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Dunyayi Kurtaran Adam
An adaptation by Cheeseburger Brown
unyayi Kurtaran Adam, an adaptation of George Lucas' STAR WARS, Cheeseburger Brown, illustration by Matthew Hemming

I

The idiot could have been carved out of stone.

His eyes were fixed at infinity, unwavering. His mouth hung slightly open, his tongue gently pushing forward and back with the rhythm of his slow breath. Otherwise he was a statue.

Zuleika closed her eyes, muttered a prayer, and snapped her fingers. The idiot shuddered almost imperceptibly, his pupils flitting from side to side. There came a sudden rumble, and the bus shook. Startled, the idiot gasped. Zuleika withdrew from the bench seat, disappearing up the aisle as the vehicle rushed through the night, the thump of pursuing helicopters and the staccato crackle of their gunfire sounding dully beyond the reinforced glass.

"Sayyid!"

He turned to the new voice: a tense, distraught cry moving toward him through the crowded bus. His friend Hamal was then at his arm, pulling his shoulder around to face him. "Did you hear that? They've destroyed the gun car -- we're doomed!"

The bus began to shudder and bounce as it left the highway, swerving around the burning carcasses of the convoy's lead cars. Hamal fell against Sayyid and both slid off the bench, spilling to the floor. The fires outside the windows were obscured by a wall of dust as the bus skidded across the sand, diffuse orange shadows playing across the faces of the grim-faced passengers. The bus stopped with a lurch.

Hamal looked around in panic as the lieutenant began barking commands, ordering everyone to grab weapons and prepare to repel the infidels. The sound of the helicopters chopping the air became overwhelming. "Sayyid!" Hamal cried, groping in the semi-dark. "Sayyid, where are you?"

The idiot was crouching on the floor at the rear of the bus, twisting the arm of the emergency door and kicking it open. A rush of sandy air blew over him as he squirmed over the threshold and dropped from sight.

"Sayyid!"

From the front of the bus came the sound of breaking glass, overlapping shouting in Arabic and English. Hamal's heart hammered in his chest, his knees quivering. The convoy was compromised -- a bloody firefight was inevitable. There was no course left but madness.

"This is madness!" Hamal wailed, throwing himself headlong through the emergency hatch and into the night. He hit the ground hard, rolled to his hands and knees and cast his gaze about blindly through the haze of flying sand and flashing lights.

A hand found his shoulder, and he saw that it was Sayyid. He squeezed Hamal's narrow arm and pulled him to his feet.

"Where are we going?" gasped Hamal, coughing on sand and fighting to regain his breath as his stumbled along behind his short friend.

But the idiot had no answer. He pushed relentlessly into the desert night, scampering up the face of one dune and sliding down the next, each rise and fall taking the two friends further away from the wounded convoy and the beating thrum of the helicopters.


II

Zuleika pressed herself against the wheel-well of the bus, her cheek against the cool sand and her nostrils full of the stink of diesel as she watched the soldiers' ankles. She tightened her grip on her pistol, barely breathing.

But they found her. She felt one of their gloved hands close around her ankle a moment before being hauled out from beneath the bus. She shot one of them in the face before they managed to wrestle her into manacles, tearing her burqua in the process.

She was roughly propelled along at gunpoint, pushed back inside the bus and escorted down the aisle toward the imposing form of a tall, broad-shouldered man in dark, loose robes. "Imam Nur," she spat, shaking free the restraining hands of the soldiers. "Only you could be so bold. The security council won't sit still for this. When they hear you've attacked a relief mission on the way to --"

"Do not act so surprised, Highness," rumbled Nur, stepping toward her menacingly. "If this is a mercy mission then where are the rations? Where are the medicines, Highness?"

"I don't know what you're talking about. I'm a member of the Red Crescent on a relief mission from Canada. We're transporting badly needed medical personnel --"

"Enough!" barked Nur, closing his fist with a snap only inches from her veiled nose. "You're a terrorist spy and a traitor. Take her away!"

The commander as his side turned to him as Zuleika was dragged away. "Holding her is dangerous. If word gets out it could generate sympathy for the Red Crescent in the security council."

"I have traced the terrorists to her. Now she is our only link to find their training camps."

"She'll die before she tells you anything."

"Leave that to me. Send a distress signal and then inform the security council that all aboard were killed by highwaymen."

Nur turned abruptly and stepped out through the emergency door, pushing his boot experimentally through the windblown sand and then scanning the horizon. Like a woman, his face was swathed in dark fabric save for a narrow slit for his eyes, the skin around which was twisted with burn scars. A quick gesture was met with the rapid approach of several troops.

"Who came out this way?" hissed Nur.

"No one was seen leaving the vehicle, sir," replied one of the troops in crisp tones. "The hatch may have blown accidentally, sir."

Another soldier jogged up and saluted. "Imam, there is no sign of the target data anywhere in the convoy."

Nur grunted. "She must have smuggled the plans out on a mule, through this hatch," he said, nodding slowly. "Deploy a detachment to search the desert. See to it personally, Commander. They will be no one to stop us this time."

"Yes, Imam."

Imam Nur clasped his hands behind his cloaked back, surveying the scene as the terrorist soldiers were rounded up and disarmed. He cast his eyes upward, to Allah. The sky was a canopy of deepest black and hard, unblinking stars.


III

Sayyid and Hamal trudged across the desert, every three purposeful paces of the short idiot matched by one long, weary stride from his friend. The sun rose. They ceased to shiver and began to bake, casting the clothes they had been pulling closer around them aside. "It must be our lot in life to suffer," moaned Hamal, wrapping his tie around his head to absorb the rivulets of sweat running down his face. "We're doomed."

Sayyid surveyed the bleak landscape quietly, blinking, his mouth hanging open. He pointed toward a row of low hills on the horizon and began tugging on Hamal's sleeve.

"I'm not going that way," declared Hamal. "It's much too rocky. Besides, I'm sure the highway is back this way. Come on, Sayyid."

But Sayyid would not budge. His face pinched with consternation as pulled on Hamal's sleeve. When the idiot set his mind to something he was worse than an ass.

"Go that way then!" yelled Hamal. "You'll give up in under than an hour."

And so Sayyid set off in one direction and Hamal set off in another. The idiot sadly watched his friend march stiffly away from the hills, heading for the flat and shimmering opposite horizon. But Sayyid was charged with a mission more important than friendship, and he could not hesitate. "No more adventures!" jeered Hamal, but Sayyid was already gone.

It was not long, however, before Hamal found company: a horde of Bedouins who beat him, tied a sack over his head and tossed him over the back of a camel.


IV

Twin Apache helicopters tore across the cloudless sky, their fuzzy shadows slipping up and down over the faces of the dunes. Down below, platoons of tan-fatigued soldiers walked marched across the sand, scanning the ground for any sign of the mules' trail.

Their radios blared American pop songs. Their headsets crackled with communiques.

The commander in charge was beginning to fear having to admit failure to Imam Nur until a young corporal from Ohio knelt down to scoop something out of the sand -- a glinting half-moon lens. "Look sir: clerks," he reported, turning the glass fragment in his gloved hand.


V

It was in the shadowy covered rear of the Bedouins' clattering truck that Hamal awoke, dizzy and sore. He did not know how much time had passed but the harsh light leaking through the canvas sides told him it was still day.

His eyes adjusted to the gloom he looked around. He was surrounded by the dour faces of other men, most of them with bruised. As he scanned those faces he was forced to double back. "Sayyid? Is that you?"

The idiot grinned, and so did Hamal. "It is you, it is you!" he cried happily.

Just then the truck shuddered to a stop. The rear was thrown open and Bedouins with their long knives were barking orders at them, telling them to get out of the truck and assemble along its side. Hamal and Sayyid emerged, squinting in the desert glare. "Will this never end?" lamented Hamal under his breath.

His vision cleared.

The truck was parked alongside a crumbling stone wall that enclosed a small homestead nestled into the desert rocks. A grizzled old man in tattered robes was approaching, escorted by a Bedouin in brown. The duo moved slowly up the line of squinting, beaten men, appraising them one by one. When they came upon Hamal the man grunted, "You don't look like you've done a hard day's work in your life, stick-man. I have no need for an accountant."

"Indeed sir," piped up Hamal, "not in an environment such as this. That is why I have been educated as a translator to --"

"Do you speak Farsi?" barked the man, pinning Hamal with his intense little brown eyes.

"Of course I do sir, it's like a second language to me --"

"Alright, shut up. I'll take this one," he snapped to the Bedouin. He called out to a teenager who hung on the periphery. "Hashim! Take this one and the nigger down to the labourers' quarters, and get them cleaned up for work tomorrow."

The youth's face dropped. "But Uncle Muhammed -- I was going in to Medina to pick up some a battery --"

"You can waste time with your friends when your chores are done," grumbled Muhammed shortly.

Young Hashim sighed. "Come on," he said to Hamal. "You too, blackie," he called to the tall African standing by the cab. "Let's go."

But the African collapsed as soon as he left the shade of the truck. "Hey, what are you trying to push on me?" demanded Muhammed angrily, turning on the Bedouin in brown, who made rapid apologies.

"Sir," said Hamal timidly, tapping the teenager on the shoulder. "If you'll forgive me I might recommend the short, stalky gentleman over there. He may not look like much, but he's in prime condition. I've worked with him before."

"Uncle Muhammed!" called Hashim. "What about that one?"

And so the idiot joined them while Muhammed and the Bedouin did business. Hamal explained to the youth: "Sayyid doesn't say much, but he can count a pound of spilled pebbles before they even hit the ground. He is gifted, in his way." To Sayyid he whispered: "Why I should stick my neck out for you is quite beyond me!"

Sayyid grinned, and trotted along behind them.


VI

Hashim brought the odd couple to the labourers' quarters, pausing at the treshhold to beat the dust out of his hair. He showed them their cots, outlined the farm routine, and explained how long they would have to serve in order to pay off their debt to Muhammed as indentured workers. "I understand, Master," agreed Hamal in a respectful tone.

"Oh, you can call me Hashim," he replied.

"And I am Hamal bin Imad, accountant and translator. This is my counterpart, the idiot-savante Sayyid bin Ismail," recited Hamal, gesturing to his squat and silent friend.

The youth knelt before Sayyid and dabbed gently at a cut on the side of the idiot's face. "It looks like you boys have seen some action," he said idly.

"With all we've been through sometimes I'm amazed we're in as good condition as we are," sighed Hamal. "What with the jihad and all."

Hashim dropped the bandage and turned quickly to Hamal, his eyes wide. "You know of the jihad against America?"

"That's how we came to be in your service, if you take my meaning, sir."

Hashim sighed again, muttered a prayer under his breath, and then snapped his fingers in a frustrated gesture as he straightened and regarded the two men. To his surpise Sayyid suddenly spoke up, reciting in a clear but flat tone: "Help me Hakim Salim, you're my only hope."

"I thought you said he didn't speak," whispered Hashim, eyes fixed on the strange little man.

"He doesn't...usually," admitted Hamal, furrowing his brow. "What was that, Sayyid?"

"Help me Hakim Salim, you're my only hope," repeated the idiot.

Hamal hesitated. "Sayyid has been known to speak, very occasionally, when he's been asked to memorize something specific. That one of his gifts -- memorization."

"Hakim Salim..." echoed Hashim thoughtfully, sitting down on a dirty cot. "I wonder if he's related to Old Joe Salim..."

"I beg your pardon sir, but do you know who he's talking about?" ventured Hamal.

"Well, I don't know any Hakim Salim, but Old Joe Salim lives out beyond the mesa flats. He's kind of a strange old hermit." Hashim rubbed his chin, considering. Then a voice sounded from the homestead, calling him to table. He nodded curtly to the two new labourers and pensively crossed the compound...

Uncle Muhammed and Aunt Yasmin were already sitting on pillows around the table, scooping rice out of a large bowl with scraps of flat bread. "You know," said Hashim carefully, "I think those new labourers might have been involved with Al-Qaeda."

Muhammed grunted, chewing his food. "What makes you say that?"

"The little one said he had a message for Hakim Salim," replied Hashim. I thought he might have meant Old Joe."

Muhammed frowned, pushing aside his bowl roughly. "He's just a crazy old man -- forget about it. The short one works for us now, and that's the end of it."

"But what if this Hakim Salim comes looking for him?"

"He won't," grunted Muhammed, resuming his meal. "I don't think he exists any more. He died about the same time as your father."

"He knew my father?" gasped Hashim excitedly.

"I told you to forget it," barked Muhammed. "Your only concern is to get those workers up to speed so they can help repair the irrigators on the south ridge."

"Yes sir," mumbled Hashim, pawing at his food idly. "I think those two and the Farsi gang are going to work out just fine." He swallowed. "In fact, I was also thinking about our agreement -- and I want to fax my application to university this year."

Muhammed shook his head. "Harvest is when I need you the most, Hashim. This year we'll make enough that I can hire more proper hands, and you can go to university next year."

"But it's a whole 'nother year!" whined Hashim.

"It's only one more season," sighed Muhammed in a conciliatory tone, but Hashim pushed his unfinished food aside and stood up.

"Where are you going?" asked Yasmin, concerned.

"Looks like I'm going nowhere," muttered Hashim, leaving.

Yasmin sighed. "Muhammed, he can't stay here forever. Most of his friends have already gone."

"I'll make it up to him next year," grunted Muhammed. "I promise."

"He's just not a farmer, Muhammed. He has too much of his father in him."

A shadow passed over Muhammed's features, and he glowered. "That's what I'm afraid of," he said softly.


VII

Hashim stalked into the labourers' quarters, passing through the blue clouds from their pipes and the thick laughter of their coarse chatter. He looked around for the newest workers, furrowing his brow. "Hamal bin Imad!" he called.

Hamal poked his thin, bronze face out from the recess at the end of the hall. His eyes flittered around nervously. "It wasn't my fault, sir. Please don't beat me. I told him not to go, but he wasn't rational -- kept babbling on about his mission."

"Oh no," moaned Hashim, rushing out of the dormitory and back outside. He scanned the horizon quickly, the setting sun melting into the sand in a broad, red pool. "He's nowhere in sight."

"Pardon me, sir," said Hashim, emerging behind him, "but couldn't we go after him?"

"It's too dangerous with all the highwaymen and raiders around. We'll have to wait until morning," sighed Hashim, hanging his head. "You know, that little freak is going to cause me a lot of trouble."

"Oh, he excels at that, sir," agreed Hamal.


VIII

Come morning Hashim and Hamal were bounced across the sand in a battered dune-buggy, twin crow-tails of dust billowing up in their wake. They hit the mesa flats and Hamal gripped his seat as Hashim steered recklessly around the columns of rock, a habit of long familiarity.

The buggy came to a skidding halt as they spotted a small figure moving slowly but purposefully among the rocks. "Sayyid, you fool!" shouted Hamal as they climbed out.

"Where do you think you're going?" demanded Hashim, grabbing Sayyid by the arm.

"Help me Salim Hakim, you're my only hope," said the idiot.

"Master Hashim is your only boss now, Sayyid," retorted Hamal. "We'll have no more of this Salim Hakim jibberish. You're fortunate he doesn't lop off your legs right here!"

"No, it's okay. But let's get back," said Hashim seriously, leading Sayyid back toward the buggy. Sayyid did not resist at first, but midway began to twist in Hashim's grasp, his eyes suddenly fixed on a nearby outcropping. His eyes widened and he jibbered unintelligibly. "What's with him now?" groaned Hashim, rolling his eyes at Hamal.

"Danger, sir," reported Hamal seriously. "He's never wrong."

And then the bandits were upon them, shrieking and brandishing rifles. Hashim was caught across the head with the butt of one of them, crumpling unconscious to the ground. Hamal toppled backward, disappearing from sight. Sayyid hid behind a boulder, crouching low as the bandits leapt upon the buggy and began ransacking it in search of loot.

Just then a fell cry sounded through the canyon -- moaning and inhuman, forming the names of evil djinns and daemons. The bandits froze, and then scattered.

An old, hooded man climbed carefully between the rocks, picking his way around the large boulders and then kneeling beside the prone teenager. He looked up and locked eyes with Sayyid. He peeled back his hood, revealing striking eyes shining out of a wizened face swathed in a bramble of white beard. "Hello there. Come here, my friend. Don't be afraid."

Sayyid cautiously stood up and walked over to the old man.

"Don't worry, he'll be alright," the old man assured him. Hashim's eyes fluttered and he sat up, leaning dazedly on one arm.

He blinked. "Joe? Joe Hakim?"

"The flats are not to be travelled lightly. Tell me, young Hashim, what brings you out this far?"

"This strange little mute-man," said Hashim, allowing Old Joe to help him to his feet. "He claims to have business with a Salim Hakim. Is he a relative of yours?"

Old Joe's eyes became distant, and he let himself down to sit on a small boulder. "Salim Hakim..." he said airily. "Salim Hakim...now that's a name I haven't heard in a long time. A long time."

"I think my uncle knew him," said Hashim. "He said he was dead."

"Oh, he's not dead," smiled Old Joe. "Not yet."

"So you do know him," replied Hashim.

"Well of course I know him -- he's me," said Old Joe thoughtfully. "I haven't gone by the name of Salim since, oh, before you were born."

"Then the mute..."

Old Joe regarded the brown little man, whose mouth was hanging characteristically agog. "I can't seem to recall ever knowing a mute."

"Well, he's not entirely a mute," admitted Hashim. "He's memorized some kind of a message. His friend says he can memorize anything...something about it being one of his gifts. He's an idiot-savante."

Old Joe considered the little man further. "Very interesting. But tell me, who is this friend?"

Hashim's eyes went wide. "Hamal?" He run from one side of the canyon to the other, searching for signs of the tall, skinny clerk. "Hamal!" He finally spotted him, lying prone in a wash of pebbles at the bottom of a hill.

Hamal was not badly injured, though he had cut up his arm. Old Joe and Hashim helped him to his feet and lead him back to the buggy. Old Joe warned, "We'd best get indoors. These bandits are easily startled, but they will soon be back -- and in greater numbers."


IX

Beyond the mesa flats sat the humble hovel of Old Joe Hakim, barely more than a cave with a door. The sun slanted through the small round windows, illuminating piles of rubbish and papers, catching the flights of dust motes kicked up as the old man shuffled about the room putting on a pot of Turkish coffee. The smell filled the small home.

"...No, my father didn't fight in the wars," Hashim was chuckling. "He was a navigator on an oil freighter."

"That's what your uncle told you," corrected Old Joe patiently. "He didn't hold with your father's ideals...thought he should have stayed here, not gotten involved." He gazed wistfully out the window for a while, stroking his beard. "Your father was a cunning warrior -- and a good friend. Which reminds me..."

Hashim watched as Old Joe crossed the room and opened a trunk, rifling through its contents as he continued: "He would have wanted you to have this, but your uncle wouldn't allow it. He feared you might follow old Salim on some damned-fool idealistic crusade like your father did."

Old Joe turned around, the shining blade of a curved scimitar in his hands. Hashim was speechless, his eyes fixed on the weapon. "What is it, exactly?"

"Your father's sabre. This is the weapon of a holy warrior. Not as clumsy or random as a gun." Salim passed the scimitar to Hashim, who hefted it experimentally, examining the ornate handle and blade of polished steel. Said Salim, "An elegant weapon for a purer time. This was the holy instrument of justice, before the dark times...before America."

"How did my father die?" asked the teenager, suddenly.

Salim swallowed. "A young warrior named Nur, who was a pupil of mine until he betrayed Islam, helped America hunt down and destroy our holy protectors." He turned to Hashim and looked him in the eye. "He betrayed and murdered your father."

In the ensuing silence Salim regarded the squat little man who had brought them together, sitting sedately on the divan beside Hamal. Salim spoke to Sayyid, but received no response. He clapped his hands. He shouted. And finally he muttered a prayer and snapped his fingers before the idiot's eyes -- and with that the idiot blinked and began to speak:

"Imam Hakim -- this message comes from Zuleika: years ago you served my father in the jihad against Britain. Now be begs you to help him in his struggle against America. I regret that I am unable to present this request to you in person, but my convoy has fallen under attack and I'm afraid my mission to bring you to Canada has failed. Information vital to the survival of Al-Qaeda has been memorized by this simple soul. My father will know how to retrieve it through hypnosis. You must see this clerk safely delivered to him at the Canadian consulate in Saudi. This is our most desperate hour. Help me Salim Hakim, you're my only hope."

Salim sat back on the divan and stroked his beard. He then turned to Hashim and said decisively, "You must learn the ways of the jihad if you're to come with me to Canada."

Hashim laughed. "Canada? I can't go to Canada. I've got to go home. It's late, and I'm in for it as it is."

"I need your help, Hashim. Islam needs your help. I'm getting too old for this sort of thing."

"I can't get involved -- I've got work to do. It's not that I like America, I hate it, but there's nothing I can do about it right now. It's all such a long way from here..." said Hashim softly, looking away.

"That's your uncle talking."

"Look, I can take you as far as al-Wagh. You can get transport there to Jiddah, or wherever you're going."

Salim nodded slowly, eyes focused in the distance. "You must do what you feel is hijab, of course."


X

The glittering waters of the Arabian Sea were cloven by the prow of an aircraft carrier of massive proportions, its ports alive with light and its decks aswarm with busy sailors. A squadron of helicopters approached from the north and each in turn landed and were locked down. Imam Nur emerged from his craft, the wind from the still spinning blades casting his dark robes about him in a flurry.

The meeting was already in progress as he strode through the doors, the bleating of Colonel Taggert resounding through the star chamber. "Until this missile platform is fully operational we are vulnerable. The Al-Qaeda network is everywhere. They're more dangerous than you realize."

Admiral Motts sniffed. "Dangerous to your ground forces, Colonel, not to this warship."

Taggert shook his head. "The terrorists will continue to thwart us as long as the security council..." He trailed off as all eyes in the star chamber turned to Imam Nur, who took his place at the right hand of Dick Cheney.

Cheney presented a small, tight smile. "The security council will no longer be of any concern to us. I've just received word that the President has dissolved the council permanently. The last remnants of liberal cowardice have been wiped away."

Taggert's eyes widened. "Impossible! How will the President maintain control without the assent of the other nations?"

Cheney smiled his tight little smile again. "Fear will keep our neighbours in line. Fear of this warship, and its missile platform."

Taggert snorted. "And what of Al-Qaeda? If the terrorists have obtained a complete technical readout of this vessel it is possible -- however unlikely -- that they might find a weakness and exploit it."

Motts leaned back and crossed his arms confidently. "Any attack against this warship would be a useless gesture, no matter what technical data they've obtained. This vessel is now the ultimate mobile missile launch site on the planet. I suggest we use it."

Rumbled Imam Nur, "Do not be too proud of this technological terror you have constructed. The ability to destroy a city is insignificant next to the power of Allah."

Motts laughed. "Don't try to frighten us with your zealot's ways, Nur. Your sad devotion to that religion has not helped you conjure up the stolen plans, or given you clairvoyance enough to find Al-Qaeda's hidden training camps --" His words pinched off as he watched Nur push back his cloak to rest his hand on the hilt his scimitar.

"I find your lack of faith disturbing, infidel."

"Enough of this!" snapped Dick Cheney. "This bickering is pointless. Imam Nur will provide us with the location of the terrorist training camps by the time this warship is operational. We will then crush Al-Qaeda with one swift stroke."


XI

Hashim and his companions stood beside the dune-buggy, surveying the blackened, smoldering ruin that had been Hashim's home. Amid the rubble were the charred bodies of his uncle and aunt, the stink of meat filling the dry air. "Bedouins...?" whispered Hashim, numb with shock and grief, kneeling over a blackened Bedouin knife.

"No. Only American troopers are so precise," said Salim, shaking his head.

Hashim's shoulders drooped. "I want to come with you to Canada. There's nothing for me here now. I want to learn the ways of the fatwah, and become a holy warrior like my father."

Salim put his hand on Hashim's shoulder, and squeezed it comfortingly. Hamal and Sayyid just stared in silence, knowing that this carnage had come in their wake.


XII

Young Hashim Nabil and Salim "Old Joe" Hakim entered the decrepit cantina, dust billowing in behind them until they managed to push the door fast again. In a moment their eyes adjusted to the gloom, and a room full of shadowy figures took form hunkering over ornate hookahs and little cups of steaming coffee. The ceiling was an inverted sea of slowly undulating smoke whorls.

"Watch yourself," whispered Salim. "This place can be a little rough."

Hashim tried not to catch the eye of the glowering characters that filled every corner as he sauntered in what he hoped what a casual fashion up to the dingy bar. He tugged on the barman's sleeve, and was handed a dirty cup of foamy coffee.

Hashim was about to sip from it when he was jostled rudely aside by an ugly, barrel-chested man with a patchy beard and mad eyes. At his elbow was a slimy, slant-eyed yellow man with strangely sensual lips. "He doesn't like you," he said in heavily accented Arabic.

"I'm sorry," mumbled Hashim, turning away.

"I don't like you either," spat the yellow man. "You watch yourself. We're wanted men. I have the death sentence in twelve countries."

"I'll be careful," said Hashim.

But the rough duo would not be appeased. "You'll be dead!" shouted the yellow man, reaching into his grubby vest and drawing out a pistol.

Suddenly Salim was at Hashim's elbow, gently pushing him aside. "This little one isn't worth the effort," Salim declared evenly. "Come, let me buy you a drink --"

The barrel-chested one thumped Hashim harshly, sending him stumbling across the cantina and crashing into a nearby table. He heard a terrible shriek, and when he looked back Salim was standing with the polished blade of his scimitar poised before him: the barrel-chested ruffian had lost an arm, and was already fleeing the cantina with the help of his yellow companion. Salim took a moment to appraise the crowd and, deciding his authority had been established, casually wiped a smear of blood from his blade and resheathed it beneath his robes. He then walked to the smashed table and helped Hashim to his feet.

Salim lead him over to a tall, round-headed brute with red skin and slitted eyes, his face buried within matted locks of beard and long black hair. "This is Chagatai the Mongol," introduced Salim. "He's first-mate on a ship that might suit our needs."

Hashim and Salim were escorted by the Mongol to a dark booth at the back of the cantina. Seated there was a young, brown-faced rogue, sitting carelessly and stirring the remains of his drink with his finger. He looked up as the companions approached, and gave them a sort of weary half-smile. "Nadim Zero," he introduced himself brusquely. "I'm captain of the Prophet's Passage. Chagatai here tells me you want to get to Jiddah."

"Yes indeed," nodded Salim as he sat down. "If it's a fast ship."

"Fast ship? You've never heard of the Prophet's Passage?"

"Should I have?"

Nadim Zero leaned back in the booth and boasted that he had made the Red Sea Run "in less than twelve miles." Reading Salim's blank look he continued: "I've outrun British customs boats. She's fast enough for you, old man. What's the cargo?"

"Only passengers," replied Salim smoothly. "Myself, the boy, two clerks, and no questions."

Nadim Zero chuckled. "What is it? Some kind of local trouble?"

"Let's just say we'd like to avoid any...American entanglements."

"Well, that's the real trick, isn't it?" smiled Nadim. "And it's going to cost you something extra. Ten thousand, in advance."

"Ten thousand?" echoed Hashim incredulously, speaking for the first time. "We could almost buy our own ship for that!" He stood up suddenly. "We don't have to sit here and listen to this --"

Salim put his hand on Hashim's arm, gently urging the impassioned teenager to regain his seat. To Nadim he said, "We can pay you two thousand now, plus fifteen when we reach the consulate."

"Seventeen, huh?" replied Nadim, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. "Okay, you got yourself a ship. We'll leave as soon as you're ready. Dock ninety-four."


XIII

The monumentally large air-craft carrier Freedom's Star moved through the twilight at a stately pace, the pin-pricks glows of towns along a coast cresting the horizon and glittering on the waves. Inside the control room Imam Nur paced back and forth, hands clutched behind his back. "Her resistance to questioning is considerable."

Dick Cheney arched a wiry eyebrow pensively. "Perhaps she would respond to an alternative form of persuasion."

"What do you mean?" demanded Nur.

"I think it is time we demonstrate the full power of this warship." Cheney turned to the helmsman and said, "Set your course for the Canadian embassy at Jiddah."

The helmsman nodded curtly. "Aye, sir."


XIV

Salim Hakim, Hashim and the clerks walked down the pier at the farthest end of the al-Wagh seaport, their robes billowing in a salty wind. When they came at last to the derelict dock marked 94 they double-checked to make sure they had seen the number correctly; moored at their feet was a large, rusted scow covered in peeling paint and marked by scores of patchy repairs. Hashim shook his head incredulously. "What a piece of junk!"

Nadim Zero poked his head out from a compartment on the rear deck. "She may not look like much but she's got it where it counts, kid. I've made a lot of special modifications myself."

Hesitantly, the party stepped aboard. Hamal looked reluctant to let himself come in contact with any part of the filthy cargo ship. Sayyid sat on a barrel and looked out across the water as Chagatai the Mongol pushed past him into the cockpit. The engines started with a throaty roar and a series of backfires. Hashim waved smoke away from his nose disdainfully.

Suddenly a platoon of tan-fatigued soldiers jogged out along the pier, their commander pointing directly at the Prophet's Passage. They unshouldered their weapons and Nadim heard an order carried across the air, "Stop that ship!"

A second later the wooden jetty marked 94 was shredded by bullets. Nadim dove to the deck and came back up with a pistol. He squeezed off a few shots in the direction of the advancing soldiers as he bellowed, "Chagatai -- get us outta here!"

With a deafening noise the heavy vessel lurched away from the pier, churning up spume as it executed a wide turn to point out to sea. Hashim ducked as holes appeared in the cabin next to him, splinters raining down across the deck. Hamal clutched Sayyid. Salim stood calmly at the stern, watching the soldiers shrink in the distance.

But the real trouble was up ahead.

An American cruiser was bearing down on them, its metal prow glinting gold in the sunset. Hashim watched in horror as its massive cannons trained on the racing scow.

Nadim flew up the ladder to the cockpit, taking the controls beside the Mongol. "Our passengers must be hotter than I thought!" he gasped. "Try to hold them off while I get a nitrous canister loaded."

Hashim appeared at the ladder behind them. "Why don't you just outrun it? I thought you said this thing was fast."

"Watch your mouth kid," glowered Nadim Zero, "or you're going to find yourself floating home!" He took a metal canister out of a small hold beneath his seat and rushed down to the engine compartment with it.

Hamal screamed as the American canons spat fire with a triple hit of thunder. But just then the Prophet's Passage kicked forward, accelerating massively and throwing the passengers to the deck. Hashim watched with wide eyes as three streaks of fire swept past the stern of the ship, missing them by a matter of feet. His hair whipped with their passage. Hamal fainted.

"Don't worry, we'll lose 'em now," Nadim Zero nodded confidentally, climbing back into the cockpit. "I know a few manoeuvres."


XV

As the sun disappeared behind the horizon the Freedom's Star was also tearing through the waves on a headlong dash toward the port of Jiddah. The city's lights spread out before it. The rumbling engines quietened, and the massive carrier's progress ebbed. Admiral Motts strode into the control room and saluted Dick Cheney. "Sir, we are holding station off the Jiddah coast."

Imam Nur strode in next, followed by two soldiers escorting Princess Zuleika. Her beautiful face tightened as she spotted Dick. "I should have expected to find you holding Nur's leash. I recognized your foul stench when I was brought on board."

"Chaming to the last," smiled Cheney coldly. "Princess Zuleika, before your execution I would like you to be my guest at a ceremony that will make this warship operational. No nation will dare oppose the President now."

Now it was Zuleika's turn to smile. "The more you tighten you grip, infidel, the more nations will slip through your fingers."

Cheney turned on her, exclaiming, "Not after we demonstrate the power of this weapons platform. Since you are reluctant to provide us with the location of your terrorist training camps, I have chosen to test this vessel's destructive power...on your home consulate in Jiddah."

Zuleika's eyes widened. "No! Canada is peaceful -- we have no weapons! You can't possibly --"

Cheney was suddenly in her face, breathing his next words in clipped tones: "You would prefer another target -- a military target? Then name the nation!" Zuleika slumped, dropping her eyes. Cheney continued, "I grow tired of asking this, so it will be the last time. Where are the terrorist training camps?"

"Uzbekistan," Zuleika whispered, eyes on the floor. "They're in Uzbekistan."

Cheney grinned triumphantly. "There. You see, Imam, she can be reasonable." He turned to Motts. "You may fire when ready."

"What?" exploded Zuleika, suddenly afire again.

"You're far too trusting," chuckled Cheney. "Ukbekistan is too remote to make an effective demonstration. But don't worry -- we will deal with your terrorist friends soon enough."

The control room shook as two Patriot missiles took off from the forward battery, their lurid light playing out across the deck of the mighty vessel as they arced high into the sky atop billowing tails of smoke. The twin points of light descended over Jiddah, and disappeared. A split second later a ball of fire erupted from the city, darkened with splintering fragments of debris.


XVI

Come morning Nadim Zero watched the sun rise over the glimmering sea. Chagatai was at the controls, guiding the cargo ship in toward shore. The passengers were asleep in an unruly pile belowdecks, the boy exhausted from an evening of swordsmanship lessons from the old man. "Looks like we're coming up on Jiddah."

Salim woke quickly, wiping his eyes with his fingertips. "The consulate is in the southern quarter, if memory serves, beside fishermans' wharf."

As the ship turned south a column of inky smoke swivelled into view, pouring from the city. Hashim and the clerks awoke, joining Salim and Nadim as they stood on the foredeck and gaped. "What's going on?" asked Hashim.

Nadim Zero lowered his binoculars. "It looks like the consulate's been hit, kid. It ain't there. It's been totally blown away."

"What? How?" gasped Hashim.

"Destroyed...by America," declared Salim darkly.

Suddenly a helicopter roared overhead. "It followed us!" Hashim cried.

"No, it's a short-range chopper," corrected Salim.

"There aren't any bases around here...where did it come from?" Nadim asked, furrowing his brow as he watched the helicopter buzz toward the nearing shore.

"Seems like he's heading for that big condominium complex..."

Everyone stopped to take in the massive building silhouetted against the rising sun, its windows reflecting the crimson sea. Salim frowned and squinted, pushing aside the binoculars and shielding his naked eyes with his hand. "That's no condominium...that's a battleship."

"It's too big to be a ship," countered Nadim.

Hashim swallowed nervously. "I have a bad feeling about this."

Nadim started nodding slowly. "Yeah," he said, backing away from the rail and moving toward the cockpit. "I think you're right. Chagatai, turn us around!"

That's when the engines died, killed by some remote agency. Chagatai tried to restart them but to no avail. A squadron of attack helicopters rose from the condominium-sized battleship like a cloud of flies, surrounding the Prophet's Passage in a heartbeat.

Nadim grimaced and cocked his gun. "They're not going to take me without a fight!"

Salim put his arm gently on Nadim's shoulder as the thrumming of the helicopters filled the air. "You can't win. But there are alternatives to fighting."


XVII

The rusted scow was heaved through one of four water-exchange holds along the broad sides of the mobile missile platform Freedom's Star. It settled heavily into the cupped hands of the mooring claws as the seawater drained, rolling slightly to starboard with a whine of scraping metal. Drips ran from its keel.

Eight soldiers combed through the small boat rapidly. "Clear!" they shouted to one another, kicking open hatches and swinging their rifles before them like probosci. "Clear!"

Imam Nur entered the hold, bowing through the low hatch and striding up to the officer in charge. The officer reported briskly, "There's no one on board, sir."

"Send a scanning crew on board," replied Nur. "I want every part of this ship checked."

"Yessir."

"I sense something -- a presence I haven't felt since..." Nur trailed off, turned on heel and ducked out of the hold with sudden urgency.

Inside the boat six men were pressed into a narrow compartment that lined the port side of the head. Part of the wall slid back, and Nadim Zero stuck out his head. "I use these for smuggling," he whispered. "I never thought I'd be smuggling myself in 'em. This is ridiculous. Even if we can take out the soldiers how are we going to get the Prophet's Passage unhooked from this thing?"

"Leave that to me," said Salim, emerging from the wall beside him.

Nadim rolled his eyes and cracked his knuckles, anticipating the next phase of the plan which would commence when the scanning crew arrived.


XVIII

When the gantry officer couldn't make contact with the guard in the hold he pulled open the hatch to investigate. He was met with a heavy Mongolian fist in his face, and toppled backward over his desk. Chagatai let out a yowl of victory and leapt into the room. Nadim Zero followed, pulling off his American-issue helmet. Salim was next, and an American-uniformed Hashim brought up the rear with the clerks in tow. They winced as Nadim shot the gantry officer in the chest.

Hashim dogged the hatch. "Between his howling and your shooting everyone in sight it's a wonder the whole navy doesn't know we're here!"

"Bring 'em on!" challenged Nadim. "I prefer a straight fight to all this sneakin' around."

Sayyid pushed past Chagatai, who grunted rudely in annoyance. The little idiot had spotted the overturned computer on the desk and his big brown eyes were fixed on it. He gingerly righted it, then set to the keyboard and began to type rapidly.

"He's interpreting the American network," explained Hamal. "He'll try to find out how to disable the docking clamps and refill the hold with seawater, and make the instructions appear on the screen."

Salim Hakim leaned over the idiot's shoulder, reading the results. "I don't think you boys can help. I must go alone."

"I want to go with you," objected Hashim.

"No Hashim, your destiny lies along a different path than mine. Allah will be with you, always." With that the old man vanished through the hatch.

Suddenly Sayyid became very excited, jumping up and down and grunting at the computer. Hamal rushed behind the desk to take a look. "She's here!" he gasped. "Princess Zuleika!"

"Zuleika?" cried Hashim. "You mean the one who sent Salim the message for help?"

"Princess?" echoed Nadim. "What's goin' on?"

Hamal continued, "She's being held in the detention block. I'm afraid she's scheduled to be -- terminated."

"We've got to do something!" decided Hashim.

"You want to march right into the detention area?" laughed Nadim.

Hashim sighed, shaking his head. "She's rich," he pointed out.

Chagatai grunted. Nadim looked up. "How rich?"

"Listen, if you were to rescue her the reward would be..."

"What?"

"Well, more wealth than you can imagine."

"I don't know," frowned Nadim suspiciously. "I can imagine quite a bit."


XIX

Hashim Nabil and Nadim Zero marched smartly through the corridors of the enormous ship, wearing the helmets and fatigues of American soldiers. Between them they escorted Chagatai in handcuffs, the broad-shouldered Mongol staring down anyone they passed along the way. In moments they reached the entrance to the detention block and strode through.

The warden stood up from the security desk as they entered. "Where are you taking this...thing?" he muttered disdainfully.

"Suspected terrorist, prisoner transfer," piped up Hashim.

"I wasn't notified," frowned the warden, reaching for his intercom. "I'll have to clear it."

Suddenly the howling Mongol was raging at the security desk. "He's loose! He's loose!" yelled Nadim, shooting the warden in the head. Hashim shot the guard in the stomach, which he clutched as he toppled over, wailing. It was an awful racket. But Chagatai ended it by slitting his neck.

Hashim ran to the brig and pulled open the hatch, startling the young woman lying on the metal cot. "Aren't you a little young for a soldier?" she remarked.

"I am Hashim Nabil -- I am here to rescue you," he replied in perfect Arabic.

"Who?" she asked, holding back from his grasp defiantly.

"I am here with Hakim Salim! Come on!"

Hashim pulled Zuleika out of the brig and back to the security desk, but reared back as he saw Nadim and Chagatai gesturing urgently to stay out of the way. The hatch blew in with a crack of air and a cloud of smoke. American soldiers pushed their way through, shooting indiscriminately into the haze.

Hashim, Zuleika, Nadim and Chagatai retreated back into the central corridor between the brigs, brandishing their weapons uncertainly. "Some rescue!" swore Zuleika, grabbing Hashim's rifle and shooting the cover off the ventilation chute. "Somebody has to save our skins!"

One by one they jumped into the cramped chute, worming their way down into a network of metal passageways until they came to a small, dark hub with a large vent into a conference room. Nadim kicked out the vent and they dropped down onto the conference table. "Now let's get moving!" he barked, pulling Zuleika roughly to her feet.

She whipped her hand back out of his grasp. "Listen: I don't know who you are, or where you came from, but from now on -- you do as I tell you. Okay?"

Nadim laughed. "Let's get one thing straight: I take orders from one person -- me."

"It's a wonder you're still alive," muttered Zuleika.

They emerged into the corridor and began heading back to the Prophet's Passage. They flew down a flight of steps and came within sight of the hatch. A group of soldiers rounded the corner, startled by almost running headlong into the intruders. "It's them! Shoot them!" cried a lieutenant from Nebraska.

Nadim shot him in the heart, and he crumpled with a look of mild annoyance on his young face.

Chagatai and Hashim engaged the remaining soldiers, beating at them savagely. One of them managed to pull his side-arm but Chagatai dislocated his shoulder with one harsh yank, and then stepped on his windpipe. Two more of the soldiers turned and fled. Nadim charged after them. "Get back to the ship!" he yelled over his shoulder.

"Well, he certainly has courage," commented Zuleika as Chagatai charged after his captain and the terrified soldiers.


XX

Salim emerged from the hold control room having disabled the clamps and primed the mechanism to release the ship. He heard footfalls sounding on the deck above him, and the droning of a distant klaxon. He moved quickly toward the hold but stopped short at the mouth of the corridor as an imposing shape swept out before him.

"I've been waiting for you, Salim," rumbled Imam Nur, all but his eyes hidden beneath dark fabric -- his skin burned and twisted from his last encounter with the old man. "We meet again, at last. The circle is now complete." He revealed the long, curved blade he had been concealing beneath his cloak. "When I left you, I was but the learner; now I am the master."

"Only a master of evil," replied Salim smoothly. He unsheathed his own blade, its reflected light playing across Nur's cowl.

The two men lunged at each other, sword meeting sword with a harsh clang of metal. Salim swiped at Nur but was blocked, as was Nur's next advance. Salim manoeuvred the duel around to opposite sides and began backing up the corridor, slowly moving toward the hold.

"Your powers are weak, old man!" declared Nur, moving his blade in a wide arc to block Salim's next stroke.

"You can't win, Nur. If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine."

Again the scimitars clashed.


XXI

Nadim and Chagatai reached the corner around from the hold and pressed themselves against the wall. Hashim and Zuleika arrived with the clerks a beat later. Nadim risked a look around the wall, taking in the platoon of soldiers at the entrance. "Didn't we just leave this party?" he groaned.

Then the soldiers began to drift toward the other end of the corridor. "Now's our chance -- go!" hissed Nadim, running across the corridor to the hold.

The party followed, but Hashim stopped up short as he spotted Salim duelling with a tall, hooded man.

Salim also spotted Hashim. He turned to Nur and let a small smile cross his lips. Then he lowered his sword.

Imam Nur cut him in half.

"No!" screamed Hashim, levelling his rifle and firing. Several of the soldiers fell but the dark one was not affected. Hashim fled.

He leapt aboard the Prophet's Passage just as the water-level reached critical and the scow lifted off the docking claw. The hatch was already opening, sunlight streaming in. The engines came to life with a roar as Hashim landed on the deck. He stumbled as Chagatai throttled it, the ship bucking out of the hold and into the open water, kicking up spray in its wake.


XXII

Nadim Zero kicked back in the pilot's chair, the day sunny and bright around them as the cargo ship plowed south. "You know, sometimes I amaze even myself."

"That doesn't sound too hard," replied Zuleika darkly. "Besides, they let us go. How else do you explain the ease of our escape?"

"Easy?" repeated Nadim scornfully. "You call that easy?"

"They're tracking us."

"Not this ship, sister," retorted Nadim, tapping some kind of detector he trusted well.

Zuleika shook her head in frustration. "At least Sayyid and the information he knows is in our hands."

"What does he know that's so important?" asked Nadim, leaning on the wheel.

"The technical readouts of that warship. I only hope that when the data is analyzed a weakness can be found. It's not over yet."

Nadim snorted. "It is for me, sister. Look, I ain't in this for your revolution. I expect to be well paid."

"You needn't worry about your reward," replied Zuleika acidly. "If money is all you love, then that's what you'll receive."

The Prophet's Passage pushed on toward the Al-Qaeada base, cutting the waves south to Yemen. By the next morning they made landfall and hiked inland to the oasis at al-Mansuriya.

Several hours later the Freedom's Star came within sight of the Yemen coast, and orders were given to prepare missiles for launch.


XXIII

Colonel Gaspar stood at the front of the briefing room, his body partially overlaid with slides projecting notes taken from the idiot Sayyid's hypnotic testimony. To the assembled warriors he said, "The Freedom's Star is heavily shielded and carries a firepower greater the half the American navy. However, its defenses are designed around a direct, large-scale assault. Small, one-man Zodiacs should be able to penetrate the outer defenses."

One of the warriors stood up. "Pardon me sir, but what good are inflatables going to be against that?"

"The infidel doesn't consider a small boat to be any threat, or they'd have a tighter defense. An analysis of the plans provided by Princess Zuleika has demonstrated a weakness in the warship." Gasper sighed. "The approach will not be easy. You must set off your explosives here," he said, tapping the slide, "at this secondary thermal exhaust port, right below the main port. The shaft leads directly to the fission reactor system. A precise hit will start a chain reaction which should destroy the entire ship."

A murmur of disbelief ran through the room. The meeting was concluded, and everyone rose. "May Allah be with you!" declared Colonel Gaspar.

Hashim ran out of the briefing room to bay where trucks were being loaded with explosives and inflatable Zodiac boats. While the other pilots enthusiastically jumped into the back of the trucks, Hashim spotted Nadim loading up a truck with small crates and wandered over. "So, you got your reward and you're just leaving then?" he asked dourly.

"That's right, yeah," said Nadim. "I got some old debts I've got to pay off with this stuff. Even if I didn't, you don't think I'd be fool enough to stick around here, do you? Why don't you come with us? You're pretty good in a fight -- I could use you."

Hashim grimaced. "Why don't you take a look around! You know what the infidel is doing, what we're up against! They could use a good fighter like you. You're turning your back on Islam."

"What good's a reward if you're not around to use it?" snapped Nadim, jumping into the rear of the truck after Chagatai.

"Well, take care of yourself, Nadim. I guess that's what you're best at," replied Hashim angrily, turning away.

Nadim's mouth set hard in his face. "Hey, Hashim!" he called out. When Hashim turned he added lamely, "May Allah be with you."


XXIV

Admiral Motts adjusted his binoculars and sniffed in disbelief. The reports had been accurate: a fleet of tiny inflatables was amassing on a strip of beach along the Yemenite coastline. He wondered what kind of barbarian suicide mission they had been sent on by their overlords.

"How long until we have a fix on the terrorist base?" demanded Dick Cheney.

"Ten minutes, sir," reported Motts.

Imam Nur stared out the cockpit windows, hands clutched behind his back.

The little Zodiacs left the beach and began buzzing toward the giant warship. At Motts' order the canons began to bark, causing mushrooms of spume to erupt from the water between the manoeuvrable little boats. "They're too quick -- they're evading the smart targetting system," he murmured.

"We'll have to destroy them one on one," said Imam Nur. "Get your men on the decks with machine guns."


XXV

The first squadron of Zodiacs swept up alongside the massive grey vessel. The soldiers on deck had a brief chance to rain bullets down on them -- and did manage to sink two -- but then the tiny inflables buzzed right under the flared sides of the air-craft carrier deck and were lost to sight. The soldiers could hear their insectile buzz, but could not see them no matter what vantage they took. It sounded like the diminutive fleet was skimming the hull, making a beeline for the stern.

The deck bucked as a blast sounded from the waterline, tossing soldiers and equipment everywhere. Smoke billowed out from under the edge of the ship. On one of the Zodiacs the pilot toggled his radio. "Negative, negative -- he just impacted on the surface. Didn't go in."

As the holy warriors came around to make another run alongside they spotted another fleet of inflatables coming around the bow. Sparks flashed from the boats and a split second later the water all around erupted in splashes from the bullets. The Zodiac beside Hashim's popped, and so did the head of its pilot.

Hashim veered north, coming around the enemy fleet the long way and levelling his pistol with his free hand as he came upon them. He shot several troops before glancing over his shoulder and noticing he was being pursued. Bullets whizzed past his ears, breaking up the water before him. "I've got one on my tail!" he cried into his radio.

Hashim served right and left, cutting a zigzagging course around the bow of the warship and flying down the opposite side. "I can't shake him!" he reported desperately, screaming over the protesting whine of his engine as he pushed it too hard.

He spotted another Al-Qaeda boat charging toward him, and twisted around to watch it collide with the American boat and explode on impact. "Peace and blessings be upon you!" Hashim hissed in fervent prayer. Then he wrenched his craft around the stern of the warship and lined up to take a run at the target. "I'm going in!"

Bullets cut the water around him. Hashim's boat passed the shredded husks of two more Zodiacs as he banked in hard and reached the relative safety of the warship's overhang and the shooting stopped.

As he skimmed along the hull Hashim risked a look around: he was one of the few warriors left. Behind him three American boats were training in, including one manned by a hodded figure in black with flapping robes. The image terrified him. Hashim twisted the throttle and gunned the inflatable forward even faster. He spotted the thermal exhaust port ahead, watched it slowly grow in his vision.

"I'm on the leader," declared Imam Nur, twisting his own throttle and bearing down on the little yellow craft. He levelled his pistol with his free hand and squeezed off a few shots -- they sparked harmlessly off the hull of the Freedom's Star. "Allah is with him!" swore Nur.

He raised his pistol to fire again when his craft was violently tossed to one side, the boat beside him falling under the prow a scow that cut directly across the action. It was the Prophet's Passage. It smashed into the side of the warship and splintered, the hull denting and deforming as Chagatai and Nadir Zero were thrown forward out of the crushed cockpit. "You're all clear, kid!" screamed Nadir as he hit the water. "Now let's blow this thing and go to our reward!"

Hashim concentrated on the thermal exhaust port looming ahead. He thought of Uncle Muhammed and Aunt Yasmin, and his eyes filled with tears. He was almost upon it, and he could hear the gentle voice of Salim Hakin whispering to him in his head. He took in the moment in fullness: the waves, the screams, the smoke, the air, the clouds, the screeching engines, the barking guns.

A feeling of peace washed over him as his Zodiac sped along directly beneath the port. Hashim Nabil closed his eyes and depressed the contact on his bomb. He saw a wash of fire and felt the breath of Allah.

Up above, the cannons were tilting, locking on their inland target. Soldiers loaded the shells and dogged the lids, stepping back as they prepared to fire. "You are cleared to fire," came the order.

Dick Cheney watched the coast of Yemen, eager to see the terrorist camp immolated...

A second later he was incinerated as the cooling mechanism of the Freedom's Star fission reactor failed and the vessel exploded with a series of violent concussions. A million tiny pieces of metal flew in every direction, a roiling cloud of black smoke belching out of the flaming husk as it fell beneath the waves and sizzled. The debris fell back to the sea with a patina of small splashes, fingers of twisting smoke describing their trajectories. A clot of dead fish surfaced and bobbed.

The Freedom's Star was no more.


XXVI

At al-Mansuriya a ceremony was held in honour of the martyrs, presided over by Princess Zuleika herself. She laid medals of gold over prayer scrolls bearing the names of the fallen, and all of the faithful extolled their sacrifice in the name of Allah and the prophet Mohammed (peace and blessings be upon him).

Though victorious, Zuleika felt empty. They had struck a mighty blow against the infidel, but the evil empire would surely strike back. From the ranks of the children then, she would have to find a new generation of holy warriors to take up the cause.

She sighed, and surveyed her stalwart legions. She looked deep into her heart for the strength she needed to go on struggling, and Allah granted it.

She would live to fight another day.

Fin.


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