Computer Screen

Things quickly turned curious, whatever wasn’t already. If one intention behind developing what he referred to as, The Hera System, or sometimes endearingly, Hera, was to overcome his natural state of astral floating, another motivation was his budding relationship with Isabella. His life here was clicking into place, either (as he had imagined upon seeing the Hong Kong skyline for the first time) by providence, or perhaps an altogether more earthen mendacity. He felt the inertia of purpose as he mapped the branches of Huawei’s assets, traded like so many collectors’ cards: Green energy, professional soccer, graphite processing, oil speculation, competitive sailing, kangaroo tourism, nuclear plants, startups in facial recognition and software defined networks, etc. The diversity of interests, at first sight, hinted at a simple hedging of bets, which is why, he told himself, the CIA brought him in. For all the energy he’d allocated trying to belong, to being someone he was not, he never thought he’d actually find something he knew better, as if recalled from a previous life or an already lived future. He experienced a new type of liberty tracking down leads, linking disparate entities through digital financial nexus’, not for profit community events, and galas. This liberation was not the type drilled by public school proctors or trumpeted on cable news, not liberty from tyranny, but from delusion, the joy of sliding into the groove of an act one was designed to perform. Seated at his basement table he imagined: this was the liberty of which Ruben Carter wrote. Tristan really started buying into his role beginning either with the message from his father or the night Isabella and himself patronized a club she had read about in ‘Rise Up – HK.’ He couldn’t remember which had come first. Because he expected nothing remarkable from his father’s message, probably another of many probes to ensure that his son was still sucking air, his interest was piqued in this moment by a transparent circle that popped over the chat box reading, “Report all Unauthorized Transmissions to your Internet Surplus Provider.” He replied to his father, asking questions designed to elicit the answers: ‘Packard’ and ‘Jimsom Weed,’ and ‘Sioux Falls,’ ensuring his identity. Richard wanted to know if Tristan was making it to a mass every Sunday. He told of how ecological activists had united with miners to strike for higher wages and shorter hours providing him surplus (though indefinite) home-time he spent prepping his seedlings and doing his best to stay out Minna’s way. Tristan knew his father maintained the semi-daily updates mostly for his own benefit — providing a taste of home — but there was so little Tristan could relay from his side. When the time came he was sure he would see more of this country tan he cared to, and all at once. His present life was spent behind a computer screen, in one of two rooms, scanning corporate minutia and eating more fast food than he had in his whole life prior. The only interesting development was Isabella, but he didn’t dare yet bear witness in fear the very act of speaking would jinx the still ambiguous affair. Tristan never had communicated well with his father, every attempt maligned by a pathology of portraying a presumed ideal. This effort too was sterilized by improperly aimed virtue. He could only think of the particular warning: ‘Report all unauthorized…” He had never seen it before. It occurred to him to ask Isabella.

“That’s the government’s bandwidth. You know, when there’s too much Internet to go around they throw it in a vat down by the Baltimore Parkway and leech it to Niprnets around the world.”


“Wow Tristan, you’re more gullible than I thought. It’s most likely a typo. Auto-complete is a dangerous thing, especially in the hands bureaucratic numb-skulls. As long as they don’t misspell the name on our checks…”

That may have been the same day she dragged him to that club called The Fringe. He remembered the driving bassline carrying a woman’s voice that reverberated off the industrial cement walls. Large projector screens displayed a video of a jet black haired Tibetan woman, backed by a black gnarled tree whose upper branches formed a kind of antler rack silhouetted by an enormous pale pocked moon. The cavernous room flashed with blue, green and white laser lights over a pulsating mass of human bodies, arms waving like so many tiny worms over a decaying carcass. Isabella led him through a series of side rooms. The club proved to be the brain-child of Huawei engineers, each room framed by a ring of 400G network routers connected by fiber-optic cables lined with LEDs. The second floor was an Internet cafe and multi-media performance space. A goat skull flashed on the screen in the next room, followed by a montage exploring the galaxy, flowing silk in outer-space and the singer’s face drenched in a layer of diluted crude oil. Receiving the attention of celebrity due to their fair hair, pale skin and relatively prominent nasal ridges, they were given clear berth, aside from intermittent requests for a photo, as they meandered into the club’s depths to the slightly quieter VIP shisha den. The room was a mass of antique couches with Ottoman style cushions and tables made from the lacquered slices of Camphor tree trunks with a modest bar along one side. Wooden doors to private party rooms lined the other three sides. They took a seat on one of the corner divans. A teenage looking server materialized, bald headed with purple eyeshadow, gender indistinguishable aside from his prominent deltoids. Isabella ordered them both whiskey and a mix of guava and mint shisha in effortless Cantonese.  Tristan surveyed the crowd. In contrast to the saggy tank tops and tight pants in the dance hall, this room called for business casual attire. A bleary eyed group of young professionals stumbled out of a private room. Tristan noticed an old telex machine mounted above the top shelf with the TRANSIT written in Old English script below. The server skipped back to their table with a hookah, it’s belly alive with color transposing LED strips.

“What is the deal with that old Telex machine?” Tristan ventured in English. The server looked to Isabella and back to Tristan with a nervous dedication. Tristan pointed at the Telex and mimicked typing. He seemed to understand.

“Oh…” He paused to find the words. “The owners…” pointing to the ceiling, “They like … Internet things.” He smiled, proud of navigating the language for his customer, but still searching Tristan’s eyes for approval.

“Thank you.” 

The boy skipped back to the bar to fetch their drinks.

“What does a telex machine have to do with the Internet?” Tristan asked Isabella.

“Let me explain.” An Englishman in a cling-free suit fell onto the couch opposite them, introduced himself as Peter Read, and began evangelizing for a schismatic branch of The World Organisation for Systems and Cybernetics, The Stafford Beer Society.

“Is that some type of radical apocalyptic scheme?” Isabella prodded.

Read sat up a little straighter. “They like to claim we are another flavor of Marxist.”

“They?” Queried Isabella, mirroring Read’s earnest lean. 

The Stafford Beer Society was named for the creator of The Liberty Machine, who in 1971 at the behest of Fernando Flores, Chile’s economics and finance minister, travelled to Santiago to revolutionize the limits of planned economies, as previously failed by Cuba and the Soviet Union. He sought to use a telex communications system, a network of teletypewriters, to gather data from factories on variables like daily output, energy use and labor “in real time,” and then use a computer to filter out important information the government needed to make decisions. Unknown, however, to Comrade Beer, following a failed attempt to sway the 1970 Chilean elections with anti-Allende propaganda, President Richard Nixon, in collusion with Henry Kissinger, John Mitchell and Pepsi Cola chairman Donald Kendall, had allocated ten million dollars to arrange a military coup d’etat to prevent the Socialist President from taking office, an assignment that would come to be known as Project FUBELT. It was a bad time to be alive in Latin America. Rumors were swirling through the Western presses that Beer and Allende were creating a nation run by computers, misrepresenting the system as an impenetrable computerized tyrant. Reporters linked Allende’s cadre to the men behind the veil in George Orwell’s 1984, and other sci-fi super villains. In actuality, the Project Cybersyn thesis was to create a system of automated feedback modeled on the cybernetic principle of homeostasis using a system of telex machines networked through phone lines and using the British programming language DYNAMO to compile long term data and predict future problems. Beer also envisioned a system for measuring domestic happiness called Project Cyberfolk, which utilized feedback knobs in every household to acquire realtime data, and notify leaders of significant unhappiness in certain neighborhoods. Beer wanted to create a utopian society where cybernetics superseded bureaucracy and responded to the needs of the people rather than the self interest of those in power. As the project was beginning to come together, governments and corporations beholden to the US were systematically refusing to provide money, supplies and machinery to socialist Chile. The ensuing discontent allowed Cybersyn one bright flash of brilliance, as forty-thousand truckers went on strike, grinding distribution of food and fuel to a halt, emboldening critics of the socialist regime, the project was forced into its first experiment, collating data from administrators around the country, and reprogramming distribution routes to deliver critical supplies. But the Cybersyn system was far from complete, and Flores and Beer watched with consternation as the country was dismantled from within. A paramilitary contingent assassinated Allende’s assistant, saboteurs damaged oil pipelines and the electrical grid, citizens were killed during violent public demonstrations, shops closed due to lack of goods, and second in command General Augusto Pinochet replaced General Prats as commander-in-chief of the Chilean Army. What happened on the 11th of September, 1973, a day now memorialized by all Stafford Beer Society members, is not exactly uncontested. Early in the morning Allende received word that his navy had turned against him. None of his military could be reached by phone. Eventually the army, navy and air force surrounded the presidential palace on all sides. They demanded surrender, but Allende refused and instead delivered a radio address to his constituents, telling them not to loose hope, that: “sooner rather than later avenues will open along which free men will walk to build a better society.” The building was bombarded with rockets and Allende was shot, either by his hand or another’s. Blame, of course, is relative. If you believe the New York Times, Allende shot himself with an AK-47 that was a gift from Castro, however if you believe the London newspaper bulletin, from which Stafford Beer learned of his doomed project’s fate, he was assassinated. 

“Who really cares?” Read rolled his eyes. “The man who pulled the trigger is irrelevant. It’s the motion of the thing, the structural sickness that would make such coercion even feasible!”

Their whiskey had materialized at some point during his tirade. Tristan took a sip. Isabella was almost finished with her’s and struggling to ignite the coal.

“But this was the first occasion in which cybernetic principles were imagined at their full potential: creating intelligent adaptive planning based on nearly decomposable systems. It sure got the Americans’ attention! Beer exposed their fear to the world, and now look at them. Their corporations and government use feedback systems as a matter of course, only they’re using them all wrong. They use them to increase private profit margins instead of profiting for the people.”

“Allende was a great man, but only a politician. Stafford Beer was our first great casualty.”

“Was he killed?” asked Tristan.

According to the Stafford Beer Society his was a fate worse than death. Following the coup, the cold war was in full swing and there was little hope to see Beer’s vision instituted on a full scale. He relocated to mid-Wales where he was content to dabble in poetry and the visual arts.

“That sounds, and correct me if I’m wrong,” Isabella was pressing on the coal with one hand and holding a tube in the other, “like the perfect response to a failed socialist experiment.”

“No, no, no, you’re still stuck in this paradigm. It’s a false socialist/capitalist dichotomy. You’re still referring to the market-mind, but what you don’t realize is the Liberty Machine can free us all from pinching our Shillings, our Mao, whatever. It doesn’t matter. It’s just a thing. We live in a world full of things, and we are a people capable and willing to make our lives better with those things. Why do we need money?”

“Because money is the root of all evil.” Isabella humored him.


“Is Beer still alive?” Tristan inquired.

“After a few years he tried to stir up momentum again, thinking Cuba, or perhaps Venezuela, but the academic community only tacitly obliged, and before long he resigned himself to his dogs and his poetry. That’s what I meant by casualty, and where we took the caption to our own Telex machine there. TRANSIT is the title of his self-published book of poems. It is a systemic violence, a cultural illness, that turns a brilliant man into a sideshow.”

“Did he publish any other books?” asked Tristan between pulls on the hookah.

“Only one: The Juniper Study —”

Tristan swallowed smoke and began coughing so violently that as he leaned forward to steady himself on his knee he blew the remainder of his whiskey from his glass back into his face, mixing tears and burning his eyes. The server skipped over with a fist of toilet tissue, and dabbed Tristan’s brow.

“Excuse me,” Tristan rose, holding the tissue to his eyes, “Isabella, can you ask where the restroom is?”

The server seemed to understand and led Tristan away.

The restroom consisted of a row of four holes in the floor separated by narrow dividers, no doors, and on the other side an angled stainless steel urine trough. The sink had no mirror or paper towels. Above the sink, amid markered penis’ spraying into mouths, labels and arrows pointing, crossed out and renamed, he was drawn to a message pencilled in barely distinguishable, though evidently English, script: Do you like dancing? Who doesn’t, right? We all like to dance and would love to meet you too. Join us for pop-up dance parties. Contact: Genevieve by PRIVATE, @PGP key DancePacific. PRIVATE? Tristan thought. He knew PGP meant Pretty Good Privacy, which provided encrypted email and chat services. The entire message was surrounded by a circle that was etched deeply into the cement wall. He knew it would have taken hours for one person to dig that deep. He imagined a caravan of zoned out workers trolling into this particular restroom, tracing the path of the circle with a knife or retracted pen, and splashing water on their hands before leaving.


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.”


“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.


Human Code

Hong Kong sits off the southern coast of mainland China. Like Macau, it integrated with the PRC as a Special Administrative Zone in the late nineties preserving cultural and political autonomy, while yielding to the PRA for national defense, a model China hopes Taiwan and other islands controlled by the anti-Communist ROC will follow. Hong Kong is more a massive nature preserve with a complex of corporations seated in its bosom than a province — two hundred uninhabited sub-tropic islands, seventy-five percent undeveloped land, and a megapolis spanning the coastlines of Kowloon peninsula and Hong Kong Island. It has its own currency, a hands-off head of government called Chief Executive, the world’s seventh largest stock exchange and largest center of IPOs. Milton Friedman once called it the world’s greatest experiment in laissez-faire capitalism. This had been Posner’s city: the post he’d established twenty years ago as the CIA’s arm’s-reach monitoring head quarters, building a triangular surveillance relay between Penghu Island and the southern mainland, accumulating petabytes of unconfirmed SIGINT and un-vetted HUMINT, while bathing in the cascade of champagne and easy-cash available to high level CIA in exchange for industrial intelligence tips. The pilot’s announcement bell sounded: thirty minutes until landing. Tristan looked out his window, the sprawl of towers and antennae, LED lights streaming colors and messages in the overcast morning haze, like a pile of casino chips with iridescent inlays, a financial Casino with the PLA for muscle; and he thought of a photo Geoff had shown him: a map of the World Wide Web rendered spherical, reminiscent of a skein of nerve endings firing brightest at origins and synapses. Sinews of transferred information between servers, personal computers, mobile phones. As the plane arched around the city, before making it’s one hundred eighty degree turn to approach for landing, he could see, at this angle, the rivers of data, carrying persons, tiny quanta of information grouped in packets and shipped, each one meaningless in itself, stagnant, but combined ignite a chain bursting with new and subsequently transferred information. Hong Kong held a significance in that moment, in a way that was not immediately available to his intellect, but that he sensed like one senses a spiritual experience, like a silent beacon, waiting, stuck in restless, self referential patterns, needing him, Tristan, to bridge the gap, bring the information together. An enormous storm cloud was approaching from the East, arching northwest from the pacific, ominously began to engulf the city skyline. The turn complete, the city out of view, Tristan lost connection, like being startled out of a dream and sensing all details of it drifting away, he surrendered. However the dangling sense of significance, glimmer of purpose, remained, and he experienced a rush of energy and motivation as the fasten seatbelt sign chimed and the plane angled for descent, he was wide awake and eager to get to work. He imagined his minder proffering a couple days of sight seeing or a day on the beach to get acclimated, overcome jet-lag, and him saying, ‘No, let’s get on with this. We’ve got a lot of work to do.’

The airport employed the traditional human conveyor belts to ease the transition of stiff, possibly thrombotic, legs from gate to baggage. Tristan picked up his black duffel and dragged it to the seven layer immigration line. He used his citizen passport for entry as he was officially in Hong Kong on private business, his red State Department version safely sown, along with other alternative forms of identification, into his computer bag’s divider. From immigration he passed customs with nothing to claim. A giant ZTE logo materialized on the corridor wall, and faded, a blur of pixels, into an advertisement for the airport express train into Central Hong Kong. He preferred taken a bus upon first entering a country. Beyond the restricted area the roar of a tropical rain’s relentless assault drew Tristan’s gaze past the overhead catwalk connecting the next story’s terminals to a yawning glass ceiling one hundred meters high. This world, this tone, he thought, is far from empty, far from needing me to fill it. Yet, here he was. Across the meeting hall a Travelox currency exchange machine was embedded in a wall. Tristan used his debit card to withdraw the daily maximum two thousand Hong Kong Dollars. He didn’t know much Cantonese, but asked the vender at the Airport Express kiosk what bus he should take to Jordan Road in Kowloon. The man, who either didn’t know or didn’t understand, handed Tristan a folding map and spoke, seeming to scream, over Tristan’s shoulder to the next person in line. The A-22 bus would not leave until six, so he overpaid for a delightfully tart espresso and a play-dough tasting sesame seed muffin at a French stylized Starbuck’s clone named the improbable ‘agnès b. Cafe L.P.G.’ (a feeble attempt to avoid the actual Starbucks looming in the corner), waited the hour, listening to the rain, which sounded like a corn-syrup-tweeking toddler playing a timpani, and read his book.

Tristan had never been to a country where traffic drove on the left, not to London, or New Zealand or even Jamaica. He wondered why Canada had never adopted that antiquated mark of British rule. It probably would have angered the French. It seemed strange that the former British colonies, and even the U.K. itself, still retained the protocol, as if it was a distinguishing logic the crown was unwilling to surrender, or perhaps it was simply a matter of what to do with the extant cars and traffic signs. The only real advantage Tristan could imagine was that it facilitated easier car on car drive by shootings, for right-handers that is, modern day jousting. He was a bit unnerved, atop a double decker bus (another first), the rain oscillating between a deluge and sprinkle, but he did his best not to think about it. The airport was built on a small, once hilly, islet north of the mountainous Lantau Island. The drive to Kowloon was thirty minutes along Lantau’s winding northern coast. Most of the land out there was still undeveloped and lush, each curve revealing green cliffs and valleys emptying into beached coves, the occasional fishing village sprouting rectangular concrete residences oriented around two or three not-quite complete sky scrapers draped in a cocoon like black netting, a couple giant cranes standing watch.

The electric curtains allowed zero sunlight. The doorbell ringing through space gave Tristan some sense of this room he’d forgotten. It began, in his dreams, as a vague external warning, like a church bell or bomb raid siren, gradually he sloughed off layers of mythos and historical memory, determining that he was in fact on a couch in some hotel or apartment in Hong Kong, not his childhood bed, the final temporal realization, ding …. ding: shit. Somebody’s waiting. How long …. What time …. Where are my pants? He groped for a coffee table that should have, theoretically, held his phone. There was no coffee table. He rolled onto the floor, pawed a throw rug for a moment, rose up unsteadily, and with hands outstretched in the inky darkness found the door. 

The hallway was colored cream and tastefully lit with single-loop filament Edison-bulbs, though even these proved blinding to Tristan’s mole eyes, intensifying the appeal of the woman with an expectant face: the heavy contrast accentuated the soft curve of her cheeks, and chin, the purposeful parting of her lips. Her blonde-brown both radiant and grounded. He was stuck, so she took the lead.

‘Hello Tristan, my name is Isabella. My friends call me Issie.” She skimmed him as she walked past, leaving a subtle wake of myrrh and musk, deftly touched the light button, and unloaded her computer bag and suit jacket on the couch. She was wearing a sleeveless azure blouse with a modest neckline, fitted black suit pants and black raised heels.

“Like the legendary lake monster? Japanese, right?” Tristan tried humor with a wide-eyed dependent look, but missed the timing, and may have been insulting if she was paying attention. He noticed his pants heaped beside the couch. 

She squatted femininely to pick them up. “Don’t worry about it. We’re not friends.” She held out his pants impassively, the phone dropped from a pocket, and with what seemed to Tristan, who was still processing his failed joke, ninja swiftness, a slight dip at the knees, she grabbed the phone and placed it atop the pants. “Not yet, anyway,” she added, a glimmer in her eye. 

She retrieved two lap tops, a clear bag of electronic gadgets and a bottle of red wine from her bag, setting them on the couch and bringing the wine to the kitchenette counter. Tristan thrust his legs through the wet fabric, which reminded him of that morning’s somnambulant uphill journey, which up to that point had been stored away somewhere, unavailable. Emerging from the subway station into the misty morning, he remembered having thought it looked like a version of midtown Manhattan, with newer buildings and narrower streets. The signage of Citi-Bank, Louis Vuitton and Armani giving way to off-white, predominantly glass, high rises. 7-11, Starbucks, shoe stores and lingerie. He had bought an umbrella and decided to keep his head down and get to the building, setting his bags and sitting quietly taking precedence over any curiosity he may once have entertained. The dynamic financial center, he’d imagine, high power business men spreading contagious energy, it wasn’t. Sunday had drained the streets of suits, replacing with housewives dragging children and giant brand-name bags under umbrellas held at eye height. It was very exhausting to think about, in his delirious cynicism, the western style conspicuous consumption related to an upper class theme park where families went to be happily distracted with new things and goofy visuals, while their fathers and husbands were dragged, dying from cardiac arrest, behind reinforced prefab walls. He felt rejuvenated now, and couldn’t tare his eyes away from her. She wasn’t young, but retained the vitality and radiance of youth. She moved with a blend of precision and mania, as if she were at all times a bit late. A beautiful woman, a future-chic apartment; it all seemed put on, like someone was juicing him up.

“So, you gave in to the call of a jet-lag induced nap. Did you have trouble sleeping on the flight?”

“No, I slept fine, I think. It’s hard to say. It’s just exhausting.”

“I know. You’ll get used to it. Most of your work, to begin with, can be done from home so your sleep schedule won’t matter much. But we do need to get started.” She was smiling more easily now, glancing at him at least, while she set up her laptop. He saw in the mirror above the dining hutch that his hair was matted thoroughly on one side and turned up on the other, like a teenage emo-do shaped with wax. He tried to flatten it down, but then excused himself to change his pants (and comb his hair).

“This place is great, by the way. I don’t dare even ask how much it costs.”

She explained that they wanted to keep him visible, playing the role of a man on long-term business. Hong Kong generally doesn’t check up on businessmen, especially coming from Canada, but it’s better to be safe than sorry, because ‘if they do know we might not know they know until it’s too late,’ she said. Also, the apartment was close to the office at the consulate. Tristan sat down, and tried to listen while Isabella explained that she was the Collection Management Officer assigned to this project, working directly under Gray Fox (code name for Hong Kong Chief of Station, James Rodnik). The little IBM notebook, encrypted with Truecrypt, held thousands of classified files in a cold storage (never connected to the internet) virtual drive. She clicked through various profiles of executives, office drones at various companies, Sybase, Motorola, Huawei, EYIF, Swisscom, Entel, EMC, L-1, along with active agents she and other officers were running in Hong Kong, Macau, Shenzhen and Shanghai. 

“This should get you started.” She chirped, displaying the first bit of uncontrolled emotion since they’d met. “I’m sorry. I totally just zipped through all of that. Let’s eat something. I took the liberty of filling your fridge with some American comforts and some of my local favorites.” She closed the computer and glided to the kitchenette. “Do you like lasagna?” That got Tristan’s attention. He followed her to the counter and inspected the bottle of wine.

“Yes, it’s my favorite.”

She retrieved a small tinfoil encased casserole dish, nudging the door closed with her hip.

“I hope you don’t mind. It’s not standard. I like making it with eggplant instead of beef, especially in China. The beef isn’t the best.” 

The wine was a Cairel, Barbera d’Alba from Caveia. Also his favorite, an obscure one too.

“You can’t get this here can you?”

“No. Unfortunately, not. My father get’s a case every other season. I always try to grab a few whenever I go home, for special occasions. It’s my favorite.” She studied his face, her velveteen brown eyes all but winking.

“Open it,” she said. “Let it breath for a couple hours.”


Imperceptible Thaw

As the holiday season floated by, Tristan was to have all manner of epiphanies. Unable to make sense of his role with the CIA in China, unwilling to breach certain firewalls he’d equipped in the emotional regions of his brain, his revelations were centered on the residue of days forgotten. Footlocker regionals, Sister Clarice at St. Catherine’s school dances reminding: “leave room for the Holy Spirit!” while parting virgin pelvic bones with a raw wooden ruler, purple river Thursdays from textile mill’s out-flow, colonial western settlements — all history laid in the grit and salt of snow banks, melting into storm drains, following what had once been tributaries to the Susquehanna. He had not checked his social networks since updating his occupation to the Agency condoned cover: Mergers and Acquisitions consultant with Nexen Inc., Calgary. He’d concocted a protective self-image, ambling Washington streets, seasons, of a star-crossed astronaut engaged in a protracted space walk, untethered, waiting in the frozen inaudible vacuum for someone, some duty to drag him back to station for briefing. When that duty materialized as CIA, Tristan fawned like a school boy flush with vague virility, grounded in atmosphere yet existing only in deep subconscious waters, to emerge in Pennsylvania winter, a warm home, loving family, yet always anyway alone; he preferred the solitude of the road. Tristan ran by the river in black tights, long sleeve T-shirt, gloves, heat rising from his chaotic blonde hair as a smoke stack, feeling a refreshing anonymity, this town could be anywhere. In the crisp early morning the few frail bodies venturing out, isolated as repellant electrons cruising around a distant nuclear core, focused on concealing any exposure, clinging extremities close to heart, contemplating the warmth lost in every puff of breath. The river’s steady rumble reminded him of personal grumblings into cell phones or between coffees on a street corner, how people can stop in their path, change direction, while the river continues flowing along as nature set millions of years ago, yet the similar sound; perhaps man’s flow is equally resolved, if infinitely more convoluted, the river of man one day eroding its metaphysical banks, flooding the world, consuming everything unto itself. You’re a cheery bastard this morning, he told himself. He’d finished twelve miles feeling ready for another, started his cool down drills, skips, high knees, strides, and knew, then, that he was still in orbit, still waiting, the CIA only another dream delivered under the ethereal stamp of purpose. There was no escape but to forge ahead, discovering clues from a real world winking down from not so far away heaven. He’d always had a sense of his role as an other-actor, in this world but not of it, never quite committed. In school he’d played the role of the intelligent athlete, skilled enough to get high grades, but indifferent to the pleasures of thought; competitive in races, but unwilling to give up leadership camp for cross-country camp. Even within his sport experience he was split between the group hype mentality of a basketball team and the goofy autonomy of distance runners. Living in contradiction freed him from the vulnerable position of building bonds.  By the time he realized that he desired inclusion, that discourse and passion were valuable and enjoyable, he perceived an irreconcilable error inscribed on his personality, the inherent curse of the outsider forever fated him to sit at the penumbra between relevance and complete desolation, observing without the shared reality necessary to act in any meaningful way. CIA offered him a way, but as with the Institute or Cross Country team, he would never belong, he was still alone, possibly more than ever. An astral explorer, floating in silence, plenty of time to consider, enough it seems to realize, all is folly, that he is powerless to do much more than work and love, or else spend each aching hour considering how to properly close a cabinet behind a careless guest without seeming overly particular, before a terrifying or benevolent presence reaches down to pluck him out of finite uncompromising existence. If he could only love.

Tristan’s father was at the kitchen table in navy blue sweat pants and a ‘Tin Pan Alley’ T-shirt reading the Washington Post. 

“Still haven’t given up on print journalism?” Tristan prodded, sprawling on the floor to stretch.

“Of course not. I’ll follow to their grave. You never know who’s messing with those online articles. They could change any minute.”

“Isn’t that a good thing? They could have made a mistake, and you’ll believe it until the retraction comes out next week.”

“Ah.” Richard dismissed the thought with a wave.

Tristan’s sisters were home, upstairs, still sleeping, along with their mother. He had cherished the time with them all, but felt more alienated then usual, not being able to talk about his job. He could tell they noticed. He knew it would only get worse when he had real secrets to keep. 

“I love you dad.”

Richard looked to the linoleum floor where his son was leaning into a butterfly stretch. He put the paper on the table. “I love you too, son. What’s the matter?”

“I’m fine. I just wanted to tell you before tomorrow morning. Last minute, ‘I love yous’ can feel so cheap, forced. You know? I wanted you to know that I do appreciate everything you’ve done for us. Men like you don’t come around often anymore. I know I’m not…”

“Tristan, get off the floor. Come sit down.” Tristan sat at the table, his fingers clasped, his gaze focused on precisely nothing. “I’m sure you’re going to be fine over there. They wouldn’t send you into anything you can’t handle.”

“I don’t know. China’s different. You remember the last time. And I read an article last year about a group of local journalists they threw in prison for years until the Internet went crazy. They definitely don’t like American’s snooping around, and I’m as green as it gets. I don’t know what they’re thinking. I should be in some office at Langley!”

“Hong Kong’s different. It’s barely even China. And you said you were just doing paper work, data-mining, right? The last thing the military needs is to send some kid out and create an international scandal.”

“That can’t be all this is. It doesn’t line up. And whatever it is, what if I’m not ready to do what they want me to do?”

“Tristan relax, you’re going to do great. I’m sure they’ll explain everything before you get too far along, and if you don’t think you’re ready then they’ll have to figure something else out. I really doubt they’d ask you to do anything too advanced without first getting your feet wet. That doesn’t make sense.” 

“I guess. I just can’t figure out why they wanted me in particular, if not for something more specific than just translating. What if they want me to do something messed up?” Last week, at the north-side Giant Tristan ran into Nick Stiletto working behind the seafood counter. At first he pretended not to recognize the kid who, twelve years ago (had it already been that long?), sat by the window in Mr. Morrison’s Algebra 2 class, but then remembered that he, Nick, had known Steven from the Taekwondo Academy. It turned out they still chatted on occasion. The ‘big company’ Steven was working for was Huawei, an up and coming rival of American telecom hardware companies like Cisco, Dell and IBM. They supplied much of Britain’s optical cables and routers, and were the sole supplier for Iran and Cuba. In October the congressional committee on foreign investment (CFIUS) labeled them a national security threat due to alleged dubious connections with the Chinese government. What was Steven thinking?

“If they ask you to do something you know is wrong, then just say no. You’re a good person. You have strong principles and a well formed conscious. I know because I raised you. Tristan, Look at me.” Tristan looked up from his fingers. “We need more people like you doing this work. When a man’s work is secret the temptation to take shortcuts or give into base desires becomes difficult to resist. Our country needs men like you protecting our reputation.” A pregnant pause followed. Sunlight was streaming through the kitchen window at an acute angle delivering an illusory warmth to Tristan’s hands and shoulder.

“I always thought that I wanted to live a life of secrets. To have that part of my mind turn out to be real. But now I’m not sure.” This statement he wasn’t sure of either.

“That’s a good thing. Remember that when you’re invited to know more than necessary.”

Tristan shifted in his seat. “Okay. I will.”

Tristan left Harrisburg, two days after Christmas, unclear what tasks awaited him. His mother, rendered emotionally liquid with worry, flowed through self-conscious cycles: first misery, then feigned optimism, and blind denial before beginning the cycle anew, stuffed three batches of his favorite white chocolate macadamia nut cookies into his carry-on, to, ‘bring the holiday spirit to China.’ His youngest sister, Jodi, handed him a pair of capris she had designed using fast drying material and stitching secret pockets positioned in the most improbable of pits, her expression evasive and impossible to decipher, the only passable characterization: autistic, as Tristan explained his brief stop in Calgary to meet with the Nexen executives. 

After a layover at Vancouver International Airport Tristan’s flight to Hong Kong departed at twenty-one hundred hours Pacific Standard Time. Once the Boeing-777 reached the comfortable cruise altitude of 35,000 feet he fell asleep. Six hours later he woke up and slid up the window screen to discover daylight. The flight tracker showed they were over the Bering Strait, passing the international day-line, the last point of contact with Anchorage Center. For five hours the plane straddled the horizon, pure morning light to the left, cold gray pre-dawn firmament to the right. Tristan imagined sweeping over creation on that first day, the moment God created light, pushing back the darkness to begin the ebb and flow of time, the ubiquitous waters between surface and space refracting light into a geometry of color, all history’s potential; And then the separation: green seas, azure sky, bright white light and harrowing endless night. He leaned into the warm glass to see the fractured arctic surface below. The frozen stop-gap of humanity, he thought, a reset policy, an hourglass gradually flooding the earth with its liquid sands of unknown primordial organisms. God promised he wouldn’t do that again, he thought, but we may have misinterpreted a technicality in the covenant, because it is coming. Perhaps it’s the time we have to come together, to get our souls right. He reached into his bag for his book on China: ‘a modern history,’ and read until dosing off early morning somewhere over the Sea of Okhotsk or Siberia.



Arctic Sea
Via Nick Starno


Shell Game

On a leaden winter dawn Tristan arrived at an Amtrack terminal from a briefing with seven C.I.A. employees, two of whom spoke while the others watched, scribbling notes in what had to be Pitman, where he, Tristan, was designated a Language Officer under Elliot Posner, the Hong Kong Chief Plans Officer, whom, Lyddell had informed him, once lost contact with seven of his OO’s for three months only to discover them, after much international hullabaloo, holed up in a mainland KTV hotel suite as official guests of The Party, wasted on cocaine, copulation and booze, claiming to be very close to landing some ‘top notch game changing intelligence,’ but was still made PO with his rat’s nest of assets and dubious intelligence vast enough to make his, Tristan’s, posting less of the opportunity he was led to believe and more like a protracted method of laying in front of an oncoming bus. Tristan sat in his seat and stared through crystalline formations on his window, told himself welcome to government, and tried to fall asleep. This did not work. He thought of Fratello’s Pizzeria in Nesopeck where a bottle of wine had been ordered, rearranging ionic structures over a period of months, or forever; a hill near Barnhart Dam few knew had been a tire landfill because the tall grass, butterflies, forest coursing with running trails and the cattail spotted wetland were so idyllic; a cold, haunting Icelandic ballad espousing childhood nightmare type emotions; a portrait of Deng Xiaoping on a fading book mark in a history of modern China Lyddell had given him. Was this the real reason he was being sent to China, he wondered, amidst dreams, to unveil a legacy of organized crime at the foundation of Chinese capitalism? That made Tristan laugh to himself, so gauche, common. You’re so melodramatic, he told himself.

The men who spoke during the debrief were Counterintelligence Center Chief, Benjamin Alcott and Deputy Director of NCS for Community HUMINT, Dr. Matthew Cole. The silent observers included Director of NCS, John Berman; CIA Executive Director Stephanie Olson; Chief of Station in Hong Kong, James Rodnik; Charles Lyddell, and an enigmatic severe looking woman who sat at the far end of the conference table. After a flattering outline of Tristan’s outstanding record at George Washington University, The Institute, National Intelligence University, Camp Peary and additional training reports from Harvey Point were offered to the group by Lyddell the Deputy Director revealed that eighteen months ago terrorist network chatter indicated that the Chinese government was trawling for cyber-mercenaries and planning an attack on the United States. They admitted counterintelligence in the region had been a low priority since the nineties, but had reason to believe the risk was very real, very dangerous, and set to occur very soon. Tristan had been selected to sift the HUMINT archives from the past five years to categorize, prioritize and report any potentially actionable leads. The posting, a back room assignment surrounded by shoddy filing cabinets, was what Tristan had expected, at least nominally, but it didn’t explain the unorthodox nature of his recruitment. He tried to think of anyone he knew in China. Through the remainder of his four hour train ride from Washington to Harrisburg, through the afternoon shouldering his rucksack through downtown Harrisburg to buy his mother, Minna, a scarf at Theodore Bobbins’ Indo-Asian Pate and Napery (around the corner by the Harrisburg Downtown Improvement District Office he dropped his pack on a bench to drink a coffee and witness a rather skillful steel drum rendering of John Williams’ main theme to Jurassic Park by a grimy legless veteran); then to Front Street along the Susquehanna bike trail where he used to workout shirtless, a skin and bone hope-filled teen, to the Rose garden where he’d first kissed Julie Satorini, the sweet woody perennial fragrance of Synstylaes, Carolinaes and Laevigataes fermenting the warm summer evening, eventually, slightly unhinged from thirty four hours of wakefulness, nostalgic meandering, and caffeine, Tristan mulled, and mulled, mining his Friendtime app, thumbing through innumerable faceless memories which seemed as likely imagined or plucked from films or derived from dreams, and any way somehow all pointing toward a single point below a remote western horizon. It took him until he’d reached the woodbine covered dog-eared spruce stockade on the corner of his parents block to remember that when he was visiting home after college graduation he’d run into middle school classmate Danny Tiding who told him that fellow St. Catherine’s alum Steven Alexander had moved to Seoul to become the ATA representative for the World Taekwondo Association in Korea. Steve had all but disappeared during high school. Between traveling to Korea multiple times a year for Taekwondo tournaments, and teaching at the local ATA academy, he was basically home-schooled. He may have even graduated a year early. “Hi mom.”

“Oh, hunny. It’s so good to see you!” She pushed open the purple combination door and pulled him close at the shoulders, careful not to soil him with her tomato paste and spinach splattered apron. Holding him at arm’s length she gazed a few seconds. “You look good. Tired, but strong. Come in, come in.” She headed back toward the kitchen. “Richard! Your son is home.”

“I feel all right now, but I’m sure I’ll crash soon. They kept me up all night.” Tristan followed his mother into the kitchen. 

“That’s okay. We don’t have anything special planned. Just make sure you eat a good dinner first.”

“It smells amazing in here.”

“I made your favorite. Veggie lasagna with eggplant. I saved the basil and marjoram from the garden this fall and the Ricotta is fresh from Gabriella’s.”

“It’s amazing that place is still open.”

“You know, your father thinks she’s tied in with the mob.” She whispered, eyeing the stairs Richard had yet to descend. Tristan was sitting at the kitchen island appreciating the golden twilight while she chopped items for a salad.

“Have you heard anything about Steven Alexander?” Tristan inquired. He remembered that sometime last year at around one in the afternoon he received a Snople-Voice call at his office computer, source unknown; it sounded like an accidental dial: A man speaking a Chinese dialect unfamiliar to Tristan. He listened for two minutes deciphering what he thought were the words for stone and fish, before the voice said, “Oh, shit.” An American accent, followed by a deep, distended silence, the silence of an enormous vacant loft at three A.M. The call could have originated anywhere, bounced off any number of servers, firewalls, scrubbers. Had Steven been on a watch list? Was Tristan now one degree removed from a suspected collaborator? 

“It’s funny you should ask. This year they continued the summer movie series. You know the one they have in Italian Park on Thursday nights, by the lake? They extended it into the winter by using the Opera House, they just finished restoring it, it’s beautiful, you should really see it before you leave, but anyways Steven’s mother was there. Did you know she got remarried? I couldn’t believe it, she looks exactly the same. I don’t remember when the last time I saw her was. Had to be three or four years. She says that Steve is doing well. He’s been in China for two years now, working at some big company, consulting I think she said. I can’t remember where. Those Asian names all get muddled in my old head.” 

Minna pulled the steaming lasagna from the oven, cheesy edges a touch burnt, just as Tristan liked. Her brow was slightly damp from the final rush to complete everything in time. She threw two Pane Crostoso loaves, sliced and buttered with crushed garlic cloves at three inch margins, tin foil wrapped, into the 1930s porcelain O’Keefe and Merritt gas range his father had plucked from the family farm before it was divided and sold.

“Tristan.” Richard sidled down the stairs with a tilt showing deference to his ailing left hip. Tristan rose to greet his father. “How are you, son?”

“If I didn’t know better I would have thought you were compelled more by the sound of Mom pulling dinner coming out of the oven than the arrival of your only son.” He displayed an exhausted, half smile, accepting his fathers hard hand. The adrenaline was gone now that he was in the familiar warm home of his childhood. 

“Oh, don’t be silly. I just had to finish something up for work. Two more years, and I’ll be taking your mother to Bermuda in December instead.” He looked to Minna for approval.

“As long as you don’t spend all your free time out in the garage working on that old Packard I’ll be happy.” She was finishing the salad and didn’t look back.

Tristan’s father was an industrial engineer, specializing in mining operations. He was currently managing a coal project outside Pottsville that is scheduled for reassignment in two years at which point he will retire.

“So, you got your orders? When do you have to push off?”

“I can stay for Christmas, but I have to leave before the first.”

“Good, then I’ll have an extra hand for a couple weeks. Your mother’s been getting on me about cleaning out the basement.”

“Would you boys mind setting the table?” She gave her husband a look that told him to stop putting words in her mouth. Tristan grabbed the utensils and the bowl of salad; Richard grabbed the plates and a doily for the lasagna.

“Dad, make sure you don’t forget the cover story.”

“Nobody asks what you’re up to anymore.”

“I’m serious. It’s important.”

“All right, I know, I know, my son’s some big-shot important super-spy. So, now I have to lie to everyone. I got it. I’ve never lied before in my life, and now –” 

“You don’t have to lie, dad, just tell them I don’t talk about it much. That’s the truth.”

Richard grabbed the lasagna and set it in the center of the table. 

“Okay?” Tristan clarified.

“Yeah, that’s fine. But what do I say when they ask where you work, where you live? Huh? You don’t talk about that either?” 

Minna pulled the bread out of the oven and dropped the loaves on the table, chuckling to herself hoping to dispel the tension. “Okay, that’s enough for now. Tristan’s exhausted and starved I’m sure. Let’s just have a pleasant dinner. We’ll have plenty of time to iron out the details later.”

Tristan sat across from his mother with his father to his right at the head of the table. Richard said grace, thanking the Lord for all the blessings they’d received in this life: the food on the table, the health and safety of his son and daughters. He thanked the Holy Mother Mary for watching over his family, and providing good counsel in times of need, and asked that God would offer extra graces for Tristan, his son, as he endeavors on what was sure to be a period of many unknowable trials of body and soul. “Amen.”


Silent Goodbyes

“Dude, you’re fine.” Geoff reassured Tristan between sips of lager.

“I just feel bad sneaking around, acting like I’m in it for the long haul when I’m planning on leaving, but I can’t say anything in case my background and stuff doesn’t go through.”

“Yeah, that’s quite a predicament.”

Fast Eddies was slower than usual for a Friday night, though it was still early. Geoff and Tristan came here every other Friday after work to unwind and shoot pool. The downstairs bar scene could get rowdy, but once upstairs pool was the focus. They sat on high stools around a circular table. Two of the twelve pool tables were occupied.

“When did you say you’d find out?”

“I should know by the end of the month.”

“And when do you leave, if you get in?”

“December 7th.”

“Crazy. Well, at least you’ll be home for Thanksgiving.”

Geoff was the only person from work Tristan would hazard to call a friend. It’s not as though they visited each other’s families during the holidays, but they did socialize occasionally outside of work. Geoff worked for the IT department setting up and maintaining structures for research databases and archives. He only had an associates degree from some community college in Maryland, but that’s how computer genius’s do it — no need for a fancy six figure diploma when you could do just as well with no formal education at all.

“The last week has been strange.” Tristan took a sip from his beer. He recalled seeing the Institute’s crest pasted on the elevator doors that afternoon. It is on all his envelopes and letterhead; The Institute’s motto “veritas vos liberabit” forms a cradle beneath the familiar shield, sword and serpent. Freedom through truth.

“Did you ever notice the Institute decal on the eleventh floor elevators?” 

“Yeah, dude. They’re kinda hard to miss. They’ve been there for seven or eight years.”

“That’s what Melissa said. At first she kinda laughed at me. She must have thought I was making a lame attempt at a joke. It seems like I would have noticed them, though.”

“Ha, she probably thought you were going to ask her out. I wouldn’t worry about it, there’s probably a million things I haven’t noticed about that place.” 

“I know, it’s just funny how you could go through your day to day tasks and not notice half the things around you. It’s like it’s only when you first arrive somewhere or are about to leave that you actually see the place for what it really is. This morning it was like I was moving in slow motion and I could suddenly see all the pock marks and divots in the walls, like the corners were somehow sharper and the carpets had more depth.” Geoff was almost finished his beer. Tristan could tell by the way he kept eyeing the active pool tables that he wanted to play a game.

“Ha. Tristan. I’m gonna miss these talks man. I guess that’s true, though, in a way.” He finished his beer with a final masterful gulp and stood up. “You ready for another?”

“Yeah, sure. Sign us up for an hour.”

“You read my mind.”

One day was all Tristan needed to take Lyddell’s offer. His parents were encouraging. His mother said she had felt he was getting stuck, but hadn’t wanted to nag, and it sounded like a wonderful new experience. His father thought it offered a great opportunity to develop a resume for a lucrative job in the private sector, but was wary of his son becoming a spook. ‘Just be careful not to stick your head in where it don’t belong,’ he’d said. Tristan reassured him that he would still be working some desk, shuffling documents around. His father reminded him that documents are often more dangerous than guns.

Tristan had dreamed of being a special agent running around in a Tom Ford suit, wielding a poison dart pen, saving a beautiful woman from an eighty story dangling death, all the while stupefying a Jean Reno looking villain with his particularly American wit. Of course, he knew, this was ridiculous. The C.I.A’s plan for him more likely involved him leafing through documents, classifying them according to subject and source, perhaps the occasional translation, but it was an exhilarating dream. The idea of being even indirectly associated with such heroism made it hard to say no. He could more than live with being the geeky technician who finds the key link in the intel and feeds it to the super-agent just at the right moment to help him trick the bad guy and save the day. Lyddell had said something about Tristan’s ‘particularly useful qualifications.’ Tristan couldn’t stop wondering what he’d meant. He didn’t consider himself exceptionally good at anything. He spoke Mandarin, but so did a lot of people. He was a competitive runner on the local road race circuit, but nothing compared to the elites, or even class-B elites. No, it had to be something personal, something that only he could do. 

Tristan enjoyed the clarity of his thoughts that came after three quarters of a dark ale. It was as if his thoughts needed to slow down a precise fraction in order to hit the sweet spot where nothing overlapped, nothing was skipped, everything was laid out in a sensible coherent order. 

He saw Geoff’s head breach the stairwell wall. He was deftly carrying a beer in each hand while cradling the rack of billiard balls on his forearms. 

“It doesn’t look like you spilled any.”

“I don’t think I did.”

“Bravo.” Tristan retrieved his beer and the rack.

“It’s all that typing, molded my forearms into perfect platters.”

Tristan laid out the balls and grabbed the triangle that was hanging from the light above the table. “I ran into Mary yesterday morning, in the elevator.”

“Oh, god. Did she get super close to you when she talked?” Geoff moved up close to Tristan to say this, practically kissing his cheek, as Tristan tightened the rack with his fingers. Tristan offered a disapproving chuckle.

Geoff was mocking Mary Kitteridge, their HR director. She had been bugging Tristan (and everyone else who gave her the slightest hint of acquiescence) for the last month to sign up for the Yuengling Shamrock Marathon in Virginia Beach. She supposedly ran it every year, though she didn’t look like a runner by any means. Finisher medals and plaques lined her office wall. She possessed some habits, including bouncing from one foot to the other when giving presentations, and laughing idiotically at her own jokes, and the aforementioned close talking, which some of their colleagues found annoying. But she was not an idiot, she was just trying to be someone she wasn’t. Tristan recognized these as the kind of personality quirks that surface when an introverted person is forced to be extroverted as a requirement of their occupation.

“Well, what did you tell her?” Geoff spurred the conversation on.

“I said I still needed to see how I feel when I get up to the proper mileage; that I’d probably wouldn’t know until January at the earliest. She did her whole, ‘Oh, you’ll be fine, you’re faster than all of us,’ pitch, as if that would convince me.”

“Did she include the ‘I’m sucking through a straw while I laugh’ laugh to break the tension?” Geoff performed his own version. Tristan couldn’t help but laugh at that. They were both leaning on their pool cues, one trying to stop laughing, the other egging him on. 

“Yeah, she did. Now, go ahead and break, Mr. Rickles.”

Tristan ran track and cross country in college, and continued to compete in local road races, but had never run a marathon. He was aiming to do one next fall. Maybe New York. In October he’d run his first half marathon, and just started easing back into mileage. He didn’t think he could put in enough training to be ready for a good first marathon by March. 

Tristan became frustrated when talking to non-runners about running matters. They often thought that because the runner is faster than them, he is indestructible, or he can run any race at any time. What they didn’t realize was that by pushing himself to the limit and doing the training that made him faster he was actually becoming more vulnerable to injury. He thus had to be more judicious about the races he chose to do. It follows that a runner would prefer to race, that is compete, rather than just run to finish, so it wouldn’t make any sense for him to enter a race unless he knew he was prepared to do his best. Racing required proper training, which required a gradual build up and preparation, which he couldn’t even talk about with most non-runners. Tristan would get himself worked up in these situations, because he couldn’t say any of the things he was thinking. He would try to make it simple and tell them that a nagging injury has been hurting and he wanted to make sure it was healed before he committed to a race that was twice as long as anything he’s ever run. He’d add that last part in as a slight sardonic means of catharsis. 

The only reason he didn’t shut Mary down completely was that a less pompous part of him realized that it wouldn’t be horrible to run a marathon just to finish. He knew that finishing a marathon, regardless of how fast you run, is an accomplishment and an experience in itself. He could treat it like a super long easy run; as preparation for a later marathon, maybe even take some walking breaks. It’s not the way he imagined his first marathon, but it would be good to do something social with his co-workers. He knew he wasn’t good at putting himself out there. 

All this was out the window now. Anticipating his departure, he knew he couldn’t commit to anything, but he couldn’t withdraw either, without raising suspicions; jumpstarting the rumor mill. 

Geoff made a nice break, spreading the table wide and sinking two high balls. 

“But that’s the thing, I’m afraid she saw it when I hesitated, the moment of strategic reasoning in my eyes. You know? 

“Dude, no one sees anything in your eyes. You’re a rock man. Don’t worry about. It’s all in your head.”

Nobody but Christopher Lyddel, Tristan thought as he mulled over his options on the table. “Nevertheless, will you keep your ears open for me? Let me know if you hear any rumors floating around about me leaving. You know how these people gossip.” Tristan made his request as he leaned in to take aim at a cut shot into the corner. Just a little side spin. Good.

“Nice shot. Yeah, I can do that no problem.” Geoff took a sip from his beer.

“Thanks.” Straight shot to opposite corner. Tiny bit of top spin. Missed. “Damn, I always have trouble with the straight shots.”

“You and me both brotha.”

Tristan stepped back and took a large swill of his beer. He figured this ‘ongoing operation’ Lyddell referred to probably had something to do with his knowledge of Mandarin and Far East cultures, so chances were that he’d be translating intercepted documents, conversation or interrogations. Regardless of what his personal connection to the operation was, it seemed reasonable that he would be located in China or somewhere in southeast asia, so he decided that when the time came he would tell people he was going to work as a fact checker and market researcher for TransCanada and probably would move into a position working overseas with clients in the Far East.   

And then it came to him. The Chinese intern who had given him his first tour of the Institute had pointed out those decals. “The truth shall set you free,” he had said. Tristan had determined the literal translation from what remained of his high school latin education, “freedom through truth.” He remembered being drawn to that motto. It warmed his heart and provided him a sense of purpose when he’d begun working there. He knew he was still relatively ignorant to the ways of the world, but he was definitely more idealistic five years ago. 

Now, he thought, a more suitable motto might be, “fictio cedit veritati”, fiction yields to truth. That was the hope, at least; that is the reason they all got up and came to work in the morning. Truth was something understandable, somewhat measurable. Freedom was only connected to truth as a political state of being, and politics being as it was made radical freedom seem more than idealistic — approaching fantastic. To Tristan the only truly achievable freedom was metaphysical and this was not achieved through truth, but willful ignorance. However, the hope that someone might value the complex interconnectedness of facts over simple feel-good fictions: that seemed achievable, noble even in it’s arduous plausibility. This hope dimmed by an age of sound bites, yak-blogs and political spin, still survived as pit of glowing embers awaiting their proper kindling. 

“Tristan. It’s your shot.”

“Oh, my bad. I’m lows?”



Tristan walked through the Marriott’s marble walled lobby and passed the front desk to the restaurant bar. There were only a few open tables. Two men were at the bar. The room decor made Tristan think of cigar smoke and poker dealers with green visors. The walls were a mix of dark wood tones and billiard green. Shiny dark leather couches and love seats were scattered around the room. An occasional classical still life painting with a gold filigreed frame signified the lounge’s claim as a hideaway for the cultured class. Tristan was already nervous about the uncertainty of this meeting, and the sweat stains spreading from his arm pits only served to compound the anxiety. The atmosphere put a final flourish on his perception that he was out of place. He headed toward the bar to wait.

“Hello! Tristan.” A man at one of the glass tables to his right wearing a slim gray suit called his name and waved him over. The man was handsome in a way that was immediately forgettable: Light brown hair, angular symmetrical nose, average sized indifferent eyes, middle aged but passable as late thirties. He stood to shake Tristan’s hand and gestured for him to take a seat.

“Hello. It’s nice to meet you.” Tristan took the seat opposite the man. “Mr. Dryden said you two were college buddies?” He impressed himself with how collected he sounded, though he was sure his handshake was clammy.

The man chuckled to himself, “Yeah, right. Tell me I don’t look as old as that guy? Look, I don’t know what he told you about me, but whatever he said it isn’t true. My name is Christopher Lyddel. I am a recruiter for the Central Intelligence Agency. That is not classified. I don’t know why Dryden feels the need to lie. He sure loves playing spy games. However, for your protection the subject of our meeting is classified. Are we clear?”

Tristan nodded. He wondered why, if the conversation was classified, they were meeting in public. They could have just as easily used an empty conference room at his office, or a bench down by the Potomac. Was it part of the design, to condition him for a certain response, and if so, which part was the lie?

“Are you going to order?” Tristan asked.

“I’m not going to have anything. This won’t take long. You can order, but you’re cleared to take the afternoon off.”

“Oh, I couldn’t do that.”

“I can assure you it won’t be a problem.”

“I’ve just got so much work backed up, so…”

“I truly doubt that. I’ve heard a lot about you, and procrastinator was not mentioned. You do seem remarkably earnest, as they said. I had a feeling you would fit right in.” He leaned back and gazed across the room. A boyish grin took over his face. “You know, my wife says I’m always getting these hunches, that I’m like a woman in that way. Good intuition.” His gaze fixed on Tristan, he leaned forward bringing his hands together to signal his shift to a more professional tone. “It’s a must have in this line of work. Intuition that is, not a wife. Of course you can’t prove anything with hunches, but it sure does help you to sift through the nonsense. You know something about that, I’m sure.”

Tristan wasn’t sure what knowledge Lyddell was referring to, but he was impressed with his communication skills. Tristan already felt like putty in his hands.

“We’re gonna have to train that out of you. That open-book face of yours. I will remind you of that look ten years from now, all puzzled, like a lost puppy trying to figure out what I want — what I know.”

“Was it that obvious? I thought I had a pretty good poker face. In fact I just broke up with my girlfriend over it, or well, she broke up with me, I guess it was sorta mutual, anyways…”

“It’s okay. I’ve heard a lot of strange confessions. Yours is light-weight by comparison. Let’s wrap this up, shall we? Let me be perfectly clear. We are not offering you a job. Okay? There is no guarantee, but what we are willing to do is give you an opportunity to use your skills and experience to serve your country. I can’t tell you much more than that at this time. You will have to go through the necessary protocol, background and such, but that won’t be a problem, right?”

Tristan thought, I haven’t even said yes yet, and he’s acting like it’s inevitable. “Well, I’ll have to think about it. This is a lot to process right now.”

“I know. Take your time. I understand this is a major life decision. That being said, we would appreciate an answer soon.”

“I think I’ll need to know a little more about what your plan for me is, and what the process entails before committing to anything.”

Mr. Lyddell’s face hardened from friendly casual buddy into full on law enforcement mode. “I don’t have a plan for you at all. I’m just the messenger. This is how these things work: It’s a need to know basis. You’re going to have to work on your negotiating tactics too. All I can tell you about the job is that if you pass all the tests and training (and more tests) as we expect you should, then you will be assigned to an ongoing operation for which you have particularly useful qualifications. This type of recruitment call is very unusual. People usually come to us, or we pick out some high scoring recruits from branches of the military, and there are the occasionals we seek individually for very specific reasons. You are one of the latter. As for the process, you can find most of the information on our website. You will be trained as a core collector for clandestine services. We will try to fast track the training as long as you perform well in the simulations.”

Lyddell shifted during his address from no none sense cop, to casual buddy, finally settling somewhere between the two in what felt like fatherly advice. Tristan was amazed by how much each posture affected his psychological state. He wondered what it would be like to be on the offensive side of the conversation instead of the vulnerable recipient. 

“All right, I’ve got to run, here’s my card. I look forward to hearing from you. Order the clam chowder. It’s very good.” He got up and headed toward the door. Tristan looked at his card. It had his name and a single email address in raised lettering below the seal of the IRS. 

“Oh yeah, I almost forgot.” Lyddell turned at the door and returned to the table. He put a hand on Tristan’s shoulder and spoke only loud enough so he could hear. “If you do decide to continue this process, don’t go spreading it around. Tell your parents, sure, but if you have to tell something to friends or coworkers, tell them your joining the Air Force, to see the world or something. It’ll be your first lie for our country!” He whispered this last part in Tristan’s ear with a sense of glory that belied the solidarity he felt with the men and women of the CIA.

The nobility of secrecy, Tristan thought as Lyddell walked out the door.


Shoe Shopping

Tristan’s apartment was on the ground floor of a duplex. The front door opened into a dingy stairwell that smelled of mold, motor oil, cardamom. The door to his apartment was at the foot of the stairs to the left. He could sense Emily on the inside waiting for him, tempering her frustration so she could pretend he shouldn’t notice. She didn’t realize that tempering only sharpened her edge even more once it came out. He entered the living room. To his left was a window seat. To his right was Emily sitting on the couch, ostensibly reading, though it was clear by that point she was only maintaining the posture for appearances. Two plates of Szechuan chicken and their boxes of white rice sat on the coffee table. The chopsticks were still in the wrappers.

“Hi, hun. Where’ve you been?”

“Nowhere, I just got held up on the way home. The food smells good.” Tristan put his bag down next to the couch and sat with a heavy exhale. He kissed Emily on the cheek. 

“Well, it’s probably cold. I could heat it up.” Emily said, as she reached out, grabbed the plates and started to stand in a swift, premeditated motion.

Tristan tried to stop her by touching her wrist, saying, “It’s okay. I don’t mind.”  

“You don’t want to eat it cold. It’ll only take a second.” Her arm passed through his ambiguous grasp. She was right, but more importantly, he didn’t want her to leave. He wanted to be close to her now, even if she was upset, even if they didn’t say a word, he felt better with her near. Emily disappeared into the kitchenette on the other side of the wall.

“How was work?” She called, the muffled sound of her voice a room away emphasized the perfunctory nature of the question. Tristan took off his blazer and laid it on the arm of the couch. He sat back on the couch and recalled what had just happened a couple blocks away. He hadn’t called the police. Maybe that was stupid. He took a moment to appreciate the stability of his apartment’s walls of white-washed brick.

Emily poked her head out from the kitchen. “Are you all right?”

“Oh, yeah, sorry. I’m pretty tired.” Tristan sat up, massaged his face and mustered his best tired smile. “Work was good. You know, the usual.” 

“Good.” Emily flashed a smile and retreated back to the kitchen. 

The following hour passed in this way. They ate, shared general pleasantries, trying not to upset or disturb or provoke. Their evenings were becoming increasinlgy this way. It wasn’t because Tristan had just been robbed, or that Emily was forced to wait a few minutes longer than her patience could withstand. It was a deep fundamental and involuntary shift in their hearts’ allegiances. The experiment was over, the conclusions were in. Their hearts were malnourished and seeking alternative resources. They both felt what was happening, but they interpreted it in different ways. Tristan thought it was a phase, a dry period, an opportunity to prove how much they loved each other by acting loving even though they didn’t feel loving. She saw it as the beginning of the end, an irreversible collection of signs weighing against the prospect of a life together. 

Emily was the first to break the stalemate:

“I know I’m a little upset, so it’s probably not the best time to talk about this, but I’ve been thinking about it for the last couple weeks, and it’s all I can think about now. I feel like I need to just get it out there or we will continue to sit in silence forever.” 

She studied Tristan for a reaction, and he tried his best not to give any.

“Go ahead. No time like the present.”

“It’s like that! That right there. You’re so fucking passive. You think you’re being a good listener, but it’s maddening. It’s like talking to a wall.” She took in a slow breath, sat up straight on the edge of the couch cushion, and made deliberate eye contact like a mother scolding her son. “We’ve been together for almost four years Tristan, and I still don’t feel like I even know you. It’s not like I can’t tell when something’s bothering you, but you won’t even give me that. Everything’s like a huge secret. And you carry it around with this pompous silent saunter, like you enjoy it, like the world relies on you to carry this unimaginable burden.” Her upper lip quivered. She touched it repeatedly as she spoke. “I just want you to show me some emotion. Let me in. How can you say that you love me when you won’t open yourself up even a little bit? I’ve never seen you truly joyful, or even angry. Just show me, let me in, cause I really don’t think I know you.”

“Of course you do. You just said you can tell when I’m upset.” His casual dismissal was enough to set her off again.

“Don’t do that. Don’t treat this like some trivial argument. This isn’t something you can find some easy simple explanation for. It’s complicated, and the solution is going to hurt. I’m not sure how much longer I can do this. I feel like I’m losing my mind a little. I mean, I think I know you, but I can’t ever be sure, because you never confirm my intuitions, you never share anything. You could just tell me that I’m crazy when I think you’re upset, that you were actually made out of cardboard and never feel anything, and I might just believe you. This is how surreal this thing is becoming!”

“This thing?


“Oh. I love us.”

“I know you do. But I’m not sure you love me. “US” is like a safety raft for you.” She made little air quotation marks with her fingers. “It’s an object of imagination, a habit for coping with your unhappiness.”

“You think I’m unhappy?”

“Aren’t you? You don’t seem happy. Half the time you’re uneasy, fidgeting around, looking for a way out of wherever you are, the other half you’re either in an introverted protective shell or putting on some obnoxious silly front. Either way you’re distancing yourself from people. It’s like with the secrets, you need them. It’s not the world that needs you to keep them, you need them, they are your excuse to segregate yourself.” 

She waited for a response, but Tristan was just staring at some point between his knees and the edge of the coffee table. He was prodding an errant fingernail cuticle with his thumb nail.

“You don’t even think you’re smart enough to apply for a promotion.”

“I don’t want a promotion.” 

“I know you keep telling yourself that, but look around. It’s a two year position at most. People either move up or move out. You look ridiculous just sitting there, not even putting out the effort while all your colleagues move on.”

“OK. I get it. I need to show more initiative, be more emotionally available, and I embarrass you. Is there anything else?”

“You don’t embarrass me. I never said that. You’re smart. You should be competing for those positions, but I think you’re scared to compete. Scared that it might reveal too much.”

“I guess what I’m trying to say is that I think, I mean, it seems like we are at the end of the line.”

“We tried, but we just aren’t right for each other.”

“I think we’re right…” Tristan’s voice was very soft now, and difficult to understand. “Things have been stressful lately, that’s all, with you’re location assignments and my brother dying. It’s just a perfect storm of bad timing. We really shouldn’t be making huge life decisions right now.”

“It’s not just now Tristan. It’s everything adding up. The past year and a half we’ve been ignoring these signs. We owe ourselves more than that. If we’re not getting married, then what are we doing?”

“So that’s it. You’ve made up your mind already? Why this whole charade then? What, are you waiting for me to agree with you? Cause I won’t. If you’re going to do this you will do it alone. If you want to give up on this I won’t help you. “

“But you won’t fight for me either…”

“Oh, no you don’t. Not this again. So, now I’m supposed to completely ignore your will, become a stalker because you may or may not find it romantic. I’m sorry, I have my limits, and it’s not fair for you to accuse me of not loving you because I won’t go against your will. That’s just crazy. I thought we agreed on that.”

“You agreed. I was tired of arguing.”

Tristan pushed out an exasperated breath. He took his eyes off of Emily and fixed them on a framed poster of a young Duke Ellington seated at white grand piano in the left hand corner of the room. Duke was cool, and at all times level; Professional and yet a creative genius. He was completely within himself as a man, never too far out on any limb, but always nimbly looking out from the edge. At least this is what Tristan imagined whenever he saw a picture of him.

Emily and Tristan sat on the couch, side by side, unable to look at each other, but also unable to leave, for a terrible period of time. 

Emily broke the silence once again with a purposeful inhale.

“I should go. I’m exhausted as it is, and I have to get up early. We can talk more tomorrow if you’d like. Maybe I’ll feel better. I probably just needed to get it off m–”

“Please stop, don’t minimize this. I know you’re just trying to make it easier, but I don’t need your pity — you just want to be free, so you can go out and pursue some ladder climber who dresses like James Bond and makes you feel like a queen.”

“Come on Tristan.”

“You said you wanted me to get mad. Well, here it is. I hope it’s everything you’d dreamed!” 

Emily’s eyes were a levee ready to burst. She was clenching her jaw like she does whenever she’s trying not to show her emotions. Seeing her hurt just hurt Tristan even more, but he poured that hurt into his anger and steamed. 

“Can you just leave. I don’t want to say something I will really regret.”

“Yeah.” Emily grabbed her coat and purse, stood up and walked toward the door. Tristan stood up behind her. She turned toward him. There was a stream of mascara down her left cheek. Tristan had to look away to keep from breaking into tears in front of her. He knew if he tried to utter a word he would lose it. She put her hand out and cupped his shoulder. She backed away slightly, dragging her palm down his chest, where she’d rested her head so many times. She held it there for a beat, another moment that lasted forever, and then spun around and was gone. 

Tristan immediately started heaving wet sobbing protests to the universe. So much time spent with this girl. So many pointless arguments and insipid lazy afternoons. So many expensive dinners and gifts. After a few minutes the tidal wave of despair gave way to a steady trickle and Tristan went to the kitchen to pour a glass of his favorite scotch. 

He sat down at the window seat. He couldn’t bare the thought of sitting back on the couch. He starting texting a friend. He needed to get this information out, he needed to pass it along so he could start getting over it. He was a free agent, there’s the bright side. He told himself he may have secretly been hoping for this to happen, he just didn’t have the balls to do it himself. She was probably right, she was usually right. It was for the best.

An incoming call interrupted his text. It was a D.C. number. He took another quick sip of his scotch and answered with a cough.

“Achk, hello. Ugh, excuse me.”

“Hello, is this Tristan?” The voice was of an older man in good health; Low but clear with elegant breath control and annunciation, like a classical singer.

“Yes, speaking.” He was still getting a grasp on his voice.

“Are you all right?”

“Yeah, sorry, just swallowed down the wrong tube. I hate that.”

“That’s all right. This is Mr. Dryden. From the Institute.”

“Oh, of course. How are you this evening, Mr. Dryden?”

“I’m great. Thanks for asking. Listen, I won’t take much of your time. I wanted to let you know that I’ve noticed the great work you’ve been doing for the Institute these past years.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“I’ve also noticed that you haven’t sought any promotions.”

“Yes, well, it’s funny you should say that…” Tristan reconsidered the merits of mentioning the newest development in his life.

“I mean, um, I just feel I serve the Institute best from my current position. You see, I really don’t see myself as the management type.”

“I understand. I used to be the same way, believe it or not. Well, listen, I have an old college friend who works at the State Department who would like to have lunch with you tomorrow. He read a report you worked on concerning that study connecting the suspension of some graphite mines in Pingdu to insider trading in electric car stock. He said you made some leaps of logic that he found intriguing, to say the least. He’s asked for an opportunity to pick your brain a bit.”

“It doesn’t sound like I have much of a choice.”

“Trust me, it’s always better that way. I’ll still consider it a favor.”

“Okay, it would be my pleasure. Where does he want to meet?”

“Good man. Do you know the Marriott Atrium?

“Yes sir.”

“He’ll meet you at 1:15.”

“Yes sir.” 

“Good night.” The line went dead.




Company Man

Tristan’s work day was coming to a close. It was nearly seven p.m.. The fourth floor office was filled with the chatter of keyboards, soft conversations and the occasional mechanical sounds of a copy machine. Many of his colleagues were biding their last few minutes by searching through their emails or organizing their brief case, but Tristan was manic to complete the final touches of his summary while it was fresh, or risk having to come in early to re-read the entire thing before the morning brief. Two hours had passed since his computer screen went white to force him to take a scheduled ‘stretch-break,’ but he’d hardly noticed. ‘Enjoyed’ would not be the way to describe how Tristan felt about his work, but he would lose himself in the facts of the studies, absorbing the data, comparing, cross referencing and summarizing for the following morning’s report. He felt he had a knack for recognizing relevant patterns, and because of this he derived a measure of self-worth from throwing his entire being into these tasks. To Tristan, it was a matter of civic duty to do this job well.

Tristan had been with The Institute, at the same position, for a little over five years now, not including the year long internship he began as a senior at George Washington where he double majored in political philosophy and Mandarin. The Institute was very influential; the studies he analyzed were often quoted by politicians and lobbyists on both sides of the aisle, so he felt fortunate to even be awarded the internship, let alone get hired on full time after he’d graduated. He hadn’t once considered applying for a promotion. He felt this position was where he could be most valuable to The Institute.

Washington D.C.’s metro system was one of the cleanest and most modern in the U.S. — all white’s and chrome and glitter. The lights were bright fluorescents, making everyone seem pale and thin skinned. Tristan was standing, holding the stainless steel handle lining the ceiling. He could see his reflection in the train windows. His slightly oversized blazer made him look more tired than he felt. A black leather messenger bag hung on his shoulder. His coif, which had been slicked back and neatly parted in the morning, was now a little disheveled from the wind, and the hours at his desk he spent subconsciously running his fingers through it. The people around him didn’t seem to notice. Tristan pulled his tablet out of his bag and followed his ritual of perusing world news and clever Facebook posts to decompress: The Pope denounces sex-slave trafficking through Moldova; Iran concedes and then denies U.N. inspectors access to their nuclear facilities; Baby pictures that look like Rob Ford; Tensions increase in South China Sea as PRA warships drift north into Taiwanese contested waters.

Tristan’s phone vibrated in his pocket.

It was his girl-friend, Emily: “10 mins from your place. Pizza and salad or chinese?”

It’s Thursday, Tristan thought, the answer should be obvious, but Emily wasn’t as attached to schedules as Tristan. Part of him loved her for it. They were a good balance, but he couldn’t help feel a twinge of annoyance when she still, after all their time together, couldn’t (or wouldn’t) remember. Every minor reminder of this difference between their personalities brought back more emotionally loaded memories: when she would make them late and act like it was her right as an individual; or when she would change plans on a whim and turn him into the bad guy for not being more accepting and spontaneous; the worst part was that she would get upset when he needed to change plans for a legitimate reason that was out of his control; she was a complete hypocrite in that way! He needed to take a breath. He didn’t like that he felt this way, but it was, nonetheless, how he felt. He tried not to dwell on it. It would be three years next month since they met at 51st State bar on the eve of President Obama’s inauguration. CNN personality Bridgette Ainsley was hosting a hundred of her dearest friends and colleagues on the second floor. Emily was a news room reporter for Ainsley’s show, Banks without Borders. Tristan knew it was a hangout for politicians and news types, so he and a friend of his from out of town just showed up hoping to catch a glimpse of some celebrities. They met in the line to the restroom. It was a dark narrow corridor lined with dark stained tongue-and-groove planks. Tristan made a comment about her stilettos; how one benefit is that they didn’t have as much surface area to get stuck on the nasty beer and who-knows-what-else soaked floor. She looked at him like he was trying to describe M theory at a rock concert before burying her gaze into her phone. She would later say she had been intrigued ever since that moment, but he had a feeling that she probably didn’t even remember the story until he told her. His pursuit had lasted several fortnights before he eventually won her over, or as he told it: wore her down.

Tristan thought, it seems like now, they are two completely different people.


He usually enjoyed his fifteen minute walk home from the New York Avenue Metro Station. It gave him a chance to complete his unwind, to transition from work-life to domestic-life. Emily wanted him to move closer to the train. She had an aversion to taking buses, and the taxi system in D.C. was beyond convoluted. Tristan liked his little basement pad; He had lived there since college; He had a good relationship with the landlord; Plus, the rent was cheap by city standards, and somebody had to pay off his enormous college loans.

This night he wished he lived closer. An ominous sensation crept across Tristan’s pate as he ascended the metro stairs. His heart rate was slightly elevated. He pushed through the turnstile and exited onto 2nd street. The premonitions were probably just misdirected anxiety about seeing Emily after brooding himself into a bad head space, he thought. The tall glass and cement Courtyard Marriott building buffeted the unusually biting autumn winds swirling down 2nd street, drawing tears from the corners of Tristan’s eyes. He tucked his arms close to his body, his chin to his chest, and made a quick shuffle toward the Florida Ave corner. Turning the corner the air eased around him. The field across the street absorbed the erratic gusts. A bright moon peaked from behind some clouds just above the horizon. Tristan relaxed to a stroll, his worries easing with the air.

The unfolding character of Florida Ave. was perfect for Tristan’s transition to home. Through the narrow passageway of the I-50 overpass it opened up to a six lane business district complete with a Burger King, hardware store, old abandoned industrial buildings, a big cube of a building employing an abstract theory for window placement, a Chinese restaurant, and other various storefronts and gas stations. After five blocks the street became more residential. On the left side sat the Gallaudet University campus, tastefully enclosed by a low brick wall,  a wrought iron fence, and a procession of oak and fur. The right side of the street was a line of old Federalist style two story row houses, some brick, some wood panel and vinyl, in a hodgepodge of browns, whites, reds and greens. Each time Tristan proceeded from the wide noisy business streets into this seemingly (though not actually) narrower zone, he could feel his breath coming easier. His thoughts progressed more evenly and completely, communicating openly between his heart and mind without the fracturing and fragmenting sometimes induced by commotion.

The moonlight was lost now. The dim street lights on every other corner barely cast light for half a block. Instead of bringing certainty, as was their purpose, all they did was cast doubt in the form of chimeric shadows caught in Tristan’s peripheral vision. There was very little traffic, which Tristan thought strange. He checked his watch. It was only seven thirty six. There was no one on the street either. The air was completely still now, almost warm in its stillness. He realized he had probably just warmed up from his eager pace. He loosened the collar of his blazer, allowing some fresh air to cool his neck. He could hear the muffled vibrations of traffic somewhere, perhaps on another street a couple blocks over. The disembodied garble of  conversations or televisions in houses only emphasized the eerie emptiness outside.

As he passed the University campus entrance he began to make out a figure seated on a bench across the street. He was barely illuminated by the traffic light, now green, now yellow, now red. In the low contrast red light Tristan couldn’t make out any details of the person, only that the eyes seemed to follow him as he passed. He averted his gaze self-consciously. He felt ashamed for his own part in the staring. He quickened his pace and glanced back to find the figure still on the bench. Tristan thought, why are you afraid? You’re almost home. Emily’s waiting. Let’s just pick up the pace a bit. A car passed. He glanced back thoughtlessly before yanking his gaze forward, like his mother would yank him forward after repeated failed attempts to subtly prompt him to stop staring and come on. But the glimpse he’d caught was stuck in his mind. He stopped, turned, and squinted. It was as he had thought. His unwitting tormentor was gone.


Ah, forget it, he told himself, doing his best to conjure some unfamiliar form of bravado. But he couldn’t forget. Something was telling him not to forget. To move quickly, but not too quickly. Walk with confidence, but show no fear. It was five more blocks before he’d turn onto 10th street, and three blocks from there to his home.

The corner was a large intersection, the convergence of three streets. Two men stood smoking outside the liquor store on the opposite side. Tristan thought how relieving it was to see people outside. He turned onto 10th street. It was a narrow one-way street lined with oak trees and parked cars. There was some light, but mostly pitch dark. He could see a person approaching from the opposite direction. Tristan thought about crossing to the other sidewalk, but he didn’t want to offend the person, in some way. It would have been natural; that was, after all, the way he was going. But this person wouldn’t know tha–

‘Excuse me, sir? Do you have the time?’

Tristan stopped, and considered more seriously making that move across the street. He still couldn’t see the person’s face, but knew now that it was a man.

‘No, sorry, I’ve got somewhere to be.’ Tristan tried to squeeze between two parked cars to get to the street, but they were too close together. He would have had to vault over the hood, but couldn’t bring himself to do something that ridiculous.

‘You don’t have the time? A phone or something?’ The man pressed. He was directly behind Tristan now.

‘Sorry. I –’ Tristan turned to face the man. He was wearing a bandana over his nose and mouth, a hood over his head, and held a flimsy kitchen knife, the type with a weak plastic handle you can buy as part of a cheap utensil set at a grocery store.

‘Then just give me your money.’ The man said this very matter-of-factly.

Tristan froze for a moment, looking at the knife, weighing his options. After a second look, this man seemed more like a kid, probably looking for some quick cash. The neighborhood wasn’t particularly poor, so he was probably just out for a thrill and some drug money. He most likely wouldn’t stab Tristan, but the knife was leveled directly at his stomach. Tristan knew how disastrous gut wounds could be; releasing gases and torn lining and all. Regardless of the boys intentions, he–

‘Give me your wallet!’ The boy growled, quietly as if to say: if you dilly-dally much longer I’m just going to stab you and take it myself.

‘All right, all right, here.’ Tristan said, retrieving his wallet. ‘But all I have is five bucks… I’m probably poorer than you.’

‘Is that a joke? I’m robbing your ass and you’re telling me you’re poor?’

‘N-No, I’m just saying… You picked the wrong guy to rob.’

The boy took to proffered bill, and snatched the wallet out of Tristan’s hand. He fingered through the folds.

Tristan said, ‘Can I ask you a favor though?’ He studied the boy’s eyes, and interpreted the lack of reply as a concession. ‘Leave my cards and phone. It’s just that the phone’s a free one, you know, the kind you get with the plan, and it’ll just be a pain to replace, and the cards, I mean, the same thing, I’ll just cancel them… So, it’ll just be a pain for me.’

‘How do I know you won’t call the cops? There’s no way I –’

‘I promise, I give you my word, if you can be reasonable about this I swear I won’t call the cops. It’s over. It’s just five bucks. Take it. Please.’ Tristan was stammering.

‘Oh, so first you’re poor, and now it’s just five bucks. Where’s the rest?’

The boy reached into Tristan’s blazer pocket. This would have been the perfect time to do something heroic like grab the kids wrist and elbow, and force him down onto the hood of the car, like cops do in the movies. The boy reached into Tristan’s pants pockets. As if getting robbed two blocks from his house wasn’t emasculating enough. He knew he’d never hear the end of it. But you don’t argue with a knife, right? Emily would act caring, and pity him for having to go through such an ordeal, but he didn’t want to be pitied by her. He wanted to impress her, to turn her on with a display of masculinity. However, that wasn’t him. He stayed still, leaning on the car as the boy went through every forgiving patch of his clothes. He took off his shoes at the boys command, and opened up his messenger bag. The boy took Tristan’s tablet out, chuckled to himself, and gave him a glance to say, I knew you had something.

The boy was finally satisfied. ‘All right you broke punk. I wont fuck you on your stuff. Y’better not call the cops…’ He started to back away, eyes locked on Tristan’s as he added ‘I know where you live.’ He spun on his heel, and took off at a trot in the direction from which Tristan had come.

Coming Soon!

A glimpse into another possible destiny of the InFragments saga. By a series of fortuitous events, Tristan finds himself recruited from his post as a lowly information analyst at a renowned Washington think-tank to fledgling collections management officer for that  clandestine government service we all know and love. Without his knowledge, Tristan’s past has put him in an optimal position to assess, recruit, develop and handle key sources in an ongoing operation of extreme import to matters of national security. He will be working foreign contacts from various levels of a pernicious pyramid of corporate entities and government agents spanning from innocuous fruit market managers to fortune 500 CEOs, all the while becoming seasoned in the arts of seduction, deception and evasion. Check back each week for a new Fragment.