Ares watching

Putting a god under surveillance isn’t that difficult, if you have a good team. There’s just one catch – you have to use mundanes. Us supernaturals tend to concentrate on defending against other supernatural threats, using a few simple measures to throw off any mere human off our trail, which is why a well trained team of mundanes with appropriate knowledge and tools can easily keep a god under constant surveillance.

Which is why when Anthony Reese left his suite at the Regent Berlin hotel, I was five kilometres away, sitting in a dark-panelled van in front of a suite of radios and monitors, safely out of the reach of his warning spells, and all around him, twenty three of my people were waiting to see where would he go and whom would we meet. Twenty three, a lucky number.

They carried no amulets, they had no spells, and they carried no guns. Mundane weapons wouldn’t help them against the god of war, and they could get them in trouble with German authorities. What they had in plenty was mirrors, silver, salt, digital cameras and encrypted cell phones set in full duplex conference mode. That, and years and years of experience.

Jane Nguyen, the designated eyeball sitting in a car parked in front of the Regent was observing the entrance through the rear-view mirror. In addition to being good tradecraft, this was a good way to pierce most common veils and charms, the ones that could be thrown up with almost no effort by powerful supernaturals.

“The bunny has left the rabbit hole, southbound on Charlottenstrasse. I repeat, southbound on Charlottenstrasse. The bunny is wearing a beige suit and somehow still pulls it off.”
“This is Martin, I have the eyeball, I repeat, I have the eyeball.”

The main screen was showing a large map of Berlin, with the positions of all my people marked, and video feeds. Kathy and Janusz logged in as Bravo and Charlie with one press of a button on their GPS units, without having to talk and interrupt the eyeball, while Martin continued speaking.

“The bunny is now past the Konzerthaus, and moving at a fast clip. He seems to be in a hurry, and is not looking around. Wait, he is blurring, I repeat, he is blurring.”

I looked at the map. The nearest mobile observation van was located near the intersection with Leipziger Strasse, so I pressed their icon on the screen.

“Do you have the target?”
“Sure thing,” I heard Ursula say, “eyes on, I repeat, eyes on. The bunny is now shifting to a more Mediterranean aspect, a tall, olive-skinned man in a leather jacket and jeans.”

The eyes of people around Anthony would just refuse to focus on him while he was weaving a spell that said “disregard me”, but Ursula, in the rear of the observation van was watching him through high-powered binoculars with a silver-coated prism inside. The image of Ares was reflected multiple times off silver surfaces, stripping the glamour and enabling the watcher to view the shifting performed by the target.

Glamours and shapeshifting were the state of the art anti-surveillance measures of the supernatural world, and sure enough, they worked well against unaware watchers. Detection spells Ares had certainly woven around himself would notify him if he was followed by some vampire hopping about on the roofs, or other similar garishness, but my team had years of experience in the following of hard targets.

“This is eyeball, I still have the target, he didn’t stop walking. He is now past Kronnenstrasse, I repeat, past Kronnenstrasse, still southbound.”

I rapidly clicked through the icons on the map, redeploying the northern part of the team southwards, hoping to place them in advance of the moving god. Good surveillance does not follow the target, good surveillance is imposed on it.

“The target is turning right onto Leipzigerstrasse,” reported Martin. “Eyeball handover to Bravo, handover to Bravo.”

The trio following Ares was about to execute a typical eyeball handover drill on a turning target, when suddenly Ursula came live on the net.

“Abort, abort handover. Bravo and Charlie stop, Alpha continue straight, I have eyes on target and he is stopped and lighting a cigarette, glancing backwards.”

It looked like the god of war started conducting traditional anti-surveillance drills. That was bad news.

“Team, the target is semi-aware, I repeat, target semi-aware. Watch out.”

Siem Reap and Angkor

We have planned to spend Christmas in Cambodia, visiting the Angkor Wat temple complex around Siem Reap and generally relaxing in the sun. We flew to Siem Reap (the city named “We really kicked some Thai asses”) with Cambodia Angkor Air. At first, it was quite fun, they had a dancing and singing Plane Safety Awareness video but then we were treated to almost an hour of “reality TV” with no sound on. Luckily, the flight was a bit under an hour long, but when I went out of the plane, I had a distinct impression my IQ dropped by at least 10 points.
And then we rode to our hotel by a tuk-tuk, a scooter with an attached trailer for the transport of passengers. Not very safe and not very fast, but convenient – passengers have effective air-cooling and can look around freely. Taxis in Asia usually have overactive and not well maintained air-conditioning, so riding in an auto rickshaw is simply nicer. The hotel was nothing to write home about, but it had WiFi (and, occasionally, you could access the Internet through it, although that was by no means guaranteed – a typical problem of SE Asia, in my experience) and a pool.
There's nothing like lounging by the pool with a laptop, and going for a swim after work is finished.

There’s nothing like lounging by the pool with a laptop, and going for a swim after work is finished.

On the first day, we went to visit the Angkor Wat temple complex, buying a three day ticket. The tourist industry is evidently a cash cow for Cambodia and is rather well organised. We were directed to a booth selling three-day tickets, where our photos were taken (tickets contain photos of their owners, to prevent second hand sales of tickets and other such shenanigans). The three day ticket can be used during any three days of a seven day period, which is nice, because after some time, walking among various temple ruins can get a bit tiring. I only uploaded a few of the countless photos of ruins, reliefs and such that we’ve taken, to give a general idea of how it felt like. The smaller temples were nice, because there wasn’t a lot of people, but visiting the main Angkor Wat temple I felt like I was caught in a tourist trap.
My first encounter with Angor temples.

My first encounter with Angor temples.

This is a Buddha lying on his side, not a elephant.

This is a Buddha lying on his side, not a elephant.

Lingam. A giant stone penis that blesses water flowing over it.

Lingam. A giant stone penis that blesses water flowing over it.

Little bastards have it good, shaking down tourists for fruit and other food.

Little bastards have it good, shaking down tourists for fruit and other food.

This temple was dismantled for renovation. Then Khmer Rouge came and burned all the plans, so now it's the world's biggest 3D puzzle, painstakingly being assembled back by archeologists.

This temple was dismantled for renovation. Then Khmer Rouge came and burned all the plans, so now it’s the world’s biggest 3D puzzle, painstakingly being assembled back by archeologists.

Hello, tiny spider pretending to be big.

Hello, tiny spider pretending to be big.

For the evening, we’ve went to Pub Street, which as the name implies is the street where most of Siem Reap pubs are located. Local fish massage was an interesting experience, definitively not for the ticklish. Local pub with a live band doing covers of various pop songs was also, khm, interesting. Generally, Siem Reap isn’t something to write home about unless you’re into cheap drinks and loud music.
Pub Street. The name is rather clear.

Pub Street. The name is rather clear.

I should have thought about being ticklish before deciding I'll stick my feet in there.

I should have thought about being ticklish before deciding I’ll stick my feet in there.

Probably not a good idea to actually connect any computer or tablet to their systems.

Probably not a good idea to actually connect any computer or tablet to their systems.

On the second day, we’ve hired a bus and went to the Phnom Kulen mountain and it’s temple and waterfalls. This is a trip that takes an entire day, because it takes about an hour to reach the base of the mountain, and then more than an hour to reach the temple, on a narrow, unpaved and rather steep road. It also wasn’t covered by the Angkor Wat temple complex ticket and we had to buy special tickets the day before. However, the trip itself was interesting, since we had many good views of the Cambodian countryside on the way to the mountain, and riding up the mountain through dense jungle was a great experience. We’ve visited the temple and then went to the river, where we were shown the industrial sanctification devices – stone lingams carved into the river floor. Since Buddhists believed that water flowing around a lingam became sacred, the entire river was sanctified, efficiently ridding the entire area supplied by water flowing down from Phnom Kulen mountain from vampire infestation. 🙂 I also saw quicksand for the first time in my life, and then we went for a swim in the waterfalls.
Stone penises galore. Rather worn down by time and water, but still blessing on!

Stone penises galore. Rather worn down by time and water, but still blessing on!

Underwater quicksand is weird. And dangerous.

Underwater quicksand is weird. And dangerous.

The top level of Phnom Kulen waterfalls. Some people bathe there.

The top level of Phnom Kulen waterfalls. Some people bathe there.

... but most people prefer to swim at the bottom.

… but most people prefer to swim at the bottom.

And then I did something that was not very smart – I drowned my waterproof smartphone. My diving casing for the HD camera worked just fine, because it can be submerged up to 5 meters. However, the casing only allows starting and stopping filming, when the camera is protected against water I couldn’t use it to make still photos, so I’ve decided to take my waterproof Motorola Defy and make some photos from directly under the falling water. The Defy can only be submerged down to 1 meter, and I simply held it in my hand and swam to the waterfall, using crawl instead of breaststroke. Well, the hydrodynamic pressure acting on the phone definitively exceeded 1 atmosphere and water got inside, which I only noticed after swimming up to the falls. After I swum back, took out the battery and left the phone open to dry out I decided to leave it for a few days, to check whether it will start again.
It didn’t. 🙂
Still, at the time I didn’t know that. We still had 2 days of visiting temples, so we visited the Ta Prohm temple, known from the Tomb Rider film, and Banteay Srey, excellently preserved with amazing level of detail on the reliefs, as well as viewing the sunset from a temple, an event that drew crowds of tourists the closer it was to sundown. And in the evenings, instead of relaxing and taking advantage of cheap drinks, I took out my laptop and prayed to His Noodliness that the Internet connection at the hotel would work, because I had a translation I had to finish before the end of the year, and I knew that in Thailand we would be staying at a beach resort where there was no Internet and where even electricity was provided only when the generator was on, so only in the evenings.
Banteay Srei temple.

Banteay Srei temple.

Sun worshippers come out.

Sun worshippers come out.

Most schools in Cambodia are funded by charities from other countries.

Most schools in Cambodia are funded by charities from other countries.

It was time to leave Cambodia and fly to Bangkok, then to Phuket and from there go to Koh Phi Phi, Thailand.

Gun Safety

I have managed to ignore my house for the last week or so, wallowing in despair after Claire left me, but it finally got to me when it locked me out of my gun safe.

“Wake up, Dave. I have now established that you meet DSM-VII criteria for Major Depressive Disorder and I am legally obligated to notify the state police, which has temporarily suspended your gun license.”

This woke me up somewhat.

“Your gun safe is now locked. I have made you an appointment at a nearby clinic in three hours, go see a psychiatrist and get a mood regulation implant, and you’ll get your permit back.”

Great. Just great. I had to wake up more. I had to get up, and I had to go to a doctor, or I would be out of a job and soon out of a house.

 

But I had no energy, so I went back to sleep.

Operational safety for dummies

[This is a short text written for the Delta Green RPG mailing list; DG is one of the best roleplaying game setting’s I’ve ever played in and I highly recommend it]

If you come from FBI or CIA, you know this all already, but there are many valuable Delta Green operatives who come from different backgrounds and don’t have extensive tradecraft training. This primer is intended form them.

Remember again, cell phones are your enemy. If you don’t have your Delta Green issued phone, you may use burner phones for emergency, but isolated burner phone networks stand out in traffic analysis, and they can be used to locate you. And remember, if you use a burner phone, use a separate phone, when you change a SIM into your normal phone, it will read your IMEI number and voila, your burner phone is now associated with you and your normal phone from the point of view of an intelligence agency. Also, it’s better to talk than to send text messages, because if you’re not under surveillance yet, but a government agency will later on decide to look at your activities, they will have the list of phone conversations you’ve made and the list of all text messages with their contents.

Remember to remove the battery from the phone when not using it. When travelling to a sensitive area, turn off your phone and take out the battery 3-5 km before reaching it in an urban area, and 20-30 km before your destination in a rural area.

No computer connected to a network is safe. You should encrypt your computer with TrueCrypt whole disk encryption with a dummy operating system, which provides you with plausible deniability. Anything less is a waste of time against a government agency. When your computer is connected to a network, use the decoy system. When working on DG-related information, disconnect your computer from any networks, boot into the hidden operating system and work. If you need to send something from a network, boot into a disposable secure system from a pendrive. E-mail should be encrypted with PGP and instant messages should use OTR messaging encryption for less sensitive information.

Important information can have only one form of encryption – one time pads. Distributing OTP key material requires a physical meeting (for verification – never leave an OTP key unguarded in a dead drop, a third party could surreptitiously copy it), but you can have a few dozen gigabytes of true randomness stored on a pendrive and thus a truly secure information channel. PGP/OTR and other asymmetric ciphers should be secure against mundane attacks, but Majestic 12 or PISCES may have arcane means of discovering your encryption keys, so one time pads are the only way to go.

Enlist the help of your friends from the FBI and CIA and learn basic covert anti-surveillance drills. Don’t have a routine schedule of the day and change your routes on a regular basis. Get a bicycle, and sweep it regularly for bugs and GPS locators, or start roller skating. Use public transportation whenever possible. For cover, you may talk with your friends and co-workers about the hazards of greenhouse effect and CO2 emissions, even though you know doom is much closer at hand. This will provide a plausible reason for eschewing cars, which are much more difficult to sweep for bugs and locators and much easier to follow.

When at home, observe its vicinity from upper story windows, looking for trigger positions (cars with one or more persons inside or vans parked for a long period of time, with tinted windows or curtains). Scan possible trigger positions further away from your home with binoculars.

When returning home, walk around the block (with a cover story, e.g. going to a kiosk to buy a newspaper or cigarettes or chewing gum or whatever) and observe if someone is setting up a trigger position near your home.

Leave a garage in a vehicle driven by someone else, while you hide at the rear under a blanket.

Talk with friendly neighbours and security. Don’t challenge any suspect persons, but you may call the police (preferably from a burner cell) and observe the encounter through binoculars (the trigger may identify itself to the police, if they’re LEOs themselves)

When driving, pretend to be lost (in an unfamiliar area of the town – pretending to be lost near your home is not covert), do a U turn and observe passing vehicles. Drive around a roundabout a few times (if you’re riding a motorcycle, you can do it just for fun).

Alter your speed frequently. Speeding may not be a good idea, because it may attract the attention of legitimate law enforcement, but it helps to ferret out the follow team.

Stop immediately after turning right (left in UK) and note the vehicles that pass you.

When in traffic, note drivers of vehicles near you and check out their behaviour (although in this age of hands-free sets and cellphone yakkers it’s not a very reliable indicator).

Enter a cul-de-sac (you can pretend to be lost).

Check who’s stopping with you when stopping at a gas station.

Indicate turning one way and go another, at the same time observing for watchers who do the same – just don’t cause an accident and don’t kill a biker.

To lose the follow team, drive onto a car park with multiple exits and leave through one of them, or park somewhere and exit on foot, observing for trigger vehicles setting up near the car park exit. You may also jump a red light, but make sure it’s safe and there are no red light cameras.

When on foot, enter a phone box and pretend to talk, then observe whether a surveillance operator enters into the booth and checks it for dead letter boxes.

Use large shopping centres with multiple exits and with escalators that switch back (excellent surveillance traps), although when surveilled by LEOs they may decide to use the CCTV system to track you, so be aware of the CCTV cameras and wear a hat or a hoodie.

When running a surveillance detection route, you should use street furniture (bus stops, large panes of glass) to look back, as well as frequently cross the street (this gives you a pretext to look back). Walk both through quiet areas with little pedestrian activity and through bustling areas, where you can observe the route behind you for people who seem to be nervous and look around a lot (it’s hard to locate someone in a crowd). You can try to lose the watchers there by changing elements of clothing (hat, jacket) before heading to one of the exits.

Drop a piece of paper near a trash can, then covertly observe if someone picks it up.

Get a public transport pass and use buses, underground and trams, whenever available; hang around at the platform and try to be the last person who enters, or don’t get onto a bus, or get onto a bus and leave at the last moment (this last action is rather overt, though).

In an unfamiliar territory, you can pretend to be lost and change directions a lot. If you identify a member of the surveillance team, you can look directly at him/her, and approach them and ask for directions, this will reinforce your cover of being lost while at the same time burning them, decreasing the size of the surveillance team.

You may also confront them directly (“why are you following me?!”, take a photo of the suspected operator), but only in public places and preferably close to police or security; or, in case of a small, amateurish surveillance team, in a deserted place with backup provided by rest of the Cell with heavy armament.

A rather overt anti-surveillance move is “squaring the box”, that is, instead of going straight, going right, then left, and then right back onto the same street you began on (this works both on foot and in a car or motorcycle). Normally, people take shortest route, so anyone following you during squaring of the box is highly suspect. However, for the same reason you become suspect, unless you successfully pretend you’re lost.

If you notice the same person or car three times during your SDR, you should assume you are being followed. The mnemonic is TEDD: if you see someone repeatedly over Time, in different Environments and over Distance, or one who displays poor Demeanor you can assume you’re under surveillance. It’s easy to spot bad surveillance, if you are looking. Civilians are easy to follow, which is why terrorist groups were able to get away with bad tradecraft. Unaware targets walk blindly through life. Most cultists will not have intelligence even private investigator level training and resources, but might try to follow you anyway. They will be easy to spot.

However, if you suspect you might be under Majestic-12 or PISCES surveillance, you should operate under “Moscow rules”, that is, assume you’re under surveillance all the time. In Russia, MI6 assumes their officers require about 6 months to get competent enough to spot the local watchers, and MI6 officers have far more training in surveillance than you can get from your tradecraft-trained friends from the cell. Under Moscow rules, you should perform SDRs for at least an hour or two before meeting, and all meetings with fellow conspirators should be done using the “dry cleaning” procedure. This means that you shouldn’t agree on a specific meeting place, just a general public location, and have a covert signal for recognizing each other – moving a newspaper from left hand to right hand, checking the hour on a wristwatch, something that can be done naturally and does not attract suspicion. When you have noticed the person you are meeting, go on a surveillance detection route, but do not perform active anti-surveillance to lose any surveillance team. The person you are meeting will also follow you and will perform counter-surveillance, trying to see if anyone is following you. Then, after some time, if they don’t find any surveillance, they will use a predetermined signal again, and you switch roles – the other party walks away and you follow them, checking them for a tail. Only when you are satisfied that the other party is also clean signal them and go to final meeting place. If at any time surveillance is detected, abort the meeting and go to a backup location and time, this time performing more anti-surveillance before arriving at the first meeting place.

When the meeting does occur, the first thing you should establish is the next meeting point and two fallback plans. Emergency plans and signals should always be established and memorized, don’t write anything down.

Vietnamese Food and Museums

The plan was to spend a few days in Vietnam, then fly out for a tour of South-East Asia, starting with Cambodia and Angkor Wat for Christmas, then Thailand and Phi Phi Island for New Year’s Eve and then trekking in Laos, and back to Vietnam. So, I spent the first few days recovering from jetlag and soaking up the warmth and sun. Oh, and eating. The food, the food! We went to a Korean barbecue, we ate a lot of seafood, spring rolls, pho soup and so on. The food was really great, and the fruit that one could purchase at the local supermarket were great: mini-bananas, rambutan, mangosteen and dragon fruit are excellent. Also, I’ve found out that I actually really like ripe mango, it’s just the unripe stuff that tastes like soap that I don’t like (unfortunately, that’s the stuff you usually can buy in Poland).

I don't even know the names of half of these :-)

I don’t even know the names of half of these :-)

Of course it turned out that Vietnamese food has one weak point – desserts. There are some desserts that are quite nice, but when we went out to lunch with M’s coworkers we were treated to THE MOST VILE DESSERT IN THE WHOLE WORLD (probably) – Evil Black Jelly. It tasted like, well, jelly made from an industrial solvent (I guess, I never drank industrial solvent, but it would probably taste like this jelly). I don’t know how they manage to eat that stuff.

If evil had a taste, that would be it.

If evil had a taste, that would be it.

We also went to a restaurant that specialised in frogs. The fried frog were quite tasty, but there wasn’t really a lot of meat on their bones, but the restaurant was somewhat funny, because it was festooned with pictures and paintings of cute happy froggies.

I'm a happy happy frog! :-)

I’m a happy happy frog! :-)

We're so cute and adorable! EAT US!

We’re so cute and adorable! EAT US!

Well, except for the one frog which obviously knew what was coming. 🙂

OH SHIT THEY"RE GOING TO EAT ME

OH SHIT THEY’RE GOING TO EAT ME

And another fun fact – they love Christmas here in Asia. Unfortunately. I hoped I’ll escape the whole Christmas hooplah by jetting halfway around the globe, but my hopes were quickly dashed. Christmas decorations were present everywhere, in supermarkets, on the streets, in front of our apartment block… (and, as a matter of fact, they are still present in front of our apartment block nearing the end of January, although the Christmas tree was removed. The rest of the decorations are still there, though, and I wonder when they’ll take them off. :-))

You can't run

You can’t run

Who cares about global warming, let's have us SOME LIGHTS! EVERYWHERE!

Who cares about global warming, let’s have us SOME LIGHTS! EVERYWHERE!

They'll probably keep it until February. Or March.

They’ll probably keep it until February. Or March.

Crossing off the list of “fun” stuff to see in Ho Chi Minh City, we have visited the HCMC City Museum (tanks, Hueys and dioramas of Glorious Workers Revolution and fight against the French opressor and American invader) and the Reunification Palace, with NVA tanks on the lawn (not the original tanks which crashed the palace’s gates during the Fall of Saigon, but the same models). It felt, well, a bit like visiting something out of communist Poland. No wonder.

At the HCMC City Museum

At the HCMC City Museum

We're plastic comrades!

We’re plastic comrades!

"The gun used by Comrade Pham Van Tu to protect Comrade Nguyen Thai Son". Hm.

“The gun used by Comrade Pham Van Tu to protect Comrade Nguyen Thai Son”. Hm.

Get to the chopper!

Get to the chopper!

It looks even more suffocating on the inside

It looks even more suffocating on the inside

"Please remember who pwnd whom"

“Please remember who pwnd whom”

Red velvet and yellow stars and hammers and sickles

Red velvet and yellow stars and hammers and sickles

Visiting the War Remnants Museum (formerly known as the “Exhibition House for US and Puppet Crimes”, later “Exhibition House for Crimes of War and Aggression”, now War Remnants Museum) was deferred for later, since visiting two museums in one day overloaded my propaganda fuses severely.

Some Assembly Required

“I hereby move to open the general assembly of shareholders in the Jonathan Maindel personal company. For administrative purposes, please state your name, provenance and share percentage, along with the function.”

“Jonathan Maindel, biological founder of the PC, date of birth 21st of May 2021, fourty one percent of the vote, chairman.”

“Jay-Em Prime, nee Jonathan X2051, uploaded consciousness based on the gamma-grade model of Jonathan Maindel’s mind created in February of 2051, twenty two point five percent of the vote, treasurer.”

“Morality Eigenvector, nee Jonathan X2071, uploaded consciousness based on delta-grade snapshot of Jonathan Maindel’s mind created on 21st of October 2077, twenty nine percent of the vote.”

“Eyrie Jane, an emancipated copy of a mindmeld between Jay-Em Prime and Varied&Quirky, an independent epsilon-grade Artificial Intelligence, seven point five percent of the vote.”

Arrival in Vietnam

The general background for this series of entries is that somewhere in the late spring I was approached by a friend, who shall heretofore be referred as M., with an offer to join her in Vietnam for the duration of the winter. Her company intended to send her over to Ho Chi Minh City (the City Formerly Known As Saigon) for a few months and maybe I’d care to join her and her friend, Z.?

Hell yes I would, it’s sunshine and warmth instead of darkness and cold. So I’ve found a flatmate to cater to my cats’ whims for the period I would be gone and awaited news on when we would go.

No battle plan survives contact with the enemy and the planned 4 months underwent sudden attrition to one and a half, leaving on 17th of December and returning, provisionally, on the 30th of January.

Still, I’ve packed my bags: laptop, waterproof smartphone, HD camera with a diving enclosure, rooted e-ink reader with Android, assorted cables and power supplies, sunscreen and DEET. Also, some clothes and melatonin pills for jetlag.

We booked a flight with Vietnam Airlines, from Frankfurt, with a connecting LOT flight from Warsaw Okęcie. Our connecting flight was scheduled to leave at 6 in the morning, so I’ve decided not to go to sleep at all, in order to be tired and sleep in the plane, to facilitate adjustment to the new time zone.

Ten hours in a plane, even in deluxe economy class, with slightly more space for legs were not exactly fun, but the service was good and for in-flight entertainment we had an earphone splitter and M’s earphones had a socket for daisy-chaining, so we managed to watch Page Eight on my laptop. It’s quite a nice spy movie and I recommend it to anyone who likes the genre. I even managed to get some sleep, which is recommended on eastbound flights to minimise jetlag (with a 6 hours time zone change it is difficult to avoid jetlag altogether). We’ve finally arrived at 8 AM, local time (2 AM in Poland).

Saigon from the air

Saigon from the air

When the plane was taxiing from the runway the first things I’ve noticed were Mi-8 helicopters and prefabricated concrete walls which look exactly like the ones around old communist structures in Poland. I guess the design in both cases came from the same place.

Buying a visa took us over half an hour, because the immigration officers were obviously not in a hurry, and as a matter of of fact waiting for the visas made me think fondly of the Polish Post Office. Nobody looked through our luggage, which was probably a good thing, since the melatonin pills I bought (small, nondescript white pills) came in a giant plastic container which was mostly empty, so I transferred them to a small plastic baggie. In retrospect, that might not be the smartest move, I decided while waiting at the customs.

At the airport, we were greeted by sunshine and palms! Sunshine! And palms! Adding some more exclamation points would even better reflect my mood at the moment – it was warm and sunny, and it was December! I was grinning like a slightly sleep-deprived madman.

Warmth, palms and sun

Warmth, palms and sun

I should have done this a long time ago, I’ve decided.

We were met by two girls from the local branch of the company M. works at, Mio and Nat, and they drove us (well, a taxi driver drove us) to our apartment in the 7th district of HCMC, which was like half an hour drive. There were swarms of scooters flocking on the streets, and communist propaganda posters everywhere, but also markets, boutiques, KFC and McDonalds, and of course, billboards and advertisements were everywhere. Poland is marred by an exceedingly large amount of billboards and outdoor advertising, but in comparison to Vietnam, we’re toned down and stately.

In .vn, scooters flock

In .vn, scooters flock

Propaganda banners are everywhere

Propaganda banners are everywhere

Our apartment at the 5th floor turned out to be more like on the 10th floor, since all apartments in the block are two story high. There was, of course, no elevator. Walking up the stairs is healthy. There was wifi in our apartment, although with time, it turned out that the connection is… slightly buggy at times.

And it turned out the air conditioning unit in my room does not work. Which I completely didn’t mind. Some remarks were made concerning my lizard heritage, but I ignored them as the low-brow comments they were. It was warm! Thirty degrees and sunny – I was in heaven.

So we went out to eat some phood. I mean, food. Pho24 is the local more or less fast-food chains which serves pho soup and it was excellent. And the complimentary desserts were also quite nice, which, as it turned out later, we should not have taken for granted.

Oh, and we all went to sleep somewhere past noon. Just to catch a nap, you understand.

This might have been an error.

First sight

“Remember, you don’t believe in love at first sight”, my dead wife whispered in my ear.

I was holding my breath at two thirds of an exhalation, keeping the crosshairs steadily on the courthouse door, waiting for my target, when instead she came out. Her face framed perfectly in my viewfinder, crosshairs over her forehead. My heart skipped a beat and the sights moved jerkingly upwards.

“Fuck. Darling, please shut up now, this is a rather critical moment of the op”, I subvocalized in reply.

Great, now I had to breathe again. Exhale, inhale, exhale, hold. I just finished readjusting myself and placed the crosshairs back over the entrance to the building when my target appeared in the door. A Secret Service agent preceded him, but he had no chance to notice me. I was hidden in a large cardboard structure which resembled an air conditioner outlet when seen from the ground, and my optics were the best military-grade equipment one could buy in Texas. Over the 21st century the Second Amendment became more than set in stone, it was laser-etched in steel slabs. Well, what I was about to do could finally have a chance at changing the status quo.

I pulled the trigger slowly, as I’ve practiced countless times. The rifle kicked against my shoulder and a heavy antipersonnel slug struck Judge Robinson, the most rabidly conservative Republican on the Supreme Court right between the eyes.

Two down, two to go.

I quickly crawled back from my firing position, as not to reveal myself to the Secret Service agents, placed the rifle in the destruct-o-box I cobbled together, pressed the ignitor button and left without waiting to watch the thermite charge slag the evidence. When I was out of sight from ground, I rose and ran to the staircase. Descending quickly, I went through the back exit, where a scooter was parked. I put on a helmet with a reflective visor, a motorcycling jacket with a fake beer belly sewn inside, and I rode away with a quiet whine of the scooter’s electric engine.

“Can we now talk about the important thing now, darling?” Daphne spoke quietly in my ear. “The hottie that looked a bit like the younger version of me. And one that is not dead, I might add. What are we going to do about her?”

***

I remember when I first told Daphne about my plan to change the politics of my home country, which made us both progressively more disappointed and angry. It was during our honeymoon in Bali. I was bitter and despondent and I tried not to show it, but she knew me too well. She was my girlfriend for over ten years, after all. I proposed after five, and she rebuffed me, gently and lovingly.

“You know very well I don’t believe in the institution of marriage. Just be glad we won’t have to go through a divorce when you finally find yourself someone prettier and smarter than me.” she told me, smiling all the time, as she knew all too well I would never.

“It’s not about the sanctification of our relationship by the State, come on.” I held her palm and kissed it lightly. “I just want to be able to hold your hand when you’re in a coma because some redneck from Utah ran a red light while you were riding on your death machine.”

“Oh fuck you, babe, I’m not giving up my Harley, either.”

I knew that. I suggested a few times she should abandon her incredibly fucking dangerous hobby I feared would take her from me and she just laughed. I could never make her do anything she already had an established view on, which was only one of the infinite multitude of things that made me love her – mind, body and brain.

And I always thought that if anything, a traffic accident would kill her, which is why I thought she would never know my contingency plan for her death.

As we’ve stood in the morning rays of the sun, looking at the beach, my hands crossed over her chest and cupping her breasts, her shoulder blades pressing against my ribs, I felt waves of incredible sadness come crashing over me. The wedding ring radiated unreal cold that I knew was only in my mind. I couldn’t see her death metastasizing under her skin, but the fact that she agreed to wed me in a mercifully short ceremony meant she had no faith in her chances either. There were only a few closest friends with us that day, and they were all either crying or trying very hard not to.

“I always had a plan for what I wanted to do when you were gone.”, I told her, my throat choking with grief. “I want to make history.”

“Of course you do. And you don’t have the money nor the connections required to make it in politics.” she answered. We waited in a comfortable silence for a while, neither of us speaking. “So, violence?”

“Violence.”

“And you’re telling me this because…”

I started trembling slightly, fearing what was coming. But I knew her well enough that, and she would agree.

“Because we’re here in Indonesia. And there’s a company in Jakarta that does brainscans and makes shadows.”

I felt her tense then, for a short moment, and then relax her body in resignation.

“Oh fuck it. Let’s do this, then, you perverted transhuman fetishist.”

I thought I felt a trace of a smile in her voice, but I was probably deceiving myself.

Mars-bound

I woke up happy. It still felt weird, even after almost two years. Next to me, Martin was snoring. He had some stubble on his chin, and his hair still smelled faintly of acid rain. The air was oppressively hot, despite the best effort of the building’s “energy-efficient” air conditioning system. But I was happy. He was there, and I could press my body to his and feel his warmth and his heartbeat. He yawned, opened one eye and smiled faintly, and one of his hands slid over my breast, cupping it. I leaned in to kiss him.

And then I woke up, this time for real. I woke up alone and hurting. I was in a perfunctorily personalised coffin, full of hot, stale air endlessly recirculated by the life support of the colonist transport vessel. Bound for Mars.

Those dreams were the worst, the ones where everything was all right, where Martin was still alive. I took drugs to take the worst edge out of grief, but their effect was limited. I needed to be able to live my life somehow, and as long as I was able to think and remember, I would grieve.

I hoped Mars would help. The Mars project was over sixty years old and still in its infancy, but it would provide a change. And a chance of death. It’s really, really hard to effectively commit suicide in a modern hive city. The city AI sees all, there is a medical drone minutes away and no weapons of any kind available to an average citizen. I could always hope for some catastrophic weather event to kill me, like it did Martin, but Earth weather was highly random and chaotic and I had no guarantees.

On Mars, there was no weather, but its lifeless environment was consistently, permanently lethal. It took me two tries to get past psychological screening, but the Mars Program had only basic level shrink AIs, so I managed to convince them that the I have recovered from the death of my husband within a year.

A hundred years will not be enough.

Carrying a torch

I carried a torch for someone for over fifty seven years. You might consider this excessive, but I never had any doubts. It burned somewhere in my chest cavity with an intensity only a plasma flame could achieve, washing out the candleflames of all other loves, flings and affairs of the one hundred and twenty years of my adult life with a deluge of white-bluish light that would border on ultraviolet and give anyone second degree burns, were it real.

It wasn’t, of course, but I liked to think about it that way, lying awake at night next to my sleeping wife, remembering him and our times together.

And now a single coded message from a dead-drop account told me my current life was over. I had a meeting in Shanghai in two months, and in that time, I had to abandon my wife and friends, leave Caracas, retrieve my backup identity from a safehouse in Algiers, change my biometrics, switch back to female, recover all my gear and money and reconnect with my support network, and all this while conducting careful counter-surveillance drills. But it didn’t matter, because I was suddenly awash with joy.

I would get to see my handler again. Which meant that he was alive, and that was something. Enacting social changes through mass violence was not conducive to a long lifespan. But then, he was always exceptional.