from Education City
5 January 2006
Al Nihaya or The End
“. . . even under anesthesia the monkeys blinked . . .”
A Wired News article, scrolled halfway through, showed on the dimmed screen of a Dell XPS 3.030 laptop not currently plugged into a power source – but no soul was there to view it, for the quiet American who had been reading was now at the window.
STITCH. STITCH. STITCH.
“Christ – already I’ve got something on my jacket. My black Jiuche Diesel jacket. How long have I had it?” Gold light was breaking through the entry. “Seriously, shit—” Cell phone buttons clicked and the noise of downtown hummed dully from the outside, a haze, while thin webs of decorative craquelure in faux gold-leafed columns and moldings around the lobby stood out in his peripheral vision. “It’s that fucking hummus from Sunday night – how come I didn’t notice it sooner? Jesus, hummus. How long have I had this thing again?” Hushed voices and the occasional obtrusive male laugh emanated from a side room, where four professionally-dressed men were lounging, drinking, smoking. It was four in the afternoon. “Hello?”
“Summer, I think. It’s poly-coated anyway.”
“Munich, yeah. And it had better be, for the hundred twenty-five euros I paid for it.” He grabbed the hem up in his hand to better see it as they walked. “Mmf, no, it’s bled right into the stitching.” He scratched the stain with his fingernails; a few flakes fluttered to the floor to reveal a grease mark beneath. “I’d wash it but the whole damned thing will warp and it’ll never fit me right again. You know that’s how this shit goes, especially with Diesel. I mean, I might as well throw it out.”
“It’ll be fine, Arsen, shit.”
“No, I might as well throw it out now. Why I’m wearing this in eighty-five-degree weather anyway, I don’t know.”
“Well it is winter. But I imagine you’re wearing it because it looks good.”
“True. And yes” – he shrugged his shoulders into the jacket – “it does look good. Just remind me to take better care of my shit, please.”
“Done.” A greeting sounded from behind a counter to their left, followed by a question stifled early – “May I . . . ?” – because the counterperson had halfway through recognized them as frequent visitors despite the poor, fractured lighting typical of the West Bay Towers late in the afternoon, and returned his attention to a computer screen below.
“And we go somewhere else next time.”
“Bitch, bitch, bitch.” Behind them the counterperson was now complimenting a female visitor on her hair, which had recently been styled, and asking who she’d come to see.
STITCH. STITCH. STITCH. This is how they might have looked from the satellites, via Google Earth or some other virtual globe software, now Web 2.0, zagging across the sand at the southern border: installations, the pride of which were small arrays of the new U.S. Active Denial System, a non-lethal heat-ray weapon (“Its electromagnetic millimeter-waves only penetrate human skin to 1/64th an inch, rendering it harmless,” an unnamed military source was quoted as saying.), set a mile apart because the weapon’s range had recently been extended from five hundred yards to a half-mile. These were milecastles, really, carefully sewn into the border by decades of wealth-building alliances that sought to bring the West to the East, and vice versa as firms with names like Dubai Investment Group (DIG), Arabian Investcorp and Istithmar PJSC, led by the ruling families of Mideastern states, bought up harbors and transport companies all over Europe and the United States for the sake of monopoly. Gregoros saw these little brown-hued pearls strung across the desert neck of the peninsula, lit up from behind on his OLED laptop screen – or would have, had he been paying any attention. He would have noticed it was like Hadrian’s Wall barring off a scorched version of the North, this sandy flame curling out into the Gulf called Qatar (pronounced ['kɑ-tˁɑr]), but this time to protect the barbarians from the Kingdom instead of the other way around.
Under normal circumstances he’d have been looking at them this way, from space on his notebook, his face glowing white-green as if he were staring over a radar display in his father’s apartment in West Bay (officially the New District of Doha). Call it research. But lately he’d been curious about the view from a shorter distance off the ground and not so much entranced by Google’s magical satellite representations, whether you could click-and-drag, zoom, label and bookmark or otherwise. So his laptop blinked away at 100 Hz its images and a recent article from Wired without an audience, set facing the couch on a wide pine coffee table, a coffee cup (naturally) beside, newspaper nearby, as Gregoros stood before the window.
Active Denial. Millimeter waves: make you feel like you’re on fire – as if being in the desert amid bomb and stray missile blasts wasn’t enough.
“It really does feel like – ow, motherfucker. Christ, can we cut that? OK. This is David Martin, reporting for 60 Minutes. Son of a bitch that hurt,” Gregoros had heard on a leaked YouTube video twenty minutes before.
Other journalists were calling it the “pain ray,”
a “virtual flame-thrower,”
but Raytheon was referring to it as the “Silent Guardian.” In 10,007 human tests there had been only three cases of second-degree burns. Direct eye exposure, the principal concern regarding Active Denial’s microwave beam, had been tested extensively – injuries were found to be temporary in all laboratory animals. As quoted from Martin’s telecast, “a speculum was needed to hold the eyes open to produce injury, because even under anesthesia the monkeys blinked, protecting the cornea.”
Below, Gregoros could see waves of rebels inexplicably, stupidly shouting and throwing stones at tanks before they’re run over or stoned themselves by showers of concrete exploding from adjacent buildings – but this would change all that. Now they would just lay down in a row and bow to the heat, this screaming microwave voice of Allah washing over them and commanding them to kneel, harmlessly.
Allaahu Akhbar! as they go, hoping the heat will cease. Allaahu Akhbar! The icon’s sand-colored head would turn, bringing others into its burning, harmless influence. They wouldn’t be able to see anything with the machine so far away, the rebels: they really would be bowing to God, or maybe some resentful djinni with its unseen fire, clawing at their clothes and skin and laying out like animals.
Allaahu Akhbar! “God is great! God is great!” while running or writhing—
The “goodbye effect.”
No. They’ve gotten more sophisticated, surely, Gregoros thought – particularly since the war started. The tanks and rebels faded, leaving a crowd of civilians among whom a red purse was bouncing, weaving, slithering through on the shoulder of an Arab woman, not covered. A Syrian or Egyptian expatriate, he reasoned, for Qatari women had local reputations to protect. The wife of a wealthy oilman, perhaps? Or an international businessman. Up she hopped to cut across the stepped concrete base of a colossal sculpture of a della (‘pitcher’), ornately etched, from which a hidden pump system was fountaining water. Then down down down, heels striking, hair bouncing like an American’s. A teal, twenty-seven-foot sculpture of a shopping cart stood opposite not two blocks away, but before the woman reached it she ducked into the base of a glass high-rise, acute afternoon sunlight cutting after her through the doorway. No, too confident – maybe an Al Thani, a royal (no need for reputation). Gregoros considered this a lucky day, for Qataris comprise less than eleven percent of the city’s population. It wasn’t often you saw them out in the middle of the day. Away to the right some white children were playing at the art installation by the shore, the one with the international prints to show how diverse the nation had become: aerial photos of a green French Guianan rainforest, the barchans of the Rub’ al Khali, the great Saudi erg to the south, and the Rocky Mountains; one boy slipped on the steps, went into the water, and for a few minutes Gregoros J. Morchand observed the attempts to find and then save him by nearby concerned citizens (all Westerners), silenced as they were by three blocks, thirteen floors, and two layers of tempered window-glass.
Splash-splash, he imagined he heard. Their mouths were moving, too – shouting, but most passersby were as deaf to them as Gregoros in his upstairs apartment, for minutes later the thrashing stopped, water stopped being cast ashore to shale cobblestones where it had already stained them black, and one man – not the father, it appeared – lifted the boy from the water and set him higher on the steps, before leaning over him stilly. Preparing to blow? – hard to tell from this distance. Gregoros suspected the loud spatter of seawater draining from them both could be heard at the installation, where the other white children were just beginning to line up so they could watch the end.
Sad. There was now definite blowing, definite chest compression. The children – some were recoiling, some were curious and had edged closer. Gregoros could imagine the looks on their faces: it was that pretend-sadness, that appropriate adult facial expression for moments like this they had learned over the course of their short lives to mimic with precision, yet poorly masking a lack of understanding, a strange curiosity, and – paradoxically – extreme boredom. Their eyes always gave them away, because they would wander for the purpose of checking everyone else’s expressions.
OK? Is it OK to pick at the body yet?
Have all the proper rituals been performed?
No, that woman still looks horrified.
That one, she’s crying.
And they would continue staring at the ground, tapping their shoes together. But there was still this invisible barrier they obeyed, as if cautiously observing Francis Bacon’s figure study Man with Drowned Child – newly titled The End – from a distance of exactly two feet plus two inches, for fear of the watchful museum wardens nearby.
But it would not be the end. For children have long been known to survive for minutes, even an hour, submerged in water – inexplicably they are more resilient. This is especially true in cold water; and though the Persian Gulf is the warmest body of water in the world, it is a well-known fact that autumn conditions provide for a significant drop in surface temperature: a combination of southwesterly winds (which cause an upwelling of deep sea water) and seasonal weather change can cause a drop from 38˚ to 15˚C. This would not be widely considered cold, per se – but it probably contributed, as the boy at the installation had been underwater for more than three-and-a-half minutes and was just now returning to waking life.
Water that was expelled from the boy’s stomach was now flowing down over the stairs to return to the ocean, splash-splash as he choked it forth. He’ll be just fine, thankfully. The man kneeling over him helped him sit up. Gregoros could see the boy was no more than five, maybe six – but blinked his eyes wide, then squinted: beyond the steps there was movement, the whisk of a green object sliding out and back under the water. A fish, a serpent, a sea spirit, protecting the child. But perhaps the thing had choked him in the first place.
Anyway, now the boy would be fine. The man, this magician with the power to return life to children, would quickly locate his parents – and maybe the rebels would be waiting for him tomorrow.
More sophisticated . . .
5 January 2006
The Goodbye Effect
IRAQ WAS IN THE STREETS, even though he was in Qatar: Americans and insurgents and car bombs disturbing the foundations of old buildings, black starbursts on the market walks where they had torn everything apart, and female Sunni and Shia flesh spilling its attrite contents out of the dark of robes to commemorate Muharram, all projected. Oh, ho ho! – but no, this was not Baghdad. No, here all was glass and neon and not fractured concrete. A different kind of Middle East, Gregoros thought as he reflected on the red purse, now somewhere in the adjacent office building. Another sort of pilgrimage that was bringing the Westerners so far from home. The cold smell of American investment had been busy, busy with the expatriate Indians. From his location on the thirteenth floor he could view a mass of new high-rises, so tall they draped over cumulus humilis cloud-rims like the tails of hyaline serpents curled in rest above; and like the new ADS their reflections screamed radiation through his window – harmless, he was sure. But annoying, this light blazing from each of their windowpanes, which had been laid over like scales not weeks prior by cranes and (again) the expatriate Indians. Everything new, everything shiny. Yesterday they were mere rust-dusted steel webs rising into the sky, evidence that the harvestmen had come: those little long-legged non-spiders, webs not spun but built or stolen, issuing no venom but slowly invading en masse the last regions they’d yet to inhabit and throbbing in aggregates until all else is blotted out by the silhouette of a million automatous legs. The glass was only a sleek façade – the serpents, a myth – to disguise the migration.
The Arabs have been tantalized by light, all this light.
After the purse and boy disappeared Gregoros spent time considering whether there were other Westerners staring out from the many scale-windows across the way. He tried to stare into them by again squinting, as it is a well-known fact that this enhances human sight considerably. Their reflections killed but he stared anyway; it was a welcome distraction. For gunfighters, he believed he saw, stalked each other in urban warfare on the new roads below, providing a better challenge for the tanks. Their sounds were like pepper in the air.
It’s always crackling, somewhere, he thought. The signature static of fireworks, or the collapse of brittle glass. A worker stupidly dropping a pane from ten stories up.
But really no gunfighters were there. No insurgents, no tanks. Qatar was full of foreigners, but there were few Americans and no Iraqis. All Indian, Nepalese, Bengali, Filipino – all kilaab, the Arabs liked to say. Dogs. Not-brothers.
4:02 p.m., his cell phone ringing (a regular ring – every other Third Culture Kid’s phone was around this time playing Gorillaz’ Feel Good Inc.).
This is when Gregoros was watching out his window. This is when his friends were striding through the doors of a false-spider’s-thread elevator of West Bay Residential Tower A to see him, and when far away in Bangalore a young software engineer was having his face cut for a particularly grave offense against a Muslim family of northern Karnataka. Half the engineer’s ear was sheared off, flaking to the ground like tree bark – it came to rest with a little bounce on the sidewalk. Rubber from a Halloween mask; a mystifying amount of blood spilling from the cartilage. As if to answer it the engineer fell to the ground with a like bounce, having been surprised on his way from the library.
“Hogi banni!” they spat at him as he fell.
“Illa dayavati! Nahi! No, please! Take, take!” he shouted. Notebook paper, college-ruled, spun around the scene in a whirlwind, revealing a zoetrope of pencil-written functions in FALSE, Joy, Subtext, brainfuck. The engineer recognized some Boo and then Groovy, v. 1.5, fluttering by on a last sheet before it set down in the gutter:
a = 0
“Nahi?” came their response. For they could barely comprehend his Malayalam and had trouble even with Hindi.
while true: arrogant bastard tomorrow @ 7 yes?
Take? He knew why they were really there; they were taking precisely what they wanted. The engineer turned his head to spare his face their blows – but long lines were then scored into his cheeks, showing like the legs of aggregate opilionids except in red. His wrists and ankles were held at the sidewalk so they could cut out three of his fingernails. His stink was getting on them, they complained. Nayi! Nayi! they shouted with each blow. He would not have understood them but for his time in Bangalore, where from the movies he had picked up more Kannada – he remembered seeing a film last year with Roshan titled Nayi Neralu, or “In the Shadow of the Dog.” It was the same everywhere, this label, burned into vellum and translated into many languages. Phaa patti in Malayalam. The men failed to provide him with the privacy of an alley, so everything was advertised (passers-by at the IISc crossed the street to avoid the scene, etc.). Allaahu Akhbar! howled not in their own language but the language of their religion. In their part of India they are secretly heroes for avenging a sister – they will probably kill her too – as a pair of American boys were mashing button thirteen in one of the West Bay elevators and realizing there might be a problem with its electronics.
It looks like it, they agreed. Red for stop at the appropriate time; all exited.
Try the other one: they can’t both be broken.
Yeah, this one’s fine.
Should we tell someone about the other?
Wide brass doors closed on them and up they went for five more floors, digital numbers ticking to thirteen in time, all other elevator electronics functioning properly – but the steel I-beam web that surrounded them in the tower walls moaned under the weight of the expatriate children. Low in the throat, glottis vibrating. It supported, guided everything unseen anyway; it shaped the boys, pushed them up, up...
Joshua D. Miner writes from Dallas, Texas.
from Education City