John was sitting in a metal chair, the back curved, like a crescent moon. He had once read an article many years ago, detailing how McDonald’s would design its restaurants to be physically and psychologically manipulative. The chain used the color red liberally, triggering an innate hunger response. The straws were too wide, lessening fluid resistance with their above average diameters. The chairs were hard and uncomfortable. All of these innovations were designed for one purpose and one purpose only, to get people to eat, eat quickly, and leave. Upon further reflectance, he supposed that was three.
Here was a similar psychological premise in action, John observed anxiously. He couldn’t get comfortable in the chair. Nor could he leave it. The video camera in the ceiling saw to that. The industrial-style metal table in front of him only made him more anxious. He just knew the next man to come in would be the good cop. A conspicuous attempt to make him recognize comfort in an utterly comfortless environment and encourage him to spill his guts. His friend’s lawyer sister had once given him some rather colorful advice. “If the feds ever knock on your door and ask if you know something about someone who broke the law, sing like a canary.” It was that simple. Well, John knew enough to speak volumes. And he planned to say it all. The stakes were too high.
The door opened with a whine and in walked good cop. He had a big burly mustache that was almost cartoonish. He was dressed in a white shirt. He had glasses on and bore more than a passing resemblance to the late Tom Clancy, both in mannerism and in appearance. Except for the mustache, of course. Tom Clancy didn’t have a mustache. The man actually looked pleasant. He walked slowly. But one thing was not welcoming. His hair. It was purely military in style and John didn’t have a single doubt that whatever words came out of his mouth would be cool and crisp.
The man took his seat and held out his hand.
“Hello, my name is Mark Dashford. I work for the Central Intelligence Agency. And I’m your new best friend.” John only stared. “For the record, your name is Jonathan Andrew Marshall?”
“Yes.” It was a whisper.
“You were born in Willimantic, Connecticut?”
“This was certainly an interesting summer vacation, was it not?”
John nodded. “Yes.”
“Do you understand the charges against you?”
“Espionage. Conspiracy to commit espionage. Trespassing. Conspiracy to access a computer network without authorization. Conspiracy to destroy private property using a computer. And conspiracy to commit an act of terrorism. One of these charges carries a maximum of a life sentence per count.” John simply broke down. He was exhausted. For five long minutes he sobbed and sobbed and sobbed, face down, forehead mashed against the cold steel of the table, tears streaming down his cheeks, into his mouth. Salty water. He balled his fingers into fists and heaved. But his stomach was empty and so he simply gasped, vomiting out air. At last his muscles gave out on him. His stomach was too tired to heave anymore.
He lay his head down, gasping in deep breaths like a dying fish stuck on land, an infinite distance from his home. His now hypersensitive ears heard the tick tick ticking of his body’s clock, his beating heart throbbing like an organic metronome, nerves firing as flaps of fleshy fabric contracted around four saline reservoirs. Each thrust of fabric forced his brain to stay conscious and focused, so it could direct his body to defend itself. The fight or flight response rendered inert, for all it was worth, in this concrete box that was his tomb.
At last, after an immeasurable span of time, he looked up. The mustached man asked him questions and John answered them all to the best of his abilities. The truth sounded strange as he described it. He wondered how his journal must have read now. For once, he had the gift of true objectivity. He recalled the billions of warnings his subconscious had bombarded his mind with over the last month, designed by nature to complement the other five senses. Intuition. Nature’s early warning radar. A primitively sophisticated pattern recognition apparatus installed in the brain by God knew how many eons. Built to protect him from himself. His intelligence. His ability to rationalize behavior that was honestly beyond reason. It was all so terribly funny. He wished he could faint again but he knew he wouldn’t. He wasn’t a fainter. He wasn’t a lot of things.
He was a scared little boy in a man’s body who saw his life through clear eyes and realized for the first time how lucky he had been all those years, up until now. And yet, through it all, despite all the angst, the loss, the pain. Somehow… He was not regretful. He hadn’t been without purpose. He might have been reckless. He might have even been stupid. But he wasn’t crazy. He had had purpose, however subtly embedded in his decision making processes. He had had purpose.
And as for now, he was alive. He could speak. Life would go on. Tomorrow, the sun would rise. He began to feel his mind transition to a new state. With his tears drained to the point of depletion, the mental orgasm of anguish complete, emotion left him, until all he felt was the simple will to live, and process. Perhaps this was truly ‘flow,’ for if the term had any more relevant an illustration, he could not think of it. He began to follow a simple instruction set. Sit up straight, look the man in the eye. Answer the question. Do as you’re told. Tell facts in as great a detail as possible. Accept his comments with calm.
The mustached man walked out and was replaced by a man from the FBI, a man who went only by the name Sean. He asked him questions about the fire at Los Alamos. John had no answers. The questions kept coming. It exhausted both of them. At last, the man left him, and as soon as the door closed, he rested his cheek on the cold steel and slept. He didn’t know for how long because there was no clock. He awoke to an empty room. He had never completely wiped away his tears and he knew there were probably ugly trails of saline evaporate on his face. Snot dripped from his nose and he wiped his nostril as best he could with his handcuffed hands.
The door opened. A man he didn’t recognize came in. John was led into a dark room. The door snapped closed and the sharp clank of a bolt moving echoed in the otherwise completely silent room. It was here that he sat for the next five and a half months. He urinated and defecated in a tiny stall in the corner. There was a camera above the door and he could only look away as he did nature’s will. Intermittently, he returned to the concrete room to answer follow-up questions and clarify previous statements.
On the one hundred sixty-seventh day, when he was taken into the concrete room, the day initially felt like any other. What set it apart was that today, his interrogator was very late. Two hours passed. When the door finally opened, there was a brisk set of footsteps and Sean took a seat. He stared. John stared. It was cold in the room.
“Explain to me once more what you know about the Los Alamos Fire.
“I don’t know anything.”
“Explain to me again what you know about Katie Liskum, aka Christine Martel.”
“She was French. She said she’d raised her money by selling textbooks.”
“Did she ever say who her eBay clients were?”
“I didn’t know she had eBay clients.”
Silence. Sean got up and walked out of the room. An hour later, Mark Dashford came in and took a seat.
“Mr. Marshall. Based on your testimony, and the testimony of your friends, and your diary, and the information that’s been gathered from your associates… the CIA is confident you were not deliberately performing hostile activities against the United States and her allies.” Long pause. “In effect, you were duped. A pawn. The woman you know as Katie is not who you thought she was. She is what is known as a Non-Official Cover for an as yet undetermined government. Now the obvious question is who. Whoever she represented was concerned enough about climate change to tip your group off to the facility in Kamchatka, which in all likelihood they had known about for some time. The most effective greenhouse gases contain fluorine. So a bertrandite processing facility is an obvious place to look. By sharing this information with you, they eventually achieved two goals. Russia’s activities came to light and you and your group came to be viewed as both very radical and very capable. Your attack on Novell and the bombing in London took this goal a step further. Now, not only were you radical, but you were violent as well. A perfect segue into the larger narrative they wanted to paint. A narrative involving a radical faction of Greenpeace and Al Qaeda.”
This was all redundant. John and his interrogators had already been over all of this. The horror of it never went away though. Greenpeace, he, his friends, even Al Qaeda, had all been scapegoats for foreign spies. Their group’s very existence had been orchestrated by an invisible hand. And all of the self-doubt and conflict he had experienced and money he had spent and risk he had accepted had culminated in him helping that terrible hand. It was too much.
John felt tears welling up in his eyes. He fought to keep them down.
“The thing that makes me so sad,” Mark continued, “that makes this so tragic, is that all of this could have been avoided for you. You spoke on many occasions about your desire to make a difference. I then asked you why you simply didn’t work for a government agency. Join a volunteer group. Study hard in graduate school and become an influence on your legislature. Organize a nonprofit. You couldn’t answer me. Except to say that you needed to do this one reckless thing. You felt compelled to make a difference in your own way. To feel alive. Outside the morally ambiguous system with its corrupt leaders. This young woman provided a romantic environment for your uncritical fantasy to thrive and it did. Until reality caught up to fiction.” He paused.
“However, tragedy aside, the fact still remains, you broke the law. Property has been destroyed. And we would be completely within our rights to hand you over to the Russian government.” Longer pause. “However. Given the information you’ve brought to light regarding that country’s illegal activities, we would prefer not to do that and our government has leverage to prevent it. We have negotiated for you to serve any prison time in our country. Still though, that doesn’t entirely sit well with us.
“So.” Painfully long pause. “I am offering you the opportunity to enter into our agency as an intern, with the expectation that you will later permanently join the Directorate of Analysis.” John blinked in disbelief.
“Me? Why do you trust me? No agency just accepts someone. There are background checks…retina scans….polygraphs….”
“Most of which have already been performed. You fucked up. You fucked up hard. You exercised rash, poor, outright brainless judgment. Then, after exercising that poor judgment, you didn’t turn yourself in, necessitating a manhunt that cost tens of thousands of euros. Your generation puts such a premium on intelligence. What you don’t realize is that stupid is as stupid does. Some would argue that you deserve to sit in prison for the next twenty years. I don’t. But no matter what the circumstances, you will serve time. I’m giving you a choice how.”
John shook his head. “How are you going to explain me not standing trial?”
“Oh, you will stand trial. And you will cooperate completely. But when that’s done, when they send you to prison, you’re going to quietly come with us.”
John blinked. “I see… But why do you trust me?”
“Because you don’t have anything left to hide.” John gave a loud sigh.
“What am I looking at if I don’t accept your offer?”
“Most likely, fifteen years in an American prison, or more.” John closed his eyes. “This is the best deal you’re going to get.”
Between clenched teeth, John hissed, “I don’t want to be a spy anymore. All you spies do is use people. People like me. People like my friends. You have no morals. If I had to be honest, I hate everyone like you.” Mark smiled.
“Your job will be analysis in Virginia, not field work. Your data will come from human intelligence, in other words foreign informants or agents, covert action, geospatial intelligence, and signals intelligence, among others. I had hoped to convince my colleagues at the Open Source Center that you were a good fit for them but they wouldn’t bite. Fortunately, I have more sway in the DA. The only reason I was able to convince the Director of National Intelligence was that I promised to personally supervise you.”
John was quiet for a while. “What about the others,” he asked at last.
“What about them,” Mark asked.
“They’re my friends. Will they get similar offers?”
“That will depend on decisions made by their governments.”
John laughed, then started to cry.
“Why should I get a way out while they don’t,” he asked. Mark shook his head.
“Don’t overthink it, kid. Don’t beat yourself up because of survivor guilt.” John cleared his throat. He wiped his eyes.
Suddenly, a realization came to him. He lowered his hands and locked his eyes on Mark Dashford.
“Damn you. What else do you want from me?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“I know you want something. Want me to do something. Just cut the crap and tell me what it is. …Please.” Mark looked surprisingly sympathetic.
“Nothing else. The reason you’re getting this offer is that you just happened to remind someone who was in a position to help you of a younger version of himself.”
“May I ask how?”
Mark Dashford looked thoughtful. Much time passed and John wondered if the mustached man intended to answer. And then he took out a pad, flipped back a page and jotted on it. When he was done, he slid it over so John could see it. There was a rainbow on it, with a funny arrow going across it.
“Do you know what that is?”
“Then let’s just say, once upon a time, we were in a similar position.” He retrieved the pad, and put it back into his pocket.
“I see. Since you’d be supervising me, obviously, you work in the DA. Part of your job is to process human intelligence and I assume your products probably include comments about areas where new agents would be useful. Forgive my question. But I really need to know. How do you justify being part of a system that exploits innocent people?”
Mark leaned forward. “To answer your question and at the same time, offer a broader commentary on the morality of our activities, I must begin by saying there is no sugar-coated explanation for the dastardly things we do. Every government is out to protect its interests. Ours is no different. Our main goal in CIA is intelligence gathering and analysis. We need to know what everyone else is doing and planning be they governments or organizations so that if they have the potential to eventually threaten our interests, we’re aware of it. Information we gather and products we output support the State Department, support the military, and provide intelligence so Congress and the President can make informed and timely decisions about foreign policy. We are literally crucial to the country in this role. But there’s critical data out there that you can’t get with signals intelligence or open source intelligence or satellite imagery or covert action. There are some things you can only obtain with a man on the inside. Data that’s vital to our interests.
“So we recruit agents. We turn them. We manipulate them. Coerce them. Lie to them. Sometimes we tell them we’re someone we’re not. All amoral in one way or another.
“Another thing we’ll sometimes do is create, fund, or join an organization or company so that we can use it as a cover to carry out espionage or as a means to undertake covert action, activities that influence conditions in a country of interest. This is definitely a gray area because key members in these organizations or firms might know they’re a front for us but the other members might not. These entities may be American or they could be foreign. Sound familiar?” Mark crossed his arms. John nodded. “This begs some obvious questions. When it’s a foreign entity, how moral is it to use innocent members as tools to disrupt their own country? What’s the risk to innocent civilians overseas, American or foreign, if the entity is discovered to contain operators? Despite these risks, we sometimes do these things for many reasons. Maybe the target government is unfriendly or autocratic. Maybe the government is corrupt and that’s impacting American businesses operating there. Maybe the government has a history of committing human rights abuses and we want to advocate for greater freedom. Maybe information being sought after is a high priority and a non-official cover is a useful alternative. This might be the case in the context of nuclear proliferation, for instance.
“Now truthfully, all of these things disturb me on some level. I’m sure they utterly horrify you.”
John laughed, then shook his head with a sneer.
“But before you make your decision, consider one more thing. A significant percent of the intelligence in our products derives from sources that have nothing to do with human intelligence. These include academic publications, newspapers, governmental sources like NGA, NSA, NRO, FBI, NOAA, NASA, the State Department, and the armed forces, and international organizations such as the World Bank, the IMF, and the Red Cross. Unless it pertains to certain special circumstances, such as situations in which terrorists are operating in an area, your work won’t relate very heavily, if at all, to covert action fronts claiming to be nonprofits or nonprofit fronts in which foreign volunteers are recruited for espionage. This is specifically because we realize you’re sensitive to this subject. Those special types of circumstances will be exceptions because they’re so extreme, it’s much harder to make the case that such activities are morally unjustifiable. I need to be frank and tell you, though, a constraint like this will limit your potential for upward mobility. But again, it beats prison.”
John chewed his lip. “I see.”
“I can’t promise you your work or what you learn about our agency’s activities won’t prevent you from sleeping at night sometimes. But I promise you a challenging career and I promise you that your individual work will contribute to make the world a slightly better place.”
John was silent for a long time.
“So what’s it gonna be, kid,” Mark asked finally. John sighed.
Perhaps it was inevitable. He had a chance to be free. All he had to do was say one thing. That one word that would lead to his salvation. Salvation of a sort, anyway. As was the case with any great opportunity, this one would not come without sacrifice. Free will. Yet, despite that drawback, who could pass such an offer up? He sighed again. He knew the answer. He could. What was the point of freedom if he couldn’t look himself in the mirror? As he pondered everything, he didn’t look at Mark Dashford’s face. Instead, he closed his eyes.
He saw that his entire future hinged on this moment. Perhaps, in a billion trillion google-plex infinity of alternate nows, he was making a different decision. Endless infinities said yes, an infinity more said no. Would his choice merely be a random quirk of quantum-mechanics? The result of the statistical likelihood of an infinitely probable outcome among a sea of binary mobility? Fate was a frightening concept for a scientist. Even an amateur one. It was time to make a choice.
At last, he opened his mouth to speak. And then he uttered one word.
If ever there was an emotional response from Mark Dashford, it was never apparent. Only prolonged silence. John felt his heart flutter.
And then he smiled.