(editor's note: This story is what it is. As far as I know, no such place exists.)
The road to Damascus is a gargoyle’s tongue swallowed by the Colorado horizon. It is a corridor defined by its enclosure. To the west, mountains colored in perpetual twilight stand unwelcoming sentry. To the east, brown, untended hills roll infinitely beyond sight. Every morning, Eleven drives north along this road into the monster’s maw. Every evening, he is regurgitated, and he returns home covered in the bile of his profession.
Eleven does not discuss his work with his friends or family. When asked, he lies truthfully: Secretary. Stenographer. Typist. Garbage man. He does not mention that the bits of trash he collects are electronic signals from space, or that his “garbage truck” cost tens of millions of dollars in taxpayer money. He does not mention how tired men in expensive suits study his “notes” behind closed doors in buildings without windows. He does not mention that his notes sometimes cause men to be taken from their homes at night with black bags thrown over their heads. He does sometimes joke, Don’t worry, I haven’t killed anybody. He adds a silent yet at the end.
Eleven does not have much family or many friends to be almost truthful with. When he was hired by the facility, Eleven used his considerable paycheck to purchase a quiet farmhouse so it would be inconvenient for anyone to stop by and be lied to. Of the three thousand employees of the facility, he is the only one who does not live in the gated communities of Damascus, Colorado. Every morning, when hundreds of vehicles stream south from the city, a single pair of headlights pushes northward. His only company is a dead ash tree that stands to the side of the road halfway to the facility.
This morning, Eleven arrives at the facility at 6:15 a.m. In three hours, there will be a line, one hundred vehicles long, waiting for admission at Gate D. Gate D is the only gate to the facility, and it is hidden by trees and metal so passersby do not see the line of one hundred vehicles waiting for admission to what appears to be an abandoned lumber yard. The facility, in fact, was an abandoned lumber yard; the bargain price of the remote and inconspicuous property was simply too good for the government to pass up.
The armed guards in blue uniforms wave Eleven through the gate after he shows them an I.D. with his unsmiling portrait and no other features. He parks in the man-made cavern of gray concrete and humming lights, then takes the elevator to the pedestrian guard station. It is the only interruption of the inner chain link fence that surrounds the facility. He swipes his I.D. on small keypad and taps four buttons. An armed guard, standing silently nearby, nods. Eleven pushes through the cold metal teeth of the turnstile then veers off the pavement towards the smoke pit. He follows the small dirt trail carved into the grass by the trudging feet of addicts.
Eleven does not smoke, but the smoke pit is more than that; it is an open air sanctuary, a place where facility employees can chat and vent their typical work frustrations. Because chat is unprofessional, they do not chat inside. Because their work is atypical, they cannot vent at home. That would result in suspension and criminal proceedings. For this reason, the smoke pit is holy ground.
This early in the morning, there is only one worshipper attending service. The chaplain is leaning back on a bench with eyes closed, arms resting along his legs. Frail palms face upward. For all the world, the chaplain looks like he’d just slit his wrists. He is a tall, gaunt man with no hair, eyebrows, or color to his skin. He is a man who refused to retire even after his cancer diagnosis. His is an unrelenting spirit on the precipice of death. Eleven sometimes wondered if the ghastly figure in the khaki Navy uniform was not already a phantom that had nothing else to do but haunt the facility.
“Uh, morning, sir,” ventures Eleven. He still refers to military officers by the honorific out of habit, though the necessity has long since passed.
The ghost opens his eyes, turns his head, and smiles. “Good morning, ‘Leven. Just wrapping up a prayer.”
“Funny way to pray, ain’t it?” asks Eleven. “Shouldn’t you hold your hands together?”
“I prefer to come before God with empty hands. More honest, in my opinion.” The chaplain speaks in a voice lighter than air.
Eleven chuckles. “‘More honest,’ you say! There’s a reason I always liked you.”
The chaplain closes his eyes. “’The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him,’” he quotes.
Eleven rubs his chin. “Yossarian, eh? Too noble for me. I picture myself as the guy who paid the hooker to hit him with a shoe.”
“You’re a better man than you give yourself credit for, ‘Leven,” says the decaying body.
“No. I don’t think I am,” says Eleven, pointing at the warehouse. “Nobody here is a good man. We stay here because a contracting company cuts us a nine-thousand dollar check every month or because the government guarantees us health insurance and a retirement plan.” He pauses. “If you don’t mind me asking, why do you stay, sir? You coulda requested to go anywhere. Live the rest of your days in Hawaii, for Christ’s sake. Why here?”
The chaplain labors to his feet and traces the shirt crease over his heart with his fingertips. “You caught me in a platitude, ‘Leven. None of us are good men. Not even one. That’s just plain ol theology,” he says. “Now, this is between you and me: The world outside that fence calls us heroes, but we both know we’re all sycophantic, lazy, stupid, and ambitious. Just like the rest of the world. But the rest of the world, they put us on a pedestal and go about their lives with a clean conscious.
“You don’t get to come home with a clean conscious. That’s why I stay here. The way I see it, there are only two ways out of the facility.” He holds up a pair of gnarled fingers. “The dark way, and the light way. Most folks here come in knowing the light way, but the facility changes them. Our people come thinking they know right from left, but leave thinking it’s the other way around. Up is down. Bad is good. Dark is light.”
Eleven interrupts. “ That’s probably ‘cause they don’t put windows in the facility and people work 12 hour shifts in artificial light.”
“You know what I mean. Folk come here with one definition of right and leave with another, yapping about freedom the whole drive home. I’m tired of it, ‘Leven.” The chaplain collapses back in the bench. “They’re fumbling about in the dark in there. ‘Til I die, I’ll be here to lead people out.”
“Here in the smoke pit?” says Eleven with a weak smile. He avoids the chaplain’s eyes and pushes a discarded cigarette butt around with his leather shoe.
The chaplain closes his eyes. “Here in the smoke pit.”
“Hey, Eleven!” a coarse voice sounds. Eleven looks toward the building to see a pair of wide blue jeans carrying a bulging Hawaiian shirt. The man whose bulk fills the patterned polyester powers through a cigarette as he waddles towards the smoke pit.
“Good morning, Mike,” begins Eleven.
“D.C. got a kill,” huffs Mr. Hawaiian shirt.
“What? Who?” Eleven inquires hungrily. Eleven and Mike work in a cubicle together. Their office has not had a kill in some time.
“Operation French Tickler. The target crossed into Afghanistan from Quetta last night, and D.C. branch tasked a drone from Kandahar to take him out. Gloating bastards even sent us the kill feed.” Mike waggles his cigarette at Eleven. “Parts of him flew so high I swear his guts hit the UAV’s camera. They just want to rub it in that we haven’t gotten shit all month. Susan’s been breathing down my neck since I arrived this morning, asking when we’ll get something solid on Jamaluddin’s location. I told her you’d get on it. Crank that shit up to Eleven.”
Eleven ceased to be a man some years ago when it was discovered that he was an intellectual machine. The facility snagged him in a federal contract when his military service ended for this reason. When someone or something, needed to be found, they turned to him. Shit got cranked up to Eleven. The high number of Spinal Tap fans in the facility ensured the nickname never went away.
“I’ll get on it,” says Eleven. He waves to the chaplain, but the man’s eyes are closed.
As Eleven walks away, Mike lights another cigarette and sits down near the altar.
“Hey, you alive, Padre? You’re creeping me out.”
The chaplain, who’d resumed his suicide pose, opens his eyes and smiles.
Eleven approaches the building. It is half a football field wide and two football fields long. It could store a massive amount of lumber, but today it holds an unfathomable number of circuits, wires, radio waves, and blood cells. Eleven knows a guy that thinks the radio waves are mutating everyone’s blood cells. This man, a cryptographer, is also very likely insane. The admin office claims he has a medical waiver for autism, but Eleven thinks this is just a pretense so they can employ the most brilliant mathematical mind between the Rockies and the Mississippi. Eleven likes the man, but suspects he is mentally disturbed.
One good reason for Eleven’s suspicion is that the cryptographer is currently standing outside the double glass doors to Building #7 (there is only one building) wearing flip flops, bib overalls, and a paper bag with the word “Armor” scrawled across the front in Sharpie. There is a pile of empty Evian water bottles scattered around his feet and several full bottles tucked under his armpits. He pours out a bottle on the brown grass as Eleven walks by.
“You watering the grass, Scott?” he asks.
“Of course not, you fool!” snaps Scott, who does not look away from his task. “Anyone can see this grass is dead. I’m saving lives.”
“Uh-huh. Right. Can I get a bottle of that? I’m a bit thirsty, actually,” says Eleven.
“No. Goddamn cryptosporidium will give you the shits. Don’t drink this. You will drink shit water. I went to all the vending machines and bought all the water. Nobody thanked me for saving them from the shits.”
“It’s a thankless job.”
“Don’t patronize me, Eleven-Prime.”
“What makes you think the water is infected with cryptosporidium?”
“Father Tenson spent thirty minutes shitting yesterday, and all I saw him consume was this water.”
“Scott, I think that’s because he was preparing for a colonoscopy again. They give you laxatives and a strict liquid diet.”
“Oh.” Scott drops his remaining bottles, which crinkle and bounce on the empty corpses of their brothers.
“G’morning, Scott!” booms a massive, jolly voice behind Eleven.
Ike, the massive stump of a man that handles Scott, is shuffling his way towards the men with two boxes of Krispy Kremes in his hands. He shuffles because he was born with one leg noticeably longer than the other.
“Think you’ll finally crack that Shanghai cipher today?” he asks.
“No. I cracked it a week ago. I’ve just been fucking with you since then,” says Scott.
Ike laughs like a jovial earthquake. He thinks Scott is funny for all the wrong reasons.
“I don’t know what we’d do without you, Scott.”
“You’d eat one-point-nine times as many doughnuts per day.”
“They’re my comfort food,” admits Ike as he pats his paunch. “Gotta keep my heart happy.”
“You’d be better off fornicating with a doughnut hole,” advises Scott.
Ike, now howling with laugher, stumbles through the double glass doors. Eleven silently watches him go.
“I’m serious,” says Scott with a frown. “Regular sexual activity is a highly efficient method for burning calories, and clearly his deepest relationship is with Krispy Kreme.”
Now Eleven is laughing. “Dammit, man. You’re crazy.”
“Eleven-Prime, divisible by nothing but yourself and one, my friend in numeric solitude, I am the only sane person here.”
“Yeah, why’s that?” asks Eleven.
“A sane man doesn’t lust for the death of another.”
Scott stares at Eleven with unblinking eyes as the latter turns away without reply and steps through the doors.
Building #7 is a wasteland of gray cubicles surrounded by light blue walls and smothered by an off-white ceiling of endless fluorescent lighting. Eleven navigates the labyrinth to his desk, walking quickly to avoid Susan the Minotaur. He fails to be surreptitious. The beast’s head appears over the cubicle wall, her nostrils flaring and steam shooting from her snout.
“You already hear about Op F.T. from Mike?” she nearly spits. Susan, a lady, does not say juvenile code names like Operation French Tickler. She does fly off the handle when the D.C. office shows up the Colorado branch, however.
“Yes,” replies Eleven without glancing up.
The beast withdraws from the wall.
“Then get me a goddamn kill!” it shouts.
Eleven sits down, flips switches, turns dials, taps buttons, and rouses his computer from slumber. He removes a black leather case from the desk drawer and extracts the headphones that cost the government six hundred and forty seven dollars even. He inserts the headphone jack into the machine, slides the set over his head, and dissolves into the ether.
Static, isn’t. It is always changing and never still. Static is a rage of electronic mess, an endlessly tossing sea of crackling explosions navigated by digital sailors who hear but never see their medium. Eleven knows these waters better than anyone in the facility, better than he ever knew any woman. He tweaks a dial gently here, fingers lightly brushing a slider there. The static shifts to squeaks. He thumbs a switch, clicks the computer mouse. Foreign voices speaking in a garbled tongue enter his ear. Wrong language, wrong voice. He cranks a dial like it’s the helm of a ship and again sets sail in the ocean of invisible radio waves that wash over the earth.
Eleven does not speak to anyone or move from his desk for eight hours. He rides the digital squall on his electronic ship, searching for clues of his target. Eleven is unsure of the man’s crime. Susan said he was a terrorist. Mike said that they were all terrorists. Kids too, he added. You think they’ll just forgive us for killing their dads and grow up to be model citizens? No, might as well kill the kids. I don’t want my son to have to do this bullshit job just because we didn’t wipe them all out. No fucking way, Eleven. My son wasn’t born when 9/11 happened, and I’ll be damned if I let him witness that kind of horror.
Pound for pound, American children are worth one hundred and three times as much as children in Southwest Asia.
Eight hours in, Eleven hears a siren’s song. Altering course, he follows the melodic voice through the phone lines into the home of Jamaluddin, suspected terrorist. Except he is not at home. In their guttural language, his wife is chatting happily with her criminal mastermind of a husband about the price of melons at the bazaar. Eleven is paid six figures because he knows this language. The wife asks her beloved villain when he’s coming home. Tomorrow, he says. A baby cries in the background. He tells her not to give the baby any more hashish. A pharmacist in Kabul told him this is unhealthy for babies. He has a special present for both of them, and he says that God willing he won’t have to leave them alone on the farm ever again. Oh, I must meet Abdul Kasim at the crossroads in the late afternoon. I love you. God hold you in his embrace. I will see you in the evening. God watch over you. Click.
Eleven mechanically transcribes the call for Susan the Minotaur and moves on to another project. Susan forwards the transcript to an analyst, who writes a report. A different analyst uses the report to generate a pair of grid coordinates, which are returned to Susan. Triumphant, the Minotaur sends “who,” “where,” and “when” to the air base in Kandahar, Afghanistan. “Why” is assumed.
Eleven leaves the facility at 6:15 p.m. and heads south toward home. He does not make the connection between Susan’s enthusiasm and the crying baby in the background of the conversation between Jamaluddin and his wife. Driving home, the facility and its mountain guardians are now on the right, and the empty Colorado vastness is on the left. The dexter has become the sinister, and the sinister has become the dexter. The headlights of Eleven’s decaying truck cut through the lonely darkness. He passes the dead ash tree and thinks of the chaplain. They’re a lot alike, he thinks. Both are bald.
Both are decayed matter praying alone in the darkness.
The next morning (it is much later in the day overseas), Susan rolls in a large flat screen on a cart and assembles the office. She flips on the TV, and the fuzzy, black-and-white picture of a UAV’s surveillance camera appears. The office waits in silence as the camera soars over dirty roads, dirtier fields, and even dirtier huts. Half an hour later, the image settles on a particular hut. A blurry motorbike sits at the entrance. The picture rotates as the drone circumambulates the residence four thousand feet in the air. The roar of the drone’s engines is heard by every villager within fifteen miles, but no one leaves their home. Most are inside praying they themselves have not been designated terrorists. Eleven suddenly realizes the Reaper is not searching for Jamaluddin at the crossroads meeting place.
Susan’s computer chimes. She breaks her gaze away from the TV and checks a message. She turns around and gives Eleven a thumbs-up and a smile.
“Boom,” she says.
Eleven draws the connection he did not draw yesterday.
A black shape streaks before the drone’s camera. It appears to shrink as it hurdles earthward. The five hundred pound bomb falls at six hundred and seventeen feet per second until it shatters the roof of the family’s shack with its weight alone then explodes. A roaring cheer erupts from the office as dust, brick, and human debris radiate outward from the blast site. Eleven’s mouth is open, but he is not cheering. They did not get a kill. They got three.
Susan puts her hand on his shoulder. “You did it, Eleven,” she says with a smile. “Now D.C. can climb off their damn high horse.”
Eleven only nods in response. He mutters something about teamwork and turns around to see Scott staring at him from a cubicle twenty feet away. Eleven numbly pushes through the maze to face his accuser.
“I think I was right about cryptosporidium,” Scott says, oblivious to Eleven’s victory. “Father Tenson died last night at 10:37 p.m.”
“He fell ill in the afternoon, went to the hospital. Fell asleep and his body just stopped,” recounts Scott. Eleven is stunned.
“Excuse me,” he mumbles, pushing past Scott. He stumbles out of the facility, through the fence, down the elevator, and into his car. He does not return the friendly wave of the armed guard as he exits the facility.
Eleven speeds home in the pale morning sun. His trembling hands are on the wheel. It is difficult to see the road through the unforgiving tears. The lifeless ash tree presently appears to the left of the road its branches still reaching up to heaven, and, Eleven yanks hard on the wheel. The decrepit truck, faithful to the end, soars over the ditch. The last thing Eleven sees is the chaplain’s sad smile and outstretched hand.
A senior employee who did not know Eleven gives a grand speech at the funeral and extols Eleven’s brilliance, dedication, and accomplishments. The admin office issues a memo that reminds employees it is their duty to have their cars regularly checked by a certified mechanic. All personnel are irreplaceable, and tragic accidents can be prevented by routine maintenance.
A year after Eleven’s kill, a man on his way south from Damascus stops at a scarred ash tree on the side of an empty highway. Small glass shards still litter the grass. The man, wearing a tie-dye t-shirt over a Batman costume, steps out of his car and walks to the tree. Without hesitation, he pulls a knife from his pocket and etches the numeral 11 into the trunk where the bark was stripped away by velocity and metal. The man steps back to admire his handiwork. His eyes then trace the upward reach of the ash tree. Small green buds sprout from the tips of the branches. Satisfied, the man returns to his car and soldiers on.