God is greatest, God is greatest.
I bear witness there is none worthy of worship except Allah.
The call to prayer came just as the sun began to dip below the horizon. Cargo ships lay at anchor throughout the harbor. The larger fishing boats were pulling into their berths. Fishermen dragged the smallest of them right up onto the beach. Rowboats and dinghies dotted the shore, including a handful of improvised rafts that looked like they’d break into a thousand pieces as soon as they hit the waves.
Faisal enjoyed watching the boats in the evening. It had become his daily ritual. As soon as the sun began to set one of the Yemenis wheeled him out onto the balcony where he had a spectacular view of the harbor. Lately they had been bringing him tea. They said it was good for his nerves. As if Lipton yellow tea had medicinal properties.
He didn’t remember the trip to Aden.
He didn’t remember much of anything beyond the moment the virus began drilling into his brain. One moment his chipset was shrieking about a critical security breach, the next his whole field of view was a psychedelic nightmare and then he sat up in bed in Aden, completely cut off from the net. Faisal knew immediately they’d deactivated his chipset, same as if they’d chopped off a limb. From time to time an older man in a dark suit claiming to be a doctor showed up. He was bald and wore thick-rimmed glasses with dark frames. Looked a bit like he’d stepped through a portal from 1966.
The doctor never really examined Faisal. Mostly he just asked questions.
How are you feeling ? Are you sleeping? Do you ever question things you see or hear? Do you dream much? When you do dream what do you see?
Faisal didn’t dream.
Supposedly people who didn’t dream went insane, or were already insane. Maybe that’s what the doctor was waiting for – the doctor, the Yemenis, Don Carlos – they were all waiting for Faisal to lose his shit completely and wheel himself straight off the balcony.
Except then he’d no longer be of any use.
One morning the Yemenis gave him an old laptop to play with, the way zookeepers drop strange toys into animal enclosures to keep the critters engaged. Faisal fiddled with it for a half hour or so that first day then left it on his nightstand to gather dust. He preferred to watch the boats in the harbor. The boats and the sunset.
Now the call of prayer finished:
Allah is greatest
There is none worthy of worship except Allah.
The Yemenis didn’t like it that Faisal didn’t pray. For the most part they kept communication to one-word questions and answers. They never said anything about what he was supposed to be doing in Aden or how long he could expect to stay here. Maybe they didn’t care to answer his questions. Maybe they didn’t know anything more than he did. Maybe they were convinced he was a djinn and were slowly working up the courage to burn him at the stake. What did Arabs do to djinn? Faisal hadn’t the slightest idea. It had been a long time since his last trip to Arabia. He was a kid then, so young he might actually have believed in God.
At first Faisal honestly believed they brought him to Aden to recover. He told himself that in a few days Don Carlos would show up to check on him, to explain the next assignment. But days passed with no word from Don Carlos, then weeks. Now a full month had gone by.
They weren’t nursing him back to health. They were studying him. Watching and waiting. Wondering whether he’d flip out, and, if so, how long it would take. Don Carlos & Co. thought he might be useful like this. Or, more likely, whatever tunneled into his brain.
A fat military helicopter came in low over the harbor, low enough it sent waves rippling out in concentric circles. The thwack thwack thwack of its rotors echoed across the water and up the cliff face to Faisal’s balcony.
The helicopters always came near sundown. Sometimes – usually on the days where there was a particularly serious cafe bombing or highway ambush – the air force sent a pair of jets screaming along the coast instead. From a distance the jets looked like darts skimming across the water. And from a distance they reminded Faisal of the drone.
Funny because he didn’t remember the sound of its engines. He hadn’t heard anything during his time in the drone. His brain took the sound he heard in the present and dubbed over his memory. In his more paranoid moments (more and more often, anymore) he wondered whether this was something his real, biological brain was doing this or whether it, too, was the product of an AI dicking around in his mind.
There was a war on in Yemen. Faisal didn’t know much about it. He didn’t read the news. Every once in a while he got flashes in the corner of his mind’s eye.
A half-imagined image of a soldier in desert camo dropping a round into a mortar tube.
Artillery rounds bursting over the desert in sinister puffs of dark smoke.
Soldiers loading men and women onto army trucks.
These were not images, the way Faisal used to view feeds on his lens. They were more like memories. Not his memories, though. Seeing them was like watching someone else’s memories.
That thing had put them in his head.
Sometimes Faisal wanted to drill a hole in his head and tear it out with his hands. He made the mistake of describing this to his doctor once (it’s like a bee buzzing in my head; I don’t hear buzzing I can actually feel its wings flapping) In response the Yemenis took all the sharp objects from his room.
It occurred to Faisal he didn’t know any of their names.
That was one difference between doctors and prison guards. Everyone knew their doctor’s name. They could give a shit about their prison guards. They got nicknames, maybe. Here in Aden Faisal had both: prison guards and a prison doctor. All of them holding their breath, waiting for him to crack.
They don’t know it but I’ve already cracked.
It was obvious. So very obvious. Here he sat: the start-up guy who’d failed but was too in love with his concept to admit it, struggling to hang on to the scraps of the sorry little market share he’d carved out of the tech sphere.
I cracked. I failed.
Faisal looked back over his shoulder. One of the Yemenis lurked just indoors, watching him from halfway behind a curtain, just in case Faisal tried to wheel himself up to the railing and over the edge.
Everyone was watching. Watching and waiting for something to happen, some unnamed event they all clearly expected and Faisal didn’t have the slightest clue about. Which left him to spend his days watching this war play out in his head.
And the war wasn’t all he saw.
Sometimes he saw his father. Sometimes he relived that childhood beating in the streets with the Salafists’ shouts about his European whore mother echoing to the furthest reaches of his mind. Sometimes he watched Latin policemen die on a grainy CCTV feed, over and over on a loop as if he himself had turned into a television and someone else held the remote.
He suspected he might no longer be human, but a human-shaped conduit for the net, that the ceaseless buzzing inside his head was an electric stream of trillions of bytes of data passing through him on the way to somewhere else. And from this torrential outpouring of data the AI plucked bits and pieces of sensory and auditory stimuli for him to see.
Faisal the man was nothing but a puppet now.
He didn’t dare tell the doctor his theory. If he did the Yemenis might lobotomize him or something. It would be the end of Faisal, as surely as if they put a bullet in him. Maybe that was what Arabs did to djinn.
By now most of the boats had been beached or tied up. The only ones left were the larger cargo vessels. These had deeper drafts. They couldn’t get in close to shore. They lay at anchor overnight, lolling gently from side to side.
The sun had sunk halfway below the horizon.
Faisal watched it fall further.
And again his world slowly went dark.