Element

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FOURTEEN

June 8th

He looked mostly harmless. Despite the leather jacket, which gave him a definite Maquis quality. Or the beret which he wore backwards like some kind of young general. Or the plain-looking shoes and unseasonable corduroy pants that in the ensemble made him look like an anachronistic booby trap layer. On second thought…

The older youth’s face jerked around with such animation at the sound of the door opening, it actually made John stop. And so for the first few seconds of their new relationship, they just stared at each other. John wondered if he was about to get mugged. And the other youth… something else. He was looking John over. Finally, he seemed to relax a little.

He said something in French. John sucked in a deep breath and did his best. “Salut. Je suis ta… …shit.” How did you say roommate? He went into his pocket. The other youth rose slightly as he did. He almost… bristled. John took out a pocket translator and mashed some buttons, feeling foolish. At last, the older young man got to his feet.

“Are you American?” John stammered yes. “Oh ok.” He laughed. John laughed too. “What’s your name, my man?” British accent.

“John.”

“Do you have a last name?”

“Marshall. What’s yours?”

“Joshua Dunstan. Are you here on vacation?”

“Well I certainly don’t live here.” This made the Englishman laugh.

“That’s fair.” John took a step inside and looked over the free cot. This one had a mattress. Nice. Upgrades. As he walked over to the cot, the other youth eyed him intently. It made him uncomfortable. He was watching him with his peripheral vision but making no effort to conceal it.

“I don’t mean to intrude.”

“No no, it’s not that. The man just didn’t tell me I was going to have a guest. But it’s all right. This is your home now, too.” A pause. “While we’re on the subject, how long do you plan to stay?”

John blinked. He was starting to dislike this Englishman. “A few days. Is… that all right?”

Joshua seemed to think this over. “All right with me. If you don’t mind dealing with me.”

John thought of a few witty retorts but kept them to himself. He didn’t need trouble. He was glad he’d had coffee. It was giving him the pep he needed to make his cot, which he did as quickly as possible.

“You make your cot so neatly.” John looked at him. “That’s good.” John nodded and looked over at the other cot. It was orderly. There was a juice box on the light blue sheet that covered it.

“So you’re American. How do you like France so far?”

“I don’t know, I just got here. You’re the first person I’ve talked to.”

Joshua laughed boisterously. “That’s not good.” John withdrew and then made himself smile. He concentrated hard, willed himself to make this work. He took off his sneakers and laid them at the foot of the cot. The room was nice. All wood interior. Better ceiling than the last one. And there was a ceiling fan too. That would come in handy.

“It’s a lot more humid here than it was in England.”

“Oh, that’s where you came from?”

“Yes.”

“Yeah. It’s always colder there. You go there in spring, it’s winter. Come here in winter, it’s spring. It’s nice.”

“Nice.” John put a pillowcase on the pillow that had been provided.

“You’re really stiff. You need to relax.”

“You know, it’s funny. My mom tells me the exact same thing.”

“You live with your mom?”

“…Yeah.”

“And your dad too?”

“Yeah.”

“How old are you?”

“Nineteen.”

“You should have your own apartment. Americans live too easy. Big babies.”

John called him a cocksucker in Chinese.

“Whoa… didn’t mean to offend you.”

“Well you did.”

“Sorry. That’s just how I am with new people. It’s not personal. Too personal. What was that you just spoke, Korean... ?”

“Chinese.”

“You speak Chinese?”

“Yes.”

“Nice.” John knew when to back off. He could be reasonable.

“Thanks. So what brings you to France?”

“I’m on vacation.” There was a note of hostility.

“Cool. By yourself?”

“No, with friends.”

John nodded. “That sounds nice. I should’ve done that.”

“Oh man, you’re traveling by yourself? That’s not smart. You can get hurt. Lots of shady people.”

“You’re probably right.”

“Why did you come to Europe?”

“I wanted to have an adventure. Meet new people, like yourself. Do something interesting.”

“Are you in college?”

“I just graduated.”

“At nineteen, wow. You must be one smart cookie.”

“Yeah, well you know what they say, stupid is as stupid does.”

“Ain’t that the truth.” He took out a cigarette. John looked at him with surprise. This was a smokefree hostel. “Do you mind if I smoke?” John shook his head. The other young man lit up. John used the break in conversation to take off his socks, which were damp, and dangle them from one of the hangers in the closet. He could be gross too. He went to the window and looked out. The other youth puffed away behind him. John suddenly felt very tired. He didn’t really want to sight-see today. He just wanted to sit down. He went into his bag and took out some sandals. Putting them on, he went out into the hallway to pee. As he was walking, the door snapped shut behind him.

God. He did his business with a little more slowness than usual and when he was finished washing up, returned to the room. The door was locked.

“Oh sorry, man.” The door opened. Joshua was still smoking. John looked at his cot. His bag looked like it’d changed somehow. He cast a low-key, wary look at Joshua and took it off the cot, leaning back and closing his eyes. He was glad he hadn’t changed time zones again. It was a little tiring. He looked up at the ceiling. Perhaps the coffee was wearing off. Outside the window, birds chirped.

Mercifully, Joshua didn’t speak for some time. And then at last, he went to the window, lifted the screen, and tossed his cigarette out.

“Let the birds have the rest. Hey, are you hungry?” John propped himself up on his elbows.

“Sure.”

“Well, I’m meeting some friends of mine in about thirty minutes. If you want to come, feel free. No pressure.”

“Sure. Thanks. Downstairs?”

“Yeah, just meet us downstairs. In the cafeteria.”

“Okay.” With that, the Englishman got up and left. The door closed part way but not fully. John rolled his eyes. Idiot. He closed his eyes and tried to get a little sleep. But he couldn’t. There was too much caffeine in him. Instead he just lay there, watching the seconds tick by on his elaborate digital watch. The Vostok was packed away somewhere. He was tempted to look in the Englishman’s bag but opted not to. It’d be just his luck he’d come back. And then all of a sudden, he was going through it anyway. There wasn’t much to see. Clothes, underwear. He glanced over his shoulder. Looked back down. Nothing of note. He sighed, no longer interested, and sank back onto his cot, wrists on his knees. He needed to take a shower tonight. He got to his feet. He’d do it right now. He found his towel and a change of clothes. In the online profile, it’d said there was a washing machine here. That would come in handy. He wrapped the towel around himself and went into the bathroom, taking a surprisingly refreshing shower. He’d forgotten how good it felt to be fully clean. He rubbed his brow. More seconds ticked away on his watch. He prolonged the shower until he had only about seven minutes left and then went back to the room and changed into fresh clothes. He was combing his hair when Joshua came back.

“You took a shower?” John nodded. “So you wanna eat or what?”

John nodded. “Yeah, I’m ready.” He scrambled to get his towel up on a hanger and put his sandals back on. Joshua started into the hallway without hesitation and John made chase, sandals squeaking. They went down the dark staircase and came into the lobby. John looked over his shoulder down a hallway and figured the washing machine was somewhere in that direction.

The sun was starting to take on a fading shade that let the inhabitants of Paris know it was beginning its slow decent below the horizon. In the cafeteria, there were several dark wooden tables and wooden chairs. The tables were square and arranged in a long rectangle, four of them together, and huddled around those tables was a small troop of young adults, all roughly his age.

Joshua headed straight for them, telling John these were his crew. One girl, of indeterminate age, was evidently the leader. She looked like one. Her eyes were exacting and probing. She was quiet but deliberate. And when she moved, it was as if the very fabric of the group contorted to go with her. She was dressed in a t-shirt and hiking pants. He learned her name was Katie and she was French. Immediately to her left was a well-built Russian named Viktor who was wearing oversized sunglasses and a dark gray shirt, and had dark black hair. Across the table from Viktor was Cory, a Spanish girl who had dark hair and wore a blue jacket over a grey shirt. She and Viktor were dating. She spoke English, French, and Portuguese, and played the piano. Her education, though incomplete, was in atmospheric science. Directly to her left was André, a French lad who had long hair and apparently, was some kind of math and computer nerd. He sported a five o’clock shadow and, superficially, was a firm contrast to the imposing Joshua. The exception were his brown eyes which were intense.

Separated by an empty space from Viktor was Brian, a Britain with a serious look on his face, a rectangular bulge in his blue chest pocket and a map laid out in front of him. He was the largest of all of them, though it was due to fat rather than muscle. He nodded at John. Erika was to the left of him and Irish. She had on shorts and an orange tank top and had a bandana tied around her hair. She had a background in environmental health and in both composure and aesthetic style, was the closest thing to a counterpart to Katie. And rounding out the ensemble was Joshua, who took a seat next to Cory and handed Viktor a box of cigarettes. It turned out Joshua was a nursing major. Viktor thanked him in Russian to which Joshua told him to go fuck himself. John reckoned he’d make a good nurse.

With all of the initial introductions out of the way, John was offered a seat and took it, trying to be as unawkward as possible. It was always hard when you first met people. It really took a day for two personalities to mesh, like the valence levels of similar atoms. You just had to be patient and let probability guide you together. Or something. His attempt at analogy sounded nonsensical.

He was surprised by how large their group was. Seven people, all traveling together. How the hell had they all met each other? John decided to ask.

Katie took the initiative. “We met each other while we were traveling around the country. It started with me and Viktor and took off from there.”

“Wait, you just sort’a gathered people as you went?” She nodded. “That’s awesome! Where did you people meet?”

“In hostels like this. At conventions.”

“Interesting. And you’re all just sort’ve on vacation together.”

“Yep.”

“Wow. So you said you met at conventions, what kind’ve conventions?” Now they all looked at each other.

“Do you drink?”

“Uh yeah.”

“Ok, come by my room tonight. We’re gonna have a party. We can tell you all about it then. Right now’s just not such a good time.” John didn’t understand but nodded.

“Ok, that’s cool.”

A waitress approached their table just then and handed out menus. John had his translator with him but he hesitated to show it to anyone. He knew what a hamburger was so maybe he should just go with that. He fought his tired brain and tried to remember how to say, “I would like.” The waiter came back and gave them glasses of water.

They all ordered. John got his hamburger. But there was no ketchup. He blinked and requested some. The others waited until everyone had everything they needed before they started eating. They even waited for John’s ketchup to arrive. He couldn’t help but be impressed.

They seemed like all right people. They were all bright and upbeat. And very human. But perhaps the nicest thing was that they were completely uninterested in being alike. It was a good dinner. The best he’d had all week.

Katie ate hastily. Viktor was neat about it. Erika didn’t seem terribly hungry.

“So John.” It was Brian. “What did you study at college?”

“Geophysics, computer science and Chinese.” That caused heads to raise. Katie briefly made eye contact with him which was powerful. As he’d hoped, they started talking amongst themselves again, bantering to and fro. Meeting new people was very overwhelming. John found it exhausting. You worried they wouldn’t accept you. You were afraid you couldn’t be yourself. John was a chameleon, which meant he could pretty much be anyone he wanted. But he really just wanted to be himself. Sometimes he even forgot how.

His companions also seemed impressed by his ability to surf and scuba dive, which was something he hadn’t been able to really show off back home. Back at RPI, everyone was kind of a prodigy. It had a way of making you feel insignificant, no matter what feats of alchemy you performed.

As the late afternoon wore on, they stayed sitting. They weren’t in a hurry to move off. Or be alone. Or stop talking. John managed to get André to speak to him after some initial difficulty and by the end of the day, they were on very good terms, courtesy of their common interest in computer science. André’s knowledge was more self taught than John’s and so less comprehensive, but he started to describe some of his forays into practically applying cognitive science principles in pet projects of his, such as designing a computer program that could recognize faces, or identify individuals based upon their writing style, and it was really something. He also admitted that he’d written a computer malware program that could distribute itself to nearly any platform, but to John’s relief, he had never deployed it. He’d named it Pangaea, which John thought was pretty appropriate.

He’d also programmed his graphing calculator to try to count the last digit of pi. John was amused by that and asked to see the program later. He also asked him what calculator he used. André replied, TI-89. John nodded approvingly. He’d broken his recently which was why he’d upgraded to an Nspire. André said he’d been looking at those but had no need to upgrade.

It was around that point in the conversation that they got around to ordering some more food. The restaurant was going to close soon. They ordered quesadillas. No meat, though. Viktor was a vegetarian. They ragged on Viktor sometimes for that. When they’d first ordered, Cory had feigned disappointment that there wasn’t any veal. Viktor had replied by asking why she didn’t just order baby seal. She searched for that but couldn’t find it either. As they waited for the food, Joshua got up to get something. Brian watched him go.

John brought up siblings. Katie, he found out, had a much younger sister. She also had an older brother. Cory had a much older sister. André was an only child. So was Erika. No one knew about Joshua. And Viktor had two brothers, both older. He was the baby. Erika said “aww” to which Viktor told her, “yeah fuck you.” John was starting to like Viktor. The sun had long since set by this point and he wondered why he hadn’t noticed it until now.

Stomping up the stairs to the second floor, Joshua walked down the hallway to his room and stepped inside. In his hand was a small plastic device that looked like a radio. A cord to a single black earbud was wrapped around it. He unwrapped it quickly and placed the earbud in his ear. On one side of the device was a groove to place his thumb. He wasn’t fond of it. Whoever had designed the thing’s ergonomics was clearly either lazy or incompetent. Supporting it with his left hand, he pressed the pressure switch located awkwardly on the top and checked the volume dial. It was halfway between the little triangle and the big one. He looked at the far wall.

Painted on the door was a perfectly straight red line. Nothing high tech. Just a laser. Moving into the center of the room, he pressed the earbud more firmly into his ear and turned in a slow circle, stopping when he reached the closet, before sweeping back and forth. He continued on, pausing at his roommate’s bag, sweeping it side to side. Nothing came through his earbud. He snapped the device off. No cameras. None with radio transmitters anyway. If there had been, the laser would’ve triggered a spike in its signal, which would’ve been picked up by the radio receiver in his hand. He took the earbud out of his ear and wrapped the wire around the plastic box, returning it to his pocket. He supposed this meant his roommate could live.

He’d also managed to make headway in conversing with Erika. She wasn’t quite his type but charming nevertheless. She seemed more down to earth than Katie and had green eyes. She also had a nice laugh that could make a person fall in love. John had not taken many environmental science courses, but because geophysics was employed to, among other things, monitor groundwater contamination, there was enough overlap to make some academic chit-chat possible. Joshua came back downstairs and took his seat across from Viktor, looked at Katie, and shrugged. John wondered what it meant for half a second and then dismissed the question as irrelevant.

The food came and they finished it fast. Really fast. They probably should have ordered more. Brian had asked the server about beer but she’d said that they didn’t serve alcohol here. Cory told him to be patient since they were going to be drinking later anyway. That brought them to the final topic of interest, what John’s drinking habits were. He explained that he drank socially and liked pineapple rum. They made some jokes about American college students and asked if he’d ever seen Girls Gone Wild. John answered, “not personally.” The strangest things made you a celebrity in a foreign country.

After their prolonged dinner, the group dispersed. Viktor and Joshua went to smoke cigarettes, the girls went their random directions and John went to do laundry, secure in the knowledge that he wasn’t going to spend tonight alone. He found the laundry room and was heading upstairs just as Joshua, who smelled of tobacco, was as well. He asked John if he’d ever had a Cuban Cigar. John shook his head. Joshua handed him one and told him they’d smoke it later. John thanked him several times.

The party was just an endnote to the evening, John learned not long after getting back to the room. They were planning to go out first, and he was invited if he wanted to come. His only concern was his unfinished laundry. He found out they were all going to see a free play at a local theater at nine and walk around until then. They would have about an hour before the play started.

As he rushed to get ready, John was at a loss for what to put on. The leather jacket, folded in his bag, was out. It was way too hot. He had some nice khaki cargo pants, which he put on, and then he found an unused charcoal shirt, putting it on too. Next he put on his lucky charm, a Chinese coin that he wore from his neck on a metal chain. So far, it had treated him well. He also decided it was time to give them a taste of his cosmopolitan style and put on his rectangular Vostok wrist-watch with its black leather wrist band. There. That seemed sufficiently eclectic. He put some commuter sandals on and ran downstairs, taking the steps two at a time. Shit, he was excited.

He wasn’t the first one downstairs. Cory and André were there, wearing cool-looking evening clothes. Joshua came downstairs a few moments later and smiled at Cory.

“Hey, Cory.”

“How you doin?”

“Fuck you!” Everybody laughed. So he had a tagline. Katie came downstairs, Brian right behind her. Erika came just seconds later. Superimposed in front of the faint blue light of post dusk that was coming through the large windows at the front of the hostel, they all stood quietly, until Viktor finally came downstairs. Someone opened the door and John was hit by a gust of chilly air. They walked outside. John held the door for the person behind him and fell into formation behind the alpha female and Erika, her lieutenant, while Brian cleared his throat and lit a cigarette. John scrunched up his nose as smoke blew over him and looked back at Viktor who gestured with his head. Restoring his gaze to the oncoming, John avoided a newspaper dispenser.

Above them, Paris glowed in a neon carnival, like an incandescent citadel. The light engulfed them. Suddenly, everything was larger than life. The restaurants were bigger, the bars were brighter, the stores were flashier, the streets were busier. Criss-crossing glass and cubist architecture, pastel facades. Soaring buildings of blue and green glass, stretching the ability to conceive of volume to its limit, and then breaking it down, until all that was left was the ability to see, the reasoning part of the mind powerless. It was a world without context, a world without proportion. A world where the inside could be bigger than the outside. A world where anything was possible. The sides of buildings themselves were intense screens that hypnotized him, until suddenly, he forgot who he was. Where he was from. All he knew was why he was here. Why. It was an easy question. All you needed to do was to see it.

It had such a power over him that suddenly, he was no longer able to speak. He just walked and walked. Taking it all in. Forty minutes out, at the free theater, they found seats in two rows. The play started soon after and before long, they were laughing and smiling. It was very enjoyable. The whole thing was performed by college students and was in French but the gist of the story was about hope. And inner peace.

It was a long play, two hours long. By the time it was over, they were tired. Fatigued by an intangible exertion. Plays were like that. More involving that television. Slowly, they made their way back to the hostel and settled into the room where the party would be. By that time, John wondered if he had the energy to party. But as the voices rose, he found himself getting a second wind. He had stopped by a store on the way home and picked up a little bottle of rum and some juice to chase it with. Standard protocol in college. Nobody liked a mooch.

They all sat on the room’s cots and started drinking. John hoped Katie was finally comfortable enough to continue her story and asked her to do so. Surprisingly, she obliged without reservation.

“Environmental awareness and human rights rallies, things like that.”

“All over Europe.”

“All over. Well, mostly, not in England.”

“Why not?”

“Too much surveillance.” She explained to him the extent to which the society was monitored, telling him about Great Britain’s liberal use of video cameras and ability to track motor vehicles. When she was done, he was effectively horrified. “Yep, and that’s only the beginning. You’re from America right?”

“Yeah.”

“Did you know that your FBI can listen to your cell phone even when it’s off?”

“No shit.”

“Yep. So moral of the story, don’t break the law electronically.”

“Wow.”

“Tip of the iceberg, baby. Tip of the iceberg.” John was getting nervous.

“You worry so much about this stuff… Does that mean you guys do things that are illegal?”

“No, what we do is we travel around and get information that we give to the press through secure channels. And then they run it. We cover illegal dumping a lot. Things to do with toxic waste, poor safety regulations. Environmental corruption, which there is a lot of. A lot. You really have no idea. Politicians letting their sponsors avoid environmental red tape, or paying off law enforcement personnel. Companies that let their ships capsize and their governments then failing to follow up on the environmental impacts. Pretty much all the dirty tricks you see in the global warming debate happen continuously, utterly outside the public consciousness. So a couple months ago, Viktor and I met and said to ourselves, you know what? Screw this. And we got our group together. We’re anonymous, we’re organized, and we get results.

“And best of all, we help people. A month ago, we actually facilitated an investigation into a politician in Poland. The guy was letting his buddies frack in an area even though they knew it might dangerously stress dormant faults. Well we err… found a copy of documents showing that they knew this was a serious risk. The Guardian did a nice piece about it. We are the anonymous blunt instruments that do what people with faces simply cannot do while staying alive. Even important ones. Especially the farther east you go. By the time you reach Russia, with its massive mafia influence, you really are taking your life into your own hands. But then again, the mob’s everywhere. France, Italy, Bosnia, Spain, everywhere.” John looked at her eyes. They were unnerving in their sincerity.

“Also,” she mused, “who’s to say that one day we won’t inspire other people to do the same kind of thing?” She let that thought settle on him. “People say our generation is apathetic. But we’re not. We have plenty of interest in the issues of our time. We just don’t trust the political process. We do however have an incredible interest in volunteering and contributing to causes and want those sacrifices to mean something. Because of this, I think a model like ours might be particularly appealing to our age group.”

“Not to mention the most important part,” John said. “It’s really cool.” Katie smiled. John looked at the other people in the room. “Do you always deliver your info to the same person?”

“We have more than one contact but we also have preferred contacts. We rarely do the same person a favor twice immediately. We have to really like them.”

“So they give you leads…”

“Yes.”

“So in a way, they’re your handlers.”

“Not really. We help them sell. They give us leads. It’s a symbiosis.”

“Interesting. How do you arrange drops?”

“Decentralized peer-to-peer software.”

“Wow. What software do you use?”

“Tor.”

John nodded. “Interesting…”

“Yep. Tip of the iceberg.”

“But now for the less fun question. How exactly do you get funding to do something like this…?” He looked at her warily. “My mind runs to drugs.”

She smiled. “Selling textbooks.” John laughed.

“You’re joking.”

“Yep. All over Europe.”

“Except for England.”

“Except for England.”

“Just selling textbooks.”

“Just selling textbooks. And when you think about it, it really is the most logical thing in the world. They’re the one thing people will always need.”

“That’s actually really smart.”

She nodded. “Thanks.”

He made an amused face and turned away to think about all this. Finally, he shook his head and said the only thing he could think of.

“Well, I won’t lie, I envy you. I really do.”

“You can come with us for a while, if you want. I don’t know if you’d rather spend the rest of your vacation by yourself but we take care of each other and we could use another man, badly. Plus you sound more than capable.” He had to admit, that flattered him enormously. She was saying, in essence, that he was good enough to be a secret agent of sorts. A little known fact about John was that he’d harbored a desire to work for the CIA as an operator for years. Tradecraft. Exotic locations. It was an exciting thought. He had just never worked up the courage to apply.

“But how do you know you can even trust me?”

Now it was her turn to laugh. “We knew that hours ago.” He was interested to know how. “When we found you on Myspace and Facebook, hacked into your university registrar and downloaded your transcript,” she said. John’s face blanched. “Oh yeah, and your password sucks. Never use whole words, or even partial words. EVER. They’re the first thing brute force algorithms try. We didn’t even have to get imaginative.” He didn’t allow himself to respond. Just squinted involuntarily. “One thing you’ll learn, Mr. Marshall, if you decide to work with us. We always do our homework.”

The temperature of the room dropped. John got goosebumps and suddenly found himself needing another cup of rum. Bending over, he reached down to unscrew the cap of the bottle.

“I do have one question though,” she said. John hesitated.

“What?”

“Why does your mother think you’re in Arizona?”

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