For the indelible mark would not retract, nor the word given be recanted. Instead of bolstering his courage, he surprised himself with a thoughtless and impulsive swat on the necessary button. Scores more waited for him, while he waited upon himself, in reluctant agony. Until he surprised himself by pressing the call button, he waited. Wasting the precious moments of solitude they offered him. He waited for courage, and he waited for destiny. He waited for the manifest reassurance of whatever forces were supposed to culminate in this room. He wanted to believe, and to find himself ingratiated in something larger than himself. He wanted to respond to the preacher and come to the altar, but instead he was stuck pacing the plywood stage, looking down on the agonized faces pressed prostrate into the sawdust. He wanted angels to descend and comfort him, for this Golgotha was about to break him. Instead of enlightenment, disassociation. Instead of inspiration, shame.
His adroit mind, reflexively advantaged to play the hand he was dealt and not the one he wished he had, retreated from the immense pressure and drew his attention to the minutiae he would never otherwise have time for. Most of the time they gave him alone was wasted on the trivialities of the room itself.
For instance–the crown molding.
Whereas, in most residences, the crown molding was fastened to the wall by way of an air nailer, and the tiny incision covered with a a wood-filler sanded over and then further primed and painted. Instead, these pieces framing the windows of this room were faultless. Not only were the nail holes impossible to spot or feel–the joints of the molding must’ve been hermetically sealed. He ran his hand up and down them, looking for an opening. An imperfection he could exploit. He found nothing.
Eventually, he gave up waiting for divine inspiration, and swatted the call button on the phone. It sat idle at his preferred angle on the desk, next to the black polypropylene copolymer rectangle that was torturing him.
He looked at his watch. He had only used seven of the ten he was allotted.
“I’m ready.” He said.
The young man now joining him was resolute and dignified. Anodic. His globular shoulders fell like pistons as his arms swung to the tempo of his gait. He entered with solemnity, and without self-consciousness.
“Sir,” the newcomer said, stiffening his hands along his sides.
“At ease. And take a seat.”
The young man showed his first signs of discomfort, picking a modest place on the closest side of the couch. His posture never slackened, and his pertinacity never wavered. His eyes remained forward. He would not speak until spoken to. He would not look directly at the man on the other side of the desk, unless of course he was addressed. But the man standing behind the desk, his figure still hovering over the call button on the solitary phone anchored to the corner of the wide mahogany, seemed distracted by something on the floor.
It was a fleck of some kind. Likely brought in by one of the handlers, hastily clearing the space in the moments before they both arrived. Against the pristine, cream pile, this black fluff was a transgression. For a moment, the man fought the urge to retrieve and dispose of it. But then he remembered why they were here, in this room, instead of virtually anywhere else. And in his hesitation, the man hated the carpet upon which that dark cotton was nestled more than anything else.
His wife Persephone, or Peri as she preferred to be called, had decided on the rug. She said it was her “duty”, which he found so trite and derivative. “Precisely why I should concern myself with it, and not you,” she said. In the years that followed, she’d taken up more noble causes.
She had decided upon a simple elegance in the rug’s design. Whereas he would’ve considered it plain, and questioned the cost to both her time and energy, she instead used words such as “traditional” and “authoritative” and “self-assured”. Others would comment on its incarnation and remark it was both “fresh” and “classic”, “understated” and “minimalistic”. And then, if they belonged in that room, they might give it no further thought.
“Do you have any questions for me? What would you like to know?” The man said, giving the younger man his attention while moving out from behind his desk.
“I don’t, sir. It was never my call in the first place.” The young man did not relax, nor did he relent from his militancy.
“Please, enough of that. It’s an order, if that makes you feel any better. And I’d prefer you call me Jim.”
“Jim,” the young man said, the noun a heavy stone falling from his mouth.
James Ellison, or Jim as he was known only to his friends, sat across from the young man in the smaller of two armchairs left adjacent to the couch. He stooped to pick the fleck of cotton as he passed it. As there were no waste baskets in this room, and no one to attend to them, he pocketed it.
“Can we talk about why, for my sake? Just so you know? I wouldn’t keep anything from you, if you wanted it.” Jim said.
The young man looked him in the eyes for the first time since the briefing.
“If it would make you feel better. But it wouldn’t be helpful to me.”
Jim knew the young man was sincere. He knew this sincerity as if it were his own. He could, without any discernible point of entry, retrieve the young man’s feelings as though drawing smooth pebbles up from a lake without disturbing the surface of the water. It was his gift. His mother, in her tenacious way, would say “You can become whatever you want in life, just so long as you keep making everyone else agree with you.” It was her way of praising and critiquing him simultaneously–and of absolving herself of her failures. Jim had, around this same time, had a falling out with her husband. The rift was deep and its edges acute, though they never so much as raised their voices to each other. He died before Jim ever stepped foot in this office. Jim still felt relieved about this.
He poured over the contours of the young man’s sense of purpose. There was no hesitation, no grief. Jim half-expected either tears or anger, a flash of hostility, or a latent resentment. The young man showed nothing of the sort. But his bright palms were now pressed together as his arms rested on his knees, as though he were taking a posture of seated prayer. And Jim could see the accruing moisture condensing between them.
He was squeezing the colour right out of his hands. A solitary drop of sweat fell and buried itself within the carpet.
The carpet was, of course, a custom work by the Scott Group Studio, who had provided the rug for this interior on three other occasions. Jim and Peri were their most important clientele, naturally. They had spared no expense. Whereas previous iterations relied upon deep royal blue, or gold sunburst inlays, Peri’s design specifications caused a muted surprise from the bourgeois design class at SGS, who had mocked-up several complicated iterations in keeping with the established motifs of the room itself. Instead, Peri had sent them a design of her own–a simple gradient, radiating from cream in the field of the rug to almost burgundy along its border. Stylists involved in the design process on her end referred to the rug as being “abstemious ombré”. They weren’t brave enough to tell Peri what they really thought of her choices. The lead designer, Mary Von Hoften, tried to speak with circumspect caution to Peri, warning her the simplicity of her overall would always stand at a staunch juxtaposition with the other details of the space. Peri simply said, “precisely.” That was that.
After another fumbling start, the young man said, “is there any way I can help you, sir?”
“I’d prefer Jim, Colonel.”
“Sir, if you’re making me call you Jim, then I’d like to request you call me Marcus.”
Jim, of course, knew that already. Jim always remembered the most prescient details. He could sniff out the moments that would make even the reticent swoon. This fondness for details, and the compelling way he usually offered his eyes to others, were dual engines of Jim’s insatiable charm. His winsome honesty, his devoted presence, was an aura that preceded him. It was a subatomic part of his nature, and he had harnessed and weaponized it into an irrepressible emanation that made you feel things you might’ve once foreswore. It made Jim, and whoever he was looking at, feel more real and substantial and true than anything else beyond that very moment. Peri called it his “liquid sunlight”, and like other brave female pioneers of science, she’d developed a tolerance through overexposure.
Marcus’s preference to be referred to by his middle name was included in his personnel file, and quickly memorized. Lt. Col. Amadou Marcus Sterling, formerly of the 566th Special Operations Squadron, stationed at the 27 SOG in New Mexico. 31 years old. Born in the Bronx.
Jim had forgotten most of those other details. Like why Marcus had first enlisted, or why his parents chose the strange given name “Amadou” when it wasn’t in their family history. In fact, aside from remembering that Colonel Sterling preferred to be called Marcus, the only other useful tidbit Jim had filed was the 566th’s motto. It came up the first time they shared a limo. “Pro Patria, Pro Libris.”
“I’m rusty and I don’t want to embarrass myself. Can you remind me what it means?” Jim had said, playfully.
Marcus just shrugged and smiled.
“I was born in September, so I just figured they were in support of any Libras joining the regiment, sir.”
It was a benign and appropriate joke for their dynamic. It respected the differential between them and allowed Jim to move his attention elsewhere. Jim awarded Marcus with a bigger laugh than Marcus deserved, and this trite interaction became the clearing in which they established a cordial and passive working relationship. Marcus had received instructions from elsewhere to simply stay out of the way, and he did. Jim respected this.
“Well, Marcus. Is there anything I can do for you? Any request I can try to fulfill?” Jim’s tone fell into the rehearsed familial warmth he kept on-hand for such occasions of grief, but in this case, it was hollow. And Marcus could feel the vacancy in his tone.
“You, of all people, shouldn’t have to worry about that. It’s all been arranged.” Marcus, at the thought of such arrangements, could no longer look at Jim directly. Jim, having been indifferent to this surreal and artificial arrangement until now, moved from denial to anger.
A deep loathing seemed to radiate from the floor. For the office he was in, and for his antecedents. For the godawful weight sloughed onto him. He reviled how there were no other options. He resented every single person who told him so, and he vowed in that moment to eventually be cleansed from every one of them. This cancerous rage was seeping in through his feet and Jim knew it would crawl right up to his throat if he let it. If such anger would suffocate him, he would’ve permitted it. But Jim knew it would likely manifest itself in a perverse, guttural scream. And Jim knew the allotted time for such feelings had passed, in the seven of ten minutes he'd already used. He wouldn’t allow the emotion to cloud his judgement any further.
Instead, Jim decided to embody his role and his mandate, even if by impressment. He took his Oxfords off, and then his socks. He rubbed his cold feet through the fibres in an act of grounding defiance.
SGS had donated the end result of their labours, as they always did. They knew this particular rug wouldn’t garner the same press attention, nor engender the usual simpatico purchases SGS had come to expect. Yachts all along the eastern seaboard would keep their Aubusson flourishes and geometric motifs. The intentional abrash would need much more time to become a trend than the carpet’s lifespan allowed for. Interior designers around the country–at least those politically inclined–would later consider this rug an aberration and its removal an admittance of error. They would never know that it was not Peri’s design, but a simple misapprehension on the part of Liberty Interiors, that created the rug’s only lasting flaw.
“I need the key.” Jim asked. Marcus, now facing the cold reality of progress, snapped out of his fear and moved as the precise automaton the military had made him to be. He unbuttoned his uniform’s jacket, and then the top three buttons of his white dress shirt. Jim stood and held out his hand to receive it.
Jim noticed the thin metal disc as Marcus fiddled with it. He noticed Marcus’s absence of chest hair, and lamented the young man’s youth. He saw how the metal disc was inlaid on a clear polymer setting, and it was attached to a clear, thin strand–about three times the thickness of fishing line. The spot where the polymer cable protruded from Marcus’s chest had healed over perfectly.
Jim had asked about the cable and the coin in that initial briefing, when they handed him Marcus’s Yankee White folder. He had inherited someone who was on the third of her three year term, and he never had the misfortune of seeing it on her. He was far too busy in his tenure to really think about it, anyway. They told Jim it was inserted in a painless, laparoscopic procedure.
It wouldn’t be painless now.
Jim looked over at the black briefcase sitting on his desk, looming over them. He held his palm outwards, still going through the motions. The graduated steps between choice and action had created a new, necessary electrostatic charge. Between the two metal latches on the briefcase, there was a small round imprint where the disc was to be inserted. Jim felt Marcus press the disc firmly into his hand, as though Jim were demanding a beggar’s refund. He simply walked over to the desk and placed the coin into its designation. An LED turned from red to green. Jim unlatched both snaps on the black briefcase and opened the lid. The case was inlaid with red velvet.
The briefcase held the manifestation of James Ellison’s most abject horror. Beside the black call box, and the magnifying glass, was the weapon he feared. A nightmare made from cold, black steel.
Engraved, opposite the serrated edge, with a small inscription:
“For Leslie. Love, Grace.”
Jim began to bargain with whatever divine benefactor had supposedly authorized him. Faith, and its inverse, mattered now more than ever. He thought about calling up Reverend Robert again, for reassurance–but the preacher would only validate him and thus alienate him further. He didn’t need reminding of Dei Gratia. Instead, he wanted help repudiating the Almighty. What a mighty cross he had to bear!
But the time for miracles had passed. He lamented over his own history, and the roads which had brought he and Marcus together like this. The Guam Incident, which had in turn enacted the Fisher Protocol–and had, coincidentally, first inspired a seventeen-year-old Marcus to enlist. Then the aftermath, and the accords. Another whiplash election. The eight years of prevenient peace.
Then the intel. Checked, and double-checked. Confirmed by every back channel they had. In the briefing, they called the missing two the “sons of thunder”, and Jim smiled. Nobody else did.
“In the end, you’ll have 1.3 miles of Trinitite, and nothing more.”
Jim knew it was never that simple. In the past six days, since they first honed in on the missile’s source of transport, he’d gone back and read the classifieds. He started the day they first pitched the strike to him.
One such report he hadn’t read confirmed the “causal abnormalities” in the sheep of Iron County, Utah. They’d documented their findings in 1956. Something about how the sheep in that region were defected by the fallout from those first tests.
Jim now stood in the colour transition between field and border as he looked down upon the case. He noticed how different the carpet felt from usual wool. He assumed some cotton polymer had made its way into the weave. He retrieved the KA-BAR knife from the case with both hands, and walked it back to his seat across from Marcus as if carrying a hot plate.
“Ready when you are, chief.” Marcus was smiling. He was sincere. It was the most heroic thing Jim had ever seen.
Then, they both began to cry.
There were two suggested workarounds for the Colonel, because Jim had demanded it. The first was surgery, to reverse the original procedure and retrieve the capsule. This was deemed too great a risk to their strike window. The second workaround was to use what was essentially a defibrillator in reverse, to make it painless–and this option was shot down by Marcus.
“I have to feel it,” he said. “I don’t need to be remembered as some hero. But I have to feel it.”
The Colonel’s declaration was enough to steel Jim’s own resolve. As such, Jim demanded to fulfill the mandates of the Fisher Protocol to the very letter. He said he would do it himself, even though Marcus didn’t require it. And he demanded the act take place in the middle of his office, even though the Colonel Sterling first tried to refuse.
“I’m in charge, and that’s an order!” Jim had yelled, when they all tried to object. That was that.
The man who’d carried this black flight case alongside Jim these past two years–still essentially a stranger–stood and put his jacket back on. He didn’t button it. Instead, he laid himself down on the open rug, on his back. He unbuttoned his shirt even further, to expose the clear cable with the loop on its end.
Jim knelt down beside Marcus. His tears, now intractable, fell hot on Marcus’s bare chest. He couldn't help but feeling they were extinguishing some warming flame through what would happen next. He knew they had contingencies, if he couldn't go through with it. He wasn't sure if he had any remainder of faith left in himself.
Marcus seemed to read everything Jim's eyes revealed. “It’s okay, sir. I signed up for this.”
Jim was now utterly weeping. “You’re going to be remembered, son. I need you to know that! You’re saving our country here today. Our way of life. Future generations will herald your sacrifice!”
The knife was shaking in Jim’s hand. Marcus calmed it with his own. Marcus guided the tip of the blade down above his second left rib, to the right of his sternum. Just shy of where the clear cable emerged from his skin. He angled the knife in the appropriate way–the way he’d been taught in his training.
“Do… Do you have any last words?” Jim asked.
“Pro Patria. Pro Libris.” said Marcus.
The tip of the blade was now bouncing and skipping in a tight little circle along the surface of his skin. Marcus brought both his hands up to the back of the knife.
Then, without warning, as though directed by a spontaneous wind, both men thrust the knife downward.
Marcus coughed and sputtered as the blade pierced his left lung, but he didn’t say anything. He just looked up absently at the ceiling, as blood began to pour from his mouth and his chest.
Jim, remembering the vagaries of his own instruction, made sure to bury the knife all the way to the hilt. This way, the ring and cable could be dislodged. This way, Marcus wouldn’t have to suffer a single second longer than was necessary.
Marcus seemed to convulse and shake with to the rhythm of his own heartbeat. An unstoppable crimson torrent was being absorbed by his shirt, and his jacket, and by the wool carpet beneath them.
“We will remember your courage, son! We will honour your sacrifice!” Jim just kept saying it over and over, until it was done.
Jim closed his eyes for a moment’s silence.
The telephone on the corner of his desk interrupted him. He knew what the call meant, without having to answer it. The target was moving. They were just short of the caves. It was now or never.
Jim had to brush both hands along Marcus’s bloody chest to find the ring. Now, with one hand on the embedded knife, and with the other around the polymer ring, Jim pulled. He expected great resistance and difficulty, but the cable slid up and out of his chest cavity quite easily.
The cable, surgically attached to Amadou Sterling’s aorta, had a small white capsule connected to its endpoint. It was no larger than an aspirin. As the phone kept ringing, Jim fumbled with the bloody capsule until it cracked open. Jim retreated from the scene, oblivious to the litres of blood that had now soaked his own clothing. He furiously wiped his hands on an unstained part of the rug. He opened the capsule further and retrieved the small paper from within it.
He unravelled it on the desk, and grabbed the magnifying glass.
He pressed the black button on the call box, with grave intention and unstoppable certainty.
“Go ahead,” a voice cackled through the tiny speaker.
“November! Whiskey! 3. 2. 8. Foxtrot! YANKEE! VICTOR!”
He was shouting in deep sobs by the end of it. He collapsed back onto the floor, and for a second, there was silence.
From the floor, Jim called back immediately.
“Godspeed, Mr. President. And may God have mercy on their souls.”
Jim wanted them to have anything other than mercy. Those bastards would soon be turned to ash and glass. There would be no remnant, and no official report. Only twenty-six registered enemy combatant kills, along with thirty one civilians, herding their sheep along the southern cliffs. Most importantly the disarmament of the strike capability of both “sons of thunder”.
The reverend would go on to praise President Ellison’s “God-given tenacity against terror”, and the news channels would repeat the blast footage over and over again. No major groups would claim interest in the initial purchase, nor in supporting the networks they’d just bombed to hell. There would be the requisite Congressional inquiry, and endless dogged hearings that would stick to the ribs of those qualified to know for decades. A conspiratorial counter-narrative would question each iteration and pivot of the public record.
But Jim looked over Marcus’s corpse, lying in the very centre of the room, and didn’t question a single thing. That young man’s courage had saved their nation. Without him, the continental seaboard would forever be held hostage by tyranny and terror.
The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs came in, along with two black operatives. They would be the only ones who knew.
“Jesus Christ,” the Chairman said. He walked over to Jim and patted him on the arm. “He was a good kid, wasn’t he?”
Jim didn’t know what clandestine branch the Chairman had orchestrated for this, and he didn’t want to know. The official record of the operation would remain in the classifieds for at least fifty years. Operation Blackwing, as it came to be known, would be hermetically sealed in a vault somewhere in Langley. For now, they moved the Colonel into a body bag and began working on redecorating the room.
“I already appropriated the funds for clean-up. Word on the hill is it’s a preventative measure against wood rot.”
Jim kept his red eyes cast on the floor.
“We have to remember this. We have to remember him,” Jim kept saying, the shock and trauma now circumventing the language centres of his brain.
“We will,” the Chairman said, being the only person who could now comfort the President. “When the time is right, we’ll look back and give him tribute. But for now, this has to be buried, sir. You have a nation to lead.”
James Ellison seemed to come up out of it, at least enough to grab ahold of the garment bag that one of the operatives offered him. He would now have to disrobe right before them and put something else on. Then he would go and check in with Peri, to comfort her, before moving to the Situation Room. At least his shoes were already off.
Jim began unbuttoning his dress shirt.
“You have to keep this, somewhere.” He said, tapping his toes on the rug. “Stains and all.”
“Of course, sir.” The Chairman said, looking into his commander's haunted eyes. "It's history."
When the rug first arrived, it was inspected for stains and imperfections. Coincidentally, SGS–as they strove to to be an all-American manufacturer, in both labour and raw materials–had purchased some of their wool from Cedar City. Two artisans had sat before Peri’s semi-incoherent design, suspended on a loom against the wall, for over a year. Knotting each tuft of wool by hand, and gradually selecting darker and darker dyes of wool to assimilate the design’s grand visual effect. When the project was done, the rug was shipped under the purview of Liberty Interiors, a new outfit that had won the redecoration contract through their special ties to the Historical Association.
Although SGS sent over their standard disclaimer, prohibiting staff from using topical treatments or such barbaric practices as the bonnet method, their “Proper Care” memorandum was neglected by Liberty. As such an iteration of perfluorooctane sulfonate was added as a protective treatment to the rug by an intern, who watched his boss gesture at the pieces in their shop and then received his broad orders to "make sure these can't be stained". Unbeknownst to either the staff or Peri, the carpet had been treated and dried before it was ever rolled onto the office floor.
After dealing with the body, the two operatives rolled up the rug by hand, once all other elements had been sealed and accounted for. They bagged it in white plastic, and taped it closed. They marked the rug with a small hazard sticker, then they checked over all extraneous elements of the office. A second team, with full clearances and no pertinent information beyond their own simple instructions, removed the rug and shipped it to a secure location. As requested, the chairman ascertained that the rug was to be unrolled, hung, and dried, for historic purposes. These same two operatives oversaw the rug’s transfer to a black-site storage facility in Salisbury.
Whether it was an administrative error, a violent divestiture, or as a simple order of bureaucratic jurisprudence, the two operatives were recorded as “decommissioned” just days after unloading at the warehouse. It would be another forty years before anyone set foot inside that facility again.
And when they finally opened it, they found a dry, clean, oval carpet, suspended against the wall.