He is in a caravan, one of many identical military transports, on their way someplace, he doesn’t know where. The driver has stopped talking to him: radio silence. There has been a plan for some time now, since the Americans tried to kill him in ’86, that would bring him out through the tunnels, toward Buslim, and then south, in the event of war. But there is fighting in Buslim and so they have driven northwest along the coast, then inland again, and now they are not sure where to go, as the rebels have surrounded the houses and the airport, and this was never part of the plan, everything happening everywhere at once. They didn’t imagine it could happen so fast. They didn’t imagine the Arab Spring.
What they did imagine is that there might be a time when the Revolutionary Leader would have to ride alone for some hours in a windowless bulletproof chamber, and that’s where he is now. It is air-conditioned, and soundproof. There is a bed, where he sits, legs crossed, and a water cooler, and a glass-fronted bookcase, and an entertainment console complete with stereo and television. The bookcase, to his dismay, contains little to read: only the Koran and his own — he admits it, boring — writings. The Green Book? Please. He was barely 30 when he wrote the thing. The rest of the bookcase is filled with videocassettes.
There is no computer. There is no Internet. He has his phone, but can’t get service. The rebels have fouled up everything.
The Revolutionary Leader is depressed. Really, he ought to have thought to have them keep this transport up to date. The television is a bulbous CRT that hums when you turn it on, and all the tapes are from the ’80s. There is also a drawer under the stereo that contains compact discs of traditional music, and a couple of board games. Checkers and Monopoly. And there are video games: Atari, and a little pile of cartridges.
There is also a Rubik’s Cube.
The RL draws a breath and lets it out slowly. He climbs off the bed and looks through the videocassettes. “Back to the Future.” “The Breakfast Club.” “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.” Is that the one with Tina Turner in it? He tried to get her to perform in Bab al-Azizia, back then, but no dice. A shame, he thinks she would like him. They would have a lot to talk about, he thinks — astronomy, socialism.
He considers masturbating, but is too depressed. He misses Halyna and his wardrobe. He misses feeling good about himself. The ’80s! he thinks, still gazing at the row of videotapes — those were the days. When Reagan hated him, when he meant something in the world. Safia still loved him, he had a sense of humor. Life was fun. Now he feels like a loser. Why did he sponsor those terrorists? Why did he get so pissed off at the Berbers? All his decisions now seem arbitrary and capricious. He wants to go home and eat a giant meal and fuck his nurse. He wants to flip through his Condi album and remember the glory days.
Instead he slides a videotape off the shelf — Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos” — pops it into the player, and snatches the Rubik’s Cube from the drawer.
He used to have a book that told you how to solve this thing. Memorized it in a couple of hours. Indeed, he got pretty good, around the time of the conflict with Chad — he used to sit in the war room, waiting for the troops to move, for the brass to arrive and explain themselves, and he would solve the thing over and over again. It calmed his nerves. And then he would sit there at the conference table with the solved cube in front of him and endure the pathetic explanations of those sweating generals.
That war. A humiliation. Beaten by a bunch of ratty bastards in pickup trucks. And now it’s happening all over again at home. But no — don’t go there. Too depressing. Watch TV. Solve the Cube.
Sagan. “One voice in the cosmic fugue.” The music is soothing — pianos and synthesizers, and on the screen, stars and galaxies wheeling past. They cast a red glow on the tiny room. There is a rumble outside, the caravan is turning right, the RL ignores it. He is bent over the Cube.
First, a cross, you make a cross on top. That always bothered him — why couldn’t it be a star, or a crescent? He remembers now, he always started with green or red — national colors, of course. His fingers, encumbered by rings, twist the slabs of plastic into place; the Cube clacks and clatters as Sagan talks about the Samurai.
A war between clans. “Each asserted a superior ancestral claim to the imperial throne.” That’s always the problem, isn’t it — everybody thinks they’re right, nobody backs down. Well, the RL did, after the Americans got Saddam — he could see the writing on the wall, figured he’d get himself on the winning side. And look where it’s brought him. A metal box in the middle of nowhere. The transport lurches — just a bump in the road. Back to the Cube.
Corners next. Red, red, red, red. Blood in the corners: That’s where they push you, then they kill you. Well, not him, he’s getting out. Gave these people water, pulled them out of holes in the ground and gave them houses with electricity, he brought wealth and peace to this country. And this is the thanks he gets. “The Heiki warriors threw themselves into the sea and drowned,” Sagan says. The ultimate sacrifice! He would have made it for his people! Instead, this!
And now the edge pieces. Left, up, right, down. Right, up, left, down. Sagan is saying, “… marked the end of the clan’s thirty-year rule … the Heiki all but vanished from history …”
And now the transport is slowing, and it rocks back and forth, and the lights flicker, casting the Revolutionary Leader briefly into darkness. The air conditioning dies, then wheezes back to life. He could solve it now in the dark, he thinks, though he doesn’t have to: He’s got the middle row finished, and now the orange edge pieces on the bottom, and all he has to do is the corners. Up, right, down, clockwise. Left, counterclockwise, up, left, down, left, left, and –
Ah, shit. Didn’t work. And he messed up the bottom corners. Tries to remember what he did, to do it in reverse. Right, right, up. Left? No, right … It’s like his life — you think you’re planning things out, you think you’ve created order. But chaos creeps in, doesn’t it. There’s no keeping it at bay.
Through the soundproofing, gunfire. Shouts. There is an explosion: The transport heaves and creaks. The lights flicker again. Sagan says, “… patterns which resemble a human face … with the aggressive scowl of a samurai warrior …” He is talking about crabs, Heiki crabs, the final incarnation of the defeated warriors. And now the Revolutionary Leader knows he’s beat, because he has lost the bottom edge pieces, too, and the lights go off, and then on again for the last time. The videotape lurches to a stop, starts up again; and it is to the strains of a shakuhachi flute that he glimpses, in the last seconds of light before he is trapped for good, the pattern of a face, his own face, in the Cube, a broken cross, blood in the corners, the end.