Movies have people brainwashed.
People think when you’re part of a war, you’re Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan or not-Amy-Adams in Zero Dark Thirty. You’re on the front lines, or you’re hunting the big bad. In real life, one person can only play one small role in one small part of one small corner of a war. In the midst of it, you’re not thinking of the bigger picture.
That’s why I always have to laugh at those “be your best” Army commercials. I ended up in this line of work from via determined mediocrity. I mean yeah, on paper I’m that patriotic vision of a poor kid who went to a poor school in a poor neighborhood and then went on to Serve Her Nation. But I’m not actually like that.
Those guys do exist. I’ve met them. They kick ass in ROTC, stay out of trouble in school, go right into the service after graduation. Sometimes they even join the Marines or the Rangers to go bust heads in Afghanistan or Somalia. I’m not ambitious like that. I’m supposed to be. My mom always downloaded into me that we came to the States so I could have opportunity. I was supposed to have that immigrant hustle. Go full-Obama and graduate at the top of my class with a full ride scholarship to Georgetown or whatever. And for a long while I tried to do that. I joined ROTC and trained every morning before busting ass to get a 4.0, in a school system that basically hires teachers to pass out homework and stare at their phones. I took every Advanced Placement class and nailed ’em. AP literature, AP U.S. History, AP Chemistry. I worked really hard.
And it’s not that I cracked under pressure. It was the opposite of pressure. Like floating in dark space. Maybe I cracked in the vacuum. Can that happen?
I eased up. I got Bs and Cs, skipped class here and there, stuck with ROTC and joined the Army. Mom and dad were disappointed about college. I was too, but I didn’t know how to want it. I didn't know how to picture it for myself. What would I have studied? Where would I have lived? Who would have been my friends? I never knew anyone who went, other than my teachers, and all it ever did for them was land them a job at ******** High School.
After I officially signed up, I figured I’d get shipped out to Iraq or something. Nope. After basic training I was assigned to desk duty at a building blocks from my high school, a ten minute walk down Silver Hill Road.
Suitland is just outside of Washington D.C. It’s a grid of boxy federal and military buildings with ratty old houses on the outskirts and a big ugly highway running through the middle. Even when the sky is blue in Suitland, it’s got this grey tint. My glorious ascension to the American Dream culminated in me working in one of those buildings and living in one of those houses. With my parents.
It wasn’t all bad. I was ranked ********* within a couple years. That amounts to pretty good money for riding a desk in my hometown. Day by day, I drank the office coffee with almond milk. I did data entry and inventory and I made sure the budget for our office stayed balanced. I answered everybody’s stupid questions about where the extra staples are kept and what form you have to fill out to order more toilet paper.
There’s nothing more boring than listening to someone explain their boring job. The only reason I’m walking you through it is to emphasize how surprising it was when strange men showed up and recruited me to rob a grave.
Before they showed up, it was an aggressively normal day. Coffee, spreadsheets, fifteen minute breaks spent picking at my 20 dollar manicure and watching influencers beef on YouTube. When the two plainclothes white dudes stepped into my office I figured they had just gotten turned around. Like I said, these big boxy Suitland buildings are crammed with federal and military offices. We share the snack machine at the end of the hall with the Census Bureau. I figured they were trying to get to a meeting at the FDA or something and they just had the wrong door.
“Can I help you?” I asked, primed to give directions.
“***********?”one of the plainclothes guys asked.
“Yeah?” I acknowledged.
“You’re wanted in a meeting with representatives from ********,” said the one who knew how to talk. “Come with us please.”
My mind was reeling, but I set my coffee down and stood up to go with them.
I was uneasy as the men led me down the hall to my commander’s office. I supposed these guys must be military, but they didn’t read like any soldiers I had ever met. Everyone that I knew affiliated with the military had a certain aura to them, an efficiency, a willingness to get stuff done, a subdued swagger, shrink-wrapped, for better or worse, in their rank. They had dirt under their fingernails and they knew how to fix the knocking under the hood of your used car, but they pull your chair out and open the door for you.
These guys did not give off an army vibe at all. Both of them had expensive looking haircuts, crisp button-up shirts with no ties, open just enough for me to spot the strips of pink baby-skin where they had both had their chests waxed, and fancy-looking sunglasses clipped to their collars.
“********?” I finally asked. My voice came out squeakier than I expected. They didn’t respond.
Half a dozen other men in plainclothes were there, all white guys except for one who looked maybe middle eastern. My commander, the guy who had been ordering me around for two years, was dismissed unceremoniously, which was a little disconcerting. I tried to lock eyes as he left, but he was gone before I could catch him. Suddenly it was just me, crammed into a room not much bigger than my office with six men I didn’t know.
“***********?” the man in charge asked. I assumed he was in charge because he was sitting in my commander’s chair. He was dressed fashionably like the others, but he had a shaved, shiny head that glinted in the fluorescent light. He wore glasses with thick, black frames.
“Yes sir,” I said automatically. The men chuckled or grinned.
“No need for that in here,” the Shaved Man said. “This team is all civilian intelligence and private sector, so we can drop the military formalities Miss **********.”
I didn’t really know what to say to that so I just nodded uncomfortably, wishing I was back at my desk in coffee and spreadsheet purgatory.
“I know you’ve got other responsibilities to attend to,” the Shaved Man said. “So I’ll keep this concise. My name is **** ******. I’m with the ******* ************. My colleagues here are from ***** and ********. The army has agreed to lend you to us for a few weeks for a project we’re working on.”
The word “lend” was a little bright on my brain. Yeah, the Army’s all about following orders and shutting up, but generally they recognized it was human beings they were bossing around. Two minutes into a meeting with these guys and I felt like a piece of hardware that could be lent out from one agency to another. Somewhere on a computer in Virginia I was a cell in someone else’s spreadsheet.
“Would you like to hear about the project?” the Shaved Man asked again, prompting another series of snickers from his colleagues.
“Yes,” I said. My voice came out squeaky and hoarse again.
“It has to do with what we call a wetware computer,” he said, speaking slowly. “Are you familiar with what that is?”
I shook my head.
“So you know about computers,” he said, once again talking slow. “But did you know you can also think of your brain as a sort of computer? In fact, our brains are some of the fastest, strongest computers out there, because our brains can learn all on their own. Now, we’ve been trying for years to teach computers to learn like our brains. Trying and failing. We’re probably decades out from learning to do it by hand. But some of our biggest global rivals have taken a shortcut and pulled out ahead of us on this. Can you guess how?”
I couldn’t. I shook my head.
“By making people into computers,” the Shaved Man said. I stared.
“People's brains,” I said, just checking. The Shaved Man nodded.
“In China, the CCP has been trying to build computers using the brains of cadavers for decades. It has not worked. Something about asking a human brain to process information on command in that way causes it to shut down and die, no matter what they do to try to convince it to stay alive. The Russians have hired German and Syrian scientists to try to build computers from the brains of sheep and chimpanzees. They’ve technically had more success than the Chinese, but it hasn’t done them any good. The processing power you can wring out of a sheep’s brain is negligible. Only one country has had real success in this field.”
The Shaved Man nodded to another of his colleagues. A tablet computer was produced from a designer brand messenger bag and the screen flipped toward me. I saw grainy satellite imagery of an ancient looking stone building. It looked like an ancient temple. There were armored trucks parked around it.
“That,” the Shaved Man said “is the final resting place of a Zoroastrian priestess. The Zoroastrians were pagans, fire-worshippers. This particular priestess took her own life during the Muslim Conquest of Persia. Her body was preserved in hopes that the sacred fire could one day return her body to life. This photo was taken March 8, 2018. On March 10 of that year, Iran created a computer that knew how to think. Like a person.”
I was not sure exactly how to react to this. I looked again at the grainy satellite photo.
“You’re saying they used her brain,” I asked, expecting another round of snickers.
Nobody laughed. Then, after a minute, I did. I had been sitting there in a cold sweat, so worried that I was in trouble or that I was being discharged or transferred. It was almost a relief to find out that the real reason was something so outlandish, something like the plot of a black and white sci-fi movies that my dad would watch at 3 in the morning.
Nobody joined me though. In fact, the temperature in the room had gone up a few degrees. All the fashionable men with good hair looked uncomfortable. The Shaved Man was practically glaring at me.
Having gone to a tough high school, I was familiar with this phenomenon. The people that most like to sneer and laugh down at you go crazy when you laugh back. They can’t stand it. I cleared my throat.
“So they used her brain,” I said, seriously. “To make a computer.”
“Yes,” said the Shaved Man. “And ever since, the tactical capabilities of Iran’s military and Revolutionary Guard have evolved at a rate that ought to not be possible. You ever play chess against a computer miss ***********? It’s not a fair game. Ever since they built that computer, trying to check Iran in the Gulf is like playing against a perfect chess machine, as logical as a computer yet as adaptive as a human brain.”
“Can I ask a question?” I interjected. “What’s so special about her brain? I mean, not to be crude, but it seems like the Chinese had the right idea. You’d be better off with a fresh one.”
The smile began to creep back into the Shaved Man’s face, cross-contaminating with the lingering look of contempt he had taken on when I laughed at him.
“Don’t act dense,” he said. “This is your area of expertise. Why do you think you’re here ***********?”
At this point I had no idea what he was talking about, but when one of the pretty boys produced a white envelope, it clicked, and I had an idea of what I was about to see. The pretty boy dropped laminated sheet after laminated sheet on the desk. They sounded like soft leaves landing in still water.
“You know a little something about this, don’t you?” the Shaved Man said. “Don’t you?”
A tree with bloody palm prints crawling across its surface. A circle carved in pale dirt with dozens of geometric shapes and symbols scrawled inside. A woman with silvery blonde hair and dark eyes, laying in the green grass, blood seeping dark through her blue scrubs. A girl with red, shackled hands. Police blocking off a crime scene with bright yellow tape.
“I had nothing to do with this,” I said. I sounded calm. “They caught the girl who did this. She’s in jail.”
“But you do know the girl,” the Shaved Man said. “Don’t you?” If they already had all these photos, it was safe to assume they knew about Lydia. So I nodded.
“Miss *********** you look nervous,” the Shaved Man said seriously. He swept up the five photos and dropped them back into the envelope. “You needn’t be. Your military record is snow white, and we will do nothing to tarnish that. In fact, we want to help you to excel.” He produced a second, identical envelope and handed it to me.
“We’ll continue this conversation tomorrow,” he said. “At the Pentagon.”
This was it. My Obama moment. Immigrant makes good, serves her country, excels further than anyone thought probable. I briefly tried to savor it, but the taste in my mouth was sour.
I took the folder.