I’ll be honest with you, I intentionally chose to present you with an edited version of this story. The only differences are the name of the country and an improved transition to the cocktail party. I know I had decided to give you the raw prose from that day, but the original country name was close enough to an actual country in the area that it might have caused confusion among those who know geography, or it might have cheesed the residents of the actual country. This fictitious country is in some forgotten pocket in the mountains somewhere around Tajikistan. Proximity does not breed similarity, however; in fact when Ghengis Kahn swept through the region, he took one look at Ztrtkijistan and decided not to bother with it. It’s not much of a place.
This was my first November 1st in Prague, and it was with great anticipation that I dug into this story. I hadn’t planned it much. I had the idea that an American bureaucrat gets dumped into the remotest corner of the Earth as a spy. When the locals discover he is a spy be becomes a minor celebrity. Of course there is nothing worth spying on, so the bureaucrat has taken to drink and he starts sending back dirty jokes as “state secrets”. He is hoping to get fired, but Washington “decodes” his dispatches and discovers that dire events are taking place. Hijinks ensue, and the bumpkins from the backwater country prove remarkably adept at intrigue. (In fact, forgery is a national pastime.)
In a previous episode I published a set of excerpts from the parts of the book where the Americans, the Russians, and later the Chinese spring into action. It was a good use of copy and paste.
This isn’t my entire output on that fateful November first; I ended up cranking out a lot of words that day. I think this is enough, however, if not more than enough. On occasion I’ve tried to come up with a better title. I know there’s one out there.
The Stan-Man Plan
The bus lurched and wheezed its way up the hill, leaving a cloud of black smoke behind. The driver made no effort to avoid the potholes and ruts in the once-paved road, jarring the kidneys of the passengers, their children, and their livestock. Robert McFadden was bounced and jostled with the rest of them, but he seemed to feel it more. The others, even the livestock, had been on this road many times before.
The pitch of the engine rose, making it impossible for Robert to hear the steady stream of profanity issuing from the driver. He suspected that in the coming weeks and months he was going to need to know those words.
The bus reached the crest of the hill, and after a moment of roller-coaster anticipation went careening down the other side, trying to build momentum for the next climb. Robert tried not to think about the sheer drop just to his right. There was no guard rail. No one else on the bus seemed to notice that pain and death were only a meter away.
He pulled out his map and studied it. By his best guess they were in Ztrtkijistan now.
They crept up through a cleft between two snow-capped peaks and the bus shuddered to a stop. There was a shack there, and a uniformed guard wearing a fur cap and carrying an AK-47 sauntered over to and spoke to the driver through the open door.
“Anything I should know about?” he asked the driver.
“There’s a foreigner today.”
“Huh.” The guard stepped up into the bus and immediately spotted Robert. He paused, his brows knit as if he was contemplating something perplexing, then came to a decision. “Can you come with me for a moment, sir?”
“Certainly,” Robert said in Ztrtkijistani. He stood and the other passengers made way for him, watching him with the same open curiosity they had shown for the entire trip.
“You speak our language?” the border guard asked, surprised.
“Yes, I do. That’s why I’m here.”
They climbed off the bus and Robert was grateful for the opportunity to stretch his legs and rest his backside. The cold mountain air was thin and bracing, only slightly tinged with the smell of the overheating bus engine. Inside the shack a small oil stove produced more heavy, clinging smoke than it did heat. McFadden wondered why the soldier even bothered. The massive soviet-era desk barely left enough room for the two chairs.
“Please, sit,” the guard said, unconcerned for the busload of people who were waiting. Close up, Robert could see that his uniform was faded and worn almost through in places. “May I see your passport, please?”
Robert handed over his passport and his visa paperwork. The soldier looked at the visa, nonplussed. “You intend to stay here?”
The guard set down the papers and scratched his head while he regarded his guest with open confusion. “Why?”
“I am a professor at a University. I am studying your culture and traditions.”
This seemed to raise more questions that it answered in the mind of the soldier. “Study us?” he asked incredulously.
Robert understood his confusion. This was not a country famed for arts or sciences or even any sort of military tradiditon. The Soviet era had efficiently erased what little unique culture the country might have had.
If Ztrtkijistan was even a country at all. No one seemed quite sure whether the isolated people were an independent nation or an autonomous province of neighboring Kyrgyzstan, least of all the Ztrtkijistanis themselves. The ambiguity could have been cleared up by the two countries easily enough, Robert thought, but neither side had gone to the trouble. In the end, no one cared enough either way.
Robert hesitated before answering the soldier’s question. In all truth he was no more interested in the culture of these isolated people than anyone else in the world was—which was not at all. Still, he needed some story to make it plausible that he would be there, and the options were few. Tourism was not going to work. This gray, rocky country was goverend from a dusty, gravelly city of block buildings that utterly lacked charm. The city lay in a pall of smoke from countless wood fires and greasy oil stoves, a haze thick enough to bring tears to the eyes of visitors. Even the mountains surrounding the country somehow lacked any sort of soaring grandeur. The guide book Robert had studied for this trip had tried gamely to come up with interesting things to say about the country, before throwing in the towel. “There are more goats than people,” it pointed out. “In the market square one can find a variety of handicrafts.” “The mosque in the center of the capital had a lovely mosaic on the floor, which can be seen at the XXX museum in Moscow.” “The hotel has running water.”
Telling the truth about why he was there was out of the question. Robert McFadden was a spy.
Had Robert McFadden known how he had come to be assigned to Ztrtkijistan, it would not have made him feel any better.
It was a particularly tedious political coctail party, and General Harold Martin was on his third martini in the last hour when he fell into the trap. One more drink, he thought, and I’m out of here. He was almost to the bar when an analyst he recognized from the office struck up a conversation with him.
Always important to treat the troops well, he thought, as he signaled for another martini. He watched the analyst’s lips move and idly tried to remember his underling’s name. My God, this man is boring. I need to say something, and get the hell out of here.
“… the gross domestic product of Ztrtkijistan,” the analyst concluded.
The general had already opened his mouth to break off the conversation, but he stopped short. “Where?”
“That’s a country?”
“Of course,” the analyst said, pleased to catch the general in his ignorance, even though the analyst had not known Ztrtkijistan was a country either, until two weeks previous when a coworker had trapped him at another coctail party.
The general chewed on that for a moment. That smug bastard is going to spread it all around the office tomorrow that I didn’t know that Zert-whatever was a country. Not acceptable. The best defence, he knew, was a good offense. “Has the situation there stabilized?”
The analyst balked. “Situation?”
The general smiled inwardly. “Of course the situation. Why the hell did you bring up Ztort… that place if you don’t have more information about the situation?”
The analyst backed up a step. “I—”
Got you! Nobody was going to make the general look like a fool. He turned to the aide standing patiently at his elbow. “Who do we have on the ground there?”
The aide scowled, pretending to be in deep thought for a moment. “No one, I think, sir.”
“No one? We don’t have a single person in the entire goddam country?”
“I think not.”
“You mean the people of the United States of America are relying on us to keep the world safe for democracy and we’re letting entire countries slip through our fingers?”
I don’t think Ztrtkijistan qualifies as a threat to democracy.”
“You don’t think so, eh? Well, that’s the difference between you and me, Chumley.”
“It’s Crumley, sir.”
“Don’t interrupt me. Ever. The difference between you and me is that I’m not satisfied with just thinking a country is not a threat. I have to know. It’s the one you’re not watching that will put a knife between your ribs. I need someone on the ground there to infiltrate their institutions and see what’s really going on, and I want it yesterday. No stan is going to catch me with my pants down.”
“Tanjistan, Uzbeckstan, all them stans. I want a man in every stan.” He barked a laugh. “Ha! Man in every stan.” He took another swig of his martini and glared at the retreating analyst.
The next day the general had forgotten the entire conversation, but Crumley had not. With a malicious glint in his beady eyes he combed over the agency’s personnel records, looking for the ideal person to send. Someone who was qualified on paper but would be difficult for the general to explain later. Crumley would enjoy watching the general squirm when he had to explain why a resource needed back home was rotting in some piss-hole country no one had even heard of. “The difference between me and you, general,” he muttered to himself, “is that I’m competent.”
Crumley’s eye scanned down the list and came to rest on Robert McFadden. A desk jocky, a slacker, and one of the few people in the western hemisphere who could speak Ztrtkijistani. He spoke a lot of languages, and was currently working on translating Iranian communications. He would be sorely missed. Perfect.
Crumley smiled and began to type the orders.
Robert McFadden shifted uneasily on the wooden chair. “I’m here to catalog the idioms and mannerisms in everyday speech. The language here is not like any other in the area, or anywhere for that matter.”
The guard still looked skeptical, but with a grunt he shrugged and rooted around in his desk for his stamp, and having found that, some ink for it. “Don’t use it so much,” he explained. No one else in the world is dumb enough to come here. He carefully stamped Robert’s passport, inspected his handiwork, and returned the papers. “Welcome to Ztrtkijistan,” he said. His forced smile revealed a gap where his front two teeth should have been.
“Thank you.” Robert stood to leave. The guard put his fur cap back on and walked over to the bus with Robert.
“It seems like on my map the border should be a few kilometers up the road.”
“Which map you got?”
“Fremming’s.” Robert held it out for inspection.
The soldier dutifully studied it for a moment, then said, “That map’s no good.”
As they walked toward the bus Robert blew into his hands, envying the heavy gloves the other wore. It was October, and things were going to get much colder, he knew.
“What map should I use?”
The soldier thought. “They’re all no good.” He shrugged. “Enjoy your time here,” he said skeptically and moved to raise the gate.
Robert climbed back onto the bus and surveyed the other passengers as they watched him frankly. He moved back to the seat he had been occupying for the last few hours and settled in next to a middle-aged man who was also missing his front two teeth. The man was shorter than Robert – these were not a tall people, they were thin and small, like the sparse vegetation once again flashing past the windows of the bus. This was not a place for towering trees or rich jungle, it was the place where toughness was the only dominant gene.
“You are from America?” the man asked.
“That’s right,” Robert said, and wondered what question he could ask the other man in return. He had difficulty enough conversing in the US, where at least theoretically he he had something in common with the people he was talking to. The man had spoken occasionally during the trip, saying things like “The bus crashed here once,” and “I have a cousin who raises goats up there.” Each time Robert tried to think of possible replies, but beyond “Oh, I see,” or “You don’t say,” he came up empty.
“Yes, I’m American.” He tried to expand. “I live in Washington, but I’m from California originally.”
“The man nodded. Ah, California.” Robert suspected he had no idea where California was. Not even Hollywood had penetrated these mountains. Not, at least, as an actual place that people could be from. “Why have you come here?”
“I’m a professor…”
“You have come to teach us things? How to speak English? Some people think we should teach all our children English, the way we all learned Russian.” He didn’t look enthusiastic about either. “I am not so sure…”
“No, I’m not here for that. I’m here to learn about your culture.”
“It will help the Americans to understand you better.”
He shrugged. What’s to understand? We’re just regular people. “Maybe we should send someone to study the Americans.”
Robert laughed and the other man smiled at his apparent joke. “Maybe you should,” Robert said. “In the meantime you have me to study.” He gestured vaguely at all the others watching him on the bus.
The other nodded solemnly at Robert’s joke. “Yes, yes, we will study you, too.” Suddenly he laughed and slapped Robert on the shoulder. “We will all be professors.”