The Earmen

A bunny slope version of India was within walking distance from our compound. Each proper Delhi enclave had an Indian antecedent to the American strip-mall lurking along its fringe; the enclaves were roughly circular and the better, quieter properties were clustered around a grassy interior park filled with grass for cricket and shade trees; the marketplace was ugly and crude in comparison, shunned by decent folk and patronized only by domestics or school boys buying liquor from the government package store. A blighted patch barely tolerated as if a horrid thing had been caught in a fence and was kept tame with scraps. I did not bring my gun. All I had was my folding scout knife. Lifting the blade from its hinged cradle distracted me enough to maintain composure.

I took a service road, or servants’ road, one of the thorn-clogged alleyways that ran behind the row of walled houses and the domestics walk to and from the main-road without spoiling our view. A mottled orange cat, with slim limbs and a bulbous head eyed me as he picked his way between the glinting glass lining the alleyway walls.

The market appeared to be a group of shabby municipal buildings. A post-office logo hung above an overhang, and I walked in and realized the and realized the institutional tile was only a façade. A crowd milled around a tea vendor; there weren’t so many of them, there was no jostling. The men wore collared white shirts and wool pants. There were no women except for a lone police constable who followed me around discretely. The others eyed me but no one approached. Beyond the teashops were rows of stalls leading down winding narrow roads. Each stall was a three-quarter cube of concrete, its opening facing the street, dim bulbs coiled around its rim, blinking, attached to bits of rebar, the dealers hawking, or crouched over stoves that reeked of kerosene and frying dough. Wares ranged from gleaming bare metal pots and pans, to live chickens clucking in cages. I chose the one that looked the cleanest and the walls closed in. Clothes, rogue television lines, and frayed flags flapped overhead, casting everything into permanent gloom. Even the walls were marred almost black with soot. The sky was very far away and I felt very alone no matter how much I thumbed my blade.

I became comfortable with the market, and as the days passed I went deeper. In the deepest recesses I found a row of booksellers. Stolen periodicals were the bulk of their trade, other offerings were mostly limited to political tracts, conspiracy, books of bawdy humor, business, self-help manuals and astrology and superstition. Their bind was of a uniformly atrocious quality, the glue contained no gelatin and pages fell out as you read. I bought them by the armload. Hungry to acquire secret knowledge. I planned elaborate seductions using books of body language interpretation, learned how airports function and the way to escape a maze was to always turn right. One day I bought Collier’s Encyclopedia of Omens. A syntax of mind-bending toxin for a sensitive young brain to intake. An index articulating mystical interpretations of any event: how tinnitus signaled news that was either sinister or good, depending on the ear in which it rang; how an odd number of crows was bad, and even number was good. That uncrushed eggshells provoked stormy seas; that spilled salt drained your luck away unless preventative rituals were performed.

One morning I staked out an open section of the marketplace, clutching a notebook and a pencil, loitering in the dusty concrete plaza noting who entered and left. A useless exercise, certainly, I even I knew it at the time, but I needed a tether to reality – or something like that. I was about to leave when three men arrived, a much different group than the predominantly middle class Indians who had been walking to and from the stalls. They were grubby and obviously close to destitution. Not quite peddlers but tinkers of the lowest sort. They spread out mats and squatted, smoking sharp clove cigarettes. Identical kits lay before them, a single candle lit and burning, a long metal spike, and a photo album filled with postcards from all over the world. WHAT A DIFFERENCE THE EARMEN HAVE MADE. Read one. I HEAR CLEARER THAN I EVER HAVE BEFORE. One man menaced me with a spike. I refused his services, but he kept advancing on me, pleading for me to become his lucky first customer of the day; I stood and left, but lingered on the periphery to watch.

A customer arrived, an elderly Indian woman in a lime green sari and white stripe braided into her black hair. She strolled across the plaza toward them, stooping to examine each book of cards, querying and commanding, until she finally chose an appropriate ear man. She squatted on the mat. The earman perched behind her holding the spike. He was about to insert when she slapped the spike down and I heard a haughty gust of Hindi. He nodded and plunged the needle into the candle for a few seconds then twisted it in his grimy shirt. There was a metallic flash and he jabbed it in and twisted and twisted, pulling her head into the needle and grinding it in.

He removed the spike. A gooey black ball hung from the tip, he waggled it in front of his customer who paid and walked away rubbing her ear. He wiped the wax onto his candle. My ears ached in sympathy.

Dust Cloud Approaches

From the BBC

During the dust storms that would howl through the city in advance of the Monsoon rain, stacks of paper would dislodge and fill the great swirling pink miasmas with billowing squares, and from a behind a window the city would seem to fill with tutti-frutti ice-cream. Until airborne grit began to batter the panes, and the trees outside shook, bent, and were shredded. No word about whether there were consequences to the destruction of a billion people’s paperwork ever reached me. Any gaps were simply forgotten or spackled over with forgeries I would imagine. Paper leached out of the system all year long. Mail was stolen, plundered Western magazines sold to fishermongers; shacks plastered with folio files pilfered from the jute sacks of inter-office communications cyclists. That written word was all but useless to the hordes of subhuman illiterates sniping at our leftovers. That Delhi achieved anything at all seems miraculous now, given the condition of its phone lines and primitive bureaucratic apparatus, but back then it seemed an abomination to sensitive little me.

Grand Hotel/Eelco and the Aggregate

The Grand Hotel.

Maurya Sheraton

(photo by A.Fisher)

Before I moved to the diplomatic enclave, I lived in one of Asia’s grand hotels, a Raffles for the Subcontinent, a once-glamorous old thing that had been gutted by a multi-national and outfitted with “hospital grade” redundant air-conditioning and “hardened against bomb-blasts.” Expansions had been undertaken; they pried its dome open and fattened its backside; but the original façade remained intact, a toothsome grill of reassuring colonnades and gentle spires. Luyten’s Delhi, reinterpreted by an Indian in the 1950s. From far off, the detail blurred, and the Hotel looked like an egg; but not an edible egg, one streaked with afterbirth slime and beginning to go bad.

Nestled in the city’s south were other grand hotels, a cluster of them, flaming beacons on Delhi’s drab night sky; each an enclosed city, a Vatican, with its own water supply and telecommunications and police force and food supplies trucked in. Life within the hotels took place elsewhere, away from the seething sunlight and hordes of sickening poor. If the capital at night were untethered from the earth then these incandescent orbs were space stations. If the capital at night were a cavern then these few chips of light were gemstones; a long finger of semi-precious aggregate ending in blazing jewel.

Eelco and the Aggregate.

Eelco was a Dutch diplomat’s son who would grow to manage oil refineries all over the world. Then he was a thuggish blond child. Shorter than I. For thrift’s sake neither of us wanted to spring for a cab. So I followed him up a bridge toward South Delhi. From the ground this seemed benign, a mild ascent over the Yamuna, a line of Y shaped pylons splitting the stream of traffic in two. We walked on the island beneath the lamps. From one orange dumbbell of light to the next. The walk was comfortable at first, moist river air condensing on our cheeks, the traffic howling past a few meters away, but then the pavement petered out, until there was nothing left of the island, just bare asphalt littered with tire scraps, and we scurried from pole to pole, trucks rushing past, roiling the air in their wake. At the apex, Eelco grabbed my cuff. He pointed at the city. Clean nuggets of halogen burned above naps of dingy orange arc-sodium, incandescent veins that sliced through the dark vegetal substrate of the enclaves. He was pointing at Hotels. From where we stood the hotels were aligned, a rhinestone garter that wound through the city.

The bridge dipped we as entered the sector, the traffic forming two long sine-waves, one red, one white. The hotels vanished beneath billboard armatures and matrices of crisscrossing tree limbs. The fecal fug of the riverbanks welled up; the city smoke became increasingly acrid the further we walked in. Gradually the pedestrian route cleaved away from the bridge. Our pathway bent from the road into empty space; and the traffic rushed elsewhere. Suspended, with no support visible, the walkway wobbled beneath our soles. The sky was suddenly filled with sparks that curled around us and soared up into the sky on thermals. My eyes teared; woodsmoke, kerosene, burning plastics filled the air; it became harder to breathe. Pits of garbage burned below us. Gullies of it glowing like flowing magma. A tamer, electronic glow hung before us. We hurried toward it. A purple-tinted flourescent dome lit a series of concrete steps descending down into a mesh cage. We swatted at a swarm of dry little flying bugs inhabiting its airspace.

No- I said. Eelco grabbed my wrist and pulled me down. I didn’t dare object. The structure shook with each footfall. Below us, the blunt shapes of impovised dwellings became visible. Faint voices called out from the semi-dark. Peels of amplified music leaked from far away speakers. My body became acutely aware of its volume within space. My skin extra sensitive. The guardrail felt cool in my palm, reassuringly Western, the air was thick and strange. We touched ground. It was soft and sucjed at my shoe.

The stairs led into a slum. The roofs were lower than we were tall. The roofline a plane of crooked slats. Cooking fires glowed from doorways. Cigarettes. Flickers of black and white television. Drains gurgled. Makeshift huts linked with looping wire, all open to the elements. The air was disturbed with minute sounds, massed sighing; around us, lying on mats, beside the road, beside the shacks, feet poked from bedrolls, sleepers. I worried about dogs but said nothing. Pint bottles glinted. Long sticks were tucked beside them. Some snored. Chests rose and fell. Some shifted or farted or scratched. A figure stood from his blankets, and wobbled toward us with stiff steps. He stopped before an open drain and urinated hard. We hurried past. Crescents of light flashed off circular lenses and the arc of his piss.

We climbed from the trench. Up another set of concrete stairs. The slums were in a long gulley; fed from garbage from the hotels, which rose suddenly up from the trees as we climbed out. The Egg towered above us, floodlights illuminating its soft pink shell, which was ruined by ductwork and antennae and ramps I had never seen before: the rear-end. The service entrance. We circled around, and walked in, unremarked upon through the lobby and into the hotel proper. We took a lift. Eelco punched in a floor number. The four walls were mirrored. Even the panel. We stood beside each other, silent, as the lift ticked upwards toward the penthouse floor and our faces reflected into infinity. Eelco took me down a lushly carpeted corridor, past all the rooms. At the end of the corridor was a glass square with a small chrome hammer dangling beside it on a flimsy chain: a fire alarm.

Eelco seized the hammer and yankedt off before I could object. He pushed the door open into a stairwell and we raced down, me a pace behind him, taking two steps at a time. No one followed, so we kept going down, more slowly, down crisp clean stairs the color of eggshell, heading down toward a soft vibration, that grew louder and louder the deeper we went down. The door to the outside was locked tight. We walked up a few floors and pushed our way into a dark space crammed with hulking cubes lined in formation; we had stumbled across a conspiracy, these were war machines. Housekeeping carts–said Eelco, lifting the skirt and removing a handful of miniature shampoo bottles. We poured out some of the white goo onto the floor and then searched the room for more. The most interesting feature was another panel, this on the size of a small door, set against an interior wall. Together, we pulled it open. Inside were thick cables, black rubber the size of a small tree trunk, one had split open, revealing a nest of translucent fiber, sparking. I held my hand against the optics and let beams of information pulse against my translucent skin.

Multi-Phase Master Plan.

?

A friend lived on the outskirts of the city. A young Canadian. His property abutted a construction site. A metropolitan development authority. The site was concealed from the public. Corrugated iron fencing set up around it, blocking the view and keeping trespassers from squatting and pilfering supplies. Every hundred meters was an architectural rendering, a ziggurat of modest housing, manufacturing, and fulsome entertainment. Close-ups were inset in each drawing, all of nuclear families, Caucasoid-featured but tinted brown and smiling, clutching shopping bags and briefcases and climbing into sleek but economical cars. The illustrations were dated, drawn in a style reminiscent of science fiction paperbacks of a certain vintage. A faint disco beat broadcast via crosshatched haircut pouf. Beneath were the emblems of a dozen international organizations. The complex was silent. The multinational master plan was abandoned before dredging could be completed. We pried at a seam in the fencing. Eventually it gave. We crawled through the gap, blinking, dazzled by the sudden exposure of the low afternoon sun. Beyond was an ochre landscape, a dried mud crust fractured by dank gullies of clay. An electrical schematic writ in mud and evaporated water. Some channels were deeper than others. We entered the network at knee-level and were soon below the surface. The deeper the channel, the denser and damper the fug hanging over it. In the deepest we found pipes. Hard white veins running through the ruddy clay. We thought we found liquid glinting within, but it was hard and white and tufted, like asbestos, but closer inspection revealed the brittle white clumps were actually fiber optics. The cable was dark. I grabbed a tuft and angled it toward the drying sun and light seeped through the labyrinth.

Micro Chunks

Marshmallow.

Traveling by air-conditioned motor coach through the Punjab, my fellow American Boy Scouts and I pelted passersby with marshmallows. As supplies ran low the game escalated. Skill shots – the ornate center “O” of a Be Gentle on My Curves roadway sign, an underhand toss that dropped a white dot down the plastic throat of a pot-wallah’s wares – became shit shots. Beggars cringed as a volley of missiles hurtled at them. My assistant patrol leader reached down and balanced a white cube on a cyclist’s turban. Last marshmallow in the bag, last shot: I plucked it out of the cellophane sleeve and popped it in my mouth, masticated the powdery mass until it was tacky. The bus lurched forwards. I dangled the glob in the sun and let it dry until it reached the perfect consistency for throwing. A leper approached, gazing up at us, moaning for baksheesh, for a school pen, for one rupee. He had one arm; the other was a flaking stump the color of a dangling cigarette ash. He spotted me. I nodded at him. Drew my arm back and flung it at him as hard as I could. It hit him on the forehead and clung. He pulled if off and ate it.

Milk.

Milk came in Baggies that looked like saline solution or breast implants, and that was the best stuff, the one touting its processing plant pedigree from the United Arab Emirates. Untrustworthy stuff. Though you snipped the tips off when you used a bag, cunning men with heat guns scavenged floppy empties from rubbish tips and filled them with inferior product. Lacings and dilutions that were alarming to imagine. Chalk and water. Fleshy arachnids mashed into paste. Ass milk. Dog milk. Chemical solutions of lye that mimicked the precise blue hue. Water was what would could kill you no matter how stomach churning the other contaminations might have been. Mailings from Non-Governmental Organizations proclaimed the water gelatinous with fecal bacteria. Waterborne pathogens are the worst. Pregnant women advised to shower with eyes clenched. Teeth to be brushed only with UV-sterilized water. A single droplet consumed inadvertently risks Delhi belly and three days of bed-rest punctuated by very, very fast darts to the W/C or a stay in the Apollo Hospital intaking IV fluids, or a Medivacing to Singapore. The latter didn’t seem such a bad fate. But it was better not to risk untrustworthy milk. We ordered directly from the farms. Great battered tin tureens of unprocessed buffalo milk we had to boil. Cereal and chocolate milk suffered. The milk was thin as water, but for a skin of fatty mucous strong enough to snag Cheerios. It dried hard, bonded to the sides of mugs and edges of spoons and had to scraped.

White Whaling circa 2011… (Assignment for Prof. Shelley Jackson)

Whaling Implements made by Blacksmiths - from Capelinks.com

[You are encouraged to listen to the NUMBER STATION soundtrack below while you read this, for atmospherics]

Call me McGirk.

Call me McGirk. Some years ago — never mind how long precisely — having little or no money in my purse, and nothing in particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and read the wordy part of the world…

My sincere apologies to Melville.

After a semester traversing a series of literary seas within seas, prying at the “unsayable, the unspeakable, the unknowable, the unattainable” silences within a series of difficult texts, the greatest white whale of all [writing] has yet to feel our [critical] harpoons. That most unknown known remains – the reader. The mysterious diaphane, the field thrown up between the author, text, and reader. What on earth goes through a reader’s mind while he or she takes in a string of words? It is our good fortune that a suite of cutting edge automated ‘readers’ are coming closer and closer to providing an answer.

'Cultural Analytics' from Berkeley

As you navigate the Internet, the Internet – which is to say certain entities using the Internet – navigate you. This isn’t a benign process. They want to learn as much about you as possible so that they can snag your attention; diverting your time into loops of advertisements and possibly even push you through a point-of-sale and taking your money directly. They do this by gleaning information about you. Where you go, what you search for, what type of computer you are using…. Websites leave small tracking codes on your computer called cookies, and each of these transmits data back to homebase. By visiting this site I have already captured your IP address, and can tell which keywords you used to find this site, what type of computer you used, where you are located and a couple of other data-points.

The data I’ve collected is a crude simulacrum of you; an inscription of your desires for an instant (or obligations, as is the case for my only guaranteed reader ). These simulacra have a purpose. Electronic texts can be altered according to the whims of their readers. All writers crave attention. Electronic texts, through their intelligent operators, are aware of their readers, and can quickly respond to being read. By understanding the wants of their readers, operators can better shape content to serve readers’ needs. There are even advanced analytics packages that will automatically generate ‘content’ for users in response to what they ‘perceive’ readers as wanting (in fact this is a multi-billion dollar a year business, or it was until Google tweaked its search results to waterdown these serar)
However, as is the case with traditional pen and ink reader-response, our analytics are incomplete – and at times totally flawed.

ROI on Keywords

Keywords (also known as index terms) are among the most interesting and valuable traces left by users. Most users most often first come across a site by searching for a specific term on a search engine. With this site, jamesmcgirk.com, about 53% of users are directed by a search engine (33% are referred by another site, and the rest come directly). My users mostly come looking for “James McGirk,” “mfa personal statement example,” “maine coon,” and a plethora of business and espionage related-terms I listed to attract interesting visitors. (More on this below) An entire industry has sprung up to interpret these keywords, and another to optimize content online so it can be better read by search engines (this is called Search Engine Optimization). Using search terms as a crude model for a visitor’s mind, weird simulacra have been created. Content is generated automatically at the discretion of computer programs. There are even companies assigning stories to human beings based on the suggestions of algorithims. When you hear the term content farms, that’s what’s going on.

Solaris

As in the simulacra in Stanislaw Lem‘s Solaris, these replications of desire are incomplete. It would take an infinite amount of data (and a correspondingly infinite amount of time to collect this data) to accurately model a human being’s wants and desires. But machines are getting closer and closer.

Content can be thought of as a diversion, as a product designed to leach time from the consumer. A moment of communication between man and machine. A relationship. Ideally this will be a symbiotic relationship – a user will discover an article that is pertinent to his or her interests or finds a link to a product or service that somehow fits into his or her personal narrative. But this is rare. Mostly these diversions are a nuisance, at times completely parasitical. To the point where some even launch malware to seize control of your terminal and force your attention on it. But most are more subtle than that. Perhaps the most sophisticated technique is gamification; in effect snarling a user in addictive gameplay, the way casinos try to dazzle their consumers until they’re too numb to do anything other than play.

Breton eyeball slice

Literary forms are beginning to emerge in response to automated reading systems, searches, and other more prosaic but no less important technological developments such as archives and instant data retrieval. Online, an age somewhat akin to the pamphlet-strewn amateurism of the 18th Century America is in bloom. The most exotic forms can be found on the Internet’s wild fringe, in its anonymous and pseudo-anonymous chat sites. Here there is a frantic economy of monikers, memes and spoofed identities. In online forums such as the all-text Autoadmit.com and the semi-anonymous Somethingawful users compete to create the catchiest, most innovative forms – most often an evolution of an earlier idea, name or other fragment of an idea. The best innovators become famous within their tiny little spheres. Other fora (or is it forums?) are completely anonymous – the most famous of these being the notorious 4chan/b ‘Random’ board, [NOTE: extremely non-safe for work] – where the only recognition earned is the sheer longevity of a creation. The best of memes were once charted on the Encyclopedia Dramatica. (This is a mirror site, the original was recently closed down after pressure from the Australian government, among other more mundane reasons.) But now there is no reason at all to create but sheer artisitc thrill. Although ‘board lore’ has developed a concept somewhat akin to ‘duende‘ – a dark, nihlistic form of amusement known as ‘lulz.’

Trading

The next evolution of the online literary form – which one hopes will eventually lead to the hypertext equivalent of MOBY DICK, which became a sort of bellweather of American long-format literary fiction – could well come from manipulating these mysterious semantic mechanicals. They offer the opportunity to make writing dangerous again. With the proper keywords, information is taken up into automatic readers belonging to some very interesting entities, to the point where there can be real world consequences. As a way of experimenting with this form I have created a series of posts with keywords that I imagine might appeal to some of the more peculiar gleaners out trolling for information. Among these posts are lists of oil rigs, information about espionage, a fake consulting company specializing in complex shipping orders in the Arabian Ocean (mostly deleted), electronic warfare, and other ‘edible’ keywords. The visitors I’ve received include: hedge funds, multinational banking concerns, the department of defense, oil companies, environmental organizations, the Pakistani government, the Kuwaiti government, the Iranian government, the Russian government, an unacknowledged US military facility, a few mysterious hits from ‘Cabin John, Maryland’ (a park across the river from CIA), Mi5, Mi6, but sadly I have yet to influence any. To my knowledge, all that I’ve managed to do is intensify the feeling that I’m being watched when I type online.

A false start (process, process…)

Sources of Contamination:
From Picasa

An Op is an Op, simple; but an Op doesn’t venture into enemy territory alone. We vet families – and can bar them from joining the Op – but once they leave our sphere of influence, the Op must seize control and wield his kin as clandestine cover. A respectable man must have a wife, after all, and a respectable wife must be fecund and productive for her Lord and State. But the pliant, detached creatures we select for foreign assignment are not householders by nature. Would that we could destroy their defective brood; but that is an engineer’s solution. And much as we suffer the consequences, as much as it might be humane to do so, we cannot simply execute children without risking international outcry and accusations of profound hypocrisy at home. By mandate each household must reproduce the State in miniature. When a family veers off course the community and State will apply corrective pressures and return it to equilibrium. Abroad, at best the family will live on a diplomatic compound, where a network of families can provide at least a semblance of normalizing forces: a bad facsimile of State, perhaps, but at least an image of State, however blurry. Compound life is not always possible. Often a family must survive as a discrete unit, submerged in a zone of maximal contact with hostile elements, where surveillance must be assumed and proper comportment is crucial. Those families – estranged from State and saturated in Strange – become odd and decline.

Decades of discrete surveillance finds clusters of traits evolving in families bereft of State. A male and female pair will often allow the infantile fantasies of their child to pollute their discourse and cuckold the State. And what is family but discourse? Or more accurately: what is family but programming and course correction through discourse? Transcripts reveal trained Ops referring to their families as prides of lions (which in turn fosters a base environment of sprawling), wolf packs, dolphins, and in one instance as a flock of geese. Correctives applied through official channels – specifically requests for the patriarch to intervene and introduce elements of Protocol and Doctrine into their play – yield weird and unwanted results. Aforementioned flock of geese, a mother, a father and an infant nicknamed “egg,” spoke of “squawk protocol” and “big honk,” performed chores in service of “the Pond.” Prefrontal lobotomies were performed resulting in the usual steep drops in performance. Other methods of maintaining a semblance of separation from outside elements and a totem of State in the home include cooking meals unavailable in the assigned country. Such meals involve complex improvisation to find substitute ingredients, or interaction with a network of countrymen- ritual trades of baking soda for dried raisins, for example, or a bottle of wine for carob syrup. Camaraderie is commendable, of course, but substitutions of any sort are worrying, and threaten to undermine the meal. The meal being the transubstantiation of State, nourishment wrest from labor applied to the homeland’s soil.

Cities with large expatriate populations have stores dedicated to foreign comestibles. Britons in particular yearn for their native treats with remarkable fervor. Brewery slurry potted and sold as toast spread, clotted creams, tinned puddings with phallic names, sultanas, carbonated fluids… securing and consuming these atrocities becomes ritual for the Briton, and in this way, he is to be emulated. The treats are cheap and rewards not in the realm of the consumer. We have already begun to appropriate the process. Our farms produce delicacies for export and these may sometimes be found in such stores. Rinds sugared and packed with tissue in elegant tins. Dried cubes of stew meat we will call “threadies”. Our [commercial] agents spread these products. Our cuisine shall eventually become ubiquitous. Until then it shall struggle for shelf space among the lesser foodstuffs, among the gaudy things of the East and West, the heathen and the vulgar, cross-contaminated with the good.

It should go without saying that an Op should cultivate his relationships with those who serve the expatriate community, with an eye toward recruitment. They make excellent agents. Conversations overheard reveal compromising personal information, such as infirmity (toiletry and minor medical items such as familiar brands of bandage, lozenges, cough remedies etc. a large portion of their trade) or – in the case of stores equipped with a lending library or videocassettes for rent – sexual deviance. The clucking of spouses overheard is also a rich seam of information. But it should also go without saying one should be wary of these shopkeepers. All agencies are after them and their information is often muddled with their contact with the enemy (or entirely made up for profit, see: TINCAN where a shopkeeper in Havana supplied us with vacuum cleaner schematics he claimed were taken from a military installation and mislead us for years).

Our training is unrivaled, particularly for the current generation of Ops. Yet the training each must undergo is a source of distress and contamination when brought into an alien context. A complete description of the Training Round is beyond the scope of this document, and given that most of readership have experienced it, redundant. A brief overview will suffice to refresh the experienced many, and gloss over the experience for the unfamiliar few.

Each citizen must undergo his or her two years of mandatory military training at the age of eighteen. Aptitude tests are administered. High achievers with particularly agile set of personal ethics are identified and tracked into demanding, dangerous positions. Future Ops roam the southern borders, huddling for warmth in the mountains and firing at marauders with long guns. Others stoke furnaces or guard prison camps. Those who survive are sent to technical institutes and elite colleges for intellectual hardening. Ops are recruited from the ranks of junior party members, and introduced for two years to foreign orthodoxies – subjects that are corrosive to our ideals but necessary for an Op to become “polished” and presentable to the diplomatic community.

Escape!

Taken from the Guardian

There should be a sheet suspended from the washing line in front of the safe house: the white all-clear is missing. Probable the sign has been neglected, an enemy would try a false flag to lure you in, but the position could be watched. NEMESIS’ absence has been noted by now, at most you had a five-minute lead before they realized he would never return from the bathroom; no doubt sentinels are prowling the city. Drive on past. One block. Anonymous townhomes pressed together. Scattered lights. Parked cars. No heads. A cobbler. No sign of activity. Two blocks. Shopping corridor. Closed for the night. Empty. Pull in. Circle the lot. Attorney. Dentist. High prole boutique. Optics. Framer. Photo developer. Oriental cuisine, still open for business. Exit left. Double back abruptly, tires shriek out. Quick J-turn. Accelerate hard. Decelerate. Observe. No visible tail. Follow a lonely access road toward airport. Occasional articulated lorries rush past, connected to their cargos with coiled plastics. No passenger cars. No motorbikes. No one follows. Behind, NEMESIS lights another cigarette. Neon red on the horizon. Pull into a motor inn. Courtyard access. En suite bathrooms. Color television. Two motorway exits. Ample parking. Airport shuttle. Check in. Continental breakfast option ticked. Non-smoking rooms, two, to muddle the trail. Nemesis waits in the car. No one must see him. You must act as if they will. Return. Remove contents of ashtray. Unscrew Corps Diplomatiqué plates. Scatter ashes in hotel room. Find estate wagon owned by family. The American make with the inflatable balls, plush animal dolls, and sand pails will suffice. Switch plates. Catch an early commuter bus back to the capital. Stop at train station. Not the Grand Station, but an exurban one, on the outskirts, when the train has already filled. Standing room only. NEMESIS coxed along, tired and complaining, promised a dollop of jam dissolved in his tea (i.e. the way it ought to be.) Ride north to the border. Step off into a seaside town flocked with bargain hunters from the north. A docked fishing trawler waits. Diesel. Liberian registry. Suspicious. Singapore or Grenada is better. Ten thousand dollars currency pressed into a soot-blackened palm. Included in the price: a single knit sweater and two merchant marine certificates. You expect NEMESIS to comment, but he remains mute, gripping the handrail and gazing out at the rolling grey water.

Dominion (draft #1)

Rishikesh

It was horrid and bright to open his eyes. Better to stay enshrouded in ruddy darkness. But other signals were… penetrating too. His gullet came unfastened, pulsing and melting, and a sour bulge of liquid rose and – oh fuck, he sat up too late – popped and disgorged into his cupped hands. This liquid inch he cradled between his palms, it had weight and mass, and the gluey but slippery consistency of watered cornstarch. He considered, as the sweet smell of ketones, sickly and artificial rose, how much like an offering it was with its grains of rice and bilious yellow tint (plus he was bent on his knees in the sand). That smell quickly became a shriek. A nostril twitched. Revulsion clenched him, and he flung it in the pit.

Oh… oh, ugh… please don’t do that. Please. That’s where we eat.

A female and Western someone said that, one of the other rafters, a voice he recognized, the bossy freckled one who paid for her own holiday. He looked at her. She looked at him. She scorched wood in the fire pit and turned it. Sparks twisted loose and rocketed upwards.

Food glued to fingertips felt repulsive. He plunged them in the damp grains before him and yanked them out again. Red and grey filled crannies, nooks and wrinkles, and fell in tiny streams. Shining mica particles tumbled in the threads and winked in the light. Most stayed stuck. Even as he rubbed. A hollow in the sand remained without crumbling.

His freckled interlocutor, with her wide fleshy cheeks, dark eyes, prim little frown and dismayed expression pointed to his hands:

You are disgusting. Why wouldn’t you rinse them… in the river?

He considered the grit on his hands, and the bloated carcass swirling down the rapids.

Their rafting guide lifted his head. He held a pan he was grinding silt against to clean the grease from.

Plus… plus… here is this point, sahib: you may wash your sins away in this river. May I walk you to this bank?

No, no, I can manage. Thank you.

He lifted himself from the sand. Grey poured from his smoke-steeped clothes and tumbled from his poisoned flesh. His insides sloshed and gurgled. He surveyed his domain. Where he lay was a mark. Where he thrashed and rolled there were flat scuffs in the wind-blown undulations, and a long smear leading from where he crawled to the pit.

How easily he could chart his progress. But on the periphery were signs he could not decipher so easily. As fresh as his they were – maybe fresher and certainly crisper – a wobbling trail that circled him twice then led back up the tall slope and disappeared into the woodsy tangle of trees and spiny brush.

He dropped to his knees to look. Ebb tides of sludge sluiced through him and collided.

You gonna barf again? Do it away from the communal area – please.

He did not respond. There was an interior pad about the size and shape of his balled fist – but the ground was punched in far deeper than a boot-print. Radiating out on one side were four nubs as long but much more substantial than a thumb. They were tracks, animal tracks from an animal at least as large as he. He felt someone walk up beside him.

The guide crouched. He studied the tracks. He beckoned a closer look with one hand.

These are small for tiger.

With the other he pressed a palm beside the print to steady himself and measure.

But perfect for leopard.

*

The circuit around the sleeping American was not so far off the leopard’s usual route. Each evening’s prowl had its tripartite purpose: To find food and squirt urine jets – that is to re-inscribe the boundaries of his domain where they abutted against the other leopards’ (and tigers’, and feral cats’ – though he thought of these more as nuisances than peers, indeed the dank smell of their urine and mere thought of their scat piles made his whiskers crumple in disgust) – and if he felt like risking internecine conflict, he might to nudge his boundaries forward and theirs backwards with his jets. But his final task was the one he took the most pleasure in. On his midnight prowls, before he left his own mark he took a moment to sniff deeply and consider the boundary scents of others; to steep in the pheromone tags of his brethren and sift through them hunting for signals, for must, for weakness, for the continued survival of his peppery brood – three cubs, two males, one female, each marking their own little worlds now – whom he knew only from a fierce rut from a splendid ruddy bitch who padded into his domain one lonely afternoon. She was long gone.

(Some would have say there was a fourth purpose too – to patrol his area for danger – but leopards are afraid of nothing.)

He came away with his domain freshly mapped each night. And as he slept through the day, and his body twitched and his whiskers wiggled with dreams, he roamed his lands again and again. Gliding above them sometimes or sometimes plunging in, weaving in and out, plotting escape routes, points of ambush, lines of sight, lines of communication; learning his scoop of land so intuitively it became a part of him, the shape corresponding roughly to the hollow hemisphere of his paw as he spread it swipe.

Some contours within were always the same and always would be the same, unless the river shifted, which it not yet had. The spines of rock that pleased him would stay the same, as would the tributaries feeding the great river below that he could lap from, the general shape of the gorge and the slope down to the riverbank. Those never changed. Other elements were fluid. The sand lining the river. Depth of cover. Colonies of rats. Mud puddles filled with biting fleas, scorches left by lightning strikes. The trails to and from the water sources, romped by every creature – these always existed, but shifted, at the whim of the mass of them. He charted the monkey blinds, those foul tempered, foul tasting things who posted lines of sentinels who screamed alerts as they saw him, and pelted him with shit if he came to close. There were caches of food, kills he hoisted and hid the better to let them linger in their juices before he sank his fangs inside; the meat risked spoiling the longer it hung but the risk of a writhing mouthful of maggots thrilled him too.

But his maps were not just functional. They had their flourishes too. Flat patches of dirt he enjoyed rolling around in as a freshly whelped cub. The shaded copse his mate first prowled into and howled for his seed. The scent marks of ancient leopards he kept alive with his own squirted palimpsests. And finally he plotted the strange encroachments of man. The terrifying black strip they laid that smelled faintly of sun-baked bowel. The swift screaming things that traversed it were somehow associated with them, leaving clouds of flatulence and peculiar flotsam and jetsam in the gullies running along side.

Their most recent arrival was less dramatic yet somehow more beguilingly sinister.

As the great river receded and the grey sands were revealed beneath, a single smoke belching beast would one day lumber down the gentlest part of the slope. Like an elephant it was averse to steepness. (This message was encoded for posterity.) Four men clambered out and built flimsy nests and dug a great burrow they filled with fire.

That night as he made his rounds he chanced upon a mark he never sampled before. A faint trace left on unusual oblong dome that felt as if it had been ground down by man many years before. The scent was barely alive. He placed his nostril close. Some weren’t worth preserving otherwise his nightly rounds would take an eternity. But this one addressed man. In a whisper of soft reeks it spoke of a wounded was stranded on a sandbank during one monsoon. All he had to eat were corpses. And the only corpses that washed ashore were men. They were astringent, sour metallic, and rank all at once. Yet he developed a taste eventually. And when the waters receded he slaughtered hundreds. Then disappeared, leaving his dominion empty.

As the fire died down, he slunk down across the cool, dense, sand. The air was moist and vivid, stirred by the churning of the waters. The nests billowed in the breeze. How easily he could rip one apart but as he approached the perimeter of one his paw snagged on a thin line. Like a massive cobweb. He shrunk back from it, afraid a sentinel would screech the line would stick to his fur but it only twanged. Still he strayed well away. He approached a strange oblong that wasn’t made of stone. He dragged his muzzle against it, taking in a whiff dried river minerals and then a choking sent that made his fur bristle. He was about to leave and return to his route when he found a lone sleeper by the dying fire.

*

Water dried and left crusts of minerals on his skin. His fingers tasted of salt. The sun stung his goose-puckered flesh. The last of the rapids. The river spread out before them and became languorous and slow. Ahead of him in the raft the freckled one took off her helmet. And she turned to him and as she did a beam of light fortuitously ignited her hair, which roared a more crimson shade of copper and as she leaned forward, her blocky lifejacket pulled away from her, revealing a plunging chasm of cleavage, sunburned pink and freckle dusted flesh that disintegrated into shadowed scoops of pure white. She held her helmet in her hands. The straps hung off. Frayed and grayed with sweat. She leaned off the boat and dragged the helmet in the river. She pulled it out again and held it before him. An inch of water drained through the circles of polystyrene – masses made up of millions of bubbles – that pulled and twisted the curled copper hairs she had left behind.

Hold this, will you? She said.

She scooped a long cord of damp red hair over her shoulder revealing a long length of speckled neck. He caught her smell as she took it from him again. Milk and salt and musk, it drew him closer. His muscles ached from rowing but bathed him in a dopey soup of soothing relief.

But for the rush of current against the rubber sidewalls the raft was silent.

A squat stone marker sailed past. The Interlocutor pointed.

Say. Now what is that? She said.

That is one commemoration to the Great White Hunter. The guide said. He pulled his mouth back and shuddered with laughter, revealing blazing enamel and bubblegum pink gum that charred to well-done burger on its periphery. For this man! Panar leopard – he ate 400 men. Very cunning cats! Monsters! They lift the roof, drop in, scoop up baby and snatch her in his jaws!

Why do you say that?

He was very nearly eaten.

Were you very really nearly eaten?

He nodded. Circled and sniffed, he said.

She placed a freckled finger on his wrist. It pleased him.