“All in corner!” the big one yelled in gravel-throated, broken English while wildly waving his AK-47 in the air. The three students and their professor jerked their heads up from their computer screens, frozen in shock.
With their horrified facial expressions, they looked like wax figures the sculptor had captured in a moment of terror.
“In corner now!” Fiery eyes burned through a slit in the scarves the two men wore around their heads as they herded Professor Barry Goldschien and his three petrified graduate assistants into a corner like cattle to the slaughter.
“What do you want?” Goldschien stuttered fearfully. He was a small, balding man with a gray beard and a bulbous nose that looked like he knew his way around a bottle and he wore thick, tri-focal specs that looked more like goggles than glasses.
“Of what?” Dr. Goldschien cried, genuinely confused and terrified.
“You know! Ten seconds!” The tall one jabbed the old man in the stomach with
the butt of his gun. Doubling over and belching out a painful groan, the professor suddenly realized he might, indeed, know.
“Ten seconds ... or kill everyone!”
“But, we don’t know what you want!” Goldschien feigned ignorance, frantically trying to buy some time.
“Atni al barnamij aw etmoot!” (Give us program or die!) the big gunman yelled, apparently forgetting his English as he shoved one of the students over a table, knocking a computer monitor crashing to the floor.
Goldschien understood the word program and could guess the rest of it. Next to religion and computer science, his third favorite area of study was linguistics and even in this horrific chaos, he noticed that there was something off about the man’s dialect. It sounded contrived, like it wasn’t his native tongue, and it almost sounded like Arabic with a Russian accent. He also noted that he looked too big to be a local Arab. “What program?” he said.
2 • Mark Mills
Professor Goldschien’s face went ashen. “Which religion program? We have many.”
“All religions and predictions.”
“But, what could you possibly want with the ... ?” The charade was over. He knew now that he was talking about the Prophecy program and he wondered how he found out that it might predict the future.
“Ashra. Tissa. Thamanya.”
These words Professor Goldschien understood as ten, nine, eight.
“Sabba. Sitta.” (Seven. Six.)
“Wait ... wait ... let’s figure out a solution...”
“Khamsa. Arbaa. Thalatha.” (Five. Four. Three.)
“O.K! O.K! I’ll get it! It’s in the safe,” Goldschien said as he moved tentatively
toward a closet door with a combination lock on it.
“Waqiff!” (Stop!) the big one yelled as he jumped toward the professor, “Now
open,” he said in near-perfect English.
Adjusting his glasses over his pink, plump nose, Goldschien pushed several
buttons nervously, but the lock didn’t open.
Grabbing graduate student Sarah Thompson by her coal-black hair and jerking
her toward him as she screamed in agonizing fear, the big one yelled “Any tricks, I kill the whore!”
“All right!” the professor yelled with sweat pouring down his face like a water- fall, “I just hit the wrong numbers.” He re-did the combination and got it right this time. There in the closet were several clusters of supercomputer servers with fiber channel cards.
The gunman went right for the control panel and clearly knew what he was looking for as he stabbed at the keyboard. “What is password?” he demanded and Goldschien gave it up promptly.
“Hathe al nihaya,” (This is it.) he said to his partner, seemingly satisfied with what he saw on the monitor. Then he yelled, “No copies?”
Jerking Sarah’s head down again while twisting her hair in a knot, he said, “If you lie, she dies!” He seemed to enjoy the pain he was inflicting on her.
“No, there are no copies ... for security!”
The masked man let go of Sarah’s now mangled hair as she fell to the floor in whimpering sobs. He removed all the computer cards delicately and put them in his briefcase. Turning around quickly he nodded to his comrade and they both sprayed all the computers in the room with bullets shredding them into metal shards. The professor and his students quaked at the gunfire, but they began to breathe a slight sigh of relief, hoping that the men had gotten what they came for and might now leave. But the hope was premature as the big one said cooly, “Ektilhom kolhom” (Kill them all.) and they nonchalantly shot all four of them to death. The two then ran out the door screaming “Alla Akbar!” (God is great!).
The same nightmarish scene was being played out in three different locations across Jerusalem. It looked like anyone who ever had anything to do with Professor Goldschien’s software program was being systematically murdered. The men who had killed him and his students rushed back to their own Jerusalem apartment and handed the computer cards to the group’s western-educated computer specialist, Ali Masef. Masef arranged all the cards into his own RAID array chassis and began first looking for the names of everyone that had ever worked on the program to make sure they hadn’t missed anyone. For security reasons the list was quite short. In fact, only nine people had ever seen the program and Ali now checked the names against the list his big colleague had given him.
“Shakla jameel,” (Looks good.) he said as he poured over the names one-by-one. Then he got to the last name on the screen ... a tenth name that appeared nowhere else. “Edna Moshkila!” (We’ve got trouble!), he said excitedly, “Wahid esma Mark Jacobs” (Someone named Mark Jacobs.).
Viciously pounding his fist on the table, the big one shouted in flawless Eng- lish, “How did we miss it?” His previous performance with Professor Goldschien and his students had been an act. He often feigned broken English to appear more threatening. He knew a rabid, ignorant terrorist seemed more dangerous than the Cambridge-educated man he was.
But before Ali could answer, his computer monitor rapidly started filling with random numbers and letters. “Fairous!” (Virus!) he shrieked at the top of his lungs, fingers hitting the keyboard at break-neck speed as he tried to stop the worm from spreading. The screen kept filling page after page with gibberish even as he tried every trick he knew to stop it.
“Turn it off!” screamed his boss.
“I can’t!” was all Ali could answer with disconsolate resignation as he threw up his hands in despair. “It’s destroyed!” he finally said, dejectedly in perfect English. He had gone to Princeton.
“What do you mean?”
Future Tense • 3
4 • Mark Mills
“They put a self-destruct virus in the program that no one could detect and it wiped it out.” With the big man seething and cursing up a storm, Ali suddenly remembered that he had printed out the tenth name and address. Ripping it from the printer, he waved it in his face.
“The way I figure it ... it’s good job security,” said Scott as they perched on a hot, dry desert ridge, looking across the brown landscape at a hamlet of faded gray, pockmarked buildings.
“How’s that?” Chuck asked, thinking more about the scorching desert heat than anything else. It was 130 degrees of sweltering, blistering hot that pierces your flesh like tiny daggers, penetrating your muscles and permeating your being all the way down to your bone marrow.
“Remember when we were kids and we’d catch lightning bugs at night?” asked Scott in an uncharacteristically nostalgic tone.
“Didn’t do a lotta’ that in San Diego.”
“Well, we did in Texas. Anyway, as soon as you filled yer’ jar with ’em you’d look out in the field and see a million more ... just like these jihadis.”
Chuck wasn’t sure if he wanted that much job security, especially when it comes to fighting a war he was feeling increasingly doubtful and guilt-ridden about. He knew he had killed many people who didn’t deserve it, including too many innocent civilians who were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. How many died in all the airstrikes I called in, he wondered with a heavy heart. But he was also plagued by all the jihadists he had killed in combat and there had been many. Did they really deserve to die, he asked himself. His doubts about the war and his part in it were growing and he didn’t like it.
“Collateral damage,” his superiors called it, but he was having a hard time accepting that. He also knew that it was primarily about the oil. But what he didn’t understand was why we needed Middle-Eastern oil when America was the world’s biggest producer of crude oil. Guess we’re just too far in bed with the Middle-East to pull out, he thought, and especially with Saudi Arabia. That bothered him a little, considering their abysmal record on human rights.
He briefly thought about their recent cold-blooded killing of a Saudi journalist who was critical of their crown prince and the American president’s reluctance to condemn them for it. The Turks even gave the CIA an audio tape of Jamal Khashog- gi’s torture and murder and they concluded that the prince ordered the execution. I guess money trumps morality every time, he mused with pun intended. But he knew this line of thinking would get him nowhere and would actually distract him from
Future Tense • 5
his mission, so he switched his attention to the village ahead. “It’s quiet,” was all he said as he was a man of few words.
“Too quiet,” said Scott with a sweet Texas twang dripping into his ear like thick, syrupy barbeque sauce.
“How long’ve ya’ been waitin’ to say that?” Chuck said with a slight, wry grin while eyeing the strangely empty street.
“About 10 years.”
“We’ll go in on-foot,” Chuck spoke softly into his radio. He knew that if they
drove in, there could easily be a few deadly roadside bombs waiting for them. Besides, a convoy would tip off the guy they were looking for and he would most likely fade away into the tunnels running under the town.
Chuck was Lieutenant Charles Lansing and Scott was his second-in-command, Master Sergeant Scott Sampson. With chestnut tan skin from the desert sun, short blonde hair, sometimes-sparkling blue eyes, and a sculpted muscular physique on a six-foot-one, 180-pound frame, Chuck sometimes looked out-of-place in this brutal, unforgiving environment. He looked every inch the all-American boy and some of his men occasionally referred to him as Captain America, though never to his face. But lines of the worst life has to offer were beginning to form on his once angelic face and the sparkle was beginning to fade from his eyes.
His was a childhood born of tragedy. His mother died in a car accident when he was too young to remember and his father died a year later from cancer. He had a few vague, cloudy memories of his mother calling him Charlie and singing to him, but all he remembered of his father was that he was a police detective in Wash- ington, D. C. and his name was Jack. He also didn’t remember much about what happened to him after Jack died, other than that he was adopted by a single woman named Jan. She died two years later from a brain aneurysm. Young Charlie talked very little during these trying years and Jan often worried that he was depressed.
But, after a short stint in a foster home, he was adopted by Don and Claire Lansing and moved to San Diego. He remembered Don asking him if there was anything he wanted in his new life and he said, “I would like to be called Chuck.” It was Chuck from then on. He suddenly had an instant family with a younger brother named Mike and, for the first time in a long time, he was able to look for- ward instead of back.
He was a young man with an old soul whose men looked at him as a grizzled, timeworn, and unpredictable warrior who was way beyond his years. Most of the time, he had a look of powerful serenity on his face. But lately, there was something
6 • Mark Mills
in his sometimes-smoldering gaze that suggested he was either planning some- thing in his head or getting ready to spontaneously jump into action. You could never tell which one it would be. Chuck was a born fighter who cared more about his men than he did about himself and he was the leader of this special forces’ unit called the Mad Dogs.
Scott was a big, dark-haired Texan who loved everything western. Some nights he dreamed that he was a gunslinger riding the open range in the 1800’s. His favor- ite author was famed western writer Louis L’Amour and his favorite song was Bon Jovi’s Wanted Dead or Alive, which he often sang out-of-tune and at the top of his lungs, driving his comrades crazy. “I’m a cowboy,” he would squeal, “On a steel horse I ride. I’m wanted ... dead or alive.”
Here his open range was a scorching desert wasteland and his steel horse was an armored Humvee. He never missed an opportunity to tell you that Texas is the biggest and best state in the union, that Texas barbeque is the best on the planet, and that Texans are the toughest people in the world. He had the cocky look and swagger of an outlaw and the men sometimes called him Tex. He was also the best strategist around. When their superiors laid out a battle plan for them, they wel- comed Scott’s ideas because they were often better than their own. He seemed to always know how to get the maximum number of kills with the lowest risk to his men, no small feat in this high-casualty battle zone.
They approached from the east with the blazing sun beating down behind them. “Always have the sun at your back,” Chuck told his men, “Then you can see them better than they can see you.” An informant had ratted out an ISIS militant who was supposedly hiding out in the village and said he would have some valuable information. To the Mad Dogs, informant was a dirty word because many of them worked both sides of the street. They were often working for the enemy and would supply false information to lure U.S. soldiers into an ambush.
As they walked silently along the dirt path, Private Jim Hawkins softly asked one of his notoriously strange questions. “Ya’ know when it’s the worst time to have a heart attack?” he said, gazing blankly at the horizon. No one answered as they concentrated on the path ahead, looking for possible land-mines.
“Well, I’ll tell ya’ when. It’s while yer’ playin’ Charades.”
The Dogs who heard him had to think about it for a few seconds before they started to smile inwardly. Not getting a reaction, Hawkins asked another weird one with, “Have ya’ ever farted so hard so hard it cracked your back?”
But the Dogs were too busy focusing on the trail and the village up ahead to humor him. They were a little worried as they thought about all the past bad intelligence they had gotten that had put them in real danger. Walking slowly by
abandoned, bombed-out buildings, they methodically made their way toward the town center.
“Yeah, this could be our Alamo,” murmured Scott in a low drawl.
“Let’s focus on this place here and now so we don’t get surprised,” Chuck answered, “Heads on a swivel boys.” Calling his men boys, when many of them were older than him, may have irritated some soldiers, but not these guys. They knew him to be a tough, battle-hardened warrior who was exceptionally smart and their best bet for survival. After two tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, he had more kills and had seen more death than most and they knew that if anyone could bring them back alive, it was him.
In fact, on many missions he told his men that their main job of the day was to survive. At the same time, he often wildly risked his own life while telling them to protect theirs. They followed his every order without question because he never asked them to do anything he wouldn’t do himself. His seeming lack of fear com- bined with an incredibly strong survival instinct made him the ultimate fighting man and a dependable leader. They also trusted his instincts, although sometimes his actions were unorthodox and some thought a little crazy.
Hugging the gray, bullet-riddled buildings, the Mad Dogs moved cautiously down the street, their senses keenly aware of the quiet emptiness. “What’s up,” Chuck asked as Private Mike Sandstone fumbled with the big .50 caliber machine gun he was trying to carry.
“I’m good,” answered Sandstone, finally getting it under control.
“I wouldn’t go that far,” said Hawkins, “Just let us know if you can’t handle it all by yer’ little self.”
“Up yers’ Hawkins,” said Sandstone, never one to ask for help, “I’m tryin’ to do a little multi-taskin’ here.”
And there it was, the response Jim had been hoping for. “Multi-tasking?” he said slyly, “The only multi-taskin’ you ever do is scratchin’ yer’ ass with one hand and pickin’ yer’ nose with the other.”
“Shove it fool.”
“Oh, I’m sorry ... I meant scratchin’ yer’ ass with one hand and pickin’ yer’ nose with the same hand ... in that order.”
“Just can’t get enough a’ yer’ adolescent wit Hawkins.”
“Okay I guess yer’ real multi-taskin’ is jerkin’ off while you’re lookin’ at porn.” “Yer’ a pig,” said Sandstone.
“I wish,” Hawkins shot back, “Did ya’ know a pig’s orgasm lasts up to 30
Future Tense • 7
8 • Mark Mills
Mike could only shake his head while the men around him contemplated what a thirty-minute orgasm would be like and if it was really true. It was, but their thoughts were interrupted by Scott bringing them back to reality.
“That’ll do,” he said with a slight chuckle, “Now pay attention to those windows up there.”
Normally, they all liked Jim Hawkins’ baiting their comrades with insults and then heaping abuse on them for their responses, but not today. They were becom- ing increasingly aware that they might be walking into an ambush. Suddenly, their deadly suspicions were confirmed as machine gun fire erupted from the second story of two abandoned buildings on the north side of the road joined by other shooting from the street-level windows on the south side.
“So much for the reliable informant!” yelled Scott, diving behind a crumbling wall as Chuck and the Dogs took refuge behind two burned out cars and a broken down, mud-brick building. They were following more of Chuck’s advice to always scope out any cover before you get shot at.
“Yeah, it’s an oxymoron like military intelligence,” Hawkins yelled back as he dove for cover with heavy fire shredding the cracked asphalt around his feet. He was a lean, wiry, yet muscular man with arms too long for his body. He was also one of the best marksmen in the unit and a prodigious boxer and martial arts fighter. Most of all, however, he never missed a chance to make a sarcastic remark, even under fire.
But insults, sarcasm, and vulgar observations weren’t Hawkins’ only talents. He also swore that he could sing through his butt. Chuck remembered when Scott bet him a paycheck that he couldn’t do it and that led to the rest of the Dogs betting in a gambling frenzy. Hawkins promptly farted, “Mary had a little lamb” and took everyone’s money.
“That’s too simple,” Ron Jenkins had said, “You gotta’ do a real song.” “Alright, but you gotta’ back it up with some real cash.”
“Okay. Then we come up with the song, not you.”
“That should be worth about 10 to 1 odds ... let’s do it.”
And so ensued a flurry of bets from the Dogs and other units on the base. Then came the scramble to think of a song too hard for anyone to fart. Several ideas came and went with Mike Sandstone coming up with the winning tune.
“Wide Awake,” he yelled and they all agreed that the old Katie Perry hit would be a hard song to sing, let alone fart.
“Piece a’ cake,” said Hawkins as he proceeded to butt-belch a near perfect- pitched rendition of the song, sounding a little like an out-of-tune Fluggle Horn, and made a lot of money doing it. No one could prove it, but they suspected that
Future Tense • 9
he and Sandstone had secretly chosen the song beforehand. The fact remained, however, that Hawkins still successfully sang it through his butt. In any event, that was Jim Hawkins, always obsessed with flatulence and other bodily functions and an expert at degenerate insults.
But not today. With bullets whizzing around their heads, all he was doing with the oxymoron remark was stating a fact. Army Intelligence, AKA the CIA, had been giving them far too much bad information lately and putting all of their lives at increasing risk. They were sick of it.
“Let’s face it,” Hawkins said on more than one occasion, “These CIA clowns are whiter-than-white. What real information is any self-respecting Arab gonna’ give to the great white satan anyway?”
He ignored the fact that some of the more reliable informants were Israeli Mossad spies who looked like Arabs and were able to infiltrate some of the lower- level terrorist groups. But that job had a short life expectancy and there weren’t too many of them left. He did admit, though, that the Mossad agents were a tough bunch and they made the CIA look like boy scouts.
“Most of the spooks are dufuses,” Hawkins said once, “They went to the ivy leaguers and don’t know their ass from a hole in the ground. You know the kind. They go to a steakhouse and order a chef ’s salad.”
“Yeah,” said Scott, playing along, “One time I saw one of ’em eatin’ French fries with a fork ... with a fork!”
“Probably didn’t wanna’ get grease on his trigger finger,” chimed in Steve Chamberlain, one of the Dogs’ snipers. He had a wry sense of humor and you could never tell if he was kidding or not.
“My point exactly,” said Hawkins, not really having a point.
Chuck usually stayed out of these conversations because unbeknownst to his men, he had been thinking about joining the CIA when he finished his tour of duty. He had actually wanted to be an FBI agent since he was a boy. But ever since a CIA officer approached him about working for the agency after his military career, he had been giving it some serious thought.
There was no time to think about any of that now, however, as they were pinned down on the street with nowhere to go. They couldn’t hit the snipers because the apartment windows had been blockaded with slits just big enough for their gun barrels. In the past, the snipers had shot from the roof, but now they were afraid of drones overhead.
Chuck would have called in a drone here, but he knew the nearest one was at least 30 minutes away and they couldn’t wait that long. He also knew that eventu- ally the snipers would pick them off one-by-one and then move in for the final kill.
10 • Mark Mills
Without warning, he suddenly started stripping off his clothes as his men gawked in disbelief.
Although they had gotten used to his sometimes-unpredictable behavior, this was going a little over the top. Even in the chaos they noticed his carved body with bulging muscles. Out-of-uniform he looked like he would be more at home pad- dling a surfboard than in a hot combat zone and that is exactly what he used to do as a kid growing up in San Diego. When he wasn’t quarterbacking his high school football team or setting new records on the track team, he was surfing the blue Pacific.
“What the hell!” Scott shouted. But Chuck didn’t hear him as he stripped down to his shorts and wrapped two nylon ropes around his neck.
“Here we go again,” said Hawkins calmly.
Over the thunderous gunfire, Chuck shouted, “If I make it to the roof, shoot the propane tanks!”
“Whaa...” Scott began, but it was too late as he watched his underwear-clad lieutenant take off running with two grenades in each hand. “What propane tanks?” he turned around and screamed at his men. No one knew.
Stunned at the strange site of a near-naked man sprinting down the south side of the street, the shooters in the upper floors of the north side stopped shooting for a few seconds. It was just long enough to let Chuck build up his speed. When the shock wore off and they resumed their firing, he was moving too fast for them to hit him and he was too close to the buildings on the south side for the ground-level snipers to get a clear shot at him.
As he continued his mad dash with bullets zipping by and missing him by inches, he pinpointed the lower-level gun slots and tossed a grenade into each one. One-at-a-time, the explosions went off. By the time the upper level snipers realized what he was doing, Chuck was two-thirds of the way down the street. Miraculously, he made it to the end of the road just as the upstairs snipers began shooting again at the rest of the Dogs.
Meanwhile, Chuck found a stairway up to the roof of the north side buildings. Bingo! he said to himself as he found what he was looking for. Two propane tanks sat in a corner. Some locals used propane to cook and they sometimes stored the tanks on the roof. Taking the two ropes from around his neck, he swiftly strung each through the handles of the tanks. Then, he skillfully lowered each one over the side of the roof so that they hung in front of the two boarded up windows.
“Shoot the tanks!” Scott yelled as he suddenly realized what Chuck was talking about. The Dogs sprayed the propane tanks with bullets and they both exploded, incinerating the boards and hopefully everything and everyone inside.
Future Tense • 11
Glad they weren’t empty, Chuck breathed a short sigh of relief. His men knew they didn’t have much time as they ran for the building and hurtled up the steps to the first apartment. Chuck suddenly appeared at the second apartment and with one quick motion, they kicked in both doors at the same time. What they saw stopped them cold. Two enemy soldiers lay dead on the floor with a third severely wounded, but that wasn’t the horrifying part.
There were also three children lying dead on the floor with their bodies ripped to shreds from the explosion. One boy, at least what was left of him, looked to be about 12 years old and still cradled an AK-47 in his small hands. Staring at the small forms in disbelief Chuck caught a slight movement out of the corner of his eye. He turned quickly as the wounded man on the floor tried to raise his gun. A quick bullet to the head cut that move short, but he noticed something odd about the man. He walked over to him and tore off the scarf covering his head and face. Long black curls of hair tumbled down the dead jihadist’s shoulders and he realized it wasn’t a him at all. He had just killed a woman.
Stumbling into the next apartment, he saw that everyone there was dead, including two more children and another woman. “I guess they got their women and kids fightin’ their battles now,” Scott said, trying to lighten the mood in the dis- mal room. No one responded as they began somberly searching the bodies. With- out a word, Private Juan Rodriguez handed Chuck his clothes. The incident made them all hate the enemy for involving women and children in their fight. Some of them believed that if women and children were fighting in the war, they deserved to die, but he wasn’t so sure. How hard could it be to convince oppressed women and orphaned children that we are the bad guys? Besides, he thought, these people wouldn’t be lying here dead if we weren’t here.
Then Chuck remembered what his father, Don Lansing, had said about that in their last conversation while he was home on leave. “They don’t have much choice,” he said, “Because they don’t have a military and they need all the help they can get. To them it’s a holy war and when yer’ fightin’ for God, everyone’s a soldier.” At that moment, it dawned on him that while many people may have no choice, countries do. America’s choice was whether or not to invade a sovereign nation and he was beginning to wonder if it had made the right decision. He also had to ask himself if these innocent deaths were worth the cause he thought he was fighting for.
Questioning the war was new to him and he didn’t like it. As they drove back to the base, he thought about what his dad had told him and that made his grow- ing doubts even worse. “We never should’ve gone into Iraq in the first place,” he said, “But then, I guess I’d rather do the right thing for the wrong reasons than the wrong thing for the right reasons.” Don was a hard-looking, muscular man with an
12 • Mark Mills
incongruous beer belly and a sculpted face full of deep-chiseled lines, each with its own story to tell. And he had intense, X-Ray eyes that sometimes seemed to burn right through you.
“What wrong reasons?” Chuck had asked.
“The non-existent weapons of mass destruction for one,” came the obvious answer, “But more than that ... to the Muslims, invading Iraq was just another cru- sade in a long line of crusades and another war on Islam.”
“That was a long time ago.”
“Yeah and they have a long memory. They had over 200 years of crusades from Europe killin’ ’em and tryin’ to convert ’em to Christianity. Before that, it was Napo- leon and after that it was England. They’re sick of foreigners tryin’ to run their lives and re-create their governments. All they see is outsiders invading their sovereign nation and stealin’ their oil ... and why wouldn’t they, since that’s exactly what we’re doing.”
“Don’t ya’ think a lot of ’em are grateful that we took down Saddam?” Chuck had asked.
“I’m sure the Shiites are since he oppressed them for so long, but many more Muslims still saw it as another crusade and can ya’ blame ’em? They’ve been invaded so many times in so many crusades, that’s the only way they can see it. We’re involved right now in six Islamic countries and ya’ know how many Muslim nations we’ve bombed, invaded, or occupied in the last 40 years?”
“No, but I have a feeling yer’ gonna’ tell me.”
“Fourteen! Fourteen countries and along the way, we supported some of their scumbag dictators like the Shah of Iran. The Muslim reaction to all this was a rise in extreme Wahhabism and Salafism and the beginning of the extremists like Al Qaeda and ISIS.”
“Spoken like a true history professor,” Chuck said, which is what his father was, “So lemme’ get this straight, we caused the rise of terrorism?”
“In a way. We gave new life to a weakened Al Qaeda and gave ISIS a big crop of new recruits.”
“Oh please!” Chuck felt like he had just been kicked in the gut and had the wind knocked out of him. The idea that America inadvertently boosted Al Qaeda and recruited for ISIS stabbed his heart like a knife.
“Yeah, Al Qaeda was fadin’ until we launched what Islamists see as another crusade,” said Don casually, “When we came in with guns blazin’ they picked up a lotta’ support from other Muslims.”
“Don’t ya’ think they’dve come in even if we weren’t there?”
Future Tense • 13
“Not if Saddam had anything to say about it. He didn’t like ’em because he was secular and they’re Islamic die-hards. But, more than that, he was afraid if he let ’em in, they would eventually overthrow him. Besides, the Iraqi people didn’t particularly care for Al Qaeda either, but they liked us even less, especially since we invaded their sovereign country. Nothing brings opposing sides together like a common enemy.” Don also taught Middle-Eastern Studies.
“Okay. The invasion may’ve strengthened Al Qaeda, but what about recruiting for ISIS?” Chuck said skeptically.
“Well, sacking all the Hussein loyalists, the entire military, and all the Iraqi policemen was a start. The quarter-million cops and soldiers we fired suddenly needed a home, and they found one ... with ISIS. Besides a paycheck, it offered them a way out of their miserable existence, not to mention a solution to the world’s problems. Namely, they promised to bring back the Caliphate and rule by Sharia law. You know, that Islamic legal system that’ll cleanse the world of evil western influences and the problems that go along with ’em.”
“Ya’ know ... hindsight is always 20/20 and ya’ gotta’ admit, it seemed like a good idea at the time ... gettin’ rid of the old guard and startin’ over from scratch.”
“Maybe, but we didn’t think it all the way through when we did it. At first, the old guard led daily protests asking for their jobs back, but we ignored them and then they got desperate. They may’ve been strange bedfellows, but these guys had to go with whoever would pay them and that was ISIS. Then, of course, it got even worse when the Maliki government went down and those guys turned up with ISIS too.”
“Oh, come on. They joined ISIS for the jobs! You gotta’ be kiddin’ me.”
“Well, I spose’ it was a little dogma too. ISIS gave ’em a spiritual cause to believe in that was a lot bigger than themselves and a chance to do their divine duty and fight a holy war against the infidel. And let’s face it, America is about as infidel as they come.”
“So, now we created ISIS!”
“No, but we sure made it easy for ’em to recruit more guys and now ISIS and Al Qaeda are competing with each other for followers. What really hurt, though, was the firing of all of those government bureaucrats. There was no one left to run things like the power grid and the hydro-electric plants.”
“Yeah, I remember that.”
“Once we got rid of the bureaucrats, the police, and the soldiers, we didn’t have much to take their place so, who’d we get? A buncha’ criminals and extremists on the police force and in the military. The chaos gave ISIS an opening to move in and move in, they did. By 2014 they had seized about a third of Iraq.”
14 • Mark Mills
“But one thing you didn’t mention is that the police and army were Hussein’s Sunnis. If we’dve kept ’em, they would’ve butchered the Shiites.”
“Ya’ mean like the Shias are doing to the Sunnis right now?”
“Yeah,” Chuck had to admit, “They’re takin’ their revenge for all those years of Sunni oppression, aren’t they.”
“But, it didn’t have to go like that if we’d just done our homework and paid a little more attention to history.”
Here comes the history lesson, thought Chuck, but he simply said, “What history?”
“Like when Nelson Mandela became President of South Africa after Apartheid. He didn’t fire a single white bureaucrat, policeman, or soldier and these were the people who had abused, exploited, and killed his people. But he knew if he did, there would be no working government and it would be anarchy, not to mention that it might start an Afrikaner rebellion.”
“The fact remains that we took out an evil dictator.”
“And re-kindled the war between the Sunnis and the Shiites. Don’t get me wrong son, some guys do need killin’, but maybe Hussein wasn’t one of ’em. As bad as he was, he was the only one keepin’ everybody in check. He was also Iran’s number one enemy and takin’ him out made it the most powerful country in the region. That’s a big problem since it’s a major sponsor of terrorism. That’s why Bush Senior didn’t go after Hussein in the first war, because of these kinds of unintended consequences.”
Just then the truck hit a deep pothole in the road and snapped Chuck back to the present. He hadn’t thought much about this conversation and he wished he could forget about it now because it brought a whole new crop of doubts flooding into his head. Then, he suddenly realized that the first few seeds of doubt were inadvertently planted by his father way back then and now they were beginning to sprout. He didn’t like them and knew it was dangerous because it could make a soldier hesitate for that crucial second on the battlefield and might get people killed. Luckily, Jim Hawkins interrupted his gloomy contemplations with one of his bathroom witticisms.
“Don’t ya’ hate the public restrooms that have the really thin toilet paper?” he said to no one in particular.
“Ya’ dumb bastard,” countered Private Intan Hasanov, the only Indonesian- American in the group, “It’s so you don’t use too much paper.”
“But that’s the point. You always end up pulling more thin paper off the roll than if you could’ve unrolled a shorter, thicker strip.”
Future Tense • 15
Here we go, thought Chuck as he realized what Hawkins was up to. His silly questions often set his comrades up for a hazing.
“And besides,” Hawkins added, “You get poop on your fingers.”
“Big deal! Yer’ lucky you got toilet paper at all. My mom wiped my ass with her foot in the village latrine.” Hasanov knew he shouldn’t have said it as soon as the words came out of his mouth.
“I thought I smelled somethin’ funky last time I had her ankles around my ears,” shot back Hawkins and there it was.
“Yer’ dead Hawkins!” Hasanov jumped out of his seat and lunged at him.
“One of these days, I’m sure,” was Jim’s only response in an ultra-calm voice and not moving an inch.
Jumping in-between them, Chuck said simply, “Save it for the bad guys boys,” and gently guided Hasanov back to his seat.
“Yes sir,” he said as he sat down, “But, why in the hell would anyone take the time to think of this sick stuff?”
Chuck often wondered the same thing, but for now he was actually glad for the distraction from his disheartening thoughts. The new ideas were vexing and he wanted to quickly shove them out of his head. So, he grabbed onto the first thing that came into his mind, which was the strange folder full of papers he found hid- den in his parents’ garage when he was home on leave. He was checking some of his old teen-age hiding places when he found it behind a loose brick in the wall. It was labeled Prophecy and Redemption and the papers were full of philosophical writings about life and death.
Sifting through them, he found an old encrypted email that looked like it had been deciphered. It was about a new computer program someone was testing to see if it could predict future terrorist attacks and it was called Prophecy. Across the top of the email, someone had scribbled, “Is this the prophecy I’ve been waiting for?” The rest of the papers lived up to the other part of the title, Redemption, because they sounded like whoever wrote them was looking for some kind of absolution for past sins. He couldn’t imagine why they would be hidden in his parents’ garage, but found them interesting enough to photocopy and bring back to Iraq to read when he was bored. He called them The Book and one passage seemed particularly relevant right now.
What is a Man?
The measure of a man is not how much wealth or fame he has. It’s not about how many people like and respect him
16 • Mark Mills
or how many friends he has. The measure of a man’s life lies in his service to humanity, fighting for what is right, and improv- ing other peoples’ lives. And if he has to kill a few bad guys to do it and it’s for a good cause, so be it. The real measure of a man is if he leaves this world even slightly better off than he found it, especially if it takes a sacrifice on his part to do it. The more you sacrifice for others, the higher your reward later. If he does all that and worships his God in the process, he will be rewarded in the afterlife. Call it karma or whatever you want. But the one thing I do not want is for my life to mean noth- ing – for my existence to change nothing. Human nature and its resulting politics don’t change much and it is true that the more things change, the more they remain the same. I can’t do anything about that. All I ask is to make a little dent in life’s fabric, a little change, a little improvement. Isn’t that all anyone can ask? Instead of trying to change the world, I am going to try to leave my mark on a small part of it.
It was written on what appeared to be an old dirty placemat of some kind and Chuck couldn’t quite make out the faded words in the lower right-hand corner. It looked like “Al-Haj Hussein,” but he couldn’t be sure. He also couldn’t quite figure out whose handwriting was on the notes and he could barely make out some of the scribbling. The part about killing bad guys did bother him a bit because he was beginning to wonder exactly who the bad guys were. He also wondered how bad they actually were and how good the good guys were. For some reason, he couldn’t shake the old song by 70’s rocker Dave Mason that goes, “There ain’t no good guys. There ain’t no bad guys. There’s only you and me and we just disagree.”
But the weird writings weren’t the only things in the folder and he now thought about one item in particular. It was an old ID card with a younger Don Lansing’s picture on it. The name under the picture was worn and almost illegible, but it looked a little like Don Forester. Looking at it more closely, however, he realized the “o” in Don could be an “a.” He wondered why his dad would have a fake ID, but didn’t give it much thought after that.
“At least 8 dead in four separate shootings. All academics affiliated with the University of Jerusalem and one rabbi.” The aging TV belched out its bad news. Like poison it wanted to purge from its system, the electronic vomit kept coming
Future Tense • 17
just as graduate student Mark Jacobs reached for his pot pipe. The report splashed around the tired old apartment in-between beer cans and computer equipment and froze his arm in mid-air. His mesmerized gaze fell on the television set and he felt like he was in a foggy trance. But suddenly a shrill ring pierced the spell like a pin popping a carnival balloon as he numbly fumbled for his phone. His mouth opened, but no sound came out.
“Did you see it?” his friend, Julie Beckman said breathlessly. No answer.
“Did you see the news?” she screamed.
“Yeah,” Mark said in a stunned whisper.
“What’s going on?”
“I don’t know. I just ... it just started.”
“You have to leave right now! Pack some things and get out! I’ll meet you at
“Why?” he asked, stupefied.
“Think about it! You’re next! Get out now!”
As the blood rushed to his head, Mark ran for his knapsack which held the
computer cards containing Professor Goldschien’s Prophecy program. He had secretly copied it to work on at home. Grabbing the bag, he headed for the door, but stopped dead in his tracks as he heard footsteps pounding up the creaking outer staircase. Frozen in time and feeling like he was under water, his head instinctively scanned the room and then locked onto the closet.
The building was old and one of the flat’s previous tenants was a Jewish carpen- ter who had survived the Polish holocaust. Recalling the days of hiding from the Nazi’s, he had installed a small hidden compartment behind a false closet wall and that’s where Mark bolted. He loved gadgets and had programmed a remote-control device for all of his electronics, which he now grabbed on the run. He also snatched a glass containing a solvent he used to clean his small tools and shoved it in the microwave. He didn’t know where that idea came from, maybe an old spy movie. Then, quickly jerking the pouch of computer cards from his knapsack and sticking it in his pants, he pulled the hidden door open and slid into a space just big enough for his slight frame. Crouching down on bended knees, he tried to pull the panel closed, but it wouldn’t budge.
A sharp pang of fear shot through his body as he now heard men speaking in Arabic out in the hallway. He pulled again, but still the panel was stuck. His heart pounded furiously and the sweat oozed from his pores as the men began breaking down the apartment door. Finally, summoning up a strength he didn’t know he had, he pulled on the trap door with every ounce of his being and it suddenly came
18 • Mark Mills
unstuck with a squealing sound you can only get from wood scraping wood. It crashed closed with a loud thud at the same time his front door flew off its hinges. The next few excruciating seconds were agonizing while he worried that the men had heard the door slam shut. If they did, it would only be a matter of time before they found the compartment and he was a dead man. But they didn’t.
After an hour of sitting in the same position, Mark started to feel a cramp in his leg and realized he couldn’t endure the pain for very long. He knew he shouldn’t do it, but the throbbing ache left him little choice. It was either move it slightly and risk the men outside hearing it or wait until the pain was so unbearable that it would probably move involuntarily and ensure that they would hear it. As he started to move, he suddenly remembered his meditation.
He hadn’t done it in a long time and used to make fun of his college roommate Seth Olsen who was a big meditator. “Eim,” Seth would softly chant trying to get into a deep, transcendent state to which Mark would ask “You’re what?”
“Eim,” Seth would say again and again.
“You’re what?” he would say each time until Seth finally gave up.
He then drifted back to his roommate’s obsession with totally worthless infor-
mation like the discontinuities in movies. They are the scenes that the continuity director missed, like when a character is holding something in one scene and not in the next. But then, he seemed to recall that Seth had made a lot of money writing a book about all those movie screw-ups. He also wondered if his old roommate was a little obsessive-compulsive. But all that now had to take a back-seat to his more immediate problem of trying to meditate his pain away.