Chapter 7

 

With some mutual goading, Sam and Lucas were at the front of the hotel by four in the morning—a car was already waiting for them.  They were driven back to the same airport they had landed at the day before.  On the way, a woman in the front passenger seat explained their travel plans.

They would depart via skip-jet at 0600 for a ninety-minute flight to the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, an aircraft carrier posted one hundred kilometers west-northwest off the Israeli coast.  They would then leave their skip-jet and board an Israeli Air Force utility helicopter to Sde Dove Air Base in Tel Aviv-Yafo.  After landing in Tel Aviv, they were to rendezvous with Heinrich Rankin and Rashid Qasim to aid in their final preparations before leaving the country three days later.

That was the official briefing.  Sam and Lucas were otherwise uninformed of what they would be doing during that three-day window, and they didn’t ask.  Neither of them was sure who knew what they would really be doing in that time, or where they would be.

Moving forward one time-zone by air, the night sky shifted rapidly into a sunrise.  After touching down on Eisenhower, they were rushed to a utility helicopter at the flight deck’s edge.  The helicopter was more cramped and far louder than the skip-jet, and neither the pilots nor the two armed men who sat in the back with Sam and Lucas said a word as they flew.  After landing at Sde Dove, the men ordered their civilian passengers to disembark and proceed to a vehicle parked a few meters away, near an old hangar.

While walking to the van, Lucas realized the dramatic change in climate.  The air swelled with heat, and everything was dry as a bone, sapping his energy.  They then drove further into the city, a gray urban sea, sculpted into high-rises and towers—nothing gave the impression that this part of Israel had once been underwater.

Thirty years ago, after the singularities, much of the country’s coast had been washed away or submerged by tidal waves.  Despite the Mediterranean’s enclosure, boxed in by Europe and North Africa, half of Tel Aviv had been swallowed up.  Layers of artificial embankments and three decades of reclamation had salvaged most of the city.  Tel Aviv was now something more like an artistic syzygy, caught amid several magnetic poles: Western amid Eastern, modern amid ancient, post-’87 architecture comingling with structures which enshrined stories older than time—Tel Aviv seethed with a protean spirit all its own.

After a half-hour stuck in traffic, having only driven a few kilometers, Sam and Lucas were let out in front of a hotel, a high-rise overlooking the coast.  As their ride drove away without another word, they stood in the shade of the hotel’s pavilion, at a loss as to what to do next.  They then entered the hotel, stepping into a lobby through sliding doors.  The only person they found inside was an attendant by the front desk, who waited nervously for one of them to approach.

“Are we supposed to ask for someone?” Lucas asked Sam in a hush.

Sam hummed, only doing slightly better than his younger travel companion.  “I imagine Rashid and Heinrich aren’t here.  They’ve been residents of Tel Aviv for some time.  Though I’m not sure why we’re here otherwise…”

“I didn’t realize you two would show up so soon,” came a hearty greeting from the edge of the commons.  A man in a light suit stepped out of an elevator.  He wore a few days of unshaved facial hair, his face framed by dark locks tucked behind his ears.  Smiling coolly at Sam, he approached without hesitation.  “I suppose the UN’s getting a little more efficient, yeah?”

“Logan,” Sam stammered.

Lucas looked back and forth between Sam and the man he could only presume was Logan Walker.

“It’s been a while, Sam,” Logan said, not nearly as spellbound as his younger brother.  “I take it you didn’t expect to see me.”

“No, no, I knew you were here,” Sam stuttered.  “Well, not here-here, but I knew you were in Tel Aviv.”

“Yes, let’s talk about all that in a minute,” Logan said with a hushing motion before he turned to Lucas.  “And you must be Lucas Weir.”

“Uh, yeah,” Lucas said, already beginning to feel nervous.  “That’s me.”

Logan stood before the two of them with a sly smile.  Finally, he clapped Sam on the shoulder, and said, “You don’t need to be so surprised.  It’s only been a few months.”

“Yes, well,” Sam said, “let’s just say I never imagined I’d see you in Tel Aviv.”

“I’m not much for traveling,” Logan said, his voice also dropping, though his smile remained.  “But when I heard what sights there were to see around here, I just couldn’t pass up the opportunity.  But we can talk about that in a moment.  Come with me.”

Turning on a heel, Logan proceeded back to the elevator, waving for them to follow.  Sam and Lucas shared a quick look before trailing after him, into the lift.

“Are you upset to see me, then?” Logan asked Sam pointblank.  “Afraid I’m stepping on your toes already?”

“I know exactly why you’re here, Logan.”

“And you’re displeased?”

“That’s not the word I would use.”

“But it fits, right?  It’s fine.  I don’t mean to be a pain, but I’ll have you know I’d burn a number of bridges to be here.”

Lucas watched the two of them go back and forth until the doors opened.  They then exited the elevator and made their way to the end of the hall.  Logan slipped a keycard into one of the doors and stepped into his room.  No lights were on, but even with the curtains drawn, the sun blasted in, bathing everything in light.  From the room’s appearance, both Sam and Lucas guessed that Logan had arrived only a few hours before them.  Two suitcases were on the bed, one larger than the other.  The small bag was open, revealing a couple of changes of clothes, as well as a few other travel necessities, but the larger of the two was zipped shut.

“So where are Heinrich and Rashid?” Sam asked, taking a look around the room.

“There aren’t any bugs, I already checked—we can speak freely,” Logan said instinctively, unzipping the large suitcase partway to check inside.  “And Heinrich and Rashid are already at the embassy.  We’ll be meeting with them shortly.”

Lucas caught a glance of what looked like a glossy, dark box in the large suitcase, though Logan zipped it shut before he could get a better look.

“And then we… begin?” Sam said, arms folded.

Logan’s smile broadened.  “Then we begin.”

“Can I ask an obvious question?” Lucas said, taking a step toward Logan.  “I get that you’re pumped to cross borders and risk an international catastrophe, but why exactly is this trip so important?  I mean, you’re just going to pick at a corpse, right?”

Wagging a finger, Logan said, “There’s no saying it’s a corpse just yet, but if it is, then it’s not just any corpse.  The Q you killed in Chicago was organic, wasn’t it?  Composed of living tissue?”  Lucas answered with a quiet nod.  “We’ve engaged only a few Q with psychic abilities, but we’ve seen enough to make certain observations.”

“Such as?” Lucas prodded.

“Since the first Q appeared thirty years ago,” Logan continued, “they’ve only ever been composed of nonliving, inorganic substances.  Like carbon, but never anything like cells or tissue.  These psychic Q, however, ones with abilities like yours, are different.  Rather than carbon and iron alone, we’ve noted that they are also consistently composed of calcium, phosphorous, nitrogen, oxygen, hydrogen.  Their exteriors are significantly frailer, but they seem to make up for it in their ability to neutralize anything of ours that would make that matter.”

Furrowing his brow, Sam sat on the side of the bed.  “I was never informed of this.”

“Yes, well, your job has always been to tend to the psychics,” Logan said.  “My job has been to figure out how to kill the Q.”

“Hang on,” Lucas said.  “What does that have to do with why we’re here, though?”

His cool smile returning, Logan said, “The Q you killed in Chicago was reportedly as organic as any of us.  Initial reports indicate it had an integumentary system, a circulatory system, a respiratory system, even something like a skeleton.  Obviously, that’s highly unusual—but I’m uncertain whether it’s unprecedented.”

“You think the Q Rashid brought down four years ago is organic, too,” Sam said, eyeing Logan.

“It’s possible,” Logan said, “but I can only confirm it if I see it for myself.  As you were likely informed, Rashid reported seeing something like blood coming from its body, but he never had the chance to get a closer look.  By the time the Kurds laid eyes on it again, no such substance was found.  The area was lost to IS fighters before they could investigate further.”

“And what does it matter if it’s alive?” Lucas finally asked, feeling uneasy at the possibility.

Looking surprised, Logan said, “If the Q in Iraq is like the one in Chicago, it could mean a number of things, none of them pleasant.  It could mean the Q are evolving, or at least changing, from their earlier carbon-iron makeup, to a more manifold composition, nearly indistinguishable from a living creature.  That would suggest that this biological state is their next leap forward.  If we can gain a few samples from the Q in Iraq and compare them with the remains of the Q from Chicago, we might just find a way to outrun the Q’s own evolutionary crane.”

“Do you think we could find a way to outgun them, then?” Lucas said.  “To kill them before they get any stronger?”

“I can’t say for sure until I know what we’re dealing with.  That’s why I wanted this mission.”

Sam’s eyes narrowed, and his tone darkened.  “Logan…  Did you ask for psychics, too?”

Considering the question for a moment, Logan said, “No.  I asked for a basic tactical team, but never psychics.  The Security Council told me I’d be taking you two, as well as Heinrich and Rashid, in case—”

“In case another Q shows up,” Sam said.  “And what do you think the chances are of that happening?”

“Honestly?  Not terribly likely, though I suppose it’s good to be cautious.”  Logan glanced at Sam, who seemed lost in thought already.  “You think there’s something more to this.”

“No, no,” Sam said, standing up from the bed.  “I’m sure the Security Council just wants to test its new arrangements.”

“You mean engaging a single Q with multiple psychics?” Logan said, watching his brother closely.  “If you ask me, it seems a little like overkill to me.”

In silence, Lucas watched the two brothers share a look he couldn’t quite grasp, as if they were getting onto the same page.

Sera stood next to him as he observed.

“They can’t even trust their own,” she said to him, her eyes forward.

“Hey, um…”  Lucas attempted to reenter their conversation, though he was unsure of what to say when Sam and Logan turned to him.  “Is it a problem if the Security Council sent you with two psychics instead of one?  I mean, they might just think we’re better safe than sorry.”

From the end of the bed, Logan studied Lucas.  “Historically, we’ve never needed more than one psychic at a time in the field,” he explained.  “I wouldn’t bat an eye had they assigned me only Rashid.  But that they would send you as well—that gives me pause.”

“Why’s that?”

“You’re untrained,” Logan said bluntly.  “You’ve only faced one Q, and though you were obviously quite adept at doing so, you lack the experience Unaone has.  Moreover, even if you were as skilled as he is, you’d still be superfluous.”

“It’s fine, Lucas,” Sam assured him.  “Really, it’s nothing to worry about.  We just have some questions, that’s all.”

“It doesn’t help that half the world doesn’t trust NATO like they used to,” Logan mused, laying back on the bed.  “Most member states of the UN could cut and run on the Stockholm Convention if this operation goes south.”

“Why don’t they trust NATO?” Lucas said.  He then recalled the man he had seen on the train platform back in Chicago, cursing a NATO ad.  Considering it then, he realized he and many others he had met in the US had held a general distrust and even contempt for NATO and the United Nations.

“Many are starting to question the validity of the Stockholm Convention,” Logan explained.  “Originally, the UN was reformed under the assumption that if humanity pooled their resources, the Q could be defeated in a short time.  Given that it’s been thirty years, people are understandably antsy.”

“Not all views are equal,” Sam said, shrugging.  “Some are a little more extreme than others.”

“Granted,” Logan said.  “The nutcases who think the UN is some Orwellian dictatorship are way off…”  He stared absently up at the ceiling, his arms crossed behind his head.  “But thirty years and no success—you can hardly blame people when they start scrounging for why that is.  That’s why this mission is so important: if we can get a leg up on the Q, then, best-case scenario, we may very well find a way to defeat them.  I’d say that payoff is well worth the risk.”

“They really are afraid,” Sera muttered, looking into Logan’s unknowing face.  “You can see it in them, though none of them let it show in the same way.”

“Logan…”  Lucas sat down in a chair across from the bed, turning to face the doctor, who sat up partway to see him.  “What are the Q, really?”

Another few seconds passed as Logan studied Lucas once more.  “We don’t know,” he at last confessed.  “When they first appeared, a German physicist named Dietrich May first theorized that the Q were some sort of invasion, and that the singularities were their beachheads.  May was so convinced that the Q themselves were responsible for the singularities that he called the creatures quelle, the German word for ‘source.’  For years the UN and the world’s intelligentsia assumed he was right.  But now…”  He laid his head back, looking dejected.  “Now, we aren’t even sure of that.  The only thing we know about the Q is that they appear and they kill, and they don’t stop killing until we kill them.”

A phone on the table next to the bed suddenly rang.  Logan picked it up.  “Boker tov,” he said into the receiver, then listened to a brief reply before.  “Toda,” he concluded, then hung up.  He then turned to Lucas and Sam.  “Our ride is here.”

“Another car?” Sam asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Come on, try to keep up,” Logan said, lifting his suitcases from the bed and smiling at his brother.  “Officially speaking, none of us are to set foot outside of the country.  We’re getting to the point in this little excursion when it matters very much who we trust—including drivers.  Right, then, let’s go.”

***

The UN-Tel Aviv embassy sat on the edge of the city proper.  This particular location resembled a military base more than a government facility.  Battle tanks patrolled the perimeter, and the inside was filled with personnel transports, all on the move.  The buildings were low to the ground and surrounded by guard towers, each mounted with anti-aircraft artillery.  Whether with the Q or any other threat, this embassy looked as if it were already at war.

Lucas, Sam, and Logan were taken to a hangar located in the heart of the compound, where they were dropped, along with Logan’s luggage, and informed that they would be departing in thirty minutes.

They stepped inside, Sam and Lucas following Logan and his larger suitcase, and entered a spacious hangar bay, populated by helicopters.  At its center, seated at a table which appeared out of place, two men awaited their arrival.  While Logan and Sam were happy to see them, only one of the strangers seemed to return the sentiment.

“It’s been some time, Heinrich,” Sam said, patting him on the back.

Heinrich appeared to be in his mid-forties, perhaps older, with graying hair and a smile that wrinkled most of his face.  He replied in a subtly German accent, one which must have been diluted from years of Hebrew and Yiddish.

“I never thought I’d see you for anything other than conferences, Sam,” he said heartily before turning to Logan.  “And I haven’t seen you since they transferred us here in the first place.”

“I’m a busy man,” Logan said, simpering.  “But I’m here now.”

“And hopefully we can get moving now,” Heinrich said, tugging at the sleeve of his battle dress uniform—a sandy tone with no patches or markings.  “We received the news only yesterday, and they pulled our living arrangements out from underneath us right after that.”

“We’re sorry for the trouble,” Sam said.  “It seems the Security Council wants to consolidate all the Esper Program’s assets as quickly as possible.”

“That part was actually not my fault,” Logan added.

The three men continued their conversation, as if the rest of the world—and the rest of their agenda—had disappeared.

As they spoke, Lucas’ eyes wandered about the hangar.  Unable to help but smile, he wondered what Harold might think of a place like this, or even to be where he was.  At least in this moment, he felt he knew what Harold had meant when he said this would be an adventure.  An almost primal lurch in his gut knocked him from his reverie, and he saw Sera, who was looking at the table at the center of the hangar—specifically, at who was still seated there.

“So this is who they call Unaone,” she said softly.  “The one who plucked a Q from the sky.”

Following her gaze, Lucas found the young man who had been seated next to Heinrich when they arrived.  He wore a desert-camo uniform like his companion, with black gloves which ran all the way into his sleeves.  A peculiar helmet sat in his lap, his two hands resting on its crown.  He was already staring deeply into Lucas through dark green eyes and a knitted brow.  His sullen and tight-lipped expression gave off an air of apathy, yet he had an imposing aura—whether he was noticed or not, he was intensely present.

At first choking on a greeting, Lucas took a couple steps toward him.  “Hi there.  My name’s Lucas Weir.”

The young man didn’t answer, remaining in his chair.  Standing closer to Unaone, Lucas noted that he appeared to be a few years older than himself, though still younger than Sam—perhaps somewhere in his mid-twenties.

“You must be Rashid,” Lucas ventured, trying not to let his voice shake out of sheer nerve.  “Nice to meet you.  I guess we’ll be working together, then.”

When he still didn’t respond, Lucas wondered if he might have the wrong man—but he guessed that was unlikely, especially if his companion was Heinrich Rankin.  No, there was no doubt that this was the infamous Echo-Unaone, the psychic who started it all.

“Lucas,” Logan called, startling him.  He patted his bulky luggage.  “We don’t have much time.  Let’s get you suited up.”

***

Lucas, Logan, and Sam retreated to a room adjacent to the hangar, an office which had been cleared and temporarily designated a changing room.  Inside, Logan and Sam found BDUs of their own, which they promptly changed into, disregarding Lucas’ discomfort.

“Do I need one of those?” Lucas managed to ask, turning to face the wall as Logan and Sam changed.

“Yes, and…” Logan said excitedly, having finished dressing.  He grabbed his suitcase and hoisted the heavy load onto a desk.  “I have something for you.”

Inside the suitcase was a second container made of sleek metal.  The blocky container looked not only reinforced, but had a keypad and fingerprint scanner.  Logan punched in a lengthy code, then scanned each of his fingertips.

“It was murder getting this through customs, by the way,” he said as he opened the container, “so do try to be excited.”

Reaching in, he pulled out a black, scaly material.  He tossed it to Lucas, who let it unfold, hanging from his hands.  It was a jumpsuit, though it was baggy and appeared to be for a significantly bigger person.  Logan continued pulling more pieces from the case.

“What is this?” Lucas asked, trying not to grimace at the loose bodysuit.

“Part of the attire,” Logan said absently, carrying the rest of the container’s contents to him.  “Now get dressed.  We’ll be leaving soon.”

Once Lucas had undressed, Sam helped him into the loose suit, which hung loosely from his frame.  Sam hooked a metal collar around Lucas’ neck, then slid a switch on its matte surface; in an instant, the suit contracted, clinging to his body like cellophane.  He took a moment to recover from being grabbed at every angle, then looked down at himself.  He was covered in segments of plating, from his neck to his hands and feet.  A pair of dense boots and forearm-length gloves were then laced and buckled onto him.

“It’s called Talos-skin,” Logan explained as Lucas dressed.  “To keep things simple: it’s composed of smart materials, which can absorb and redistribute external impacts—bullets, shrapnel, debris.  It also multiplies the wearer’s movements exponentially.  An array of sensors throughout help the skin to remain highly responsive, redistribute weight, reapply force.”

“I-I’m not sure I follow,” Lucas confessed, looking down at himself with all the understanding of a feline adjusting to a new collar.

With a sigh, Logan clarified, “Wearing that, you’ll hit harder, jump higher, and take several times more punishment than you ever could without it.  Psychics have always been capable of feats their bodies simply couldn’t handle, to say nothing of how messy combat with a Q can be—the Talos-skin bridges the gap between your capabilities and your… durability.”

Looking down at the low-profile suit, Lucas resisted the urge to ask if it would really protect him from a bullet, let alone a Q.  At first glance, it appeared to be about as formidable as his own skin.  However, in the bodysuit, he felt inexplicably though significantly lighter.  He moved his arms as if he were in freefall, weightless, and he could not deny that his body felt different.  Considering what the exoskeleton might be capable of, he decided not to test it in such an enclosed space.

“Then there’s this.”  Logan reached into the case again, retrieving a helmet, like the one Rashid had on his lap.  An opaque visor covered most of the face, running all the way back to two cowls, each of which stretched back like the ears of a snarling fox.  “Try it on.”

Doing as he was told, Lucas slid the helmet over his head.  With Sam’s help, it sealed with his collar.  A ringing in his ears signaled that the suit had pressurized.  Initially he could only see black.  The helmet then sensed his facial movements and snapped to life.  An internal display lit up, displaying an uninterrupted panorama of his surroundings, virtually indistinguishable from reality.

“That headset comprises the intel suite,” Logan said, tilting Lucas’ head in his direction to examine the visor.  “An augmented-reality heads-up display, combining in-field and remote combat data in real-time—plus a few redundancies.  Oh, and the suit is essentially a Faraday cage, to protect you from EM and the like, which means it’s very difficult to get radio signals through.  The horns are external comm systems—so try not to damage them.”

A green reticle appeared in Lucas’ view, hovering over Logan’s face; a couple of lines of text scrawled out next to him, identifying him by name and title.  He turned to Sam, watching as text identified him as well.  He then turned toward the hangar’s exit and saw Heinrich Rankin.  Then another signal appeared, which seemed plastered against the wall: Rashid Qasim, identified as Echo-Unaone.

He pulled off the helmet, taking an instinctive breath of fresh air.

“Any questions?” Logan asked, taking back the helmet.  “I was expecting you to gush over this, to be honest.”

“It’s impressive, don’t get me wrong,” Lucas said hastily.  “But, um…  Don’t I need a gun?”

Logan cracked a smirk.  “A gun?  Lucas, you are a gun.  The Talos-skin is only to help you fire more effectively.  Besides, in this case, remember that we’re supposed to at least look like civilians, so firearms are out of the question.”

Looking down again, Lucas then realized Rashid too was wearing a Talos-skin of his own under his BDU.

Cutting off Lucas’ train of thought, Logan interjected, “Speaking of the name—do you know the story of Talos?”

Closing his eyes, Lucas hummed in thought.  “Big guy, made of bronze—something like that.  I read it years ago.”

“Time immemorial, or at least in the febrile dreams of the Greeks,” Logan declared dramatically, “the great Zeus ordered that a guardian be built to protect his darling Europa and the island of Crete.  So the greatest inventor was commissioned, and from bronze he built a giant, and named it Talos.  And Talos would patrol the island every day, defending her shores from foreign insurgents and any who may otherwise wish Europa harm.”

“So I’m Talos, only instead of Europa, I’m protecting Europe,” Lucas prodded.

“Admittedly, it’s partly lazy correlation.  But I resent any accusations of Eurocentric propriety.”  Logan sat next to the container, holding onto Lucas’ helmet.  He seemed to stare off into the distance.  “Rashid was the first useful psychic we ever discovered, and we found him wreaking havoc in Iraq and Iran.  I wasn’t sure what to make of him when we first met—or any of you psychics, for that matter…”

Furrowing his brow, Lucas looked away from him.  “So… you’re afraid of psychics, too?”

“Not afraid,” Logan said, composed and honest.  “Psychics never frightened me.  You’re certainly mysterious to me, but I’m not afraid of you, Lucas, or Rashid for that matter—I’m fascinated by you.  I also happen to think you’re the only real line of defense this Cretan world has.  Now, as for mythologizing that sentiment, you can blame Sam.”

“I only told you about Talos,” Sam said, appearing a little embarrassed.

“Believe it or not, this one had a passion for myths before he ever encountered psychology,” Logan said, amused at the thought.  He then realized Lucas was distracted, staring out the covered window.

“Who is he, anyway?  Rashid, I mean,” Lucas said.  He then bowed his head in thought.  “I’m going to be working with him, but I don’t know anything about him, accept that he’s special.”  Turning to Sam and Logan, he asked, “Not to be dense, but does he speak English?  I tried talking to him earlier, but… I don’t know if he understood me.”

“Rashid?” Logan said.  “He speaks perfect English.  He’s just like that.”

“Like what?” Lucas asked, still unsure of what to make of him—the infamous Echo-Unaone.

“Rashid’s admittedly a bit prickly,” Sam said, stepping around the table to stand before Lucas, “but he’s a good person.”

“He is a bit of a misanthrope,” Logan corrected.  “Though, I suppose a boy like him earns the right to have contempt for most people by default.”

“How do you mean?” Lucas said.  “I get that there’re some things that are none of my business, but…”

“Lucas, you see…”  Sam stopped, searching for the words.  “Rashid is Yazidi.  They’re an ethno-religious tribe in northern Mesopotamia.  The Khilafah, the Islamic State, declared genocide against the Yazidis a few years ago, but unfortunately they’re only the present manifestation of a complicated social and religious conflict that’s been going on for roughly seven hundred years now.  The State of Kurdistan has historically tried to protect the Yazidis, but when IS fighters invaded in the nineties, there wasn’t much they could do.  IS swarmed the autonomous region of Ezidkhan—Rashid’s home.”

“When NATO discovered him,” Logan said, “he was leading a militia—Kurds from the peshmerga, former IDF soldiers, among others—waging guerrilla warfare on IS.  They would dive into a hot zone, his men would lay down cover fire, and Rashid would get in the middle of it all and use his abilities on the enemy.”

As they spoke, Lucas’ eyes wandered to the office window again.  Staring into the drawn blinds, he felt the intensity of being watched by Rashid Qasim.  He met that primal sense with the same sense of powerlessness he felt in Stockholm, when he considered meeting the psychic who inspired the Esper Program.

“Try not to take it personally,” Sam said.  “Rashid’s survived as long as he has by generally distrusting the people around him.”

A knock at the door made all three of them jump.  An IDF soldier peered inside, informing them that they would be leaving in a few minutes.

Standing up, Logan reached inside the container for the rest of its contents.  He found a backpack, stuffing the helmet inside, then a desert-camo BDU, which he tossed to Lucas.

“Put that on,” he said.  “The skin’s only a precaution, but I don’t want anyone to see us lugging around a five-hundred-million-dollar piece of military hardware.  Let’s all try to remember: as far as our hosts are concerned, we’re civvies from the UN.  Kurdistan and Israel may be willing to cover for us, but let’s not push our luck.”

***

Shortly after Lucas finished dressing in his uniform, which fit comfortably over the Talos-skin, they rejoined Heinrich and Rashid.

Logan met with a small contingent of three scientists, sent directly from Argo.  Together, they went ahead, followed by Sam, Lucas, Heinrich, and Rashid a half-hour later.

Aboard an unmarked Bell 212 helicopter, they flew over the West Bank and the Republic of Palestine to King Hussein Air Base, northeast of Amman, Jordan.  Rashid and Heinrich were silent through the two hour-flight, both staring out the side-window at the sliding terrain.  Sam, however, spoke to Lucas through a headset, their voices otherwise drowned out by the batting of the helicopter and the growl of its engines.

“This must be pretty strange for you,” he said.  “Being all the way out here in this part of the world.  Not many Westerners get to see it, let alone Americans.”

“I’ve read about the region,” Lucas said, raising his voice to make sure he was picked up by the receiver.  He thought of the materials he had had in Harold’s library: histories of Middle Eastern philosophy and religion, and even political histories to a degree—the Sykes-Picot Agreement and the end of World War I, the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the redrawing of borders.  “But it all stops at around the mid-eighties, when the singularities pop up.  There’s more up-to-date stuff on the east coast, but they don’t often make it that close to the singularity—not even to Chicago.  So I’m not sure what’s happened to this part of the world since then.  I’ve picked up bits and pieces, but never the whole story.”

Frowning, Sam found he had underestimated how much the American Midwest had been isolated since 1987.  Taking full advantage of their lengthy flight, and finding a surprisingly engaged and eager listener in Lucas, he recounted the history of the Middle East since the singularities appeared.  They talked about the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, and how the people there had requested the UN take action against the USSR, which was then a member of the Stockholm Convention.  The UN refused, however, citing their mandates for membership in the Stockholm Convention—that member states must provide proportional materiel and personnel, and that NATO will never be used to police other nations of the world.  Pakistan, Iran, and Iraq backed Afghanistan, refusing to join the Stockholm Convention unless the Soviets were officially censured.  When this did nothing, the people of these countries theorized that the Soviets and the UN were colluding and that the occupation of Afghanistan was a plot to continue the colonization and secularization that began after the fall of the Ottoman caliphate.  The conflict grew so fierce, Sam explained, that the Soviets resorted to the unthinkable: in an attempt to end the war as quickly as possible, in 1992, the USSR dropped nuclear weapons on two Iranian cities, Qom and Kermanshah.  Not only did this not end the war, it escalated anti-Western and anti-UN sentiments among the people.

“Leading the Soviets into total economic and political collapse,” Heinrich cut in, startling them both.  “And leading a majority of the Middle East straight to Islamism and delusions of Jihad.”  He turned to Rashid, who sat quietly across from him, his eyes closed.  “What Sam’s not telling you,” he continued, returning to Lucas, “is that a handful of countries, led by paranoid schizophrenics, morphed into one failed state.  If you’d like to blame that on the West, go right ahead—especially if it’s Russia—but let’s not understate the crimes of the opposition.”

“I think you might be oversimplifying what I’m saying, Heinrich,” Sam said, civil though urgent.  “I’m no apologist for Islamism, at least not for those who have responded to their situations with violence, much less crimes against humanity.”

“That term, ‘crimes against humanity,’ it’s far too vague,” Heinrich said, rocking in his seat.  “They weren’t crimes against all human beings, but crimes against anyone not of their stripe.”  Again, he glanced at Rashid, whose eyes were still closed.  “They’re monsters, plain and simple.”

“No one is defending their actions,” Sam assured him, nodding firmly.

“I think I’m missing something,” Lucas said.  “I didn’t even know the Soviet Union wasn’t around anymore.”

“Seems you’ve missed out on quite a bit,” Heinrich cooed.  “Russia’s been stuck trying to rebuild ever since the mid-nineties, but presently they’re sunk into abject poverty and political corruption so severe it would be a miracle for them to return.”

“If Russia’s not a threat anymore, then how did bombing Iran turn into all this?  I mean, from what I’ve read, there wasn’t even a Republic of Palestine or a Kurdistan before the singularities.”  Lucas looked around the cabin, then out one of the side-windows.  “What happened?”

Sam eyed Lucas, as if wondering how to explain things diplomatically.

Islam,” Heinrich stated bluntly, tossing a firm nod at Lucas.

Political Islam—or, rather, Islamism,” Sam amended as passionately.

“What bloody difference does it make?” Heinrich said.  “Killing in the name of Allah and citing the Quran as you do it makes you Islamic.”

“You and I both know no set of religious ideas is ever universally interpreted or even practiced in the same way,” Sam almost scolded him.  “They may call themselves Muslims, but that doesn’t make them representative of Islam.”

“I’m still lost here,” Lucas repeated.

Stifling his frustration, Sam turned back to Lucas.  “After the war with the Soviets and when a singularity in the Persian Gulf began producing Q, Iran and Afghanistan collapsed.  A number of other nations were also unstable, and the UN was seen as an enemy.  So they found an alternative.  They knew they couldn’t defend themselves as individual nations—they lacked the sheer military force—and they saw membership in the Stockholm Convention and the UN as tantamount to enslavement, so…”

“’Islam is the answer’!” Heinrich exclaimed with a theatrical wave.  “The slogan that dissolved every border it crossed, as they say.”

“Afghanistan, Iran, and Iraq dissolved their borders,” Sam clarified, focusing on Lucas.  “They declared themselves a new state, united by a fundamentalist Wahhabi interpretation of Sunni Islam, including a highly literal and violent application of Sharia law.  Islamic thought and practice are the language through which they express their worldview.”

“It isn’t just a language,” Heinrich said.  “Or, if it is, it is one with no alternative.  It’s a narrative they live in.”

“It was an identity they used to unite several countries,” Sam said.  “One could argue that, were it not any form of Islam, it could have been anything else.”

“You make it sound healthy!  But a healthy sense of identity doesn’t typically lead to killing everyone who doesn’t fit one’s personal mold.  That’s not at all the essence of the liberal democratic state.”

“Like I said, I don’t condone their actions.  But I think their religious views are epiphenomenal, secondary.”

“Secondary!”

“You know Islam and nationalism are notoriously difficult to disentangle in the Middle East.”

“What I know is that I’ve spent the past four years among the Israelis, who practically pioneered fusing nationalism and religion, and none of them have taken to universal expansion by the sword.”

“So you think their worldview is exclusively shaped by their religious background, then?”

Heinrich scowled, settling back in his seat.  “These aren’t the Muslims you’ve met in the US and Europe, Samuel.  And, even if they aren’t the representative of Islam—hell, even if there is no objective Islam to practice, only subjective variations on the same theme—that does not change the fact that since the singularities emerged and these nations collapsed, these people have been either enslaving or killing anyone they consider kafur, citing the Quran and Hadith as they go.  You can’t tell me they have nothing to do with Islam—”

“It obviously has something to do with Islam, but what I’m saying is it’s not entirely reducible to it.  That could all simply be the symbolic language of a post-colonial Middle East, enraged at a Western world they feel represents the wrongs committed against them historically.  Religious identity may play a role—” Sam paused, taking a second to calm himself— “but I don’t believe it’s their primary motivation.”

“They call themselves a caliphate.”

These words came from someone else, a fourth who stupefied the other three.  Rashid eyed Sam, then peered at Lucas from the corner of his eye.  Only the rotors and engines resounded.  After several uncertain seconds, during which no one knew if they should hold their breath or leap from their seats, Rashid turned from them and stared out the window.  It was then that Lucas, Sam, and Heinrich realized they had reached their destination; the pilot called back, informing them that they were about to land at King Hussein.

No one spoke as they disembarked.  A black van, guarded by Syrian soldiers, was waiting for them half a kilometer from the landing zone.  They were closely watched by Jordanian soldiers, poised as if waiting not for possibilities, but eventualities.

The four of them climbed into the van and drove north, across the border, into Syria, carrying their silence with them.

Eventually, Heinrich and Sam began to discuss a symposium they had attended earlier that year, while Rashid watched the world go by through the tinted windows.  Staring out the opposite window, Lucas tuned out the two psychologists in his own way, attempting to escape his tightening stomach.  He couldn’t see the buildings and people passing by outside, only the thoughts rushing through his mind.  He thought of the old fanatics he had seen in the US, who sought escape from their poverty and destitution through bibliomancy and fantasy.  He had never heard of someone picking up a gun and killing someone else for their beliefs—not in this century.  He thought of the old books he had read on the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition, then compared those Christians to the ones he had encountered from time to time.  For the people he had met in his own time, religion had always seemed like nothing more than anesthesia; life after the singularities was unforgiving and indifferent for many, and they comforted themselves with ideas of guardian angels and a God who merely wished to test them.  Suffering builds character, Lucas used to callously joke, so why shouldn’t a dad just beat his kids, or even get mad when they don’t like it?  Something about Christians made them seem so domesticated in his eyes, their ideas mere fantasies to trick themselves until they died and it didn’t matter anymore—a fantasy to make them forget when life was truly hell.

In any case, he concluded, it was none of his business.  But still—he wondered what he and the others were driving into.

They reached Damascus after about three and a half hours, then got onto the highway, driving through central and upper-Syria.  The sun was high in the sky, but the darkened windows made it easier for Lucas to pretend it was night.  The air conditioner booming from the front of the van didn’t hurt either.  He slowly nodded off, then slipped away into a dreamless sleep, exhaustion catching up with him.  The others took this as good advice and attempted to rest as well.

They drove for eight hours, until they reached Al Hasakah, on the edge of Syria, looking over into Kurdistan.

***

“Don’t say anything, don’t engage anyone,” Sam advised Lucas, preparing to get out of the van.  “The UN’s already secured us passage, and Kurdistan’s an ally.  But remember, we’re just members of the science team.”

“Got it,” Lucas almost yawned, stretching.

The van had parked a kilometer from the border, where a bridge and security depot marked the end of Syria and the start of Kurdistan.  Heinrich and Rashid were the first to get out.  They walked side by side to the depot, where they were met by a handful of soldiers, who patted them down and exchanged a few words with Heinrich.

Sam and Lucas followed, receiving the same treatment; a pat down, and a few questions to Sam, who explained that they were the last of the UN science team.  One of the guards gave an understanding nod, waving for his comrades up ahead to allow them through, having likely received instructions in advance.

On the other side of the crossing, they were led to a desert-camo Mil Mi-17 helicopter.  Its cabin door slid open, and a familiar face leaned out, eyeing them through opaque sunglasses.

“I was beginning to think you’d gotten lost,” Logan chided the four of them as they boarded.

“What, you think a trip through Syria is a walk in the park?” Heinrich said.  “Not when there’s a war going on.”

“No excuses, please,” Logan said, raising a hand.  “Whatever your reasons, you’re making me late for my quintessential Christmas.  So, if you’d kindly strap yourselves in so we can get out of here already…”

The helicopter took off and flew eastward.  Logan seemed to pick up on the strained looks Lucas, Sam, and Heinrich wore—though he concluded Rashid was looking about as detached as he always did.  In any case, he figured it wasn’t any concern of his, so he opened a plastic folder on his lap, and as he reviewed his notes on the Chicago Q, he began to look progressively more like a child awaiting his Christmas presents indeed.

After an hour and a half, they landed outside of Sinjar, near the edge of Kurdistan, where the borders blurred and Iraq—or what had once been Iraq—lay waiting.

On the ground, they were met by men dressed in desert-camo body armor, clutching rifles to their chests—a peshmerga contingent, Kurdish military.  Judging by their complexion and demeanor, they were no strangers to the environment, and they met their “science team” with confidence.

“Afternoon, boys,” said the leader of the team, who introduced himself as Tarek.  He spoke fluent English, with a vaguely American accent, though he spoke to his men in Arabic.  “I trust you’re all ready to move out.”

“Ready as we’ll ever be,” Logan said.  “Can we just…”

With a hand against him, Tarek said, “You’re heading into a hot zone.  Can’t have you rushing off.  Our destination is an encampment east of Baa’j.  The area is rife with Khilafah militants, and we didn’t take it from them easily.  Stay close.  Don’t go any more than a few meters from any one of us.  If you see anything in the distance, radio it in; it might be a scout, or even a sniper.  And remember—try to have fun.”

Tarek let Logan pass, and they loaded into three armored personnel transports, each filled with more Kurdish soldiers.  Their group was divided among the three vehicles, with Heinrich and Rashid in the rearmost vehicle, Logan in the middle, and Lucas and Sam in the forward.  Once everyone was prepared for their final stretch, they headed south—to Baa’j and the body of the Q.