Authors: Thomas Mullen
Tags: #Fiction, #Thrillers, #General, #Science Fiction, #Suspense
For my sons
When we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors… and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.
—Unnamed aide to President George W. Bush, quoted in
Ron Suskind, “Faith, Certainty and the
Presidency of George W. Bush,”
New York Times Magazine,
October 17, 2004
Mailer was haunted by the nightmare that the evils of the present not only exploited the present, but consumed the past, and gave every promise of demolishing whole territories of the future.
The Armies of the Night: History as a Novel,
the Novel as History
History has taught us that often lies serve her better than the truth.
Darkness at Noon
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
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 is 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
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,
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.
. 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
odd contemp phrases like
do more with less
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
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.