There was light in his room now.
Hanging from a metal arm in the far corner was a television.
Something was written on its bottom.
Wedge relaxed his throbbing head against the pillow. With his unswollen eye, he focused on the television and the piece of text embossed at its base. It took all of his concentration but, slowly, the letters became sharper, shoring up around the edges. The image gathered itself, coming into focus. Then he could see it, in near twenty-twenty clarity, that fantastic and redeeming name: PANASONIC.
He shut his eyes and swallowed away a slight lump of emotion in his throat.
“Good morning, Major Wedge,” came a voice as it entered. Its accent was haltingly British, and Wedge turned his attention in its direction. The man was Persian, with a bony face cut at flat angles like the blades of several knives, and a precisely cropped beard. He wore a white orderly coat. His long, tapered fingers began to manipulate the various intravenous lines that ran out of Wedge’s arms, which remained cuffed to the bed frame.
Wedge gave the doctor his best defiant stare.
The doctor, in an effort to ingratiate himself, offered a bit of friendly explication. “You suffered an accident, Major Wedge,” he began, “so we brought you here, to Arad Hospital, which I assure you is one of the finest in Tehran. Your accident was quite severe, but for the past week my colleagues and I have been looking after you.” The doctor then nodded to the nurse, who followed him around Wedge’s bedside, as though she were the assistant to a magician in the midst of his act. “We very much want to return you home,” continued the doctor, “but unfortunately your government isn’t making that easy for us. However, I’m confident this will all get resolved soon and that you’ll be on your way. How does that sound, Major Wedge?”
Wedge still didn’t say anything. He simply continued on with his stare.
“Right,” said the doctor uncomfortably. “Well, can you at least tell me how you’re feeling today?”
Wedge looked again at the television; PANASONIC came into focus a bit more quickly this time. He smiled, painfully, and then he turned to the doctor and told him what he resolved would be the only thing he told any of these fucking people: His name. His rank. His service number.
09:42 MARCH 23, 2034 (GMT-4)
He’d done as he’d been told. Chowdhury had gone home. He’d spent the evening with Ashni, just the two of them. He’d made them chicken fingers and french fries, their favorite, and they’d watched an old movie, The Blues Brothers, also their favorite. He read her three Dr. Seuss books, and halfway through the third—The Butter Battle Book—he fell asleep beside her, waking after midnight to stumble down the hall of their duplex to his own bed. When he woke the next morning, he had an email from Wisecarver. Subject: Today. Text: Take it off.
So he dropped his daughter at school. He came home. He made himself a French press coffee, bacon, eggs, toast. Then he wondered what else he might do. There were still a couple of hours until lunch. He walked to Logan Circle with his tablet and sat on a bench reading his news feed; every bit of coverage—from the international section, to the national section, to the opinion pages and even the arts—it all dealt in one way or another with the crisis of the past ten days. The editorials were contradictory. One cautioned against a phony war, comparing the Wén Rui incident to the Gulf of Tonkin, and warned of opportunistic politicians who now, just as seventy years before, “would use this crisis as a means to advance ill-advised policy objectives in Southeast Asia.” The next editorial reached even further back in history to express a contradictory view, noting at length the dangers of appeasement: “If the Nazis had been stopped in the Sudetenland, a great bloodletting might have been avoided.” Chowdhury began to skim, coming to, “In the South China Sea the tide of aggression has once again risen upon the free peoples of the world.” He could hardly finish this article, which sustained itself on ever loftier rhetoric in the name of pushing the country toward war.
Chowdhury remembered a classmate of his from graduate school, a Navy lieutenant commander, a prior enlisted sailor who’d gotten his start as a hospital corpsman with the Marines in Iraq. Walking past his cubicle in the study carrels one day, Chowdhury had noticed a vintage postcard of the USS Maine tacked to the partition. When Chowdhury joked that he ought to have a ship that didn’t blow up and sink pinned to his cubicle, the officer replied, “I keep it there for two reasons, Sandy. One is as a reminder that complacency kills—a ship loaded out with fuel and munitions can explode at any time. But, more importantly, I keep it there to remind me that when the Maine blew up in 1898—before social media, before twenty-four-hour news—we had no problem engaging in national hysteria, blaming it on ‘Spanish terrorists,’ which of course led to the Spanish-American War. Fifty years later, after World War Two, when we finally performed a full investigation, you know what they found? The Maine blew up because of an internal explosion—a ruptured boiler or a compromised ammunition storage compartment. The lesson of the Maine—or even Iraq, where I fought—is that you better be goddamn sure you know what’s going on before you start a war.”
Chowdhury closed his newsfeed. It was nearly lunch time. He walked home lost in thought. His desire for de-escalation didn’t stem from any pacifistic tendencies on his part. He believed in the use of force—after all, he worked on the National Security Council staff. His fear of escalation was more instinctual. Inherent in all wars, he knew, was a miscalculation: When a war starts, both sides believe that they will win.