Task the System

She was such a good conversationalist that Tristan failed to decipher what it meant, she wanted him, or wanted him to want her, or meant nothing, an authentically dynamic, passionate, brilliant woman. He knew it would be categorically male that his first assumption was that she was into him, but the conclusion was hard to refute. They talked, local news as white-noise wallpaper, and he learned he would be processing files, looking for patterns, possible leads. She told him about excellent hiking trails woven through the new territories, and cliffs from which she hand glided onto unpopulated beaches. He presently told her he had expected his mentor to be more of a grizzled old vet, bent over by years of scotch, cigars and secrets. She remarked that while not grizzled, she was old, at least for this job. Employment with the CIA is like being a professional athlete, as you reach your late thirties you start thinking about a desk.

“You don’t really look,” he’d started, but then thought better. Isabella took a pleased breath and sipped her wine.

An advertisement for Cisco Networking offered an attractive woman speaking about saving money by shifting distribution through an ambiguous southeastern route. The shot panned out while she talked on a screen rotating in the middle of a conference table surrounded by thoughtful Chinese faces: one lost in intense thought, a few others enthusiastically nodding and smiling, as though this pretty young foreign girl had just blown their collective minds. A sonorous voice-over suggesting an ethically and fiscally responsible businessman spoke, “Cisco Networking: connect your business to the world.” Fade out to spinning globe in space.

“SteelKnight: share your secrets with our president.” Isabella did her best to mock the commercial, tucking her chin creating rolls where there never conceivably should have been rolls. 

“Cisco works with you on surveillance?” 

“Oh yeah! Well, not us exactly. The NSA intercepts their routers and servers before delivery and implants some kind of surveillance tool to gather all the data moving through the network. They share access with the rest of the intelligence community. All you have to do is come down to the office and task the PRISM system. It’ll spit out telephone meta-data, chat logs, and even emails for five days, and if your target has been flagged as interesting, which anyone in these files there’s a good chance, you could get as many as thirty days.”

“Wow.” Tristan feigned a sip from his empty wine glass. 

“Yeah, it’s very helpful. I’ll show you around tomorrow, get you all the necessary credentials. I personally still favor ole-fashioned HUMINT. You know, the boot to the pavement stuff. Leveraging human weakness to gain human insight? It doesn’t get much more real than that. In my opinion, the bad guys are catching on to the tech stuff and our reliance on it is just asking to eat chicken shit. Posner is the one who is in love with the NSA stuff — Lazy ass.” 

She was sitting on the edge of the couch staring at the TV screen. She changed the station from the local news to CNN. The show was Banks without Borders with Bridgette  Ainsley. Tristan experienced a wave of nostalgia. He remembered Emily’s laugh, rare as it was, how it could imbue everything in the room with a weightless quality. His heart immediately corrected, reminding him of her stubborn silences and belittling judgmental interrogations. She doesn’t deserve your energy. It wasn’t her fault, I was impossible, he argued.

“Here hun, let me fill you up.” Isabella reached back for Tristan’s glass. He noticed her hand resting on his for a moment as she grasped the glass.

As she walked to the counter Tristan noticed that she had removed her shoes, which allowed her natural stride, toes and knees pointed out, power surging through outer thighs and glutei, shoulders casually curved as a dancer poised to leap. She grabbed the bottle and spun a military about-face catching Tristan’s posterior gaze. His sheepish head-hanging was countered by her enormous giddy eyes.

“Hey! Do you like America?” She practically skipped to the couch. “I mean living there, I’m not questioning your patriotism. Just did you enjoy your life in America?” There was a lilt to her speech, like she was on a stage. She plopped down next to him. 

“Yes, I guess. I suppose I didn’t feel exactly fulfilled in what I was doing before, but —”

“At the Institute…” She was pouring wine into his glass, the roll and bubbling of the rust-red liquid reflected on her cornea. Tristan became more wary as the level rose.

“Right, I don’t think that had to do with America though.” He bumbled, staring at his glass, aware of her thigh, warm through her pants and his.

“Okay, don’t pinch a neuron. I only ask because I couldn’t stand it there for the most part. All the spoiled little happy drones wandering around living their little lives. I guess that’s not so bad, but then they have the audacity to blame their tiny problems on the government. If they only knew! And they are so obnoxious out in public, yuck.” 

She handed Tristan his glass, eighty percent full, and began pouring hers.

“I’m sorry, I don’t blame them, really, I’ve just been overseas since I was seventeen and now whenever I see Americans over here, or when I go back for whatever, they just make my skin crawl, I can’t stand the way they laugh.” Four small Vietnamese fishing boats were rowing through choppy waters toward an oil rig in the Spratlys. “I like you though, you’re okay.”  

“Thanks. It sounds like you’ve had some bad luck. There are a lot of different people —”

“You don’t really believe that.” She peered a him with one eye closed. “The only diverse things about the US are skin colors and landscapes. Every town has been paved over and resurrected with a friendly homogeny. The once fascinating cross country drive is just a gas wasting hopscotch from Quick Stop to Quick Stop, Rite Aids and Wal-Marts. But like I said, I haven’t been around there much, so it’s just my intuition.”

“Why’d you leave so young?”

Her attention was diverted to the television by Bridgette Ainsley’s slightly british intonation announcing a forthcoming segment concerning President Obama’s recent block of the Chinese Firm, Sany Group, from investing in a wind farm project in Oregon. She reached for the remote and spilt wine on her thigh. “Shit,” she muttered as she rubbed the spot and turned up the volume, to the wine or the TV, Tristan wasn’t sure.

“What’s this?”

“A myopic dick measuring contest the President got himself into. Sany invested in a farm bought by their affiliate, Ralls corp., from the Greek firm Terna Energy. Since they weren’t buying from a US company they didn’t bother sending notification to the Committee on Foreign Investment, so we didn’t get a memo until the deal was done and they were setting up. Congress put them through the ringer and suggested he order  Ralls to pack up their equipment and divest in the project. Naturally China had an issue with their leading heavy machinery company getting bullied around, and Ralls filed a suit challenging the Obama administration’s authority to block the investment.”

“Why’d we decide to block it?”

“They said it was a national security risk to have a Chinese investment so close to a Naval Weapons Systems Training Facility, but we’ve been doing this stuff to China and other competitors since the early nineties using the Exon-Florio provision. Only now, China needs to invest outside it’s borders to steady its economy. They’ve gotta know the suit’s not going anywhere, but they’re not afraid of the US anymore and this is them saying so. They’re about to blow this whole thing open.”

“Not if we have anything to say about it!” Tristan chimed not ineffectively, and raised his glass.

“You’re too cute.” They clinked glasses and she flashed a row of wine stained teeth exposing where the enamel had faded and gaps darkened. Tristan was grateful as it reduced her attractiveness thus bolstering his capacity to resist doing something stupid and wholly inappropriate his first day on the job. They both drank without breaking eye contact, neither willing to stop before the other. Tristan started breathing through his nose as he gulped the wine, turning what some would interpret a waste of quality vino into an amazing olfactory experience, until she winked and upended her glass causing him to laugh and recycle a few milliliters of wine through his nasal cavity. That was a waste, he thought as he rushed to the sink. 

“But seriously,” Tristan pleaded as he returned, “we need to take the legs out from under these guys. They need to feel like we’re ahead of them in every direction.” He took a seat at a safe distance.

“Yeah I know.” She wiped her eyes dry. “A good place to start would be with ZTE and Huawei. They are like the Cisco and HP of China, and their proprietary hardware has been cutting into our upstream data collection from the Middle East and Africa. I know Huawei just signed multi-year deals with the Saudi Telecom Company and MTN Group’s operations in Africa and Entel in Chile for 400G router packages. Both have been working with people at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, where the Tianhe-2 supercomputer happens to be held.”

“Plus you guys accused them of spying right? There’s a good motive. Revenge?”

“You’ve done your homework.”

“Just a little wiki-surfing.” 

“What you won’t find online is that the accusations started behind closed doors long before October. The NSA just now decided to take it public for some reason, probably due to this intel we’ve been picking up about a cyber-attack. Hayden’s trying to stir something up.”

Tristan wondered what Steven was doing at Huawei, but knew he had to be patient. They followed up with a sound bite from the previous year featuring the head of the House Intelligence Committee, Mike Rogers, saying the US should be suspicious of Chinese telecommunications companies because they have “not followed US legal obligations or international standards of business behavior.”

“Nice cut. You’ve got to give it to ‘em, cable news has certainly mastered the art of the subliminal non-sequitur.”

“Here’s a question: do you say a glass is half full or half empty?”

“I don’t know why people think that question is so revealing. To my understanding, both have distinct meanings. They refer to the direction of the movement, whether the glass is being filled or emptied. Isn’t it clear that when you are half done a drink, the glass is half empty, and when you’re filling a glass then it is half full?”

“Ooh, very logical.” He sensed she was half-humoring him. “I see why they liked you. You get worked up easy though.” She ran her fingers through the hair on the back of his head. Tristan could feel the wave of electricity rush from the tips of her fingers through his shoulders, around his skull and across his entire body, awakening his skin to the potential of sensitivity. Blood rushed to his face and he wanted to lean his head back, eyes closed, lose himself, but turned to her, gently arranging her hand from his head to his shoulder. The way she let her jaw loose, her lips slightly parting, sure signs, but he knew, at this point, two glasses of wine in, he would only stop when she told him to stop, which was too far. His only recourse was to continue drinking until she’d lost interest.

“Let me refill your glass.” He tried to pace his voice slower than his pulse.

She stayed his hand, with an adroit parry into her lap. “No, allow me.” Displeased but not deterred, she rose directly, forcing his knee away with hers, causing him to lurch ahead colliding his nose to her naval. She palmed his crown and pulled him into her, the side of his face settling into the shirt fabric, he breathed a beat, and she shoved him back, as if to say, you know you want it, you silly adolescent, just take me already! She got his glass from the sink.

Onto the television popped US National Security Advisor, Susan Rice, answering reporters about her role in the ultimatums set against Bashar al-Assad and being named the Mid-East person of the year by the Jerusalem Post. She shrugged off the praise and managed to thank the amazing people working at the Janus Group for “their unending work toward peace in the region,” before being ushered into a car. 

“Have you heard of the Janus Group?” She was coming back from the sink with his glassed rinsed.

“No, Why?”

“Susan Rice just promoted their work toward peace in the middle east. Seems like we’d have heard of them.”

“Yeah, seems like. Probably some think tank she owes for digging her out of that Benghazi mess.” She poured the rest of the bottle into his glass. “Don’t worry, there’s a complimentary Riesling in the bedroom.”

“Nice.”

“Let’s change the channel. I’m tired of the news.” She sat against the back of the couch in lotus and flipped through channels.

Tristan felt a bit drunk. 

A flash on the screen unveiled a set that conjured thoughts of a futuristic jeopardy, with blind folds. Four men stood behind chrome parallelograms, with characters Tristan reasoned were their names displayed in LEDs, smiling at the camera, waving into the crowd at their moms and siblings. The camera panned across the audience. 

“Do you know Cantonese?” Isabelle asked him.

“Not really, no.” 

“Okay. So this show is great, quintessential Hong Kong.” The host, with a foot tall vertical comma of sprayed hair, emerged from behind a shimmering sequined curtain with a microphone headset and note cards. “It’s like that American show where the guys pick a girl based on how they answer certain questions, but on this one they pick a girl based on how she feels. Literally.”

“You mean, touching them? With their hands?” Tristan scooted back on the couch, simultaneously appalled and intrigued.

“Yeah, hands, lips, tongue, nose, basically anything they want to do. Some are timid, but some try the most ridiculous thing since they’re on TV. The host starts by asking a series of questions about each guys personal preferences and then they get blind folded and test out the girls. The best part is the crowd’s reactions.” A group of girls in the crowd were covering their mouths, standard convulsive laughter, eyes practically closed with glee. The men followed their responses with cautious smiles to the audience, caught in the paradox between the desire to maintain privacy and the relief of telling secrets. 

“This guy says he likes a tall girl with a small butt and big nose, big tits.” She was really eating this up. She held the wine glass to her bottom lip as she watched, finally up ending it quickly, not to miss a moment.

“Don’t you find this demeaning?”

“Oh, lighten up. It really just proves what simple fools men are.” The blind folds went on and eight girls came walking out in various attire, from bikini to the traditional Cheongsam. Tristan excused himself to retrieve the complimentary wine from the bedroom.  

Isabella had finished rinsing their glasses and was walking back to the couch. A little man was nibbling on a tall Ugandan woman’s ear

“Do you want to hear a sad story?” Tristan blurted in a stroke of brilliance. They sat and he poured their drinks. The bottle had a twist cap; a bad sign. “It just kinda came over me, I dunno why.” He sipped, elbows on knees. 

“Sure, go ahead.” She turned down the volume.

“When I was a kid, like ten or eleven, my parents separated for a couple years. I was staying with my mother for a few weeks during the summer when she came into my room, eyes wet, makeup smudged, the whole thing making her look ten years older. She sat next to me and told me Dad had just called with some bad news. That Julie, my dog, had run into the road and got hit by a truck. I don’t know how I got the rest of the information, because I can’t imagine her telling me all this as I was sitting there on my bed, a devastated pre-teen, but somehow I know that my father was getting the mail when Julie bolted into the street after a squirrel. My father instinctively called her name and Julie stopped on a dime, looked back at him and that was it.”

“That’s terrible.”

“The weird thing is, Julie was terrified of the road. I used to taunt her about it. I’d go into the road and call her because it was funny how torn she was between wanting to follow me and her fear of the road, but the fear always won. She’d sit on the lawn, inching her butt closer and closer to the edge, finally hopping and barking until I ran to her and tackled her and we’d chase each other around the house. And yet, on that day she decided to chase a squirrel. I know my father thought it was his fault, for calling her. My mother said that he was crying on the phone, that it was only the second time she’d ever heard him cry, the other time was at his father’s funeral. I know he thought Julie would have continued across the road into the neighbor’s yard after the squirrel had he not called out. I could imagine them locking eyes in that last moment, everything slowing and shit. I remember thinking that it was my fault for leaving her. She was getting old, and she was alone at my father’s house. I remember thinking it was suicide.” They sat in silence for a moment. What began a ploy to alter their energy was now real. Tristan could feel the slight threat of tears building pressure in his nose. Isabella put down her wine glass and hugged him, holding his head with a maternal finesse, saying nothing. 

Tristan spoke into the soft bend of her neck, “Thanks. I don’t know where that came from. I think the jet-lag is still messing with me. I’m going to go to bed now.” 

She backed off slowly, avoiding eye contact. “Ok, yeah, no problem. I was getting tired myself.” They stood and she started for the door. “Um, so I’ll see you in the morning? I show you down to the office, get you set up.”

“Great, Thanks a lot for dinner and everything.”

“Oh, it was my pleasure.” She opened the door and looked back, making eye contact for the first time, rendered naked by the complexity of physical disappointment and spiritual appreciation. “Good night, Tristan.” The door closed.

“Good night,” he said, to himself or the room, who knew.

 

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