The milk is thick and rancid. Christ, it smells bad. I have to throw out half the container before leaving for Moscow. Why can’t I ever finish a milk carton before it goes bad? Two weeks in Moscow, and a week down in Dushanbe.
Eva’s eyebrows raised only imperceptibly when I asked for $17,000 in hundreds and AmEx checks. She didn’t ask why. Good girl. She knows I know she got her Economics degree from Moscow University. She doesn’t know I’m heading to her hometown. The less she knows the better. Eva has braided blonde hair and a Moscow accent. She married an American and then divorced him. It is an old story: she was a big deal in Russia, and here she is just another woman working in a bank. A well bred woman without a man. When did I get so cynical? Eva likes me and I like her. We discussed going to see an art museum some evening.
It started with a business deal a big Russian conglomerate made with an old company of mine. Satellites. They wanted two golf ball looking satellite communications terminals in one of the Stans. Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, I don’t know exactly. It’s not my business to know.
The guys who used to work in the operations directorate of a large TLA called them the Stans. They recalled being driven to dirty, mountainous outposts by a ragtag collection of American operators and the local strongman’s people. They got in, then worked the listening devices, then slipped out a few months later. Everything they needed was carefully packed into small wooden crates shipped ahead of time, greased through local customs and then transported via dilapidated diesel Toyotas. We used to have a world map at that satellite company, with triangular red flags attached to push pins where our ground stations were. The former TLA guys would look at the push pins in the Stans and say, yep, I worked there and there, and Dave worked there. Got shot at there. Returned fire when I finally got my M-16 issued. That quieted them down, when the fuckers knew we could shoot back. I went hunting one evening when I got some NVGs and …. I held up my hands. No. No more. Don’t want to know any more. It’s weirding me out. Humans hunting humans. It just ought not to be like that. What the fuck, man?, he said. You’re such a pussy. That’s Reality. That’s life on the frontiers.
I’m sipping a good Bordeaux on my porch the evening before I have to leave. Passport, keys, instructions for care & feeding of plants while I’m gone, no, no cell phone where I’m going, there’s money on the table for anything that might come up, do the best you can. The Ashton No. 6 goes out. It was a fine cigar. Nice evening tonight. I didn’t have to worry about anyone shooting at me, I have indoor plumbing and a working telephone. Life is good.
Who knew the world would ever get this small? Four weeks ago the woman in my bed was from Tajikistan. Took a Turkish lover when she’d studied in Brussels. Her father had sent her away. His brother worked for Brezhnev back in the day. The mom was Russian. Those Russian women do get around. Somehow Lolita with the unpronounceable name, some admixture of Muslim and Persian, wound up here outside of the capital of the world, in a petty job doing genomics research. Gene mapping. Met her at a party at the Finnish embassy. Good food and the usual assortment of Washington’s finest thirty-somethings in evening dresses and coiffed hair.
We danced to techno and trance at the Russian dance party a week later. It was an exotic blend of Asian and Indian/Stani/ and then white Russians, The men were tall and short and some had the tough-guyround faces and short noses that said they had careers as bouncers and bodyguards. The women were knockouts in tight pants and high heels, and could drink American men under the table. Strobe lights like I hadn’t seen in decades here in the States. The DJs hovered around an electronics stack that looked like it was from the Czech republic, with converters that took the club’s 110V/60 Hz and converted it to whatever it was that their Czech unit needed.
The bartenders were three slim Russian women. Russian custom: you do shots with the bartender. You go up to the bar and say something. You point a finger to you and then point to her. She brings out two glasses and pours equal amounts of vodka into both. You clink glasses, say Dozdarovye and both parties drink it down. Bottoms up. Hours later the women are still tending bar, still collecting money, still doing shots, still sober. Good god. They look like they’re nineteen. How do they do it?
S’funny, how things work. My payload’s up there on some recon satellites, somewhere up in MEO. Below the Van Allen belt? Above it? I forget now. Its that design I did years ago for the customer who must not be named. It can listen and triangulate on cell-phone weak signals, that thing I did twenty years ago, when they were the enemy. The enemy. How hopelessly old fashioned that sounds today. Today we don’t know who the enemy is, or if there is one. I suspect there isn’t one any more, but it’s difficult for the whole military-industrial industry to step back from the brink and acknowledge there isn’t any more. We were trained, wired to be ready. It’s difficult to unlearn that training.
Getting coffee at Starbucks in my town is a unique experience. It’s not an American town anymore. Rich Persians and young aggressive Chinese Americans do banking here. It’s not laden with the spy agencies like you’d think. No one admits to working there. If you worked there, you were psychologically chosen to be a careful sort, the kind of person who shunned the limelight. Still, I can tell. They don’t read ordinary books. They don’t read Ludlum or le Carre. They’re reading Foucault in the original French. They’re reading travel books on central Asia or some dark place in Africa. They’re reading about Napoleanic Egyptology. No, they’re not a quiet banker. They’re retired… well, let’s just say they’re retired, and you have a comfortable income.
I met a man whose basement was filled with newspapers he never threw away. He’d had computer problems, and he came to me hoping I could load his vintage Macintosh with fonts of languages I’d never heard of before. His hobby was languages, dead languages. It was his hobby. He knew so many languages working for that place you never talked about that it was a natural extension to learn Sanskrit and different dialects of Cuneiform. He talked knowledgeably about the Rosetta Stone. He was so talkative, so lonely, he was dying to talk with anyone who knew what the Rosetta Stone even was. I saw it in a French museum a few months ago. Finally, the real Rosetta Stone. I thought of him, that poor man in the basement of his run down house in the tony neighborhood, the crazy man who never cut the grass, who was conversing with dead Egyptians and travelers through ancient Iraq, back when it was Babylon, the center of the ancient world.
A few months ago we were at the Naval Academy watching middies shake George W. Bush’s hand and take their picture with him on stage. A daughter of an acquaintence of mine was receiving her degree. He was in Indonesia brokering deals for oil companies. His security retinue consisted of ex-Navy SEALs and local heavies. He never traveled under his real name, and only a few people knew he could negotiate deals for his company and make them stick. Millions of barrels of oil? Billions? I didn’t ask. Not as big as the oil fields of the Middle East, but still every little bit helped. Did I say “we”? Yes. It really doesn’t matter who I was with. He was career military. No names, please. Life is like that in this town.
Everybody here works on something euphemistically called 'interesting.' UAVs. Sigint electronics. Bills that make snooping of on-line conversations easier. Voice over IP. Secure versions of wi-fi. Satellites you won’t read about in Jane’s for years and years. They’ll go up from Cape Canaveral, one of those launches that USA Today will just say was a military satellite, and no more. The cameras at Patrick AFB might track them on the way up, just to make sure the first few lanuch stages worked well and didn’t damage the birds. I don’t know if they still do that. They used to. Nice optics on those things, is what I hear. Real nice. There’s shit people build in this town, one-of-a-kind things, that do things that would blow your mind. They blow my mind, and I’m in the game.
Good midwestern Protestant boys working on those programs, the ones who know how to keep their mouths shut and know how to handle project money and stay properly accountable to the government agencies that monitor these sorts of things. Men with nicely graying hair and roots in Nebraska or Kansas or South Dakota or Illinois.
You don’t ask too many questions, but outdoor barbecues are interesting. Oh, so you worked on Project Starfire? That was you? No shit? You know I knew the team that designed that for you. Trust relationships are tricky things. Your wife likes her wife. Your kids played soccer together. Tina’s going to be a fine goalie. She’s heading up to Bowdoin on scholarship? No kidding? That’s great. I hear she was all conference last year. She’ll have a great time up there. I hear they have a great arts program up at Yale. Summers around some Canadian lake. Mosquitos bad? Not if you get up early enough. So tell me, did Starfire ever take off, or did Congress kill it before it got fully operational?
Two nights ago I went to Clyde’s for drinks and to watch the baskeball finals. Twenty years ago, our security officers told us we shouldn’t go there and talk shop. It was lousy with spies. (This was true, as it turned out.) Two nights ago I smoked a pack of Marlboro Reds, had a few whiskeys on ice and remembered those days when everyone here was paranoid. They said our windows were being ‘read’ by lasers who could turn window vibrations into voice signals. So all of our windows got those patches that added acoustical noise to the windowpanes. We had to talk about our projects in interior offices only.
My high school classmate works for KBR in Djibouti. Every now and then he gets flown over to Iraq to build another big concrete building. His wife is the daughter of a legendary Special Forces operator. She’s working over there too. Loves it. Civil engineer extraordinaire, good project manager, not scared of anything. When the bullets fly she takes cover just like the Marines do, the ones who transport her around the country and tell her stories about IEDs exploding under Humvees. Syrians or Saudis, they can’t tell which, but the bastards are getting more and more clever, in spite of all those jamming devices the Marines are getting. Grunts flying UCAVs, flying low cover using Microsoft joysticks adapted for military use. Who knew Flight Simulator would become a skill you’d need in the Army? Surreal.
You get the Army guys staged at Dushanbe and then leaving for Afghanistan, and you get Christian missionaries moving there to help proselytize the locals. I’m laughing. I used to go to church with these guys, back when I used to attend. They were absolutely clueless about world politics. They knew about Jesus’ love and very little about Islamic concepts of infidels. I guess they learned fast enough. They had a few kids over there and they’re getting back home as soon as they can. Let’s just say the welcome mat wasn’t brought out for them. They handed out Bibles in Russian. Too bad most of the Russians left Tajikistan about seven years ago during the civil war. Lolita with the unpronounceable last name grew up in Dushanbe. She was kidnapped when she was sixteen. She was tied to a chair. The men knew she was a virgin. They told her father they’d take her virginity if he didn’t give them a large amount of cash in Russian rubles. She never cried. They put her chair face down, with her strapped to the chair, her face against the rough floor, for two days. They gave her water to drink and told her to piss into her pants if she needed to. She never told them her father would have them all killed and their genitals ripped off and fed to their children if they touched her. She made it a point not to look scared. Her father used intermediaries to let the men know they were no longer welcome in Tajikistan, but that they could leave with their lives if they didn’t touch his daughter. She regained her freedom a day later. She spent two years in the capital city with bullets flying by and no electricity or running water, living like a beast in the field, for two years. Her father sent her away to Europe to continue her education, to Istanbul and then to Brussels. Years later she and I ate caviar and sipped cheap champagne, and talked about those days. The Russians left after the civil war. The missionaries came over a few years later with Russian bibles. I guess they hadn’t been keeping up on world events. Lolita laughed, too, when I told her the story.
Tomorrow I’m flying to Moscow and will see for myself what the onion domes look like, experience taxi drivers with college educations, and blonde whores in American hotels and spotty phone and internet service. Intransigent old-style Russians side by side with the new Russians, the helpful, polite younger new ones, desperate to be accommodating to foreigners in the same way they hear American hotels are in the United States. Politeness is the order of the day. The gospel is that the Customer is King. It’s the new Russia. They’re in a hurry and they’re catching up fast.
I haven’t told Lolita about traveling to her hometown city. She’ll be pissed that I went without telling her. I can’t. Also, she hasn’t returned my phone calls for weeks. Can’t blame her. She needs someone stable. Perhaps that nice Turkish foreign correspondent I met last night… Perhaps he’d be better for her. Hmmm.
I’m not sure I’m American any more. It seems pointless to say you’re a certain nationality not in this day and age. It seems more truthful to say you were born here, you studied here, and you worked here, here, and here. Your nationality is an accident of birth. The only people I seem to like are the people with legs in different continents who speak multiple languages and who can tell you instantly what time it is in Tokyo or Cairo or Irkutsk.
There’s no point to this story. Life is what it is. You’re in a boat on a river, and the river takes you downstream to places unknown. The future is impossible to predict. Interesting people enter your life and then leave, creating a tapestry of interconnections you will only see at the end of your days, when it will hang on a wall and you will see the overall pattern only then, for the first time, and then all too briefly. You don’t know if you’re helping the world or hurting. It is likely that every gain you make is a loss for someone else, and conversely every downturn you experience means that someone else is doing well. I have lost my moral compass. Nothing is certain any more. Nothing is certain. All we can do is love and help each other on a very personal level, perhaps. I am not sure about this, of course. We can share meals. We can share beds. We can tell stories of our lives and hear stories of each others’ lives.
Perhaps… perhaps the stories are the most important things.
Overhead, the satellites listen. My satellites.
I have to throw this carton away now, and then head to bed. Waking up in four hours to be at the International gate two hours before the plane leaves. Dreams are confusing things when you’re on a 14 hour flight.