I came of age in a time of no heroes. Or, rather, in a time when, because seemingly everyone was a hero, no one was. At least that was how Mariska explained it to me. She said that we Americans were so desperate to be saved from terrors both real and imagined that we’d pin a medal on just about anything that moved.
Mariska said that at a time like this only the anti-hero could truly be a hero – someone who was willing to stand up and say no to what she called “The Machine”. She thought I was that man. At first I didn’t know what machine she was talking about, and doubted that I was man enough to stand up against one. As it turned out it didn’t take a lot of effort. A misplaced punctuation mark, a single dot no bigger than the period at the end of this sentence, was enough to make me a hero in her eyes, and to seal my fate.
We met while working in the typing pool of a security contractor for the government, and it was a very spooky place. It made me wary of everyone around me, including Mariska at first. I assumed that no one was who he or she claimed to be. And I was right. Even I wasn’t who I thought I was.
I wasn’t a very political or patriotic person by nature. I only took the job with the contractor because that’s where the temp service sent me. I didn’t have strong feelings about the work we were doing. Not like she did. To me it was just a job. I’d listen to the tape, already translated from the Farsi by someone I didn’t know, then type what I heard and store the file where I was told. I guess I did my job well enough because Bart Henley, the floor manager, noticed my work and gave me the added duty of compiling the files at the end of the day to be uploaded to the NSA’s central computer somewhere in the Colorado foothills. I realized later that it was around this time that Mariska first took more notice of me.
Despite my determined wariness, Mariska slowly gained my trust, and eventually my love. We would meet to eat our lunch in the park outside the security perimeter. She would take out the tuna sandwiches she had wrapped in yesterday’s newspaper and we would read the headlines as we ate. Mariska would point out all the heroes who weren’t really heroes in the stories we read.
A meter reader saw smoke and alerted a family to leave their burning home, taking a baby from its mother’s arms through an open window. They pinned a medal on him. A national guardsman spent six months filling out personnel forms in a desert tent and arrived home to an airport hallway of balloons and handmade signs. They pinned a medal on him. A policeman directs traffic around a bombed out reviewing stand as casualties are carted away? Have him throw out the first ball at the next home game and pin one on. A protest singer outlives his contemporaries and closes out his career headlining Vegas? Fly him first class to the Kennedy Center so that the President himself can pin one on.
Our lunches became less social occasion and more political science seminar, with Mariska the professor. Little by little she convinced me that we weren’t the good guys any longer, that our government was doing nasty things to people all around the world in the name of democracy. She would hold my hand and stare deeply into my eyes as she spoke. Her pupils would widen as she became excited by what she was telling me. No woman had ever looked at me like this before. I’d never felt so special in all my life. Eventually it didn’t matter what she said. She could have told me that the Pope wasn’t Catholic or that he didn’t believe homosexuality was wrong and I would have believed it! It was then she began to tell me how I could become a hero.
“Don’t you see, Charles?” she would say, “Someone has to become the monkey wrench in the gears, the fly in the ointment, the sand in the gas tank, the stick in the spokes of this wheel of death. Someone has to stand up and pull the emergency brake on this train. I think you could be that man.”
Her eyes would get all dreamy when she talked to me like this. Her gaze would be fixed somewhere above and to the right of my head, as if that was where she saw the words she was telling me. She had the most intensely green eyes I’d ever seen. I would stare into them as she told me how I could become the whistleblower’s inside man. Mariska said that with my knowledge and a bit of courage, and the help of a friend she knew, we could make a difference. She said the world deserved to learn what was going on behind their back and we were just the people to teach them.
Once I’d explained to her the computer instructions I used to upload the files at the end of each day she said her friend had devised a plan that would allow him to gain access to them as they moved through the pipeline. It was so simple I was surprised the flaw hadn’t been discovered and fixed long ago. She said that I merely had to include one extra “.” after the third set of backslashes in the routing instructions. He told her this created a window that allowed anyone who knew that day’s upload password to siphon off a copy of the files as they moved.
When we met for lunch I would give Mariska the password as we ate our tuna sandwiches. She would have wrapped them in the section of the paper that contained the day’s crossword puzzle, and we would sit shoulder-to-shoulder pretending to solve it. I would search the stories on that page and circle the various letters and numbers that made up the password. She would memorize it and then throw away the evidence – the mayonnaise stained newspaper – in the garbage can when we got up to go back inside to work. Mariska said the plot was foolproof, but she was wrong. There was clearly a fool in this plot and it wasn’t long before I found out who it was.
Bart approached my desk late on a Friday afternoon and asked me to accompany him to his office. When I got there two FBI agents read me my rights and cuffed my hands behind my back. They said I was under arrest for espionage. As they walked me out through the typing pool I noticed Mariska wasn’t at her desk any longer. I figured they must have carried her off while I was in Bart’s office. On the ride downtown the agents kept using words like “treason” and “traitor” and referring to me as Benedict Arnold. I just kept my mouth shut. Without Mariska around I didn’t know what to say.
The trial didn’t take long. In fact, there wasn’t a real trial, just me standing in front of a judge and nodding my head at everything he said. At first my attorney thought that I was a victim of entrapment, but we could never find out what happened to Mariska, and without her we had no case. After he convinced me that the security tapes, the ones with extreme close-ups of my fingers typing in that fatal extra dot every afternoon, could never be explained away, I pled guilty and took my twenty to life. At least it will be in a Federal facility. They’re the best, I hear.
As it turned out, I was considered a hero by some. I remember my last walk in the open air, leaving the courthouse after sentencing. There was a group of protesters standing behind a barrier off to one side. They were holding signs and chanting my name. Some were wearing masks to hide their faces. One in particular stood out, the green of her eyes accentuated by the veil of black cloth that hid her face.
Banner Image : By Almonroth (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons