A bomb exploded as my feet hit the tarmac. The concussion pushed me a few inches back up into the air, like the weighted end of a see-saw when your ass hits the ground. I rolled over and covered my head with my arms. Embers peppered the backs of my hands, and I smelled burning hair. My elbows pressed against my ears didn't block out the screaming.
I crawled towards the shelter of a wrecked white van as chunks of bricks rained down around me. My camera bag snagged on something. The bag's handle caught on a sneakered foot no longer attached to its leg.
Bile rose in my throat. I shoved a fist in my mouth to stop the vomit and terror from leaving my mouth. I pulled on the strap of my bag, tugging and twisting it until it slid off the shoe's toe. The foot flew up in the air, nearly smacking me in the face.
Five minutes ago, at six am sharp, I lay strapped to a padded procedure chair in the sterile operations room of Truth-Seekers, LLC, headed for my first assignment. My only instruction from my handler left a lot to be desired.
"Get the pictures," said Number Seven. He tightened the straps on my arms. "Bring back the evidence. You know, just the facts, ma'am." He stepped back next to the technician.
"And …?" I stretched my fingers, testing my restraints.
"And what?" He glanced at the computer screen, pointed. "Change that coordinate by minus 3." The technician turned a dial.
"A clue where I'm going, what evidence to get." Goosebumps rose on my naked legs.
"You can't be impartial if you go with preconceived notions." He nodded at me. "Just do your best," he said, "and don't die."
My molecules came unglued, dispersed through the universe, and condensed back together. I had 24 hours to gather the truth.
I leaned up against the vehicle's crumpled hull, its dented metal blocking my view of the scene beyond. My white silk t-shirt and khaki shorts had not been a practical choice. Dirt and ash smudge my bare skin, my shins are raw and bleeding. One of my pink sandals hung by a thread. I had lost a toenail.
I opened the top compart of my bag and pulled out the camera. I pressed the button that activated the feed. The light on top blinked green, indicating a positive connection to the home office. Information in the form of the five senses was now being sent back to computers storing all of the evidence I retrieve. I hung it around my neck. All I needed to do was to move through the place I found myself in.
Despite what Number Seven said, it didn't matter if I died on this mission since my data traveled in time and space back to my employer. The camera would continue to send data until its battery ran down. While alive, my heart powered it, but I was only here for one day.
I tossed away my broken sandals and replaced them with my hiking shoes and padded socks I pulled from a side compartment. I took a swig of water from my canteen to wash the dust from my mouth. I took a deep breath, held it for the count of five, then let it out slowly, counting to ten.
I heard boots pounding on the pavement, looked around the truck's fender, and saw a group of men dressed in brown, green, and tan striped camo uniforms. Bright turquoise insignias marked their caps. Some men carried unarmed RPG-7 grenade launchers, dragging them in the dirt. All held handguns. Three men peeled off from the group, entered a store, and pulled a man in a white apron out onto the street. They forced him to his knees, and all three shot the shopkeeper in the head. They took off before he fell into the gutter.
Soldiers, some in solid brown, others in dark green, chased them. They fired shots into the crowd of the tiger-clad fighters, plucking them off one by one. A military ATV brought up the rear, its machine gun unmanned. The men on foot trampled the murdered retailer, and the vehicle drove over his body.
I followed behind the troops, passing dead men in stripes, each one shot in the back. The soldiers converged on a stately white building. Two stories tall, and topped with three domes, it looked like a wedding cake, gleaming in the setting sunlight. People ran out of the main doors carrying books and papers, eyeglasses reflecting the dying sun. They were gunned down as the building took on shelling.
A man in a white banded-collar shirt and an ankle-length sari drove up in a jeep. He stood in the back, holding onto the rollbar. He used a pair of binoculars to watch the destruction. A few soldiers broke into the right-hand wing. They came back out carrying books and scrolls and tossed them into a round flower garden. They made several more trips until there was a waist-high pile of tomes.
When the sun fell below the horizon, there was a brief moment of total darkness and silence. Light sparked in several windows and the space in front of the building. The flames grew and licked the sky through collapsing roofs and shattered windows.
As the night progressed, the destruction continued but with fewer and fewer people.
I circled the property, keeping to the shadows, always facing the action to capture the situation. I moved closer to the front entrance of the destroyed building. The white sign above the portico hung down, rocking on the heat waves billowing from the door.
PUBLIC LIBRARY JAFFNA
Rubble from the statue of a four-armed goddess on a swan filled the curved driveway. I bent down and scooped dirt and ash up to rub on my bare skin and light clothing, creating makeshift camouflage. I smudged my face and hair.
I stepped over the debris and moved into the shrubbery as paramilitary troops in two distinctly different uniforms charged each other from opposite library wings. They fought with bricks and wooden planks, fists, and boots. A free-flying chunk of concrete hit me in the head.
I woke to a man pulling at my shorts. I kicked him in the groin. He grunted and bent over double. I shoved my heel into his nose as I pushed up and ran into the dark. I twisted my ankle in a hole, hitting the ground hard. I rolled onto my back, looking at the star-speckled sky. The strap of my camera wound tight around my throat. I coughed.
A tiger warrior grabbed the recorder's body, yanking it up, dragging me along with it. He stomped on my arms, trying to dislodge me. I went limp, turning into dead weight. My head and neck jerked, my body bounced on my bag.
Gunfire popped around me. Shattered flesh and bones pelleted my face. The thief fell on top of me; his hot blood drenched my shirt. I pushed his body off of me, covering the blinking green light on my still functioning camera, hiding my location until the sunrise.
My feet hit the white tile floor.
"You survived," said Number Seven. He pushed a plastic chair towards me.
I shook my head.
"Suit yourself." He shrugged. "What do you think?"
"Truth doesn't exist," I said.