Barry Smith rumbled through the visitor’s parking lot at the Ft. Belvoir Hospital on a Harley-Davidson Electra Glide with a bug-stained windshield and leather saddle bags still damp from the morning drizzle. He squeezed the front brake as he eased into an empty parking space and let the V-twin engine idle with its patato-patato-patato exhaust note. A sleepless night with a stuffy head and an aching throat left him with a raging migraine and doubts about entering a place where people died from lesser symptoms at the hands of incompetent physicians. An Army medic in a former life, he’d asked his colleagues to put their trust in him, and now he found the tables turned.
He killed the engine and dropped the kickstand, dismounting in his favorite boot-cut jeans and black leather jacket with a POW/MIA logo stitched on the sleeve. He pulled his helmet off and hung it on the handlebar. Slightly dizzy and disoriented, he clutched his stomach and hustled across the parking lot to the emergency room entrance.
“Can I help you?” the nurse greeted him beyond the automatic doors.
“I need to see a doctor,” Barry told her, his normal tone of voice obscured by his congested sinus tract.
The nurse gave him a cursory exam, noting the puffy face and swollen glands. “Your name?”
“Barry. Barry Smith.”
“Have you been treated here before?”
The nurse passed him a clipboard with several pages of health insurance paperwork attached. “Have a seat and fill these out front and back. Someone will be with you shortly.”
“But I’ve been here before.”
“You still need to fill out the forms.”
Barry took the clipboard and found a spot in the crowded waiting room beside a grandmother with a hacking cough. Sounds like emphysema, he thought, cringing at the germ pit he found himself submerged in. All around him, patients wiped their hands across their noses, sneezing and coughing three feet away from him. Beside him, an old man with pale skin and droopy eyes gazed at a magazine cover while his wife sneezed continuously in a wad of tissues.
His migraine pounded his skull like a hammer on a steel kettle drum. Raccoon-eyed from consecutive sleepless nights, he felt exhausted, dehydrated, nauseous, and indignant from the burning hemorrhoids inflamed by prolonged diarrhea.
He dug his hand in his front pocket and withdrew a handful of nasal decongestants and acetametaphen pills he’d taken from his girlfriend’s medicine cabinet. Having already swallowed four pills in four hours, he found himself chewing hungrily on another dose of meds to detract from the pressure in his head. So much for the flu shot, he told himself, slouching in the chair by the coffee table with germ-infested magazines. His boss would kill him if he called in sick again. A few times a year was excusable, but four days in one week made a bad impression on a job he couldn’t afford to lose.
* * *
Fayez Sayeed stared out of his office window in the IRS building overlooking Connecticut Avenue in Washington, D.C. The reflection of a bearded face with dark hair and dark eyes stared back at him.
He followed the same routine every week day morning: ride the subway from his home in Maryland, pass through security in the lobby at 0800, boot up his PC, make a cup of tea, and start the morning at his desk piled high with pending tax return audits. A ten-year employee with the IRS, he’d spent the bulk of his time in the same department, riding the same desk with the same family photo of his American wife and three children—two boys age four and six and a nine-year-old daughter.
From his workstation, he could access anyone’s life history through their social security number. Where they lived, where they worked, how much debt they carried, and how long they were married and to whom could all be checked with a few key-strokes.
On busy days, he combed through tax returns and analyzed discrepancies flagged by computer subroutines programmed to alert the main system when certain numbers fell outside the normal bounds. But for Fayez Sayeed, today was anything but normal. His green tea had a better flavor. His morning commute went smoothly. And for the first time in months, his boss called in sick.
On the slow days, he did what everyone else enjoyed: surfing the Internet. With minimal effort, he hacked the intranet firewall and allowed himself free rein beyond the IRS-monitored portal, researching anything and everything of personal interest. He typed e-mails to his wife to remind her he still loved her and sent instant messages to his friends.
He typed the URL for the Washington Redskins homepage to check the off-season scoop. More than once, he’d immersed himself in a crowded stadium packed with fifty thousand screaming fans under cloudy skies and falling temperatures—an experience promoted by his American wife, who unlike himself, enjoyed every facet of American culture. Nonetheless, he’d embraced the American pastime, watching, listening, and submerging himself in every facet of his double life.
Years ago, he could care less about American football or Monday night games, but time had subjected him to a lifestyle much different from his own; a society with riches and prosperity he’d never imagined as a child growing up in a small Afghan village. Through no fault of his own, America poisoned his beliefs and challenged his notion of right and wrong.
The product of a loving mother and a strict disciplinarian father, he grew up with four siblings, all girls and all dead from Russian land mines buried in the desert sand. In America, he’d graduated with honors from George Mason, earning his master’s degree in computer science at the same time he’d learned English as a second language. He could think in binary, speak in Arabic, and compose his thoughts in French. What his peers found difficult to master after years of studying, he’d learned in months or weeks. And while he enjoyed his American wife and his time in Washington, he missed his parents and extended family.
When his e-mail chimed, he checked his inbox to find a new message with the subject heading: Lose Ten Pounds in Ten Days Guaranteed. Under normal circumstances, he would have dismissed a similar message as worthless spam and deleted it immediately. But this time was different.
He sat back and sipped his tea, inspecting the hallway from his desk before he got up and casually shut his office door. He double-clicked the e-mail header and opened the message, an ordinary paragraph describing the miraculous benefits of a new weight loss supplement geared toward people with no time to exercise or to maintain a balanced diet.
He took a pen from his shirt pocket and wrote a series of letters as he skimmed the article. Using a combination of transposition substitution ciphers and a one-time pad encrypted on his Blackberry, he rearranged a portion of the message text until the letters formed a URL address, which he promptly entered in his Web browser.
At first, a blank screen appeared with a blue background and an error code, followed by the message: your time is now.
A knock at his office door compelled him to minimize the screen and shuffle papers on his desk. “Yes?”
“We’re going downstairs for lunch,” a colleague of seven years announced as he opened the door. “You wanna join us?”
“Not this time. I brought my lunch today.”
“Come on Fayez, you say that every time. You gotta live a little.”
“No thank you.” Fayez kept his hands on the keyboard. “Perhaps tomorrow.” He waited for his door to close before he maximized the browser window on his screen. He clicked on the hyperlinked word, time, and routed himself to another server interlaced in the Internet cloud where hidden messages remained innocuous and undetectable.
A plaintext note appeared in Farsi.
He pushed his chair back and stood up. Ten years had passed quickly, and now the day he’d dreamt about had finally arrived.
* * *
Barry lolled his head against the back of his chair in the hospital waiting room. He heard a woman’s voice calling to him in a dream, but he didn’t recognize it. Sweating profusely from his upper body, he opened his eyes to see the clock on the wall. Three hours had elapsed since he’d entered the emergency room at Ft. Belvoir Hospital. Now the pressure in his head pushed outward on his eyes from the back of their sockets. His pulse raced. The ringing in his ears persisted. He felt hot all over and nauseous to the point of vomiting. Too weak to stand, he fought the vertigo effect and ignored the spinning room fading in and out of focus.
“Barry Smith?” the nurse asked again, acknowledging the man who approached her with a clipboard.
“I forgot to fill this…” Barry started, before collapsing on the floor.
The nurse knelt down and took his wrist to check his pulse. “Barry… Barry get up!” She motioned for the nurse behind the duty station to assist. “This patient’s unresponsive. Page Doctor Lewis STAT!”
* * *
Barry drifted in and out of consciousness, aware of bright lights in his face and the sound of squeaky wheels from a gurney or a crash cart maneuvered in haste.
“Can you hear me?” Doctor Lewis asked, closing the privacy curtain around his patient. He shone a penlight in Barry’s eyes while the nurse wrapped a blood pressure cuff around Barry’s arm.
“Barry, are you on any medication?”
“Do you know where you are?”
“His pulse is weak,” said the ER nurse. “BP ninety over seventy. His pressure’s dropping.”
Doctor Lewis probed the glands under Barry’s chin. “Does it hurt when I do this?”
The doctor placed his stethoscope against Barry’s chest. “Deep breaths.”
Barry coughed, expelling blood between his lips. “Something’s wrong…”
“Hang in there, Barry.” Doctor Lewis escorted the nurse out of earshot from his patient. “When did he arrive?”
“A few hours ago. He presented with flu symptoms. I gave him the insurance paperwork and told him to have a seat in the waiting area.”
“Did he say anything specific to you about his symptoms?”
The nurse shrugged. “He said he felt like he was coming down with something. The flu’s been bad this year.”
“He’s febrile, hypotensive.”
“We can’t rule it out. Start a saline drip and do a full blood panel. Page me as soon as the lab results come back.”