A trio of bulbous black SUVs passes sleekly by, gliding through their world like seals. The city shines liquidly off their tinted windows, the yellow lights from the towers and the white lights from the street and the red lights they ignore as they cruise through the intersection with a honk and a flash of their own beams. People on the sidewalk barely give them a glance.
I cross the street, which is empty in their wake. Most of the National Press Building’s lights are still on, as reporters for outlets across the globe type away to beat their deadlines. Editors are waiting in Tokyo, the masses are curious in Mumbai, the public has a right to know in London. The sheer volume of information being churned out of that building is unfathomable to me, the weight of it, and also the waste. As if people needed it.
It’s just past ten and my mark is on the move. He has an important date—a date with history, in fact, though he isn’t thinking of it that way. He’s meeting his source, the mysterious individual who has provided him with glimpses of a golden but dangerous truth, a mythic grail whose existence he was beginning to doubt. The source has promised him the grail, tonight. But only if they meet in person.
My mark is thin, harried. He doesn’t look like he’s slept much lately. Even my rough understanding of contemp style tells me he has little: his white shirt is stained with coffee and is untucked in the back; his jeans seem tighter than he’s comfortable with; he’s had to adjust himself in the glass elevator that isn’t as private as he believes it to be. He is thirty and aging too quickly, his thin hair graying along the temples (but then, my judgment of age in this beat isn’t good either; the legacy of their insufficient medicine, diet, and hygiene are difficult for me to puzzle out). He lives with the realization that his life’s work, his reason for being, is overlooked by this world he thinks he is serving. He is unimportant. He doesn’t say this to the people he works with, but he blathers about it on his pseudonymous blog, and in the constantly revised, unpublished memoir hiding in his computer, both of which he turns to late at night after filing a story few people will read.
Oh, but you are important, Mr. Karthik M. Chaudhry! You have no idea how much value is placed on what you do, and how terrible is that value.
I’ve been watching him for days. He talks on his phone and attends press conferences at which he is relegated to the back rows, then he sits in libraries or cafés with his laptop and reads and writes, reads and writes. So much information here, they spend the majority of their lives losing themselves in it. As far as I can tell, he doesn’t have any friends. His apartment is devoid of women’s clothes or toiletries, not even a secret photograph of an idolized, untouchable someone in his top drawer. It’s because of his dedication to work, or that’s what he tells himself. He is, after all, very good at what he does, and it’s getting him into trouble.
We crossed paths in the hallway of his building earlier today and I slipped a Tracker onto him, so I know when he leaves his office and enters the elevator. That’s why I’ve left the bar across the street, the Anonymous Source, where I’ve been staking him out, nursing a couple of drinks against Department regulations.
I walk into the lobby, past the elderly Chinese man selling his magazines and newspapers and brightly colored candy bars, past the tie boutique and the shop of tourist paraphernalia: framed photographs of the White House, coffee mugs and pencils emblazoned with U.S. flags. My mark is descending in the glass elevator.
Seeing him is all the confirmation I need, so I walk back out and get into my car. I know where he’s going and when he’ll be there. I also know that he doesn’t own a car and will take the Metro, which, due to a disabled train on the Blue Line, will make his ride a good ten minutes longer than my drive. I’m in a rented tan Corolla, which the people in Logistics had recommended based on its not being conspicuous. Before they sent me here, I trained on a replica they created for me, but I find the real thing awkward to handle, and I have to hope I don’t break some obscure traffic rule and get pulled over. The vodkas I drank make this even more surreal, the vehicle large and bulky, this sprawling extension of myself, numb and careening into a world I barely understand.
And what a city! The perfect geometric layout, the wide avenues and clean sidewalks, all the monuments bathed in celestial light. The contemps around me have no idea how long it will take to rebuild something like this. Do they see the beauty around them? Are they dizzy from the heights of this pinnacle their civilization is teetering upon? No—they troop along, necks crooked into their ancient phones like bent marionettes’. Their right cheeks glow.
The night is cool and I drive with the windows down. I love the air here, the crispness—I forget how bad our air is, despite the recent improvements, until I come back to a time like this, before all the burning.
At a traffic light I check my internal GeneScan and see that the hags too are in motion. The GeneScan tells me when someone of a non-contemporary genetic makeup is in the vicinity, allows me to track him down. Right now the hags are doing some tracking of their own. One of them, I think, but possibly more; despite the best efforts of the people in Engineering, my GeneScan detects hags accurately only within a mile, and anything much beyond that comes across as just a faint shimmer, a certain foreboding.
Yes, Mr. Chaudhry, you are important indeed. You have no friends and no lover, but you have me, your guardian angel. Well, not really that—indeed, the furthest thing from it. But you do have me, as well as a few others—we’re all intertwined like strands of DNA, like subject and verb and object, unspooling into the future, the generations and sentences extending endlessly.
Again, not really. The end for you, I’m afraid, is quite near.
I protect the Events.
That’s the most succinct way of putting it, and that’s how my superiors at the Department first explained it to me. I used to know as little about these particular Events as anyone else did, but now I’m an expert on this era. I know why these people are fighting each other, why they hate those they hate, what they most fear. At least, that’s what they told me in Training. Don’t be intimidated, they said. You will know these people better than they know themselves. After all, how well do we truly understand what we’re doing, and why, as we’re actually doing it? It’s only later, as we’re looking back, that events fall into easily definable categories. Motive, desire, bias. Happenstance, randomness, intent. Cause and effect, ends and means. One thing this job has taught me is that when people are caught in the maddening swirl of time, they do what they need to do and invent their reasoning afterward. They exculpate themselves, claim they had no choice. They throw their hands up to the heavens or shrug that Events simply were what they were. They used to call it fate, or God, or Allah, though of course such talk is illegal now.
Now. I barely know what the word means anymore.
This is my tenth day in Washington, just before the start of the Events that culminated in the Great Conflagration. On each mission, the Department sends the Protector back a bit earlier than the hags—the historical agitators—are expected to show up, so he can muddle through the initial disorientation and establish his position. Every advantage is vital. But ten days is more than double the usual prep time, and it has me wondering if this was all a colossal mistake, if I should begin the complicated procedures for being sent back.
The contemp patrons at the Anonymous Source were ignorant of the coming calamity, but they were hardly carefree. They had their complaints, they had their crystalline views of the chasms between their desires and their actualities. I almost wanted to clap their shoulders, tell them to enjoy what time they had left.
A few tables away, four young women finished a round of something orange and umbrella-adorned and were moving on to something aquamarine. Along the bar, the backs of navy suit jackets were strained by abdominal fat. A man sat alone at one table, anxiously wiping the spilled drink from a computer in his lap. A young couple sat on the same side of their booth so they could both see a basketball game on TV. The music was low and deep, all bass and thrumming.
I was in a corner booth, safely layered by darkness. People could see me, and if I’d been following Department protocol I’d have learned their names or surreptitiously taken genetic samples or at least burned their images into my drive so I could enter them into my Report of Historical Contacts. The Department wants to know everyone with whom I interact, as the whole point is to leave no trace. But I saw how drunk and preoccupied they all were, how circumscribed their little worlds. The quiet man in the corner booth did not exist to them. Which was fine with me. I’m used to not existing.
Six men and women at a sprawling table to my left were celebrating something with gallows humor. “Print is dead!” one of them called out to jeers and boos from his companions. I caught words like restructuring and buyouts, odd contemp phrases like do more with less and new business paradigms. They seemed to feel they had reached the end of something.
A waiter took my plate; I had ordered a salad and some risotto, the only things on the menu that didn’t include dead, burned animal flesh. I’ve gradually grown used to the sight of people gorging themselves on “meat”—this is my fourth assignment now—but still, the immorality is stunning, the blitheness of it. Geneticized foods are in their infancy during this period; it’s always a struggle to figure out how to eat enough to maintain energy without succumbing to their carnivorous ways.
My insides have mostly recovered from the illness that hit me my second day here. An unfortunate and inevitable part of the process, as my body is feasted upon by all these bacteria and microbes to which it has no resistance. I still feel a bit weak, having eaten little more than rice and bananas the past three days. I love bananas. For the taste as well as the novelty—they don’t exist in my time. It’s like eating a dinosaur, forbidden and impossible. But as I chew, it becomes a part of me.
In the bar, I periodically checked my GeneScan while I flipped through the issue of the Post that someone had left on the table. I was struck by the amount of information contained in these old, baked slips of hammered pulp, as well as by the unfiltered nature of it all, the varying viewpoints and opinions. But once I got past that initial unfamiliarity, what I truly found amazing was all the intergroup hatred. The smallness of it, the predictability. The Russians hated the Chechens. The Sunnis hated the Shiites. The whites hated the blacks, who hated the Latinos. The English hated the Irish. The Hutu hated the Tutsi. The Bosnians hated the Serbs, and I lost track of all the people who hated the Muslims or the Jews or both. The Japanese hated the Chinese, who hated the Taiwanese and the Tibetans. The Salvadorans hated the Nicaraguans. The Saudis hated the Yemenis. And I was only on page A-9.
Some of these stories I already read as part of my training. Studying up on the beat, immersing myself in their ugly mind-set. It almost attains a certain logic, the more time I spend here. Which is why I need to get out. I worry that if I’m here too long, I’ll learn to enjoy it, like some deranged visitor to the zoo suddenly climbing the fence to commune with the beautiful tigers, running to his doom.
The road slices between museums and monuments, then merges with a highway to rise above a river that glimmers coldly in the moonlight. I turn south, skirting the river, toward the launching point of the jets that scream above me.
I park in the airport deck and walk not toward the terminal but to a narrow asphalt path flanking the road. The trail is used by cyclists and joggers during the day, but no one walks it at night. Once I put the airport behind me, I leave the path and cut around a fenced-off lot of tankers and luggage trucks. Soon I reach the small park, now empty, where families bring lunches so their kids can marvel at the size and sound of the outgoing planes whose tailfins nearly scrape their picnic blankets. By the water are a few trees; I walk to the one closest to the water and position myself behind it, the river at my back.
The sky is so much clearer than I’m used to, a black sheet punctured with a few holes for the stars to stare through. We don’t see the stars anymore—our atmosphere too opaque—though we’re working on it. Some people don’t believe stars were ever visible, think it’s a folktale, some slice of fabricated history that’s managed to circulate through the collective subconscious. But I stare up at them and wonder, like these ancestors of mine must, at the vastness of things, and the smallness.
The empty lot tells me that Mr. Chaudhry’s source has not yet arrived. My GeneScan tells me the hags are close, though I still can’t tell quite how many there are. I also don’t know how exactly they plan to disrupt the Event, but they tend not to be terribly imaginative. I picture a lone gunman crouching in the weeds, his heart pounding as he struggles to claim his space on history’s as-yet-unwritten page. Lone gunmen are always the easiest.
The data pertaining to this Event is somewhat fuzzy, as it usually is. The people in Veracity do their best with the limited information they cull from the old files, the burned paper, the half-deleted records. I know that Mr. Chaudhry is on his way to this lot, but the exact time of his source’s arrival is wrapped in mystery.
Mr. Chaudhry’s meeting with the source will boost his career beyond his wildest imaginings, but not in the way he’d like.
Each plane roars like some massive beast exhaling. Amazing that Mr. Chaudhry thinks he can have a conversation with someone out here. But that’s part of what intrigues him. The odd locale, the darkness, the paths crossing in the heavens above him and along the highway to his side. Even I’m excited. I love these moments, these tiny fulcrums of history, the gears turning before my eyes.
And there are the two hags, crossing the highway on foot. They’re so stupid, it’s a wonder they even get this far. They’re nearly run over and someone honks at them—I hear tires squeal—but they make it to the other side. They must have parked in another lot, not wanting their car to reveal their presence. One of them is carrying a large duffel bag.
They hurry to a thick tree twenty yards in front of me. One opens the bag, the zipper shivering, and pulls out a rifle. The other leans against the tree, watching the parking lot. I cautiously advance toward them, keeping low, the sound of my approach lost in the next jet’s sonic boom. I watch the parking lot too, and there we all see Mr. Chaudhry, hands in his pockets, bag slung over his shoulder, strolling down that lonely bike path, making his soon-to-be-famed appearance.
After nine days of waiting for the hags to show up, of sitting in my terrible motel room and venturing out only at night to learn the city, watch Chaudhry, and scout the locales without leaving a trace, I finally allowed myself to roam about by day that afternoon. The Department would not have condoned it, as I was supposed to limit my appearances to errands of strict necessity, but I was bored, and I figured that by wandering the National Mall I could be just another tourist cloaked in anonymity.
During my first gig, the details were what had stunned me, the tangibility. I had expected it to feel like being inside a video, like walking upon a two-dimensional image—had expected to look at people who would not look back at me, to touch objects that would not tease my fingertips with their warmth. The sounds and smells, too, the three-dimensionality, took me aback; the irrefutable fact that this place existed, that I was here. But at the same time, the insanity of it all, the wrongness. It was like waking to find myself in a different hemisphere: a sudden shifting of the seasons, the air all wrong, the constant surprise from seeing the skewed angle of the light playing tricks with how ordinary objects appeared. A shine to everything. I was in a new, old world, and it was real and it had weight.
At the Mall this afternoon, the tourists around me snapped pictures and struck poses in front of their inflated tributes to former presidents and judges and warriors. I tried to enjoy this unprecedented ability to tour an ancient time, to take in wonders that would soon cease to exist. The white limestone gleaming in the afternoon sun, the awestruck comments in countless languages, the yawning buses and bored taxis, the sweaty office workers squeezing in lunch-break jogs. Silver jets seemed to hang in the blue sky as they dipped their wings seconds after lifting off from across the river. Government-crested helicopters passed at low altitudes, buzzing our chests.
Walking along a reflecting pool at the base of the Capitol building, I saw a young woman carrying her toddler, a little black girl in a pink sweater, her hair braided with white beads. Residue from cotton candy encrusted the girl’s lips, and I thought to myself, She’s two, maybe three. I wanted to know her name, look her up in my databases, see if by any chance she would be one of the survivors. It was incredibly important to me. I followed them for a block, then another, trying to concoct an excuse to start a conversation with the mother or at least get close enough to take a sample or a savable image. The girl smiled at me and waved. Her mother never noticed, never turned around, and after they reached an intersection I made myself stop. It doesn’t make any difference, I told myself. She’ll likely die, or, if she’s lucky, she won’t—yes, if she’s “lucky” she’ll get to grow up in one of the most violent periods the world has ever known.
I waved back, as helpless as she was.
Fifty yards away from me, a Metro train worms itself from the earth, emerging from its tunnel and heading toward the airport. The hags are still crouched at the tree, the only true cover to hide behind while staking out Chaudhry. Beyond them the ground slopes downward, slowly, toward the river, and I’m about twenty yards back. The Potomac at low ebb smells of fuel and the rotten dankness of things that should have stayed buried. I can see Chaudhry in the distance, standing forlorn in the parking lot, lit up by the one streetlight, an actor alone onstage. He’s looking around nervously, afraid some Homeland Security agent is going to ask him why he’s loitering outside an airport at night. Don’t worry, Mr. Chaudhry, I know the schedule of the DHS agents’ routes; they won’t be here until later.
In my right hand I hold the pistol that the Engineers designed to look, sound, and function like an early-21st-century nine-millimeter automatic. Attached to it is a silencer, though the thing is still too loud. We have more efficient methods in my time, but the Department limits the amount of technological advances I’m allowed to bring back, in case they’re discovered by a contemp. At least I was granted a Stunner, which I clutch with my left hand.
Each time a plane takes off, the ground vibrates and I inch closer. I keep low so Chaudhry can’t see my outline against the bright backdrop of the city, though I’m probably too far away for him to see me, as he has bad eyesight and is always squinting through his thick glasses. (It’s embarrassing how much I know about him.)
One of the hags checks the rifle’s stock; the other peers through binoculars. The low rumble of a plane accelerating on the tarmac is my cue. I aim my pistol at the hag with the rifle. He’s still fiddling with it; they probably don’t quite understand how the antique device works, though I’m impressed they found a way to procure one. They’re getting better at this.
A black car loops off the exit ramp to the parking lot, slowing as it approaches Chaudhry. Then I see the plane, and I almost cower instinctively as it rises up like some predator, shiny steel breast exposed. Chaudhry has turned away from us to face the car, so he won’t see the flash from my gun.
The jet’s roar is at its peak when I pull the trigger. The hag was facing away from me and I get him in the back of the head—it looks like he simply nods, agreeing with something unspoken, and then he drops.
I shoot his partner low in the back. That may give me a chance to ask him a few questions afterward. I scramble toward him and tag him with the Stunner, mainly to keep him from screaming. His body is leaning into the tree and I pull him to the ground.
I lie beside the bodies and watch Chaudhry, now standing in the lot with two other men. One is bald; the other has dark hair with a streak of white above each ear, like he made a wig from a skunk’s pelt. A third is behind the wheel of the black car, whose lights are off. These men are good at what they do—they stand at either side of the shorter, thinner reporter, boxing him in against the car. I’m only surprised they didn’t find some way to break the streetlight before they did this. (The bubble of a security camera is perched beneath that light, but later reports will reveal that the camera malfunctioned on this night.) I hear a raised voice, two disjointed syllables, and then there’s a quick motion and Chaudhry doubles over. One of the men opens the back door, and they push him inside. Again he is surrounded; the doors are closed. They hit him a few more times as the car drives toward the on-ramp.
Chaudhry’s appearance at this parking lot will not be known for a few days, not until a concerned coworker taps into his e-mail account and finds a message sent from someone—exactly who, no one will know, as the mystery person’s account traversed many complicated networks and domains and secret portals—asking that Chaudhry meet him here tonight. Despite much investigative effort by police, his outraged employer, his stunned colleagues, and his grieving family, this is the farthest Chaudhry’s path in life will ever be traced.
The car drives onto the highway—heading south, in case any students of history are curious—although even I don’t know where they’re taking him from there.
I reverse the Stunner on the hag who isn’t quite dead yet. What an awakening, to be revived to this state, a bullet in one of his kidneys. I hate myself for doing this; I should have just shot him in the head, like I did his partner. He gasps, confused, possibly numb from the waist down, and starts to cough blood.
“Where are the others?” I ask him.
Cough, cackle, spit.
“How many did you take with you? Tell me. This is your one chance to make right—you probably have about ten seconds.”
He bashes me in the side of the head with something that can’t possibly be a fist. My stomach turns and I go dizzy, catching myself with my hands before I hit the ground. He’s about to hit me again—he’s holding a rock—but I manage to block his arm, then roll onto him. I wrestle him for a moment; he has much more life in him than I thought, though he’s losing it fast. Then I hold him down and hit him once, square in the face. I stand up, and as I hover over him, his eyes go wide, and then he’s gone.
I stare at the mess I’ve made. No, it’s their mess—they’re the ones causing the problems that I need to fix. As if rationalizations can make shooting two people any easier.
I breathe deeply and try to get my stomach under control. The dizziness is gone already—it was a short, sudden burst—but it’s being replaced by a worse pain, just behind my left ear and radiating out.
I have about ten minutes before a DHS agent or Coast Guard boat or some other security personnel patrols the area. I reach into the hags’ pockets and remove their wallets, complete with fake IDs—again, I’m impressed. They’re learning. They don’t have any other weapons or hotel keys, nothing that tells me where they’re based. I scrape them for genetic samples so I can record exactly whom I’ve dispatched. The Department prefers it if we dispose of the bodies, and I do have a few Flashers with me. They’d eliminate the corpses, as well as everything else within a radius of a few feet, but they’re too bright and would attract attention. So I grab the hags’ legs and drag them to the riverbank. As the planes continue to scream overhead I toss a body into the river, then another, then their rifle. The confluence of the Potomac and the Anacostia should get the bodies far enough from the airport that the police won’t connect them with Mr. Chaudhry, but I’m not really worried about it. Their fingerprints will turn up no matches, their dental health will be meaningless, and their DNA will be rather puzzling to whoever analyzes it. The corpses will constitute quite a mystery, but this is Washington, and the assassination of two nameless men will likely be assumed to be the tip of some iceberg best given a wide berth. Local cops will quietly ask the federal police, who might ask the creepy and suspicious denizens of the clandestine forces’ many branches, none of whom will betray any interest whatsoever with their glazed and nocturnal eyes and all of whom will assume one of the others is to blame. The discovery of the bodies will be shielded from the newspapers and TV reporters, the citizenry will not be alarmed, and my superiors will be impressed once again by my ability to perform complex duties while leaving no trace.
I try to run another check on the GeneScan, in case more hags are coming late—such incompetence is hardly beyond them. But nothing happens. The GeneScan is supposed to look like a series of dots and images superimposed on what my eyes perceive in front of me or spread out radar-like over my internal GPS. But the GeneScan isn’t working. Hopefully it’s just the headache from that blow with the rock interfering, and this is only temporary.
I use a towel to clean up the last of the blood from the base of the tree. The towel too I toss in the river, which darkly glitters at me like tinfoil. I must seem like some odd throwback, not to this time but an even earlier one, what they once called prehistory, when strange little cringers offered sacrifices to sea gods they themselves had invented, throwing possessions of varying import into the murky waters. Praying for a calm and fecund world without flood, a land of everlasting peace.
There are so many questions I didn’t think to ask when I was offered this job. They knew I was interested from the start, even though their recruitment was so heavy on flattery that I figured there was something they weren’t telling me. It’s hard to pay attention to what isn’t being said, however, when what is being said is so mind-altering. It was an honor, something that could not be refused.
I’ve been thinking about that lately, about whether I could indeed have refused. About how much free choice there had been, whether my hand had been forced or had moved of its own accord. What is predetermined, what spontaneous? You get to thinking about such things after this long on the job. You start pondering options that most people don’t even realize are there, seeing secret paths and hidden escapes. Or the opposite happens: you see the larger forces that guide you against your will or without your knowledge. If you are what you do, then what does it mean if others make the decisions for you?
My previous three gigs were in a different beat, back in the 1940s. One of the things I never thought to ask was how long the average Protector stays on the job. Given the amount of training and expertise necessary for a person to navigate a beat, transfers must be rare. But my current assignment wasn’t so much a transfer, they told me, as a response to an unexpected development. The Department of Historical Integrity was created when the Government realized that revolutionary factions had access to the technology and could navigate time themselves, and since its inception the Department has done an excellent job of determining which Events the hags would target. First the hags tried to alter World War II, focusing in particular on the Holocaust. That had been my beat. The hags wanted to prevent the genocide—they were a Jewish extremist group, though I suppose that’s a redundancy. They wanted to save those millions of innocent lives. An admirable goal. But that would have altered history. Meaning, it would have altered our Perfect Present. The Department’s motto, engraved on the crest that every Protector walks across upon admission to headquarters (a headquarters no one else knows exists, for a Department no one else knows exists), is The integrity of history must be preserved.
I protect Events that no one in my forward-thinking time knows about. We Protectors are the silent warriors, toiling in a vacuum. We stop the hags from removing the pillars of our Perfect Society and tearing it all down. What would have happened if Napoleon had been killed as a little boy? Or if Mao hadn’t unleashed his Cultural Revolution? Or if bin Laden hadn’t hurled airplanes like darts at his global targets? The hags’ argument is that lives would be saved and tragedies averted, and they’re right, in their shortsighted way. They choose to overlook the fact that such changes would destroy our Perfect Present, meaning that the Great Conflagration, or some similar event, would still be happening, and the suffering would never end. All the problems we’ve solved, all the broken aspects of society we’ve fixed, all the efforts we’ve made to eliminate human meanness and frailty—these accomplishments must be protected, no matter the cost.
After watching the dead hags bob along the river, I drive into the city. My mind is wandering across subjects, across time, thinking of my wife and the home that I will never again visit, when I’m startled by the GeneScan. It turns on suddenly, but it’s not working as it should. I see dots and blips and streaks everywhere, the world before me fractured into a universe of constellations, as unreadable as the stars above.
I swerve out of my lane, distracted. Some of the dots vanish, but one lingers; the GeneScan seems to be telling me there’s a hag close by. That’s not in my intel, though. I have a detailed agenda of the hags’ targets; I hadn’t expected anything else tonight, and nothing in this particular neighborhood. Perhaps I’ve stumbled upon the hags’ hiding spot—a fortuitous occurrence, as it would give me an opportunity to snuff them all out. I was that lucky in Poland once, finding the distant barn from which they were planning their bombings of Nazi rail lines; I eliminated them with a late-night fire and some well-placed rifle shots, my easiest gig ever.
I do my best to follow the GeneScan, trying to link it to my internal GPS. It doesn’t work. The geographical info that the Logistics people provided to me was the best they could find, but that doesn’t mean much. The Archives themselves are imperfect, full of errors or taken from the wrong year. Excavators and dump trucks are parked all over this neighborhood, sudden detours rendering my maps useless, the trucks tearing down buildings and creating new ones. It’s sad to watch people so painstakingly build this world.
Then I see police lights in my rearview. Annoyed at the fried circuits in my brain, I manage to turn off the unhelpful GeneScan as I pull over.
The cops walk toward my car, one on either side. I’ve been driving with my windows halfway down, and I wonder how badly I smell of alcohol. And gun smoke.
“License and registration,” says the cop to my left. He is amazingly white. His skin seems to glow, illuminated by the headlights of passing cars. I’ve adjusted during my different gigs, grown more accustomed to how pale the “white” people look and how dark the “black” people, but still, the racial markers are so odd here. It’s like being asked to describe the taste of something cooked with ingredients one has never heard of; there are no touchstones, no points of reference. Just foreignness and wonder.
I hand him my driver’s license and the rental agreement. Identity theft was a big problem in this beat, and the Logistics people make use of such tricks in constructing covers. They peer through old files and computer systems—whatever survived the Great Conflagration and the many wars afterward and then the long decay of time—to find names that can be lifted, data that can be transferred, lives that can be stolen. They choose people we can “replace” by finding those who vanished or disappeared, those who died mysteriously, those whose records outlived them for a few days.
The license says my name is Troy Jones and that I hail from Philadelphia. Within the Department, I go by Zed, and I don’t really live anywhere.
He looks over my information, and I realize: These could be hags.
Adopting covers as cops would be impressive, something beyond what they’ve done in the past. I turn the GeneScan back on, but it lights up suddenly and then, as if overwhelmed by the pressure, flickers off. I try again but nothing happens; my trusty sidekick has made an early exit from this adventure.
I notice the cops have unsnapped the holsters on their sidearms. I’m not sure if that’s a routine move in traffic stops here. My own gun is in the glove box and might as well be a mile away.
The other cop stands to the right of my car. I can’t see his face, only his midsection, a ballooning that suggests the physical requirements for officers in this era aren’t as stringent as in my time. He shines a flashlight into the Corolla, the beam lingering on the lightweight jacket that rests on the seat beside me.
“Anything under that jacket, sir?” He sounds older than the first cop, tired.
“Lift it real slow and show me.”
I obey. Then he beams the backseat. Without the GeneScan to rely on, I feel momentarily adrift, a traveler dazed after losing his translator in a busy market.
“Is there something wrong, Officers?”
“You disobeyed a yield sign, Mr. Jones, and you switched lanes without signaling,” says the cop holding my license.
“I’m very sorry. I’m a little lost.” I choose a random address a few blocks away and tell him I’ve been trying to find it. “I’m not from around here.”
“I see that. Interesting accent too, you don’t mind my saying so.” That hurts more than he realizes—I spent days working on the voice, listening to old audio and watching video that the Archives people turned up, studying the contemp cadence and flow.
“You don’t really look like a Jones to me,” the other one says, leaning down to shine his light in my face.
I look away from the light, back at cop number one. “I have a complicated family tree.”
“What brings you to Washington, Mr. Jones?”
“I’m a defense contractor in town for some meetings. I’m trying to find the office of one of my colleagues for a strategy session.”
That cover was chosen for its vague air of mystery and severity, I was told. But the cops do not seem impressed. “A defense contractor? Really.”
“Pretty late for a strategy session, isn’t it?” the other one asks.
“Strategy is a twenty-four-hour thing in the defense industry,” I say. “Plus I did get a bit delayed on the drive down.”
“We take defense strategy awfully seriously here in the District as well.”
“Exactly what kind of strategy are you and your colleagues hatching, Mr. Jones?”
I wasn’t expecting this reaction. I think for a moment, wondering what I did wrong.
“I can’t really go into detail,” I say. “I can say that it’s intelligence related.”
They wait a beat. “So if you’re going to a business meeting to discuss your strategy, shouldn’t you have some business papers?”
“They’re in my trunk.”
“Mind if we take a look?”
“You can look there if you’d like, Officer, but the papers themselves are classified.”
The fat cop laughs, an odd thing to witness since I still can’t see his face. I make a note of the name clipped to his dark blue shirt and do the same for his partner, for my Report of Historical Contacts. He says to his partner, “Can’t tell if we’ve pulled over Zawahiri or Colin Powell.”
The names register in my Contemporary Persons, Locations, and Events file, linked to my brain via the implanted chip. It’s almost like memory, but not quite. Takes a second. Even if the names hadn’t been familiar, I’d still have understood—regardless of era or culture or language, all insults sound the same. The cops are having a hard time figuring out my race, their gut-level mistrust of intelligent-sounding darkies mixing with their fear of Arabic evil. My superiors told me that to the eyes of a white contemp, I might look like a “very light-skinned African American” or a “Pacific Islander” or someone “interestingly multiracial.”
The second officer leans down and I can see his face for the first time. Like his partner, he’s as white as anything I’ve ever seen that isn’t dead. I glance at his thick cheeks and red, glassy eyes for an instant before he shines his flashlight at me and I look away.
“Sir,” he says, “I’m asking you to pop your trunk. We won’t go through any papers. We barely even know how to read. We just want to see what else you might have there.”
I nod and search for the button that opens the trunk. My inexperience with cars no doubt strikes them as a suspicious reluctance to comply with their orders. Finally I find the button and I hear the gentle pop behind me. The fat cop checks the trunk, and the cop on my left returns to his car to type my information into his computer.
I carefully open the glove box and take out my gun while the trunk lid is blocking their view. I slide it under the jacket, which I nudge closer to myself, hoping they won’t notice.
I’ve read through the papers in my trunk; they’re incomprehensible gibberish. If whatever the Logistics people printed out for me is indeed representative of contemp defense contractors’ reports, then no wonder everything fell apart so fast.
The fat cop closes the trunk and returns to his previous position on my right. After another minute, the second officer rejoins us, handing me a pink slip of paper and explaining the citation. They’re not hags, just bored contemp cops wishing they’d stumbled onto a plot and settling now for their minor roles in this city’s busy narrative.
“Be more careful when driving in the city, Mr. Jones. Now, what was that address you were looking for?”
I repeat the address I’d given him before, passing his test, and he gives me directions. They bid me good night and return to their car.
I follow the directions to the meaningless address, well aware that they’re following me. After a few turns, there it is, a glass-and-steel apartment tower. I find a spot to park in—parallel parking an automobile is not one of my greatest skills, but performing under pressure is—and the cops wait behind me as I muscle into the space. Then they drive on.
I walk down 16th Street, which was where the GeneScan seemed to be leading me before it flickered off. This is a busier road, cars passing on either side, late-working lawyers and lobbyists and propagandists rushing home to their television and children and insulation.
Before me is a large, redbrick church. This seems a fitting reconnaissance point for hags, many of whom are religious, driven by unyielding devotion to their dangerous creeds. One would think they’d be happy just to be in a time like this, to be surrounded by so many churches and synagogues and mosques, to walk into a bookstore and see their beloved tomes for sale.
A sign in the tiny front lot tells me it’s a Congregationalist church. According to the schedule of services, nothing should be happening this late.
I feel an illicit thrill as I approach the sacred building. A cross hangs over the entrance, and at my side are whitened sculptures already in disrepair—a digit missing here, a streak of dirt there—as if they know their era is on the wane. The heavy door is unlocked. I step inside and gaze at the rows of dark pews, the gray tile floor, the stained-glass windows looming above the bare altar. It’s so quiet my breath almost echoes. Toward the front I see the backs of two gray heads, hair pinned up in buns. I try to imagine what these women are thinking as they kneel here, as they make themselves small before some being of their imagination, something that has taken on such power through shared belief.
“Can I help you?”
I turn to see an old man, angel white. He smiles kindly. Above him are depictions of their Messiah being tortured, whipped, murdered.
“I’m sorry, I was just looking” I’m not sure what to say. It was a mistake to come in here.
The priest is wearing a white dress shirt and black slacks, and the cross around his neck glimmers in the dim light. I burn his image, then thank him and step back. White and yellow pamphlets tacked to a corkboard beside me advertise bake sales, babysitting services, and political rallies in favor of “life.”
He steps closer and asks if I’m sure there isn’t anything else.
“The country where I’m stationed,” I try to explain, “doesn’t have any churches. It’s … interesting to be inside one again.”
“Sounds like a terrible place. Which country?”
I offer him a short smile. The people in this city are used to being told only the barest snippets of facts. “I should go. Good night.”
“Peace be with you.”
I don’t bother extending the same wish to him.
Outside I run another check on my GPS and realize I’m only a block north of Lafayette Square, essentially the front yard of their president’s grand estate, the White House. Could the hags have designs on such a heavily fortified building? Probably not, as such a disruption would have historical echoes even they couldn’t predict, but I’d be remiss not to look into it.
I notice a crowd ahead. Soon I hear someone on a loudspeaker reading a procession of names. Sergeant Wilfredo Dominguez. Private First Class Martin Dithers. Specialist Gloria Wilcox.
Filling the southern end of the square are approximately two hundred people. Facing away from me, standing still as statues, light emanating from their chests. It’s like I’ve entered some contemp art installation, a maze of motionless human forms and the tiny white candles they hold before them.
I run a check on the names I’ve heard thus far, searching every database. They belong to servicemen and -women who died in the contemp wars.
It’s haunting to stand among the mourners. We don’t have protests in my time, or demonstrations (such an odd word choice, because what exactly are they demonstrating, their helplessness?). This is a peaceful one, eerily so. The tears on some of the people’s faces are the only things moving.
I look for a sign bearing the group’s name but don’t see anything. I check the date and time against various databases but find nothing. Whatever this is, it isn’t considered important by the Department. So why did the GeneScan lead me here?
During my gigs it’s tempting to think of myself as the only living person in a land of ghosts, and the effect is heightened now. The city feels peaceful from inside the park, as if the silent prayers of all these people can blot out the world’s noise.
Then the names stop, and, one by one, the people blow out their candles. Little flecks of hope are extinguished all around me. The world grows darker; orange glows scar the inside of my retinas and dance like a busted GeneScan. Some of the people drop their candles, ends still smoking, into a pile. Others hold on to theirs. They stay where they are, alone or huddled in sobbing groups, or they leave the square, slowly. There was no announcement calling this activity to its end; it was as if some telepathic message were sent, or some genetic instinct requiring no conscious thought.
It’s amazing how sadness can be so beautiful.
Ghosts are floating past me in every direction, and I slowly walk around, looking for I don’t know what. Something. Something of obvious import. As if the job is ever that easy. Again I’m revealing myself to countless contemps, egregiously violating Department norms, but I don’t know what else to do.
“You look about as skeptical as I feel,” a woman’s voice says.
Her skin is very dark to my eyes, her hair tied in thin braids that fall behind her shoulders. She wears glasses with thick purple frames. We’d been standing next to each other, just looking at the square. Some people have relit their candles and are walking around with them, as if needing the light to guide them, or afraid to let go.
What does she mean? Maybe I’m not doing a good enough job blending in—she noticed I’m one of the only people here who haven’t been crying, whose eyes aren’t red. But neither are hers.
I motion to the extinguished candle resting in her joined hands. “Who are you here for?”
“Lieutenant Marshall Wilson, my brother. He was in the army. Killed last June.”
“I’m sorry for your loss.” We don’t say that in my time, but I learned it in my Customs training.
She looks at my empty hands. “How about you?”
“My brother too.” The lie just comes out because I don’t want her to realize that I don’t belong here. A harmless mistake, perhaps. And I want to keep her talking to me. Her eyes are so wide and somber, and the air feels charged with its candles and prayers and memories of the lost.
I burn her image into my drive, but not for any report I plan on filing. Just a little something to carry inside me after she’s gone.
She repeats what I said to her, expressing her sorrow for my “loss,” completing the ritual, our little tragic circle.
“So I suppose if it really mattered what people think,” she says, “if all this combined yearning could do anything, then they’d all come back somehow. What happened to them would be undone. But that’s crazy. So it makes you wonder, doesn’t it, what the point is.”
I don’t know what to say.
She continues. “Some socially acceptable way to make us feel better, I guess. And maybe I did feel better, for about two minutes.” She shakes her head. “But now I’m only angrier.”
I’m not sure if people here always speak so freely with strangers or if she’s given herself up to the mood of the event. Or perhaps she assumes from my mere presence that I agree with her on all things, or at least the important ones.
I met my wife at a public gathering—very different from this one, of course, but I can’t help thinking of it. It was so very long ago, and so far in the future. I miss her. I wonder if that’s why I’m still standing here talking to a woman who desperately needs someone to hear her.
I notice that she wrote words on the circular piece of cardboard that rings her candle. “What did you write?”
She instinctively angles the candle so that I can’t see the words. “Oh, just an old saying me and my brother used to have. Inside joke.”
“Sorry. I shouldn’t pry.”
“No, it’s okay. I’m the one who started a conversation with a strange man.”
I allow myself the faintest grin. “I’m not that strange.”
She smiles. “No, I meant—”
“I know. A strange man in a park at night. You should know better.”
“I guess I figured this was a safe enough environment.”
Lady, I just killed two people. And, in a way, millions.
“True,” I say. “And there are all those heavily armed police officers in case I was to try anything inappropriate.”
She follows my eyes to all the cops and security guards who stand at the gates of the White House and atop nearby buildings, their hands gripping rifles, their chests heavy with bulletproof vests. They stand there and pretend not to watch the ghosts floating away from their territory.
“I’d heard about these sorts of things but never wanted to go before,” she says. “I was supposed to come with my parents, but my mom caught a cold and they decided to stay in.” She shakes her head, as if she’s been searching for a way to express her feelings but is finally giving up, accepting that they’re inexpressible.
“I’ve never seen anything like this before,” I say.
“Yeah, they don’t usually get much press. I don’t think anyone really cares.”
“No, I mean …” What do I mean? “I’m not from here. I live in Philadelphia, but I’m stationed here for work, for a little while. It’s an interesting time—I mean, an interesting place.”
We stand there talking for a few minutes. About politics, the wars. I ask about her brother and she doesn’t know what to say at first, then she says so much. She didn’t support the wars before, and certainly doesn’t now, after losing him. She wishes she’d done more when he was alive, when it would have mattered. But now it would matter to all those still fighting, wouldn’t it? she asks me, and I nod. I want to tell her that I have no right speaking to someone like her, that she should run screaming from me, from what I’ve done, for what I’m here to do. But I want to stay here, with the calm park wrapped around me, the night wrapped around me, her words.
She says she’s sorry for prattling on, that she doesn’t mean to sound so selfish. She asks me about my brother. Perhaps a similarly long and rambling explanation is expected. Instead I shrug and say, “It’s still hard to accept that it actually happened.”
I leave it at that and she nods. “I know what you mean.”
The square is emptying around us. She doesn’t seem ready to leave. Perhaps it would mean leaving her brother behind. I wonder about all the old superstitions and beliefs, wonder what mystical power she feels in thrall to. But I’d felt something too when I stood among the candlelit statues, hadn’t I? What had it been?
I shouldn’t be here. I shouldn’t keep talking to her like this.
“Anyway, thanks for the conversation,” she says. Then she dares to remove one of her hands from the candle, extends it to me. “I’m Tasha.”
I love how real her hand feels. Cold from the night, clammy from clasping the wax.
“You said you don’t live here?”
“Well, I do temporarily. I’m a consultant.” I make the quick calculation that defense work would not meet with her approval. “Health-care policy.”
“While you’re in town, would you like to get dinner some time?”
“Sure.” No harm in making false promises. And I allow myself to fantasize for a brief moment, to imagine having that freedom. “That would be great.”
Tasha says we should exchange phone numbers so we can coordinate, and I confess that I don’t have one.
She raises an eyebrow. “No one doesn’t have a phone.”
“Well, I had a cell, but it died on me just before the company sent me here, and I haven’t memorized my hotel phone yet. Why don’t you just give me your number?”
She gives me a look. I’ve trampled on some social code. But she recites her digits, and I record them. Then we say good night and she walks away.
I feel my heart beating faster than usual, as if I’ve just protected some vital Event. The GeneScan led me astray, and I let pure carnal desire, or maybe heartache, do the rest.
As I walk toward my car I notice a man lying on one of the park benches. He’s wrapped in a filthy gray blanket; beside him is a large pile of miscellaneous possessions. I decide that I’ve already violated so many rules tonight, what’s one more?
“Spare change, brother?” he asks. He has a thick beard and skin that doesn’t look real. There are layers there. If I could peel them all off, I wonder who I would find beneath them.
“You sleep here? And we’re, what, across the street from your president’s house?”
“Hell, he don’t sleep there, brother. That’s just his spectral projection. He’s floating above us in his ship, you know, pulling the strings.”
I remove a one-hundred-dollar bill from my wallet and hand it to him.
“Bullshit!” he shouts, and I step back. “This ain’t real!”
I wasn’t expecting this anger, like I’ve pulled a trick on him.
“Maybe none of this is real,” I tell him. “But that’s legal tender, friend.”
I wait another moment as he holds it up to the light of a streetlamp. He doesn’t thank me, and hopefully he won’t throw away the money, which I withdrew from Troy Jones’s account earlier in the week.
I drive off to my terrible motel. Still thinking of Tasha, I check every database they’ve loaded into me. As I expect, all records of her cease at the start of the Conflagration.
People in D.C. liked to drive in the middle of the road, Leo had noticed. The narrow side streets lacked lane markers, so each car tended to glide down the center, staying clear of the parallel-parked cars on either side, seemingly confident no other traffic would dare come its way. Opposing drivers waited until the last possible moment to pull to their own sides.
It was a warm night and Leo drove with his windows down, the city drolly exhaling in his face. He wound his way through D.C.’s bingo board of alphabetized and numbered streets until he reached the Whole Foods, whose opening here in Logan Circle, when Leo was stationed in Jakarta, had officially jump-started the gentrification process a few years back. He barely recognized the neighborhood.
He entered the store and joined the young women in post-gym outfits—recently showered, hair pulled back, no sweat to be seen— talking on their cell phones; the mothers balancing babies on their hips and gripping their carts with their free hands; and the young men like him, some looking comfortable in their suits and some whose concert tees and tight jeans were wielded in a desperate attempt to define themselves as D.C.’s Other. Leo had been back for a while now, so culture shock was no longer an issue. But still he felt something, a sense that he did not belong here, and it never went away. What do you call that, culture trauma? Present shock?
The grocery carts were half size to allow for some semblance of maneuverability through the cramped urban aisles. Leo tossed in vegetables whose colors and textures shone forth like they were works of art, still lifes waiting to happen. He had become something of a cook during his time in Indonesia. So far, he hadn’t been able to find any Indonesian restaurants in D.C.—the outer suburbs were spawning more ethnic restaurants than the city as real estate prices pushed the immigrants out—and since he had few plans for the upcoming weekend, he figured he could spend some quality time in his kitchen. He grabbed some natural peanut butter and extra-firm tofu for gado-gado, sifted through shallots and garlic for nasi goreng, grabbed a coconut. He realized too late he was planning a veritable feast and found himself wondering, sadly, if there was anyone at all he’d want to share it with.
He stood in the middle of the Asian foods aisle pondering this, and received a new shock. Standing farther down the aisle, frantically comparing the contents of her cart to a crinkled paper in her hands, was a gorgeous young Southeast Asian woman. Everything about her was jarring, and slightly off: She was awkwardly dressed in a yellow sweater, the color of which clashed with the warmer luster of her own skin and which was at least a few sizes too big for her, the sleeves rolled up. Her black sweatpants also were too large, and she seemed to be wearing men’s bedroom slippers. She would have looked like a homeless person if not for her perfect face and the fact that she was in the most expensive grocery store in D.C.
But no, not perfect. An indigo crescent moon curved beneath her left eye. He thought it might be a birthmark, because the only alternative was too unfortunate to consider: that it was the fading trace of a shiner. They made eye contact and he looked away, caught leering— was she as beautiful as he thought, or was he just thrown by all the conflicting signals? Her near-black hair was pulled in a loose ponytail, the strands seeming to sigh as they drooped around the elastic. There was a wide space between her eyebrows, a place he imagined a lover kissing.
Her fingers accidentally knocked a can off the shelf. She reached down and picked it up hurriedly. He saw red marks on the side of her neck as she did so. She placed the can back on the shelf and chose a replacement.
She furtively glanced at him, as if expecting to be scolded.
“Don’t worry,” he said, “I won’t tell anyone.”
She looked down again and attempted a three-point turn with her heavily laden cart. He saw that her small cloth purse had a patch of brown Javanese batik on it.
“Are you from Indonesia?” he asked her in Bahasa. He hadn’t spoken the language in weeks and it felt clunky yet comfortable on his tongue, like putting on clothes that were three fashion cycles too baggy but favorites all the same.
She looked up at him in shock.
“Yes,” she said, amazed. She stared at him for a moment before asking, “You speak Bahasa?”
“A little. I lived there for a few years.” He was not accustomed to divulging much of himself to strangers, but it spilled out. “Do you speak English?”
He could tell now that it wasn’t a birthmark. The skin below the eyebrow was still the tiniest bit puffy. He ran the possibilities: A young immigrant with an abusive husband and very particular grocery needs? A badly dressed graduate student who’d been in a car accident? Her sleeves were too long for him to see any defensive wounds.
“I haven’t heard anyone speak my language in weeks.”
“There aren’t many Indonesians in D.C.”
“You speak very well,” she said, and seemed to laugh without smiling.
“Thank you. I haven’t spoken it in a while myself. I’m grateful for the opportunity.”
She looked down quickly, not to check the contents of her cart but again as if she’d been scolded. He wondered if he’d gotten his words wrong.
He felt a charge coursing through him. The memories streaming back, the collision of worlds to be speaking Bahasa in D.C. And her odd appearance and demeanor, as if life were trying its damnedest to stamp out her beauty, but failing.
“Actually,” he said, “could I ask you a cooking question? I didn’t bring any recipes with me, and I was trying to remember, do I need Kaffir lime leaves to make dendeng ragi?”
Both of her hands were gripping the cart tightly, her knuckles white, the crinkled grocery list gasping out of her left palm as if attempting an escape. He wondered if he had made himself look like a fool in her eyes, a man doing woman’s work.
“Yes,” she said.
“Do you know where to buy them around here? The only Asian grocery I know is out in Arlington.”
“There’s a store around the corner, on 14th Street,” she said.
“Excuse me,” said a shopper trying to get past Leo.
He twitched his head. “Sorry,” he said, and slowly propelled his cart forward. The Indonesian woman turned and did the same.
The aisle emptied into the dairy section, where customers inspected the dates on yogurt. Leo maneuvered his cart beside an island of gourmet cheeses and he watched as the woman continued. If he’d kept shopping, he would have remained right behind her, but everything in her body language told him she didn’t want him with her.
Except her eyes. And the glassiness he’d seen there when she seemed to revel in the sound of her native tongue, even when spoken badly by this tall white man.
Forget it, he told himself. She’s shy and isn’t used to being spoken to by strange men, and you misinterpreted that as interest. Or she’s an illegal hoping to avoid attention. And the definite and underlying truth: you’re attracted to her and acting out of character.
The checkout lines were long and he glanced at the strange magazines the upscale grocers sold, as if Time and Newsweek would ruin their organic vibe. Headlines about new uses for soybeans and the benefits of transcendental meditation. Beside them, a few lefty journals warned that citizens’ civil liberties were disappearing in inverse proportion to their fears, that there was a government conspiracy behind the wars, and that the next round of violence would come from places you’d never expect, unless you bought this issue for $5.99. Leo was in more of a National Enquirer mood, would have liked to read about imminent alien invasions or the most recent subway attack by tentacled leviathans—an unreal threat for a change, terror you could laugh at.
The conveyor belt whisked his baubles to the scanner, and the freckled Ethiopian clerk greeted him curtly before turning to her mindless task. Halfway through, she needed a moment to look up the UPC for jackfruit, and Leo saw the Indonesian woman, who’d made her way to the front of a new line. How old was she, early twenties, maybe younger? That had been one of the hardest things for him about living there, never being sure of people’s ages. The dozens of different ethnicities on that long archipelago, the effects of the sun and the poverty, the litany of life’s impacts so much harder to read.
With some disappointment he watched as a multicolored array of baby food jars paraded down her conveyor belt. Her stack of wrapped meats confirmed that she was not in the same income bracket as a typical immigrant.
Leo’s order was finished when her items were still being scanned at the other register. To stall, he entered the wrong password after sliding his bank card, twice. The people behind him were sighing, the aggrieved impatience of urbanites. Finally he entered the correct code. She was pushing her cart out the door now, and he did the same, slowly, allowing another shopper to walk between them.
He told himself he wasn’t stalking her and was merely practicing surveillance technique. Outside, the beeping of scanners and the printing of receipts were replaced by a distant siren and the incoming sonic boom of a Metrobus racing to catch the yellow on 14th. His path was soon blocked by a series of knee-high metal bollards—rusty iron ones to prevent shopping-cart theft, lesser versions of the steel-and-stone behemoths that had sprouted around federal buildings all over town like some superprotective fungi. And there she was, just a few feet away, loading bags into the trunk of an illegally parked black Lincoln Navigator. Leo saw the reflected neon letters of liquor writ backward across the SUV’s glossy windows.
The SUV bore diplomatic plates, and the mystery was partly solved. A diplomat’s wife, or an ambassadorial maid, the dissonance between her dress, manner, and language and her expensive purchases finally resolving itself. Still there was the matter of her blue crescent moon. He found himself memorizing her tags—which bore not the Indonesian diplomatic prefix but some other country’s—almost despite himself. Funny how the job seeps into your blood, an incurable virus you carry around without realizing it until the sores pop up at inopportune times. Jesus, did he just compare his career to a venereal disease? He needed sleep.
Her clothes were too loose for him to get a sense of her body, but as she leaned into the SUV her sweater pulled up and he could see a strip of skin the color of wet sand. He told himself to leave. He threaded his hands through the plastic hoops of his four bags and turned around, the bags swinging like pendulums as he made his way through the night.
He walked toward his car, checking the storefronts. As she’d said, there it was: a small window cluttered with unfamiliarly labeled canned goods, a hand-lettered sign proclaiming asian grocer. He’d passed it a hundred times but overlooked it. Funny the things that hide in plain sight.
It was nearly nine o’clock, and the wrought-iron trellis was menacingly poised above the door. He pushed the entrance open with his back and nodded at the old Chinese woman who stood inexpressively at the register. One look at the store told him he’d never find anything himself, so he dispensed with complete sentences and asked, “Kaffir lime leaves?”
Her expression did not change as she turned to walk down the aisle. He left his bags on the floor and followed her, and after she handed him the small plastic package he hit her up for some galanga as well, which she retrieved from a freezer that reeked of fish guts. He was following her to the register when the door opened and in walked the Indonesian woman.
He smiled. “Thank you for telling me about this place.”
She nodded slightly, not quite a smile, shoulders hunched. Leo was six two, and during his time in Indonesia he’d grown used to looming above most people, particularly women.
She passed him, the sharp scent of bath soap cutting through the store’s aquatic miasma. He followed her into the aisle.
“Have you been working in America for very long?” he asked as he pretended to look for something.
“A few weeks.”
“Have you done any sightseeing?”
“I have no time for it.” She put a couple of cans in her plastic basket, then looked at him. “Where, ah, where did you live in Indonesia?”
Finally, a smile. “I’m from Jakarta.”
“Really?” He’d guessed that already—her accent was Javanese, and Jakarta was the biggest city on Java. “I loved it there.”
“What brought you there?”
“I was working for a bank,” he said, the lies so natural now. “It was an American company that has branches throughout Asia.”
She nodded, as if there were so many things to say about her homeland that she didn’t know where to begin. But then she said, “I’m sorry, I must go now.”
That was quick. She walked deeper into the store, and he figured he’d pushed this as far as he could.
At the register, the proprietress forcefully punched the register’s keys as if punishing it for some offense. She looked up at Leo and let the numbers on the display speak for her. This woman would be a beast at diplomatic negotiations, he thought as he paid. She made the change and deigned to give it to him.
He picked up his Whole Foods bags and was about to back his way out when the Indonesian woman, walking to the register, asked him in Bahasa, “Excuse me, could you tell me your name, please?”
Again he wondered if his mental translator was in error. “What?”
“Your name? Please?”
She was facing him, ignoring the stone-faced matron, who had already punched in her order and was waiting silently for her $9.82.
“Leo,” he said, putting down his bags.
She took the blue Bic that was anchored to the counter by a thick thread and a tourniquet of black tape and jotted his name down on the back of one of those obnoxiously long coupons that Whole Foods’ machines printed out. “And your phone number,” she said.
This was without doubt the strangest pickup he’d ever experienced, if that’s what this was. His heart was double-timing and he wondered if he was blushing—he was not a blusher—as he felt both the store owner’s harsh gaze and his inquisitor’s soft breath. He looked at the Indonesian woman, who, finally, was not cowering or moving quickly from one thing to the next but standing at her full height—perhaps a foot shorter than Leo—and looking at him calmly, fully. He had scrutinized her clothing and car and purchases and license plate and ass and visible scars and noted her lack of girlie oils and perfumes, yet he felt that she was focused entirely on his eyes, as if she were gathering all the necessary intelligence from them.
Then she was the hurried foreigner again, stuffing the piece of paper into her pocket and pulling out a change purse.
“Nie o’clock!” the store owner called out suddenly, and Leo jumped. It was like being attacked by a statue. “Nie o’clock!”
Leo picked up his bags and walked to the door. He was leaning against it, the moisture on his back steaming his shirt flat, when he asked, “What’s your name?”
A piercing ringtone emanated from her sweatpants, some processed Asian pop song. She seemed afraid of it, dropping her change purse while trying to retrieve the phone, more of her hair coming loose from its band.
“Nie o’clock!” the store owner reminded her distracted customer.
In the midst of this manic activity the young woman stopped to look at Leo, a photograph in a maelstrom. “Sari,” she said.
Then the cyclone picked up again and she answered the phone, pocketed her change purse, lifted her bag, and then paid the store manager. She spoke quietly into the phone in what sounded like Korean, nodding furiously as if the phone’s camera lens were watching her.
Leo stepped outside and hurried to his car as the bags’ plastic handles sank their fangs into his fingers. He unloaded the bags and sat in the driver’s seat, keys in his hand. He watched the store—the owner flipped a sign on the door, informing passersby in four languages that it was closed—and the young woman emerged. She was still on the phone. She walked quickly, her eyes drenched in worry.
He looked at himself in the rearview mirror, curious what she could have been staring at so intently. What had she seen in these eyes that gave away so very little?
He pulled out and joined the mania of 14th. Only forty-five minutes before the next meeting of the peaceniks and conspiracy theorists he was keeping tabs on for his mystery client; he’d have to hurry home if he wanted to make it in time.
Driving north, he checked his rearview, hoping for a glimpse of her SUV, but he didn’t see it. A crescent moon dangled in the sky before him, just above the scaffolding for a new high-rise condo on U, and he found himself thinking of the crescent on her face. And of how much he hated his new job. He had the uncomfortable feeling he was immersing himself in something trivial and meaningless, and that he’d just let something important slip from his grasp.
At the next red, he popped open his glove box and found a pen and an old oil-change receipt. He jotted down her license-plate number before he could forget it. Hoping.
I wake up thinking about my wife. Traffic rumbles outside my motel room, the window’s thin shade only beginning to lighten from the sunrise. I roll over and reach out with both arms, feeling coarse sheets and loneliness, and wait for the dream to pass.
When I dream of her, sometimes it’s a memory and sometimes it’s just a fragment. There are times when I’m not sure if it’s an actual memory or something my subconscious is stitching out of itself, out of my desires and fears and the myriad colliding impulses of my self. I dreamed we were walking along the coast, wearing heavy jackets, her scarf blowing in the wind and tickling my nose. Did we ever walk on a beach in winter, or did I see that in a video? I try to remember. It seems hugely important to remember this. Was our daughter with us in the dream, or did I forget her? There is a sourness in my gut, made worse by that thought: Did I forget my daughter? I wake with this sourness every day. They say it fades, but it’s the only thing that hasn’t. Everything else— my memories, my sense of my family, my sense of myself and my role in the world—these things are on the verge of erasure.
I get up and wash my face and wait out the daily, awful period in which the dreams or memories are replaced by the latest reality I’ve surrounded myself with. A forsaken motel room in a forsaken city. Okay, yeah, that’s familiar. I open my Personal Info Link and fill out an entry. I note every detail of my successful protection of the Event ending Mr. Chaudhry’s life. I leave out my afternoon spent sightseeing and the little black girl with the pink sweater, as well as my drinks at the bar and the vigil with Tasha.
I have a headache, which isn’t like me. There’s a tender lump behind my ear where the hag got me with the rock, and my GeneScan isn’t even pretending to work anymore. I’ve never had any malfunction like this, and it worries me. It makes me wonder what else inside myself could be broken.
It’s not yet nine o’clock when I walk out of the motel on a cool day, light rain falling like tiny miracles. They don’t realize how rare this will become, this moisture from the skies. A few umbrellas bob along the sidewalk, and a parade of cars waits at a traffic light, most of them heading into the city but a few trying to escape it, as if they know.
My motel is crouched beside chaotic, shambling New York Avenue, in one of the city’s forgotten corners. Across the street, a swarm of yellow school buses are caged in a lot lined with barbed wire. Unlit neon signs stretch into the distance, advertising liquor, check-cashing services, and ethnically acrobatic restaurants specializing in both pizza and Chinese food. Few pedestrians venture here, as if they’ve been chased away by the desolation of the city’s northern pole; those who do walk the streets are clad in overlarge, brightly colored jackets. They stand at intersections, some of them on phones and others slapping hands and laughing.
I wonder if anyone died in this motel during the night. If anyone overdosed; if anyone threatened to kill his or her lover or whore or dealer. It seems that kind of place. There are stories here, buried in grit, walled off from the rest of society. I hate the Department for making me stay in places like this, even if I see the logic.
I drive with the traffic and as I crest the hill suddenly there in the distance is the Capitol dome, so large and unexpected it’s like a moon that’s veered out of orbit. I cut across a side street, and the moon is eclipsed by a corner row house with a chunk of bricks missing from it, as if a truck drove into it, or something exploded.
My mind wants to revisit my wife, but I direct myself to pay closer attention to my surroundings. Live in the present, the Department tells us, not realizing the irony. I turn onto another of Washington’s wide avenues, the painted brick row houses gleefully flashing their different colors as I pass. The trees are losing their leaves, and I tell myself I’m lucky to have been sent back to autumn in a beat when foliage still changed colors like this (I’d read about the phenomenon but hadn’t entirely believed it). Try to concentrate on the beauty of things, I tell myself. Try to wrap your arms around what’s actually here.
Between assignments, we Protectors are kept on the Department’s sprawling campus, as if we’re under quarantine. We are plagued by something that can’t be released into the public bloodstream.
They say this is better for us, that it helps us stay in character. Our ability to blend in with our beats would be compromised if we were allowed to circulate in our own time between assignments. We’d start using slang terms from the wrong beat; we’d act according to the social mores of some other age; we’d let slip historical facts that our conversational partners weren’t supposed to know. Better for all involved, then, for us to stay tucked away.
After we finish missions and are recalled to our own time, after the meetings and near-endless reports and the temporal decompressions, we’re shuffled to our dormitories and briefed on our new assignments. There’s always new assignments. Then, more files and videos, more facts to be absorbed as we prepare ourselves to reenter that fractured cosmos. Given the length of my last few gigs, I’ve barely been outside the Department campus for the last few months—or maybe even years?—of my own life. To the outside world, however, only a couple of weeks have passed. I wonder if I’m aging quickly in my superiors’ eyes, as the arc of my life span curves in an ever-taller parabola over their short linear paths. I mentioned this once, but they told me I was thinking too much.
One day, after my previous mission but before this one, two other Protectors and I broke protocol. Between meetings, we hatched a simple escape plan, and later we met at a restaurant a couple of blocks away. The Department is at the edge of downtown, in nondescript buildings that most citizens tried to ignore. Derringer, Wills, and I had been in Training together but had met only a few times since. We were eager to swap stories. And to drink, quickly. It was like a race to purge the memories from our minds.
When was this? A few weeks ago, I think. A few weeks ago or hundreds of years later, depending on one’s perspective.
“How did yours go, Zed?” Derringer asked after the first round had loosened us. He was tall and athletic, as all the Protectors are, and completely bald. I was the one whose mission had ended most recently—I’d been back only a day, still felt bleary-eyed and nauseated from the Recall.
“The integrity of history was preserved.”
They laughed ruefully.
Leaving campus had been less difficult than I’d expected. Most of the guards were low-level grunts who all but genuflected in our presence; few had the clearance to know what it was we did. Some of them hadn’t even looked us in the eye, just nodded when we told them we’d be back in a couple hours.
“It was fine,” I continued. “The same. They’re not getting any better at it.”
“The ones in my beat are,” Wills said. He had thin, intense eyes the color of gold. When he focused on you, you had the uncomfortable sense he was determining your character flaws, or plotting the quickest way to knock you unconscious. “They came close this time, very close. I neutralized the last of them just a few minutes before the plane took off.”
Within the Department, we were the unlucky souls assigned to the Disasters Division. We were sent to ensure that awful events unfolded as originally dictated by history, that the hags did not rewrite the final acts of tragedies to make them comedies. Protectors in other divisions had the decidedly less troubling task of stopping the hags from wreaking unexpected havoc during otherwise calm events— they prevented benevolent, two-term presidents from being assassinated during their first months in office; or ensured that the hags didn’t detonate nuclear bombs on one of history’s originally meaningless days. At least each of those Protectors could look himself in the eye and know that he’d performed an inarguably good deed. Wills, Derringer, and I weren’t so fortunate. Derringer had recently eliminated a group of hags who were trying to prevent the terrorist strikes of September 11, 2001. He strangled the final hag in a bathroom before the troublemaker could board one of those fated flights out of Boston, and then he sat at a bar in Logan airport and started drinking martinis minutes before TV journalists interrupted their telecasts to show images of the burning towers. He’d gotten so drunk he laughed at the news coverage, he told us, until an off-duty cop took a swing at him. And Wills had just neutralized a group of hags trying to infiltrate the U.S. military days before its planes were to drop nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Wherever we went, countless people died in our wake.
“I stayed a couple days more,” Wills said. “I just wanted to see it, you know? I boarded one of the planes, conned the pilots into thinking I was military intelligence and needed to be on the flight.”
“Are you serious?” Derringer raised his eyebrows. It was dangerous for Wills to admit this. Any deviation from a mission could lead to severe reprimands, if not outright expulsion.
“I had to see it. We flew lower over the city than I had expected. And then, the flash.” He shook his head. “One hundred thousand dead, in a second. One hundred thousand. Try to imagine it. All that heat. All those lives. And then the thousands who went afterward, who took a few days or even weeks to go. Imagine that.”
“They came up with worse,” I said, “less than a century later.”
We drank in silence for a bit.
“The looks on people’s faces in that airport, when they saw their towers fall,” Derringer said. “You should have seen them.”
“I cheated too,” I confessed. The drink was getting to me, along with everything else. “After I’d finished off the hags in Poland, before I started the Recall, I made my way into one of the camps. Had a uniform and everything; they let me in.”
“Glad you did it?” Wills asked.
“No. I wish to hell I hadn’t.” I’d never realized a human being could get so thin and not die. They were dying, of course; plenty of them. But the ones still alive were the worst.
More silence, more drinks.
“What I console myself with,” Wills said, “is that they’re all dead anyway. Really. So long ago, and so long dead. Nothing we can do about it.”
“I’d thought it would feel like that,” I said, “but it doesn’t. They’re in front of you. They’re real, they breathe. The pain doesn’t seem very historical when you’re steeping in it.”
The screams I’d heard in that camp. The vacant expressions I’d seen. And my job was to ensure that it happened, that the hags didn’t save them.
“It makes you hate all these people, doesn’t it?” Derringer asked later, after the third or fourth round.
“Which people?” I asked.
“All of these people.” Derringer glared at the diners in the restaurant. It was a glitzy place, only blocks from the Capitol—not the Washington I’m currently assigned to, of course, but the new Capitol. Most of them were upper-level officials with their supplicants and tempters. “The more I do the job, the more I hate how stupid people today are.”
“They’re not stupid,” Wills said. “We’re very…privileged to know what we know.”
“They’re gerbils. Rats. It’s our job to keep their cage nice and secure.”
“Maybe you should request some time off before your next gig,” I said.
“Time.” Derringer practically snarled that. “What a hilarious concept.”
We all pondered that one for a while.
“Imagine being able to kill a hundred thousand people in one instant,” Wills said. “Imagine that power, and that hatred.”
“They all hated each other then,” I said.
“I know. They made up some military excuse, but they really only dropped the bomb because they thought the people in Hiroshima were subhuman. They wouldn’t have done it to people like themselves. They didn’t think of it as murder, exactly. It was more like…wiping a slate clean.”
In my time, the different races and ethnicities have been blended together for generations. The survivors of the Conflagration had better things to do than cling to biases against rival groups—they were just desperate to find mates and rebuild their lives. People eventually forgot what race even was, and the Government closely guards all records of past internecine conflict due to the dangers they could inspire. The Perfect Present lacks the blood feuds that are so rife in my current beat.
“But isn’t it sad,” Derringer asked, “how no one else knows about this?”
“Are you kidding?” Wills looked shocked. “I’m practically suicidal having all this history in me. You think other people should know about it too?”
“Yes. Absolutely. So they won’t be ignorant and—”
“It isn’t ignorance,” Wills said. “Why is knowing about some ancient grievance between one group of people and another important? Why should that matter to who people are today? The people in my beat”—he shook his head in pity—“are consumed by that nonsense. Hating another group because of something that group did years ago, which had only been in response to what their group had done decades earlier, et cetera, et cetera. Spiraling back in time, endlessly, and they’re trapped in the vortex. Today, we’re free of that.”
Derringer stared at Wills. “You call that freedom?”
“Freedom. Joy. Innocence.”
Derringer looked at his glass. Wills and I exchanged glances. “Guess you’re right,” Derringer finally said. “Maybe I’m just tired.”
We all were. We finished our round and decided we’d sufficiently bleached our brains and should return to campus.
We started to walk back. I was disturbed by what Derringer had said but more disturbed to realize that I agreed with him. The people of our modern world were strange. I had never thought of them that way before—I was part of them—but this was one of the first glimpses of the present I’d had in a while, not counting my time on campus. This was my city, what I’d been born into, where I’d fallen in love and worked and toiled and suffered, but it seemed so different. Colder than I remembered it. Fewer people on the street, the air fouler. I barely recognized certain blocks. It made me worry about what the job was doing to me.
We’d been walking for a few minutes when Derringer turned around and faced a wide intersection, a few pods lined up patiently. “Lemmings!” he shouted at no one in particular. “You’re all lemmings!”
Wills clamped a hand on Derringer’s forearm. Derringer shook him off, and both backs straightened as the space between them narrowed.
Before a word could be spoken or fist thrown, a Security pod pulled to the sidewalk and out leaped four officers. The synthetic material of their black uniforms reflected the streetlights. Their visors were down but I could read their alarm from the tension in their jaws, the thinness of their lips. They encircled us, visors twitching back and forth between our drunken trio and the outside world, in search of some nonexistent enemy.
“Are you all right?” one of them asked.
“We’re fine,” Wills said, taking a step away from Derringer. “Lovely evening for a stroll.”
“You aren’t supposed to be off campus.”
“You telling us what to do, Officer?”
“I have my orders, sir.”
“We were heading there anyway,” Wills said. Derringer seemed too angry to speak. I was holding back to see what would happen next. I’d gotten so used to working my beats, to knowing all the plays in advance; I was thrown by this sudden spontaneity. “Care to walk with us,” Wills asked, “or were you going to try to stuff us all in your little pod?”
The officers eyelessly looked at each other. “We can walk,” one of them said, as if doing us a favor. “I’ll radio the SAC and let him know what’s happened, but I’d appreciate your explaining what it is you’re—”
“Give it a rest, buddy,” Derringer said, “or next time they send me back I’ll kill your great-grandfather before he hits puberty.”
“Shut up, Derringer,” Wills scolded before I could.
It was unclear if the officers understood the remark, but hopefully they didn’t. The three near androids pointed their mirrorlike visors at each other again, dark reflections of reflections of reflections.
We walked back in silence. A siren occasionally rang out, but not nearly as often as they do in my current beat. A heart attack maybe, or a pod accident. We heard laughter and saw smiling faces through the ground-floor windows of new towers, more people in bars and restaurants, some of which I’d visited with my wife so many, many lifetimes ago. And at the same time, only yesterday. Grief is funny that way. Time stretches and stretches and you think you’ve eased into it, but then it snaps back at you and you feel you haven’t moved an inch from the moment you first heard the awful news.
A few days later, as I was preparing for this assignment, one of my superiors mentioned that Derringer “had been removed from the Department.” No one ever said what exactly became of him, but we could guess. It was a warning to the rest of us.
During Training, they crammed various theories into my uncomprehending brain, ideas on how time travel works, theoretical frameworks I supposedly needed to bear in mind as I muddled through my beat. The one I understood best was the Great Man theory. There are so many minor players scurrying about, and we all like to kid ourselves about how important we are, about our own impacts on the lives of others. We like to think we can change the world. But we can’t. A few can, the great men and women of history, and if a hag was to disrupt those life paths—if he was to prevent George Washington or Joseph Stalin or the first grand magistrate from being born— then history would tail off in an entirely new direction, not just an alternate path but a previously unimaginable one, foreign to what we see in our Perfect Present. This is precisely what the hags want. So they attempt to assassinate historic leaders, or they send themselves to major historic Events, turning points at which the very axis of humankind seemed to shift. Which is why a group of hags is running around in pre-destruction Washington, D.C., the very epicenter of the tectonic rifts that set off the Great Conflagration.
I think about this as I sit here in a neighborhood park named after a great man, President Lincoln. I’ve learned that he set this nation’s slaves free during a vicious war that pitted brother against brother. In the center of the park is a statue of Lincoln pointing forward, standing above a depiction of a cowering unshackled slave. What strange images these people celebrate.
I’m sitting on a wooden bench before a brightly colored playground of slides and ladders and swings and various other structures children could conceivably fall from. Toddlers and their older siblings climb up the steps and slip down the slides; they gleefully push toy trucks into miniature collisions and wreak other disasters, all while pointing excitedly at the life-size recycling trucks and backhoes that amble along the nearby road. Scattered on the benches are pale young mothers and darker-skinned women tending other people’s children. They talk to one another in various languages, or chat on their phones, pacing in distracted circles, or walk alongside their little ones, fingers extended to guide them.
So many people outside, reveling in their ability to let the sun shine on their skin, as if they know that their descendants won’t be able to do this. It feels funny for me to be outside for so long—I instinctively sit in the shade, afraid of the radiation that their atmosphere still manages to protect them from.
I spent the morning monitoring two of the hags’ next targets, but all seems well. Today’s Event is still a few hours away, so I decide to wander the neighborhoods.
“Which one is yours?” a young woman asks me. She’s pale as soap, wearing a shapeless green shirt over black jeans. Her unwashed blond hair is pulled back, her eyes are puffy with exhaustion, but she looks content. I remember that look.
“None of them.”
I’m still watching the kids, this quotidian scene of marvels tiny and huge, and it takes a second for me to realize the mistake I’ve made. She’s staring at me and her body is rigid.
“I used to live here, with my wife and daughter,” I lie. But I mix in some truth: “They had an accident.”
I’m too consumed by my own past to look back at her. I just stare at a little girl, maybe four years old, who reminds me of my lost jewel. Little pink and white baubles bounce at the ends of her braids as she darts across the playground, an autumn sprite spreading joy without even realizing it. I scan the adult faces, looking for one with a genetic similarity to the child’s, wonder whose she is.
“I’m so sorry,” the woman says.
I shouldn’t be here, revealing myself to so many contemps. And I certainly shouldn’t be sharing memorable stories, horrors that will haunt this young mother as she puts her child down for a nap.
So I try to hold the past inside me. I mix in more lies, cushioning my vulnerabilities in them. “I live in Philly now, but my company sends me here a lot. I can’t help dropping by the old playground sometimes, watching the memories dance around me for a few minutes.”
I look at the kids again, staring at a world that has no place for me. The woman’s eyes stay on mine.
“I’ve made you uncomfortable,” I say. “I’ll go.”
I don’t look back at her as I walk away. I bend to unlatch the childproof fence, swinging it closed behind me to lock the children in and keep them safe.
© 2011 by Thomas Mullen
Thomas Mullen is the author of The Last Town on Earth, which was named Best Debut Novel of 2006 by USA Today, was a Chicago Tribune Best Book of the Year, and was awarded the James Fenimore Cooper Prize for excellence in historical fiction and The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers which was published in January 2010. Mulholland Books will publish THE REVISIONISTS in September 2011. Visit his blog at ThomasMullen.net and become a fan on Facebook