Abd al-Rashid bin Tannous adjusted himself again in the uncomfortable plastic chair provided to him. The Office for the Reclamation of Islamic Artifacts operated on a limited budget, it was true, and there was a logic to avoiding wasteful expenditures on luxuries such as comfortable furniture. The Director of the Office most certainly could not be seen making an exception for himself; or, phrased differently, this Director would never be seen making such an exception. Parviz Jafari, formerly of the Islamic Republican Air Force, formerly before that of the Imperial Iranian Air Force, was not one to tolerate frivolities. Particularly as a man who had spent the last decade publicly humiliating himself to maintain his cover as a retired general and conspiracy lunatic.
Director né General Jafari was presently concluding — theoretically, Abd al-Rashid thought to himself — what must have been a twenty-five minute long phone call to a granddaughter or great-granddaughter who lived somewhere just outside of Tehran. Never having had, or cared for the idea of, children, Abd al-Rashid was systematically incapable of conceiving of what a seven-year-old girl could find to occupy twenty-five minutes of time in conversation with a grown man. Particularly twenty-five minutes of time that Director Jafari was supposed to be spending chiding, actively berating, or demoting Abd al-Rashid. He didn't know if he should have been thankful for the extra time needed to gather his thoughts or cursed the little girl for giving him more time to be fearful. Neither had any particular moral weight for him.
"Yes, my darling, I will see you this weekend. Hmm? Yes, yes. Sleep tight, dear," he said, chuckling. "I love you." Still chuckling as he returned the telephone to the receiver, he said "You really know how to kos nane kherse ghotbi, don't you?"
Realizing he was the one being addressed and not the now-unavailable preadolescent, Abd al-Rashid shook his head. "I'm sorry, s—"
"Oh, yes. That's right. You aren't fluent in Farsi. But we didn't recruit you as a linguist, did we? We recruited you as a man with command experience in covert operations." Director Jafari was still smiling as he continued, which Abd al-Rashid knew very well was a bad sign. "You came well recommended from our contacts in Ankara, you know. People who recognize…ah, here it is. "Field operative administration". That sounds suspiciously like a job that involves communication. You know, the thing where you speak to people? Possibly one of those jobs that involves working with others?"
Director Jafari then fell silent for a long time. This was not Abd al-Rashid's first time in this particular chair, and he knew he should say something, simply because that was the only way this would end without bloodshed. "Sir —"
"Fuck the polar bear."
The look of utter bafflement on Abd al-Rashid's face now would have been universal across time and space.
"I said 'you really know how to fuck the polar bear, don't you?' Persian expression. An operative I met once from Qā'idah-SCP once used a similar expression in English, ah…" Jafari paused for a moment before continuing, "'You really know how to shit the bed,' I believe the translation would go. To put it literally, 'You are remarkably, incredibly, unprecedentedly skilled at making my job profoundly difficult.'"
Abd al-Rashid was only certain of the depths of his superior's anger upon his realization that he had driven the man to use four adverbs in one sentence. The silent prayers to God in his head redoubled in intensity.
"Now, as for your behavior in Samothrace, I find myself at a bit of an impasse. You were and remain far and away the youngest man I have sent to perform a mission of that importance. I sent you there in command over Bijhan, for God's sake, a man with three times the number of years in the Organization as you have. Soothing that particular ego is not the easiest job in the world. That mission was and remains far and away one of the most difficult to justify within our limited scope of operations. If we didn't have definitive proof that Qā'idah-SCP already had operatives within the anomaly, I doubt I could have reasonably authorized it in the first place."
Director Jafari rose to his full stature and glared deep into Abd al-Rashid's eyes. "So tell me what in the name of al-Buraq's venerable airborne balls kept you from holding your tongue around the Afsanites?"
Abd al-Rashid had seen past fear and through to the other side, apparently, because with only the mildest of stutters, he replied "Sir, they're demonic. They can't be of God."
The silence that pervaded the room made Abd al-Rashid feel optimistic for a moment. It was foolish, of course, to think that argument was going to fly. But for just a moment, he could imagine that this conversation would end without too much mo —
"Did owls shit in your brain in utero, or did they have the patience to wait until the delivery?"
Abd al-Rashid's heart dropped.
"I can barely accept that you believe such nonsense. I have profound difficulty believing that you took no time to develop a better reasoning before coming in here and defending a deformed and malnourished interpretation of the Qu'ran that sounds like you cribbed it from a fourteen-year-old's final paper at his village madrasa in fucking Dhofar! You come in here with — did you even fucking read Sūrat al-Jinn? Would you like me to see if I have a Qu'ran in some pitiful torke char dialect you can comprehend?"
Shame and fear turned to anger. "You dare to slander my heritage —"
"Oh, what shame I feel, confusing you with someone who finds ethnic slurs to be trivial and casually used in everyday conversation! Please, Muhammad, praise be unto you, descend from Jannah yourself and stay my fucking tongue, lest I offend this poor, parchment-skinned boy once more!"
Director Jafari came around his desk. "Allah said unto Mohammed, peace be unto him, 'Say this: "It has been revealed to me that a group of the djinn listened and said, 'Indeed, we have heard an amazing Qur'an. It guides to the right course, and we have believed in it, and we will never compare anyone with the Lord. And it teaches that exalted is the nobleness of our Lord, that has no spouse or child; and that the foolishness we have spoken about Allah has been an excessive transgression. And we had thought that mankind and the djinn would never speak about Allah a lie.'"'"
"Sir, we have only their word that they are the djinn spoken of in the Seventy-Second Surah of the Qu'ran," Abd al-Rashid said. "These…these things are not made of smokeless fire; I touched one of them during this expedition! Solid as you or I!"
"Yes, fool, this was reported to me as well, by the Afsahnite in question," Director Jafari said, pinching the bridge of his nose. "This is another transgression that you will pay for. But it is illusion, Abd; they have no physical form whatsoever. Their bodies are fik'ra, thought-stuff, pure idea. The Qā'idah-SCP would refer to them as "sapient memetic organisms", which translates poorly to Arabic. Suffice it to say that the djinn stood before you and put forth into your mind the thought of its appearance; when you reached out to where it stood, it put forth into your mind the thought of a corporeal body. Do I know if this is the literal third race created by God? No. Do I particularly care? Most assuredly not. Doctrine is for the Revolutionary Guard; results are for the ORIA."
Abd al-Rashid paused before his next words. "Sir, that…that very nearly borders on —"
"What, blasphemy? Heresy? Treason? Whatever combination of all three now exist in this iteration of the fatherland?" Director Jafari sat back behind his desk again. "The Supreme Leader has placed me and kept me in this place regardless of my adherence to any religious or political doctrine because I have accomplished the goal of protecting the homeland, the Irānzamīn, from our external threats. The Qā'idah-SCP would colonize us, their Insurgent counterparts would conquer us outright. The UN pigdogs would dilute us. The various gangs of capitalists would exploit us, the various bands of artists would corrupt us, the various stripes of pagan fanatics want God knows what with us."
Jafari sighed, leaned across his desk, and continued. "We have our treaties with the Horizon Initiative when it suits us, but trust there is strained. You worked with them in one of the joint raids against the Clockworkers, didn't you? You understand this. Our primary advantages in this sorcerous cold war are the extensive campaigns we've undertaken to make very sure our enemies vastly underestimate our capabilities, and our alliance with the djinn. Any step you take that undermines the trust between our peoples undermines the land of our fathers. Do you understand that?" Jafari's face was sunken now, disappointed rather than angry; this revealed to Abd al-Rashid the extent of his years. "You are going to make this right. If you happen to eliminate some of your ridiculous prejudices on the way, that would be marvelous. But you will assuage those you have offended."
It was well understood by most veteran operatives within the Directorate that Parviz Jafari held an almost fatherly role over many of his employees, whether it was spoken aloud or not. The shame Abd al-Rashid felt at that moment made him understand how this was possible now with little difficulty. "I will, sir. Please, tell me what I need to do."
Businesslike again after that moment of vulnerability, Jafari reached into his desk and removed a thin manila folder. Handing it to Abd al-Rashid, he said, "These are instructions on where and when to meet up with your contact; details on how to access House Afseneh are restricted only to trusted individuals, and you will need to be accompanied by one such in order to reach it. It will be expected that you apologize to the imam of the House in person on behalf of the offended party, who is likely deployed elsewhere at the moment. The other documents in there deal with etiquette and protocol for interacting with the Afsenites; every House has different rules and procedures, and while I don't seriously expect you're familiar with anything of the sort, you need a familiarity with these rules more than you need to be able to wipe your own ass for the next three days, so I suggest you start reading. You will meet up with the contact tomorrow, so I suggest you spend that time reading."
"Yes, sir," Abd al-Rashid said. He stood, nearly saluted out of habit, and walked out with the folder.
Director Jafari turned to the next piece of business on his desk. To nowhere in the room in particular, he said, in English, "You can come out now, you know. Nobody will be coming in for the next half hour."
A pause, and then a space beside the Director's bookshelf was occupied by a tall, pretty, fair-skinned woman. Aside from thin streaks of gray barely visible in her hair, she could easily have passed for a woman in her early thirties who had lived an unusually stressful life. Not bad for a centenarian, Jafari thought to himself.
"Is he nearly as good as you claimed?" the woman asked.
"I have high hopes for him," Jafari replied. "Are you less impressed?"
Josephine shrugged. "I must admit, I'm still working on my Arabic, but it didn't seem like the boy had a great deal of confidence."
Jafari chuckled. "He called Hami Faruhar of House Afsaneh a 'depraved ifrit', apparently. I told him he had to go to the Afsanites and apologize."
Josephine looked puzzled. "How do you expect him to get into…" She paused. "I take it I'm about to take a bit of a trip with the child?"
Jafari smiled. "Well, you had been saying you were wanting to get out of Tehran for a little while. And I think some of the heat has died down, at least from the GOC. You'll have protection from our people if the magighasseb come after you, as per our agreement."
"The m — oh, magekillers?"
" 'Wizard butchers', literally," Jafari said. "Close enough. Work on the Arabic, the Farsi, or both, or rely on the telepathy if need be, but you'll need to be the boy's guide among the Afsenites. Consider it the beginning of repaying a favor."
Josephine's face darkened almost imperceptibly, then returned to normal. "Fair enough. I suppose I'm attracting plenty of unwanted attention on this part of the world from my enemies."
"That you are, dear," Jafari replied. "We will continue to protect you, but some…assistance in our operations now and then would be much appreciated."
"I can assist," Josephine replied, and faded away.
Jafari returned to the work on his desk.