DATE: 28 JULY 1999
FLOAT: DPKO\UNATIONS\NEW YORK, UNHCR\UNATIONS\GENEVA, OHCHR\UNATIONS\GENEVA
MOST IMMEDIATE-CODE CABLE-320-280213Z-JUL99
SUBJECT: TNI PLANNING DOCUMENTS – DESTRUCTION OF VITAL FACILITIES IN EAST TIMOR
TOTAL NUMBER OF PAGES TRANSMITTED INCLUDING THIS ONE: 1
1. EARLIER TODAY BRAVO BASE EMBEDDED PRESS ELEMENTS OBTAINED CLASSIFIED TNI DOCUMENTS OUTLINING INDONESIAN MILITARY RESPONSE IF ET REJECTS INTEGRATION IN REFERENDUM AUG 30. SOURCE OF DOCUMENTS IS MEMBER OF KOSTRAD COMMAND AT MANATUTO HQ. PRESS ELEMENTS ADVISE SOURCE IS ETHNIC TIMORESE AND SYMPATHETIC TO THE RESISTANCE MOVEMENT. DOCUMENTS ARE ASSESSED TO BE GENUINE.
2. DOCUMENTS BEAR SIGNATURE OF CHIEF ADVISER TO IND MINDEF GEN WIRANTO. PRIMARY DOCUMENT STATES THAT FOLLOWING AUG 30, IND INTENDS TO INITIATE SCORCHED EARTH CAMPAIGN IN ET PRIOR TO WITHDRAWAL OF MILITARY UNITS TO WEST TIMOR. SPECIFIC REFERENCE IS MADE TO DESTRUCTION OF "ALL FACILITIES AND OTHER VITAL OBJECTS". MILITARY UNITS WILL IMPLEMENT MASS DEPORTATION OF CIVILIANS TO WEST TIMOR, WHERE IND AUTHORITIES IN NTT WILL RECEIVE THEM AS REFUGEES.
3. ANCILLIARY DOCUMENT DETAILS BATTLE-READINESS OF IND MILITARY UNITS IN EASTERN REGION OF ET. MILITIA GROUPS ALFA, SERA AND SAKTI ARE INCLUDED ON LIST OF DEPLOYED UNITS.
4. DOCUMENTS CLEARLY SHOW IND INTENT FOR WIDESCALE VIOLENCE AND FORCED DEPORTATIONS FOLLOWING REFERENDUM, AS WELL AS TNI CONTROL OF ET-BASED MILITIA GROUPS.
5. URGENTLY REQUEST CONSIDERATION OF CHANGE TO UNAMET MANDATE TO AUTHORISE USE OF FORCE TO PROTECT ET CIVILIANS.
6. ORIGINAL DOCUMENTS AND INFORMAL TRANSLATIONS TO FOLLOW IN NEXT TRANSMISSION.
DATE: 29 JULY 1999
SUBJECT: RE: TNI PLANNING DOCUMENTS – DESTRUCTION OF VITAL FACILITIES IN EAST TIMOR (320-280213Z-JUL99)
TOTAL NUMBER OF PAGES TRANSMITTED INCLUDING THIS ONE: 1
1. ACK REFTEL. WE NOTE INFORMATION PROVIDED IS UNVERIFABLE AT THIS STAGE. NO CHANGE TO MISSION MANDATE IS ANTICIPATED.
2. PROTECTIVE ELEMENTS ARE NOT/NOT TO USE FORCE UNLESS STRICTLY IN DEFENSE OF SELF OR MISSION PERSONNEL (REFER GUIDELINES). PROTECTION OF CIVILIANS IS THE RESPONSIBILITY OF TNI AND POLRI UNDER MAY 5 ACCORDS. GRATEFUL YOU DIRECT MLO TO ADVISE LOCAL AUTHORITIES THAT VIOLENCE IS IN CONTRAVENTION OF IND AGREEMENT TO PROVIDE SECURITY FOR THE REFERENDUM PROCESS.
The runway's surprisingly long, striped through a yellow grassy plain. Nate peers out the window as they taxi slowly towards the end of the strip, but there's nothing to show they've arrived in the province's second-largest city: no houses, nothing but a low ripple of blue-purple hills in the distance. He sees a single concrete building crouching behind faded signage: Selamat Datang di Timor Timur.
When the door of the plane opens he's struck by the heat. It's drier than he'd thought, dusty. There's a light hot wind that makes the grass wave. Someone's throwing their bags directly onto the tarmac, and the handful of other passengers – all local, as far as Nate can tell – surge forward to claim their belongings. He hurries along to grab his backpack out of the pile of cardboard boxes and cheap, straining suitcases. The fabric of his backpack's newly textured with triangular pock-marks from where the corners of his books have all pushed through from the inside.
The short walk across the blacktop to the concrete building leaves him dripping with sweat, scalp prickling from incipient sunburn. Inside, it's merely stifling. There's a row of dirty plastic chairs bolted to the wall, and a bored-looking official in a brown uniform behind a desk.
At the front of the line the official takes his passport, leafs through, finds the visa and looks at it for a moment. "Journalist?" he asks, his strong accent making Nate's brain stutter over the word for a beat. He shakes his head. The official stamps twice and says, "Welcome to Indonesia."
On the other side of the building there's just an unpaved parking lot. A chain-link fence separates the airport from something that looks like an army base. Squinting into the glare, Nate can see a cluster of buildings, some dark green trucks, a parade ground with the red and white Indonesian flag overhead. The parade ground's deserted. It's two pm: siesta-o'clock, he remembers from the briefing pack. Now that he's here, he understands completely. The heat makes him want to slump. The couple of people in front of him and their boxes have already vanished.
Glancing around, he notices a tall black guy under the only tree in the parking lot: a foreigner in a dark blue police or military uniform. The dusty white Landcruiser he's leaning against has a long whip antenna on the front grill tied back into a graceful curve over the vehicle's body. When Nate gets closer he sees the pale blue circle velcroed to the guy's arm: United Nations.
"Excuse me," Nate calls, feeling like an idiot. "You know how I can find the bus to Laleia?"
The guy looks at him impassively, flicking ash off his cigarette. He has a long face sketched with a wisp of a moustache on his upper lip. Despite being rangy-looking from a distance, up close he's more solid than Nate, who to his chagrin still hasn't managed to get rid of the coltish angles on his own body. After a moment, the guy gives a slow smile. "You are a tourist?" he asks. He has a soft, slightly lilting voice, an African accent.
"Peace Corps volunteer," Nate says. "Two year posting."
The guy laughs. "Two years in Laleia? That will be a long time, brother."
Nate shrugs, grins. The briefing pack told him about Laleia: population 2,500; average daily income less than forty US cents. Main industry: agriculture. Main product: rice. Illiteracy: 60%. "That or join the Marine Corps."
The guy laughs again, acknowledgement, and drops his cigarette into the dust and grinds it in with the toe of his boot. Nate smells smoke, dry red dirt, the warm sharp resin of the tree they're standing under. The guy nods over to the terminal, directing Nate's attention to a short stocky man in sand-coloured khakis walking quickly towards them. Nate vaguely remembers seeing him on the plane. The purposefulness of the man's movements seems out of place in the lassitude-inducing heat.
"I have to take him to Manatuto. Laleia is on the way." The African guy pauses and makes an unhurried amused sound, not quite a laugh this time. "Everything is on the way to everywhere in East Timor."
The fast-walking man comes over. Nate sees that although earlier on casual glance he'd mistaken him for a local, he's South Asian. He's young, mid-thirties, but has a confident leader's bearing.
"Issa!" he says, shaking the African guy's hand and clasping his shoulder. "Good to see you again." His accent sounds British on some words, less so on others. He turns to Nate, extends his hand. "Anwar Jahan, UNHCR."
Nate's seen Kosovo on the news: he knows UNHCR means refugees, war, giant camps mired in mud. But the images don't fit over East Timor's wide-open empty spaces and bright sunlight, so he mentally shrugs away the incongruity as he shakes Anwar's hand. "Nate."
The highway twists west down from the Baucau plateau: dark green jungle skewered here and there with bright spots of sunlight. The road itself is basically dirt with some shattered bits of bitumen for textural relief, and Nate can feel his jaw start to ache from the effort of keeping his teeth from banging together. Out the window he sees simple palm-thatch houses set deep inside the undergrowth on each side of the road. Nate knows it's irrational, but he can't suppress the eerie feeling that he's getting a glimpse of a lost world, strange and insubstantial.
"UNHCR's setting up a humanitarian aid field office in Manatuto," Anwar says over his shoulder to Nate. Off Nate's blank look, he explains patiently: Manatuto is a district capital on the north coast, halfway between the provincial capital, Dili, and the city they've just left, Baucau. "It's not so far from Laleia," he adds. "Twenty kilometres. Come visit, if you're bored."
"So what's actually happening that UNHCR needs to be here?" Nate asks, curiously. "Peace Corps didn't mention anything." He's not worried, just interested.
Anwar laughs. "They wouldn't, would they?" His face turns serious. "It started a couple of months ago, when Indonesia began talking about this referendum, talking seriously about the possibility it could happen. It's been all sorts of stuff: Indonesian militia beating up independence supporters, death threats, politically-motivated murders. But the worst of it's out west near the border – Laleia will be fine." He looks over at Issa. "Issa's based in Baucau with CivPol, you can always give him a call if you feel you're in trouble."
Issa nods. He has a flag velcroed above the UN patch on his upper arm: green, yellow and red vertical stripes, one Nate's never seen before. "There have been further discussions about a referendum, but I have not heard the outcome," he says, and reaches over to switch on the radio. Nate hears the familiar opening chimes of BBC World News.
…In trilateral discussions yesterday with Portugal and the United Nations, Indonesian President Habibie agreed for a UN-supervised 'popular consultation' process to determine the fate of its East Timor province, which has been part of the archipelago nation since Portugal's withdrawal in 1975…
"Fuck," says Anwar. From the back seat, Nate sees him share a look with Issa. "The militia are going to go nuts. The BMP just killed thirty people two weeks ago in Liquiça."
"I heard fifty, but they are having difficulty finding all the bodies," Issa says, then adds bluntly, "If there is not a UN peacekeeping force in place for this referendum, the militia will simply ensure the outcome Indonesia wants."
Anwar sighs, and presses his lips together.
The jungle splits open in front of them, baring a vista so stark it makes Nate's mouth parch in sympathy. Achingly dry rice paddies stretch all the way to the foothills: cracked concrete-hard ground with herds of buffalo and thin goats grazing amongst the yellow stubble of harvested rice stalks. To the south, there's a single granite peak spiking from a low mountain range like a snaggle tooth. Past the mouth of one of the area's wide dry riverbeds, Nate glimpses a sparkling stretch of ocean, pale shapes of islands lying flat against the horizon.
"Indonesia," Anwar says, staring out at the islands with a troubled expression.
After the paddies the road rises up again. There's the flash of tin in the hot sunlight: houses set into the side of the hill, to the left of the main road. A pale pink Portuguese church with elaborate square turrets stands on the right, its elegance alien and strange against the harshness of the dry scrub. They slow as they climb to the crest, and Nate sees a single official building: a small police station, flying the red and white.
Issa flicks his eyes to Nate in the rearview mirror and gives him another of those slow smiles. "Hope you like the look of it here, brother. This is Laleia."
They drop him where the town ends and the hill drops away onto another seemingly endless dry plain. Nate stands and watches the white Landcruiser vanish into the distance, his backpack heavy on his shoulder. He can feel a faint seabreeze against his face. All of a sudden it hits him, hard: all of this is real. He hadn't wanted to be an overpaid consultant in an office in Chicago or New York. He'd wanted something different. Something challenging, less privileged, less protected. This is what he's chosen, he thinks. And now he's here.
Sometimes, when Nate's listening to his radio in the mornings, he hears a BBC or VOA item about preparations for the referendum: the hundreds of UN employees and international observers flooding into East Timor with their ballot boxes and Landcruisers. But the only perceptible difference in Laleia is the line of UN cargo planes traversing overhead, a distant migration accompanied by the roar of high-up jet engines.
He tries to talk about independence with the men in his host family, struggling by in his basic Indonesian, but the men are cautious about the topic. Guarded. Still, some things are self-evident. Laleia's a small town. Smaller than small: a geographical flyspeck. There's no political activism here that he can see; none of the violence that he hears is starting to happen in the rest of the province. It's hard to believe the East Timor he's in is the same one where the militia are starting to storm towns, terrorising and killing, and people disappear and their headless, hacked-up bodies float in the next day with the tide.
Nate's working steadily through his collection: Lysistrata, Racine's Andromaque. When he's sick of reading, or at least temporarily sick enough, he heads down the road to the tiny store opposite the church. The feathery trees lining the road have dropped their gummy seed pods all over the blacktop, and every time he takes a step his sneakers make a sound like unsticking Band-Aids. The shade's full of their scent, warm and tangy. Out of the shade the sun is painfully hot. In the few weeks since he arrived his skin has reddened, peeled, and then browned and freckled like he's been through an entire summer at Martha's Vineyard in high-speed timelapse, and the stubble of his hair is growing back sun-bleached and gingery.
At the store he finds Anita, the middle-aged female owner, having a siesta inside on a large string bag of imported yellow onions. "Botarde, tia," he calls, feeling bad for waking her up, even though it's already late afternoon. She rouses and squints at him, then comes over.
"Botarde, Mr Nate," she says, giving him a slow smile. Her teeth are stained a deep orange, almost red: the betel nut that all rural Timorese seem to chew. When Nate first saw it he'd been taken aback, thinking that everyone's teeth were covered in blood. Betel's a stimulant like caffeine, almost incentive enough to take it up, except in Nate's opinion it tastes like dirt. Dirt mixed with ass. "How is your teaching going?" She speaks Indonesian with a heavy-sounding accent, different from the Peace Corps teacher in Nate's basic language course.
Nate smiles wryly. "I'm not sure if the children even know where America is, let alone why they should be learning English."
Anita shrugs. "Maybe one day they can get a visa, work there."
Nate winces. It's not impossible, but he doesn't like their chances. Maybe somewhere closer like Australia. Now that he thinks about, he's not entirely sure Anita knows where America is, either. He looks over her tiny selection of goods and picks out a roll of peppermint Mentos, two years past its use-by date; a tube of toothpaste. The toothpaste's labelled with Chinese characters and the word Darkie – and in case there was any doubt about the reference, it's accompanied by the disconcerting illustration of a grinning black man in a top hat.
"Tia, what's it like, living under the Indonesians?" Nate asks carefully, while he pays. He knows Anita has adult children, so she was at least in her teens in 1975, old enough to remember what it was like before.
Anita squints at him and gives another shrug. "The Portuguese were here four hundred years and what did they leave us?" she asks. "They took the trees, and all we got was their religion, their names." She spits off to the side, and it leaves a bright orange streak in the dust.
Nate frowns. "It isn't worse under the Indonesians?"
She gives him a closed look and then jerks her head behind her, indicating the goods in her store. "None of this before they came."
"And the militia?"
Anita looks off to the side. "There are no militia in Laleia," she says flatly.
"But you want independence, you want the referendum to happen?" Nate presses.
She turns away to finds his change, a tiny aluminum coin that he can barely feel the weight of in his hand, like play money. She doesn't look at him as she hands it to him, and just says, "You can't eat hope, Mr Nate."
By the time Nate gets home it's fractionally cooler, the shadows longer. Evenings are the social times of day, when young men sit playing guitar on the warm edge of the road and Nate's host family gathers in the shade of the front porch to gossip and comb the kids' hair. Laleia doesn't rank high on Indonesia's list of electricity priorities: the house gets electricity three hours each evening, every second day. On electricity days they sometimes have the radio up loud until late: Indonesian pop ballads; old Portuguese love songs that the men and women get up to dance to. It's nothing sexy, just a companionable side-to-side shuffle vaguely in time to the music. Nate figures the adults just get by on less sleep than he does, since they're all up again the next day before sunrise to make the long walk down the single dark road to the fields.
Nate finds his mind straying back to the conversation with the woman at the store. It's just more confirmation that Laleia's too small to matter: it was never affected by the occupation, or by the turbulent change that's happening elsewhere. Elsewhere Indonesia poured in migrants, police, army – blanketing the country with Indonesian-ness in an effort to make it truly Indonesia. This other East Timor is the one the radio talks about, the one that's on the brink of something momentous. It's danger and potential and possibility all mixed together, and Nate's missing it. His vague Peace Corps mandate of cultural exchange is already beginning to sour into a dull feeling of frustration. He's learning Galoli, the local language, and starting to pick up stuff about the culture – and it is all new, a world away from what he's experienced before. But he can't help feeling that outside Laleia, the rest of East Timor's sliding towards something big. The restless feeling of needing to challenge himself is back, like an itch.
Nate chews on a roasted ear of corn as he reads. The corn here's dry: a grain rather than a vegetable, although people eat it roasted anyway, cracking their teeth against the rock-hard kernels. He'd never really thought about why cans of corn back home were always labelled 'sweet corn', but now it seems obvious.
"Nate?" He looks up to find one of the extended family members, Alécio, standing in front of him. Alécio's a twenty-something who's only around the compound about half the time, and Nate has the vague idea he's a student somewhere. His delicate features would be almost pretty if they weren't offset by the long dreadlocks he's bundled at the nape of his neck into a tangle the size of a second head. He speaks basic English, a relief from the old men and the children who giggle (girls) and shout (boys) at the malae, the foreigner. "Want to go to Manatuto?"
"Fuck, yes," Nate says, with an eagerness he suspects probably sounds a lot like desperation. But Laleia's increasingly feeling like a hermetically-sealed bubble, a slow death by suffocation on the inside.
The ride on the back of Alécio's little 110cc Honda is bone-shattering, and Nate grabs for dear life onto the bike's back rail. Alécio's given him a helmet that's worse than useless: a little thin plastic thing that perches right on top of his head like an upside-down icecream container. After a while he figures if he falls and hits his head he's dead anyway, helmet or no helmet, and momentarily risks a hand from the back rail to take it off. He can feel the sun burning his face despite the refreshing coolness of the slipstream.
They're halfway there when there's an explosion of sound from behind and an army convoy suddenly roars past, nearly pushing them off the road. Nate manages to see a flash of uniformed soldiers staring coldly from the back of the trucks before a plume of dust spews into their faces and the bike jerks and fishtails on the loose surface. He falls against Alécio's back, stomach plummeting, hands slipping on the back rail with a sudden terrifying rush of sweat. His eyes sting. When he finally re-balances himself, heart running fast from the adrenaline, he looks forward; Alécio's fingers are white-knuckled on the throttle, but he just shakes his head.
Manatuto's a large sprawling town. Compared to Laleia it's almost a city, with schools and health clinics, mechanics and restaurants, an open-air market with seemingly unending identical stalls of fruit and vegetables and meat and live chickens. There are official government buildings, an ominous military base, police station. Although bustling on the surface, there's something disconcerting about the place that Nate can't put his finger on. He realise what it is when they pass a foot patrol of light-skinned men in dark blue berets and the typical brown-themed uniform of Indonesian government officials, casually slinging assault rifles in front of them. Pedestrians stiffen and turn away as the patrol passes by. As soon as they round the corner, Alécio turns his head and spits off the side of the bike. "Polisi," he says.
Nate feels his stomach tightening uneasily. To him they'd looked like soldiers – he's not used to police being paramilitary. He's abruptly hyperaware of the fact that this is the real East Timor he'd wanted to see. As they drive he starts seeing further signs of the occupation everywhere: military vehicles parked outside restaurants, a troop carrier with soldiers in the Indonesian army's dark green jungle camouflage, a burned house that's only a blackened concrete shell. The walls of the house are covered with graffiti, and it's easy enough to guess at the meaning even if he can't understand the words.
They drive past the main church, the courtyard of which is sprouting a cluster of curved white tents, long and segmented like alien caterpillars. Nate sees the logo on the tents: UNHCR. Remembering Anwar, the UNHCR guy he'd met at the airport, he looks around for the pale blue flag, and sees it directly opposite the church above a cluster of official-looking concrete buildings on a fairly large property, its bare dirt yard extending to a fringed periphery of banana trees.
Nate taps Alécio on the shoulder. "Come and get me when you're ready to go?" he shouts forward, and Alécio nods and lets him off.
He wanders into the biggest building. It's just a single concrete room, dark despite a couple of dim bulbs and the dirty glass louvre windows that seem to have rusted open. Anwar's crouched behind a laptop at a desk in the back corner. The desk's surface is a mess of loose papers and files, and off to the side Nate observes a bedroll nearly swamped by a mountain of stacked and tangled stuff all around it: clothes, tools, medical equipment and other emergency gear, folded tarps, rope, oval bundles of what Nate guesses are tents, a huge number of boxes of water and other boxes labelled in French – one's already ripped open and spilling out smaller boxes of what look like pre-packaged meals.
A radio crackles at the back of the room, a stream of constant background conversation.
"Dili, this is Charlie base, how copy."
"Charlie, this is Dili, loud and clear."
"We were promised a delivery of drinking water last week, supplies still haven't arrived – can you advise."
"Copy that, Charlie – water is tight all around – we've received requests from all bases in the last week. Please be assured we'll have a delivery to Baucau asap, in the meantime you'll have to make do." The Dili guy speaking has a smooth American accent that reminds Nate of Casey Kasem on the top 40 countdown.
The Charlie base guy's obviously heard this before, and Nate hears his voice tighten in frustration. "The camp here is already five thousand and growing. We need those supplies in the next few days or we'll be turning people away."
"Everyone's in a similar situation, Charlie. We'll let you know. Over and out."
"Anwar?" Nate says, cautiously. Anwar's head pops up from behind his laptop, and then he springs around to the front of the desk to greet Nate with a handshake. He looks like shit: crazy sticking-up hair, stained clothes, dark circles under his eyes. But despite his appearance, he's got the same air of focused, energised competence that he'd had when they'd first met.
"Nate!" Anwar says enthusiastically. "Perfect timing. What's your bachelor's in?"
Nate stares at him, momentarily stumped by the non-sequitur. "Uh, classics?"
Anwar blinks and then laughs. "Actually, as long as you can read and write— I've just advertised for a field officer position, the 2IC here, but there's no way I'm going to get anyone reassigned from Geneva inside about six weeks. You interested in breaking your Peace Corps contract?"
It's Nate's turn to blink.
"We'll pay the penalty," Anwar says. "You can always go back when things settle down here – Laleia isn't going anywhere."
Nate realises he's made up his mind even before Anwar's finished speaking. He knows that his idea of Peace Corps was more than sitting around in a village teaching English – he wants to have an impact, to do something that actually means something within this big picture of the East Timor that he's just starting to see.
"I can start Monday," he offers. "I need to go back to Laleia, get my stuff."
Anwar laughs and claps him on the shoulder. "First lesson: humanitarian crises don't stick to business hours. This job is 24/7. You can start tomorrow."
When Nate arrives on Sunday morning Anwar gives him a massive 600-page handbook and says dryly, "Welcome to UNHCR." Nate flips through and boggles at the technical instructions: how to space tents, how to provide water and sanitation, how to provide food, how to avoid outbreaks of communicable diseases.
His actual job, he slowly learns, is to liaise with the internally displaced persons camp in the church courtyard, making sure their daily needs are met. He delivers supplies, wages the uphill and occasionally disgusting battle of ensuring sanitation stays up to standard, assigns housing materials, and generally deals with all the hands-on management issues. In contrast, Anwar manages operational planning, logistics, administration and the constant back-and-forth communications with the mission headquarters in Dili. Since there's nothing else to do but work and sleep, Nate digs in and starts reading his handbook, learning about all the factors in camp management that it'd never even occurred to him to think about.
Later that week, Anwar sticks his head into the office where Nate's working out average daily consumption statistics and says, "I'm going to go brief the authorities about our humanitarian program. I think you should come along – it's probably safer if the Indonesians know who you are and what you're doing here."
Nate stretches his back, hears something pop. "Sure."
Anwar nods and says, "Meesh will meet us there." He pauses. "Wait, have you met Meesh yet?"
"The translator?" Nate shakes his head.
"Meesh is—" Anwar stops, opens and shuts his mouth, and a look of exasperation flits across his face before he gives Nate a wry smile. "He's not a bad guy."
East Timor's main coastal highway runs past their compound, then opens out along the beachfront into a wide dusty boulevard edged with tall coconut palms. On the eastern side of town it narrows again to wind through suburbs of concrete houses painted in pastel Portuguese colours: pale yellow, green, blue, pink. Flowers tumble from pots sitting on whitewashed windowsills and front stoops. It could be the Mediterranean except for the prevalence of blackened ruins, at least one in every row, and the absolute chaos squeezing its way along the one-and-a-half lane road. Motorbikes weave in and out of the crawling traffic, livestock wanders loose, low-slung taxis stop in the middle of the street to pick up passengers.
Something dashes in front of the Landcruiser and Anwar casually slews the vehicle around to avoid the – the whatever it was, one of Timor's weird leggy sheep-goats, Nate thinks, and has to make a deliberate effort to unclench his hands.
"Relax, Nate." Anwar looks over with a grin. As though continuing a previous train of thought out loud, he says, "I'd like to get a military liaison officer posted with us to engage TNI." At Nate's look, he clarifies, "The army. I've been getting complaints about human rights abuses, people going missing. We can't do anything directly, but at least an MLO can show the UN's watching – document abuses, push for some accountability." He turns a corner, and Nate sees the white government offices ahead, next to the high concrete fence of the army base. "Ideally we'd get a human rights rep in from OHCHR, but the last thing the UN wants to do right now is upset Indonesia, when independence is so close."
As they pull up outside the front of the government offices, Nate says, "So you do think they'll get independence?"
Anwar kills the ignition and looks at Nate sideways. "I think the majority vote will be for independence. Whether they actually get it—"
Meesh, the local translator, is waiting for them in the lobby. He's chubby, with a slightly stoned expression, and – to Nate's surprise – doesn't actually look Timorese.
"Arab," he tells Nate. "Dude, we colonised this shit first. –Hey, you got smokes?"
The three of them find the bupati, Manatuto's mayor, installed in what, by Timorese standards, are opulent surrounds: a wide office in the colonial style, dark wooden fittings and a slowly twirling ceiling fan. Anwar says in an undertone as they enter, "The bupati's a puppet figure chosen by the Indonesians. He's descended from the tribal kings of this area, and saw the Indonesian occupation as his chance to have a few of his traditional rivals assassinated at government expense."
The bupati stands up. A small Timorese with sunken cheeks, he has an smug, self-important expression. Through Meesh he introduces himself as Filomeno Guterres, then extends a hand to introduce the head of the local police, Lieutenant Colonel Hasyim, and the local TNI commander, Colonel Syamrullah.
"Bapak-bapak," Anwar says smoothly in acknowledgement, and launches into the standard description of their work: a primary focus on humanitarian aid; eventual assistance with the referendum process.
Guterres and the two Indonesians listen expressionlessly to Meesh's translation. There's a long silence afterwards, and then Guterres starts speaking. He looks fixedly at Nate as he talks. The sensation of being singled out, combined with the fact Nate has no idea what Guterres is saying, is profoundly uncomfortable. Even before Meesh provides the translation, though, he can understand Guterres' tone of voice: patronising, querulous, hectoring.
Meesh says, "Dude. You really managed to piss him off."
"Meesh," Anwar hisses.
Meesh rolls his eyes. "Yeah, yeah." He takes a drag on the cigarette he's bummed from somewhere, then says in a bored tone, "He says the UN's just a bunch of white dudes thinking they know everything. But remember the Portuguese left in '75, caused a fucking huge civil war? Timorese dudes fucking up other Timorese dudes and all that shit. Indonesia came and fixed it, so what's the big deal?"
Guterres adds something, and Meesh says, "Oh, and he says the militia's pissed that you're helping out the independence dudes."
Next to Nate, Anwar says angrily, "We're biased? When everyone knows TNI is funding and equipping the militia to terrorise the population into voting for integration?" He looks at Colonel Syamrullah. "Your President has already said that the Timorese have the right to self-determination. You think that this is the wild west, TNI can do anything the fuck it wants? And the police—" he turns his attention to Hasyim, "The militia have threatened, intimidated the IDPs and what have your police done?" He answers himself, furious. "Nothing."
Hasyim has the grace to look embarrassed, but Syamrullah stares icily as he listens to Meesh's translation, his glare flicking from Meesh to Anwar and back again. Nate hopes to hell Meesh is softening Anwar's attack into something more socially acceptable, but he knows that's not enough to prevent Syamrullah and Hasyim from understanding the anger in Anwar's tone.
"Indonesia may have acted with impunity for twenty-five years," Anwar says, his voice sharp. "But let me assure you, the international community's watching now."
Syamrullah's expression could kill, and Nate feels a cold shiver down his spine. When Meesh finishes translating Anwar doesn't even wait for a response – just turns on his heel and stalks out, saying coolly, "Nate."
The ride back is quiet. They're nearly home when Anwar eventually says, "I shouldn't have done that. I probably made the situation worse." He pauses, and then after another moment says, "I just couldn't stand it – that the Indonesians are here to fix things." He nearly spits the word. "Fixing things? Is that what they're doing? You know what some of the women in the IDP camp told me? They said that for fun, Indonesian soldiers took their sons to the top of cliffs and gave them the choice between a bullet or jumping to their own deaths."
Nate doesn't know what to say, so he doesn't say anything. He can see the cliff in his mind's eye, the gun. He doesn't know what he'd choose.
Anwar falls silent again until they pull into the UN compound. He turns off the engine, but rather than getting out he stares through the windshield and says, "I understand why it's the way it is. If the UN took a totally purist approach, refused to deal with particular governments, nothing would ever get done. It'd just be the individuals who'd suffer." He looks at Nate with a bitter quirk of his mouth. "If you want to keep working for the UN, Nate, you'd better think hard about one thing. Are you a pragmatist or an idealist?"
Their office in Manatuto is too small to have its own supply warehouses, so every couple of days they have to make the four-hour round trip to Charlie base, the UN's office in Baucau. Nate's lost count of how many mindless supply runs he's been on in the couple of weeks since he arrived. He feels like he's memorised the landscape: each scallop of white and grey sand along the coastline, each individual clump of succulents with their ten and twelve foot high flowering spikes.
They travel in convoy, bookending the supply truck with Landcruisers. Issa drives the lead vehicle, with Nate relishing the extra legroom in the front and Anwar and a Timorese Charlie base staff member, Gomes, in the back. They're nearly all the way back to Manatuto when Issa suddenly makes a surprised noise.
Nate looks forward with a start. There's a purple mini-van parked horizontally across the road, with two 44-gallon drums set up in front of it. Issa slows the Landcruiser as they approach.
Anwar leans forward between Issa and Nate, frowning. "Keep the windows up," he instructs. "It's probably just an extortion attempt. Nate, hold the radio in case something happens."
Nate takes the HF radio handset from the dashboard. He feels oddly blank, like he's missing a frame of reference for this sort of encounter. He wonders if he should feel like he's about to be mugged. There's movement in the mini-van, and a single Timorese guy jumps out and walks towards the Landcruiser. He's slight and young, with a jaunty stride. He stops about ten metres from them and cocks his head to one side and grins.
Issa suddenly yells, "Get down!" at the same time that Nate sees the guy's hands move, and he ducks beneath the level of the windshield just as there's a dull single boom and the front of the car shudders as something slams into it. Nothing else seems immediately forthcoming, but Nate can hear a hoarse yelling surrounding the car. He inches up to look. Men in dirty red and white clothing are swarming around the car, most carrying machetes and clubs, a few wielding bizarre-looking firearms. Nate feels like his brain is churning through glue: for a moment all he can do is look dumbly at the situation. Someone's brandishing a machete outside his window, gaze directed elsewhere, and he finds himself fixated on the line of its edge as he distantly registers shouting, screaming, more explosions somewhere towards the back of the convoy. In the wing mirror he sees one of the militia pulling one of the Charlie base guys out of the rear Landcruiser, throwing him to the ground.
Issa's struggling with the wheel, trying to turn the vehicle around. Nate suddenly realises he still has the radio handset in his hand, and frantically twists to the emergency channel.
"Dili, this is Bravo Two-One, Dili, how copy?" He tries to resist the urge to yell, and his voice comes out strained and high-pitched.
"Loud and clear, Bravo Two-One," says a woman's voice. "Go ahead." He can't place her accent, maybe Middle-Eastern, and takes a frantic moment to wonder why that's what he notices in a life-or-death situation.
"We're in a three-vehicle convoy under attack from local militia armed with machetes and firearms—" There's a deafening burst of sharp explosions and something behind him shatters – he vaguely hears the woman saying, "Bravo Two-One, what's your location," and even though he feels his throat tighten from effort, he can barely hear himself as he yells, "Twenty minutes east of Manatuto, urgently requesting helo support!"
As he's yelling into the radio, he's looking out the window – Issa's managed to get them partway around, but now they're wedged at an angle across the road: the supply truck too close behind, the militia's mini-van in front. And Issa's unarmed; all of the security officers are unarmed.
"We'll contact POLRI Manatuto and have them send assistance to your location immediately," the operator is saying in his ear.
He looks over his shoulder and sees one of the militia banging on the rear passenger-side window right in front of Anwar's face, yelling and pointing at Gomes. The militia probably won't kill foreigners, but they will kill Timorese. Anwar's blocking Gomes with his body, staring down the militiaman while trying to push Gomes out of sight. Then the window explodes inwards, the militiaman thrusts a machete inside the vehicle, and Nate hears Anwar shout in pain. The sound's galvanising: almost without fully realising what he's doing, Nate drops the radio, leans across to Issa and grabs the steering wheel, hauling it across. "Drive!" he yells at Issa. "Go, go, go now!"
Issa floors it. "The ditch!" he yells back at Nate, but the Landcruiser's already lurching off-road. The militiaman hanging out of Anwar's window shouts and drops off, running alongside for a few seconds before falling back. There's another huge lurch and for a terrible moment Nate thinks they've dropped a wheel into the ditch – but Issa revs the engine until it shrieks, and then they're slamming forwards and back in their seats like ragdolls as the car stutters, jolts and finally makes it over the ditch, pulling away across the scrub past the roadblock in a jarring burst of speed.
Nate twists around in his seat to look at Anwar. For a moment his eyes slide behind Anwar's head through the shattered rear window: the supply truck's following their lead, easing over the ditch with agonising slowness, and behind it he sees the other Landcruiser doing a U-turn and heading back the other way, its passengers apparently having managed to drag their colleague back into the vehicle. Militiamen are standing in the middle of the road, firing after the Landcruiser, and Nate sees it swerve abruptly as one of its windows shatter. His brain automatically fills with stock images from any one of the million stupid action movies he's seen: a bullet spraying blood across the inside of the windshield, a car flipping and exploding into a bloom of fire. But then he blinks and sees the Landcruiser straighten out and accelerate away, and he sucks in a gasping breath he didn't realise he was holding.
In the backseat Anwar's eyes are wide and he's breathing fast. His left hand is clenched around his right forearm, blood flowing out between his fingers. "It's fine," he says, but his voice sounds strange. "Is Gomes all right?"
Nate spares a glance at Gomes, who's chalky grey but seems uninjured. "He's fine," Nate says; he has to raise his voice to hear himself over the wind rushing through the smashed windows. He directs Gomes to reach to the back and find the first-aid kit. They wrap Anwar's arm in gauze, which immediately soaks through with blood. Nate sees a flash of white through the blood – he doesn't know if it's fat layer or bone, but the sight of it jars him right to the pit of his stomach and he can't help but recoil and say involuntarily, "Jesus Christ." As soon as the words leave his mouth he wishes, shamefully, he could take them back. He realises he's never seen an injury up close: not a car wreck, not anything, the worst he's encountered was a teammate's split eyebrow when he came off his bike during a road race at Dartmouth. Anwar's face has paled to a sickly yellow.
Nate remembers the radio handset, grabs it from where it's bouncing against the dash, holds the transmit button down and says tightly, "Dili, this is Bravo Two-One. We have one field officer injured, need immediate AME, repeat: need immediate AME. We're heading towards Bravo base, Two-Two is behind us, we've lost Two-Three – think they're heading to Charlie base."
The handset crackles in his ear. "Copy, Two-One. Please proceed to Manatuto police station – medevac helo is en route from Dili, ETA 15 minutes. We've been in contact with Two-Three, confirm they're headed to Charlie base and will be escorted by POLRI from Laleia to destination."
They were twenty minutes from Manatuto, but they're only a couple of hundred yards from the POLRI station when they see a detachment come roaring out of the barracks, heading in the direction of the roadblock. It's taken them that long to respond to the UN's call for emergency assistance. Nate's stomach is churning. Anger, he thinks. Fear. He hears the clatter of a helicopter overhead, and then they see the familiar white shape with black lettering settling into the police station's bare-dirt parade ground, kicking up a thick haze of dust.
Nate bundles Anwar into the arms of the two burly CivPol officers who come running from the helicopter, and then has to turn away from the rotor wash as the helicopter lifts off at an angle and heads westwards to Dili. Someone's touching his elbow, pulling; he shakes the touch off and turns to stare blankly at a young Indonesian police officer who's saying something, a stream of syllables blurring into meaningless noise.
Behind Nate, Gomes says quietly, "He says he needs the Landcruiser as evidence."
"Evidence?" For a moment Nate just keeps staring, not quite processing the word. He feels the adrenaline draining out of him, leaving grey exhaustion in its wake. In a single sick moment of awareness he realises his first instinct is still to flip the question to Anwar. "Fine," he says tiredly. "Get Issa to give him the keys."
They catch a ride back to the office on the supply truck, where they wordlessly unload the supplies. "You should not stay here alone," Issa suggests quietly when they finish, but Nate shakes his head, still dazed. He wants to stay in Manatuto. He can't prove it, but he knows this was a directed attack. Anwar pissed off the Indonesians, and now he's being medevaced to Darwin for emergency surgery. Despite his exhaustion, Nate finds himself shaking with anger. The Indonesians have made it clear they want the UN gone – so that's exactly why he's going to stay.
Nate spends the better half of a day crafting an exhaustively detailed incident report, complete with recommendations for new security protocols and a request for a permanent team of CivPol officers to ensure the base's physical security. He's already learned enough about the UN bureaucracy to have low expectations, but the tersely worded response from the mission headquarters in Dili leaves him fuming. There's no response to his request for CivPol, just a pointed question as to why Anwar had never engaged POLRI for escort and protection duties. Nate stares hard at the message, feeling his nails biting into his palms in anger. It takes a few minutes of carefully controlled breathing before he's certain he's not going to write back the first biting comments that spring to mind: that the police were the ones who wouldn't even have reached the scene until forty minutes after the emergency call; that even if they had been there, chances were that all they'd have done was stand back and watch.
The real issue, he realises frustratedly, is that nobody in the UN wants to be embarrassed by a leak showing that the mission's had to take steps to protect itself, despite its own repeated assurances to the international community that Indonesia's made a genuine commitment to provide security for the referendum.
Official channels aren't going to get him anywhere on this. But informal ones still might. The next day, he places a careful private call to Issa at Charlie base.
Issa listens to Nate's request without interrupting, and then says calmly, "It's a difficult situation, but I will cogitate on it. Bismillah."
It's nothing certain, but Nate feels relieved as he puts the phone down. Issa's network of security contacts is legendary: if there's spare CivPol out there, he'll find them.
His faith isn't misplaced. The following week Issa drives into the compound well after dark, his white Landcruiser leading a khaki military jeep and another identical UN Landcruiser. Dust kicks up into the powerful sweep of the vehicles' headlights.
Nate leaves his pile of paperwork and goes outside, where Issa greets him with a warm handshake. "I believe I have found a partial solution to your problem, brother." He inclines his head at the two US Marines standing quietly by their jeep, and gives Nate a slow, satisfied smile. "I have successfully convinced our respective superiors that it is in the mission's broader interests for us to be assigned to Bravo base for the time being."
Issa introduces the two as Colbert and Espera. Colbert is tall and white, coolly Nordic. Espera is stocky and brown with a shaved head and a smirk. Otherwise they look identical in camouflage-patterned uniforms, sidearms strapped to thigh holsters. Colbert greets Nate with a reserved "Sir," and Nate can feel Colbert assessing him; wonders if he's passed muster. He resignedly considers the knowledge that he looks about eighteen with his shaved head, his worn t-shirt and grubby cargo shorts. But then, so fast he nearly thinks he's imagined it, Colbert grants him a dazzling flash of white teeth and says in a Californian drawl, "Sir, I grant you permission to use the name my mother gave me, since I know from painful past experience that civilians can't read rank for shit."
Nate blinks involuntarily in surprise. But Colbert's right: the chevrons on his shoulder are a foreign language. "And the name your mother gave you is…?"
"Brad," says Colbert, quirking the corner of his mouth. With that, he goes and turns off the jeep, the sudden absence of its headlights leaving Nate's vision spotted. Colbert tosses a sleeping mat under the jeep and toes it so it rolls out flat; throws another on the roof. As he works, Nate sees the back seats of the jeep are packed solid with supplies: boxes, flak jackets, helmets, other miscellaneous military equipment that he can't identify. Espera winks at Nate, says lazily, "Sir," and wanders over to join his teammate, giving every appearance of already feeling perfectly at home.
They aren't the meatheads Nate expected. He's not quite sure what they are. He's never worked with the military before – hell, he's never even known anyone his age from the military before. He has no idea how his interaction with them is going to play out – especially when he remembers, a little warily, that US forces accompanying the mission aren't even under UN command.
Issa breaks Nate's reverie by introducing a Marine from the second Landcruiser as the UN MLO, Craig Schwetje, then excuses himself to go set up his own sleeping roll in the back of his Landcruiser.
Nate eyes Schwetje. He has the strapping physique of a footballer, and his uniform is immaculate, neatly pressed. The slightly Cro-Magnon overhang of his brow gives him a mildly bemused look. Over in the shadows near the jeep Nate catches the other Marines throwing Schwetje their own assessing glances, which is reasonable given they're all going to be living on top of each other for the next couple of months. He can't tell what the overall opinion is, though; the two military guys are like a pod, communicating soundlessly with each other with little shakes and nods of their heads.
Unlike the other Marines, Schwetje's once-over assessment seems to find Nate lacking, and his face settles into a vague look of discontent. "How long have you been working here?"
"A month," says Nate.
"How long have you been with the UN?"
"A month." Nate gives him a pleasant smile with a hint of steel. "Well, Craig," and civilian or not, Nate figures he can pull whatever borrowed rank he's got, and he also has no idea how to read the bars on Schwetje's shoulders, "there's no dedicated sleeping area, but you're welcome to the spare sleeping mat inside. Tomorrow we can get you on comms so you can send cables to Dili, and you can meet the local authorities. Facilities are pretty basic – hope you don't mind washing from a bucket."
Schwetje frowns. "I'll probably be spending most of my time at TNI HQ," he tells Nate, and disappears to go unpack.
Nate's about to go back into the office – he still has a stack of unfinished requisition forms, and new arrivals mean even more paperwork – when he feels someone come up to stand next to him: Espera.
"So, sir," says Espera. There's a wicked sort of glint in his eye, like he's testing Nate for something. "That's how it is around here? White men inside the house and the black and brown man outside?"
Nate's taken aback. It's a joke that's not quite a joke, playful but with a barb, and he can't quite read Espera's intentions. "There's more than enough room inside for everyone," he says mildly. "And if I recall correctly, wasn't it your teammate who wanted to sleep outside? He's white."
"Nah," Espera says. His eyes are still uncomfortably direct, but the corner of his mouth tilts upwards. "That dog ain't white, he's Jewish."
Brad comes up at that moment and claps Espera on the back. "Don't listen to his shit, it's what happens when you give the Mexicans too many books," he says directly to Nate, flashing that insanely white grin, and Espera laughs softly. Nate finds himself not quite knowing how to respond – Espera obviously hasn't taken offence.
Brad adds, "We thought we'd leave you the pleasure of sharing with Encino Man over there." His grin turns wicked. "You know, sir, I read in New Scientist once that Neanderthals went extinct because they kept trying to breed with humans. So if I were you, I'd be keeping my sleeping bag zipped."
Nate feels his lip twitching, and has to school his face straight. "Thanks, Brad. I'll take that under advisement."
Nate's aware that it was quite possible not to have had any kind of management system when it was just him: he ate when he felt like eating, he worked most of the time, he slept next to his desk – and, occasionally, at it. Now that there's more people he realises he probably needs to create some kind of order: designated working spaces, meal arrangements, schedules.
But he's thankful to find that over the next week they all fall into the semblance of a routine without the need for intervention. Issa sleeps in his Landcruiser, Espera on the roof of the jeep, Brad underneath it. Encino Man – for better or worse, Brad's nickname for Schwetje has stuck – sleeps on Anwar's old sleeping roll next to Nate. Issa and the military guys obviously find it all unremarkable, but for Nate the whole situation is weirdly intimate. It's not like any job he's ever had, more like being back in a college dorm – only minus even the pretence of sanitary conditions. The one toilet in the outhouse separate from the office proper goes from filthy to certified biological hazard, and the ground under the communal tap where they all shower and shave in the mornings turns into a spreading mud puddle. Nate finds himself getting used to the sight of seeing Espera strolling through the compound, naked except for flip-flops and a towel slung casually over his shoulder, or Brad stripped to the waist with his mouth full of toothpaste foam.
The first time Nate sees Brad shirtless he's surprised to see the huge death metal tattoo on his lower back, all garish pinks and blues and greens like Vietnam being napalmed at sunrise. Nate hadn't really figured Brad – with his air of intellectual superiority and his anal-retentive neatness – for being a death metal kind of guy, a tattoo kind of guy. Brad and Espera are such atypical Marines, or at least the opposite of what he always imagined Marines would be like, that he finds the visual evidence of Brad's grunt-ness oddly disconcerting, a blunt reminder of differences between them.
They tend to eat breakfast sitting around outside next to the jeep, though Encino Man likes to eat inside in front of his ridiculously rugged laptop. ("Sending useless messages, pretending to be important," Espera surmises, and Nate isn't sure he's wrong.) The Marines eat complicated-looking MREs, engaging in swaps where the trading value of the items isn't immediately clear. A jalapeño-flavoured cheese paste is high, as is pound cake; Charms candy is low – but it all seems completely arbitrary, since Nate thinks even commercial candy old enough to go cracked and white is surely tastier than a desiccated piece of cake that's old enough to be in first grade. Nate could eat his own field rations, but instead he's convinced the family next door to sell him breakfast each morning, which he picks up and brings back to the compound to eat: small round bread rolls about the size of his fist, soupy porridge made of rice and chicken. Sometimes he sees Brad eyeing his breakfast sideways, and after a while relents to trade: a packet of Skittles for some fried rice, a Tootsie roll for one of the oily, mildly sweet bits of fried dough that almost, but not quite, resemble donuts.
After breakfast Encino Man heads over to TNI headquarters, while Nate either tackles his Sisyphean mound of paperwork or calls Meesh over to help him out at the IDP camp. Brad and Espera have decided on their own schedule, with Brad appointing himself to follow Nate around everywhere – which Nate realises with embarrassment means Brad's his bodyguard – while Espera either stays to provide security to the compound or goes out with Issa to run informal patrols. At first it's peculiar having Brad there all the time, especially since he doesn't talk that much apart from the occasional sarcastic comment, but after a couple of days Nate's surprised to find how comfortable his presence has become. It's not just being around someone who speaks the same language – Issa and Meesh speak English, after all – but more about shared cultural context. Brad gets Nate. Understands his frustrations, his throwaway pop-culture references. But it's all strangely one-sided: Nate finds himself realising with an odd sensation that he still doesn't know the first thing about Brad.
The Marines have been there about a week when Encino Man comes back one evening and says in his usual vague fashion, "Nate, the district commander wants to see you. Something, uh, about a car?"
It's a summons, plain and simple. There's nothing to do but grit his teeth and go, Meesh and Brad trailing. Colonel Syamrullah greets them with a cold smile. "Mr Nate," he says. He has a soft handshake that makes Nate want to squeeze punitively.
Syamrullah says something in Indonesian, which Meesh translates as, "He says he has reports from some dudes, some cool dudes who know their shit and absolutely are not lying, that one of your staff caused Mr Anwar's car accident by shooting at some pro-integration dudes on the road."
There's a clicking sound inside Nate's head. After a few seconds he realises it's the sound of his own teeth grinding together. "I thought Mr Anwar's car accident was being handled by the police," he grits out.
Syamrullah obviously understands Nate's tone, if not the words, because the reply he fires back makes Meesh wince and blink nervously a few times. "He says POLRI are new and don't have, how do you say, the capacity, so TNI are still handling security and all that shit. He says that since your staff have been attacking people, he should report you to your headquarters. But he knows you're a pretty cool dude, so he's decided not to." The phrase this time hangs unspoken at the end of Meesh's sentence like a broken wrist.
It's so patently ridiculous that all Nate can do is glare impotently with a feeling of creeping red behind his eyes. There's an angry tension emanating from the back of the room, too – he's not sure how he knows without looking, but he knows it's Brad prickling at the implied threat.
Syamrullah's face doesn't change as he pulls out a homemade gun and drops it on the desk between them. His eyes seem to promise Nate personal pain.
"He says it was found in the back seat of your Landcruiser."
Nate stares at the gun, a primitive carved wooden stock with a length of narrow piping attached to it. It's identical to the ones the militia have been using throughout the district, and every fucking one of them in this room knows it.
Syamrullah barks a parting shot at Meesh, and calls an aide to have them shown out. Meesh reports glumly, "He said if you want your vehicle back, you'll have to see POLRI."
Nate and Brad find the Landcruiser in the police parking lot, the rear and passenger windows still smashed out, but now the radio's missing and someone's scratched viciously through the UN lettering on the panels. They're in the lobby arguing with a stroppy police lieutenant when the police chief, Lieutenant Colonel Hasyim, appears. Nate recognises him from the day he met the bupati with Anwar. He has a kind-looking round face that's distinctively Javanese, and a triangular moustache that perches above his lip like a Vietnamese girl's hat.
Hasyim says in fluent English, "Please, Mr Nate, come in," and ushers Nate into his office. Brad stays on Nate's heels, and after a searching look Hasyim stands aside to let him follow Nate inside.
It's a plain room with a white tile floor in the Indonesian bureaucratic tradition. There are pictures of teenage children, the usual bunch of awards and decorations and, tilting haphazardly like an afterthought, a big carved wooden bird tacked above the door with the words under it, Bhinneka Tunggal Ika.
Hasyim calls for coffee and gestures Nate into one of a pair of wicker armchairs. Brad, not included in the invitation, merely folds his arms and leans against the wall near the door, his presence a tall and mildly threatening statement.
"Mr Nate, are you married?"
Nate frowns at the apparent non sequitur. "Not yet," he says, choosing the formulaic answer.
Hasyim opens a packet of clove cigarettes in their distinctive khaki-green and red packaging and flicks his wrist to offer Nate one. At Nate's terse shake of his head, Hasyim tilts his head in acknowledgement and lights his own. The room starts slowly filling with sickly sweet smoke. Eventually Hasyim says, "My wife is Timorese." He takes another drag on his cigarette. "I apologise for the vandalism of your vehicle. Some of the new recruits from Jakarta do not quite… understand… East Timor the way I do. I will ensure your radio is returned to you."
Nate frowns and examines Hasyim's face. Hasyim is watching him calmly, ashing his cigarette into a tray on the low coffee table between them. "Thank you," Nate says, slowly. He has the feeling he's just accepted an olive branch of some kind, even if he's not quite sure what that branch entails.
Hasyim says, "You should consider that the Indonesian media has been silent about East Timor for twenty-five years. The new recruits have never had the opportunity to learn about what has happened here." He pauses for a moment. "Indonesia suffered under the New Order, too, Mr Nate. Pak Harto modernised our country, but he also controlled an army that killed not just thousands of Timorese, but hundreds of thousands of Indonesians."
The coffee comes, black and sweet. Nate can see half an inch of undissolved sugar at the bottom of the glass. Hasyim finishes his cigarette and takes a sip. "Reformasi has pointed us in the right direction," he says. "Democratisation is a painful process for any country, and there will be those who resist. The TNI generals have the most to lose. But give us five, ten years to follow America's example, and we will eventually get it right."
Privately, Nate is dubious. But he needs all the friends he can get, and Hasyim's the first Indonesian he's met who's willing to see the other side. It's not much, but at least it's something.
It's early evening by the time they leave the police station. Brad looks at assessingly at the sky, then at Nate, and says, "Feel like working out some of that frustration, sir?"
It's a habit they've fallen into: running in the evenings. Severe, mindless exercise that's somehow become something Nate needs, like breathing. It's a clean burn in his muscles that's pure enough to feel almost religious – a kind of benediction absolving him of the day's grubby frustrations: the statistics and sitreps, endless administration forms, the pointless bureaucratic arguments.
Brad runs alongside Nate with the same quiet focus he applies to everything, whether it's cleaning his weapon or tearing open a packet of Cheez-Its. He wears regulation t-shirts, shorts, sneakers with white ankle socks. The socks always strike Nate as kind of unmilitary, more suited to a college student than a Marine grunt, and the blasphemy of the thought makes him grin. Apart from when they're showering, this is the only time he sees Brad in anything less than full uniform, which is apparently all to do with something called the 'grooming standard' rather than any kind of battle-related SOP. ("If units abandon the grooming standard, who knows what kind of moral laxity could happen?" Brad says, perfectly deadpan. "Cock-sucking, goat-fucking. Homosexual relations, sir.")
Nate's never been much of a runner – he was on the cycling team in college – but he's fit and not used to losing. Even as he pushes himself, though, he knows that Brad's holding back. Brad can probably run twenty miles carrying fifty pounds and barely break a sweat, he thinks ruefully. His own lungs burn on the inhale; even though it's evening, it's like running on a treadmill set up in front of a pizza oven. They run through the town, dodging goats and chickens and bemused Timorese, then out to the rice paddy plain and the isolated crossroads where the main road meets the town bypass. It's maybe a ten mile loop, and as they near the office Brad just grins at Nate and picks up the pace until they're sprinting. He beats Nate to the compound by a good fifty yards, a distance that's just short of absolutely humiliating.
"Not bad for a civilian, sir," Brad says magnanimously, when Nate finally arrives. The bastard isn't even winded. "Maybe even better than Espera, but then again, he's got those little Mexican legs holding him back." He grins, slaps Nate on the shoulder and saunters off.
Nate's left shaking his head. He's never quite sure if Brad enjoys bodyguarding, since their interaction is so different from what he sees between Brad and Espera – the taunting, needling, usually offensive exchanges that manage to convey a mutual respect and fondness in that strange way that Nate thinks could only happen in the military. As far as he can tell, Brad and Espera are genuinely friends – more often than not he's caught the faint sound of their voices in the jeep at night, talking late. But it's different between him and Brad. There's a rank divide between them that's real enough, for all that Nate's a civilian and not really Brad's CO, and it's hard to tell whether Brad's slightly stand-offish attitude towards him is respect or just sufferance.
Nate finally gives in to the reality that he needs some administrative staff to help out with the flood of paperwork, if nothing else. His first hire is Alécio, who promptly moves in and stakes out a square of sleeping space as far away as possible from Encino Man.
In mid-June, the two elections staff arrive, a French-Algerian called Karim and a Korean called Choe. Karim is so tightly wound he nearly shakes with it. Choe is a big, bullish man with a slight frown and the sort of penetrating look that makes it seem like he's mentally disassembling everything he lays eyes on.
"Do you speak French?" Karim asks Nate in lieu of a greeting.
Nate says, mildly, "Latin is the closest I get to a Romance language, unfortunately."
Karim mutters something in French beneath his breath and then segues into English: "You know they expect this fucking registration to start in two weeks? It's fucking impossible." The way he says the word impossible makes it sound like he's still speaking French. He takes a drag of his cigarette, scowls. "Registration forms, pencils, paper, information campaign, voter identity cards – we start from nothing. Worse than nothing. There are thirty thousand people in this district, and none of them have ever voted before in their lives, no? So someone in New York has decided it will be easy, something we can get done in two weeks!" He throws up his hands in disgust and looks at Nate as though Nate's part of the problem. "Impossible." He stalks off. Choe frowns at Nate, but he seems to be frowning more at the general situation, and follows.
The elections staff are followed by staff from the World Food Program and Médecins Sans Frontières. Suddenly the compound's a roving mass of people all trying to find places for their equipment and supplies, and fighting over the best spots for desks and sleeping bags. Nate tries to keep a handle on who everyone is and what they do, something that becomes exponentially more difficult when each agency starts hiring its own national staff. The area at the front of the compound starts to look like a Toyota dealership that sells nothing but white Landcruisers. There's noise day and night as people move around, lining up for the toilet or pissing against the banana trees, and MRE litter starts piling up in odious little drifts along the side of the buildings.
Despite his own new staff, Nate's run off his feet, buried in paperwork and petty administrative responsibilities. As head of Bravo base he's in charge of the compound and the other agencies – but as head of UNHCR, he's still responsible for running the IDP camp. He'd thought handing over responsibility for IDP feeding to World Food Program would ease his load, but it turns out the head of WFP's an idiot who's already earned himself the nickname of Captain America for his complete lack of cultural sensitivity. Each of the UN agencies has their own agenda of what they want to do, and what they need to do it – and all of them want meetings. Meetings for deconfliction. Meetings to arrange other meetings. Meetings that all take forever, complicated by cultural clashes between the Americans and the Timorese, the Timorese and the other nationalities, the Americans and the other nationalities – until Nate thinks with despair that whoever came up with the name 'United Nations' was one sick fuck.
Eventually Nate starts tasking Brad to extricate him from meetings, at which he proves surprisingly adept. Distractedly, he notices that Brad's helping him in a proactive sort of way – taking responsibility for various things, re-delegating to Espera. Between them the trash problem disappears, agencies are allocated defined areas inside and outside the main building, and Nate gets the feeling Brad's restricting access to him on some kind of scheduled basis, so he's not interrupted every five minutes for signatures. It's like Brad's his bodyguard and his secretary.
The inrush of new people, and the base's chronic lack of equipment, provides Nate with the firsthand joys of dealing with Casey Kasem and the notoriously undelivering UN procurement process. When he gets off the radio after one particularly epic exchange, Brad looks at Nate's flat-lipped expression and says, dryly, "Marines make do," and miraculously finds Nate some extra tarpaulins for the camp. Brad's sarcastic and efficient, 100% reliable, and always there. Nate knows his favourite MRE (chili and mac), the fact he eats a truly insane amount of Skittles for a grown adult, and that he gets cranky in the mornings if he isn't given some private time to go and take a dump. It's odd, Nate muses, that given all the time they spend together, all he knows about Brad is stuff he's picked up from watching. Just the stuff that Brad lets him see.
An American journalist from Rolling Stone and a local stringer for AP turn up, part of the UN's new media strategy. "Embedded media, Nate," the Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary General rasps at him over the phone. "Way of the future. Don't fuck it up." Nate's never met the DSRSG, but the mental image he has of him is particularly vivid: a scowling, grey-haired Godfather figure, barking orders from around the end of a cigar.
Nate offers Rolling Stone and the AP stringer sleeping space inside the office near himself and Encino Man, and he's more resignedly amused than offended when Rolling Stone attaches himself to Brad and Espera outside and the stringer disappears into one of the satellite buildings where a few of the national staff are staying. The two journalists spend most of their days roving around town looking for stories, and Nate starts making a point of chatting with them on a daily basis. Now that he's handed over camp operations to Alécio or the other agencies, he's not spending as much time outside the compound as he used to.
The first time Nate realises the OCHA communications officer has arrived is when he's eating breakfast outside one morning and becomes aware of an unfamiliar American voice, a nasal hick whine. "—some old motherfucker who died in a convenience store, he had a boner like as long as my arm, and even when they turned on the lights she was loving that cold cock so much she just kept on going—"
Nate nearly chokes on his breakfast.
There's a pause, and then Brad says, "Ray. That's the plot of Clerks."
Ray says defensively, "That movie is based on a true story."
"While I'm not surprised necrophilia is a pastime of the good whiskey tango citizens of Nevada, Missouri, the fact that Clerks lacks NASCAR, goat-fucking, and bitches so fat you'd need Dirk Diggler's dick to get to their pussies, makes me somehow doubt that."
There's a pause, and then Ray says, sounding puzzled, "What's whiskey tango?"
Nate hears Brad laugh. He's surprised how much he likes the sound. Around him, Brad's usually so serious. Professional, Nate thinks.
Later the motormouth turns up in front of Nate's desk. He's a short, wiry guy in acidwashed skinny jeans, with the perpetual in-motion jitteriness of someone who's ingested a truly prodigious quantity of illegal drugs. "Brad told me to give you the full service," he says.
Nate blinks. "Excuse me?"
Ray puts on a wise expression and nods at him slyly. He grabs Nate's satellite phone, untwists the connectors and spits into them, causing Nate to yelp in horror, then sticks his finger into the socket and jiggles it around furiously before plugging it all back in. When he's done, he looks up with a grin. "You gotta treat an Inmarsat like cheap Pattaya pussy, sir. Dial."
Nate splutters, but dials. To his amazement, the satphone connects first time. Ray winks. "Don't tell me your Ray-Ray didn't treat you right."
With effort, Nate manages to keep his face straight enough to say dryly, "Noted." It's only when Ray leaves that he lets himself laugh.
To Nate's surprise, Brad shows an almost geeky enthusiasm for radios and technology in general, which isn't something he'd have figured. Now and then he sees Brad and Ray with their heads bent together over the innards of something complicated, interspersing their general bickering with vigorous aspersions about the parentage of Encino Man and Captain America. One of the CivPol guys who came with the elections crew, a Mexican named Garza, rotates into Brad's orbit as well, until sometimes there's a pack of five or six guys all hanging around the jeep in the evenings, laughing and hollering like a pack of adolescent hyenas. Nate finds he's too busy to feel left out, and besides – Brad's still with him, or at least within eyesight, pretty much every waking hour, instantly responsive whenever Nate even glances up from his desk.
Registering all the IDPs is a standard part of camp practice, since it's the only means they really have of identifying the vulnerable populations within the camp and preventing fraud. Nate's taking one of his increasingly rare out-of-office days to supervise the process, accompanied by Brad and Meesh.
Alécio and the new UNHCR national staff member, Joaquim, are set up in a tent inside the camp, busy snapping Polaroids of each IDP and stapling them to sheets containing each person's basic stats: name, origin, number of dependents, language, political affiliation. There's no doubt they need to do it, but Nate's concerned when he sees the sheer number of files stacked at the back of the registration tent. It's all information the pro-integration militia would probably love to have, but they simply don't have the facilities to store them securely.
Nate calls Meesh over and gestures to one of the elderly male IDPs lining up in front of Alécio's desk. "Meesh, can you ask this guy if he has any problems – if there's anything we could be doing better?"
Meesh speaks to the man, then turns back to Nate and Brad with a shrug. "He says he's grateful for UN assistance."
This is Meesh's increasingly standard answer. Nate tries – fails – to keep the frustration out of his voice. "What else, Meesh?"
Meesh looks frustrated, too. "Dude, that's what he said."
The problem isn't that Meesh's a bad guy, at least from their perspective as employers. It's just that nobody really trusts Meesh enough to give him a proper answer. Nate's increasingly aware that Meesh's Arab heritage sets him apart from the ethnic Timorese. There's no such thing as assimilation here – Meesh's family may have been in Timor for more generations than Nate's family has been in Maryland, but to all his neighbours he's still an Arab, a Muslim. And as far as Nate can tell, 'Muslim' is as good as 'pro-Indonesia' in more than a few people's minds.
They watch Alécio complete a registration and affix the tamper-proof numbered band around the woman's wrist that allows her access to the provided food and water. "And we all know how well labelling people with barcodes usually works out," Brad says.
Nate gives him a look. Brad's face is neutral, but Nate's quickly learning to interpret Brad's many takes on the not-quite-blank expression – most of them involving various degrees of sarcasm. "Please, Brad. Casey Kasem won't even give us whiteboard markers, you think he's going to shell out for a barcode scanner?"
Brad snorts. "Let those liberal-dicked commie-sympathizing WASPs keep running the world, and by 2010 we'll all have universal fucking healthcare and our Social Security numbers tattooed on our asses, allegedly for our own goddamned good."
"Says the man with government-paid healthcare and an enlistment number around his neck," Nate says dryly. "I thought Californian Jews were the liberal type – what happened, you were raised in some radical Republican synagogue on the Arizona border?"
Brad scoffs. "My father's voted Democrat his entire life, my mother volunteers for the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, my sister went to Berkeley. They're the bluest goddamn Jews outside of San Francisco. My mom nearly fucking cried when I joined the Marines – and not because she thought I'd get shot, but because she thought I'd be killing Somalian babies for shits and giggles." Brad shakes his head with disgust. "Imagine living with that liberty-loving bunch of tree-huggers for eighteen fucking years. It'd make anyone into a killer."
But there's a fondness in his voice, and Nate knows he's not getting the full story. Still, this is the most he's ever gotten out of Brad about his background, and it's strangely fascinating – like everything he learns merely adds to the puzzle that is Brad Colbert, rather than solving anything.
"So what about you, sir?" Brad's giving him a calculating glance. "Let me guess. Prep school, Ivy League. Lacrosse and charity suppers. A good Protestant who gets down on his knees every weekend for a bit of religiously-sanctioned cannibalism. And now you're here because you had a quarter-life crisis, and you want a bit of adventure amongst the noble savages before you end up on Wall Street in an Armani suit that costs three times my monthly paycheck."
It stings more than it should. Nate opens his mouth – he suspects it's merely to say something lame, like Actually, I'm Catholic – but Brad gives him a sideways smirk and forestalls him by saying, "But fortunately for all of us, it seems you've actually managed to absorb an education, unlike your fellow Ivy Leaguers on this base. At least one senior person around here needs to be able to find his own asshole, and I'm glad it's you." He slaps Nate on the shoulder and wanders off.
Nate's left with an irrationally pleased feeling. He hadn't quite realised how much he'd been dreading the thought that Brad was talking about him the same way he talked about Encino Man or Captain America. He's not exactly sure why he cares so much about Brad's opinion, except maybe the fact that Brad's respect carries a disproportionate weight around the base. People tend to follow Brad – Ray and Garza in particular seem to worship the ground he stands on – and if Brad respects Nate, it follows that he's got a better than even chance of making this mission work.
By the time Nate's trucked the day's collection of files back to the office and eaten ramen noodles at his desk while finishing the duty-free import requests for more Landcruisers, it's already dark. There aren't really twilights in the tropics, just a blazing suspended moment between day and night while the sun plunges into the ocean. On the other side of the room Encino Man's still tapping away at his computer writing his daily sitrep. Nate hears laughing outside and wanders out to join.
The internationals and a couple of Timorese are sitting in a loose group around a fire, passing around a couple of bottles of Bintang, the shitty Indonesian lager that's as cheap as it is unpalatable.
"—so wide you seeing his fucking insides, I mean, you could fit a basketball in there—" Ray's babbling, just as Issa and Alécio make matching disgusted faces and Garza stares slack-jawed, as though he can't quite believe what he's hearing.
"What's that?" Nate enquires mildly, watching with amusement as Ray's eyes suddenly dart from side to side, probably unsure whether Nate's going to bring down the UN's 'appropriate workplace conduct' policy on his head.
"Ray has a very…American sense of humour," Doc Naresh, one of the MSF doctors, says, getting up to leave. The way he rolls the word American around in his mouth makes it clear it's not exactly a compliment. Issa follows, shaking his head, and Alécio jumps up and says emphatically, "That is colossally retarded," in such perfect imitation of Brad that Nate does a double-take in surprise.
Eventually it's only the Americans, Garza and the cynical MSF doctor, Doc Bryan, lounging around outside. Every time Nate looks up he feels flattened to the ground by the weight of the huge upside-down Timorese night sky, unfamiliar constellations set against a Milky Way so dense it looks like a streak of pearlescent cloud.
Ray's moved on from an extended discussion about Playboy Playmates to an attempt to make s'mores, sandwiching MRE candy between WFP high-protein crackers and then shoving the resulting mess into his mouth, seemingly oblivious to the melted chocolate running down the sides of his face. Since their only entertainment comes from the BBC, which is dry at the best of times, Ray's become their most consistently amusing alternative. Nate thinks that as Ray's supervisor he's technically supposed to disapprove, but he's pleasantly buzzed from his half bottle of Bintang and can't find it in himself to care. Between bites of his s'more, Ray's singing in a high falsetto: "Come a little bit closer baby, get it on, get it on, 'cause tonight is the night when two become one—"
"Wanna make love to ya baby," Rolling Stone warbles.
"Set your spirit free, it's the only way to be!" Ray sings, hitting a note that makes them all wince, and then breaks off to say mockingly, "And, grasshoppers, this is why God invented the Durex Ultra Strong, so you can still get laid if she fails the grab test."
"Pay peanuts like you do, and you expect chicks without dicks?" Espera calls, to general laughter. "You should be fucking glad you aren't getting monkeys, dog."
Nate joins the laughter, feeling giddy with a weird camaraderie. Thinking about the randomness of it all – of him, being here on the other side of the world with a group of people he hadn't even known a month ago – still makes his head spin. He could have accepted that summer internship with Goldman Sachs in Boston – could have spent his life without ever having to wipe his ass with nothing but his hand and a bucket of water, or sleep under his desk, or eat ramen noodles for a week straight. But New England's already feeling like a different life, a half-life. He's almost startled to realise he doesn't miss it at all.
Looking over, Nate sees Brad lying back on his elbows in front of the fire, long legs stretched out in front of him. It's almost like Brad has his own gravity, Nate thinks. He doesn't mean to, but he always ends up looking. As if feeling Nate's eyes on him, Brad looks over with a lazy, relaxed grin, and Nate finds himself mirroring it automatically.
After everyone's dispersed, Nate lingers at the jeep next to Brad. He's vaguely conscious he's clinging to the evening, trying to make it last. He doesn't want to go to sleep and wake up to a normal day, full of all-too-real frustrations.
"Chicks with dicks?" he says. "Which, by the way, I'm pretty sure are still covered by the UN's ban on staff purchasing sex."
Brad laughs softly. "They probably give it to him for free just so he'll shut up. But he can't be getting that much, since I have it on good authority that he's got the biggest selection of jerk-off material on base. Though Rolling Stone has more interesting stuff, the kinky liberal fuck."
Nate groans. "I don't even want to know."
"Are you saying that as our supervisor, or—" Brad trails off, then laughs. "Or, does that Ivy League stick up your ass mean you only jerk off to literature, sir?"
Nate splutters, but before he manages a coherent protest they're both startled by Espera's voice drifting down from the roof of the jeep. "Jesus. Don't you two see enough of each other during the fucking day?"
"Shut up, Poke," Brad says without heat, but turns and nods at Nate. "Night, sir. As you can see, my teammate is on the rag again, and I've discovered it's best to leave sleeping bitches lie."
Nate laughs and goes back inside, then immediately feels guilty when he sees the dark, sleeping shapes of the national staff under the desks. This isn't an adventure for them, he thinks uncomfortably. This is their life, and they can never forget it.
Fridays are the quietest day of the week: the POLRI station and TNI base are shut, and all the stores close for the afternoon siesta and don't reopen until Saturday. The empty feeling extends inside Bravo base, with Issa, Meesh and Karim all at mosque in the afternoon.
Someone down the other end of the office from Nate says idly, "Friday would be the perfect day for a revolution, man."
"Yeah, why you think the Indonesians scheduled the vote for a Saturday?"
Nate's on the satellite phone with the mission's senior MLO, Patterson, when there's a sudden commotion over the other side of the room amongst a knot of national staff. Joaquim from UNHCR and Miguel from WFP are in the face of one of the new elections recruits, João, their voices raised.
Nate quickly wraps up the call and goes over. "Gents, is there a problem?"
Everyone, including João, just glares at him sullenly as they disperse back to their desks. Nate watches them go, puzzled, and makes a mental note to ask Meesh about it when he gets back from mosque.
"Oh, that," Meesh says, and shrugs. "João, his family are bad dudes – pro-integration and all that shit. Everyone else around here is pro-independence."
"So this is going to be an ongoing issue?"
"Nah, it's cool," says Meesh. "You know how Timorese are, they just like fighting."
Nate frowns at Meesh and walks away.
Espera, who's sitting kicking his legs on the edge of a desk, looks up. "Classic colonial takeover technique, sir." He bares his teeth. "Get the locals fighting among themselves, then steal the land while they're all busy. Hell, all Indonesia gotta do is stand back and say that this shit is a civil war, and when everything's burned to the ground they can just move back in, be the fucking heroes."
The UN's supposed to be a neutral presence. Nate hadn't realised – hadn't really thought about – the fact that none of the national staff are neutral, and the vast majority of them support independence.
"What do you want me to do?" Karim says brusquely, when Nate raises it with him. "Implement some kind of fucking American affirmative action program, hire illiterate peasants who support integration? Unless you want an office full of monkeys, your staff are going to be pro-independence. Get used to it." He exhales cigarette smoke and glares.
Nate has a sinking feeling that public perceptions of the UN are going to turn into a security issue. The militia already used it as justification of the attack on Anwar, and recently they've been getting a few rocks thrown into the compound. One dented a car, another smashed a window. It's not enough to form a pattern, or to be an active threat, but it's enough to make him uneasy.
They all start to get niggling illnesses from poor hygiene. A couple of international staff get the shits, and there's increasing desperation in the line for the toilet. (Occasionally people just say, "Fuck this," and squat behind a tree somewhere. In fact, shitting in the open is significantly more pleasant than spending time in the toilet, which has reached new heights of horror, but Nate gets visions of the UNHCR handbook's dire descriptions of sewage-flooded camps and tells them firmly to knock it off.)
"Fuck, look at this shit," Ray complains. Over the last few days, a pimple on his upper arm has turned into an angry-looking boil the size and texture of a marble. "This country is just full of unpleasant fucking surprises."
"It's probably a guinea worm," Brad says, sitting astride a box of WFP crackers. He empties the ammo out of a magazine and starts cleaning the internal springs. "One of the few remaining parasitic diseases the first world has yet to find a convenient cure for."
"Because the pharmaceutical industry's run by the white man, who doesn't give a shit about Africans unless there's a Microsoft-funded Nobel fucking prize in it," Espera mutters.
Brad ignores Espera. "What you have to do," he says to Ray, "is winch that fucker out of your flesh, half an inch at a time. It takes months. But go too fast and it'll break off and leave half of a dead, rotting worm inside you, and then you'll probably die of blood poisoning."
Ray scowls. "Thanks, Brad. That was a great help." He looks back at his boil. "A high school buddy of mine got one of these. He said having it lanced hurt so fucking much he screamed louder than a teenage virgin taking it up the ass from Ron Jeremy."
"Stop pussying around and get it lanced," Brad directs. "Looking at you with that fucking thing disgusts me."
"But, Brad," Ray whines. "While the rest of the world has rightly acknowledged the foremost position in global history of the proud US of A, our esteemed doctor has turned his back on – nay, has rejected – the land of his birth, and his noble countrymen. In fact, I have it on good authority that, like most of those who've gone native, he reserves his deepest loathing for the American expatriate." He pauses. "In other words, I'm not letting that sadistic motherfucker anywhere near me with anything sharper than Encino Man on a good day."
Nate shakes his head, laughing. He has it on good authority that most of the reason Ray's avoiding the MSF clinic is the fact he cut in line yesterday, only to get bawled out in front of half the compound by an irate Doc Bryan: "Are you dying, asshole? Are you so fucking selfish that you think you need medical treatment over a starving four year old? No? Then get to the back of the line and wait your goddamned turn." Despite all Doc Bryan's bitching about the tedium of treating the kids from the IDP camp, and his constant complaints that he can't wait to get back to his landmine victim clinic in Cambodia, Nate – and everyone else – knows that he cares about the children more than any of them.
"Look here, my brothers," Ray's saying, and produces a scalpel, still in its plastic wrapper. "Who among you will take on the task of performing a life-saving operation on your dear Ray-Ray?"
"Dog, how you know we're not gonna use that scalpel to rid ourselves of the constant pain in the fucking ass that is our dear Ray-Ray?" Espera says, baring his teeth.
Ray cocks his head and says, sing-song, "Now, homes. Don't be jealous 'cause I be stealing your honeybunches." He sidles close to Brad and leers. "I can't help that the Iceman's so chill he makes me hot, dog. Cool under pressure, as emotional as a popsicle, and I know he knows his way around a needle 'cause of that giant sexy tattoo he's got." He raises his voice into falsetto. "Whaddya say, big boy? Will you do it for your buddy Ray?"
Brad eyes the scalpel coolly. "Usually my suitors promise me something bigger than that little prick you've got there, Ray." An evil grin spreads across his face as he pulls a six-inch combat knife out of the sheath on his thigh and flips it idly from hand to hand. "How'd you like Daddy to pop your cherry with something you'll actually feel?"
Garza, Espera and Rolling Stone whoop hysterically, and Nate watches with interest as Ray's eyes nearly bug out of his thin face.
In the end Brad relents and uses the scalpel, all of them shrieking in horrified laughter as foul-smelling pus explodes from the incision and Ray yelps and jumps and curses. The 'operation' leaves a crater in Ray's arm that they douse in iodine and slap a Band-Aid over, and after a few days it's already started scarring into a hard pink knot.
They're lucky that this is the worst that's happened to any of them, Nate thinks, his mind turning uneasily to the increasing number of kids dying of diarrhoea, which he has to distil into grim dry statistics for HQ consumption: deaths per 10,000 per day.
Nate leans back into an exaggerated stretch that makes him groan. His eyes ache from monitor glare, and somehow it's gotten dark out without him noticing. Over on Encino Man's desk, Brad's planning the next day's patrols for Espera and Issa. "Break?" Nate asks, and Brad looks up and nods.
It's marginally cooler at night than when he first got here, with enough wind to make the wide banana leaves rustle in the dark. Someone's set a couple of plastic chairs in the dirt as a kind of impromptu break area, and as Brad and Nate near they see the glow of lit cigarettes: Karim and Issa, smoking and talking quietly in French.
"Ah, look," Karim says, breaking off the conversation. "It's the seekers."
Nate isn't sure if he should be offended, so he just raises an eyebrow.
"You haven't heard that before?" Karim ashes his cigarette. "I thought it was an Anglophone thing." He shrugs. "They say there are only two kinds of aid workers: those who are running away from something, and those who are looking for something. And you are both young, so I think you are looking for adventure, no?"
"And you aren't?" Nate deflects, mildly.
Karim's mouth twists. "I think I was a very different person three deployments ago," he says, and stubs out his cigarette and leaves. After a beat, Issa shrugs at them and follows.
They sit there in companionable silence. Brad smokes a cigarette, tilting his head backwards to look up at the sky. Nate doesn't know if Brad's always smoked, or it's just something he's picked up from the other international staff, all of whom smoke like chimneys. Nate himself has picked up a six Nescafés a day habit, which makes him jitter. He slouches down in his chair until he can rest his head against the seat back. The perimeter lights pulse faintly with the rhythmic thrum of the generator, washing out the stars into a pale overhead blur.
"So you think that's what it is?" Nate says. He turns his head to look at Brad. "The adventure."
The angled shadows slice everything into unfamiliar shapes, black and white like a noir comic, and all Nate can make out of Brad are the sharp lines of his cheekbones, the dip in his chin. "Some of it," Brad says, after a while. "Not all of it." He sounds like he's trying to figure out the right words. "It's not just wanting to see new places, do cool shit, fuck the natives. Any assmunch of a POG gets to go to the Balkans and fire a rifle. But recon…" He pauses. "I wanted to see if I could do it. And in the Marines, you pass one thing, there's always something else. I wanted to see if I could do it all." Nate sees the shadow outline of Brad's lips curve into a crooked smile. "One of the men in my platoon always goes on about Dao and dharma and all that crap – it's all fucking bullshit, but once he said the reason we were in recon was because we had warrior spirits." His voice falls on the last, thoughtful. It should sound cheesy, but somehow in the dark, it doesn't.
Brad's quiet for another minute. "There's something pure about what we do," he says eventually. "Not the geopolitical shit. Just what it comes down to: one man against everything else."
"Mr Nate?" It's the young local MSF nurse, Alzira. "There is a problem at the camp," she says, and there's something in her tone that suggests she isn't really expecting him to listen. He wants to punch whoever put that hesitation there, but all he does is nod encouragingly, and after a nervous look at his face she ploughs on: at the clinic they're starting to see rape cases coming in, two or three a day. Adult women. Girls. "These women can't protect themselves," she says. "Their husbands are dead, they have babies, young children – what can they do?"
Nate stifles his curse. "Who do they say are doing it?" he asks, as evenly as he can. He's pretty sure he knows the answer already.
Alzira looks at him sideways through her rectangular glasses. She has a slightly different look from the other Timorese staff, and now that Nate looks closely he can see that she's mestiço, part-Portuguese. "The army," she says, and he figures he deserves the tone of who the hell do you think? in her voice.
"It's not the army," Encino Man says stubbornly, when Nate confronts him about it. "It's the militia."
"Don't you think the women know who's raping them?" Nate says, too loudly. People have turned their heads to look, but he finds he doesn't particularly care.
Encino Man sighs as if in sufferance, but the twist of his mouth says he's annoyed. "None of them are going to make statements, and there's no way of finding out what happened. Anyway, like I said – it's the militia. Local on local violence. These women you're worried about, they're fucking used to it. It's not our problem. So just leave it to UNDP."
Nate doesn't even try and keep the disgust off his face as he stalks out. Behind him, he can still hear Encino Man calling, "You need to learn to get over this shit, Nate!"
They're not set up to house IDPs in the compound, but there's no other choice. There's no way of identifying all current or potential victims, either, so all Nate can do is implement the blanket solution of relocating all female-headed households and unattached children into the compound.
"Sir, not that I care, but isn't this explicitly against Dili's instructions?" Brad asks, as he ushers a group of women into the compound, firewood and WFP-issue containers of cooking oil balanced on their heads. The women are all wearing the standard rural outfit: first-world charity t-shirt with a sarong of traditional woven cloth, the bright colours dulled by repeated washings in the filthy drainage canal that runs behind the church. "Non-employee individuals residing on UN grounds."
"I'm head of this base, and Headquarters can suck my balls," Nate says shortly. He usually tries to keep his speech at least marginally cleaner than anything coming out of Brad or Ray's mouth, and now his vehemence causes Brad to give him an approving look. "Roger that, sir."
They've just gotten the IDPs settled in the compound when Meesh turns up at Nate's desk, trailing the local priest.
"Padre Luis," Nate says, stifling a groan. "How can I help you?"
"He's pissed that you're giving those health pack things to the women," Meesh says. "Says they're against Church teachings or something." He casts a look at the priest, adding disdainfully, "Stupid old man quoted his book at me, like I know any of that kafiri shit," and exhales a lungful of sweet-smelling smoke.
The Church provides the only safe space available for displaced persons in Manatuto, and Padre Luis knows it. Gritting his teeth, Nate instructs Miguel to start taking the condoms out of all the reproductive packs. Padre Luis watches Miguel with an eagle eye for a couple of minutes, then nods in satisfaction, scowls at Meesh, brushes his papery lips against each of Nate's cheeks and says, "Deus te abençoe, meu filho."
"Fuck," Nate says angrily to Brad, watching him go. "The only hardcore Catholics here are these fucking Portuguese priests – don't they know everyone else only became Catholic to piss off the Indonesians?"
"That's the coloniser's church for you," Espera says, handing a notebook to Brad, and gives Nate a sharklike grin. "They'll save you, dog, but only on their terms."
"Uh, Mr Fick?" Rolling Stone is hovering.
"Christ, what now," Nate says, his head in his hands. "Yes. What."
"There's some fighting between pro-integration and pro-independence groups near the Pancasila statue, you might like to warn the convoys coming through. Also, I was walking past the market and saw these for sale," Rolling Stone says, all in a rush, and hefts a bag of rice onto Nate's desk so that he can see the light blue WFP logo.
"Christ," Nate says again, and calls in Captain America. "What the fuck, Dave."
Captain America looks at the bag. "I think the IDPs are selling them," he says earnestly. "I think it's a sign of a recovering market economy."
Nate has to resist the urge to scream. "The IDPs have no food," he grits outs slowly, like he's speaking to a child. "Why would they sell their food for money, just so they can buy more food?"
Captain America just gives him a glassy-eyed stare and shrugs.
It's just one thing after another, and by the time Nate gets to the paperwork it's already dark. He can hear the familiar fireside noises drifting in from outside: Brad's sarcastic drawl, Espera's indignant existential musings. At some stage during the past week Alécio's picked up a shitty acoustic guitar from somewhere, and ever since he's been feeding them all a steady diet of Bob Marley and Guns 'n Roses ballads. Tonight Nate can hear the faint strains of I Shot the Sheriff, Alécio's pleasant mid-range voice blending with Ray and Rolling Stone's less accomplished efforts in the choruses. Listening to them, Nate abruptly feels a sharp, unexpected pang. Command loneliness, he thinks, and has to quickly squash the thought before he descends into self-pity.
He's already fallen back into the swing of the work when Brad slips in and sits in Encino Man's chair. He doesn't say anything, just cleans his gun while Nate types, but it's more pleasant than before.
They're pushing hard up against the start date for voter registrations, and stress levels are rising inside and outside the base. TNI have started running more aggressive patrols around town, and one evening Rolling Stone gets roughed up by a group of soldiers when he's seen leaving the house of a known pro-independence activist. But when Encino Man registers the UN's official complaint about the matter, all he gets are shrugs.
Nate and Brad are examining the disused well at the back of the compound, trying to figure out whether the water's drinkable and how to get at it, when there's a gunshot from the front of the compound. Before Nate fully realises it they're running towards the sound, Brad pulling ahead with his gun in his hand.
Before they get to the road Brad stops abruptly and nearly clotheslines Nate as he flings out the hand that's not holding the gun. "Stay back," he orders sharply. But Nate can already see the blood streaking across the dusty blacktop like a bucket of spilled cherry-red paint, almost too bright to seem real. A cluster of Brimob paramilitary police are standing over a shape on the ground, their bodies blocking Nate's view, and when they see Nate and Brad looking they gesture angrily with their rifles. Brad takes a single step back, keeping the bulk of his body between Nate and the police. He's not aiming his gun, but he doesn't lower it, either.
Someone shoves past Nate, hurrying back towards the office. Nate distantly registers that it's Karim; he hadn't even noticed he'd been there all along.
All Nate can do is stare at the blood – more blood than he'd ever thought could come from a human body. He tries to process what he's feeling, but the fact that he can't really see the body – doesn't even know what happened – makes it seem abstract, like he's watching the news.
"Shit, dog." Espera's come up behind them, Rolling Stone in tow. Nate can hear the steady click of a shutter as Rolling Stone takes picture after picture.
"Reporter, do you want them to shoot you?" Brad says with some asperity. He doesn't take his eyes off the police. "Put down that goddamned camera."
After a few minutes a grey Hilux pickup pulls up. The police briskly load the body into the tray and jump in after it, then drive off. The blood on the road has been smeared into a darkening blotch that slowly expands to incorporate two fist-sized rocks and a single blue flip-flop.
When Nate goes looking for Karim to find out what happened, the only person in the elections section is one of the national staff, a girl named Benigna, who's silently compiling an electoral roll from a stack of church documents. Her twig-like body would seem almost prepubescent except for her neon-coloured high heels and tight colourful t-shirts, which she seems to wear in deliberate defiance of the dust-coloured poverty surrounding her. When Nate asks after Karim, she just shakes her head and says, "La iha."
Nate frowns. "Tell him to come see me when he comes back," he says.
He'd thought the death hadn't really affected him, but by the time Karim comes to see him several hours later, all he's managed to do in the interim is stare blankly at his computer screen. The inside of his brain has a muffled sort of emptiness, like someone's hollowed it out and repacked it with cotton wool.
"I'm leaving," Karim says peremptorily, his face closed and hard. The statement seems to have used up all his remaining words; all he does after that is shake his head, like something vital inside him has broken.
Karim's departure makes Choe leader of the elections unit. The next day Nate calls him over and says, "I got word this morning – the Secretary General's pushed the start of registrations back three weeks. The referendum's only gone back two weeks, though, so you have one less week to prepare after registrations close. I need to know: can you do it?"
"Can?" Choe looks at Nate and frowns. "If we have to, we have to." When Nate doesn't respond immediately, he turns to leave.
"Wait, Choe," Nate calls, scrambling to get his thoughts in order. It takes him a minute, and then he finally manages to ask, "What happened to Karim?"
Something in Choe's face changes almost imperceptibly. "Karim was in Račak with the OSCE earlier this year."
Nate stares blankly. "I don't know what either of those are."
Choe says, "Račak, Kosovo. Serbian police killed forty-five unarmed civilians. Karim was part of an unarmed observer mission there. He never spoke about it, and I never asked." Choe runs his hand along the edge of Nate's desk, looking down. "A couple of years ago I knew a guy in New York. He'd just come back from the border camps in Congo, after the Rwandan genocide. I worked with him for about a month. Then he went home one night and hanged himself. We found out the next day." He pauses, then looks up at Nate. "It's probably a good thing Karim left when he did."
The elections unit was already pulling fourteen-hour working days, and with Karim's departure it pushes up to eighteen- and twenty-hour ones. Tempers, especially Choe's, start to fray, and the national staff in the unit, Benigna, Ivo and João, bear the brunt of it. The three of them are struggling to learn as fast as they can, but the real problem is that they don't need people who can learn; they need people who already know. Sometimes when Nate's outside, the ringing in his ears still sounds faintly like Choe's yelling. Worse yet is when his dreams start to sound like it.
In response to Nate's slightly desperate call, Baucau sends over a Singaporean UN volunteer to help out. Despite the fact the ID around his neck labels him as Tang Kay Yew, he introduces himself as Kevin. Kevin is quiet and bespectacled, with the slight hunch of someone who spends too much time reading over a table – and his shining attribute, Nate thinks gratefully, is the fact that all he does is work. While the others still manage to find pockets of time throughout the day to socialise – smoking cigarettes, or just hanging around the rest area outside the main office building – Kevin just rushes around with his hands full of files, like some kind of serious-faced but slightly manic wind-up toy. The most prominent personal item stacked on his sleeping mat is a Bible. "One in every crowd," Espera mutters.
They're ready, but just barely, when voter registration begins mid-month. Brimob and TNI suddenly step up patrols in the area, ostensibly for protection, but more likely as a deterrent. The elections staff have transformed the front section of the main office building into a registration station, which compromises their existing space issues even further, and Nate's UNHCR staff and the three WFP staff get pushed out into one of the small satellite buildings without electricity or comms. Ray's forced to run thick bundles of cabling across the yard, despite the fact it creates a constant tripping hazard, and the corners of all the roofs start sprouting oddly biological-looking clusters of antennae and satellite dishes, like things that might grow under a log in the Everglades.
For Nate, who stays in the main office, it starts to feel a bit like working in a bus station: Timorese constantly filing in and out to register, shouted requests for files, and the inevitable group of young men who hang around trying to sell cigarettes. Some of the men hanging around have crewcuts and stare at Nate in an unpleasant, purposeful sort of way. Rolling Stone speculates that they're SGI, the Indonesian military intelligence unit, and Nate's uncomfortably aware of the openness of the office, the refugee files and communications systems on his desk.
But despite TNI's interest, the Timorese seem determined to register. By the end of the voter registration period they've registered a full third more Timorese than they'd expected, nearly every eligible adult in the district.
Ivo, one of the elections staff, comes to see Nate. He has a broad face that usually crinkles easily into a smile, revealing a large gap between his otherwise perfect front teeth, but now he looks worried. Choe and the elections staff have all been wearing pale blue vests to make themselves easily identifiable as UN officials, which is why Ivo's unhappy.
"It makes us targets," he says. "The militia will threaten my family if they see me working for the UN."
Nate presses his lips together. Despite the advertising they've done to try and bolster public perceptions of their neutrality, he knows it's had little effect. Ivo's right to be worried, but all Nate can do is relay the official instructions: Bravo base is to maintain a visible UN presence in the district until the referendum. "I'm assured security conditions in Manatuto will be maintained," he says, parroting a certainty he doesn't feel.
Ivo frowns, obviously unsatisfied, and Nate can't blame him.
Like the police and army, the militia have ramped up their activities with the start of registrations, and every time Nate drives through the town he sees more blackened houses. A major clash between the militia and a pro-independence group is brutally dispersed by the army, resulting in a handful of deaths – all from the pro-independence side – and Brimob institute checkpoints at each end of town, where they take it upon themselves to 're-educate' anyone who appears less than sufficiently enthusiastic about integration. More and more refugees begin turning up in the church courtyard, stretching UNHCR and WFP resources thin. The camp starts spilling out of the structure that Nate had carefully constructed for it in accordance with the handbook, until eventually there are no more clearly delineated blocks, no regulated space between the tents – nothing but families pressed uncomplainingly shoulder to shoulder on the hot concrete. Ivo's family moves in: his wife, parents, sisters and three small children.
With the increased numbers, feeding the IDPs is becoming a major issue. They can't truck in supplies fast enough, and the trucks feel nervous making the long run along the flat highway between Baucau and Manatuto. After the militia start systematically holding up every single vehicle travelling along the highway, the trucks stop coming altogether. Captain America moves them to an air supply program, where boxes of supplies are air-dropped onto the flat scrub area behind the compound. They get used to the sound of low-flying planes and the surreal sight of boxes floating down on hundreds of table-sized parachutes. Sometimes the parachutes don't open and the boxes explode on the ground, creating comet-tails of scattered bright yellow packages on the bare dirt. The camp's kids develop a Pavlovian reaction to the sound of the planes, running out barefoot into the field as the boxes drop.
The presence of children on the airdrop field makes Nate uneasy, but Captain America just scoffs dismissively when he mentions it. Nate knows it's bad management practice, but he goes behind Captain America's back anyway to quietly ask the WFP's national staff, Miguel and Geralda, to do what they can to keep the kids off the field. Geralda, who speaks perfect, Australian-accented English as a result of growing up in Melbourne, nods and translates for Miguel, and later Nate sees them shooing kids away as the boxes drop.
He'd thought the problem solved, except one afternoon when the plane goes over they hear a sudden shrieking wail, high and terrible. The sound hangs in the air like something visible, raising the hairs on Nate's arms, and within seconds it's joined by a chorus of screaming and yelling. It's coming from behind the compound, and even as he runs Nate has a sinking feeling of certainty. He pushes through the crowd that's forming around the edge of the field, seeing Issa's tall shape amongst the surreal scatter of boxes, yellow humrats and deflated parachutes on the salt-crusted dirt – and, as he gets closer – sees the top of Doc Bryan's bandana-clad head bent over a small shape. Nate thought he'd prepared himself for the worst, but he's somehow surprised to find himself still stunned with horror when he sees the bloodied little body. The kid's head has been split open, presumably by the sharp edge of the wooden crate that's now lying a few feet away half-disgorged of its contents.
The absolute useless stupidity of it all makes Nate shake with rage. "Where the fuck are Miguel and Geralda?" he shouts.
Issa says quietly, "Dave asked them to return inside to assist him with an inventory."
For a moment Nate finds himself about to bawl out Issa for letting some random called 'Dave' onto the compound, before he realises it's Captain America's name. His own emotional state seems completely mysterious; he finds he actually has no idea what reaction he's feeling at any given moment, or what's going to come out of his mouth if someone asks him something. His body is flushing hot and cold.
He goes inside the satellite building where WFP have set up. Captain America is humming at his desk. Nate doesn't give him a chance to stand up, just hauls him up out of his chair and throws him backwards, not trusting himself not to punch him in the mouth if they're any closer. He feels a vein beating in his forehead. "Never fucking contradict my orders again," he yells. Captain America stares at him, confused and alarmed. He doesn't have the faintest clue what Nate's talking about; hasn't heard or doesn't care or hasn't made the connection to the woman still wailing outside. Nate becomes vaguely aware of Brad hovering at his shoulder, but he's not sure whether Brad's ready to prevent him from killing Captain America with his bare hands, or to help him.
His primary urge is to smash Captain America's useless, uncomprehending face into the table, but a distant part of himself is aware enough to realise that nothing he can do will possibly fix the situation, make it right again. He stalks over to the main office, shaking, still followed by Brad, and prints off one of the UN's standard compensation forms. He thrusts it at Brad.
"Take it to her," he says, and his voice sounds cold and flat, like the knot in his chest is so large that it's managed to stop anything inside from leaking out. Brad looks at him wordlessly for a minute, and then goes.
Nate goes into the stinking, filthy toilet and cries for half an hour. When he comes out afterwards he mechanically completes an incident report and the woman's claim for compensation and sends them to Godfather. He doesn't know what he was expecting in return, but somehow it's more painful, more wrong to get a single line saying "Compensation approved", and to know that this obviously happens so much it isn't even worthy of further comment.
It isn't even the end of his problems with WFP, which he finds out on his next semi-regular visit to the MSF clinic. Doc Bryan and Doc Naresh have set themselves up in one of the satellite buildings, which is just a single concrete room connected to the generator by more of Ray's root-like tangle of cables. Medical supplies are packed tightly into every conceivable space, and instead of proper examination tables there are simply regular desks covered with clean sheets. The MSF clinic is the most consistently busy place of the entire compound, and Doc Bryan, Doc Naresh and the nurse, Alzira, move around each other in silent harmony that's almost telepathic. The sheer demand for medical services means each patient gets just a couple of minutes, and in some cases there's simply nothing they can do. The other day Doc Naresh had to turn away an old man with a huge bleeding tumour in his neck with nothing but a handful of painkillers, and later they heard he died on the fifteen-mile walk back home.
This time when Nate drops in he notices there's more than the normal amount of women holding weak children. Some already have IV lines stuck in their arms, held aloft by their mothers' hands or from crude poles made from sticks. When he goes inside, he finds Doc Bryan in an even worse mood than normal.
"Do you know what it is?" he says. "Fucking WFP humrats, that's what. These people have never eaten preservatives before, and now they're suddenly eating three meals a day of peanut butter and fucking jelly. Every single fucking kid in that camp has the shits, and half the adults, too. You know what isn't our problem yet, but will be if the entire camp stays knee-deep in shit?" He scowls. "Cholera, that's fucking what." The kid he's treating breaks into a weak cry and he says briskly but not unkindly, "Shh, alin," before turning back to Nate. "We need to switch them back to rice and beans or there'll be a lot more diarrhea deaths, and we're going to start to see water-borne diseases on the rise."
Nate says uselessly, "It's a supply line issue. They can't get food supplies to us by road anymore; that's why they've been airdropping." The death of the boy last week still hurts. He doesn't think he'll ever forget it – this death they caused, the one he's responsible for. The one that's different from the dozens of unremembered diarrhoea and malnutrition deaths that he reports back to Dili every day. "I can raise it with WFP."
"What's that grade-A piece of incompetent shit going to do, drop sacks of rice on top of children instead?" Doc Bryan asks. His hatred of Captain America has solidified into pure enmity since the kid's death. "God save us all from his fucking good intentions."
Perhaps echoing Doc Bryan's estimation of Captain America's abilities, the IDPs have taken their nutrition issues into their own hands by supplementing their diet of humrats with a mysterious preservative-free meat, which they eventually determine is dog when Ray sees one of the young boys luring one of the mangy street mutts into the compound with a leftover MRE, then two other boys bundling the squirming animal into a sack.
Nate's sitting outside with his paperwork balanced on one knee and a bowl of instant ramen on the other when Ray says casually, "Hey Espera, you ever eaten dog?"
Espera snorts. "What, you think because I'm Mexican I eat dog? That is some racist shit right there, motherfucker."
"I think because you're a Marine you probably eat anything," Ray says. "In fact, that MRE shit you eat, that 'chunked meat'? You ever wonder why the label isn't more specific? It tastes like ass, and it's the opinion of this UN employee that it's probably made from dog assholes."
Brad squeezes his MRE entrée until a glob of brown sludge extrudes from the open end of the packet, then sucks it into his mouth with a sound that's deliberately extra-disgusting. "I don't know what you're complaining about. I ate dog once when I was on libo in Taiwan, and it was perfectly delicious."
"Dude, anything in sweet and sour sauce is delicious. I mean fucking boiled dog, like they're eating over there, right now."
"You have to get over your cultural prejudices, Ray," Brad says severely. "You should respect the choices of people to eat whatever kind of shit they want. Timorese people probably think the idea of pumpkin pie is revolting."
Ray makes an O of horror with his mouth, as if to say he can't imagine anything so sacrilegious. "Hard as it is for me to imagine, Brad, even you must've been a small child once. Didn't you ever have a pet dog?"
Brad shrugs and takes another bite of his MRE. "Dogs are useless needy animals that crave human attention and affection."
"Oh my god," Ray yelps. "It all makes so much sense now – you're a motherfucking cat person."
"My parents had cats," Brad says, as if daring them to make something of it.
Espera laughs. "I guess then the question is, would you eat cat?"
"Cats aren't kosher," Brad says primly.
"I hate to be the one to tell this to the Jew," Ray says, "but neither is dog."
Brad grins. "Pork rib is the second-best MRE," he confides.
"Fuck." Ray groans plaintively. "What I'd give for a bacon Whopper right now." He looks down at the packet of rice crackers he's eating. "Smoked beef flavor – who the fuck these hajis think they're kidding? If for nothing else, we gotta to save the Timorese from a civilization that can't appreciate a good pork chop."
Nate laughs and heads back into the office to send their nightly databurst. When he goes to connect the satphone, though, all he gets are a series of clicks until he realises with surprise that it's already connected. He frowns and checks the display. The connected time is ticking over past four hours, and his heart stops in his mouth.
"Jeez, Nate," Encino Man says breezily, when Nate radios him about it. There are Indonesian voices and an acoustic guitar in the background; it sounds like he's settling in for the evening. "You have to stop worrying about the little things."
Nate has his head in his hands in frustration when Brad comes in. "Encino Man just made a three thousand dollar phone call," he tells Brad. He's not quite sure whether to laugh or cry.
Brad shakes his head in disgust. "What a fucking throwback. There's a reason Neanderthals died out in the face of human intellectual superiority. Charge it to him as a personal call."
Nate laughs sharply and digs his fingers in through his hair, which has grown out an inch or so since he last shaved it, and hears the tinge of hysterical despair in his voice. "Fuck, Brad. It's just one fucking thing after another."
"Nate," Brad says, and the sound of his name makes Nate look up in surprise. Brad's leaning forward, his face intent. "The first thing I learned in the military was that ninety percent of my chain of command are retarded incompetents. The only reason I'm still here is the existence of people like you, people I can trust to make the right decisions even when everything's being fucked by the idiots in charge." Brad looks at him hard, as if willing him to understand. "The universe is full of fucking stupidity. You can't change that, and you're not responsible for it." He pauses, then says simply, "We trust you, Nate. All you have to do is just keep leading us, and that's enough."
Adding insult to injury, when Nate checks his inbox he discovers Encino Man used his three thousand dollar phone call to send a credulous report of TNI's stated intention to withdraw all its special forces from East Timor, leaving behind only regular military detachments and police, "in order to ensure the security of the popular consultation process."
Rolling Stone scoffs when Nate tells him about it. "Encino Man believes whatever TNI tell him." He tells Nate he's seen Baucau-based Kopassus units 'leave' by ship, only to disembark again in Manatuto. "They're not withdrawing. They're not even just redistributing – they're building up. I've seen new units come in, ones I haven't seen before." His face hardens. "You hear those kids who went missing washed up the other night? They were full of 5.56 rounds. Half the weapons that are coming in with TNI are going straight to the militia, and they're even giving them night classes so they know how to use the damn things."
Nate feels a creeping sensation of dread. So far the militia have seemed content with property destruction and general intimidation tactics, but if they've been given the means of mass violence— He calls Brad over and briefs him on Rolling Stone's report. "I need to know if this is actually happening," he says. "Can you get a patrol out there without TNI finding out?"
Brad contemplates it for a moment, then nods and signals for Nate to follow. When they reach the parking lot Brad heads straight for Miguel's Honda Tiger, swings a leg over and tilts his head at Nate in the universal "get on" gesture.
Nate raises his eyebrows incredulously. "Wait, us? Now?"
Brad grins, says, "Live a little, Fick."
Nate shakes his head and settles behind Brad. The Tiger may be the biggest bike in Timor, but it's still small by Western standards and Nate finds himself wedged tightly against Brad's back. The road out there's rudely corrugated with shallow potholes, and Brad grunts and says, "Hang on." The Tiger doesn't have a back rail like the smaller Hondas, so Nate's forced to clamp his legs along the long stretch of Brad's thighs to keep his balance. He's wearing his usual cargo shorts, and he can feel the warmth of Brad's body against the bare skin on the inside of his knees.
The road's deserted, barely recognisable in the dark. There are no streetlights, and the only thing Nate can see outside the bike's headlight are people's porch lights: dim blueish points floating like will-o-the-wisps between the swathes of black emptiness where houses used to be. Now and then street mutts hurl themselves out the darkness and run alongside the bike, snapping at Nate's ankles with unsettling determination.
Brad slows as they approach the military base, turning off the headlight and pulling in to park behind a berm. Without speaking, he pulls Nate down onto the ground and leads him in a crawl to the top of the berm. The blinding floodlights in front of them illuminate the immediately recognisable red and white uniform of the militia: forty or fifty of them in rough formation. Armed soldiers in Army and Kopassus uniforms stroll casually around them, shouting instructions or encouragement, and after one particularly lengthy exhortation the entire group responds with a bloodcurdling scream that's loud enough to make the hairs stand up on Nate's arms.
Brad nudges Nate with his shoulder and points off to the side of the parade ground. Uniformed soldiers are unpacking crates from a truck, and as Nate watches one of the soldiers starts tossing assault rifles to a group of eagerly waiting militia.
Brad puts his mouth close to Nate's ear and breathes, "M-16s."
"Where do they get M-16s from?" Nate whispers back. It's oddly intimate to be whispering, which is something Nate vaguely associates with making out in movie theatres. He feels jumpy and weirdly energised, and he's not entirely sure it's from the novelty of playing covert reconnaissance in the middle of the night. Brad's shoulder is still pressing against his, warm and solid.
"America." Brad's voice, even at a whisper, is scathing. "The wonders of globalization."
"The US is a member of the UN, and it's still selling Indonesia fucking M-16s?" Nate has to struggle to keep his voice down to an outraged hiss.
He feels Brad shrug. "You think Americans are going to give up their cheap Nikes for the sake of a bunch of brown people on an island they've never even heard of?"
The bald truth of it makes Nate shake with a level of rage that surprises even himself, and when they get back to the base he calls Rolling Stone into the office. "Find me documentary evidence that TNI are arming the militia," he orders. "I don't care how you do it, just fucking get me something. Now."
The following day Nate's working at his desk when Brad comes and plants himself in front of him in that determined way that means he's not going to take no for an answer. "Get up. We're going."
"What? Where?" Nate protests weakly, but Brad fixes him with a look.
"The only time you've gotten out of that chair in the last twenty-four hours was when you passed out and fell onto the floor. You've slept about five hours in the last two days. You're taking a break. Sir."
He drags Nate outside. When Nate's eyes finally adjust he sees Ray, Garza and Espera in the jeep. All of them are shirtless, and Ray's wearing giant Elvis shades in gold frames. They whoop when they see him. "Brad, no girlfriends allowed!" Ray hollers from the passenger seat. "Especially not when they're our boss."
Brad responds by kicking Ray into the back seat, where he pouts and whines. Nate gets in and pushes the seat all the way back so he can stretch his legs, then twists around to grin at Ray. "Being the boss means shotgun privileges."
"Sure you don't mean being the girlfriend?" Ray says obnoxiously, and kicks the back of Nate's seat as they drive until he relents and moves it forward.
The beach is a ridiculously perfect strip of alabaster white sand with a few tall palms for relief from the blazing sun. They drive directly onto the sand and jump out, cursing and hopping as they pull on their boardshorts with the sand burning their feet. Nate catches a flash of Brad's pale legs and ass as he changes, and when Brad straightens up and glances over he thinks there's a moment when Brad's eyes stray over him in turn. He's not sure if he imagined it or not, but the thought puts a silly adolescent bounce in his step. Brad grins at him and runs to dive out into the shallow, body-temperature water, Nate hard on his heels. When Nate pulls up for air and looks back at the others horsing in the shallows, the only reminder that they're not on spring break is his own uneasy knowledge of bullet-filled bodies found floating in on the tide.
Brad calls out from ahead, "You Ivy Leaguers even know how to swim?" Waist-deep in water, looking back at Nate with the sun behind him, he's pure celluloid California: hair golden blond from the sun, skin browned evenly all over in the way Nate's never does. He has a swimmer's long body, muscles visible under his skin and tattoos. He grins at Nate and lifts a shoulder in invitation: race you.
Nate's a merely competent swimmer, and he's always had a slight dislike of deep water. But race adrenaline makes him feel giddy and vaguely invincible, and a burst of sheer determination gets him within a few arms lengths of Brad, close enough to get a spray of water in the face from Brad's kick. Brad gets to the buoy first, then turns and grabs Nate's arm as it's outstretched in a final stroke and hauls him in so they can both rest their elbows on the shelf. Brad's face is laughing and open, his hand staying loosely on Nate's shoulder, and as Nate looks at him he feels everything shift: all the respect and friendship and mild theoretical interest twisting into a sexual attraction so strong it whites out everything but the fact that Brad's a few inches from him, half-naked, touching him, and suddenly all he wants is the slick inside of Brad's mouth opening against his, Brad's body under his hands, Brad's hand around his cock. He wants it so hard he can almost see it happening, a mini-fantasy so real it's like a premonition.
He's still grappling with it, staring at Brad and seeing Brad watch him back, laughter replaced by an expression so focused and intense that Nate flushes hot with the realisation that Brad wants it too, when the guys in the shallows start hollering, their voices tinny over the distance. The moment breaks as Nate snaps his head around and sees Ray and Garza waving their arms over their heads, the message unmistakable.
"Fuck," Brad says and launches off the buoy, Nate a split second behind. This time when they hit the ground Nate's in the lead, Brad gaining as they run through the thigh-high shallows towards the beach. Espera's emerging from the jeep clutching his gun, his boardshorts still dripping water, and over his own splashing Nate hears Ray yelling something that eventually resolves itself into a single improbable word: crocodile.
Brad makes it onto the sand first and barks at Garza, "Please tell me he didn't fucking call us in for what I think he's saying."
"It's a motherfucking crocodile, sir," Garza says with breathless laughter. "Check it out."
They see Espera advancing cautiously through the palm trees towards what looks like a log reclining in a brackish depression. As Espera gets closer the log slowly lifts its head, and Nate whistles: it's a crocodile and it's huge, over fifteen feet long.
"Poke," Brad calls coolly, but Nate can tell he's amused. "Leave the wildlife alone."
Espera gives the crocodile a last longing glance, but complies. Ray jumps back in the jeep, blithely ignoring Brad's indignant, "Wipe your fucking feet, you illiterate piece of cocksucking trailer trash—" Even though Brad makes Ray get out and shake the sand off, it gets all through the jeep anyway. Ray babbles the whole way back to base and a cheerful scuffling match erupts between Espera and Garza, but Brad just ignores them and gives Nate a long inscrutable look. After a minute the corner of his mouth lifts into a private smile, and Nate has to shut his eyes for a minute at the realisation that it's an expression just for him.
The seawater has left tiny individual crystals of salt along the hairs on Nate's arms and legs. He rubs his forearm absently, feeling the unfamiliar texture beneath his fingers. His scalp itches. Given the numbers living on compound at the moment, though, they've been limiting bucket showers to once a day.
He looks up as Rolling Stone and Lino, the AP stringer, march up to his desk, probably having seen the jeep return from the beach. "Lino got these from a contact yesterday," Rolling Stone says without preamble, and drops a couple of pieces of paper in front of Nate.
Nate's sun-giddiness bursts abruptly as he scans each of their faces. Lino looks worried, and Rolling Stone has a mulish set to his unshaven jaw. Nate glances down; the documents are in Indonesian, photocopies. One looks like a report, the other is a list. Both are stamped and signed.
"Talk to me," he directs.
"Bumihangus," says Lino, whose English is usually excellent, then clams up. The worried furrow between his brows increases.
Nate frowns in incomprehension.
"Indonesia's planning a scorched earth campaign. If they lose they're going to burn the whole fucking country to the ground," Rolling Stone says bluntly. "There'll be nothing left to be independent."
Nate's stomach sinks. "You're sure? You're sure that's what these say?" He realises he's babbling, repeating himself like fucking Encino Man.
Rolling Stone looks at him earnestly. "This is the proof we need. All the UN has to do is something, fucking anything, to stop what we already know's going to happen here."
"Get me a translation asap," he orders, feeling cautious hope. This is concrete evidence, and the act of sending it places it on the permanent record. If anything at all is going to force the SRSG and Godfather to act, this is it.
Brad's more pessimistic when Nate tells him about the documents. "None of this is even about East Timor," he says. "You think any of those countries out there give a fuck about the Timorese? They're too worried about bilateral trade, domestic politics, the global balance of power. None of them really wanted to have the referendum in the first place. And if the shit hits the fan, they'll be happy to give Indonesia a slap on the wrist and let Timor burn."
And Brad, of course, is right. Godfather's reply, dry and uncompromising, reminds Nate in no uncertain terms of the limits of the UNAMET mandate. For ten minutes, all he can do is stare at the screen in bitter betrayal and disappointment. Then he goes and hunts down Encino Man; finds him asleep under his Landcruiser.
"Schwetje," Nate says harshly, kicking the ground near Encino Man's head.
"Wha—?" Encino Man looks at him blearily and sits up. "Nate?"
Nate crouches next to him. "TNI are arming the militias. I need you to do your fucking job. We can't stop them, but you have to report it – we have to make sure they know we're watching, that they know they can't get away with this."
"Look," Nate hisses, and shoves the documents at Encino Man's chest. "And so help me, if you say they're not arming them, I'm going to have you kicked off this fucking island with the guarantee you'll be a Captain the rest of your career."
He stalks off without waiting for a response.
"Feel better?" Across the compound, Brad is leaning against the hood of the jeep. His face doesn't give anything away.
"Yes. No." The emotions are seeping out of Nate, leaving tiredness in their wake. "They know," he tells Brad helplessly. "Godfather. The SRSG. New York. They know and they won't do anything."
Brad is quiet. He takes a pull on his cigarette, the tip glowing red in the darkness, and hands it to Nate. Their fingertips brush lightly before Brad draws his hand back. Even the brief contact makes Nate's stomach tighten, his skin feel like it's lit from underneath.
He realises he's always felt an attraction to Brad, though it's something he's always automatically pushed it back down, never consciously registered. Today at the beach has made it real – made it into something between them that aches for attention. But they can't. The reasons pile up unbidden in Nate's mind: they work together, there are too many other things happening, it's not what they're here for, Brad is a Marine. And maybe it's because of all that, Nate thinks. The stress and the intimacy of the situation bringing all the inappropriateness to the surface. In any other time or place he has no idea what he'd have in common with sarcastic, loner Brad, a tattooed grunt who likes technology and fast bikes. But the fact that it's only happening because of the situation doesn't make it any less real, he thinks, just as the fact he never intended to be running a 23-person UN office in a tiny half-island on the other side of the world doesn't make that not real, either. Doesn't change the fact it's already become something he can't imagine not doing.
Nate lets the smoke fills his lungs, hot and acrid, and breathes it out in a sigh. "What are we even doing here, Brad?"
He hadn't intended it as a real question, and Brad doesn't reply. They lean against the hood of the jeep, elbow to elbow, and pass the cigarette back and forth until it's gone.
The referendum gets delayed again, this time to August 30. It's another week of breathing room for them to prepare, but they all know that with each delay there's a bigger chance it might not happen at all. Elsewhere in East Timor the other regional offices are struggling. Juliet base, the regional office in the border town of Maliana, is attacked by militia from the neighbouring province and its staff temporarily evacuated, and two national elections staff from Hotel base in the coffee highlands are kidnapped on the way home from work, killed, and their bodies dumped in the town marketplace. A warning.
Nate's shortwave radio is tuned permanently to the BBC. …In a speech today in East Timor's capital of Dili, the leader of the feared Aitarak militia group promised to a crowd of tens of thousands of fellow pro-integrationists that he would turn the city into a 'sea of fire' if Timorese rejected the option of integration in the upcoming referendum…
Foreign attention on East Timor is increasing, and Rolling Stone's started freelancing for a handful of regional newspapers and radio stations. He and Lino are constantly filing reports by cellphone to Sydney, Jakarta, Bangkok, and occasionally Nate hears Rolling Stone's voice on VOA.
Right before campaigning starts mid-month, a pair of Indonesian military intelligence officers from SGI drift into the office, and Nate recognises them as the same crewcut guys in civilian clothes who were hanging around during registrations.
"You should be careful of the militia, Mr Nate," one of them says, meeting Brad's scowl with an equally unpleasant look. The M-16 slung over his shoulder is so new it still gleams with a factory finish. The threat is perfectly clear, and Nate doesn't even bother pretending not to get it, just glares at them icily until Espera arrives to usher them out.
The umbrella group for the pro-independence movement, CNRT, sets up its campaign headquarters down the road from Bravo base, a move that's clearly designed to leverage off public opinion about the UN's sympathies. Nate fumes, but there's nothing he can do except order the elections unit to post more of the flyers that didn't even work the first time. As the month wears on the town swells with earnest Timorese college students returning from Indonesia, Australia and Portugal to door-knock for CNRT, the braver ones wearing t-shirts screenprinted with the solemn face of resistance leader Xanana Gusmão.
The militia are quiet for the first few days, and then they start their own 'campaign': a brutal series of episodes that leaves a long line of battered young Timorese outside the clinic. Ten days before the referendum the militia finally torch CNRT's campaign headquarters. There's a conspicuous absence of sirens as the building burns and collapses into itself, and even hours later Nate can still see the flickering glow through the window next to his desk. Choe and Doc Bryan in particular take the militia activities almost personally, but all Nate can do is shake his head in the face of their anger – there's nothing they can do to assist the pro-independence groups without further compromising their already thin neutrality.
The flow of IDPs into the church courtyard increases even further, and for the first time they notice a counterbalancing flood of people fleeing into the stark hill country to the south.
"Hey, dumbasses! The free food's this way!" Ray yells out after them, but when Nate mulls it over during one of his increasingly frequent bouts of insomnia, he comes to the grim conclusion that maybe those who are leaving are the smartest of them all.
Campaigning finishes and they enter the brief cooling off period before the referendum itself. The entire town enters a tense state that feels like a collectively held breath, but the militia are mercifully quiet. All of them are aware of time ticking down to a great unknown. "D-Day," Brad says, unsmiling.
When Nate calls Godfather to ask about contingency plans, he just gets a raspy laugh. "What do you think this is gonna be, Fick, Pearl fucking Harbor?"
Brad frowns when Nate relays the response. "The person who trusts someone else to make the contingency plan is the person who ends up dead," he says, like he's quoting some kind of military maxim. He procures a large piece of paper and draws an outline of the compound on it, circling the vulnerable points of each building. Driving times and distances to the evacuation points go in a matrix – police station, beach, Baucau airfield, Dili airfield – along with a neat list of all their available equipment: seven Landcruisers, one jeep, razor wire to construct a temporary fence around the compound, two Beretta M-9 pistols, 9mm ammo, chem lights to mark emergency night landing zones. Brad directs Nate to tell everyone to leave the keys in the vehicles at all times and to keep the gas tanks full; enlists Espera, Issa and Garza to fill empty rice sacks with dirt and stack them around the doors and windows; and instructs everyone to keep their flak jackets and helmets within reach at all times. Ray is dispatched with a elastic-wrapped brick of rupiah to buy as many radio batteries as he can find.
Brad and Nate spend their nights working over the compound's defences, endlessly refining Brad's evacuation plan, taking inventories. With the current numbers of staff, IDPs and supplies, they estimate they can hold out for up to a month. All the planning makes Nate irrationally paranoid, as if by preparing for the worst-case scenario they're somehow wishing it into existence.
"Christ, you're as bad as my mom and dad before their divorce," Ray complains. "All these mysterious fucking hush-hush conversations, trying not to scare the kids. The only thing that's missing is the arguments and the make-up sex. Unless that is happening, in which case—" he pauses, working through whatever the Person equivalent of logic is, then yelps, "Hey, I sleep in that office."
"Please, Ray." Brad deigns to look up from the inventory he's cross-checking. "Like you'd even notice another comestain on that disgusting atrocity of public hygiene you voluntarily spend six hours a day in."
Ray squawks, but when Brad flicks Nate a sideways glance there's something more complicated than laughter on his face.
"You have a spare hour." Brad appears in front of Nate's desk. The late afternoon sun's slanting in the window from the side, and blinking tiredly, all Nate can really make out is his familiar silhouette.
Brad just inclines his head towards the door, and Nate sighs and follows him obediently into the jeep. Brad drives them out to a deserted area near the beach and gets out, pulling his M-9 from its holster. He thrusts it at Nate. "Here."
Nate stares down at the gun in his hand. It's surprisingly heavy, still faintly warm from Brad's body. "The mandate explicitly disallows UN officials from carrying or using weapons," he points out, even though he knows Brad knows.
Brad just looks at him, holding it long enough that Nate feels a telltale warmth rising up his neck, then says, "I'd rather have you cynical and alive than idealistic and fucking dead."
Learning to use the M-9 apparently involves shooting at a line of tin cans set up on a log, which is such a hick pastime that Nate has to grin – until he shoots and misses every single can, which pisses him off. Everything about the gun feels strangely awkward: the not-quite-right shape of it, the hard kick of the recoil – and, even more surprisingly, it's fucking hard. But Nate's never failed at anything before in his whole damn life, and he's not going to start now. He grits his teeth, trying to focus on consistency rather than gut feel. Squeezing the trigger at exactly the same point at the end of an exhale; keeping his shoulders relaxed and held just so. There's a grim satisfaction when the cans start to go down, one after the other, even as he tries to tell himself it's all academic: he'll never use a gun; he's not allowed to use a gun. And when he finally scores perfectly at the end of their fourth session and looks at Brad in triumph, Brad's regarding him with an odd look, as if he's not quite sure what to think.
It's a guilty secret between them, the fact they're breaking regulations every time Brad hands Nate his gun. But, Nate realises with dismay, there's no such thing as sneaking off base when it's your base, and whenever Ray sees them leave or arrive together he whistles and yells in a falsetto mockery of the phrase the Marines use as a kind of verbal swagger, "Get some!"
Brad just laughs, secure in his unshakeable alpha male position at the top of the compound's security hierarchy. "I know you're jealous, Ray, but even if yours was the last little bitch asshole in the world, I wouldn't risk exposing my dick to all your filthy liberal diseases."
"My liberal diseases?" Ray hollers, outraged. "What about his?"
"Don't let his liberal arts humanitarian do-gooder appearance fool you," Brad lectures. "Our boss is a card-carrying Republican, like all good Americans serving the nation's interests overseas should be."
Nate shakes his head, half amused at Brad defending his Republican honour, and half contemplative. About ninety percent of the banter flung around between the other Americans consists of a wild mix of homoerotic innuendo and homophobic insults, but Brad seems to have dictated that Nate's off-limits – and not, Nate thinks, because Brad's afraid of offending him per se, but because it's too close to the reality of the unspoken tension between them, even if couched as a joke. And the truth is that Nate does want Ray's casually obscene speculations to be true – wishes that their sessions off-compound actually were spent flirting outrageously under the guise of learning to shoot, Brad standing behind Nate to sight over his shoulder, Brad's hands straying from guiding Nate's arms to slide down to take hold of his hips and pull their bodies together, mouthing the curve of Nate's neck, pressing his erection against Nate's ass through their clothes. Wishes that after training sessions they fucked in the back of the jeep, or that Brad went down on his knees to suck Nate's cock, Nate sitting sideways in the passenger seat with his thighs sprawled wide around Brad's broad shoulders and his fingers clutching the curve of Brad's head through his short blond hair.
But that's not how it is. Nate's learning out of necessity, not entertainment. He's strained something in his shoulder and there's a constant dull ache in his right ear. Brad keeps his hands to himself as he instructs Nate's technique, and pointedly doesn't look as Nate strips off his sweaty t-shirt as they drive back to the compound.
Espera, unsurprisingly, knows about the lessons. "If ever there was a perfect fucking Marine, the Iceman's up there with 'em," he tells Nate, dunking his razor in the bucket. "He lives for the kind of abuse that makes most Devil Dogs run back to their momma's titties. Half the time I think he's doing it for himself, man versus world, lone fucking wolf kind of shit, you know? But the other half the time it's like he's just proving he's the hardest motherfucker out there, and we may as well spend our time trying to suck our own dicks rather than catch up." He tilts his head to shave under his jaw, and says indistinctly: "Brad teaches you to shoot, ain't no doubt you'll end up a better aim and more of a cold-blooded killer than most trained grunts."
Something about Espera's description of Brad makes Nate thoughtful. He's never really thought about what it would be like to be gay in the military, but now it occurs to him that if you were gay, perhaps you'd have to be so good at what you did – so much the perfect Marine – that it would never even occur to anyone to think you might be different. He knows he's stretching the boundaries with Espera when, later, he fake-casually asks him if Brad's got some nice Jewish girl waiting for him back in California, or maybe a hot surfer babe who rides Yamahas. But Espera looks at him with a discomfiting gleam in his eye that says he knows exactly what Nate's getting at, and just says, "Not everyone in the military thinks like me, sir. And sure as hell they don't think like you. So I want to clarify, what exactly are you asking me?"
Nate figures that's answer enough, especially from Espera. But he never raises it with Brad, and he tries to pretend his entire body doesn't ache from suppressed wanting when Brad leans close or rearranges his hands on the gun.
The line starts forming before sunrise on referendum day. The Timorese filing into the compound are all dressed in their Sunday best, even those who walked all night to get there: little girls barefoot in frilly white dresses, men in polyester suits. Despite the number of people, the line is hushed and tense. Women are carrying folded bedding on their heads, their smaller children on their hips, ready to flee again as soon as they've voted. Inside the eviscerated main office Choe has pressed every national staff member, even Alzira the nurse, into manning a table with an electoral roll and ballot box.
Nate's eating from a roll of Charms candies in lieu of breakfast as he triages the inevitable last-minute chaos: sending vehicles out for replacement equipment; directing Meesh to get the compound IDPs out of the way of the voters unless they're joining them; calling PLN, the national electricity provider, to beg prioritised power to their quadrant. Boxes of water and high-protein crackers go to the doctors to hand out to the voters who are worse for wear. His radio crackles constantly: Espera and Issa sending each other security updates from opposite ends of the line, Choe radioing Kevin for random items, Ray's wild paranoid ranting about PLN deliberately trying to fry all his equipment with power surges. At the back of the office Garza is guarding the filled ballot boxes, archive-sized plastic containers with the light blue UN logo on the side. The boxes seem ridiculously small and vulnerable to be the outcome of years of international negotiation and outcry, of Timorese pain and suffering. All their own months of hard work represented in nothing but thousands of individual pieces of paper.
The fear amongst the Timorese is palpable. They vote silently, expressionlessly, punching a pencil through the card with its two choices: "Do you accept the proposed autonomy for East Timor within the Unitary State of the Republic of Indonesia?" and "Do you reject the proposed special autonomy for East Timor, leading to East Timor's separation from Indonesia?" The wording is Indonesia's choice, and deliberately misleading: the Timorese have to reject the proposal to vote for independence. Worried, Nate asks an old woman via Meesh if she knows what the two sides mean.
Meesh says dismissively, "Woman this old, she can't read," but when he relays the question, the woman points at Accept Autonomy and says, "Indonesia," with a toothless gummy smile, and spits into the dirt.
Brad comes up with a clipboard. "Three thousand, eight hundred and forty done at this polling station so far," he says. They're working at maximum speed through the approximately seven thousand eligible voters in Manatuto. The remote polling stations in each of the four subdistricts, staffed by small teams of mainly Australian UN volunteers, are handling the other seventy-five percent of the district's population. Nate eats a Charm as Brad reads updates from the subdistricts: Laleia, Laclubar, Soibada, Barique. Mid-sentence, Brad's eyes drift from the clipboard to track the movement of Nate's hand up to his mouth. Nate watches Brad watch his mouth, a flicker of warmth curling in his stomach despite his fatigue, and then Brad jerks and says abruptly, "Are you eating Charms?"
He snatches the package from Nate's hand and stands holding it like he's torn between simply throwing it away or something more dire, like viciously grinding it into the dirt underneath his boot.
Nate blinks and says, "Espera doesn't like them?"
"Espera gave these to you?" Brad fumes.
Nate bemusedly watches as Brad gets on the radio and barks, "Espera, did you give the head of Bravo base a package of Charms on fucking referendum day?"
There's a staticky pause, then Espera says, "Chill, Iceman. He's a civilian, it don't count. And he said he was hungry."
Brad snaps, "Don't mess with forces you don't understand, Poke."
He turns back to Nate and holds the packet of Charms in front of him instructively. "Charms have been bad luck to Marines since Guadalcanal. Never, ever eat Charms from an MRE. Every Marine is taught from basic training to throw Charms out, untouched. Even just breaking the seal is pushing your luck."
"Then why are they still in MREs?"
Brad frowns. "Does the supply of field rations to Marines look like an exercise in normal market forces to you? Half the calories in an MRE are already sugar. Given the tastes of young servicemen these days, if we let them choose the contents, we'd be marching on nothing but Pop-tarts and peanut butter cups. The health of Americans these days is appalling enough as it is, without extending that unhealthiness to the armed forces," he lectures.
Nate grins – it's hard not to, in the face of Brad's rants.
"I only ate a couple," he offers.
"What color," Brad says immediately.
Nate thinks. "Red?"
Brad's face falls. "Red is the worst color, Nate," he says darkly, and stalks off.
Throughout the day the UNVs in the remote polling stations radio in with updates, and the numbers on Brad's clipboard climb steadily until, amazingly, 98% of all registered people in the district have voted. The last voters trickle through their compound in late afternoon, hours ahead of schedule, and by the time dark falls the streets are deserted. The day ends without incident, which they later find is the case for all the UN regional offices except Kilo base on the south coast, which was forced to close after being attacked with rocks, and Hotel base, which lost another national staff member to a militia murder.
Nate feels slightly foolish that he worried so much, but not foolish enough that he's not still worried. The announcement of the result is scheduled for September 6, a week away, and he's conscious that it's that, rather than the referendum itself, that could be the real flashpoint. But there's nothing to do but wait.
The days immediately after the referendum have an eggshell quality, a peace so fragile that it seems impossible it's even lasted this long. As if anticipating either the result or an explosion of violence – or both – all the Indonesian business owners pack up and move out, leaving closed shops. ("Like rats from a sinking ship," says Espera, with a harsher note of bitterness than usual.) Nate's glad Brad had the foresight to increase their emergency stockpiles of dried noodles and bottled water, and thanks to Ray's diligent hoarding they're sitting on top of what must be eastern Timor's entire annual supply of radio batteries. On the BBC they hear the SRSG saying, "Up to now the assessment is that a peacekeeping force is not necessary; this has been proven by events."
In Dili, the international observers and journalists have already left. The UN bases closest to the border are being attacked one after the other: Juliet in Maliana and Kilo in Suai, and at Foxtrot in Liquiça a Bulgarian CivPol officer is shot in the stomach. Their own national staff have started receiving death threats.
Brad and Nate start running again in the evenings. The town feels wrong, teetering on the cusp of something unknown: businesses shuttered, market stalls deserted, the few remaining pedestrians avoiding eye contact when they run past. Afterwards, lying on the worn grass near the foreshore, Nate watches the palm trees swaying overhead against the Crayola stormclouds and grasps at the illusion: they're in Mexico, the Caribbean, they're anywhere but here. Brad is breathing beside him, a single handspan away that Nate could bridge with a touch. And Brad would let him; Nate knows this. Brad would let him stroke his hand down to the bare skin where his t-shirt has crept out of the waist of his shorts; would let Nate roll over to close the distance between them, and turn his head to meet Nate halfway. And maybe if they were any two other people, if this were any other place – if the illusion that they were somewhere else was real – Nate would.
But even though he stares hard enough at the sky that his vision swims with grey dots, they're still in East Timor.
The phone rings before dawn on September 4, two days before the scheduled announcement date, to inform Nate that the announcement is being pushed forwards.
"To when?" Nate asks blearily. He looks at his watch: the face glows 0300.
"Nine am. Today. You should start informing staff immediately."
Nate stifles the first response that springs to mind, and then the second one, and decides it's better if he just hangs up. He goes to the jeep and rolls underneath until he's lying next to Brad. In the faint ambient light from the compound perimeter he can just make out Brad as a dark still shape, his breathing soft and regular. Nate lies quietly for a minute. This is it, today, the moment they've been waiting for.
"Sir." Brad doesn't open his eyes. "As much as I flatter myself that you've come to watch me sleep, I'm sure there's probably some pressing operational reason."
"It's D-Day," Nate says.
"D-Day isn't for another two days."
"I guess it's whenever they say it is." Neither of them move for a minute. Eventually, feeling daring in the dark, Nate reaches out and squeezes Brad's shoulder. "We need to start getting ready."
"Yeah." But Brad doesn't move, and neither does Nate. Nate's conscious of wanting to stretch out the moment, to savour the warmth and intimacy of it, and it takes longer than it should before he finally groans and rolls himself away.
He stands up and bangs the flat of his hand on the side of the jeep, provoking half-conscious grumbles from Rolling Stone and Espera. "Rise and shine, gents. Today we find out what we've been working for."
The international staff absorb the news with frowns. The national staff look terrified.
"Why would they move it forward?" Ray asks. "I might've failed third grade twice 'cause I was distracted by my homeroom teacher's sweet rack, but even I know that doesn't make any sense."
The pre-dawn darkness turns into a blue and gold Timorese sunrise, streaked with high-up streamers of white cloud. In the parking lot Kevin is holding a prayer session with some of the national staff, all of them sitting cross-legged in the dirt with their hands joined. Nate finds himself pondering them ambivalently. His own Catholicism seems a long way away, something he left behind even before college, but for a moment he feels a sharp stab of envy for the easy comfort they seem to be getting. His own responsibility is for twenty-two lives other than his own – no one to else to turn to, nobody to magically come and save them – and suddenly he feels tired.
He's still standing there when Brad comes up behind him and snorts. "Jesus. If they prayed to their fucking sacred crocodile, at least it might eat a couple of the hajis when they come up the beaches and try and kill us all."
Nate feels a surge of irritation. In his peripheral vision he sees Brad look surprised and a little bit hurt as he abruptly walks away, but the last thing he wants right now is to see Brad's scornful face as he fumblingly tries to explain his own yearning for something he doesn't even believe in anymore.
Ray sets the shortwave radio up in front of the main office building and switches to the UNAMET channel. The IDPs from the church and within the compound have already formed a silent crowd, and Nate feels his unease grow when he sees uniformed figures pressed in amongst them: TNI. Espera, Issa and Garza are stationed at equally-spaced intervals around the compound, and Nate sees their eyes flicking to the soldiers, then returning to scan the crowd.
Brad diffidently wanders up to stand next to Nate at the front. He has a slightly apologetic air. His shoulder touches Nate's as they stand quietly together, and Nate feels a warmth seeping through him. This is his comfort, he thinks: Brad's solidness and understanding, his presence the silent assurance that even though Nate's the one leading them, he's not alone.
As they wait, Nate realises that what he'd been certain of – independence – is something he's suddenly not so sure about. He's completely lacking a single gut feeling about what's going to happen next: the result, the reaction of the crowd, the reaction of the Indonesians. It makes him feel woozy, unbalanced. An UNAMET woman with an Asian accent he can't identify says, "The Special Representative of the Secretary General to announce the result of the Popular Consultation for Independence," and he takes a deep breath.
"I am making this announcement concurrently with the Secretary General of the United Nations, who is speaking from New York," says the SRSG in his precise British voice. "I will therefore not dwell on preliminaries. The result of the Popular Consultation for the Independence of East Timor is – seventy-eight percent for independence."
The crowd's silence continues as a translator repeats the statement in Portuguese, Tetum, Indonesian, and then there's a low murmur. Nate feels numb, like he's not quite sure what he's feeling. He glances at Brad, who meets his eyes expressionlessly, then back at the national staff, who are looking at their feet. Alécio's face is a contorted mess of emotions that Nate can't even attempt to put a name to. As he looks further back he sees that Timorese throughout the crowd, men and women both, are crying silently, the tears streaming down their cheeks. Most of them are hastily dabbing at their faces, and at first Nate thinks they're embarrassed – until with a start he remembers the Indonesian soldiers. But when he scans the compound for the familiar uniforms, they're gone.
On the radio the SRSG says, "After twenty-four years of conflict, East Timor now stands on the threshold of what we all hope will be a process of orderly and peaceful transition towards independence. The coming days, however, will require patience and calm from the people of East Timor. I hardly need to stress how important it is for its leaders to exercise wisdom and reason."
There's an uneasy mutter, and the crowd starts dispersing. When Nate gets back to his desk, still feeling dazed, his own phone's already ringing.
"All non-humanitarian staff are to be packed in anticipation of return to Dili," Godfather tells him, as soon as he picks up. "A convoy will be travelling from Baucau within the next four hours."
Nate blinks, stunned. "Is there anything I need to be aware of – sir, is there an identified threat to this base?"
"Don't be such a paranoid fucker, Nate," Godfather says, and rasps out a laugh that makes Nate think of a grinning death's head. "Now round up your men so they can go home."
Frowning, Nate calls the international staff into the main office for a meeting. "Choe, Kevin, Ray. Your mission is done; you're heading home."
There's a burst of surprised sound, and Choe says, "When?"
Nate looks at his watch. "Less than four hours, gents. Start packing."
"Sir," Doc Bryan says slowly. "Is the rest of the UN presence remaining in place? We should consider what impression we'll be giving if we institute a wholesale withdrawal."
Nate nods at Doc Bryan. "I can confirm that the humanitarian agencies and security detachments will be staying in Manatuto until further notice. Straight from the horse's mouth in Dili." He looks over at Encino Man. "Craig, what was the reaction like today over at TNI?"
Encino Man's eyebrows beetle together. "They were, uh, disappointed I guess? But they said they would uphold the result." Nate stares hard at him, but Encino Man just shrugs. "They promised."
Nate gives up and looks away. "I have no specific information that we'll be the target of any directed attacks, but remaining staff please stay in the compound, keep away from the windows and exercise common sense when walking near the perimeter. The last thing I want is one of us getting hit on the head with a rock when we're on the home stretch." He nods at them in dismissal, and Espera says quietly, "Hoo-rah, sir."
Choe, Ray and Kevin pack quickly. Nate finds Ray and asks for his remaining cigarettes; he has the uneasy feeling he might need bribes, and Indonesians are chain-smokers. Ray is uncharacteristically silent, mouth tight and unhappy, and forks over two packets and a mainly used one. He meets Nate's eyes with a flat expression and wordlessly goes back to packing.
The convoy arrives in the afternoon and takes the three of them away without fanfare. Once they've gone, the office feels strange: there's a pile of discarded gear on one of the empty desks, and it's quiet without Ray's motormouth. Benigna, Ivo and João are still milling around awkwardly, having effectively been abandoned. Eventually they slink away without saying goodbye. Later Nate hears Benigna has gone to the hills in a deliberate attempt to distance herself from the UN, and João has fled across the border to West Timor with some other pro-integration families.
When night starts falling, Nate gathers everyone around again. "While things are calm now, we need to stay alert to what may become a quickly changing security situation," he says. "I need all of you to share information about what's happening, what threats we might be facing over the next few days as everyone comes to terms with the result." He orders another thorough check of the generator and supplies, and asks Brad and Espera to string up the razor wire around the compound: a deterrent rather than an impenetrable barrier. "Space is tight, but everyone should sleep inside tonight, and I want the vehicles parked near the main building and well away from the road. National staff, feel free to stay the night if you don't feel safe travelling home in the dark. As of tonight I'm raising the threat level to Delta, so please all act accordingly until advised otherwise."
In the background Nate can hear Encino Man pontificating: the army and police will keep any trouble in check; Nate doesn't have permission to raise the threat level without consultation with Dili. But, Nate notes without any particular feeling of satisfaction, nobody is even bothering to listen to him anymore.
After the briefing Nate grabs Rolling Stone and drags him to the perimeter, where POLRI's two token police officers are desultorily standing guard. Nate hands them Ray's cigarettes and tries his best to chat with them in his crappy Indonesian, while Rolling Stone gives his eager, puppyish grin and nods along. Nate and Rolling Stone exchange glances. It's all a calculated strategy: make them think of us as people, too.
Both the police are nervous, jittery. One, a stocky dark-skinned Ambonese who says his name is Augustinus, looks more like a Timorese than he does the round-faced and light-skinned Javanese who make up the bulk of the Indonesian security forces. "If they want to be independent, let them," he says. He has a slow, heavy-sounding accent that makes him easy to understand. "I don't care if they are, and I don't care if they aren't. But at least this way I get to go home."
There's no guarantee that making friends with the police will convince them to stick around if the militia attack, Nate thinks, unreassured. But at least they tried.
It's about an hour past nightfall when they hear the first explosions and gunfire – distant, but unmistakable. Nate has stopped writing to listen, Brad alert next to him, when Captain America bursts into the room.
"There's a massacre happening out the front!" he screams wildly. Veins are popping in his pink, piggish-looking face, and his eyes roam from Brad to Nate and back again. "Do something! Save us!"
Nate and Brad share a look and go and join Espera and Issa at the front of the compound. The street's empty and dark, although there's a distant popping like fireworks, punctuated occasionally by a louder boom. The Indonesian police are still there, clasping their weapons nervously. They all wait uneasily. Nate gradually becomes aware he's been subconsciously trying and failing to find a pattern in the sounds. It's the randomness that's the most unsettling thing, he thinks. Not knowing where it's going to come from next. As he's pondering this, there's a particularly large explosion in the eastern sector of the town that makes them all jump, and a flare of yellow bursts up into the sky for a few seconds, washing out the landscape. The explosion is large enough that Nate's sore right ear buzzes, and before he can wonder enough to ask, Brad says tightly, "Gas station."
Nate's stomach sinks. The vehicles' tanks are all full and they have stockpiles of diesel, but if the substation gets taken out and they're forced to switch to the generator, their fuel stores aren't going to last long. Frowning, he goes back inside and radios Dili for an update. The radio operator tells him there's been sporadic violence in Dili, but both the UN compound and the adjoining Red Cross compound are both still secure. The last remaining non-UN internationals are heading out at their parent countries' urging. But despite pressing for more information, the exact details of what's happening across the province are frustratingly vague. Either nobody in Dili really knows the full extent of the situation, or they aren't telling – and as Nate hangs up, he finds himself wondering unhappily which is worse.
It's an uneasy night, but the gas station explosion seems to have been the pinnacle of whatever the militia were doing. Nate gives up on sleep and just listens to the radio, hoping for something about Indonesia's response to the result, but the only news is about the joyous reactions of the Timorese diaspora on the other side of the world, places Nate doesn't even recognise the names of: Luanda, Maputo, Bissau.
In the morning the POLRI guys are gone. Just a pile of cigarette butts and an empty Marlboro Red packet where they'd been.
"Morning, Bravo," says Charlie base's radio operator. "Keep your eyes peeled for something a wee bit strange coming past in the next couple of hours. We've had reports of dozens of trucks heading west, all packed with people."
"Pro-integration families?" Nate says, frowning.
"Negative. Information's still sketchy, but seems they're forced deportations. We've had a lot of property destruction in a certain city sectors over the last 24. Preliminary advice is that militia are systematically torching houses and loading occupants onto trucks at gunpoint."
With a surge of dread, Nate remembers Lino's TNI planning documents. "Thanks for the heads-up, Charlie. We'll keep you posted with developments from our end."
"Cheers, Bravo. Stay safe. Over and out."
It doesn't take long before a seemingly endless line of trucks starts rolling past: large yellow tray-tops with thirty or forty people packed in like cattle amongst piles of their belongings. Nate sees a small miserable-looking pig tied to the front grill of one of the trucks; a goat suspended in a sling off the side of another. He, Brad and Espera watch silently from the front of the compound. The people in the trucks don't meet their eyes. Occasionally a baby wails, only to be shushed hurriedly.
"Dog, when was the last time you saw shit like this?" Espera asks, then answers himself in a mutter, "Fucking Nazi Germany."
"Oh, it's happened since then," Brad says archly. "Africans though, so it only ever made page eight." But there's a deep crease down the middle of his forehead. Scanning the convoy, he observes, "The drivers are wearing army uniforms."
Nate presses his lips together and goes to send a sitrep. He's typing when Encino Man steps casually in front of his desk and says, "Just so you know, TNI are withdrawing their 745 battalion from Lautem district. They should be passing through sometime early afternoon."
There's something about Encino Man's phrasing that makes Nate looks up sharply. "How long have you known about this?"
Encino Man makes a dismissive gesture. "You know now."
"You didn't think an incoming TNI battalion was something worth mentioning immediately?" Nate says tightly.
Encino Man heaves an aggrieved sigh. "They're just heading home, Nate. What's the big deal?"
Later Espera radios from the front of the compound, "Sir, Iceman, I got visual contact with your incoming battalion. Maybe twenty, twenty-five victors, all of 'em hauling ass down the highway like you wouldn't believe."
"Roger," says Nate. "Stay back from the road and keep your head down; we don't want to attract any more attention than we have to."
There's a pause, then a crackle as Espera hits transmit. "Um, 'bout that last." He sounds wary. "Lead victors are stopping."
"Here, dog. Right fucking outside."
Nate's heart leaps into his mouth. "Shit. Who else is out there with you?" He waves frantically at Brad, whose face takes on a hard focused look as he immediately starts shouting instructions, grabbing stray staff members and pushing and pulling them in the right directions: get away from the windows, get behind the desks, locate your flak jackets and helmets. Nate slips down behind his own desk, pulling the VHF base station microphone cord until it's stretched taut. With a sinking feeling he realises he has no idea where his helmet or flak jacket are.
"Just Garza and Issa," says Espera. "And MSF are over in the clinic."
Brad settles into a crouch next to Nate. He's got his helmet on, torso bulked out by flak jacket, M-9 in hand. He's different – this is Brad being a Marine, doing what he's been trained to do, and somehow that cements the danger of their situation in Nate's mind more than anything else.
"Espera," Nate says. His heart's running so fast he thinks he might choke, but somehow his voice comes out clear and calm. "Grab your armor out of the jeep and then get behind cover. But I need one of you to keep eyes on those soldiers – take turns if you want – we need to know what's happening." Nate keeps his eyes fixed on Brad as he talks, looking for confirmation, and Brad nods silently. "Radio MSF and tell them to stay inside. If they have patients in with them, tell them all to stay there."
"Roger." Nate hears a click as Espera turns his radio to 'all stations'. "Yo, Doc Bryan, you and the other docs stay inside and keep your heads down unless you want to get capped by the Indonesians."
There's a pause, and then they hear Doc Bryan's voice, high and angry. "Espera, what the fuck?"
Nate turns to Brad, opens his mouth to speak, and then closes it. They both know the compound doesn't have a chance if TNI attack them directly. The only perimeter fencing is the sandbags and a few strands of razor wire, and the only weapons they have are Brad and Espera's M-9s.
Movement across the room attracts his attention and he sees Encino Man and Captain America struggling into their helmets and flak jackets. He frantically starts groping through the mess of equipment under his desk, fingers encountering and discarding cables and more electronic equipment than he ever thought they'd stocked before he feels the smooth round shape of his UN-issue helmet and, beneath it, his flak jacket. As he shoves an arm into it and gets it half over his head, the inside label comes into view and he finds himself reading it automatically:
Wear this side towards the body
This armour will NOT protect the wearer
from Rifle fire, metal or armour-piercing
projectiles or sharp edged or pointed
For further information contact
Nate almost starts laughing hysterically: it's not going to protect him from a sharp pencil, let alone M-16 fire. As if on cue, gunfire erupts outside, and he half-chokes in a surge of panic, coughs, and finishes pulling on the jacket in a burst of adrenaline. He's probably bruised his shoulder with the effort, but doesn't feel a thing; slaps on the helmet and tightens the chinstrap. There's a sudden high smashing sound and a light rain of glass falls from one of the louvres above his desk, sprinkling the concrete floor. A series of deafening chunk-chunk-chunk sounds track along the side of the building and another window across the room bursts inwards in a spray of fragments.
The HF radio base station is about fifteen feet away on one of the other tables, next to one of the windows. VHF can't reach Dili; they need the HF. More bullets are hitting the outside of the building, but they still seem to be random, as opposed to the continuous jackhammer gunfire that seems to be happening further away, and in a moment of hyperclarity Nate realises his options are to go now, when for whatever reason there aren't that many bullets actually aimed at them, or later, when it could be worse. Before he gives himself a chance to think too hard about it, he stands up from behind the desk and launches himself across the room in a shallow dive; hits the concrete floor in an impact he doesn't even feel and throws himself under the nearest table. As he huddles underneath it, the bullets pinging around him in a shower of glass and concrete chips, he gets a split-second flashback to the movie he saw a couple of days before coming to East Timor, The Matrix. Except these bullets are real. He reaches up and drags the radio off the desk.
"Dili, this is Bravo base, how copy," he shouts. His ears are ringing, and his shouting makes them actually hurt. "Our compound is taking indirect fire from a TNI battalion, please advise."
The sudden barrage of noise that erupts from the earpiece makes him start. It sounds like a steel grinder pressed up against the microphone; after a second he realises it's the combined sounds of semi-automatic gunfire, some kind of heavier guns, screaming. The Dili radio operator is yelling disjointedly, making his ear buzz, "—under direct attack ourselves since early morning – journalist just been killed – raise threat level to Echo – prepare for immediate country-wide evacuation orders from New York—"
Nate finds his concentration fragmenting into smaller and smaller pieces: the world turned stop-motion, disjointed chunks of information hitting him from all sides. Captain America is screaming, national staff are screaming and crying, the landline phones are ringing all at once in a surreal blizzard of noise, and behind everything there's the constant ripping sound of gunfire. He slowly becomes aware that a lot of the screaming isn't coming from within the room.
He looks over at Brad, who's easing over to the window with his handheld radio against his ear. Apparently in response to something from Espera outside, Brad stretches his head up to look over the sill, ducks back down and yells something urgently into the radio, then flips around so he's got his back pressed against the concrete wall, facing Nate.
"TNI are slaughtering the IDPs at the church!" he yells, though Nate can barely hear him over the fifteen or so feet that separate them. "They're all coming across the street – trying to get over the razor wire—"
"Go!" Nate yells, Brad nods and says something into the radio, and then they're both running to the door.
Nate doesn't really know what he's planning for them to do when they get to the wire – let the IDPs in, he guesses, presumably followed by armed and murderous soldiers. But they can't keep them out, facing certain death – and even if that was their choice, they can't physically keep them out; the fence was never intended to be a real barrier.
Espera, Issa and Garza are already at the wire when Brad and Nate get there. The five of them make a pitiful front line: two Marines, two unarmed police and a civilian. But more pitiful is what they're defending against: a flood of women and children from the church, a tide of people crushing against the wire. The IDPs are coming right up against the lethal edges: screaming women holding their children up and pushing them over, the kids dropping into the compound lacerated, bleeding, crying. One desperate woman gives a strangled sob and throws her baby over, its blanket catching on the wire and unravelling from around it like a ball of yarn as the baby falls. Espera yells and catches it, a tiny baby cradled in his hands, too weak to do more than lie there limply without crying, and the raw look of emotion on his face shocks Nate like live current. It's the look of someone hit by the sudden flash of recognition that this dying baby is someone's child – a child like his own daughter, eight thousand miles away. Nate reaches up and helps a boy struggle over the wire – he has shallow cuts on his thin bare arms and legs, a filthy t-shirt that was probably yellow once.
"Get the wire down!" Nate yells over the pandemonium. If an international journalist was killed in Dili, then foreigners are targets, too – the handful of them in Bravo base will be about as much stopping power as a kitten in front of a tank, but there's nothing else to do. The regular pop-pop-pop bursts of M-16 fire across the road has become background noise to the screaming that's in his face, a crescendo of terror that overwhelms Nate's own fears about stray bullets. Dead man walking, he thinks, as he moves his hands mechanically: reaching up, grabbing a child and swinging her over, one after the other. Skill doesn't save you from being shot, and there's no such thing as deserved fate, or God; just the brutal reality of a bullet.
They pull the last couple of women and children over the lowered coils of wire, and Nate helps Brad put it back up as the others guide the IDPs towards to the MSF clinic. When Nate glances back he sees Doc Naresh running, his hands already bloodied, and the flash of Doc Bryan's gingery hair as he stoops to wrap his bandana around a kid's arm.
In front of them the church courtyard is swarming with soldiers, some of them still firing bursts randomly around the area. The tents are flattened, contents scattered, and even from across the road Nate can make out blood pooling on the flagstones, the bright smears against the white tent canvas, fallen shapes in heaps that his brain shies away from interpreting. There's something strange about the fact that no matter how much he forces himself to look, it doesn't seem to be sinking in – it doesn't seem real, it can't be real, because nothing he's ever seen before has been like this.
One of the soldiers turns his head and catches sight of Brad and Nate, giving a broad smile as they make eye contact. He calls out to some of the others and they start strolling across the road, weapons slung casually across their bodies. Almost distantly, Nate notices one of them has an arcing spray of blood droplets across his face. All of the soldiers look manic, grinning, the veins in their foreheads popping and the whites of their eyes inflamed red – blood-crazed or actually on drugs, Nate has no idea.
"Nate," says Brad, and there's steel command in his voice. "Get back inside the building." Nate sees Brad's hand move fractionally, thumbing the safety off, but he doesn't raise the M-9 yet. "Nate," Brad says again. "Go." Nate doesn't move.
The soldiers span out in front of them on the other side of the razor coils. They're speaking, but Nate can't understand what they're saying – it's too fast, slangy and aggressive, in a mocking tone. The rapid-fire plosive sound of Indonesian that's always reminded him of popping bubble-wrap now reminds him of an M-16. He doesn't need to understand the language to know they're being taunted for their helplessness. Brad next to him is tense and deadly, and Nate understands instinctively that Brad's stillness is absolute lethality held in check. But Brad with a 9mm is no match for M-16s.
As they face off through the fence, there's a high whistle from over in the church. The soldiers keep grinning crazily, and one makes a throat-slitting gesture at Brad, but eventually they turn in response to the sound and start wandering back across the road.
Nate finds he can't look away from the church, even though he feels like he's about to throw up – he has to watch, because there's nobody else to. The soldiers start packing the bodies into the trucks, throwing them like sacks of rice, and when the convoy finally leaves all that's left is the destroyed camp and the blood on the ground. There's no concrete proof, Nate thinks, sickened. No way of finding out how many died, how many might still have been alive in the piles on the trucks, no way to get numbers out of the shocked and panicking IDPs now crammed into their compound.
"Nate," Brad says, sharply, and Nate realises that it's the second or third time Brad's said his name since the last of the TNI trucks left.
Nate shakes his head, pulling himself together, and turns from the fence. The scene in front of him is pure chaos, and the sight of it triggers something in his brain – the shock takes a back seat to the pressing necessities of his job, and suddenly he finds himself running and giving orders to Brad and Espera, to WFP and UNHCR staff, ordering the disbursement of tarpaulins, water, emergency rations.
"Nate!" Encino Man grabs his elbow, babbling with bright-eyed confusion. "I don't know what happened – give me the radio, I need to talk to HQ—"
"Get out of my way," Nate snarls, and Encino Man's face seems to collapse into itself and his hand falls from Nate's arm.
Encino Man's grasp reminds Nate that something warm's been trickling down the inside of his arm for some indeterminate period. He brushes at it absently, but Brad takes his shoulder and uses it to turn him against the concrete wall of the main building, leaning in to block Nate from view of the staff running frantically amongst the IDP tents, and says matter-of-factly, "You're bleeding."
Nate looks down and feels an unpleasant jolt of surprise when he sees the cuts and scratches covering his arms. He can barely feel the sting, even though the cut on the underside of his upper arm has already managed to coat his forearm with blood. He wipes impatiently at the mess with his other hand. It'll stop soon enough; there's a million other things he needs to do. But Brad simply grabs Nate's wrist with one hand, preventing him from moving, and uses the other to push Nate's t-shirt sleeve up to his shoulder so he can see the gash. He pulls a roll of duct tape out of the front of his flak jacket and holds it up for Nate to see. "Hundred mile an hour tape, glue of the universe," he says, "since I know you're not going to stop to see Doc Bryan anytime soon," and tears a couple of pieces to pull the sides of the cut closed, like he's using butterfly tape to fix a split eyebrow, then covers the whole thing with a Band-Aid. It's a local Band-Aid, one of the fabric ones with cartoon pictures on it, and Nate wonders which kids Brad's been patching up in his spare time while pretending not to give a damn.
Brad lets him go. "Nate—" he says. Nate turns to look. Brad's face looks like he's slapped his angry warrior expression on to mask deep fear, the emotion given away by the stress wrinkles at the corners of his eyes. "Next time I say go, fucking go."
Whenever Nate glances around the compound, all he can see are people: hundreds more than they'd housed originally. Women, children, babies, young adults groaning softly with blood soaking through their MSF-issue bandages. The compound is stocked with the supplies they laid in before the referendum, but nothing like enough to sustain this many people for any extended amount of time. And with the UN compound in Dili coming under direct attack, Nate's uncomfortably aware that supplies might not be their biggest problem. They're living on borrowed time, and he has no idea how long.
Rolling Stone has been out. He reports the swathe of destruction caused by the 745 battalion as they travelled west along the length of the country: entire towns along the northern highway have been razed, streets and ditches filled with bodies. In Manatuto itself, he saw Brimob throwing gasoline into a house and setting it alight; saw a mixed group of militia and Kopassus soldiers chasing a young man down a narrow street. "Is there any way the UN doesn't know this is happening?" he asks. His unshaven face is covered with grime, streaked with sweat or tears. "You've reported it, I've reported it, even fucking Encino Man has written something back – what the hell are they doing?"
Nate says tightly, "Dili said to prepare for an evacuation."
"Evacuation of the entire mission?" There's a sick look of dawning realisation on Rolling Stone's face, as if he's suddenly putting two and two together and getting Rwanda, Srebrenica. "Out of East Timor?"
"I don't know," Nate says. He can hear the frustration in his own voice; knows Rolling Stone is aware the frustration isn't aimed at him. "Maybe just to Dili."
"So what's the frigging Security Council doing? Are they sending peacekeepers?"
Nate just has to say again, helplessly, "I don't know."
After Rolling Stone leaves, Nate calls over Alécio and Joaquim and gets them to help him carry armfuls of IDP files from the office out into the front yard, where they toss them into a 44-gallon drum. Nate splashes some fuel on top and sets them on fire. The files burn for a surprisingly long time, the light from the flames dancing eerily over the buildings in an unwanted reminder of everything else burning around them.
Outside the compound, the militia have started rampaging in earnest. More and more buildings go up in flames around the town, and explosions happen so frequently that the sounds start to run into each other. Brad and Espera take turns morbidly identifying each explosion: grenades, homemade incendiary devices, exploding vehicle gas tanks. There's gunfire that sounds like it's coming from behind the compound, and as night falls Nate can see the pink lines of tracers flying overhead. Nobody can sleep, and the yard is still a wailing chaos of women and children out in the air next to wire, no protection at all from bullets, stray or otherwise. Nate belatedly realises he hasn't slept himself since the result was announced. He eats a packet of Nescafe, takes inventories and starts filling out personnel movement forms for a possible evacuation.
Later, he calls a meeting for the international staff. Looking at their stolid faces in front of him, he feels ill. "Gents." He tries to catch everyone's eye individually. Brad returns his glance steadily; Encino Man is looking away. "It's likely we'll be ordered to evacuate within the next 24. Like I've told some of you already, I don't know whether this will be out of country, or just to Dili or Baucau. I'm personally going to request permission to stay, and I welcome anyone else who is willing to volunteer to stay behind as well. But I understand many of you have families, so be assured there will be no blame placed on you if you choose to evacuate. I'm not going to ask you to make a decision now, or to indicate your preference in front of the others. Just try and think about it before tomorrow morning." He pauses, then says carefully, "I have no information whether national staff will be included in the evacuation. For the time being, please refrain from telling your national staff or the IDPs about the evacuation until we have confirmation. The last thing we need right now is more panic."
Brad waits until the others have dispersed before coming up. His helmet casts his face into shadow. It makes him look harder, dispassionate, and Nate's suddenly reminded of Espera's comments. Brad the perfect Marine. The Iceman.
"Sir," Brad says. He's staring front and centre, parade-ground formal, and stays silent until Nate belatedly gets the idea and says, "Yes, Sergeant." The words feel odd in his mouth.
"Sir, Sergeant Espera and myself will stay. Our original mission order was to protect this base. That order still stands, and we will execute it until it's superseded by another."
Nate looks at him hard. "Brad. Brad," he says, until Brad's eyes slide to him. "I'm not asking you to stay. When they call the evacuation, the base will officially be closed. Your mission will be over. You can go home."
Brad doesn't look away, and the intensity in his stare makes Nate shudder. "My mission is to protect you, sir. As long as you're here, we'll stay."
The next morning Indonesia declares martial law. When Nate switches on the radio, he finds the BBC gone and all the channels making the same emergency broadcasts in Indonesian: stay inside, obey the instructions of the authorities on the ground. Outside, all the remaining police vanish from the streets, replaced by soldiers. The gunfire is almost constant, but the worst is the single shots that sound like executions.
The police commander, Hasyim, comes past a few hours later in a long convoy of police vehicles: POLRI's entire presence leaving the town en masse. "You should consider leaving for your own safety," he says quietly, when Nate meets him at the front perimeter. Like Nate, he's wearing a helmet and body armour. The back of his flak jacket is lettered in instantly recognisable yellow: POLISI. So if there's anyone left to look, at least they can be perfectly informed that the police are leaving, Nate thinks bitterly.
"The only thing saving these people is our presence," he says.
Hasyim shakes his head dubiously and mutters, "Insyallah." He clasps Nate's hand, firmer than the normal Indonesian handshake, and as Nate stands back to let him leave he can't help feeling like they've just been condemned.
Godfather's call comes early afternoon. "Begin preparations for immediate staff relocation by sixteen hundred hours," he rasps without preamble. "An Mi-8 will be dispatched to your location shortly."
"A single helo, sir?" Nate says, his stomach sinking. "Am I correct in assuming the evacuation will not include national staff?"
"National staff are to stay in location," Godfather says shortly. "The mission's priority is for its international staff; if there are sufficient resources remaining once these have been evacuated, consideration will be given to nationals."
Nate's jaw clenches so hard that he has to make a conscious effort to loosen it enough to talk. "Sir. Is mission headquarters suggesting that I leave behind my national staff, along with the several hundred IDPs sheltering in this compound, to be slaughtered by TNI?"
"The police will—"
"The police have already left!" Nate yells, then has to breathe rapidly in and out for a minute before he can calm himself enough to say, "Just send the fucking helo."
He sits unmoving at his desk for a few minutes, then calls in Brad. "Get them all together," he says flatly. "IDPs, too. Find Meesh, if he's still around."
Outside, the crowd is several hundred strong, the internationals and national staff standing in front. Nate feels the overwhelming urge to make it easy, to look over their heads as he speaks, but forces himself to make eye contact. He owes them this much. It's the hardest thing he's ever had to do, but at the same time he's horribly aware that what's merely hard for him is something altogether different for the Timorese listening. "Dili has ordered an evacuation of all international staff, as of sixteen hundred hours today," he says, hearing Meesh's dull echo. He feels cold inside, numb enough not to flinch when Alzira gives a small moan. "Myself and a limited number of security personnel will remain to ensure the continuing safety of this compound." But even as he says it, he knows how ridiculous it is. Even if all the security personnel stay, they'll be facing down the Indonesian army with nothing but two M-9s. Rolling Stone, who has been writing in his notebook, suddenly stops. Nate turns on him and says furiously, "Write this like you see it. I'm not going to stop you."
When Nate goes to leave, an old Timorese man steps in front of him. Nate waves Brad away when he moves to intercept, and looks blankly at the man's rheumy yellow eyes as he shouts, shaking his fist weakly for emphasis. Eventually the old man stops, exhausted, but when Nate looks around for the translation, Meesh is gone.
Within half an hour the compound is noticeably emptier. About half the younger, stronger IDPs, as well as Joaquim and Alzira, have already left for the hills, willing to risk being seen moving around in the streets rather than staying to face whatever's coming for all of them. There's a sudden funereal atmosphere. Some of the pro-independence students are scrawling letters on humrat wrappers; others beg Nate to let them use the satphone to call their families one last time, which he hands to them wordlessly. Let the fucking UN pay for the last conversations of the people it's just abandoned.
Alécio stops Nate as he walks past. His face is drawn and ashy, though still composed. "Nate. I need to go back to Laleia, to my family. Can you take me there in a car, the motorcycle is too dangerous now."
Nate swallows and shakes his head. "I'm sorry, Alécio. We don't have the fuel." Trying to soften it, he adds awkwardly, "I'm sure Laleia will be fine. It's small, it's never caused trouble – Indonesia's not going to care. If it made it through the whole occupation, it'll make it through this."
Alécio looks at Nate as though he's stupid, and then says sharply, "What do you know about Laleia? You were there three weeks, speaking Indonesian – you think people told you everything, told you what the Indonesians were doing to them because Laleia is the birthplace of Xanana Gusmão?" His lip is curled in anger, but Nate can the raw despair underneath it. "You want to know what the Indonesians are going to do? They are going to burn Laleia first, and Manatuto will be next."
He storms off and Nate, taken aback, stares after him. He thinks back to the conversations he had in Laleia, and wonders what other vital things he's missed in all his interactions with the Timorese. He suddenly doubts how much he's understood at all – how much any of them have managed to understand of a twenty-five year occupation, of the four hundred years of colonial history before that. Before this, he'd never thought he'd known, but he thought he'd known enough. Now maybe he doesn't even have that.
A shriek from across the room startles him out of his thoughts. An Australian accent: Geralda. When he looks over, he sees her screaming up into Issa's face, Issa looking down at her with a stoic expression. "Why don't you go back to your own bloody country, then! Maybe you should fix it first, before coming here and thinking you know all the answers. All you fucking Africans want the same things – the car, the allowances. You don't give a fuck about us, even when we're dying in front of you—"
Nate starts walking over to take her aside, but Encino Man stops him as they pass each other in the middle of the room. "You need to evacuate," he says, frowning. "If you stay, you're going to die with them. Is that what you want?" His voice rises uncertainly at the end, genuinely perplexed.
And that's it, Nate realises: those are the choices. Run and live. Stay and die. But somehow the latter still seems less real. Maybe it's a failure of imagination, he thinks bitterly. Like Anwar's description of being forced to choose between a bullet and jumping to his death, he can't make his mind process it. It's his first-world privilege, being insulated from these choices. And if he exercised that privilege, he could leave right now: could fly back to his parents' place in Baltimore, be back in time for the start of fall semester at Harvard Law. He could leave all this behind, the gunfire, the desperate grasping IDPs, the smells of sweat and shit and vomit, Brad, Espera, all of them, everything he never came here for and never intended to get into. He'd be a hero, just for fucking having been here.
The Mi-8 comes in a couple of hours before sunset, landing in the field that's still littered with unopened humrat packages. Issa and Garza hold back the screaming IDPs who are trying to swamp the helicopter while the evacuating staff run stumbling across the field to get onboard. Encino Man pointedly avoids Nate's eyes as he hurries outside. Rolling Stone, forced to leave by his magazine's belated realisation that it isn't worth losing a reporter to a bloodbath in a country the majority of its readers have never heard of, sketches a grim-faced salute at them as the helicopter rises and spirals away.
"That was the most pathetic salute I've ever seen," Brad mutters, but Nate can tell his heart isn't in it.
Nate becomes unpleasantly aware that he doesn't need to painstakingly count his staff anymore, the way he'd had to when he was trying to keep track of twenty-two. The ones here with him now are burned into his consciousness, like extra limbs. He's hyperaware of each of them: Brad, Espera, Garza, Issa, standing silently next to him as they watch the helicopter shrink westwards until it's nothing but a black dot, and then it's gone.
Garza, who's taken over the medicine-dispensing aspect of Doc Bryan's role, comes to Nate a few days later, frowning. "Someone is sending us earless people," he says. Despite wearing a Mexican flag velcroed to his dark blue police fatigues, Garza sounds as Californian as Brad and Espera. He swears he's never crossed the border, legally or illegally, and he's just picked up the accent from MTV. Everyone's dubious, though, and Espera's pretty sure he once repoed Garza's car in Westlake.
Nate's eyes are sore from lack of sleep, and he feels his eyelids scrape as he blinks at Garza. "What?"
"Three guys have turned up in the last two days, and between them they have, like, one and a half ears," Garza clarifies. "Someone's gone to town on them with a machete. I think it's a message."
"Shit," Nate says. He's too tired to muster the appropriate energy into the word; the only thing he feels is a deep bone-aching exhaustion.
"And we're out of painkillers," Garza adds. "I'm down to that Aussie Tylenol stuff, which doesn't do jack. I think one of the guys is going to kick it."
Nate buries his head in his hands and massages his temples. "Thank you, Garza," he says, with effort.
"We're screwed, aren't we, sir?" Garza's broad face behind his coke-bottle glasses stays mild and unaccusing.
"No, we're not," Nate says automatically.
But later, when he thinks about it, he thinks that maybe they are.
At night they listen to the ABC channel broadcasting from Darwin, 500 miles south of Timor.
…Indonesian Foreign Minister Ali Alatas denied involvement of official troops in the chaos that has reigned in East Timor since the referendum result that was announced last week… He has refused to entertain the possibility of an agreement to send UN troops to the stricken region…
…Prime Minister John Howard affirmed Australia's support for a peacekeeping mission, calling on the United States for assistance…
…To talk about marching off to another area of the world where there is no clear threat to US security interests is, in my opinion, wrong… I don't think anybody ever articulated a doctrine which said that we ought to intervene wherever there's a humanitarian problem. That's not a doctrine, that's just a kind of prescription for America to be all over the world and ineffective…
"So, we wait for the peacekeeping force," Nate says. He feels like he's been over this a million times, and the options never get any better. They're sitting in the jeep, lit by the dull red glow of Brad's tactical headlight. The electricity's still working spottily, but they're enforcing total blackouts at night to avoid the compound attracting attention.
Brad's face is troubled. "And what if there isn't one?"
"We hang on as along as we can."
Nate groans. "I don't know."
From their sporadic communication with the three remaining security personnel at Charlie base, they know UN-chartered aircraft are still leaving from Baucau. They could take the remaining national staff – Ivo and his family, Alécio, Geralda and Miguel – and try and make the two hour drive in a couple of Landcruisers; try and get past Indonesian immigration to get on a plane to Australia; try and get the national staff temporary asylum visas on the other end, rather than being deported straight back again.
But Nate keeps circling back to the unescapable fact: if they leave the compound, there's nothing protecting the remaining IDPs. The ear thing is just another way the militia are trying to scare them into leaving. The Dutch journalist is still the only non-Timorese death, which is increasingly seeming like an accident rather than part of a deliberate strategy to target internationals. And there's no other reason Nate can think of as to why they haven't been attacked yet, other than the Indonesians' desire to avoid murdering foreigners, which would do more than anything to prompt international intervention.
They're already running low on supplies. Brad's earlier estimation that they could hold out for a month was based on figures of twenty-three UN staff and the handful of female-headed households they'd let stay in the compound for safety. Now, even with a substantial number of IDPs having fled to the hills, they're still looking after more than three hundred individuals. The humrats on the field behind the compound have disappeared and the compound's full of yellow trash. The whole place stinks of human shit and vomit. Already sickly children are getting sicker. No more seem to have died yet, though Nate can't be completely sure of it. Still it's only a matter of time. In town the markets have been burned down, all the shops looted. Brad goes out and comes back with boxes of water and super-sweet Indonesian coke, but they're gone within a day. The compound is hot and hellish despite the tarps Nate has strung up to provide some shade. The electricity flickers for a day and then goes out entirely as PLN closes shop and its staff flee across the border, and they're running out of diesel for the generator. The landline and mobile phone networks have been down for days.
At least the IDPs are despairing rather than violent, since they're mainly women and children. Nate doesn't want to think about what happened to the majority of the men; can't help remembering every time he finds himself at the front of the compound, staring across the road at the destroyed church camp. Dogs are poking around in the wreckage of the tents, and he doesn't know if the refugees left behind food that's attracted them, or if it's something worse.
The town continues to light up at night with fires, the array of booms and other sounds punctuated by long bursts of gunfire. By now they've all become accustomed to the constant shooting, and Nate finds himself more disturbed when it stops, automatically wondering where the militia are and what they're doing.
The BBC, which has appeared again, runs back-to-back reports on world-wide demonstrations and the mounting pressure on Indonesia to accept a peacekeeping force.
…Protests around the world are being conducted at Indonesia's failure to control its troops in East Timor in the aftermath of the referendum… Tens of thousands gathered in Melbourne… The Portuguese President joined citizens in Lisbon in forming a 6-mile long human chain for peace…
"What the fuck good is peace?" Espera says in disbelief, when he hears it. "Being peaceful is what got us balls-out in front of a rampaging battalion of motherfucking hajis. We don't need peace, what we need is an invading army to rain down death and destruction on every armed motherfucker here until they wish they'd left this flea-infested piece of ratshit to those pussy Portuguese."
"I'm getting to the point where I'd give my left nut for some DPICM artillery," Brad says longingly. "A couple of Cobras. An Abrams."
"Keep dreaming, Devil Dog," says Espera. "An Abrams is worth at least both your nuts."
Brad sighs. "Point, Poke."
Even with strict rationing their supplies only last them until the end of the week. Every time Nate looks in his shaving mirror he's shocked to see that under the crusted grime his cheeks are progressively more hollow from stress and lack of food. Brad has black circles under his eyes from lack of sleep; the Marines and CivPol are pulling rotating eight-hour watches in addition to their other duties, although when Nate tries to get himself added to the roster, Brad firmly shuts him down. "At least one of us has to be able to think straight," he says. "Grunts like us are trained to take this kind of shit, and you aren't. Now use your overpriced education and concentrate on making sure we don't end up living out the plot of South Seas Blood Letter."
"Do I want to know?" Nate asks evenly.
Brad bares his teeth. "Probably not."
The nearest UN supply warehouses are those at Charlie base. Charlie's last remaining security personnel were evacuated a few days ago, but Nate has the combination of the warehouse locks in the emergency kit in his safe, along with USD50,000 in new hundred-dollar bills. He hefts the money in his hand: it's a brick about two and half inches high. Brad looks over his shoulder and whistles, but Nate just flips it back into the safe. Their issue isn't money, it's the fact there's nothing to buy.
They take one of the Landcruisers, which has more storage space than the jeep. As Brad starts the engine he reaches down to his thigh holster and tosses his M-9 to Nate, who raises his hands automatically to catch it. Nate opens his mouth to protest, but Brad just pinches his lips together and shakes his head, raising two fingers from the steering wheel in acknowledgement of Issa on guard duty as they pull out of the front gate. Nate feels uneasy. This is different from just learning, when it was all theoretical. Now he's breaking his mandate with intent. Even though he learned to shoot with Brad's gun, it suddenly feels alien in his hands. He slips the magazine out, taps it, and slides it back in; hears it click in place.
They don't talk as they drive. Brad has loaned Nate a military flak jacket to replace his useless UN gear, thirty pounds of ceramic that make his shoulders and lower back ache. He realises his leg is jittering, the M-9 resting heavy on his thigh in the loop of his fingers as he stares out the window. The neat suburbs of Manatuto are smoking rubble, streets deserted except for the occasional dog or pig nosing around the wreckage. It's profoundly eerie, like driving through the aftermath of the apocalypse. The destruction is so absolute that Nate finds himself noticing things that aren't destroyed: a single house miraculously standing in a levelled block; a shiny yellow taxi parked incongruously next to a firebombed truck sitting on bare metal hubs. A man rounds a corner and Nate jumps, hands tightening on the gun. Even after it's clear the man's a traumatised Timorese, barefoot and ashen-faced, the adrenaline still makes him shake.
Laleia, less than fifteen miles away, is the first town on the highway east of Manatuto. Nate's stomach tightens with dread as they start up the familiar hill, thinking of Alécio's angry tirade. You don't know anything. His stomach sinks further as they roll past burned house after house, until he's struggling to breathe past his horror. His palms are sweating, slippery on the gun. Laleia is absolutely destroyed. The only thing left of his host family's compound is the collapsed shell of its single concrete building, jagged edges pronging up from the ground.
"Stop," he chokes out.
Brad glances over and wordlessly brings the car to a halt by the side of the road. Nate stares blindly out the window for a long moment, focusing on his own reflection in the glass while he steadies his breathing, then forces himself to get out. There's nothing left of the compound that he remembers: just littered ground where the palm-thatch buildings had been, the familiar shape of the house gone, porch covered with fallen roof beams. Somehow that makes it easier. He checks inside the destroyed rooms as much as he can, haunted by the thought of Alécio in the UN compound back in Manatuto, not knowing whether his family's safe or lying dead somewhere. But there's nothing in the ruins that Nate can recognise as having once been person – and he can only hope, sickened, that he would recognise the remains of bodies if there had been any.
After Laleia they develop a routine, stopping at burned houses along the way and taking turns to get out and quickly check for anyone alive or injured. Most of the houses are empty, the families presumably having fled or been forcibly deported before the militia came. Other families weren't so lucky. Nate stands outside one hamlet, feeling his stomach turn. The buildings are empty-eyed husks in a field of white ash. The thick, motionless heat is cut by the buzz of flies inside the doorway, and there's a sweet nauseating smell that seems to trigger some primeval part of his brain, making him gag. There's no point going inside; he knows what he'd find. When he finally turns away, he's suddenly struck by the surrealness of the surroundings. Fields stretching away on either side under the bright sunlight, pastoral and idyllic, the bodies of the water buffalo and goats hidden under the waving tips of the grass. Distantly, he recognises it as the same plain he saw from the plane window. The airstrip with its tiny speck of a building, the same ripple of hills stretching the length of the horizon – all of it unchanged except for the columns of smoke rising slowly in the west. Baucau, burning.
There's a rustle behind him, and Nate whirls and raises the M-9. Someone is emerging cautiously from the building: an old woman, bent and stooped, crying, shaking. For a moment Nate can only shudder in horror: there was someone alive in there. Flies stick to the woman's traditional clothes as though the stink of dead people is still on her. Nate wants to cry, wants to throw up. He gently touches her shoulder, trying to guide her to the Landcruiser, but she just shakes her head and mumbles something he can't understand. Under his hand her shoulder feels as fragile as a leaf skeleton, so insubstantial he can't wrap his mind around the fact she's still alive. All he can do is offer her some bottles of water, a handful of humrats. He watches her shrink in the wing mirror as they drive away, a tiny stooped shape vanishing into the lifeless plain behind them.
They drive slowly through Baucau. It's burning, but not as badly as Manatuto, and Nate finds himself thinking of what Alécio yelled at him about the Indonesians' taste for revenge. But even though less of it is burning, Baucau is still gutted. An ocean of tents and IDPs fills the soccer stadium, tens of thousands of people, a city of the displaced. Charlie base is empty, more IDPs sprawling out from the Bishop's house next door into the front yard of the compound, but the warehouses are still intact.
"Thank Christ," Brad says, tight-lipped. He reverses the Landcruiser up to the warehouses and takes the M-9 back off Nate. They methodically stack supplies into the back of the vehicle – water, boxes of field rations, sacks of rice and beans. Nate grabs big containers of diesel and prays to the God he doesn't quite believe in that they don't have an accident en route back to Bravo.
Nate's carrying a last box of supplies to the Landcruiser when something zings near his helmet and suddenly there's a quarter-sized hole punched through the sheet metal side of the warehouse. He looks at it blankly until a second zing sends a puff of dirt up near his feet. He drops the box and dives behind the rear wheel, pushing himself up into a crouch. Bullets start thudding softly into the dirt around the vehicle like a peculiar sort of rain, and he belatedly registers the crack of M-16s.
"Nate!" Brad yells from nearer the warehouse. "Get into the vehicle!" Nate hears the steady suppressive fire from Brad's M-9, bang-bang-bang, a lower heavier sound than the bursts from the M-16s. He takes a deep shuddering breath and launches himself around the driver's side of the Landcruiser, fumbling with the handle for an agonising second before he gets the door open and pulls himself inside. Brad's legs are longer than his are, and the seat's all in the wrong place as he stomps on the clutch and turns the key. The engine coughs once and then shudders to life.
Brad swings himself lithely into the passenger seat and winds down the window. "Let's go," he says, bizarrely calm, and squeezes off a couple more rounds that make Nate's ears ring.
They're accelerating out of the yard, the Landcruiser complaining as Nate slams it through the gears with absolute disregard for the transmission, when a glimpse of movement in the rearview makes his whole body clench in dismay. "Shit. They're looting the warehouse."
Brad is silent, slipping a new magazine into the M-9 and tucking the empty one into a pocket in the front of his flak jacket. Neither of them have to state the obvious. Their situation was bad before, but now it's completely untenable.
Nate asks around for Alécio as soon as they get back; finds him crouched on the edge of a family's tarpaulin, murmuring in Tetum as he unwraps a sodden bandage from around a small boy's ankle. Alécio glares as Nate crouches down next to him, and Nate suppresses a wince. They haven't spoken since the evacuation, and it's clear Alécio's been avoiding him. "Alécio, can I speak to you about something?"
Alécio looks at him for a second, face stony, then turns back to the boy and says something in an encouraging tone before straightening up. "Fine. Let's go."
Except, Nate notes with dismay, there's nowhere private to go. The buildings are all packed with the weaker refugees, and when Nate looks around outside all he can see is the seemingly endless sprawl of tarpaulins and people. The best he can do is gesture Alécio around the corner into the narrow gap between one of the buildings and the toilet block. The ground's swampy and foul-smelling, ankle-deep in humrat trash and worse. Alécio walks silently. He's wearing the same marijuana leaf t-shirt as when they'd last talked, and his rock-n-roll jeans are caked with brownish stains of dried blood. Despite his tough expression he's missing his usual swagger, like he's too exhausted or despairing to extend the façade of bravery to anything below his neck.
"Alécio," Nate starts, then grinds to a halt. He hasn't prepared what he needs to say; hadn't even known how to prepare. Hadn't wanted it to sound rehearsed. He finds himself desperately wishing for something to happen just so he doesn't have to say the words, then immediately feels disgusted at himself. He wonders how much of what he's feeling is showing on his face. Alécio just keeps glaring at him, waiting for him to speak. Nate resists the urge to clench his fingernails into his palms, and forces himself to look Alécio directly in the eye. "Brad and I were at Laleia a couple of hours ago." The effort of continuing feels like a nightmare of running slowly through tar. "It's all gone, Alécio. The whole town. Your family's house. I looked, but—" and he's horrified to hear his voice crack, "I couldn't find them. I'm sorry." I'm sorry. As soon as he hears himself he's aware of how pathetic it sounds. It's so much worse than useless that it can't be anything other than an insult, and Nate barely manages to stop himself flinching in anticipation of the predicted outburst. You're sorry? What the fuck do you know?
But Alécio just stares at him. His antagonistic expression seems fixed in place with shock, like someone swaying upright for a split-second after the bullet. Nate sees the instant it crumbles – a flash of naked horror – before Alécio abruptly makes an abortive, half-blind movement of someone jerking away from a bite or a sting, and then stops dead. Intellectually, Nate knows there's nothing he can do; can't help himself from trying anyway, reaching out to touch his shoulder. Alécio flinches and shakes the hand off violently enough to make Nate stagger and brace himself for a punch that never comes. Instead, Alécio just folds into himself and suddenly starts crying. His dreadlocks have unbundled themselves over the last week, and the wild mess of them covers his face completely. Oblivious to the filth they're standing in, he slowly slides down the wall and curls up against the concrete. Nate just watches helplessly, sick to the stomach with his own inadequacy, and eventually all he can do is drop down into a neighbouring crouch, carefully preserving the distance between them, while Alécio cries until he's wracked by nothing but dry shudders, and then gets up and stumbles away.
The next morning Garza comes up to Nate. "Sir, a kid just died," he says. "The mother wants to take it to a church, but she won't listen when we tell her it's not an option."
The mother, a young girl who's probably only in her teens, is grimly defiant, clutching the tiny cloth-wrapped body. In the end she consents to being escorted out to the air-drop field behind the compound where Garza and Espera dig a quick grave for the little boy. Nobody mentions the other bodies lying out the street, being eaten by the dogs.
News from Dili is dire: everyone save for a handful of security personnel have been evacuated from the compound there, both international and national staff. On the ABC they hear the SRSG speaking from Darwin, his voice tight and stressed, describing how he saw TNI and militia ransack the capital's hotels, the bodies on the streets, the smashed cars and burning buildings.
They're all aware they're increasingly alone. The last UN flights are leaving; all the other bases have been completely evacuated for days. Indonesia is still stubbornly refusing to let in a UN peacekeeping force, and without the Charlie base warehouses they have three, maybe four days of supplies left. "I know you don't want to think about it," Brad says grimly, "but soon we're not going to have a choice. Leave, or…"
The situation bangs around inside Nate's head. He seems to have completely lost the ability to sleep; just spends his four hours a night staring upwards into the dark, his mind buzzing exhaustedly. Even if he chose to stay, there'd be no way of convincing the others to leave him here alone. No matter how much he tries to parse it, it always comes back to the same thing: the lives of a couple of hundred Timorese against his own and those of his four staff. And even though his brain shies away from it, he can't help knowing the horrible truth that he values Brad's life, Espera's life, Garza's and Issa's, more than those of the Timorese – and that when they absolutely have to leave, they will leave because he can't bear it any other way. He knows that's the decision he's going to make, just as certainly as he knows he's going to be haunted by it for the rest of his life.
The compound still hasn't been attacked, but the tracers have increased in intensity until all Nate can see at night through the window are pink streaks like shooting stars. Sometimes Indonesian soldiers gather casually outside the wire, threatening the women and children on the inside, and whenever Issa or Espera shout back at them, they just laugh and saunter off. "Fucking jackals," Espera spits. "Just waiting for us to fucking give up."
They're all eating and sleeping in their helmets and flak jackets now, after a handful of stray bullets and an unexploded grenade landed in the compound. The flak jacket gives Nate the unpleasant feeling of walking around through extra gravity, and the helmet gives him a perpetual headache. They're down to one meal a day, which he and Brad eat sitting on the roof of the jeep. It's less safe than staying inside the office, but Nate's spent enough of his sleepless nights staring at four fucking concrete walls. Next to him, Brad looks on with absolute disbelief as he pulls a miniature bottle of wine out of his UN-issue Italian field rations. "I'm eating chunked dog asshole and you get a bottle of fucking chardonnay?"
His outrage is so palpable that despite everything, Nate has to laugh. He cracks the bottle and takes a sip, then holds it out to Brad. Brad's mouth quirks into a grin. Nate watches the shape of his mouth around the lip of the bottle and feels a bright twang that somehow manages to cut through his grey haze of exhaustion. A reminder of what it was like before.
He surrenders the bottle entirely to Brad and leans back on his elbows, looking out past the road and church. Tall palms spike through the town, joined by pillars of smoke that stand motionless and seemingly solid in the still evening. It seems weird that the weather is normal: somehow he thought the apocalypse should look different, that something in the natural environment should reflect this outpouring of human brutality. But the sunsets are even more luridly beautiful than usual, the sun a glowing neon-pink orb like something from the B-movie set of an alien planet, sinking through the smoke haze from the burning houses.
"Nate!" Someone's yelling his name; he jerks out of a fitful, unrefreshing sleep and staggers, still fully clothed and sore from the pressure of the flak jacket against his ribs, to the doorway of the office.
"Nate, sir!" It's Garza. "You gotta listen to the radio, sir!" Garza is grinning ear-to-ear, his helmet strap hanging unbuckled under his chin, and Nate is too tired to tell him to do it up properly.
He falls down beside the radio, set up on the 44-gallon drum in their break area.
…Last night Indonesian President Habibie consented to the deployment of an international peacekeeping force to restore order to East Timor, which has been wracked by violence since the UN announcement sixteen days ago that the province voted overwhelmingly in favour of independence… Australia, which has had rapid-deployment units on standby in its northern city of Darwin, has already dispatched its first infantry troops to Dili to battle the local militia and renegade Indonesian soldiers…
For a moment all he can do is put his head in his hands and try and breathe through a sensation of overwhelming relief so strong it temporarily obliterates his perceptions of anything else. When he looks up, Brad's there. Brad has a slight smile on his face, though he cautions, "First lesson of warfare school, sir. Never actually celebrate 'til it's over."
Nate hears something familiar high up. "Yeah?" he says. He feels like laughing; can't help it, and it bubbles up from inside him. He and Brad crane their necks to look up into the hazy, lightening morning sky as a small UN plane flies over, its belly flashing silver, and a slow spiral of wooden crates starts falling, parachutes popping open above them like a scatter of dandelion seeds. "I think it's over."
Brad blinks and looks back down at Nate, grinning. "Well, it's certainly the end of the world if that unweaned incompetent idiot Captain America has actually gotten something fucking right for once."
It takes another week before the peacekeeping force, INTERFET, actually reaches Manatuto, but the mood in the compound is almost buoyant. Three meals a day, even of peanut butter and jelly on crackers, is a massive improvement over previous arrangements, and Nate even attempts shaving for the first time in what's probably more than a week. Brad strips his armour off until he's just in his sweat-crusted khaki undershirt, takes off his boots and lies on top of the jeep wriggling his pale wrinkled feet in the sun. It's the most relaxed Nate's seen him since the beginning of their mission. When Brad catches him looking he grins. "Don't tell my CO I'm flouting the grooming standard," he says, and Nate finds himself grinning back, as though it's infectious. "Wouldn't dream of it, Sergeant." He has a vested interest in seeing more of this relaxed Brad, cammies hanging low off his hips, undershirt rucked up to reveal a strip of skin.
The compound is directly under the flightpath to Baucau airport, and for the first few days there's a regular stream of C-130s flying overhead. The Blackhawk helicopters come in towards the end of the week, flying slantwise in towards the centre of town and occasionally stopping to hover over a single spot, presumably to deal with groups of militia underneath. The days are bright and hot, and the Blackhawks' whirling circular shadows remind Nate of giant bumblebees as they pass overhead, menacing and reassuring at the same time. Espera looks up and says quietly, "Get some." Brad shakes his head, half-disbelieving, and says, "Hoo-fucking-rah."
At the end of the week the INTERFET forces roll into town past the compound's front gate and start methodically battling their way through the streets: APCs with caterpillar tracks, eight-wheeled tank things that Brad identifies as ASLAVs, wide-bodied Humvees and dismounted Australian infantry troops. From the compound they can see the Aussies set up vehicle checkpoints further east along the highway, herringboning their ASLAVs in the road with the turret guns pointed in the direction of oncoming traffic. There are a couple of gun battles from the direction of the checkpoint, big guns firing in a steady rhythm paired followed by the quick triple bursts of M-16s, but in general the militia seem to have accepted that it's over. Indonesia's remaining soldiers slink out of town, heading west for the border.
Even with INTERFET in town, Nate finds his giddy relief gradually darkening into something approaching depression. Every time he steps foot out of his office he's greeted by Timorese weeping and thanking him. Independence is the last fucking thing on their minds; they're just happy to be alive. The whole thing makes him feel like a fraud. They'd promised the Timorese a peaceful referendum and their lives had been destroyed anyway – and at the end, even he'd been ready to leave them as soon as the choice became between them and Brad, Espera, Garza, Issa. So much for the fucking humanitarian ideal. He'd been all they had, and he'd been willing to sacrifice them all for the four people he couldn't bring himself to lose – people he knew, people whose families he'd have to look in the eye.
It's not until the gun battles start dying down that a brown-skinned Australian officer drives up to the compound in a Humvee and hops out, taking his helmet off. His uniform, a camouflage pattern of light brown blotches on a eucalyptus-green background, is clean and dust-free, and Nate's conscious of how they all look, bedraggled and unshowered for sixteen days – and how the compound smells. His own clothes are so thickly impregnated with dust that it's formed a coating that flakes off in the creases, and his arms are scabby with insect bites and nearly healed cuts from the razor wire. The Australian has a single little diamond on each shoulder, but it's different from Encino Man's bars and Brad's chevrons and Nate has no idea how to read it. Either way, he's young – about Nate's age – and looks like he could be part-Timorese himself maybe, or part-Aboriginal. His radio crackles but he gestures to one of his men to take care of it. He looks curiously, lengthily, at Nate and Brad.
Brad says, "Lieutenant," politely deferential, pronouncing it lef-tenant.
"It's just you guys out here along with all of them?" the lieutenant asks, and lets out a long, slow whistle. He has a broad accent and a fresh and unworried look that Nate can only dimly remember the feel of. "Bloody hell." He shakes his head for a bit, and then says briskly, "Right, what do you need?"
The direct approach leaves Nate slightly dazed, but he manages to reel off the wishlist of vital supplies he's been compiling in his head ever since the warehouses got looted. Water. Powdered milk. Antibiotics. Rehydration salts, painkillers, bandages, fuel, food that isn't made from peanut butter. More water. The lieutenant notes it all in a little green-covered notebook, claps him on the shoulder and leaves them to it. Later members of his platoon turn up with boxes of supplies and medicine, nearly everything on Nate's list and more than he'd expected, and a couple of them hang around to help distribute them. They give Nate and the others friendly nods, introducing themselves by first name to everyone except Brad, whom they respectfully call Sergeant, and tell Nate that they'll take turns standing guard out the front of the compound. They're good with the kids, though sometimes Nate catches them giving wistful glances towards the centre of town, like they can't wait to get back out on the streets hunting militia.
The weather is changing. The air gets more humid and oppressive by the day, as though there's been some kind of executive decree that it can only rain after going through every single stage in between. "Suicide season," one of the Aussies says, eyeing the clouds. Weather seems like a small, petty thing, but Nate finds it almost excruciatingly unbearable, his mood descending into an irritability that makes him want to snap at every tiny thing. A part of him is still objective enough to realise that it's a delayed response: the weight of everything over the past couple of months catching up with him. So when Godfather, newly arrived back from Darwin, calls him up to offer him a position in the follow-on mission and a promotion to UNHCR country director, Nate turns it down and quietly calls the re-staffed Charlie base to book himself on an outgoing flight in early October. Enough time to hand over Bravo and the IDP camp to the incoming regional office head. After that, he has no idea. Fly back to Baltimore, he supposes. See his parents and sisters. Start applying to grad school.
He's moping in the jeep when Brad comes over and leans on the open door. Brad is back in full uniform, maintaining the grooming standard for the UN MLOs and other senior visitors who've started trickling through to assess the immediate and ongoing force requirements, the levels of damage throughout the province. Country, Nate corrects himself. The country of East Timor. The phrase sounds strange in his head.
"You know, by military standards this was actually a success," Brad says. "We saved the IDPs, defeated the bad guys, none of us got hurt."
Nate stares at the dashboard. "Is it that easy?"
Brad shrugs. "You think any of us is going to change the world? The system's been around before we were born, it's going to be around after we're dead. And people like the Timorese are always going to end up at the fucking bottom. You spend your life trying to fight that, beating yourself up for things outside your control, you'll go nuts."
And that's Brad in a nutshell, Nate thinks. The type of person who's in the military because it fulfils him personally, not because he's insanely patriotic or because he has a vision of what America should be doing overseas. He does his job as well as he possibly can, but he doesn't care about the things outside his direct control: the deployments themselves, the context of the war. And for all Nate wishes he could have Brad's uncomplicated focus, he knows himself well enough to know that he'll never be able to ignore the reasons behind what he's ordered to do. There's no such thing as a pure humanitarian mission, just the product of the developed world's international politics and priorities. The world's hesitation caused a thousand needless deaths in East Timor, and no matter how much he focuses on the couple of hundred Timorese they saved, nothing can change that fact that UNAMET was a failure.
Brad's looking at him. "Your problem is you think too fucking much," he tells Nate conversationally. "But do me a favor. When you get back home and become one of those policy eggheads, just don't forget about the grunts like me."
Nate is quiet for a minute. Something about the way Brad says the last makes him feels an almost unbearable tug of yearning. He doesn't want to forget about Brad, to fly back to the States and never think about him out in the wide world somewhere, facing down a battalion with a 9mm, just another grunt acting out the mistaken or self-serving policies of people far away who don't care. He says, "How did you know I was leaving?"
Brad smirks, but there's something else complicated under the expression that Nate can't decipher. "Please, sir. You think you can keep a detail like that from me?" He pauses, then says, "I got a call from my CO this morning. INTERFET are taking over all security. Our company's shipping out next week."
Nate's surprised – he hadn't thought of Brad leaving, but of course it makes sense: there's already a US contingent attached to INTERFET. "Where to?"
Brad shrugs. "Whole battalion's heading out of PACOM back to Pendleton. Might take some leave and ride my bike, go diving." He pauses and says almost wistfully, "You know I'm a deep sea diving specialist? The only good thing about this assbackwards part of the world is the diving, and I never got to dive once. If my next rotation isn't somewhere near a fucking ocean, soon I'll be nothing but a pack-humping POG." Brad looks away, as though he's looking at the sunset, then says diffidently, "You should come past San Diego sometime. If I managed to teach your lily-white prep school ass how to handle a weapon like a man, the least I can do is teach you how to swim properly."
Nate laughs, feeling a bubble of warmth at the idea even though he knows it won't happen. He stares at the line of Brad's neck and thinks unenthusiastically about what he'll be doing on the East Coast instead. Hanging out at the same old places he did before he came here, calling and catching up with college friends who've spent the last year in six-figure jobs, trying to pretend for his own sanity that nothing's changed, when in fact everything has.
Nate's successor is a Liberian woman with an easy smile, and it's with some relief that Nate hands over the base and the IDP camp that's been swelling by dozens of families a day, all the Manatuto residents who've cautiously returned from the hills only to find their houses burned, the entire town without electricity or water, livestock rotting in the destroyed rice paddies.
Brad and Espera are heading out the next day with their company; Garza and Issa are staying for the reconstruction. "Come back in ten years and see if we have finished putting this country back together yet," Issa says, dryly. Nate himself doesn't have the first clue how you'd even go about reconstructing a country that's been burned to the ground. The figures they have so far are appalling, and they aren't even final: 1,200 reported deaths, 400,000 displaced persons – half the entire population, Nate thinks, with a weird sense of disbelief. 80% of the country's infrastructure burned to the ground. The only city left standing relatively untouched is Baucau, saved single-handedly by its Bishop. And all of this on top of a quarter century of occupation and missing persons and torture.
Nate packs and says his goodbyes quietly, shaking hands with Issa, bumping fists with Garza and Espera. Brad looks at him steadily and simply says, "I'll take you to the airport."
They take the jeep. The sun is slanting under the belly of the afternoon clouds: rain on the way. Nate keeps trying to concentrate on this as the end – the end of his time in East Timor, of this whole experience, of his relationship with Brad. But the moment is strangely slippery, like a part of his brain doesn't recognise that it is ending. He wants to force himself to pay attention, to memorise each second of the landscape sliding by outside the window, to somehow linger in Brad's silent, familiar presence. He knows he'll look back tomorrow and feel like a part of his life is over that he can't ever replicate or repeat – the responsibility and the horror and death and the moments of shared camaraderie. He's glad to be rid of it, and yet somehow paralysed by the loss of something so all-encompassing, something that was his whole life for six months.
They're about twenty miles past Laleia when there's a piercing bang, and the jeep swerves crazily across the empty highway. Nate instinctively flattens himself as far down as the seat as he can, reverie shattered by the heart-pounding explosion of adrenaline, his mind shocked blank. He sees Brad flinch sharply and pump the brake, throwing Nate forwards as they fishtail to a stop at the side of the road.
"Shit," says Brad, sounding uncharacteristically shaken. "Blowout."
Nate takes a shuddering breath. "I thought—" His only thought'd been: M-16. He has a sudden flash of an image so real that it makes him feel physically sick: of looking over and seeing Brad bleeding cherry-red over his uniform, over Nate's hands. Brad lying on the road in the same twisted position as the man on the blacktop outside the compound, his blood running across the surface in long bright streaks into the gutter.
Brad gets out of the jeep and Nate follows more slowly. His legs feel shaky from the adrenaline, all his senses jangling. He finds Brad poking at the shredded tire with the toe of his boot. The metal rim is evident beneath the rubber, and there's a long wavering black smear down the centre of the road behind them.
Eventually Brad shakes his head and huffs a laugh. "Jesus – look at us, crapping ourselves over a burst fucking tire. You'd think we just came out of Somalia." He stares at the offending wheel for another moment. "You're going to have to reacquire your pussy civilian reflexes, sir. If you move back to the real world, you're going to have to learn to act normal. No more taking evasive action when your car gets a flat."
"Normal," Nate says, feeling a weird building emotion: adrenaline and fear transforming into a shaky, irrational anger. "Why the fuck does everyone keep saying that? Why's it supposed to be so easy – for us to leave, to forget all about this whole thing? These people are completely fucked, Brad—they aren't ever going to be normal. My host family's entire life burned down! And I'm supposed to, what, just go back and live my life like none of it even matters?"
Brad looks at him steadily. "Go back home, sir. Go back to school, meet a girl, get a job and a house in the suburbs and two-point-four kids and forget about all this shit. I never thought I'd say it, but there are worse things than normal."
Nate stares at him in disbelief, then smacks the hood of the jeep in sudden frustration. "Maybe I don't fucking want normal." He's aware he's raised his voice, trying to shatter Brad's calm and the way he seems intent on sticking Nate into a suffocating perfectly safe little box of normal. "What's normal about any of this shit? What about this?" He gestures between them, infuriatedly aware of the uselessness of trying to encompass something completely unspoken, unacknowledged. "We going to let this go back to normal, too?"
Brad's face is set in a rigid expression of control. "Sir." His voice is crisp and perfectly military. Reminding Nate: I don't live by your rules.
Nate grits his teeth, shakes his head in refusal. He has power over this; this is the one thing he gets to have control over after these last six months of being fucked over, of watching people die needlessly, and he's not going to let Brad's don't ask don't tell dictate him, to make them normal. He steps forwards aggressively into Brad's space, pushing him against the side of the jeep – Brad tensing for a second then letting himself be pushed – and kisses him, putting all his pent-up wanting into it. Brad's mouth opens, wet against his, soft lips and hard planes of his face and the scratch of hastily-shaved stubble, and Nate hears him groan quietly as their tongues slip over each other. The sound runs right through him, blurs his senses for a moment until all of him seems to be focused on the feel of the inside of Brad's mouth, the warmth where his skin touches Brad's. It feels unreal, crazy to suddenly have all of this in front of him – to feel Brad's hands coming around his back, grabbing and pulling at Nate like he's afraid they'll fall apart if he lets go, sliding down over Nate's ass to pull their hips closer together. Nate stops kissing Brad to mouth at his neck, instinctively moving his hips against Brad's. The feeling that Brad's hard is like a closed circuit feedback loop, the thought and the feel of it – Brad – making Nate gasp involuntarily.
He finds himself struggling with the buttons of Brad's uniform shirt, his hand and wrist getting bent between them at awkward half-painful angles as Brad keeps pulling him closer. Brad's fingers press hard into his shoulder, then move restlessly to the back of his neck, the curve of his skull. Brad makes another sound, a hitched breath, the most vulnerable sound Nate's ever heard him make, and takes his other hand off Nate's ass to start undoing Nate's shorts, shoving them down. Nate's behind on the schedule, has to struggle one-handed to rip open the buttons on Brad's cammies so they can grind together separated by their two layers of underwear. Nate hangs on to Brad by the back of his neck, presses his forehead against Brad's jaw, feeling his own breath warm in the bare gap between his lips and Brad's skin, and angles his hips. Brad groans again and thrusts up against him, arching his back away from the jeep.
"—yeah—" Brad says, something between a grunt and moan, "fuck, yeah, like that—" and twists a little under Nate, his head banging back against the jeep. Nate presses forwards harder and feels the gorgeous sweet ache of friction rolling up through him, a stuttered misstepped rhythm that makes their hipbones bang together and the jeep's shocks creak a complaint. Nate finds he can't really breathe and kisses Brad instead, wet and messy, salt and dust taste in his mouth. He bites sloppily over the corner of Brad's mouth, his chin, his neck, until Brad arches again and says, "fuck, Nate—" and ends in a long drawn-out shuddering sound, turning his head and kissing Nate squarely on the mouth, needy and gasping as he jerks against Nate's thigh. Nate can barely think himself, everything just a haze of hot desperate pressure as he focuses on Brad's slick mouth, the heat spreading against his leg, Brad still hard and shuddering through the aftershocks against him. And then he's coming, tight and hot and hard, slamming shockwaves of pleasure so strong that all he can do is hang on to Brad for balance, shoving his hips against Brad's until he thinks they'll both be bruised – his heart and breath sounding like a cacophony of asynchronous gasps and thuds in the inside of his head, mixing with Brad's panting as they slump together.
Nate rolls off Brad when he's caught his breath, their bodies separating with a sticky sound, so they're leaning side by side against the jeep. In his peripheral vision he can see Brad's eyes are shut. His undershirt is shoved up, briefs and cammies down around mid-thigh, cock hanging out, white splatter on his stomach. As he watches, Brad pulls his undershirt down and wipes half-heartedly at the mess, making a face. "I always knew you were filthy, Fick," he says. "First time I saw you."
Nate groans and laughs. He feels he's been drained of a whole six months of emotion, leaving him pliable and pleasantly blank. He pulls his own shorts up, too limp to make any effort at finding something to wipe himself down with.
Brad turns his head and regards him contemplatively for a minute. Eventually he says, "I was serious, before. Come find me in San Diego."
Nate feels something clenching inside him. He isn't even sure what it means anymore. "I want to," he says. And he does – he wants it so badly he can hardly breathe. This. This is one thing he doesn't have to leave behind, one thing he can grab and have from this whole mess, something that will stay.
Brad says, "Then do it."
Nate finds himself breaking into a grin. He flops back against the jeep, the metal warm against his back. "Okay. Yes."
The Timor landscape is soft, its eucalyptus shapes pink and purple in the dusk, stacked thunderheads high-up fringed in gold. It's a beautiful country, destroyed and burned and fucked over, and maybe it'll make it, maybe it won't. Nate tried to change how it went; couldn't. Maybe Brad's right and he can't change the world. But he can still change things at his individual level. He can still choose. He can choose Brad.
They stand there, watching the evening fall, the lizards starting to chirp in the undergrowth, until Brad stirs and says, "Come on, you'll miss your plane."
East Timor was rebuilt under the United Nations Transitional Authority (UNTAET), led by Sérgio Vieira de Mello. The country achieved formal independence on 20 May 2002, at which time it took the official name of Timor-Leste. UNTAET's successor mission, UNMISET, concluded in 2005.
In 2006, the collapse of Timor-Leste's fledgling army divided the country along east-west lines and triggered nation-wide violence that caused the fall of the Fretilin government and the displacement of over 150,000 people. Peace was eventually restored by the Australian-led International Stabilisation Force (ISF), which will maintain an in-country presence until 2012. Policing duties were taken over by the fourth UN mission to Timor-Leste, UNMIT.
On 11 February 2008, rebel soldiers attacked President José Ramos-Horta and Prime Minister Xanana Gusmão. Horta was shot twice and received emergency surgery in Darwin, but resumed his role as Head of State in mid-2008.
As of 2009, Timor-Leste is described as one of the world's poorest countries, and exists in a state of fragile calm.
After leaving East Timor, Nate Fick returned to school, completing a JSM in International Conflict Resolution at Stanford, California. He joined the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) and participated in emergency relief work and human rights monitoring in Baghdad, Basra and Najaf. He is currently the ICRC's head of delegation for Afghanistan.
Brad Colbert returned to Camp Pendleton, California. He completed three tours of Iraq with the First Marine Division before requesting and receiving a secondment to the ICRC in Afghanistan as the Civil-Military Coordination (CIMIC) Liaison to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).