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27 August 2006

Notes from last summer's story, to be resuscitated at some point . . .

Thomas was outside smoking when the call came. It had been a lazy summer so far at the airport's Mobility Authority office. In the winter they'd received several guests -- suspected security threats who arrived on redirected flights and were, with one exception, released after a few hours' questioning. The exception left in handcuffs and a blindfold on a private Gulfstream registered to a Virginia consulting company with no website. On this evening, though, Thomas' mind was filled with the night air, with the clover and fireflies that thrived between the runways, with the gasoline that spilled on them, with a woman who in his mind's eye had red hair though she was actually a brunette. When he stepped into the office, Jim's voice came as if from a distance, half-intelligible and unwelcome.

What did you say? Thomas asked.

On the Boston to Iceland, Jim said. He gestured at a computer. As he placed his hand on its mouse the screen froze. He'd been playing a military combat sim; with him it was always tacticals or porn. Sometimes he forgot to clear the browser history, and once Thomas had watched some, pseudo-amateur stuff full of bright lights and closeups and dead eyes and mock pleasure.

It took a second for the screen to change. Baghdad or Falluja or Kabul, a rifle and ammunition beside a fallen body -- a non-uniformed combatant, as it happens, rendered with sloppily textured polygons -- are replaced, screen refresh by screen refresh, by the image of a boy, pale, cleanly defined cheekbones, conservative cropped brown hair. Behind him are anti-war banners, the sunburned skin of protesters at the end of a summer day. Jim picks up the phone and dials.

Name's Peter Fields. Twenty-three. Grew up an army brat, went to Berkeley, temping tech since he graduated, he says, then hands the phone to Thomas.

At the other end of the line, a boss. An order from a higher boss, from a higher boss before that, all the way to the top; encrypted emails intercepted and number-crunched to reveal hints of a satellite falling from the sky. The boss omitted the language of the messages, the sense of unashamed poetry and untested rightness that is the fairy light of youthful ideologies; the satellite falling like a star, one visible even under the light canopies of the cities, where no stars are ever seen, reflected by ponds in the mountains, the information systems visualized as ecologies convulsing and shriveling like brain cells in a petri dish dosed with the chemicals we breathe and eat and drink every day.

We need know which satellite and when. So they can redirect its data, the boss says. Or else the economy's fucked. It'll be Mad fucking Max out there. Peter, he explains, was the recipient of the emails. He got them under a different name through a free account he accessed one day at an internet cafe where he'd used his credit card to pay. The name, added to the system, set off an alarm when it showed up on an online booking manifest, Boston to Iceland; the flight was redirected, would land in Bangor in ten minutes; the job of Thomas and Jim to make Peter talk.

Yes, sir, Thomas replies. I'll call when we've made contact.

With a look at Jim he strolls out the door and stands beside the docking station, where he lights another cigarette. The amber lights along the runway glow in the distance, converging in the middle of the night. The image sits in his mind for a moment, but already the pixels have faded. They are replaced by Katherine, lit by soft Saturday-morning light, sunk in a comforter with only her face peeking out, freckles pushed to the side by a smile. He closes his eyes and concentrates on the smoke.