1.7 Sheikh

When you look into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you. – Nietzsche

He was born into royalty. He read at Cambridge and began a PhD in chemical engineering at Stanford. He would work for his father’s oil refinery in Saudi Arabia, overseeing the engineering team before he took over the business. At least, that had been the plan.

Now, he went by Sheikh.

He adjusts the coals atop the bowl of his hookah. He takes a hit. He exhales. It’s almost routine.

“Yousef, fetch me some chicken.”

“Yes sir.”

Yousef returned with a tray of meat, served with onions and spices.

“Ahmed wants to speak with you. Shall I let him in?”

He barely nodded, focused on devouring the chicken in front of him. He didn’t touch the onions. They’d be fed to the dogs later. Ahmed and a woman entered his tent.

“Greetings, Mr. Sheikh Sir. Your brother’s lawyer faxed a contract to me last night.” Ahmed said.

A spasm of irritation crossed his face. “Ahmed, you know I hate that. I hate the “misters” and “sir” and all that American garbage. Just call me Sheikh.” he said.

The woman interjected. “But your brother is — ”

He glanced up from his plate, and immediately looked back down.

“What did I tell you about bringing others?” he said with a hint of irritation, continuing to eat.

“Forgive me, Mr…, I mean Sheikh.”

Sheikh ignored her stammered apologies. “Yousef, take the woman out to the back and break her finger. If she speaks, break another one.”

She turned pale, but did not cry out when Yousef grabbed her.

When the business was finished, Ahmed sighed. “My apologies, Sheikh. She should not have spoken out of turn.”

He continues to gnaw at the chicken. “So what does my brother say? What position is he offering me?” He leaves the rest unspoken. By rights I should be the CEO, or at least the second-in-command. Father was unsound, he was not thinking straight when he made that will of his.

“He’s offering you a position as a senior director. Taking control of the chemical process involved in oil making.”

Sheikh clenched his teeth and smiled viciously. He felt the rage building up inside of him, a cold hatred mixed with an almost reckless abandon. This was an insult. This was the last straw.

Encouraged by this smile, Ahmed continued to prattle on. “It will be a perfect fit for you. You can put that advanced degree in Chemical Engineering to use! I can already see the possibilities.”

Sheikh could almost hear his brother’s mocking laugh ringing in his ears. Maybe he has manipulated Father somehow. Maybe he hired a man to replace the will. I wouldn’t put it past him.

He finished his chicken, still with that strange fixed smile. Then he turned to Ahmed, pulling a small cellphone out of his pocket.

“Can you call my brother? I want to send him a message.”

Ahmed took the phone and began to type in the brother’s number. He was heir to the family fortune, while Sheikh was left to be the second son.

As Ahmed pressed the “Call” button, the cell phone exploded. It was his custom design. No other bomb maker could fit an electronic detonator in such a small frame. But that was what his Stanford degree was for. I’m the best. Blood and gore spattered the white tent floor. I won’t be here long anyway. Ahmed clawed at the ruins of his maimed stump, moaning piteously.

“Tell my brother that I want to consider other offers. After all, the industry is booming.”

He strode off, and Yousef followed him like a shadow. His private jet was waiting for him in the foyer, fueled and flight-ready. He would go to America. He would make his fortune. And when the time was right —

Mahesh angrily bit his teeth into the 100% McDonald’s beef quarter-pounder sandwich. “Where the fuckis this Sheikh guy?” he asked.

“Boss, he just sent a message, apparently he’ll be here in a couple of minutes.” his henchman replied, slightly worried about Mahesh’s fury.

“Fuck! Assuming everything goes exactly according to schedule, that’ll be giving us no room for fucking up.” He munched into the sandwich again, this time emptying a packet of ketchup into his mouth. “And, you said you researched this guy, right? He better not be a fucktard like the last guy.”

“Trust me boss. His family has its own oil company. The guy’s a damn chemical engineer from Stanford, for Christ’s sake. And plus, he’s Saudi.”

Mahesh looked up from his sandwich surprised. “Saudi…Arabian?” He slapped his leg and laughed. Bits of beef and lettuce escaped his mouth. “Perfect!

He looked around at the room, decorated with tattered shorts, broken bottles of alcohol, the remains of half-eaten chicken wings, and other garbage. Below, he heard the pulsating dance music and the screaming clubbers. The loud, rowdy behavior of Unleashed made it the ideal place for “business” meetings, especially since Mahesh and his “employees” could slip in pretending to be drunk partygoers.

He looked down at his gold Rolex. Fifteen minutes had passed. Sure enough, Sheikh burst in right on schedule, along with a bodyguard.

“Who the fuck owns this place, huh? How dare the infidel bouncer call me a terrorist? He tried to search me!”

Mahesh cocked an eyebrow. “Well, to be fair, you are Saudi Arabian, your bodyguard is holding a visible M9, and who knows what’s under those vests. And, if you didn’t renege on the deal we made, you have at least two hundred fifty micro-bombs in that briefcase of yours.”

Sheikh snorted. “You compare me to a suicide bomber? In my country, that is for the poor, the untouchables. Why do you think we are so willing to sacrifice them?”

Mahesh rolled his eyes. “Fine, then. Show me the merchandise.”

Sheikh dropped the briefcase roughly on the table in front of Mahesh, and he winced. “Don’t worry,” he said, “my materials aren’t easily triggered; they activate based on only a specific encrypted code sent by radio; it is proprietary technology. You could take a hammer to any of my bombs and they wouldn’t detonate.”

“I know,” said Mahesh. “We tested that with the ten bombs you sent us as a “demo”. They were useful in helping us push back some of the other groups off the street. But too much collateral damage! Too much! The police are on our tails now, and anyway, how the hell are my people going to sell their shit on the streets when the streets are fucking blown up!?

Sheikh coughed nervously. “Well, in the next models I can try and engineer a lower intensity setting. I’m having my research team study the dynamics of our bombs’ blast radii. For now, though, just consider it a necessary evil.”

Mahesh pulled out the suitcase and unzipped it. Inside, there were hundreds of bundled stacks of money, totalling to fifty thousands dollars. Along with the money I paid Singh, that’s one hundred and fifty grand spent in a week, damn it.

“Here’s the money you were promised.” Sheikh reached a gloved hand towards the suitcase. “Oh, and, I know that you gave some of the other gangs bombs too. If I ever find out that you’ve been doing that again, my henchmen will kill you, and it will not be quick.”

Sheikh blanched, but quickly regained his composure. How the fuck could my people be so stupid?! I will have to teach them a lesson about being so braggadocious, “I’ll have to count the money, of course.”

“Be my guest.”

He was interrupted, though, by a frantic knocking at the door.

“Come in.”

The door opened, and Mahesh found himself face-to-face with a low-ranking lieutenant of his gang. The goon was out of breath, and he had clearly run a long way.

“Boss! Boss! Snake Eyes! We found three of our top guys unconscious near the SinghCorp building.  It … it looked like they had been bludgeoned with some kind of wooden board.”

Mahesh swore. “Fuck! I’m a fool! I should have seen it coming. Of course some other gang would want to claim the SinghCorp area! Did you see any signs of who it was?”

The goon shifted uncomfortably. “Well … not really. All we saw was some … soil?”

“Soil? That’s all you saw?” Mahesh asked incredulously. Then he laughed.”You think there’s a gang of fucking farmers around here or something?”

The goon opened his mouth to speak again, but Mahesh cut him off. “Don’t waste any more of my time. Sheikh, I’m sorry, but we must cut this meeting short. You can stay in the room and count the money. I’ll have one of my men contact you at a later date if there are any concerns.”

“Where are you going?” Sheikh asked.

A grim, hard smile slowly spread across on Mahesh’s face. “I’m going to remind people why they don’t fuck with Snake Eyes.”

Incubation 1.6

“The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings.” – Masanobu Fukuoka

Neil P. Letty briskly walked down Tannery Row, clutching the bag of soybean seeds in his left hand as the sun began to set. This was unfamiliar territory for him; he felt keenly conscious of his aloneness, of the imposing storefronts boxing him in, and of the impending twilight hanging menacingly around him.

Tannery Row was the ‘posh’ part of town. No hobos. Less gang violence that usual. Still, he would have to do the deed and get back home before sunset, or there was no guaranteeing he would come back alive.

You can kill the nobles of a country, you can kill the intellectuals, but you’ll never be able to kill the peasants. We live on, tending the land.

He stood up straighter. The tall burned frame of SinghCorp stood tall in Detroit’s skyline, guiding his steps.

It hit him first as a vague throbbing in the air. As he walked closer, he heard music in the air. Strobe lights and exciting whooping. He was nearing the only nightclub in the area, Unleashed; a seedy run-down place that was a popular nighttime haunt only because people had few other options.

Two teens were standing in front of the nightclub, arguing with the bouncer. As Neil got closer, he saw that they were Saagar and Tyto, two high-schoolers who lived in his apartment complex. Saagar was waving around money at the bouncer.

“You can’t lock us out like that! We’re over 21! This is a disgrace!” yelled Saagar.

“If you’re 21, then show me your ID card.” replied the bouncer coolly.

“Listen to this, uhhh…” Saagar squinted his eyes at the bouncer’s nametag. “Karan, Malhoter, I’m a fucking adult. Now if you don’t let me in, I’ma call my dad.”

“What makes you think he didn’t change his number 15 years ago when he left you?”

“Holy fuck, you did not just go there.” He lunged forward halfheartedly. “Hold me back Tyto. Tyto! Hold me back or else I’ma fuck this bastard up.”

Tyto stared at Saagar quizzically. “Are you drunk or something?”

Saagar laughed. “I’m drunk on life.”

The bouncer sighed. “Kiddo, I don’t know what drugs you are taking, but I think you need to reassess a bit. I’m double your size in every sense of the word.”

“I’m a black belt in karate …”

Karan looked at Saagar skeptically.

“Fine, a purple belt.”

Karan continued to glare at him.

“Fine, fine, I actually just shoplifted a yellow belt from a store, but that counts right?”

Tyto started to look around, as if to make sure that nobody else was there to record his embarrassment. His eyes eventually alighted on Neil. “Yo man!” he shouted, waving Neil over.

“It’s pronounced yeoman,” Neil whispered quietly to himself as he walked towards Tyto. He would not soon forget his father’s words.

“OK man, you’re on our apartment floor right. Can you help vouch for us that we’re 21?” Tyto asked.

“I need an ID,” stated Karan flatly. “Nothing else will do. It’s the rules.”

“You don’t need to follow the rules.” stated Saagar. “Be your own person. Unleash your wild side!”

“You know what,” stated Neil. “I have a better idea. Frick nightclubs. Just frick it. Follow me.”

Some time later Neil, Saagar, and Tyto had climbed the barbed-wire fence surrounding the SinghCorp building and were sitting in the burnt ashes. Red light filtered through from through the broken rafters.

Soybeans grow best in ashes. And where can you find a surplus of ashes? The burnt down SinghCorp building, of course.

“Upon this rock we will make our farm.” Neil stated imperiously.

Neil had pulled off a board from the door and was using it to make furrows in the earth. Meanwhile, Saagar was dropping the soybean seeds in and Tyto was covering them up.




The empire had begun.

The last rays of sun slipped away as the farmers looked wistfully at their future harvest.

“Holy fuck!” exclaimed Tyto.

“Yeah, I know, I still can’t believe we did it.” answered Neil.

“No, I mean, holy fuck. It’s nighttime in Detroit …”

Saagar was laughing, doing a mock rain dance in the midst of the fields. “The nighttime is when you can unleash your wild side.”

“You idiot.” Tyto stated tonelessly. “It’s nighttime in Detroit and we’re not back in our apartment.”

“Frick!” Neil exclaimed. “Frick! I completely forgot. Well, it could be worse.”

That was when it started to rain.

Incubation 1.5

In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is. — Anonymous

Cheerla sat alone in anticipation, a state he found himself to be in far too often. The seat offered by the department was a high-back chair, French in origin. The graduate student that helped Cheerla set up backstage before the speech had, upon presenting the chair, pointed out the suppleness of the leather; many a guest speaker had difficulties staying perched atop the seat, sliding off due to a lack of vigilance. This was not the case with Cheerla–he commanded the seat, gripping the armrests with purpose.

It was difficult to hear from behind the stage, not that it was particularly important to hear what was being said at this point–the editor in chief of the student journal was speaking, no doubt thanking those who had organized the event, the Princeton tradition, and other such nonsense. Cheerla removed his horn-rimmed glasses. He was virtually blind without the aid of his crystal spectacles; it was one of the reasons he kept the lenses so immaculate. In fact, so clean were the glasses that he was certain that if he were to return it to the vendors whence, they would believe them to never have been used. But this was not an occasion wherein pristine eyewear was desirable; appearances necessitated a besmirchment of the glasses. And so Cheerla dragged his thumb across both of the lenses, ensuring the marks were visible from afar. He then shuffled his hands through his hair, pushing the forelock back and getting rid of the pair through his hairline. He then examined his white vest and navy blue polo shirt, but decided against making them unkempt–it would come across as too obvious.       

Now the host for the evening, and the actual speaker introducing Cheerla, had taken the stage. Cheerla took pride in knowing that he was a speaker that required not only a host to introduce him, but also a speaker to introduce that speaker. He was at the top, always the keynote speaker, always the intellectual with the top billing; that’s the way it would always be. The host himself was known to Cheerla only vaguely; he was one of those miserable researcher/professors whose days were spent painstakingly toiling away in the corner of a laboratory past closing time for a pittance only to publish totally inconsequential papers, an act taken less for actual academic development and more so for maintaining tenure. Still, Cheerla indulged himself by listening to the hagiographical preambles that always preceded him.

“…It’s a great honor for me to be introducing the most influential thinker of this century, Professor Nick Cheerla. His passion for the field of computer science cultivated as a young child growing up in Silicon Valley, Cheerla received his Ph.D from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, his doctoral thesis, delving into the at the time unexplored field of quantum robotics, making waves throughout the academic community almost overnight. After swiftly appointed as professor of computer science, Cheerla continued the research. But his impact isn’t only observable in that field; indeed, Cheerla has made groundbreaking work in almost every single area of science in academia, from physics to econometrics to chaos theory. He’s perhaps better known for his demanding philosophical and political writings, one of which, The Consequences of Morality, thrust him into the spotlight for its articulate, yet controversial, advocation for adopting a scientific approach to questions of morality. He’s had experience both in the private sector, working with SinghCorp during its early stages of development, and the public sector, serving as an adviser in not one, but two presidential administrations, and the present one. His lecture today, titled The View from Here: the Next Hurdles for Civilization, is one that I think you’ll thoroughly enjoy. But I’ll let him show you. Ladies and gentlemen, Professor Nick Cheerla.”

So stentorian was the applause that the auditorium itself began to vibrate. Cheerla emerged from behind the stage, climbing up the stairs slowly in order to prolong the ovation. The packed theaters, the dozens of stage lights and camera flashes, the cheers of excitement: this was what motivated him. He shook the sweaty hand of the excited host, who no doubt would return to a seat in the audience and eat up every word of Cheerla’s musings.

Cheerla gripped the sides of the podium, nodding periodically as he surveyed the room, waiting for the audience to take their seats and the applause to subside. He took out his notes for the talk and cleared his throat.

“Let me quickly clean my glasses, sorry.”

The room erupted with hearty laughter and additional applause as Cheerla fumbled with a cloth.

“Now that that’s out of the way, let’s begin. The topic for today’s discussion is, as is known, the pressing issues presented to us as a civilization moving forward. It should be noted that I use the term ‘civilization’ in a cosmopolitan sense; hopefully what I discuss is applicable not only to this community, the community of the United States, but the global community. But first what’s required is an illustration of the world in the present day and an explanation of the title of this lecture, The View from Here. For this, we can turn to the metaphor traditionally attributed to Sir Isaac Newton, but actually appears in earlier writings by a French philosopher by the name of Bertrand, a man whose theories are quite interesting I might add. I’m speaking of course of the image of the dwarf standing atop the shoulders of a towering giant. It’s used in reference to the idea that those of us who search for meaning in the present build off of the work of our predecessors. That by itself is quite applicable to our current circumstances, indeed, quite applicable to me as a person. Though I’ve conducted a lot of original work as an intellectual, some credit must be given to those before me: the sparse fourier transform algorithm, the works of Bentham, Quine, Singer, Harris and others when it comes to the book referenced in the opening, The Consequences of Morality. Improving the works of others before you is in many respects the heart of science, there’s nothing controversial or plagiaristic about it. But I’ve added something of a corollary to the dwarf metaphor, which is more or less a truism: our conception of the future is heightened thanks to the work of those before us. And the view from here, unfortunately, is at present quite dire.”

Cheerla cleared his throat. “To many of you, this may come as a surprise. There is, after all, plenty of evidence that the world is getting better. Take, say, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, the scientific organization in charge of the Doomsday Clock, which everyone here knows, I’m sure. Last January they pulled back the clock three minutes, the farthest they’ve pulled it back since 2022, when I was in grad school. And that’s for a confluence of factors. Nuclear non-proliferation is one: we have significantly reduced the number of nuclear warheads in the world; I was involved, albeit tangentially, in the high level negotiations in the past few presidential administrations and continue to advise the current president1 President Aayush Jain, on such matters. “

“But the fact remains that the machinery of our world is unstable. We’re more interconnected than ever, but what that means is that small fluctuations can have global consequences. The massive stock market crash of 2020, the one that started with a trade war between China and Japan — that could have been much, much worse.” He heard a collective intake of breath from the audience.

“The world is teetering on the brink of economic and political instability, only counterbalanced by a system of trade agreements and military alliances set up around the world. One earthquake, one meteor strike, one reckless political action, and everything we’ve built up could collapse in an instant. And we can’t count on technology to save us, either; the last time that a technological innovation significantly affected GDP was over 30 years ago — the Internet.”

The slide deck moved forward, revealing a consortium of line graphs, all trending downwards.

“In my latest book, I analyze a whole bunch of social trends, ranging from ocean acidity to community trust to P/E ratio. They’re all slowly inching their way downwards. What I’m worried  — what you all should be worried about — is the day when one of these indicators starts to drop dramatically — when we ‘head off the cliff’, so to speak. If and when that happens, it may already be too late.”

“Here’s what I propose.”

Incubation 1.4

By the time you’re eighty years old you’ve learned everything. You only have to remember it. — George Burns

Christina was shuffling papers, searching for an elusive form, and behind her she heard the sound of screaming.

It happened every few hours in this place.

Over one-fifth of the seniors in the ward had dementia. Many of those patients were so far gone, riddled with one malady or another, that they could no longer move or eat unassisted. So every couple of days, someone’s grandmother or grandfather would wake up from a pleasant reverie about their childhood farm in Oklahoma, only to find themselves chained to a bed with a metallic tube jammed down their throat. Hence, the unceasing screaming, so gut-wrenchingly painful to hear that it still haunted her nightmares.

At first, she had felt guilty about not dropping her paperwork and going to their aid, trying to help calm them down, explaining to them their condition and what was going on. How naive she had been then! But she knew now that was futile — and not just because of the bureaucratic rules prevented untrained staff from interacting with patients with medical “complications”. Christina had tried helping a patient once, and the disaster that had resulted — best not to dwell on that again.

She knew too that the staff couldn’t care, didn’t have time to care. If a patient started screaming, they just injected them with sedative. And she couldn’t even blame the doctors and the nurses; they were far too overworked to spend time talking to the aging patients here. No, somewhere in her heart she blamed the families willing to fob off their relatives to unknown certified strangers. Money couldn’t buy everything, and it certainly couldn’t stop the screaming.

Next semester Christina would quit this volunteer job. She had come in thinking she could help people, only to be reduced to some kind of bureaucratic pen-pusher. A cog in a machine, vast and eldritch and deaf to pain and suffering. An object. 

Finally, with a stage-magician’s flourish, she located the S9 Liability Insurance form and signed it.

The name on the form was P. Letty. Neil P. Letty, Senior. It brought a smile to her face. Even in a job like hers, there were some rays of light.

P. Letty was a convicted felon, according to the form — he’d spent three years in jail. She hadn’t seen any tendency to criminality in P. Letty, though. In her conversations with him, he had always been unfailingly polite. He was a little old-fashioned, but that was really to be expected for a man of his age. And he was always ready with funny anecdotes about his youth working on a farm in Iowa. Making decent wages, too, as he told it, until “those machines” drove him out of a job.

She scanned through the little checkboxes on the form. P. Letty, apparently, had been addicted to crack at one point. He had no health insurance (few of the patients here did, though). And he was a widow — his wife had died 5 years ago. (She already knew that; in fact, she had tried to convince P. Letty to find a date and go to a “senior ball” a couple of weeks ago, but he had adamantly refused.)

The sound of the door opening disrupted her from her reverie. Who could it be? She watched a red-faced, out-of-breath twenty-something walk up to her desk. He was holding something in his hands. A bag of some sort? A packet of seeds?

“Excuse me, do you happen to know which room Mr. P. Letty is in?”

She did.


Neil’s father slowly opened his eyes. He squinted in the light, focusing his eyes on Neil.

“This can’t be…son? You still remember me?”

“Well, how can all those years go forgotten?” Neil fiddled awkwardly with the bag of seeds in his hand, not knowing what to say next. His father stretched an old, wrinkled hand toward the bag and tenderly massaged it. Neil glanced at his old man for a second: his father had changed since he had known him, but he had the same passionate intensity in his brown eyes.

“What … what is this? What have you brought me?”

Neil cleared his throat. “I found this package in front of my door. It came wrapped. No return address, nothing I could use to identify where it came from.”

His father’s eyes shone with excitement. “Neil, they’re seeds!”

Neil sighed. “I know they’re seeds, Dad. I didn’t grow up on a farm like you,” he mentioned, almost condescendingly, “but I still know what seeds look like.”

“I looked at the school curriculum in these cities. Nothing about farming. The only thing they teach about agriculture is that it’s bad!”

“I know, father. I know. But is there anything else you know about these seeds?”

“Ok, son, let me take a look.”

He ripped a hole in the plastic bag, then gingerly pulled out a single seed. He rubbed his fingers around the seed, studying it with an analytic gaze. Suddenly, he gasped.

“What is it, father?”

When Neil’s father finally spoke, his voice was grave. “These are real soybean seeds, Neil. Real soybean seeds. Not GMO, organic. I thought they had disappeared completely.”

Neil looked puzzled. “Do you mean that they’re valuable?”

His voice thickened, became wistful. “One of the crops I used to farm was soybeans. Monsanto, this genetic engineering company, they made their own version of soybean seeds. They grew faster, they needed less water. Pretty soon all the farmers, myself included, were using them. But there was one thing they never told us. The genetic engineers,” he spat the last word almost like a curse, “the genetic engineers made sure that the seeds could never reproduce well. Three generations, and eventually they died out. You would have to buy new seeds, and Monsanto would keep on making a profit. And when Monsanto finally went bankrupt in the big crash, well, there was no one else to make soybeans.”

Neil was shocked. “You never told me about this before, Father.”

Neil’s father shrugged. “There’s some things you just want to forget. Maybe that’s some of the reason why I became hooked on crack — I just wanted to forget.”

“That’s all over now,” remarked Neil uncomfortably.

“But you still don’t forgive me.” his father stated perceptively.

Neil hesitated, then began to reply. “No –”

His father cut him off. “Don’t lie to me, son. I’m an old man now, too old to keep fooling myself. I failed you. I’ve been failing ever since we moved to the city. But maybe your old man can make it up to you now.”

Neil nodded, too overcome with emotion to speak.

“Soybeans need lots of nitrogen to grow. They grow best in the places with a lot of ash. And they don’t need much sunlight. If you can grow a full harvest of these soybeans somewhere, anywhere, you’d be able to make a lot of money.”

“Thank you, father.” Neil’s voice was filled with confidence. He didn’t know a thing about farming, but he could learn. The blood of farmers ran in his veins.

“One last thing; the package came with a note that said ‘To: The Yeoman’. Do you know what a yeoman is?”

For the first time in his life, Neil P. Letty saw his father cry.

“Yeomen used to be the honest, hardworking ordinary farmers. Though their plots of land might be small, they made up for it with their pride, dignity, and independence. I — I used to live in the days where there were yeomen. But there are no yeomen now!”

Neil turned to leave. “I’ll plant these seeds, and I’ll make you proud, Father,” he swore to himself as his father blinked away tears.

He strode out of the nursing home with a destination in mind. He was headed for SinghCorp.

Incubation 1.3

I love power. But it is as an artist that I love it. I love it as a musician loves his violin, to draw out its sounds and chords and harmonies. — Napoleon Bonaparte

The office was huge, adorned with embellishments designed to convey opulence. It was beyond a doubt that the few given access to his throne all viewed the room as superfluously flamboyant. But Singh didn’t care–no, in fact, he wanted it to be that way. Indeed, he had the contractors install a series of aquariums for walls solely to make the office look even larger. And the view was spectacular.

“Frederick Dunlap is on line four. He says it is urgent.”

Singh heaved. What did he want now?

“Alright, patch him in. And get me Nick Cheerla.”

“Mr. Singh. I’m beginning to have doubts regarding this bill for the projects.”

Dunlap’s voice had no defining characteristics. It was as replaceable as he was. Singh had formed a principle derived from his personal experiences with politicians–their words were ultimately meaningless in that they often never conveyed their actual viewpoints. ‘Having doubts’ meant he no longer wanted to support the bill, which was absolutely unacceptable. It was really quite laughable that Dunlap would fret over something as blase as a legislative packing of tax revenue; more risible was the fact that Dunlap believed he had any hopes of getting his way with Singh.

“Fred, we’ve been over this. The House already approved it overwhelmingly, because it’s a good deal. Read the financial analysis that the interest group published. Local revenues will go up.”

“Your report was rejected by the Department of Commerce. It’s absolutely absurd. There’s no way you can evaluate the impact this would have on local revenues. You can’t predict the future.”

“Oh, but I can, Fred. This bill is in the crystal ball. You know that we’ve got to rebuild these parts of the city. The rents for these places don’t even cover a fraction of the development costs to build them. And it’s politically infeasible to inject more funds into these projects. And the developers are absorbing all the risk–the public doesn’t get hurt if the projects go broke. So hand it over to them.”

“You mean your developers. Don’t couch this bill like that, like you’re some kind of objective authority. Handing the funds over to the municipal governments instead of these private investors is the better thing to do, and you know it.”

“Fred, you don’t want to do that. You really don’t want to go there.”

“Don’t tell me what I want! You have no idea who I am, and what I’m capable of.”

“I know exactly who you are, Frederick Dunlap. You are a state senator that I bought for less than what the Goodwill store makes in ten minutes. You are not a public servant. You are my servant. I own you. Understand that. Your opinions are meaningless. If you won’t get this bill through the Senate, I’ll toss you out in an instant. Be seeing you.”  

He leaned back in his chair, straightening his tie. Dunlap had exited his mind just as quickly as he entered it.

Singh was a man who played it close to the chest, especially in such critical times. Of course, he had primed the people that needed to be clued in–giving them bits and pieces of his goals. It was amusing how myopic so many of them were, how they took the scintilla of information Singh imparted onto them and believed it to be what he truly wanted. Perhaps it was because even the least significant move in the chess game he was playing was of global consequence, though relative to the game at large, it was little to worry about. But Cheerla was the exception that proved the rule. He knew almost everything, from start to finish. Cheerla’s perpetually quivering, hastened voice chimed in through the speaker.

“This had better be worth it. I’m meant to be preparing for a lecture I’m giving in a couple of hours.”

“Just plagiarize from yourself from a couple of years ago. Nobody pays attention to those things anyways.”

“Well, academic circles certainly–”

“Yes, yes, yes. You’re the hegemon that everyone must listen to.”

“I’m worried about Bahrain. Dawson from Lockheed was boasting about the deal in private. And the opposition to that bill.”

“I took care of the bill. And don’t worry about that deal. A couple of planes here and there aren’t going to save them. And they can scale up their military as much as they want, just as long as the other side does so, too. Which they will–we don’t even need to tell them.”

“Well, what about the debt issuances? They’re trying to sell off their bonds. I thought lowering their credit rating would make them bend, but they’ve got all the banks together. They’re exploiting the interest rates. If they go up, they’ll be able to lend the borrowed money at higher rates, and if–”

“Interest rates aren’t going up anytime soon, if I have my way, which I will. And thanks to your–sorry, the President’s–policies regarding oil combined with their terrible credit ratings means the deal’s got to be really attractive, and they won’t be able to deliver. And even if they do, it doesn’t matter. The economy doesn’t matter if everyone’s dead. This is a good thing–they’re getting desperate.”  

Finally, Nick sighed. “So everything’s going according to plan. Why does that make me feel even more worried?”

He got the text from his contact half-an-hour later. “The deal is struck.”

Cheerla didn’t know, of course. No, for all Cheerla’s prescience, he was nothing more than an absent-minded academic, too concerned with petty moralisms and propriety to do what needed to be done. In order to make things better, sometimes you needed to ruin them.

The money was spread out across front companies scattered across the city. Unz Toys. Detroit Home Repair. Bob’s Construction Company. Total it up, subtract the costs associated with obfuscating the flow of money so no one would suspect embezzlement, and the cut he had negotiated with Snake Eyes only gave SinghCorp around 70 grand.

But Singh wasn’t doing this for the money. Sure, the profits wold help him crush his competitors more thoroughly and buy another politician or two — but that would be irrelevant in the long run. No, Singh had other motivations than money. And he was a patient man.



Incubation 1.2

I don’t do drugs, I am drugs. — Salvador Dali

“It’s been a long time since I’ve seen you, man!”

Neil turned towards the voice, and saw a man. Looming, adorned in torn trench-coat, prominently displaying an all too familiar tattoo, highlighted in the setting sun. His name was Richard “Rich” Tyler, but he would probably never be rich.

Rich had been an old high school friend. Rich hadn’t gotten a diploma — not that Neil’s diploma had done him any good. Rich was a drug dealer now. Rich brought back bad memories.

“So how have things been?” Rich asked.

Neil shrugged. “Same old, same old.” Please go away, please go away.

Rich had other ideas. Flashing a toothy grin, he pulled out a tab covered with a white powder.

“Want to buy some dust?”

As Neil started to protest, Rich cut him off.

“Don’t worry about the purity. Shit’s 100% pure, we don’t cut our cocaine like the other gangs do.”

100% pure makes it that much easier to OD.

A fleeting mental image. Sterile hospital gowns. The sound of screaming. Vomiting blood.

Rich probably wasn’t armed, but he was physically much bigger. Starting any kind of fight wouldn’t be a good idea.

“Nah man, you know I don’t do that stuff,” Neil casually brushed aside the offer.

“Oh come on Neil, stop with that bullshit. You know ever since the turf wars, everybody’s been doing drugs.”

Everybody?” Neil asked incredulously.

“Everybody.” Rich answered. “Have you not been paying attention to the drug wars? Too wrapped up in your passion for flipping burgers?” he continued bitterly.

“Shut the frick up. How much do you make a day, Rich?” Neil retorted.

Rich’s face fell, and Neil knew he had hit the man where it hurt.

“On my best days, fifty bucks or so …” Rich replied, embarrassed.

“That’s less than minimum wage,” Neil stated flatly. He left what they both knew unsaid: Rich wouldn’t be able to get a job, even on the lowest rungs of a fast-food chain. McDonalds usually filtered out people without a high-school diploma; with so many applicants, it could afford to. And that was without taking into account the gang tattoos that automatically disqualified him from any public-facing job. Two snakes intertwined, straddling the eyes of a skull. Fitting, because the gang led by Snake Eyes encircled the drug underworld like some kind of addictive anaconda.

“But one day, I’m going to be on top.” Rich stated. “With the turf wars, some of the lieutenants are gonna die off — then I can make my move,” he continued. “That’s why they call me Rich. It’s like a … what-do-you-call-it … an omen or something. Yeah, that’s it. An omen. I can see it in my future.”

Neil sighed. The only thing he saw in Rich’s future was an unmourned death in one of the interminable gang wars. If he was lucky, the police would get him first, and he would merely spend 10 years locked up in prison. Actually, 12 years of prison, with the mayor’s punitive new laws, but that was another story.

“I guess I have been out of the loop. Tell me a bit about what’s going on.”

Rich told him about how the Skulls had been systematically exterminated. About how Snake Eyes was gaining ground in Queens. About how Antonio’s gang had just robbed a police station to free one of their top lieutenants. About how Knuckles was openly muscling in on Marco’s territory and killing some of their foot soldiers.

The situation for the unaffiliated and the law-abiding was bad and getting worse. All the major players had somehow gotten access to a large supply of bombs — not homemade low-quality pipe bombs, but ones that caused much more property damage. The worst parts of the East Side were now complete no-go zones for cops.

One thing Rich said stuck out to Neil. The giant SinghCorp building had mysteriously burned down; it had been turned into nothing but a gutted wreck. It was certainly close enough to the East Side to be claimed, but so far no gangs had laid a stake to it. Imagining the tall building, all ashen and desolate, struck some sort of chord in Neil. Maybe it was a symbol, a metaphor for all of Detroit. The wreck left behind by progress.

As Rich was describing the desperate pleas of one of his “regulars” who didn’t have enough money to pay for his daily dose of cocaine, Neil started to feel the same cold familiar emotion.

He cut Rich off angrily. “Hey, you know my dad OD’d three times, right? The drugs ruined his life, even before the police arrested him on trumped-up charges and put him in the joint for 20 years. He was a burnt-out shell.” Rich moved to interject. “So I want to ask you one question, and I want you to ponder this very carefully. How do you live with yourself, hooking all of these innocent people on crack?”

Rich shrugged, apparently oblivious. “Hey man, it’s just business.”

The rage was in him now.

I could strike him on the side of the head with my elbow, then pin him to the ground. I could force-feed him his own tab of crack until he ODs on it. The police wouldn’t even notice it — it would just be another fatal drug overdose in a sea of users.

Neil forced himself to choke back his vivid murder fantasy, feeling a slight twinge of unease. That hadn’t been like him at all.

And in the end, it wasn’t Rich alone that was driving the crack epidemic. It was a whole legion of wannabe Richards, hoping to one day become rich slumlords. It was more than that — it was the whole damn system. Rich was no more than a brick in the wall of the gutted, burned, ruined building that was Detroit.

When Neil finally arrived at his tenement, he took the elevator to the seventh floor, then strode towards his apartment. He was troubled. If he lost his job at McDonalds, he might have no choice but to become like Rich. To join the ranks of drug-peddlers out there in the street. There but for the grace of God go I.

He reached for the door, then stopped in his tracks.

At the foot door, there was a strange blue package tied in white ribbon. A note attached to the package read ‘To: The Yeoman’.

Neil wondered what a yeoman was. He had never received mail in his life. The package could have been delivered by mistake. But somewhere deep in his heart, he felt the strange certainty that the package was meant for him.

Call it an omen, call it a prophecy, call it a curse. But Letty had always believed he was meant to be more than ordinary.

In the end, there was really no other choice. Gingerly, he untied the package, folding up the length of ribbon and putting it back in his pocket. Then, he opened it.

Inside, there was a package of seeds.

Before Neil could stop himself, he smiled.



Incubation 1.1

Neil P. Letty was an ordinary man; ordinary in every way but one.

The fake mass-produced burgers sizzled on the grill unconvincingly behind him. Today was Friday, and it was his turn to man the drive-thru. As he wiped the sweat off of his forehead with his paper hat, he heard a sharp beep; a car awaited in the drive-thru line.

“Hello, what would you like to order today… sir?”

“Uhh, give me a double pound cheese burger with a side of large fries, a vanilla milkshake, and 10 chicken nuggets. Oh, and some coke, and you better make it diet.”

“That’ll be 12 dollars and 62 cents, please.” Neil, unsurprisingly, heard no reply.

Letty paused for a second, but then mechanically set to work. He threw the items into a bag and walked to the second window to offer the customer his food. The man pulled up in a Mercedes model E, a sign of undeserved wealth and unlimited pride. Few people in Detroit had both of those qualities, and Neil despised all of them.

E109. Neil typed in the code for a double pound cheeseburger and fries. Routine business. Ordinary work.

“Your order will be 12.62. Would you like to pay with cash or credit?” Neil asked.

“No,” replied the driver.

Neil’s confusion dissipated into a bitter understanding like the scattering of autumn leaves as he saw the man pull out the shiny barrel of a gun. Well, he’d never seen a gun this close before, so he didn’t know for sure.

“Just type in that I paid and no one has to get hurt…”, he squinted his eyes. “Mr. N… Neil P… Pal… Palata.”

My name is Neil P. Letty.

Neil felt the cold rage in him, smoldering, all-encompassing, all too familiar. He was normally a peaceful guy. He never got in trouble in school, never arrested; barely anyone even knew him. But when he got like this it was almost like he was a different person. Frick him. Frick this bastard. He had enough money to buy a Mercedes but couldn’t fricking spare 12 dollars for fast-food?

There was a basin of hot frying oil sizzling on the burner nearby. What if he —

Barely, he restrained himself, forced the anger down.

Neil shrugged finally. “Ok,”, he said, handing the food over.

The man winked. “Glad we could come to an understanding, hombre.” With those signature words, Neil’s mind finally made the realization. How — what — why?

“You’re –”

“I’m Antonio.” The first name was enough to identify him. 136 criminal cases — 70 of them were murders. Leader of a gang small as it was ruthless. Notorious for robbing banks, murdering police officers, raiding drugstores, and now apparently … holding up a McDonalds? As Antonio drove away merrily, a multitude of emotions flashed across Neil’s face.

I will make a monument of your destruction.

Angry and confused, Neil P. Letty turned around. That was when he saw his boss; red-faced, furious, and inarticulate.

“You are supposed to man the register and collect the customer’s money! What part of that do you not understand!” Neil’s boss pointed an accusing finger at him. “You do not give them the food until they give you the money!”

“He was pointing a gun at me,” Neil protested angrily.

“I didn’t see any gun!” shouted his boss. As Neil opened his mouth to reply, he added, “And even if there was a gun, I’d expect you to take the bullet! Not gift him the food!”

Once more, Neil felt the anger coursing through his bones.

With all due respect, you don’t pay me enough to take a bullet for McDonald’s.

He barely stopped himself from saying it aloud.

His boss continued his tirade, “Do you know how hard it is to make food? Do you know how much effort farmers put in to raise the cows that made those hamburgers! That is not your food to give away. That is the company’s property!”

My father is… was a farmer.

“I will be deducting the cost of this little … mishap … from your salary. And if this happens again, I will not be so lenient. Do I make myself clear?”

“Crystal,” replied Neil, clenching his jaw angrily.

“And I don’t need to remind you that there’s plenty of people who would be willing to take your place.”

As Neil walked home that day, he reflected that his boss’s statement had a grain of truth. However much he disliked his menial minimum-wage job, it was infinitely better than becoming one of the drug dealers roaming the streets.

A voice interrupted his musings.  “Hey man, you look like you could do with some cheering up!”

Speak of the devil.



She picked at the raw earth with gloved hands, turned over the seed in her hands. This one was charred, sterile. Lifeless.

The next seed was purplish, ringed with the characteristic spots of sulfide poisoning. A powerful toxin. Not that there was anything living left to poison.

Soot and ash flew up into the air, a fine particulate dust polluting the air. She only had about 3 weeks worth of oxygen left — every stray pollutant, every contaminant would subtract minutes or hours from that total. Life in the dome was short and fleeting.

Seeds suck nutrients from the earth surrounding them, leaving a slight depression in the soil. They’re easy to find, if you know how to look. She saw another characteristic dent in the earth, poked a gloved hand in carefully. Here was another seed, only a slight glimmer of green distinguishing it from its dead cousins. This seed, she thought with a start, was alive.

She gingerly pulled the seed out of the ground. As she walked back into the cabin, seed in hand, she thought of tipping points.

She’d studied dynamical systems back in university, when it was already too late. They’d analyzed double pendulums, planetary orbits, seasonal crop cycles. Everywhere the same pattern emerged; small changes in the state of a system can have huge, unpredictable results. And eventually there’s always a tipping point, a point of no return, a point where conditions have changed so fundamentally that things can never be the same.

They didn’t know it then, but 2012 would be the tipping point for life on Earth.

The statisticians and climatologists had predicted that we had until at least 2030 before the negative effects of pumping our atmosphere full of CO2 would show. But they didn’t understand that statistics is really just pretty lies. Uncertainty is smoothed over, random fluctuations are ignored, data forced to fit models that are idealized and imprecise.

Turns out that staying at 4 degrees above standard temperatures for a prolonged amount of time causes the protease enzyme in plants to denature. No one could have predicted that. No one wanted to predict that.

She knew now, in the twilight of a dying world, that nothing could be done. The survivors were all like her — starving, parched, holed in climate-controlled domes scattered across the earth. Leaving the safe confines of the dome would be death. Staying inside would be death, just by slower means — starvation or dehydration instead of asphyxiation.

The cold laws of physics themselves dictated an end to it all. Tiferet, the Hebrews called it — time’s arrow. The great form-destroying process of entropy. Vases shatter, civilizations die, atoms smash into one another ever more rapidly. Things fall apart, the center cannot hold. It would be impossible to restore the earth, de-acidify the oceans, and reform the shattered elements of civilization, even if there was anybody left to try.

She had wanted to be a writer once, back in grade school. But she’d ended up going into engineering like her parents wanted her to.

Sitting at her bare minimalist desk, looking at the seed, an idea struck her. Snippets of phrases, flashes of insight.

They call him Yeoman.

A way to go back in time. A way to make things turn out right.

Warlord, conqueror, farmer.

What if someone was willing to do whatever it took? What if, back in 2012, someone did the ugly things that had to be done to stop civilization from going down the tubes? 

The sickle is mightier than the sword.

The person she had in mind wasn’t a diplomat, or a millionaire, or a president. He was an regular person, fed up with the status quo, used to getting the short end of the stick. 

She took out a pen and a piece of paper, and began to write: “Neil P. Letty was an ordinary man; ordinary in every way but one.”

She was an old woman anyway, waiting for an absolution that would never come. At least it was a way to pass the time.