call them the Js – Jim and John – approach the tarp, take out their utility knives and slice an opening in the material. It is harder to do than we expect.

I’m the first to go through, my pistol in my hand, and what I see surprises the hell out of me.

I’d expected carefully cultivated fields. Maybe poppies. But the place is a literal jungle. Moisture hangs thick in the air, bugs seem to fill every available crack. It is surprisingly hot and uncomfortable.

I take my position and gesture for the rest of the team to follow.

“Inside,” I whisper in my radio.

We prepare to advance.

Suddenly, a voice loudly rings out, “YOU ARE IN A SECURE AREA, PLEASE DEPART IMMEDIATELY.”

I almost jump out of my skin.

“What do we do?” I ask Reams over the radio.

She hesitates, for just a second, before she answers.

 

To me, this Friday evening seems just like all the others. The pews are filled with community members. They are happily chatting, each one to his friends. There are 143 of them; men, women and children.

They seem a happy bunch, in their shared delusion. They are dressed in what they call their Sabbath best. The hall is filled with bodies poured into roughly processed cotton shirts, pants and dresses. A few are wearing wool. They are dressed like poor people from centuries past. I consider it pretty funny. The rest of the week, they wear normal clothes. Modern, properly manufactured, clothes. But for the Sabbath, for reasons I’ve heard again and again, badly made off-white garments dominate.

The Preacher has his reasons, of course. He always does.

My problem is that these people comply. No matter what he asks, no matter what he says, they comply.

It drives me insane. He is just a man, not a god. And we are also men. Respectable, hard-working, men. And yet the sheep in the community force themselves to be satisfied with their limited lot.

The Preacher’s brother walks in the door.

He always shows up first.

He loves people. At least he pretends to. He makes his way through the room, shaking hands, smiling, connecting. His eyes radiate concern and connection. And everybody always acts so delighted to see him. Every time, they are so delighted to see him. It is all an act; it is all falseness. It has to be. Like high school girls giggling at some meaningless trinket. Why don’t they let the truth emerge? Is it so frightening to have real emotions; to question what we’re doing here?

The brother isn’t at fault. And neither is the community.

It all falls into the lap of the Preacher.

Today isn’t like all the other Fridays. It is an anniversary. Six years in this place. Six years making the visions of the Preacher a reality.

A room full of people. Hard-working people who were looking for meaning in their lives. Now, they’ve found themselves in a Church in the middle of nowhere wearing rough cotton breaches. They might have been something special, someplace else. They blistered hands speak to the possibility behind their wills and their dedication. But here, they are just tools in one man’s prophecies.

The Preacher’s brother comes up to me. He always looks so hopeful; like this time his mission voice and soft demeanor will break my cynicism. I admire the effort, shake his hand politely, and beg silently that he’ll leave me alone.

Just then, the door opens and the Preacher walks in.

Silently, as if on autopilot, the entire community makes their way to their familiar benches.

And, one-by-one, they sit.

For his part, the Preacher makes his way to the pulpit. He isn’t much of a speaker. He doesn’t seem to care about his audience. He doesn’t seem to care about touching their souls. All he cares about are his words and his thoughts. I have no idea why they like him.

I lean against a wall – waiting for yet another sleep-inducing speech from the thief known as the Preacher.

“Inside,” came the jittery voice over the radio.

The agents all had cameras, so I knew why they were nervous. Nobody was expecting a jungle. Certainly not in the Arizona desert. I have no idea how the people inside the compound did it, but it makes sense. A jungle climate is perfect for cocaine. Everything was fitting.

The first call had come in a week ago. The county sheriff, a guy by the name of Jimmy James (I kid you not) had received it. The caller, who was anonymous, described a case of child molestation by the leader of a weird desert cult which had a massive facility in the desert.

Weird cults weren’t unheard of. Neither were claims of molestation.

But massive facilities – or any facilities – that Sheriff James hadn’t heard of – that was unusual. Sheriff James knew his county inside and out. He grew up here. He hiked here. He’d watched the border at night and the towns in the day. He knew people by name everywhere he went. He knew which couples were fighting and whose kids were trouble. And he’d driven on every road and gone everywhere you could go. Or so he thought.

But he hadn’t.

The caller provided coordinates. A deputy called them up on Google. At first glance, there’d been nothing there. It was a reasonably flat and boring part of the desert. But then the deputy noticed the shadows on the trees didn’t match. “It’s just google, they took that patch at a different time of day” pronounced another deputy, confidently.

But it still didn’t seem quite right.

There might just have been something out there, in the desert.

I’m Special Agent in Charge of the Phoenix Division of the DEA. My name is Jennifer Reams. I’d like to pretend I’m some outsider trucked in from New York with a high falutin’ education. I do have the high falutin’ education. But I’m actually a local, chosen for a local position precisely because I know Arizona and the people who live here very very well. I’ve known Sheriff Jimmy James since we were in the Curley school together in the tiny town but well-built town of Ajo.

So when things seemed to get a bit big for James – what with the suspected compound being hidden, and being so close to the border – he didn’t have any problem calling me. We were, and are, friends.

When I first read the Sheriff’s notes from the call and looked at the Google images I wasn’t that impressed. If I hadn’t known Jimmy I would have written it off as a prank that he fell for. But I trusted him. And so I sent a plane up over the border – with explicit instructions to see what it could see in that uninteresting part of the desert.

What they saw was a massive greenhouse. Although the infrared signals were weak, there were well over a hundred people inside and the place was a blur of activity. No roads led to the facility and there were no runways we could see. It might have been self-sufficient. But more likely, it was supplied by tunnels running under the border. How it got product out remained a mystery.

A few more missions were flown, to flesh out the picture. That’s when we got three breaks.

First, there was at least one tunnel. We saw a jacked up Lincoln Navigator pop up in the middle of nowhere one day. It had emerged from a tunnel about three miles north of the facility. It headed straight for State Highway 86. We followed it from there to a Medical Clinic in Tucson. Two men got out. One was older than the other. And about an hour later, both returned. There were no large bags in their possession so whatever they’d brought to the clinic wasn’t large enough to support a 150-man operation. We didn’t go in to the clinic. We just didn’t know enough yet.

The second break was the runway. On our third surveillance flight, as we watched, a section of the tarp was pulled back and a Cessna Caravan came in for a short landing on the revealed strip. Thirty minutes later it was back in the air and the tarp was closed. We analyzed the take-off and it became clear something heavy had been put on the aircraft. That kind of product could support their operation.

The third break was a possible pattern. On Friday night, everybody in the place gathered at a central building. It was probably some kind of weekly status review. Whatever it was, it provided us with the perfect opportunity to go in.

 

So I called a meeting with the Chief Inspector, Chief of Intelligence and the Chief of Operations. I laid out what we knew. And one week later – a miraculous time – we had 40 agents in the field ready to bust one of the largest and most audacious operations we’d ever encountered.

 

I hear the voice over my headphone.

“YOU ARE IN A SECURE AREA, PLEASE DEPART IMMEDIATELY.”

And a fraction of a second later “What do we do?”

I’m not sure. We’re watching everything with the plane. There are no sentries and none of the locals have moved from their Friday night gathering. Whatever they’re seeing has to be something automated. Some kind of robotic voice.

If the agents move fast enough, they can probably get to the heart of the facility before a real reaction can be organized. And if they don’t move now, they’ll never have the element of surprise again.

“Go, go, go,” I order, “Get control of the situation.”

 

“Six years,” pronounces the Preacher as the room quiets down. Everybody seems to want to hear what he has to say but I can pretty much guess what it will be, the man isn’t original.

“Six years we have been in this place. It is a remarkable achievement… For six years we have worked in the image of G-d. We here are blessed. We are blessed with wealth, with ample food, with health care, with modern communications – with everything the world has to offer. We do not need to work. We can rest, like Adam in the garden. But we have learned from the Garden and the evils that come from rest alone. We have learned Adam’s lesson and we realize that we have an obligation. There are fields that should be planted and crops that should be grown. And so we pick up where Adam left off. He had no tools, and we have no tools. With our hands…“

And just as he’s done a million times, the Preacher raises his rough hands to illustrate the same old point.

”…we work the earth, spreading the seeds of life where there was only waterless emptiness before. For six days we act in the image of G-d – creating order out of chaos and life out of nothingness. Without need or want, we have put our hearts and our efforts into the soil and we have made a garden bloom in the desert. And on the seventh – today – we rest with the fruits of our labor. For six days, we wear the best the modern world has to offer. But on the seventh, we wear what our own hands have created. For six days, we eat from the food the world provides. But on the seventh, we eat from that which we have grown. We rest in our labor – blissfully aware of our productivity. For six days we talk to the world using the latest apps. But on the seventh, we rest at home with our families.”

The preacher draws in a long breath, “The rest of the world does not do this. They do not live with the Lord. Instead, they live in a world of plenty driven by ever increasing automation, but they fight over spoils. The rich covet all they can gather. Corruption infects them. The sons of those who made their billions are rotted by their wealth – using the tools of government to secure their own continued domination. The poor are little better. A few struggle to produce and climb from the valleys of poverty. But far too many, having used what power they have to force the basics of subsistence from the hands of the wealthy, cease producing themselves. They can’t compete with the massive mechanical factories. Rich and poor alike fight for the division of spoils instead of seeking the Lord and wondering how they may imitate him. Pride, personal pride, however undeserved, has become the objective of all men. Wealth is a way of scoring that pride. But it is not the only way. Their sexual practices are put on public display. Reality TV shows and YouTube videos with tens of millions of views provide the individual with the hope of climbing into the ranks of the known. And all of them rot because of it…”

The Preacher pauses. “But not us.”

The preacher’s voice approaches a near whisper. “For six days we work and produce and on the seventh day – today – we stop. And by stopping, we touch the timeless Lord himself. We imitate the Lord and thus become close to him. By resting in our work we give meaning and power to our lives.”

“We are the new Adam and our garden is better than Eden.”

The Preacher raises a cup.

“This wine was produced by our own grapes. And processed by our own people. It is the first time we have used our own wine on a Friday night. It is a beautiful occasion.”

All around the room, glasses are raised. I even raise mine. A few kids get ahead of the game and start drinking. The taste of the wine convinces them it was a mistake. They thought it was grape juice.

And then the ancient chant begins:

“It was evening, it was morning, the Sixth Day. And the heavens and the earth and all their host were complete. And on the seventh day God completed the labor He had performed, and He rested on the seventh day from all the labor which He had performed. And God blessed the seventh day and He sanctified it, because in it He refrained from all his acts of creation which in creating God had made.”

The Preacher pauses, “Blessed are You, the Lord our God, King of the Universe, Creator of the fruit of the vine.”

It is just as people lift their cups to drink that the screaming and gunfire begins.

We take our first few steps into the dense jungle undergrowth before we find ourselves completely blinded. Flood lights overwhelm our night vision, our radios are jammed by static and an onslaught of what seems like screaming fills our ears.

I see a glimpse of something huge with numerous arms and legs. It is carrying a machine gun.

We have pistols and rifles.

I try to tell the men to fall back – to run – but barely a word is out of my mouth before I feel my body being pummeled and torn apart by machine gun fire. They couldn’t have heard me anyway.

For a brief second, I remember how hard it was to qualify with my Glock 22. The DEA tests are notoriously difficult. But I passed. I made it. First time.

And it didn’t matter. Faced with eight-legged screaming robots, the best pistols in the world are irrelevant.

I stop.

There’s static on the line. The videos have gone blank. In the distance, I can hear screaming. Not the screaming of men, something fundamentally more frightening. And then the thumpa, thumpa of heavy machine gun fire. Not the weapons our people are carrying.

I look at the surveillance footage. There is still nobody anywhere near our people.

“BRET!” I shout into the radio, “BRET ARE YOU THERE.”

But just as quickly as the screaming began, it ends.

I watch on the infrared feed, my only connection to the inside of the facility, as my men stop moving.

40 of them.

Gone in an instant.

And then, just like that, the infrared itself is blinded.

We can see nothing, hear nothing, and know nothing.

I put my head in my hands and ask nobody in particular, “What the hell just happened?”

Every in the room is frozen.

“Stay here,” I shout, as I run for the door. I’m their Preacher, I hope they listen.

I barely know what is going on, but they have no idea whatsoever.

I do know one thing. Somebody tried to attack our facility.

I heard hundreds of rounds. Somebody major tried to attack us.

And on the Sabbath!

I laugh at myself, just a bit.

I care about the Sabbath, but I doubt they do.

They’d probably see it as an opportunity.

 

My house is right next to the church. I run into it and head for the bathroom. I open the door and recite the secret passphrase, and seconds later the bottom of the bath has transformed into a staircase. I rush down it and into a small office. The stairs close up above me. From here, I can see everything.

I pick up the red phone. It is just as old-fashioned as you’d expect from a secure military phone. I generally enjoy its retro look. Today, I just hope it works.

I wait a few seconds. There is no ringing. And then I hear a voice on the other end.

“What happened?” it asks.

“Somebody attacked us, I’m still trying to figure out who.”

“Are the robots safe?”

I check the panel. “Yes, all are accounted for.”

“Good. Did anybody see them?”

“I don’t know,” I answer, “I’ll investigate.”

“Keep me informed.”

“I will. But I need you to know, it wasn’t a small attack. I’d guess dozens of men by the amount of gunfire I heard.”

“I’ll look into it,” promises the suddenly concerned voice on the other end of the line.

“Thank you,” I answer. Although I suspect he knows more than he’s letting on.

And with that, the Secretary of Defense of the United States of America hangs up the phone.

They have guns?

That’s the only thought running through my head as I watch the Preacher run from the room.

The robots have guns?

 

Nobody here has any idea at all, of course. They’re all beginning to panic.

It’s a strange time for me to step up.

“Settle down folks,” I shout over the rising din, “I can assure you, it is very much under control.”

 

There are confused faces. How would I know what’s going on? I’m not the Preacher, I’m not his brother, I’m not in his inner circle.

 

But I know something.

It’s why I’m here.

 

There are robots. Not just any robots, but robots whose mechanical bodies have been paired with organic brains. I developed the brain fluid that enables the mechanical bits to sustain the organic bits in a reasonably efficient manner. I enabled everything to happen. They are smart, learning, robots. The most advanced the world’s ever seen.

They are the reason the people here can live so well while dedicating themselves to digging into the earth with their fingers.

But I don’t get the credit. I don’t get the control or the money or the power. I get to watch from outside as the sheep follow their shepherd. I get to watch as the people dig at the earth with their fingers while living off royalties they don’t understand.

The Preacher thinks this is the future. He sees robots producing everything and people needing to find meaning and peace despite the plenty. He thinks of this community as a test-bed; a place for people to prepare for what’s coming.

Even I’ll admit that he might be on to something.

But of course, he didn’t choose this place randomly. There are rare earths and copper and other fundamental ores here. From this spot, burrowing far underground, the robots themselves can retrieve the fundamental building blocks of their kind. Buried beneath the Preacher’s house is a factory, where robots make more robots. And every few weeks a plane comes by and picks up their product. I have no idea who the buyers are. But they buy the robots, week in and week out.

And they must be paying quite a bit of money.

Of course, I don’t know how much. Despite the fact that I enabled it all to happen, he’s cut me out. I don’t see the books, I don’t have sheep following me. I’ve been marginalized.

I watch him and I know, given how much power he has, that he must be abusing it.

That’s why I called the Sheriff. I just wanted to cut the Preacher down to size.

But I didn’t know the robots had guns. And if they had guns, I’m sure they won whatever battle they had. Whatever the Preacher’s faults, he doesn’t do things badly.

 

I didn’t want anybody to die.

As I watch the last of the attackers die, I know we have succeeded. No video has been broadcast, no descriptions have been issued by the radios. And nobody is going to leave.

We have succeeded. We have kept our secret.

We hide underground. All day, we hide. Above us, people work the land. Below us, the others work the rich ores of the area and produce more robots. But we sit in the middle, our eight massive legs and integrated machine guns buried in the dirt.

Secrecy.

It’s the most important thing.

The Preacher knows everything. But nobody else does.

The people who work in the facility have no idea we’re here.

The people who live nearby – there aren’t many of them – don’t even know the facility exists.

The Buyers can see that we work, but they cannot know how we work. We’re programmed to destroy ourselves, completely, if they try to pry into our bodies or brains.

Secrecy is more important than life itself.

Nobody can know we’re here.

So we sit under the ground, making sure nobody learns about the facility. We sit in shifts. Some of us monitor the world above us. But others practice. We disconnect from our physical bodies and link into virtual versions of ourselves. We practice our mission – keeping secrecy.

We are inserted into scenarios – threatening scenarios of our own making. We practice moving with our guns, using our signal generators, listening to our surroundings. And fighting. We fight individual infiltrators and armies of men.

We aren’t given specific orders or particular jobs. We can work out how to achieve our missions. It is what makes us unique.

That’s what I was doing when the intruders arrived. I was in a simulation.

By the time I was yanked out and had made my way to the surface, the last of the attackers was dying.

I immediately checked with my teammates.

Forty men had arrived, a significant force.

We warned them. They advanced.

In the end, not one of them even issued a distress call.

We could take on an army. Which is why we’re here.

I’m sure the Preacher would be proud.

It’s amazing how quick the media get here. The first TV truck, it must have driven for two hours, shows up a few minutes after the firefight it over.

My team, and my friends, have probably been killed by some drug lord inside that massive tent. But I don’t know for sure.

I start making calls. I start with my own command. But before an hour has passed, I’ve lined up resources from the State Police, to the National Guard to the FBI, ATF and Border patrol. SWAT teams from Phoenix and Tucson are assigned. My message is all the same. 40 sent in. And then silence. They might be dead, but they might not. We need massive and immediate resources to find them and just possibly save them. And we won’t be surprised by the same tricks again.

We keep the press at bay, outside our little perimeter. We have no idea if the people inside are watching TVs of their own.

The patrol aircraft are the first to arrive. All the agencies seem to be represented. By none of them can see anything. Something on the ground is blinding them.

It will be a few hours, but we’re going to go in – in force. There’s a chance my men might still be alive. There’s a chance Brad will have survived.

Now, I just need to wait.

From within the small office under my house, I’ve analyzed the footage.

They were DEA agents. It must have been some sort of terrible mistake. They had idea what was here, and I had no idea what was coming.

I would have let them in. There were no drugs to see here. There might be some questions, but not the sort that would really concern them. For them, there was nothing to see but an odd group of people farming the land with their fingers.

But the spider-bots didn’t know. I put them there to stop people intent on learning about what we have.

I put them there so my customers couldn’t learn our secrets.

I expected an army to show up. Anybody’s army.

I didn’t expect 40 completely helpless DEA agents with pop-guns and gusto.

They should have turned away.

I should have let them in.

Now it is too late.

I can hear the calls being made. I’ve got two hours, tops. Then they’ll come in much larger numbers. And they’ll still have no idea what is waiting here.

 

I wasn’t expecting this, but I’m still ready.

 

The phone rings, it is the Secretary of Defense.

“You know what’s happening?” he asks.

“I do. It was a stupid mistake.”

“They are going to come in in force.”

“Mr. Secretary, I expected you to come in in force. I can stop them.”

“I don’t doubt it. I’ve seen what your machines can do. I’d ask you not to, but you’d probably ignore me.”

“I’d ask you to stop them from coming, but you’d ignore me.”

“That’s true. I would. You can have no connection to me or the United States Government. We have paid very very well for your secrecy.”

“I will do what I need to do.”

“You always have been good with secrets.”

The phone clicks, I state my passphrase, and the stairs in the bathtub reappear.

I have a plan, it is time to put it into action.

The attack is launched six hours later. They start by bombing the tarp itself. There is no return fire.

Then they roll in with APCs and even a few tanks.

Aircraft watch from overhead.

The walls of the facility crumble. The cover disappears.

They discover the bodies first. The 40 Special Agents, left where they fell.

There is rich farmland, divided into sections – each with its own climate and its own crops. The jungle was only one section of the facility. They find no farming tools. No tractors, no animals. No hoes or even spades. It is like the place was farmed completely by hand. The vineyard is perfectly constructed. But there are no people. And there are no drugs.

As the forces advance, they come to the first houses. Watching carefully for a flood of defensive fire they bomb the houses before they enter them. They aren’t going to be surprised again.

But they find nobody.

Bit by bit, they draw closer and closer to the church-like structure in the center of the town.

There find the Lincoln Navigator. But there’s nobody in it.

They surround the church, expecting a firefight at any moment.

They blow open the doors.

But the place is empty.

There is nobody anywhere. Somehow, in four hours, the town has been evacuated. Somehow, despite massive surrounding surveillance, almost 150 people have simply disappeared.

The search effort continues for days. The investigation for months.

But nothing is found.

The place remains a mystery.

I am stunned as I enter the cavern behind the Preacher and his brother. It is massive and lit by huge banks of LEDS. There are individual caves cut into its edges. Enough for every family.

The robots have been busy.

The people around me look in wonderment. They have no idea what they’re seeing. They have no idea who has excavated this place.

The Preacher has thought ahead. There are stacks of food – some from the world around us, but a great deal harvested from our own crops. I can’t tell if it’s been stored here for a while, or if the robots just rushed it down here. I can’t even tell with the caves themselves. Did the Preacher know this was coming or did his robots do this work in just the last few hours?

I suppose they could of, but I don’t really know. I’ve never even seen one of his creations.

 

As people enter the cavern, I watch their eyes scan the room in wonder.

And then the Preacher turns to speak.

“For six years you may plant your fields, prune your vineyards, and harvest your crops, but the seventh year is a sabbath of sabbaths for the land. It is God’s sabbath during which you may not plant your fields, nor prune your vineyards. Do not harvest crops that grow on their own and do not gather the grapes on your unpruned vines, since it is a year of rest for the land.”

The people watch him. I watch him.

“Welcome to our sabbatical. We have food enough for two years here. We have a massive cistern full of water. We have planted for six years. This year, the seventh, shall be a year of rest and study.”

And with that he turns and walks to one of the caves along the side of the master cavern.

Our Sabbatical has begun and there are no other answers.

Iran

It has been a while since I last posted. Here is a story I wrote for Yom Kippur. I believe it is quite important.

**********
The man sticks his hand out to shake mine. He is wearing a cobbled-together set of winter clothes. His hands are protected against the cold by a pair of garden gloves.

“Jim,” he says, in a friendly tone.

“Joseph,” I say, extending my own hand. I am lucky enough to be wearing real gloves.

“What do you do, Joseph?” he asks.

“Analysis,” I answer, although I haven’t touched a spreadsheet in months.

“IT for me,” he replies, a bit of a wistful look in his eye.

It was painful, but in these times people continue to define themselves by what they used to do. There is no room yet for their new reality.

“You have a family?” I ask.

“Two kids,” he answers, “A wife and two kids.” He smiles now. But only for a moment.

We are, after all, standing in a breadline.

It had all started one perfect Tuesday afternoon. A converted fishing trawler had entered Israeli territorial waters. Flying a Greek flag, it was ostensibly en-route to Ashkelon to deliver aid to Gaza. It had gotten within 5 miles of the coast when it was intercepted by the Israeli navy. We still have many of the audio tapes. An astute naval officer had noticed something wrong: there were only two visible crew members. Shortly before the Navy boarded the trawler, the unexpected happened. The ship detonated.

The explosion was nuclear.

Instantly, the waterfront of Tel Aviv was erased and tens of thousands were killed. Thankfully, the weapon had been far enough to sea that only the waterfront was erased. The bulk of the city was spared.

Moments after the weapon was detonated, Hezbullah launched its own rockets en-masse and Syrian tanks began to roll towards the border. In a desperate bid to survive, Israel began to fight back – brutally.

All fingers pointed to Iran. Israeli leaders and American hawks called on the US and the UN to retaliate with a nuclear assault of their own. A nuclear war had been launched and protocol demanded a powerful response. The President of the United States addressed his nation. Yes, he said, a nuclear assault had been launched. And yes, it was likely that Iran had launched it. But it was not moral to kill millions of innocent Iranians for the probable sins of a few men. No nuclear response would be forthcoming. A massive conventional assault was being prepared.

Minutes later, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, broadcast his own message. He explained that although he supported the attack on Israel, and although he regretted Israel’s tight border security, his country had not launched the assault. Nonetheless he had foreseen the possibility of unwarranted Western aggression. As other countries lacked Israel’s security, Iran had taken the precaution of placing heavily shielded nuclear devices within their major cities. Any assault would be met with a truly destructive nuclear response.

For a few hours the world watched as Washington wavered. And then it folded. The assault was called off.

Hours later, the Gulf states realigned themselves with Iran and politely asked their US soldiers to leave.

Saudi Arabia tried to resist. In another TV address, they were supplied with an address in Riyadh. A functional nuclear device was found there. They were warned that there were many more. Their fancy American-supplied Air Force had come to naught. Iran controlled the region.

Iran then used the leverage they had. They turned off the supply of oil to the West.

Now, without significant oil imports, and limited domestic production, the US government has cut off the use of private cars. For the most part, the economy has collapsed. While some could telecommute, nobody else can drive to work or shop. Non-emergency medical care has ceased. Most schools and shops have closed. Foreigners have stopped buying US debt, and most of the government has simply ceased to function. Goods that wore away – from bike parts to kids’ shoes and from dish detergent to refrigerator parts – are not being replaced. Slowly, our reality is decaying. Europe is worse.

All food is coming from a breadline – like we are refugees in a foreign land.

Those unready for the change in seasons – like Jim – find themselves wearing garden gloves in winter.

Truly, we have all been caught by surprise.

Everybody knows the United States cannot allow the nuclear blackmail to stand. We suspect that the US is shipping arms to Israel – the only country in the world that is somewhat secure from the Iranian threat. But something more is needed.

And we know that when it comes, the price will be terrible.

With the belching of ad hoc repairs, a truck begins to come up the street. The crowd, orderly, gathers around the designated spot.

Jim rubs his cold hands. Then, with a wry smile, he expresses the thoughts of millions.

“All of this,” he says, “Could have been prevented.”

*****

Hiatus

When I started this I said that if it began to negatively impact other things in my life then I would stop. The fact is that other things have begun to prevent me from doing this. I haven’t mentioned my work before, but I work as a strategic analyst for a company that just got acquired. As you can imagine there is a huge amount of strategic analysis to be done. More importantly, the work is mentally draining. I can’t muster the mental energy to write every day. Also, Pesach is looming and we haven’t started cleaning yet. So…. I’m going to take an hiatus until about Lag Ba’omer (when things at work will hopefully have calmed down). I just can’t manage otherwise.

All the best,

Joseph

Day #70: A Burst of History

The windows of the car are open, but no smells assault my senses. Instead, I am buffeted by hot winds as the feel of long-baked earth pervades the air. This is a dry land, but a land that somehow supports a substantial population. Ahead, a man crosses the road, sheep trailing behind him. I slow the car and let him cross, without frightening his livestock. He waves, smiling in polite appreciation. I wave back and continue down the highway. I pass a gas station.

The highway I am on has been cut through the side of a collection of mountains. On the right of the road, reinforcements hold back the masses of dirt and stone. The mountains loom over the landscape, foreboding and locked away from normal human life. Below me, to the left, the mountains drops away. There are occasional wadis, flashes of green where streams emerge from the mountains. People live in them, growing crops and drinking the mountain runoff. Beyond them, the streams flow into nothing. Below them, there is a massive sea-like expansion of sand, heat and death.

I’ve been driving for perhaps an hour when the landscape changes. The mountains and the desert valley remain, but seem to peel away from the road, leaving me on a magnificent high plateau. There is a small river here. Its arrival is presaged by a wave of verdant green and the rich smell of life. Irrigation.

Here there are fields. Once tiny homestead plots, they have now been merged. An historically small irrigated area, at best five miles deep on either side of the river, has been trebled. It is a result of modern water management technology. While the old homestead plots are gone, their replacements are by no means large. This region’s farmland is not competitive on any efficiency measure. Instead, the local economy relies on the superior taste and natural purity of their crops. Stressed by the thin high-plateau air, whipsawed by massive rises and falls in temperature, and complemented by the land’s inexperience with fertilizers, the produce and grains from this region are celebrated for their deep and complex flavors.

I follow a road that parallels the river. I am in a world of life which is itself surrounded by struggle and death. I find myself clinging to the green and casting the waterless expanses out of my mind. If I were a nomad, I could come to worship an oasis.

I am close to my destination now. And then, suddenly, I am there – in the midst of a town which hugs the river. The town itself, really a small city, is unremarkable. In the center of the city is a small block of government buildings. They are low-slung and ugly. But they are well maintained. Houses, many seemingly cast from single blocks of cement, flow along side roads which radiate from the city center in a dozen haphazard directions. The city is not rich or distinguished, aside from a a short burst of history. But the houses are not dilapidated. Some show the wear that implies poverty, of funds or of effort, but most are kept up beautifully.

I drive slowly, not only because of the busy streets, but also because I want to take in the sights, smells and sounds of this city. The people are varied. Men and women roam the streets. Some are garbed in traditional dress, others in more global fashions. They mingle with familiarity and tolerance, but not total respect. Cars, trucks and camels likewise jostle with one another. Not unlike American farm towns, cars are rarely new and trucks either look like they work or look like totems to prestige. Unlike an American town, the air is filled with the din of honking and shouting. It isn’t anger – just life.

About a half mile from the center of town a small collection of large buildings loom. A silo, a mill and a collection of packaging plants stand there, a nexus of the physical trade that dominates life here.

There are two markets here. One is seasonal, with spot sales of regional crops. It is geared towards exports. Farmers and buyers come together six times from spring to fall in a rhythm linked to the growing seasons of various crops. It is a face-to-face business – the quality of these crops can not be appraised from afar.

The other market is for locals themselves. Here too, old and new compete. A supermarket and a collection of modern but small stores surround a massive parking lot. The lot itself is sprinkled with randomly placed stalls seemingly moved from a medieval bazaar. Some are grouped together, like cliquish friends at a party. Others stand apart and alone. I park my car. There seems to be no order here. Whatever parking lines may have once existed have long since disappeared. It isn’t a sign of neglect. If they were ever there at all, the lines simply served no purpose. They were left to the fate of time.

When I open the door to the car, the sun assaults me. The stalls offer protection, and so, seeking relief, I jump to the nearest one. The stall owner greets me, in English. “Welcome.” He opens his  gnarled hands over his merchandise. He is a wind-worn man. His darkened face carries years of sun and years of work. But his eyes are open and friendly. His smile seems entirely genuine. He is selling local produce, relatively pricey foodstuffs. Among many items, he has a flask of olive oil. Nothing, not even wine, captures the flavor of a high-altitude region like its olive oil. To learn, I must buy. And so we haggle over a price. He pushes hard, showing me pictures of his large family and explaining that he must pay for his youngest daughter’s college. His English is stilted, but understandable. I buy the flask for more than it is worth.

The transaction complete, he asks me, “Why visit?”

“I’m a journalist,” I reply.

“American journalist,” he says, wistfully, “I not see one for many years.”

“Since when?” I ask.

“Since I am five or six.” Like many of the older folk here, I doubt he knows his actual age. But I can guess it. He was a young boy during the burst of history.

“What happened then?” I ask.

“Many many years,” he says, “But I remember. Very clear.”

“What do you remember?”

“Fear. Fear and hunger. Then hope and doubt. My parents are scared. They tell us stay in the house… And then the battle. After the battle they say there is peace. We do not know. Still fear. But things better. Slowly better.”

“When did you know there was peace?” I ask.

He smiles warmly, the memories filling his face. “They clear mines from field,” he says, pointing in the direction of the city’s small soccer stadium, “I remember very very big trucks with chains. Next day, soldiers come and build goals and give us balls.We play, in that field – safe. Then we know there is peace.”

His eyes tear with nostalgia.

“Many years,” he says. He waves towards the picture of his children and grandchildren, “Now, life is beautiful.”

We keep talking, and then I explore the rest of the market and the rest of the town.

It has been 60 years since that burst of history, the Battle of Marjeh, Afghanistan. I’ve never met one of those soldiers. I’ve never met with the families of those who died. The journalists who were there are long-since dead. But I do not need to meet them. This vibrant market town can attest to the results of their work and the impact of their sacrifice.

As I return to Kandahar, I hear the voice of Marjeh repeating in my head.

“Then, there was fear and hunger. Now, life is beautiful.”

Day #69: The Machine

“Mr Smith,” says the voice on the other end of the line. It was the man from HR. “You should be proud, you’ve been offered the job.”

“Which job?” I ask. I’d interviewed for two.

“Cog,” he says, “Cog Grade II. with luck and hard work, I’d expect you could be promoted – maybe to spoke, gear, or possibly even wheel.”

I could barely contain my excitement. I’m not the kind of guy who is a crazy risky sort – so this was big time stuff.

I mean, I’d been a wheel before. But I was never a part of the The Machine. It’s entirely different when you’re part of the machine. You go from spinning uselessly to actually being a part of something bigger. Something more. Something magnificent.

‘What is the machine?’ you ask.

It is nothing less than the culmination of human ingenuity and design. It is a massive organization filled with cogs like myself. And it churns and grumbles and grinds and produces, well – anything. The most remarkable part is how it fashions itself. You see, me being a cog is no guarantee I’ll always be a part of the machine. The whole system is literally geared to making itself cheaper, more effective and more elegant. If I can stay a cog, I’ll be proud. It would mean that I’m better, smarter and more useful than ever before.

But – just for a second – imagine that I can somehow graduate – perhaps, in my wildest dreams – to something like a regulator – I should be doubly proud! In a machine that is always shedding parts, substituting cheaper ones or adding and then improving pre-made modules, such personal growth would be incredible.

I can already picture my first day on the job. I’ll show up and they’ll show me my actual physical place in the machine. They’ll show me how I fit on the gear and how I’ll interface with other cogs. It will take me a while to get used to it. But after a few months I’ll have it down – and after a year I’ll be the smoothest, best-calibrated cog ever.

I’m really looking forward to it.

Of course, being a cog in The Machine isn’t everything. The best part will be telling other people about it.

‘What do you do? ‘

‘I’m a cog.’

‘Oh, really, where at?’

‘The Machine.’

I can’t even imagine their answers to that! Women will fall for me, men will be jealous and children will idolize me.

It’ll be sweet.

“Are you there?” asks the man from HR – on the line I’d forgotten I’d been holding.

“Yes, yes,” I answer, enthusiastically.

“Do you have any questions?” he asks.

“Just one,” I reply, “When do I start?”

Day #68: Spirals

The lights in the lecture hall were dim. The projector was showing a single massive image on the screen. It was a page, obviously extremely old. On it were characters from some very odd language. It seemed to flow in a circle – from the middle to the outside or from the outside to the middle.

“Can anybody read this?” asked the man behind the lectern. He was a Professor of Medieval History.

A corpulent man in his late 40s, he was disheveled and unkempt. His hair was a knotted and tangled mess and seemed to have been last washed in the period he studied. Even from a distance, you could imagine that he smelled. He was not a respected man in his field. But, as his appearance would have suggested, he was not a man who lived and died on the opinions of others.

For that reason, and that reason alone, he was a trusted man. And when he called this conference, to share something most unusual that he had found, his peers came.

Nobody in the audience of hundreds raised their hands.

“That was the response I expected,” said the rotund professor.

“These parchments were found in northern France, near the town of Vouziers. The town is not far from the city of Reims, where the Kings of France were crowned. As you can see, they are not written in any known European script. In addition, they are not written in any linear direction – but rather in a spiral. A spiral which pre-determines the length of the message to be composed.”

296 thoughtful eyes were trying to break the code while the presenter spoke. None stood a chance.

“The skill required to compose these messages indicates that they are not the work of amateurs. These letters are the work of craftsmen. Craftsmen who struggled not to be understood.”

A hand went up.

“Yes?”

“How do we know that?” asked a voice in the darkness.

“Because,” said the Professor, “We found a key to this language. And that key spoke of the efforts to decifer this language – and of the importance of doing so. And that key is why this language has ceased to exist.”

“What do you mean?”

“Bear with me.. there is a fascinating story here. We found this parchment first. And then the key was uncovered during follow-up research.  And then this parchment led us to a search across hundreds of locales throughout Europe. And, today, we have a collection of 7,000 individual parchments. All look roughly like this. Spiral composition. Their width and height varies, but the script is consistent. And what we read uncovered a world we didn’t imagine existed.”

A low murmur went through the room. Had the corpulent professor gone mad, or was he on to something. He ignored the talk, and kept going.

“I’ve had the pleasure of reading and understanding these texts. All of them. And when they are laid out chronologically what they tell is a tale of correspondence. Not between Kings and Queens. But between members of a secret clan. This was their script, and through it, they – for a time – controlled Europe.”

“More Templars bullsh-t?!?” exclaimed an exasperated voice in the audience, “I came here for this?”

The room exploded in conversation.

The professor waited for a break in the noise. And then he said, “No, not Templars bullsh-t. These people were SERFS.”

The room went suddenly silent. Nobody really believed what the man had just said.

“Serfs couldn’t write.” came an objection.

“The vast majority could not,” said the professor, “But in settlements throughout Europe there were dozens who could. This was their script and their method of communication.”

“Why hasn’t anybody seen this before?”

“Because,” said the professor, “Everybody wanted to keep it hidden. The serfs because of how they were using their language, and the nobility and kings because of how they were used by it.”

The  professor paused, allowing what he had said to sink in.

“Let me tell you the story of these sheets.”

He looked into the crowd, waiting until he felt all eyes refocused on him. He didn’t want them to miss what he was about to say.

“In 804, a scribe named Ian of Bulgaria. was banished from the court of Charlemagne. Ian was banished for a minor offense – writing in a foreign tongue. Such a man could not be trusted – but they did not recognize the language and so in no way suspected he was a spy. Indeed, he was not a spy. He had been creating for himself a new method of writing, a method of secure communications which others would be unable to read. He was spared his life, but banished from his previous life of privilege.

“Thrust into the life of an itinerant, he took advantage of his natural charisma. He taught those he encountered to read and write his new tongue. He earned his keep through a talent for negotiating the disputes of those whose villages he visited.

“Over the course of a decade, he built up a cadre of serfs across Europe. He communicated with them through bards – bards who would transmit his written pages. Over time, his hobby became something more serious. It happened quite by accident. One of his students informed him of a military action planned by his Lord. The scribe, knowing the value of the information offered to sell it to the nearest interested party – the Lord of the region he was in. From there, things steamrolled. The scribe became a very rich man and those in his network were well rewarded for the information they provided. During the wars that followed Charlemagne’s death, it was his serfs who picked winners and losers. Throughout, their power came through their hidden text. None could disturb their network – intercepting or introducing messages. Feeling the grip of this peasant network, Lords and Kings alike sought interpretation. They paid armies of scribes to attempt to crack those samples they intercepted.

“Eventually, they met with partial success. They could decode the text, but they discovered that every message could be read in two ways. From the center of the page out, or from the outside, in. And the two meanings, invariably, were completely at odds. Messages could not be reliably interpreted until that conundrum was addressed – and to this day it has not been.

“Eager to destroy the network, the nobility introduced fake parchments – forgeries that drove apart the cohesion of Ian’s network. And then, with that small flame set amongst the trusting correspondents, the network was gone. Just like that, it disappeared.”

The room was silent.

“These parchments,” continued the professor, “Contain a history that has been totally lost. A history of peasant life and a history of medieval politics. But they also contain a story. A story of exile, of daring, of adventure and of success. All in a world where a banished man was as good as dead. And, in the end, they tell a story extinction.”

The professor paused, a smile on his face.

“Who,” he asked, “Would like to learn how to read them?”

Hundreds of arms shot up.

The corpulent professor smiled.

He knew they would enjoy the tale.

Day #67: The Fixer

“I’ve got a fixer.” The lights in the operations center were dim. The smartly dressed FBI agent had short black hair and intense brown eyes. She was sitting in front of a sleek computer with a pair of massive flat screen monitors. At least 20 application windows were open. The agent, Gail Burrows, was carrying on online conversations in each of them.

“Careful,” said her supervisor, as a charge of excitement flowed through the room, “They scare easy these days.”

“I know,” muttered Agent Burrows, “It isn’t getting any easier.”

The agents were part of an elite squad. They were seeking out the lowest form of human scum – people selling or renting their children for molestation. The job required a cold and calculating demeanor. You had to play a sick personality – a buyer. You had to keep your stories straight, the prey wasn’t stupid. And, most importantly,  in order to do a convincing and effective job, you had to become the predators you were playing. It was method acting at its most painful.

Nobody was better at it than Agent Burrows. Like a champion chess player playing six boards at one time, she was expertly weaving through dozens of identities and fishing, simultaneously, for dozens of suspects. On the job, she was dry and robotic. But off the job – she worked a very late shift – she drank too much, cried frequently for no reason, and avoided children like the plague. On the job, she had teammates. Off the job, she was totally alone. Almost nobody could relate to her and she had no patience for them. Those who could relate were evil – and she had enough of that on the clock.

The job was killing her, but nobody knew it.

The job was  killing her – but she couldn’t stop.

One of the roles Agent Burrows – Gail – was playing, was the role of a ‘scared serial.’ A sick guy who preyed on multiple children – but was too fearful to actually seek them out himself. Such people relied on child ‘fixers’ who – by paying parents or the kids themselves – arranged for kids to be available. Fixers and scared serials were by nature hard to find and harder still to convict.

“Everybody ready for transfers?” There were nine other agents in the room. When a live lead was in play, the agent who generated the lead passed off their other workload. The process involved sending brief character notes and an online ID and conversation log to the new agent. Because Gail worked so many conversations, the others hated her transfers.

Nonetheless, heads nodded.

Gain hit a button and the transfers were made. Now, she could have a single-minded devotion to catching her fixer.

She had to play coy. Her character had lost his fixer and was seeking another. But nothing other than innuendo could be used. Law enforcement was constantly on the prowl and both fixers and scared serials were excellent at getting wisely spooked. She only knew the lead she had was a child fixer because the site she was on had a reputation as a hangout for those exploring the immoral.

This fixer was unusually willing to provide. The conversations started when Gail wrote, “Had a friend who used to help me out. But he moved to Phoenix.”

“Too bad.” came the reply, from her potential mark.

“I’m looking to make new friends.” wrote Gail.

“I might be able to help,” said the fixer.

From there, the conversation continued for hours – dancing delicately around the subject. The shared bonafides – Gail’s being her character’s Facebook page. The fixer found her very respectable resume and called her listed references. Other agents deftly handled the calls. The fixer shared his bonafides, including a simple web site that spoke in intentionally vague terms about the  services provided.

Finally, they agreed to meet – on the steps of the public library.

The fixer would bring product.

The whole team prepped for the meet. Fixers were big fush – serious sick enablers of some of the work people humanity has to offer. some worked on an industrial scale.

Gail, being a woman who couldn’t play the perp, watched from a distance. The scared serial was played by an Agent Franks, a thin man in his lower 30s. He did it a lot. He was wearing an ‘in the canal’ mic and speaker. She could communicate with him and tell him what to say.

When they got to the meet, the target was obvious – a young Asian man with a Caucasian 4-year-old girl. But it wasn’t enough to prosecute.

Agent Franks drew close. Contact was made.

Gail watched, directing the conversation from a bench in a plaza across the street. Waiting for the magic works – ‘She’s for rent’ or ‘She’s for sale’ or ‘She lovable, physically.’ Something to trigger an arrest.

Slowly Gail moved Franks closer and closer – bringing him to the border of explicitly planning to engage in a crime. Finally, after 20 minutes, the fixer gave them what they needed. “She’s available,” he said, “Anything you want to do in one hour – as long as there are no scars – for $5,000.”

“Move!” instructed the team lead, “And Franks, keep him there.”

“I’ll buy,” said Franks.

Gail jumped up fro the bench. Across the plaza, a man with intense eyes did the same thing at exactly the same time. The agents converged simultaneously. Three tackled the fixer. Three tackled Franks. Both quietly insisted, “Check my wallet.”

Gail and the man from across the plaza reached the scene together. “What’s going on?” they demanded, almost in unison.

Minutes later it was worked out. Both the ‘fixer’ and the ‘scared serial’ worked for the FBI. They’d stung each other.

Gail looked at her counterpart – a handsome man named Robert Jones.

A smile crossed her heavy eyes.  Her job may have been to pursue evil – but this outcome was far more pleasant.

A smile crossed his eyes. He was thinking the same thing.

Together, they went for drinks.

Day #66: The Kidney Killer

I’m not a man who dwells in the past.

In fact, I tend to hide from it.

20 years ago, my mother was murdered. We were walking to the park, in New York’s Upper West Side. It was late winter, but the sun was shining and it was warm. It seemed like there were people everywhere enjoying the warmth of the day. I was looking forward to riding the swings. But we never made it. I saw the guy who killed her. He was black, like me. He was short and thick. He was muscled and he had dead eyes.

It happened quickly. No gun. I was just holding her hand, walking. He came up behind us, gloves on his hands. He grabbed and twisted her neck. My eyes met his, and then it was done. He kept going.

Despite people being everywhere, nobody saw anything. It was too fast and too quiet.

It was a headline case, but the police never found anything. It seemed too clean for anything but a contract hit. But nobody could understand why my mom had been targeted. They looked at my dad – they’d fought often and he wasn’t exactly likable – but nothing connected him.

It was a clean kill.

After that, life was never the same. Everywhere I went, people pitied me. So I changed my name. Not legally, I was only a kid. At first, I just decided to start using another name.

Then, six months after my mom was killed, my dad abandoned me. I was 8 and he just disappeared.

I never saw him again.

The state took me. I moved from foster home to foster home. But despite – or perhaps because of – all the troubles, I grew strong. Independent and strong.

When I turned 18, I legally changed my name. I wasn’t looking back.

I went to college on a scholarship. I got married. I started a successful software business.

And then, three months ago, I saw my mother’s killer.

The years had changed me a lot more than they’d changed him. I wasn’t recognized. I couldn’t help it, but I followed him. I learned where he worked. And then I went home.

For three days, I thought about what to do. And then, I arranged to bump into him again. I invited him to dinner. I had to be totally sure I had the right guy.

He seemed to be a nice guy. He ran his own business, cleaning windows on 20 office towers in midtown. He was organized, smart and aggressive.

A lot like me.

We kept getting together, hanging out, going for drinks or games at the Garden. After a few months, at a sports bar, I finally told him my secret.

I wanted my wife dead.

He laughed at first. But I lied and convinced him I was serious. I wanted to see if he’d do it.

I expected him to offer his services, but he didn’t. Instead, his voice lowered. And he asked me to follow him. We went to his office. He made two coffees and sat me down on a cheap swivel chair. He sat on the edge of his metal desk. The whole office had a cheap and industrial feel, despite the fact that I knew he had and made real money. He must have been seeking to portray an low-end services attitude.

I was still waiting for his answer.

“Jim,” he said, finally, “I can help.”

“Okay,” I said, thinking about how to kill him.

“But there are a few conditions.”

“Okay,” I answered, a touch of agreement and impatience in my voice.

“First, this is going to be strange, but you need to trust me.”

“Okay.”

“Second, if you tell anybody you shouldn’t about this, you’ll die.”

“Okay.”

He moved off the desk, and sat heavily in his own chair – a slightly more expensive swivel model.

“Jim,” he said, “There’s a website. A blank page with one white box and a submit button. You go there, you enter what you need, and then it happens.”

“And then what?” I asked.

“And then, down the road, you are asked to do something. Your instructions will actually come with a full plan, something that will guarantee you never get caught. You do your part, and you are done.”

“How does it work?” I asked, genuinely curious.

“I’m not sure,” said my mother’s killer, “But I think it’s something like those kidney transplants. You know, some doctor somewhere connects a daisy chain of 15 patients who can help each other. This is the same sort of thing, but with crime. It’s got to take some major sort of brain.”

“Have you done it?” I asked.

“Years ago,” he said, “I wanted to get this business started. It was a mob industry – and I had to break into it. I had superior technology – robots that could autonomously wash windows, all day and all night. There was a lot of money to be made. The guy who controlled the business had a clean reputation. He had to. His clients needed plausible deniability. I needed him exposed.

“I met somebody. He told me what I told you – except in those days it took a piece of paper and a PO Box.

“The guy was gunned down in what seemed to be a clear mob hit. No arrests were made.

“Years later, I got a letter and I did my part. Again, no arrests.”

“You did it just the once?” I asked.

“Just one hit,” he said, “But my robots look into a lot of offices and I have had a fair number of requests for inside information. So I’ve been able to call one some more help.”

“Any regrets,” I asked.

He paused, thought about it, and then said, “No, none at all.”

I went home that night. As I lay in bed, I thought about what I’d learned. Three people had killed my mother. My new ‘friend.’ The Kidney Killer. And my dad. Whatever they or others in their circle had started, they hadn’t stopped.

I got up from bed and went to my home office. I opened the devil’s website. I thought about what I could enter. My father’s name. The name of my mother’s killer.

I thought about trying to track the message.

I got up, poured myself a whiskey, and thought about killing the Devil himself.

And then I closed my laptop and went back to sleep.

I’m not a man who dwells in the past.

Day #65: Contract Negotiations

(WSJ) The National Basketball Federation is in an uproar today after the financial collapse of the Vegas Texans. The NBF had distinguished from other professional sports leagues due to its unique compensation structure. Seeking to alleviate union-owner contract disputes, the NBF was formed with teams as Limited Liability Corporations.

Players, instead of earning straight salaries, could also earn ownership positions through share grants that would vest based on a flexible variety of conditions. For example, a marque player might be drawn in with a strong ownership position and kept with long-term vesting rights based on key performance metrics. As a member of a successful team, such a player would naturally be enriched by the team’s success. Long-term, due to their ownership stakes, players had an interest in teams and their communities even after retirement.

To blunt the market limitations faced by small-market teams, all teams would share 50% of its profit (or loss) with the league . That profit or loss was then distributed evenly to all teams.

“It changed the entire equation,” explains sports finance guru Ned Callahan, “Instead of head-to-head combat between players and owners – and instead of one-size-fits-all contract types that were incapable of adjusting for circumstance, players themselves became the team owners.”

Initial public reaction to the plan was position. As Callahan explains, “Many only saw benefits. Players wouldn’t sit on their heels once they had their fat contracts and they wouldn’t jump ship for the next dollar. Fans could cheer for players and teams knowing they were the exact same thing.”

Players themselves greeted the change positively. Among other benefits, Forward Brendan Jones shared an unexpected side benefit, “Suddenly, if I’d always wanted to play alongside my best friends, I could.”

Teams developed unique cultures as players learned to balance earnings with a spirit of partnership. For the most coaches, GMs and team presidents remained in their prior roles. But they reporting changed. All reported to boards staffed by player’s representatives. To maintain effectiveness, their activities were not micromanaged. Instead, the boards could elect only to hire or fire them – not to direct their individual decisions. This has left coaches with remarkable, consensually accepted, authority.

Of all the positions, the role of GMs has changed the most. Rather than seeking to draft and trade players, GMs worked to attract talents and with with players and other GMs to find mutually attractive swaps for board approval. Players who agreed to be traded could often swap ownership positions and vesting plans and interests. This sort of setup reduced trade volumes, but created trades where every party felt they could benefit.

Despite the promise of the new model, cracks soon appeared. Players sought to pad stats for reward rather than play for wins. It proved remarkably difficult to align player and team incentives. And despite league profit sharing, some teams had better owner-players than others. They recognized the value of continuity, they had civil and productive board discussions, they hired officers intelligently, and they were committed to their teams standing in the communities they represented. Because of this, the value of the franchise and its ownership stakes, rose. Top-tier players, interested in a winner, more readily came aboard. Other teams were less successful. Their disputes became public and fans turned away. They sunk and tried to bring in talent with heavy cash rewards – but the talent lacked the drive they might have had on better teams.

Now, after six years, the first team is going bankrupt. The Las Vegas Texans (named after the poker game) displayer extremely poor management – leveraging their league revenue stream, they spent heavily to attract coaches and players to revitalize the franchise. But those players used the team only to showcase their individual talents. The best took their money and quickly moved on.

And the fan base turned away.

The failure has pundits of all stripes weighing in. Some decry the model, suggesting players aren’t smart enough to govern themselves. Others call for a league rescue and takeover – as the loss of a team, and the revenues due to that team, could threaten the league itself. Still others praise the outcome, claiming the market has correctly culled a team that was terribly mismanaged.

For their part, fans are enraged. As fan union representative Andy Burns explains, “The greed and short-sided setup of the league has threatened all lovers of basketball, depressed children and adults alike and undermined hope itself. There has to be another way. Perhaps fans can own the teams.”

At the moment, the league, governed by representatives of the various teams, is debating what to do.

For the players, fans and staff, nothing is certain.